“Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.”
Most intelligent people listen to their hearts throughout their lives. They follow a calling, fall in love, sacrifice for their children, or speak out for what’s right. But when it comes to pondering the end of their lives, they often feel forced to listen to their brains. Yes, that brain says, you had some experiences that felt meaningful, but that was it. Death is the end. Ultimately, existence is meaningless.
Isn’t that the only sane conclusion?
Surely we can only believe in some sort of divinity by abandoning our intelligence. Isn’t religion, or any form of spirituality, childish? Absurd stories at odds with common sense are something we grow out of. Are we to accept that mechanical rules govern our daily existence, but somehow don’t apply in a realm we’ve never seen? Or that the randomness and injustice of the world are part of some invisible plan? Are we to make peace with a God who is either too cruel to deserve our affection or too good to be true? What’s more, there are a thousand versions of this inanity. Which religion got its story right? Who wins?
No one, say those we turn to for more reasonable answers. There is no God. What Science offers instead is a unified, rational view of existence that squares with what everyone experiences every day. Scientists can be Canadian or Hungarian, Catholic or Hindu, but they all accept the evidence of their universal, human senses. They all use their universal, human logic to mine that evidence for the laws of nature. Laws we can count on. Laws that work. Religions start wars. But Science improves our crops, builds our computers, lights our homes, and carries us comfortably around the planet, unless you fly coach.
So which is it? Do you want a universe that cares or a fully functioning brain? It seems to many we have to choose.
These essays beg to differ.
In the title of this collection, How to Believe in Science and also in Something Beyond, the words and also are important. These essays don’t question the truths of Science, nor minimize its contributions to humanity. At the level of objects we can all point to, touch, and agree on—Newton’s laws of motion, iPhones, jets, and chickens that can bench-press small cars—Science has been hugely successful. So successful, in fact, many are convinced it can also explain the more elusive realms of human fulfillment. Your love for your child, your awe before a sunrise—these surely arise from the actions of neurotransmitters in your brain. Those flickering realms of meaning surely rest on the rock-solid reality of something mechanical.
These essays question that idea. Not with wishful thinking, but by turning the intelligence that scientists direct at the world towards something they rarely apply it to with the same rigor: themselves. In that sense, these essays are more scientific than mainstream Science is used to being. They push its critical probing further. They go places where our most educated and well-respected citizens generally don’t. They ask questions that are usually ignored. What kind of information does Science really give us? How do scientists really go about their jobs? What can Science or its human servants really say about God—or whatever word we choose for some ultimate, comforting something?
It certainly seems as if scientists have peered into the farthest reaches of space and the smallest specks of matter and come up empty. Seems, though, is the operative word. These essays explore a paradox. The apparently obvious notion that the universe is impersonal, mechanical, and devoid of magic may itself be a kind of spell.