THE BLOG

Science & Religion: Using A 36 Horsepower Brain

11/23/2010 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A half century ago I towed a boat trailer around with a 36 horsepower Volkswagen beetle. Compare this mismatch with using a brain developed on the savannas of Africa to find food, sense danger and avoid being eaten that is now being used to discover celestial mechanics and microbiology.

Legend has it that the Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" steam locomotive could tow a five mile train on level ground by itself. Since then we have learned to tow larger trains with multiple locomotives. It seems size of the train is only limited by the strength of the couplers between the cars. Perhaps this is a lesson for us humans. If we continue our current behavior like we were still living on the savanna, killing and stealing to make our own personal train as big as possible, humans will be a short chapter on this planet. Could we need to work on stronger couplers for humans to make a train for everyone to ride on?

Many thousands of years ago, one of our ancestors saw a promising stone, made a tool and helped humans survive until today. About 2200 years ago, Eratosthenes noticed that the sun made a different shadow and calculated the size of the Earth. About three hundred years ago, Newton looked up, watched a falling apple and realized that the moon is falling too. He made it possible to calculate the flights of cannonballs, planets and spacecraft. From the flintmaker to Eratosthenes to Newton, I like to call them all flintmakers.

The flintmakers passed on their tools and knowledge to us. People also passed on to us stories about themselves and about their concepts of life and death, origins and ends.

Today we have updated and refined these tools. We have knives of steel instead of flint. We used the size of the Earth to venture across the ocean. And we used Newton's equations to launch spacecraft to the moon. Similarly, we need to update and refine those past understandings of life and death, origins and ends.

We fit somewhere in the middle of different scales of time and space. Hummingbirds live life in the fast lane and probably think that we move as slowly as trees and yet we seem like insects buzzing around the feet of the Sequoia Redwoods with their multi thousand year lifespans. As Carl Sagan said: "We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it's forever."

We have learned that the birth of our universe was so hot and violent that even atoms could not survive. One day it will be cold and still -- approaching absolute zero when the stars all die. In between is the window in time in which we live and move and have our being. It is the era of the molecules, groups of atoms linked together. Only now is it cool enough so that electrons can link atoms up into molecules and still warm enough to generate the complex molecules of life.

As far as we can tell, religion/science started as an attempt to interpret life and the forces we encountered on a daily basis thousands of years ago when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. The bible contains a fascinating record of one group's transition from hunter-gatherer nomads to a settled agricultural civilization. Some of their understandings of the world grow more subtle and sophisticated, even beautiful, before your eyes as you read, but some of the crude and violent reactions remain. It becomes clear that religion/gods are really reflections of human behavior.

As time has passed and our civilizations have become larger and more sophisticated, we have attempted to explain more of the world in which we find ourselves. Great explorers, Eratosthenes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Feynman, Hawking and others have led our way, even to the moon. There is now a new thing which we call science. It is now distinct from religion because religion has been a colossal failure at explaining the physical world.

For example, a hundred years ago, we finally admitted that the Greeks were right. There were atoms at the bottom of everything. So we all agreed that they were like little billiard balls. Then someone discovered that electrons came out of atoms, meaning that atoms had parts. So Thomson changed the model from a billiard ball to raisin bread. Then Rutherford showed the atom was mostly empty and the model changed to a little solar system. Then great weirdness was found, namely quantum mechanics, and the model is still changing, because of Bohr, Einstein and others.

The point of the atom example is that science often thrives on doubt, change and new knowledge while religion claims to know everything already. The saying about religion is that it is "Often wrong, but never in doubt."

The lesson from religion is: we know everything and have all the answers.

The lesson from science is: we doubt your answers and have some questions.

It is time for a dose of humility. We are tiny animals with tiny brains living on a tiny rock around an ordinary star in the suburbs of an ordinary galaxy. We can actually understand a few things about the universe by careful application of our 36 horsepower brains. Our main problem is not our understanding of the universe. We are learning about the universe.

Our main problem is human behavior. In my opinion, religion should be leading us in dealing with human behavior. But religion seems to be failing in this area just as it has failed in knowledge of the natural world. History shows that religion is often the problem, not the solution. Religion is busy feathering its own nest and posture in society while we kill each other for oil and money as children starve in ignorance. Perhaps we need to return to the Egyptian image, weighing our hearts in the balance with a feather at the end of life.

Can anyone doubt that we could feed the world's children if only we had enough heart? As Gandhi said, "We have enough for our need but not for our greed." Even my little VW could tow a boat. Maybe we need a measure like horsepower called heartpower. Call it a measure of courage or caring. Do we have 36 heartpower hearts to go with our 36 horsepower brains?

Yes, we are tiny animals living on a speck of dust with lives shorter than the blink of an eye. And yes, given our current behavior our future looks grim, religion has failed us and we are working with only a 36 horsepower brain. BUT look at what we have done with a 36 horsepower brain so far. Think with that brain of what we could do if we had 36 heartpower hearts too. It reminds me of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz singing "If I only had a heart.""

Do we have the courage to couple together and take care of our world, our children and their future? If we don't we will soon be another layer in the fossil record of Earth. Someone may find it one day and say: "These people had 36 horsepower brains. Why didn't they solve this problem? Maybe they had no heart for it."