Science has always wrestled with the idea of an immaterial will, or agency, at work in the universe, and for centuries it was thought to be expressed through the “laws of nature.” God might be dead, but he rules on, or so it was thought, through his immutable laws. It turns out, however, that those laws are at best crude averages, rough generalizations. Take a more fine-grained look, or develop more sensitive instruments, and things get more interesting. At the smallest, quantum, level, there are no laws at all, only probabilities. An electron can be here, there, or both places at once, very much as if it had a choice in the matter…A hint of—dare I say?—animism has entered into the scientific worldview. The physical world is no longer either dead or passively obedient to the “laws.”
The closer and more carefully we probe, the more [the universe] seethes with what looks like life—runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.
These two passages are from one of my favorite recent reads, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Living With a Wild God (which I wrote about in more detail here.) This book has been met with mixed reviews, and some of Ehrenreich’s longstanding fans of her approach—no bullshit, straight shooter—consider this book a wrong step into the mystical and the non-substantiated. For many, science is the religion of our era, and Ehrenreich has committed a heresy.
Whether the issue is science, politics, lifestyle, religious practice or art making, I am frustrated by the concept of dogma. There is not just one way to know or understand or do, and my inner agent provocateur gets called up when that is not acknowledged. Bring up the topic of crop circles or alien contactees around physicists and scientists, and they can’t depart your company fast enough. Once they are “Vaticanized” and ordained into their profession, spending any time in the mysterious (and at times mystical) fringe would be career suicide. Science has rules, regulations and practices, and if you break out you are marked.
And even though some have expelled Ehrenreich from the clan of the anointed, it may be that the reductionist/scientific stance is actually softening just a little. Ehrenreich describes how much the practice of science has changed over her lifetime, and her insights dovetail with those expressed by another scientist willing to step into the arena of the unanswered and unknowable, Alan Lightman. In his recent book, The Accidental Universe, Lightman (who is both a novelist and theoretical physicist) devotes an entire chapter to discussing what he terms the “spiritual universe.”
We scientists are taught from an early age of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers. But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions…For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer.
There are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind…The strong sense of the infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal.
Lightman has been part of a group of scientists and artists (centered in and around Cambridge MA) who explore contrasting beliefs and disparate ways of knowing. He and his friends are “fascinated by how science and religion can coexist in our minds.”
His solution has been to distinguish between the physical universe—that “constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study”—and the spiritual universe, the territory of religion and the nonmaterial. “All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis,” he writes. “Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships with other people spring from such experiences.” For Lightman, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual universes mirrors the essential tension of the personal and the impersonal. While the spiritual universe is perceived by many to hover out just beyond our personal being, the evidence of that universe is extremely personal.
The personal and the impersonal, the willingness to acknowledge a multiverse of more dimensions than we can see or measure—these are expansions in thinking that have import on more than just the practice of science. As Ehrenreich put is so eloquently, the playfulness appears to be unquenchable, dogma be damned.