Experiential Rather than Deductive: Science, Awe, and Reverence

Work on the emergence of such unexpected and beautiful patterns in nature leads me to at least two observations of significance for science and religion. The first observation is that nature is probably sufficiently rich to generate complex patterns of life and evolution. If we can specifically and fully understand the spontaneous formation of a complex object like a snowflake without supernatural influence, why not life and evolution? While problems remain, increasingly successful explanations of mysteries like the universe's expansion and the evolution of organisms are emerging. If the past is any guide, this trend will continue. This is part of why fighting scientific ideas like evolution or big bang theory on religious grounds is a generally bad idea, and also why most scientists claim that science does not provide any evidence for the existence of God. As science proceeds, this squeezes the faith of those who insist God must act in the world through means that are incomprehensible or counter to nature's laws ever tighter. In this respect, my own religious heritage described at the beginning of this essay is particularly robust. A religious approach that focuses not on explaining the natural world, but on relating to God and other people is not generally threatened by, or even concerned with, the increasing success in science.

The second observation is that nature is incredibly beautiful. (I'm not arguing that there aren't a lot of brutal, ugly things in nature, just reporting my own subjective but widely shared experience.) And nature is not only beautiful; it is generative. At each new scale and context, unexpected new patterns and laws of nature emerge. These new laws are just as fundamental in their domain as the laws governing the physics of elementary particles. (For specialists I note that this seemingly radical claim does not mean that in principle a highly detailed computer simulation could not reproduce the dynamics of a system from the dynamics of its "microscopic" constituent parts. Said otherwise, since it is known that many different sets of "microscopic laws" can produce the same "macroscopic laws," the macroscopic laws must be interpreted as more fundamental than simple extrapolations of the microscopic dynamics. In modern statistical mechanics, these macroscopic laws are captured by "universality classes.") In this view, science cannot be interpreted, as many have, as a task of reducing natural phenomena to just a few simple constituent particles governed by a few laws. Rather, we recognize that nature is inexhaustible to a degree that inspires awe and reverence. For the scientist with religious faith, this response to nature can expand into a sacred experience.

Such a response to the natural world is reminiscent of traditions in many religions that nature is a meeting place with the divine. It also points to a relationship between science and religion as mutually supporting sources of wonder and even faith. This is a different relationship between science and religion than is common in current discourse, in that it is essentially experiential, rather than deductive. From a strictly analytical perspective, I see no evidence for (or even about) God in nature, and find no guidance for how I am to live (though I also admit I have no idea what such evidence or guidance would look like). But none of this alters the fact that my scientific and religious experiences are mutually supporting. Such a relationship is easily realized with the practical, experiential faith and joyful exploration of nature that characterized my childhood.

I think the founding Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, phrased it best in one of his most impressive revelations, the "Olive Leaf":

The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God ... and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:45-47)

This metaphor is at the heart of my experience as a religious scientist. My knowledge of physical law does not greatly inform my theology or ethics and it certainly does not compel me to a belief in God. But often, as my study and research has led me to beautiful and deep truths, the words of God to Moses (Exodus 3:5) have echoed in my ears: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

T. Butler does Ph.D. research in theoretical physics at the University level.

5/18/2010 4:00:00 AM