Waking Up on the Cosmic Express

Roaming round the science blogs these days, every third post seems to be about Science Versus Religion – for example here, and here, and even one from me. One of the best was “Thank You Richard Dawkins” over at Cosmic Variance, which provoked a long and strange debate. I find this phenomenon both invigorating and alarming, as my fellow scientists are basically right but often oddly strident. I have found myself repeatedly daydreaming about a striking conversation that took place a year or so ago on my way to an observing run at the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT).

What follows is essentially as it happened, but fictionalised for heuristic effect. If Veet reads this, he will understand.

I am flying from London to LA, en route to Hawaii – the Cosmic Express, the UK Astronomy Special. I have just had an idea and am scribbling some calculations on my newspaper. The man in the next seat asks me what I am doing. I explain that I am a scientist, and go on to say that I am on the way to use a new wide field camera on a telescope on top of the Big Island. Fascinated, he gently grills me. His questions are very cogent, initially naive but rapidly sharpening as he listens to my answers. I begin to wonder if he is teasing me and is actually a Dutch astronomer – but no, he is just intelligent and well read, with the kind of intellectual freedom that goes with lack of responsibility – he is called Veet and he scratches a living on Kauai tutoring the children of wealthy farmers.

I go on to explain how the infrared is important because you can see cold things, things hidden by dust, and very distant, redshifted things. He swallows all this with a pleased grin. Then somehow, at a pause, religion comes up – I don’t remember how. He says that the problem with the world is that our science and technology is very advanced, whereas our religion is still primitive. What we need is more advanced religion.

I snort. Advanced religion, I say, would be advancing it to the point where you have no religion. Religion is like a bad dream that humanity has woken from now that we understand nature, and have material comfort and democratic social structures. Fairytales are not needed – we are not frightened, or puzzled, or oppressed. God is unnecessary.

So who mentioned God ? says Veet. It soon becomes clear that he finds the Abrahamic religions more absurd and worrying than I do, seeing them as a kind of virus, a slave system that traps people, and enemies of knowledge and truth. I find myself defending Islam and its role in preserving science through the dark ages, but he downplays this, saying that the scholarship was always carried out by subject peoples conquered by Islam.

But, he says, this doesn’t mean there is no spiritual aspect to life, and in fact the scientific approach, a healthy scepticism, leads us in a consistent direction. There is no personal self; it is an illusion caused by memory, the continuity of physical structures neighbouring in space. The point is to arrive at this insight before the illusion vanishes at death. Suffering arises from grasping; when you know you do not exist, suffering ceases. Ah, I gradually realise, this is Buddhism. So … how about this re-incarnation mumbo-jumbo ? If there is no self, what is the thing that pops back in to another body ? He smiles. Yes, Buddhism is more advanced than gods-in-the-sky, but perhaps not yet the final story. His point exactly.

The self, he suggests, is like a waterfall. It looks like an object, but its really a process. Its caused by the landscape, making the water flow in a structured way .. for a while. The waterfall isn’t real. Only the water is real. OK, say I. This is like Heraclitus – a man can never step in the same river twice. Uhuh, says Veet. Its not the same river, and its not the same man. Nice game, I say … but whats the water here ? He smiles. Just because there is no personal self doesn’t mean that there is no consciousness. It is obvious that consciousness exists in the Universe, along with matter, and energy. But it must be a single universal field, which follows the landscape and produces temporary structures. Somehow as organisms we participate temporarily in this universal field of selfness. Mystics have been saying the same thing for thousands of years.

Now I get cynical again. We are heading down Mysticism Road towards Gibberish City. All is One. You too are Brahman. The world is a Veil of Illusion. You may think you see the real world, but you don’t. The reality is something stranger, deeper, mistier, which only the Master can really see. This stuff is very clever, but just another delusional fantasy. Like String Theory ? he asks with a grin. Well, yes, I say. The point about science is that you may have elaborate explanations, but you keep it concrete, you stay grounded in experience. You are sceptical, and you test your ideas against Nature. If it disagrees with experiment, its wrong. Doesn’t matter whether a Grad Student said it or Ed Witten said it. If Nature says no, it isn’t so. On this basis, Quantum Mechanics may be weird, but its solid. String Theory isn’t even right or wrong yet. Its a beautiful idea waiting to become science one day. And as for merging with Brahman.. well where do you start ?

Long Pause. He holds up his pen. What’s this ? he says. Its a pen, I say. No, he says, “pen” is a noise. This is what this is. He hands me the pen in silence. I just stare at it for a while. I can see a tiny glare of light reflecting off a tangent. Its blue at one end and green-ish at the other. The pen is light, but I can feel its weight, and I roll the pen on my palm. Its smooth but I feel a slight tickle on my skin.

The point ? I can put this in scientist-talk, he says. In our heads we have a model of the world. Words, concepts, equations. Powerful but confusing. The illusion is that we mistake this buzzing mental world for the real thing. So you see mysticism is the opposite of your caricature, and quite like your empirical worldview. The illusory world is complex, confusing, fuzzy, and only Ed Witten can really understand it. But let this drop away and the real world is concrete, definite, hard, bright and simple. Its exactly the same as before but without the crap.

Interesting. Reminds me of the philosophical debates from the early days of quantum theory about whether the theory represents something real, or is just a convenient instrument; a machinery for calculating what happens in Nature. It works, but maybe there could be other instruments that would do just as well. Just because it works doesn’t mean it reflects some underlying essential reality. Well, I guess philosophers still make a living going round this circle. But working scientists see that debate as a failure of nerve. Electrons and quarks are real. We make concrete progress and understand the world better each day. This is not a game. There is a knowable reality.

Woah, says Veet. Thats a pretty strong theological position ! The scientific credo. I thought you guys were thorough-going sceptics ? To me, he says, scientific theories are not discovered, they are created. They are as beautiful as Hamlet or Beethoven’s Ninth. They are a great human achievement.

I wriggle, having been trapped into seeming dogmatic. Yes, ok, I say, if you work only on theory, you can never be sure you are not fooling yourself. Grounding in the concrete observed world is crucial. And in science, you always have to be ready to say you were wrong, and then your theory goes out of the window. But, look, the point is, science works. Airplanes fly. Transistors get invented. Its not a beautiful but arbitrary fiction. Our scientific creations are somehow connected with the real world, and they are useful.

Same with Hamlet, says Veet.

Long pause. I rattle the ice in my coke. The plastic cup is so thin I can feel the ice bump against my fingers. I can hear the people behind us talking and laughing. Guess I tuned it out before. I turn back to Veet.

Well, its interesting to hear mysticism isn’t what I thought. Don’t get trapped by the words, keep connected to the physical world. Thats cool. But then, so what ? This doesn’t seem deep. Clear some clutter from your mind and its kinda obvious.

Exactly, says Veet.

The sun is coming through the window. The light of day is like a block of glass. Everything is the same as before.

One Response to Waking Up on the Cosmic Express

  1. […] wishy washy mysticism, with the odd bit of quantum mechanics thrown in. Well, as you will see from some of my posts, while I am vaguely antagonistic to Western religions, I find Eastern mysticism very interesting, […]

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