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May 18 2007

Does science destroy life’s mysteries?

One of the reasons that elite science and elite religion are now coming into conflict is that science is now addressing questions that once were considered purely philosophical. By ‘purely philosophical’ I mean questions that are serious and deep but for which answers are sought in terms of logic and reason and thought experiments, with the only data used being those that lie easily at hand or appeals to common everyday experience.

The difference with science is that the latter does not stop there but instead uses those things as just starting points for more esoteric investigations. It takes those initial ideas and converts them into research programs where the consequences of the ideas are deduced for well-defined situations that can be examined experimentally and tentative hypotheses can be tested.

Daniel Dennett in his book Consciousness Explained (1991) talks (p. 21) about how science tackles what he calls ‘mysteries’:

A mystery is a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about – yet. There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have the final answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them. The mysteries haven’t vanished, but they have been tamed. They no longer overwhelm our efforts to think about the phenomena, because now we know how to tell the misbegotten questions from the tight questions, and even if we turn out to be dead wrong about some of the currently accepted answers, we know how to go about looking for better answers.

That passage, I think, captures well what happens when something enters the world of science. The mystery gets tamed and becomes a problem to be solved.

The charge that people sometimes make against science is that it seems to take away all the awe and mystery of life’s wonders by ‘explaining’ them. I have never quite understood that criticism. If at all, my sense of awe is enhanced by having a better understanding of phenomena. For example, I have always enjoyed seeing rainbows. Has my enjoyment become less now because I happen to know how multiple scattering of light in individual droplets of water produce the effect?

As another example, I recently listened to a magnificent concert of the Cleveland Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. It was a truly moving experience. Was my sense of awe at the brilliance of the composition and its execution diminished by my knowledge that the orchestra players were using their instruments to cause the air around them to vibrate and that those vibrations then entered my ear, got converted to nerve signals that entered my brain, which was then able to Fourier transform the signals into reconstructing rich orchestral ‘sounds’ that my brain used to trigger chemical reactions that resulted in my sense of emotional satisfaction? I don’t think so. I kind of like the fact that I can enjoy the experience on so many levels, from the purely experiential to the emotional and the cerebral. In fact, for me the truly awe inspiring thing is that we have reached such depths of understanding of something that would have seemed so mysterious just a few hundred years ago.

The taming of mysteries and converting them into planned research programs of investigation is now rapidly progressing in the areas of cognition and consciousness. The reason that this causes conflict is because such close examination can result in the philosophical justifications for religion being undermined.

For example, the existence of god is predicated on a belief in a Cartesian dualism. God is ‘out there’ somewhere separate from my body while ‘I’ am here encapsulated by my body, and there is some gateway that enables that boundary to be crossed so that ‘I’ can sense god. For many religious people, this contact between the ‘I’ and god is a deep mystery.

In some sense, Descartes started taming this mystery by postulating that the contact gateway lay in the pineal gland in the brain but he could not explain how the interaction between the non-material god and the material brain occurred. Of course, no one takes the special role of the pineal gland seriously anymore. But the basic Cartesian dualism problem remains for both religious and non-religious people, in the form of understanding the mind-brain split. What is the ‘I’ of the mind that makes decisions and initiates actions and seems to control my life? Does it exist as a non-material entity apart from the material brain? If so how does it interact with it, since the brain, being the place where our sensory system stores its information, is the source of our experiences and the generator of our actions?

Religious people extend this idea further and tend to think of the mind as somehow synonymous with the ‘soul’ and as a non-material entity that is separate from the body though occupying a space somewhere in the brain, or at least the body. It is the mind/soul that is the ‘I’ that interacts with a non-material god. So the mind/soul is the ‘real’ me that passes on to the next life after death and the body is just the temporary vehicle that ‘I’ use to interact with the material world.

Religious people tend to leave things there and suggest that the nature of the mind/soul and how it interacts with both the material world (including the body that encapsulates it) and god is a mystery, maybe even the most fundamental mystery of all, never to be understood. And for a long time, even scientists would have conceded that we had no idea how to even begin to address these questions.

But no longer. The cognitive scientists have tamed even this mystery and converted it into a problem. This does not mean that the problem of understanding the mind and consciousness has been solved. Far from it. But it does mean that scientists are now able to pose questions about the brain and consciousness in very concrete ways and suggest experiments to further advance knowledge. Although they do not have answers yet, one should be prepared for major advances in knowledge in this area.

And as these results start to come in, the prospects for maintaining beliefs in god and religion are not good. Because if history is any guide, the transition is always one way, from mystery to problem, and not the other way around. And once scientists see something as a problem to be solved, they tend to be tenacious in developing better and better theories and tools for solving it until only some details remain obscure. And the way the community of scientists build this knowledge structure is truly awe-inspiring.

So the answer to this post’s title is yes, science does destroy the mysteries but it increases the awe.

More to come. . .

1 comment

  1. 1
    Apply food stamp

    I wanted to research this subject and write a paper. Your post what a thousand words would not. Nice job.
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