Physics and spirituality: "A rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law"
A physicist shares his conviction that scientific and religious views of the world are complementary and compatible.
May 4, 2012Published: May 4, 2012
By Jed Brody
With fear and trepidation, I approach the topic of physics and spirituality. To even consider physics and spirituality as a single topic—not two—may qualify as heresy. I have to wonder about public perception: If a physics instructor confesses to holding religious views, is that alarming, or subversive, or even reckless? Is that analogous to an orthodontist with an overbite—is the individual's professional competence called into question? I can imagine (if you'll pardon the caricature) a murmur among the crowd of physicists: "Religion. Ah, yes. I think I've heard of it. Isn't that one of those antiquated cultural constructs that fell out of fashion with powdered wigs and pocket watches?" I can even imagine hurt, confused looks among colleagues and students: "We thought you were one of us: rational, modern, liberated from the superstitions of our primitive ancestry—divisive superstitions that continue to engender mistrust and irrational, destructive politics."
Are physics and spirituality truly immiscible, or even, like ammonia and bleach, separately useful, but hazardous when combined? No one speaks of corporate finance and spirituality, or verb conjugation and spirituality, or beer brewing and spirituality (although some may practice beer brewing with religious fervor). Physics, unlike corporate finance, unlike verb conjugation, unlike beer brewing, purports to describe The Way Things Really Are—and so does religion. Thus, it's no surprise that people wonder how physics and religion can coinhabit a dominion claimed by both. Are they warring adversaries, perpetually attempting to seize or reclaim territory that cannot be held in common? Are they aloof colleagues, indifferent and incurious about what the other is saying? Are they explorers on different expeditions, gathering occasionally around the same campfire for mutual encouragement and inspiration?
This last vision, I think, is at the heart of the Emory–Tibet Science Initiative. As part of that partnership, my colleagues and I travel to India to teach science to Tibetan monks and nuns, and a smaller number of monks attend classes at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Our goal, as expressed by the Dalai Lama, is a cross-pollination of ideas and a dissemination of the best of both traditions. We're often reminded that we're not trying to turn Buddhists into scientists, and we're not trying to turn scientists into Buddhists (although those scientists who are already Buddhists presumably become better Buddhists through their involvement in the project).
The Dalai Lama specifically says that whenever science contradicts a Buddhist scripture, the scientific viewpoint should be adopted. He gives the example of Mount Meru, traditionally considered the center of the universe. He also says that if the ancient Buddhist sages—whose scriptures are memorized by every monk and nun—were alive today, those sages would definitely study science.
Is this all, though, that science can offer religion—an additional avenue of exploration, another sphere of thought? Or is there (just asking) something inherently spiritual about science itself? According to Albert Einstein, the answer is yes. He wrote, "I maintain that cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research . . . [The scientist's] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systemic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of [her or] his life and work . . ."
Theists and atheists alike claim Einstein among their ranks. Is the "intelligence of such superiority" a divine consciousness? Or is it a soulless, lifeless set of mathematical laws, ultimately rooted in mystery (why the propensity for inverse squares and not, say, inverse cubes?) but not mysticism?
I don't pretend to know the mind of Einstein, but I do know (all too well) my own mind, and so now—with trepidation, with diffidence, with nervous twitchings of my face, and in the hope that I've already dropped any readers who are hostile to spirituality—I step up to the brink of disclosing my own spiritual views. And just before I back away—wiping sweat from my brow with trembling fingers—I hear, over the rhythm of distant bongos, the voice of Richard Feynman: "What do you care what other people think?"
And so, here it is: The things I like best about physics, I like for reasons I consider religious. I believe that spirit permeates matter, so studying matter is a kind of communion with spirit, a kind of reading of a scripture. The universe is teeming with riddles that we have the uncanny—almost unnerving—ability to solve. Maxwell's equations, hidden in plain sight, remained undiscovered for 14 billion years—waiting, tireless—and then precipitated in the human mind like crystals. I can easily imagine that the riddler takes some satisfaction in this.
Though I'm neither able nor inclined to convince anyone of the validity of my religious beliefs, my life would be profoundly impoverished without them.
Jed Brody teaches physics at Emory University. His first science-fiction novel, The Philodendrist Heresy, was recently published by Moon Willow Press. All of his royalties from sales of the book are donated to charity.