Spiritual Science, Rational Morality: Rethinking the Divide Between Science and Religion

10/11/2010 09:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Paulson Executive producer, 'To the Best of Our Knowledge'; author, 'Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science'

The atheist Sam Harris has just lobbed a bombshell into the roiling debate over science and religion. In his new book The Moral Landscape, he argues for an entirely new understanding of morality, based not on religion but on new insights from science, especially brain science. Harris, a neuroscientist himself, is out to demolish the idea that science is by definition a value-free space. "The split between facts and values - and, therefore between science and morality - is an illusion," he writes. "Science has long been in the values business." He believes science and rationality provide a far better foundation for moral guidance than tired prescriptions from religion.

Harris' book comes on the heels of Stephen Hawking's recent assault on religion and philosophy. His claim that "the universe can and will create itself out of nothing" -- without God's intervention -- sparked a predictable furor. But even more provocative is Hawking's assertion that science can finally answer some of the great existential questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? And why do we exist? As Hawking and fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow write in their book The Grand Design, "Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead." Why? Because it hasn't kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.

For centuries, philosophers and theologians have presided over these questions about values and purpose, but scientists such as Harris and Hawking are no longer willing to cede this territory to religion. The cutting edges of science -- from cosmology and evolutionary biology to neuroscience -- are now tackling the most profound questions of our existence. Even the soul is under scientific scrutiny. Or at least the soul as it's defined by modern science: the self-aware mind with its keen sense of morality and free will.

Is this scientific overreach? The late biologist Stephen Jay Gould certainly thought so. In his 1999 book Rocks of Ages, he tried to broker a truce between science and religion by claiming they are two utterly distinct realms of understanding, what he called "nonoverlapping magisteria" (NOMA). Science, according to Gould, covers the empirical world of fact and theory, while questions about moral meaning and value fall within the religious realm. This attempt to divide the world between fact and meaning has shaped the discussion of science and religion, but we're now moving beyond Gould's dichotomy.

I've interviewed a number of leading scholars in the science and religion debate. Many of them -- both secular and religious -- reject Gould's concept of NOMA. "He dodged the question. That's no answer at all," said the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson. "I think it's nonsense," added fellow biologist and leading atheist Richard Dawkins. Plenty of people on the religious side agree. "It's never been true," said ex-Buddhist monk B. Alan Wallace. "Religion, whether we like it or not, is making many truth claims about the natural world as well as the transcendent world."

Gould may have proposed his NOMA for purely pragmatic reasons. As an outspoken critic of creationism, he probably decided that the best way to keep evolution in the classroom was to declare that it had nothing to do with religion. "The politics is very straightforward," Dawkins told me. "The science lobby, which is very important in the United States, wants those sensible religious people -- the theologians, the bishops, the clergymen who believe in evolution -- on their side." Dawkins himself takes a far more controversial stance, claiming that God is incompatible with evolution. He acknowledges that his position is politically explosive, but he considers it intellectually honest.

While Dawkins' conclusions are debatable, the solid wall between science and religion is now crumbling. But instead of lamenting this development, I suggest we celebrate it. We may actually be on the verge of a far more intriguing and invigorating public discussion -- at least once we get past questions about biblical literalism. Many of the "big questions" swirling around the science and religion debate actually undermine Gould's clear dichotomy: Is the universe "designed" for life? Was the appearance of Homo sapiens an evolutionary fluke? Does any part of the mind operate independently of the physical mechanics of the brain? Do we need God to experience transcendence or the sacred? Scientists have responses to all of these questions, but so do spiritual thinkers.

Indeed, some of the most thought-provoking work in evolutionary biology and neuroscience is now being done by scientists with a spiritual bent. Take Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist at Cambridge University who is quite open about his own Christian faith. His study of evolutionary convergence has led him to argue that the evolution of humans -- or some intelligent creature like us -- was inevitable once life first appeared on Earth. In other words, the evolutionary process may not be inherently meaningless. Or consider University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, whose brain-imaging studies of meditating Buddhist monks and praying Franciscan nuns reveal nearly identical neural activity, despite their vastly different metaphysical beliefs. Are these spiritual experiences strictly the product of electrochemical surges in the brain, or do they spring from some deeper connection to a transcendent reality? Newberg says he is open to either possibility.

An even more provocative idea comes from University of Calgary biologist Stuart Kauffman, one of the gurus of complexity theory and a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award. In his book Reinventing the Sacred, Kauffman argues against the reductionist paradigm of modern science. He believes this has left us flailing in a sea of meaninglessness, exemplified by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg's comment: "The more we comprehend the universe, the more it seems pointless." Kauffman disagrees. He says scientific reductionism simply can't explain the inherent unpredictability of biology or human culture. Most audacious of all, he wants to appropriate the word "God" for non-believers by celebrating "the ceaseless creativity" of nature itself. Why invoke God? "It's the most powerful symbol humanity has created," he told me, but he says the God of traditional religion no longer jibes with our scientific knowledge.

Are these scientists just grasping at straws, desperate for cosmic purpose to ease their existential angst? Perhaps. Then again, for sheer audacity, consider the highly speculative theories about multiple universes proposed by today's leading physicists, based on their interpretations of quantum mechanics. For instance, Hawking writes, "The universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously."

Can science ever prove or disprove this theory? For that matter, is this science or is it metaphysics?