The Sameness of Imagination, The Astonishingness of Reality: Thoughts on Science and Religion

Man_using_microscopeThere’s a really interesting new piece up on Pharyngula: it’s gotten me thinking about science and religion in an interesting new way, and I wanted to link to it and talk about it a bit.

It’s the piece titled A pleasant, smiling apologist is still lying to you. Now, I don’t agree with everything he says here. For one thing, as is often the case with PZ, I think his tone is a bit more harsh than is really called for in the situation. And I don’t think “lying” is the correct word to use when someone genuinely believes the mistaken idea they’re passing on.
But a lot of the piece is good. Excellent, even. And one bit in particular made me think in a completely new and different way about religion and reality.
This was the bit that jumped out at me:

One other word I must criticize in all these defenses of religion: imagination. I often hear that religion is all about using the imagination to see something beyond the literal and mundane, and imagination becomes a virtue in itself that is presented as something special to religion. It is not. It is also overrated. Imagination is essential, don’t get me wrong; we need this kind of cognitive randomizer that pushes our thoughts beyond what we already know. However, one thing science has taught us is that our imagination is pathetic. The universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up. Imagination is not enough.

I hadn’t thought about it this way before. But PZ is absolutely right. The things we’ve discovered about the world through science… they’re mind-blowing. They completely eclipse anything our puny human imagination could have come up with on its own.

For just one example: Take atomic physics. Take the fact that everything around us, all the material world, is mostly empty space, a huge yawning gap between the nucleus of the atoms and the electrons whizzing around it. Everything — not just air, but iron, wood, flesh, bone, the very Earth under our feet — it’s overwhelmingly empty space. This is an idea that we would never in our wildest imaginings have come up with just with our brains. We needed to take a close look at reality to even consider the possibility.

Right now I’m reading “The Canon,” Natalie Angier’s excellent book explaining the most important basic concepts of science to the layperson. And I’m in the bit about physics and atomic structure, so right now that’s what’s blowing my mind. But there are plenty of other examples.

Take biology. Take the fact that every living thing is directly related to every other living thing. We’re all cousins: you, me, pandas, tangerines, slime molds, squid, cactus, algae, the bacteria that laid Ingrid up with a head cold a couple of weeks ago — all of it. Every living thing shares a common ancestor. Every living thing has the same great- great- great- to- the- 10,000th grandmother. What a weird idea. Who would have thought of it if we hadn’t found a mountain of evidence telling us that that’s how it is?

Or take astronomy. Take the fact that we, living our boring little lives and paying our bills and watching The Simpsons, are doing all this while we’re sitting on a round rock that’s whizzing around a gigantic ball of nuclear fire at 90 miles a second — a ball of fire that is itself whizzing around at 40,000 miles an hour in a spiral mass of billions of other nuclear fireballs. (In a universe, I might add, comprised of billions and billions of other masses of fireballs.) And we act as if this is normal. It is, of course. But it’s also profoundly weird. There is no way we would have imagined it if we hadn’t discovered that it was true.

I could go on and on. And on. Virtually every field of science has shown us things about the nature of the world we live in that completely surprised us, that took us aback, that made us completely rethink and re-imagine everything we thought we understood.


The visions of the world that the religious imagination has come up with?

Compared to the realities we’ve discovered about the world around us, they’re kind of pathetic. In every religion I’m familiar with, God is (or the gods are) pretty much just like people, only more so. Stronger, wiser, nicer (in theory, anyway), more powerful, but still basically just this guy, you know? A character, with personality quirks, things that he wants, decisions that he makes, stuff that he does.

Mary poppins
Even in the more modern, abstract conceptions of God, God is still an invisible collection of essentially human qualities: goodness, knowledge, the ability to make stuff happen. Sort of like Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.

Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_VirginDitto the afterlives. Heaven, Hell, the Celestial Kingdom, whatever: it all reads like a version of this life, with certain bits amplified or diminished for dramatic effect. It’s like life, except you get to be invisible and have no body and never argue with anyone and walk around singing all day. (Singing with no body? It’s just now occurring to me how nonsensical that is.) Or it’s like life, except there are folks whose job it is to make you miserable forever — and no, not just the annoying guy in the next cubicle over. It’s not all that imaginative. It’s just like life, only more so. It’s not really anything new.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I’m not sure if I have a point. I think I just want to say this, something I’ve said before: Reality is more interesting than anything we could make up. And when religious believers critique scientists for being mundane, close-minded, unable to imagine anything beyond the puny reality of the physical world, then they need to shut the hell up. The reality of the physical world is wilder and weirder than anything in their religion, and science has come up with many more things, in the skies and on the earth, than they ever dreamt of in their philosophy.


  1. says

    …The universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up. Imagination is not enough.
    I hadn’t thought about it this way before.
    Every now and then PZ really hits the nail on the head.
    Interestingly, I had expressed a similar thought in one of my commandments back in February:
    9. The universe is freaky, and way too big for you to comprehend. Deal. It’s way cooler than
    anything you could plausibly make up, so don’t bother. You’re an amateur, and it’ll show.
    (the post itself was focused largely on other issues, though, so I’m not going to link to it.)

  2. says

    The part of religious apologia that has always baffled me is the idea that “Science tells us how, but religion tells us why.”
    The problem is that religion, no matter how sophisticated, never offers much for the “why” than speculation. In some cases, dense, well-reasoned speculation to be sure. The speculation is just not demonstrable, and when we press on the issue we get vagueness at all levels as to how we are supposed to “know.”
    The fact that religious explorations into the natural world have been entertaining, yet wrong, make me suspect that they really have no good “why” answers. And actually, I really have no need for a supernatural “why.” Life is fascinating enough, and fantastic enough without a metaphysical why.
    The liars part that PZ alludes to is the notion that religion provides an understanding of the “Why” and that preachers and theologians have a way to reveal it to the rest of us. Their admonishment to read the advanced philosophers and theologians, as in the post that PZ was referring to, is still another lie because the writer of “Underverse” claims that we really aren’t atheists until we read the great writers.
    The natural world is our oyster. It’s beautiful, it’s ugly, it gives life but it is exceedingly dangerous. The destructive power of a Supernova is what we are made of. We are Star Stuff. Why do I need religion when I contemplate that all of my atoms came from the fusion of stars and supermassive explosions? That alone is enough to awe me.

  3. Colin M says

    The Jolly Nihilist presents “The Argument from Mundanity”, which elaborates on an idea from Sam Harris:
    “[The Bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.”
    He then discusses the lack of imagination on the part of Bible authors:
    “Although no scientifically aware individual would even give Christianity’s metaphysical claims (human resurrection, talking nonhuman animals, et al) a second look, some such people might have previously credited the faith with some measure of creativity and imagination. Sadly, this can no longer be done. Virgin birth, to take just one example, turns out to be a cheap knock-off of preexisting lunatic derangements. Human parthenogenesis is the very height of mundanity.”
    It’s a good read, and an argument I personally find highly convincing. I highly recommend it.

  4. Charlie says

    “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
    J. B. S. Haldane

  5. says

    “The part of religious apologia that has always baffled me is the idea that ‘Science tells us how, but religion tells us why.’ The problem is that religion, no matter how sophisticated, never offers much for the ‘why’ than speculation.”
    That’s a really good point, Mike. And even the speculation commonly bogs down into “mysterious ways.”
    Religion *doesn’t* tell us why. It tells us, “We assume there’s a why, even though we have no real idea what it is, and no way to figure it out.”

  6. says

    As Hamlet told his buddy Horatio, “[T]here are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” This piece reminded me of your “Blashpemy of Creation” piece.
    I was actually wondering what ever became of your HTML poll. I suppose I could’ve posted this question there.
    I decided to allow HTML in comments on my blogs.

  7. says

    Good post. You and PZ are both correct: human imagination has failed, repeatedly, to conjure up images that match the fascinating realities of life and the universe.

  8. Alice in Wonderland says

    “The reality of the physical world is wilder and weirder than anything in their religion, and science has come up with many more things, in the skies and on the earth, than they ever dreamt of in their philosophy.”
    I’d never thought of it like that before, but I think you have a very good point!

  9. Barbiebrains says

    But what about artistic imagination? Creativity, imagination, are not compartmentalized but rather flow…music, painting, poetry…the muses are NOT necessarily in thrall to science. The female body in two stanzas by Garcia Lorca is just as “complex” and “truthful” and “mesmerizing” as a peer-reviewed study in an anatomy tome.

  10. chris says

    Barbibrains, I believe you are misinterpreting the use of imagination here. I believe what both Greta Christina and PZ Meyers mean is that the human imagination is rather useless at explaining our world.
    This does not mean that imagination as a whole is worthless. When it is used to create, its abilities can truly shine through. But what is created does not describe the world, what it describes is ourselves.
    We find beauty in such artistic endevours because they resonate with us. They spur our imaginations further and invoke any emotions attached. In this respect, imagination is a very useful thing. Just not so much for when you want to understand the universe.

  11. says

    [This is an idea that we would never in our wildest imaginings have come up with just with our brains.]
    Wow, that’s just wrong. I guess you never took a introduction to classical philosophy? Hello? Democritus!
    Science is most often dependent upon imagination for its insights and progress. It is that very human creativity and imagination that leads us to push the fore of our knowledge. Science and the scientific community, through its use of experimentation and measurement, works in conjunction with these creative insights and qualitative interpretations of the world to produce solid quantitative models.
    To ridicule imagination as somehow less than reason, and science as somehow independent of this feeble human imagination is to truly be ignorant of both. Religion lacks a methodology for measurement and experimentation; it cannot generate standard interpretations because no standard exists than mere dogmatic consensus. It has absolutely nothing to do with “religion depends on imagination” as expressed in this and the referenced blog.

  12. Anonymous says

    bryangoodrich: You are right that perhaps Greta exaggerates unimagineableness a bit, but are you referring to Democritus’s atomic theory? That had a void only between atoms, and (in solids at least) the atoms themselves touched, so things weren’t mostly empty space.
    Greta is referring to the fact that most of the “space” of an atom is occupied by a diffuse electron cloud and the empty space is within the atom. This is directly contradictory to Democritus’s idea of an atom as “indestructible and completely full, i.e. containing no empty space”.
    I don’t mean to deny the impressive accuracy of Greek atomic theory, but the extreme concentration of mass in atoms was, as far as I know, completely unsuspected until Rutherford’s famous 1911 gold foil experiment.

Leave a Reply