NSoR 8: The New Religion of Science

NSoR 8: The New Religion of Science

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An excerpt from Chapter 8 of The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and Bottom Up (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) Page 169 – 171.

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To say that one is a materialist today requires some explication, because matter turns out to be rather bizarre stuff. Atoms are not fundamental; they are divisible, on the first order, into protons, neutrons, and electrons. Far from being “matter,” the atom turns out to be mostly empty space on a scale difficult to conceptualize. The single proton at the center of a simple hydrogen atom is something like a baseball sitting on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee stadium, and the single electron is not even the size of a flea buzzing around in a “probability space” at the farthest edge of the stadium. If we break these atomic components down further, we end up with other subatomic particles whose “materiality” is rather strange indeed. Materialism reduced to this level of “matter” disintegrates into forces and fields, entangled relationships, and ephemeral existence — quarks, leptons, electrons, neutrinos, photons, gluons, W & Z, and gravitons.

Reductionism and materialism, however useful as methodological approaches in science, self-destruct as philosophical propositions when we push them to the limits of the very small, the very fast, the very cold, the very hot, the very dense, the very large, and the very complex. Frankly, it is embarrassing that otherwise brilliant people think nothing of invoking “materialism” today as one of the hallmarks of science. The concept of materialism deconstructed itself with the advent of quantum mechanics and particle physics. None of this means that we are compelled to adopt some form of supernaturalism, but the fundamental nature of nature turns out to be fantastically super.22 The physicist-philosopher Varadaraja V. Raman describes the current state of affairs:

“Thus, instead of supernature, science unveils subnature: a world in the core of palpable matter. Physics has penetrated into the substratum of perceived reality and discovered a whole new realm of entities there, beyond the imagination of the most creative minds of the past. Through sophisticated labyrinths of theory and mathematics, aided by an array of experimental ingenuities, science has uncovered a microcosm that is abundant in minute bits which are not like sand grains, but are smeared out mini-clouds of electric charge and other properties.”23

Today, an informed philosophy of science would also need to talk about information as a metaphysical concept. The previous metaphysics of science took space-time and matter-energy to be fundamental. To this we add the four nuclear forces, the laws of thermodynamics, some algorithmic processes, an element of randomness, and presto! We have the universe built from the bottom up that science has been so successful at explaining and describing from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic in all its stunning complexity. The oddity in all this new talk of information from scientists is that information does not fit into that mid-twentieth-century paradigm. For instance, information is “immaterial.” It is not a thing you can point to but a no-thing that must be metaphorically “read” by some-things, which some-things are apparently constituted by the no-thing in another fine piece of circular logic. An ontology and epistemology that looks to materialism and reductionism for its explanations of phenomena will have a hard time explaining information itself. Ironically, the very pursuit of this materialist and reductionist paradigm has led to its supervenience, but the character and nuances of this new metaphysical vision have barely been explored.

In physics, we now talk about the information states of quantum phenomena. In cosmology, we speculate about a preexistent mathematical order, through which the cosmos unfolds. Challenge a hard-nosed, reductionistic physicist about his mathematics, and you are likely to find a soft-hearted Neoplatonist.

With the genomic revolution, biologists now also talk about information residing at the center of life processes. In cellular-signal transduction, the genomic “Word” becomes living flesh. Though species come and go in the evolutionary epic, much of the genomic memory of the past is retained in contemporary genomes. As new evolutionary niches are explored, the “figurative” becomes “literal,” as new species are reconfigured by selection into new emergent possibilities, adding new chapters to the book of life.

The neurosciences today see the brain as an information-processing system. While no doubt beautiful to the discerning eye of a scientist, a single neuron is rather dumb. A hundred billion neurons in the human brain, however, wired in a massively parallel system, become potentially the most complex entity in the universe. The neurons fire in on and off states through the synaptic media to mediate every human experience and memory, including the self-transcending neuronal activities of scientists doing science. Laying down neural networks is another way of talking about encoding information, as the inside informational world of the brain maps with the outside informational world of nature, culture, and cosmos.

This new metaphysical movement in the sciences has largely been mediated by the computer as both tool and metaphor. Among diverse scientific disciplines, the real scientific revolution in the last decades of the twentieth century has been the ability to collect and analyze large data sets and to manipulate these data sets further through powerful computer simulations. Computers provide not just the tools for new scientific discoveries but also the new metaphors that now also dominate scientific discourse. Algorithms, binary code, hardware, software, and networks are terms that have traveled widely outside the domain of the computer sciences. Computational finitude, however, also points toward a complexity horizon that may thwart our unbridled desires for controlling and predictive knowledge.24 The universe may be a single database, but it is so profoundly relational that the easy hackings of the codes by earlier science may soon be exhausted.25

This new relational, information-centered ontology arising in the sciences today provides a wonderful moment for the recovery and reinterpretation of traditional religious worldviews. Many religions have understood language to be in some way primordial to the material constitution of the universe. In Hinduism, the Upanishads talk of a primal word, Om, that functions as the creative source of all nature. In Jewish Midrash, the grammatical ambiguity of the first line of Genesis and the extravagant linguistic creativity of Elohim lead to philosophical speculation about a preexistent Torah, which God uses to speak reality into being. In medieval Judaism, this rabbinic tradition gave rise to the wild speculations and philosophical subtleties of the Kabbalah. The Greeks, including Plato, drew upon Heraclitus’s notion of logos, viewing the embodied word as the fire that animated and ruled the world, to explain their understanding of primeval, material language. In the Gospel of John, Christians celebrate this Word or Logos in a radical incarnationalist vision of a cosmic Christ in whom and through whom all things come into being. Today, the universe is far grander than our ancestors could have possibly imagined, but somehow they seem to have already intuited the deep informational structure of the universe through which all things come into being.


22. Naturalism is a similarly tricky term, an abstraction that defines itself largely by what it opposes. In other words, “naturalism” is anything that is not “supernaturalism,” so we are thrown back into metaphysics. This is one of the reasons that I spurn the use of the term “supernatural” in my preferred definition of religion. If God exists, then God is completely “natural” and only works through emergent “natural” processes. Mythological stories are not description of real events in history but profound metaphorical interpretations produced by prescientific peoples.

23. Varadaraja V. Raman, Truth and Tension in Science and Religion (Center Ossipee, NH: Beech River Books, 2009), 115.

24. David Harel, Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); John D. Barrow, Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); William Grassie, “Useless Arithmetic and Inconvenient Truths: A Review,” Metanexus (2007), https://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/9854/Default.aspx.

25. John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996).