Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Ex Uno Fonte", Part II: A Common Search For Understanding

The motto of my school, the College of Wooster, is the following Latin phrase: "Scientia et religio ex uno fonte". Literally translated, it goes something like "Science and religion from one source". I've been saying since last year's History of Life class, if not before, that I know the name of the source. If you'll permit me a somewhat secularized look at religion (and if you won't, fuck you, I'm going anyway), the source is simply the human drive to understand the universe. It's not just curiosity, although our apelike brains do help us out by driving us to see what that thing means. It's not just intelligence, which gives us the ability to wonder "What's that?" and actually search for the answers. No, the source of these two disciplines started so long ago that, today, we've forgotten what it's all about. It is a combination of fear and awe.

We, humans, like to understand things. More than that: we can't not understand things. It drives us nuts. We can assume that this has been a constant desire for all of human history, right? Well, picture yourself as a pre-agricultural hunter/gatherer/all-out wanderer. Picture yourself as a Roman, or as a Knight Templar, or as a Chinese sage. The world around you is absolutely loaded with things you don't understand. Forces of nature! Lightning! What's that? Thunder! Volcanoes! What are those? The whims of rain and cloud, the beasts around you that hunt you and are hunted in turn, why one plant is safe to eat and another turns your guts inside out. Why is the world the way it is? It can't just be arbitrary, oh, no. We won't accept it. There has to be a will, a plan, a divine plan. Ah-HAH! NOW you've got it! A divine plan! Beings older and wiser than our meager human selves have created the world in this, that, the other way. They made the world the way it was because of such-and-such a reason. It may sound arbitrary, but never mind, they're gods! They're capricious and beyond our understanding! There it is. Now we understand the world.



But it's not just limited to religion! That's science, too! We--scientists, even though I'm not remotely close to one, we're the same kind of Homo sapiens sapiens so I'll just insert a 'we'--are going after the world and trying to understand it too, just in a different way! What's the difference between a universal law--to pick a now-banal example, e = mc^2--and a God that says nothing in the universe can exceed the speed of light? What's the difference between a Higgs boson and an angel that weighs down each and every particle and gives it mass? Absolutely nothing! Sure, you can test for one and believe in the other, but at heart they're still explanations for the same basic phenomena! (Well, not basic, it took tens of thousands of years for us to work out the speed of light. But never mind.)

Science and religion are humanity's two great efforts to understand the world around us. They differ only in their methods and their conclusions; the underlying spirit is the same. We want to explain what we see, understand what we feel and why we feel it. We don't see them that way because they're so often in conflict, because the conclusions they draw are so very different. But that's fine! That's brilliant! It's the best thing that could possibly happen, because it brings us closer to a true understanding of the universe! When the theories come in contact and conflict, people's beliefs change. We're forced to ask the hard questions about what it all means, how one theory fits in with the other, how--and if--they can be compatible. We're forced to keep on looking for the one true answer, the answer that will reconcile the two systems and create our final understanding of the universe.

I know that this all sounds kind of nebulous (hee hee!). I know that words like 'understanding' and 'universe' are vague and all-encompassing. They're meant to be. They describe everything that we, as a people and as a species, want to achieve. Look, in physics right now there are two great theories: general relativity, which describes gravity, and quantum physics, which describes the three other forces. Unifying those two will produce what physicists hope will be a complete understanding of the universe. The parallel between that idea and what I am saying is nontrivial (as a statistician might say). Sooner or later, science and religion will begin to work together on a grand scale to meet the ultimate goal. And you and I might just live to see it.

Thank you for reading.

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