The Place of Science

“Science
bumps the ceiling of the corporeal plane…. From the metaphysical point of view
its arms, lifted toward a zone of freedom that transcends coagulation, form the
homing arc of the ‘love loop.’ They are science responding to Eternity’s
love for the productions of time.” This grandiose bit of poetical nonsense
concludes a chapter of Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth dedicated to put
science in its place. Smith is one of the world’s foremost authorities on
religions, and his aim is to demonstrate that science is not an omnipotent force
that can answer all questions posed by humanities. That is, science needs to be
put in its place.

Fair
enough, although I don’t know of any scientist who would claim otherwise.
Contrary to what many anti-intellectuals maintain, science is by nature a much
more humble enterprise than any religion or other ideology. This must be so
given the self-correcting mechanisms that are incorporated into the scientific
process, regardless of the occasional failures of individual scientists.

But
what is most astounding in Smith’s essay is his attempt to develop a parallel
between science and mysticism in order to “demonstrate” that the world’s
great religions are capable of insights at least as powerful as science’s
because they actually use similar tools. Let us then briefly examine this
alleged parallelism and in the process try to understand what the proper place
of both science and religion ought to be.

Smith’s
first insight is that science and religion both claim that things are not as
they seem. For example, you have the perception that the chair on which you are
sitting is solid, but modern physics will tell you that it is made of mostly
empty space. This, apparently, is analogous to the following bit from C.S.
Lewis: “Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about
something behind the world we can touch and hear and see.” Never mind, of
course, that physicists can bring sophisticated empirical evidence to support
their claim about the emptiness of space, while Christianity is made up of a
series of fantastic and contradictory stories backed by no evidence whatsoever.

Second,
according to Smith, both science and religion claim that the world is not only
different from what we perceive, but that there is “more” than we can see,
and that the additional part is “stupendous.” Of course, electrons, quarks
and neutrinos are “more” than we can see, although they are stupendous only
to those few scientists who spend their lives working on them. Well, this is
apparently the same as Shankara’s “notion of the extravagance of his vision
of the summum bonum when he says that it cannot be obtained except
through the merits of 100 billion well-lived incarnations,” a cornerstone of
some Indian sacred text. I hope you are starting to appreciate the depths of the
similarities between science and religion. But wait, there is more.

The two quests for truth also share the quality that this
“more” that they seek to explore cannot be known in ordinary ways
(otherwise, presumably, one would need neither science nor religion to get
there). Science’s ways lead to apparent contradictions, such as in the case of
some aspects of quantum mechanical theory. To which Smith juxtaposes some gems
from the Christian literature that he says uncannily resemble modern notions of
quantum physics. For example, did not Nicholas of Cusa (De Visione Dei)
write that “the wall of the Paradise in which Thou, Lord, dwellest is built of
contradictories,” pretty much like the dual particle-wave nature of light? And
did not Dionysius the Areopagite (The Divine Names) say “He is both at
rest and in motion, and yet is in neither state,” thus anticipating
Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle? I am not making the examples up—these
are Smith’s very own.

Fourth, both science and religion have found other ways
of knowing this “more” which cannot be accessed by our ordinary senses. The
language through which science accomplishes this is mathematics; the one of
religion is, of course, mysticism, which Smith describes as a “comparably
specialized way of knowing reality’s highest transcorporeal reaches”
(whatever that means). This, according to Smith, is “not a state to be
achieved but a condition to be recognized, for God has united his divine essence
with our inmost being. Tat tvan asi; That thou art. Atman is
Brahman; samsara, Nirvana”. Yes, of course.

The fifth parallelism is that in both science and
religion these alternative ways of knowing need to be properly cultivated. A
scientist needs to dedicate a lifetime to her education and research if she
wants to make a contribution. This is apparently similar to the asceticism of
saints because, as Bayazid ‘correctly’ pointed out, “The knowledge of God
cannot be attained by seeking, but only those who seek it find it.”

Finally, in both science and religion profound knowing
requires instruments. In science, these are microscopes, telescopes and particle
accelerators. In religion, the equivalent is provided by the Revealed Texts,
“Palomar telescopes that disclose the heavens that declare God’s glory.”
If gods who dictate texts are not palatable to you, there is an alternative:
“Spirit (the divine in man) and the Infinite (the divine in its transpersonal
finality) are identical—man’s deepest unconscious is the mountain at the
bottom of the lake.” Get it?

I would not have bothered the reader with this mountain
of nonsense if it came from the local televangelist screaming bloody hell
against the humanists’ corruption of the world. But this is Huston Smith, one
of the most respected intellectual exponents of modern religionism, one who is
hailed as offering the deepest insights that not just one, but all the
world’s religions can offer!

This is a maddening example of what Richard Dawkins (in
Unweaving the Rainbow) called “bad poetry.” Metaphors make much of the
world’s literature a pleasure to read, but they can also be exceedingly
misleading. There is no parallel whatsoever between science and religion. One
can practice one or the other or both, but to pretend that they yield common
insights into the nature of the world is an intellectual travesty. To go
further, as Smith and so many religionists do, and assert that science is
arrogant because it claims to provide the best answers to a circumscribed set of
questions is astonishing, especially when the alleged alternative is so
obviously the result of Pindaric flights of imagination. Now, here is my modest
proposal: what if religions would treat themselves to a little dose of humility?
Imagine what the world would be like in that case.