The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught
Does the universe have any purpose? Is the emergence of life anything more than a cosmic accident? Was there any intelligence operative in the universe prior to the appearance of man? Is life anything more than atoms and molecules? Is mind anything else than the result of complex movements of the physical and chemical components of the brain? Is there any divine influence present in nature? Is evolution moving in any meaningful direction? Do our individual lives have any ultimate significance in the unfathomable depths of cosmic time and space?
These are a few of the questions that modern science has raised for those of us who believe or hope that there is indeed some final meaning to our lives in the universe. These are not new questions. They have been with us for some time, and they have inspired a number of responses. But many of these responses have been reactionary repudiations of science itself. Others have been intellectually shallow. And still others have been intellectually inaccessible to sincere and able inquirers.
The present work is intended for any intelligent reader who by some acquaintance with the exciting discoveries of modern science may have asked some of the questions raised above. I shall attempt to make presentable to such a questioner the view that our universe is not without purpose and that there is absolutely nothing in the scientific approach that contradicts the essence of a religious interpretation of reality. Instead there is much in scientific discovery and speculation that may help us to understand religion in a new and adventurous way.
For a number of years now I have been teaching a course on science and religion to undergraduates. In doing so I have always had the objective of preparing my students to read in a critical fashion contemporary scientific literature much of which rejects religion as superstition. As I have provided instruction in the complexities of Alfred North Whitehead’ s and Michael Polanyi’s urbane critiques of scientific materialism, I have wished fervently that larger numbers of people could be exposed to their sanity. This book is an attempt to present some of their ideas to a larger audience. Almost without exception I have found that students who have taken the effort to become acquainted with these impressive philosophers have felt deeply rewarded. My hope is that readers of this book may be tantalized to probe further themselves.
It is, of course, difficult to discuss the ways of thinking about the universe that one finds in Whitehead and Polanyi (and their philosophical followers) without being somewhat "academic" in one s presentation. Much is lost when we try to dilute their thought for the purpose of easy clarity. So while the present work is introductory in nature, I shall try to maintain a scholarly level of discussion without being overly pedantic.
This book is my own personal synthesis, heavily informed by Whitehead and Polanyi (and numerous others as well), but not slavishly repetitive of their ideas. It is both a constructive and a critical attempt to engage the central issues in science and religion today.
Let me confess at the very outset that I think it is possible to reconcile the human hope for some cosmic purpose with what modern science has told us about nature. In a broad sense at least, religion is not opposed to science. The essence of "religion" is a basic confidence that the "ultimate environment" of our lives is trustworthy and fulfilling rather than indifferent or hostile toward us. What I mean more specifically by this "ultimate environment" as an encompassing, transcendent sphere of redemptive care will have to await discussion at a later point. However, I think it is important that I state clearly at the outset the direction in which I am moving. I am going to argue that there is nothing in evolutionary theory, molecular biology or recent physics, or any of the natural sciences for that matter, that rules out a religious interpretation of the universe in the sense that I have just described "religion." Furthermore, I think that the sciences are completely congruous with religious symbolism and that we can restate the religious vision in a fresh manner by a study of the universe of modern science. In supporting these statements I do not think I will have to manipulate any of the commonly accepted ideas presented by the sciences. I am deeply respectful toward, indeed in awe of, what science has produced especially in the decades since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published (1859). And I have no intention of trying to force scientific discoveries to conform to the religious hypothesis.
Perhaps I can do no more than point out the congruity of the religious view with the findings of science. I cannot, nor can anyone else, give a scientific demonstration of the validity of the religious hypothesis. Much discussion in science and religion has been sidetracked by the supposition that one can place religious in the same context as scientific ways of knowing. It must be acknowledged that religious assertions are not verifiable or falsifiable, at least in the same manner as scientific propositions are. The religious conviction that the universe is at heart, in its transcendent depths, a graceful, caring, enlivening environment is in a different order of discourse from scientific hypotheses concerning, for example, how species evolved or how matter is converted into energy. So, regardless of how one would assess the truth-status of religious ideas, they do not fall neatly within the realm of propositions that we associate with science.
In the past, of course, numerous scientific thinkers have expressed skepticism about religion because its assertions are not verifiable or falsifiable in the same experimental sense as are scientific assertions. And such suspicion is understandable because religious people have tried often to place their own convictions on the same level as scientific views about the universe, as competing hypotheses. This is essentially what the so-called "creationists" do. Taking the biblical story of creation literally, as though it were in the same family of propositions as scientific statements, creationism sees modern scientifically based views of the cosmos as exclusive of and antagonistic toward biblical religion. The creationist position not only vilifies the legitimate work of dedicated scientists; what is more, it suppresses the essential insight of religion that we may trust the universe, including the human mind and its capacity to grasp rationally the nature of things.
As I shall take it in this book, the central core of religious consciousness is a fundamental trust, primordially expressed in symbols and stories, that reality is ultimately caring. The intuition of divine care is intrinsic to, but not exclusive to, biblical religion. In their essence most if not all religious faiths express a confidence that in spite of the overwhelming presence of chaos, tragedy, suffering, and death, this universe is grounded in an ultimate environment in which the negative is conquered by the power of the positive. The manner in which religious consciousness expresses its intimation of such an ultimate context of meaning is primarily through symbolic and mythic modes of thought and language which differ from culture to culture. The creation story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, for example, is a culturally specific symbolic and mythic rather than scientific expression of basic trust. One meaning of the story is that our immediate world is a gift freely given by ultimate reality (Yahweh), and that our response to this gift should be one of gratitude and stewardship. This is not the only meaning that scholars have seen in the creation story. (There, are, for example, covenantal and soteriological motifs as well.) But it will serve to illustrate my point that the symbolic and mythic language of religion cannot be appreciated if it is placed in the same class of propositions as those we might find in a biology textbook. The purpose of the creation story is not to give us scientific information about the details of the world’s origin. Instead its objective is to awaken the religious participant to the possibility that beyond his or her immediate environment there is an ultimate one which is decisively giving and caring. Its intention is to stimulate consciousness toward the view that being is not one-dimensional, that it is not totally exhausted in its immediate physical manifestations. It proclaims that there is another dimension deeper than and more encompassing than what is immediately available to our comprehension. And it proposes that this other dimension is a gracious source of meaning and purpose for our lives in the immediate environment of nature and history.
However, we are forced to ask earnestly today: Is this intuition of cosmic care consistent with the findings of modern science? And if so, how? If our universe is influenced by any cosmic purpose, how would we know it and what shape would it take in nature and history? These are the questions we must address.
If indeed there is a transcendent ground of cosmic purpose we must humbly admit that we could not get our minds around it in any secure or final fashion. It would "comprehend" us, but we would not be able to comprehend it. And yet, in some mode of consciousness or other, our minds would have to make contact with this encompassing purpose, or it with us, if we are to talk about it at all. What would this mode of consciousness be, and what would be its relation to scientific knowledge?
In spite of the spurious connotations the term will probably have for many readers, I shall use the word "faith" to refer to this non-comprehending intuition of ultimate meaning. I shall attempt to show that the word "faith" may be understood as the mode of consciousness whereby we open ourselves to being grasped by a more comprehensive dimension of reality than the mind itself can objectively master. It is a mode of consciousness which will inevitably arouse the suspicion of those who adhere to what has been called "the epistemology of control" according to which nothing may be called real unless it can be grasped objectively by the methods of science1 "Faith" requires the renunciation of the epistemology of control. And such asceticism is not very appealing within the contemporary academic setting. Therefore, I shall not be surprised if my reference to faith should evoke feelings of uneasiness in some readers even at this very early phase of our inquiry.
Still I cannot divorce my discussion of the cosmos from considerations of the possible role of faith in opening up levels of reality otherwise inaccessible. Especially if our universe is evolutionary and hierarchical, as I shall argue, the role of faith in making us aware of further possible emergent dimensions cannot be disregarded. Through "faith" our human consciousness acknowledges its limitedness and at the same time allows itself to be taken up into a higher or deeper dimension of reality wherein it is given its ultimate purpose in the scheme of things. Accordingly, if purpose is indeed a reality in our universe, it lies beyond the control of both our ordinary and our scientific modes of cognition. This would explain its elusiveness, its inaccessibility, its unobtrusiveness. There is, therefore, a certain wager or risk involved in our entrusting ourselves to a teleological (= purposeful) vision of things. For we may never hope to lay out the nature of this vision with the same degree of clarity and certitude with which we set forth our scientific judgments about nature. We simply cannot "master" any supposed teleological dimension in the cosmos, and so we may be tempted to turn away altogether from consideration of its possibility. I think science is correct in its methodical exclusion of teleological hypotheses from its own rendition of the universe. For if a teleological dimension does exist it would lie beyond the objectifying, controlling technique of scientific knowing. The vital question, though, is whether scientific knowing is the only legitimate mode of knowing. Or is there room for faith? I shall propose throughout this book that a hierarchical view of the universe will allow us to clarify how faith and scientific knowledge can coexist and complement each other in our universe. But I make no pretense of exposing clearly and distinctly what nature’s purpose may be. In the final analysis, as Whitehead teaches us, clarity and distinctness do not necessarily give us reality in its fundamental and concrete aspects. Perhaps we need symbols and myths to put us in touch with reality in its deeper dimensions. This is the wager I shall propose that we take.
1. Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982), pp. 83, 88; 114, 134-35.