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Marcelo Gleiser | Oceans of the Unknown

Jim Stump and Marcelo Gleiser dive into the ocean of the unknown, discussing the nature of science and how we know what we know.


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aerial view of breaking ocean wave

Jim Stump and Marcelo Gleiser dive into the ocean of the unknown, discussing the nature of science and how we know what we know.

Description

Jim Stump and Templeton Award winning physicist, Marcelo Gleiser dive into the ocean of the unknown, discussing the nature of science and how we know what we know. Since he was a child, Gleiser has been fascinated by the biggest questions about life and existence. Those questions led him to physics and cosmology and he has spent a significant part of his career communicating science to the general public. While Gleiser considers himself a religious agnostic, he has consistently pushed back against the extreme scientism views that leave no place for religion. Jim and Marcelo find some disagreement about their understandings of faith, but find that a conversation across disagreement can be fruitful and productive.

  • Originally aired on October 24, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Marcelo:

You have to keep an open mind and not think that opening your mind to the unknown is a form of weakness of science. You know, you have to be able to separate the discourse between what science is doing and the way people feel about the unknown. Science is not here to kill God. Science is here to explain to the best that we can how nature operates. And this confusion of missions has only caused more strife, more polarization. And it’s really a disservice for science because that is not what science is about.

I’m Marcelo Gleiser. I am the Appleton professor of natural philosophy and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. My guest today is a Brazilian-born physicist now at Dartmouth University. Marcelo Gleiser has also been significantly involved in the public communication of science, and it is worth noting that he does so from the perspective of a religious agnostic. But unlike some of the most prominent science communicators, he is not hostile toward religion. In fact, Gleiser was named the Templeton Prize winner for 2019, which is awarded annually to a person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. 

As you’ll hear, we don’t entirely agree on his characterization of faith, and that leads to some headier philosophical parts of this conversation. BioLogos is intentionally and unapologetically committed to the Christian faith, but we’re happy to have dialogue with people from all sorts of backgrounds, so long as there is shared commitment to graciousness, and I think you’ll hear that coming through with Marcelo. Besides our philosophical engagement about the nature of faith, we also talk at some length about the nature of science, drawing from his 2015 book, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

These themes also are regularly addressed on Gleiser’s blog, which is called 13.8 and found at orbitermag.com. We’re grateful to our friends at Orbiter Magazine for connecting us to Marcelo. I think many in our audience would find their site helpful and engaging. There are links to it and to resources at BioLogos in the show notes. Now let’s get to the conversation.

Segment 1: Childhood to Physics, Unified Theory

Jim:

So you grew up on the beaches in Rio, Brazil. What do you remember from your childhood that inclined you to becoming a physics professor? 

Marcelo:            

Well, you know, even though Rio is a very big city with about 8 million people, it is very much squeezed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic tropical forest in the hills. So you can’t but look at nature everywhere you are. You know, so, and I happened to have been lucky enough to grow up a block away from Copacabana beach, the famous Copacabana beach. So my childhood was very much in touch with the ocean. And then my grandparents had a house in the mountains, which is sort of like a summer resort, about two hours from Rio, which was really very much exposed to beautiful forests and gardens and fruits and bugs and butterflies of all kinds. So I was very much part of that power of nature, you know, I couldn’t avoid but feeling it very deeply in me. So that was more like, oh, this guy’s going to become a biologist.

And, in fact, in the beginning I was very attracted to bugs. I had a bug collection, which I was very meticulous, you know, when I was eight or nine to kind of label it. And then later on in life I started to realize, and later on, I mean, as a teenager, that what I was really fascinated about weren’t so much the practical aspects of different kinds of life, but what is life and what is space and what is time? So more fundamental questions about the nature of reality. And that was really when I started to turn my eyes towards physics and astronomy and was also when I discovered Einstein when I was about 13 years old.

Jim:            

Good. So you’re a teenager, you discover Einstein. Can you connect some more of the dots along the path then that brought you to where you are today? What are some of the important moments, at least in retrospect, that were milestones or maybe even turning points for your work that led you to the kind of research and the questions you’re interested in now?

Marcelo:    

So even this encounter, this first encounter with Einstein, was really interesting. It turned out that because I have a Jewish background, when I was 13 years old, you have to do the Bar Mitsvah right? Which is sort of like the rite of passage where you supposedly become a man, right? I guess at 13 you’re a man 2000 years ago, not quite now anymore, but still. The point is that I got as a gift, an autographed picture of Einstein, which I still have because in 1925 he was going around the world and particularly the America’s to raise money for the Zionist cause. And he stopped in Rio on his trip and his hosts were my relatives. And, and it turns out that he took a picture with my, let’s see if I get this right, he was my step grand uncle.

So my step mom’s uncle. And he was his, literally his host in Rio and they took a picture together and then Einstein autographed the picture. And that thing was given to me when I was 13 because people already knew that I was kind of interested in nature and I was reading books about the world and about time and including Einstein’s book called Evolution of Physics. You know he actually wrote a popular science book called The Evolution of Physics which is a wonderful book. Anyway, that sort of prompted me to learn more about his work and about his life and what kind of person he was. And through his thinking, I realized that doing physics in part, some kinds of physics anyway, the more fundamental kinds of physics you actually could engage in conversations you could engage in questionings that were much older than science.

There were parts of philosophy and of religion, you know, what is the origin of the universe, what is the origin of matter and the origin of life? And I said, wow. So science is not just about, you know, building new technologies or rocket ships to go to the moon, which is all very wonderful and very important, but is also about engaging with these very fundamental questions about existence. And that was my moment of so to speak, conversion. And so by the second year of university I realized that I really needed to become a physicist. 

And then, for my PhD I went to King’s College in London and there I realized that I was very much… I already kind of had an idea about this, but I only realized for sure that I want to work in cosmology, in particular the early universe cosmology, which is really the study of the origin and early evolution of the universe. And that was a big turning point because in order for you to reconstruct, so to speak, the history of the universe from the very beginning, you have to understand that, well, very early on the universe was very hot, very dense and so there were no stars, there were no planets. All matter was broken down into it’s very fundamental constituents, you know, electrons and photons, which are the particles of light and a bunch of others called quarks, et cetera.

This sort of primordial soup was interacting very intensely. So in order to understand the early history of the universe, you actually had to understand high energy particle physics. So the micro physics becomes essential to understand the macro physics of the universe. So these two things are very much connected and I just loved that you had to do this. And the connection between the very small and the very large, and I’ve never turned around ever since. I mean this has been my professional path in terms of the kind of physics that I do is always try to relate the two. You know, the very small and the very large.

Jim:

So we hear at least in the popular dissemination of physics that there’s still a disconnect between the very small and the very large right? Of looking for a way to unify quantum physics with general relativity, the very small and the very large, are we making any headway on that?

Marcelo:    

So that’s a very good question. When I was doing my PhD in the 80s, that was the hot topic, right? I mean, how to do this. And lo and behold, it remains a very hot topic, although there is inklings of dissent going on right now in the sense that… So general relativity is the theory of gravity as we know it now. In a sense it describes how matter bends space and affects the flow of time. And it’s the theory that we use to describe very intense gravitational fields like close to a neutron star or a black hole, and all these measurements of gravitational waves from black hole collisions that have been done in the last couple of years. Those are all related to general relativity, right? And then you have the other three forces which are forces that affect matter, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces.     

So the dream has been that those four forces, the three that interact with matter at short distances—and gravity, which affects everything that has mass—are really different aspects of a one fundamental force—the unified field or the theory of everything we call it. Even Einstein spent the last 20 years of his life trying to find this so-called theory of everything or TOE. And unfortunately he didn’t. And nobody else has done it either. And even though I have worked on that when I was younger, as I evolved and matured as a scientist, I started to become more and more skeptical about this pursuit. And nowadays I have serious reservations that it’s a feasible idea.

Jim:      

Oh dear. So that means the science fiction movies that have huge spacecraft just sitting hovering above the ground might not ever work, right?

Marcelo: 

Those that seem to defy gravity, you mean? Wow. Yeah. Who knows?

Jim:              

They must have found a way to channel electromagnetism into repelling the force of gravity. Right? So that you could get your spacecraft to move without rockets. 

Marcelo:            

Yeah, yeah. Spacecraft magnetic levitation. Yeah. You could actually play with magnetic levitation. And so this thing goes deeper, right? I mean, these forces, in order to think of them as unified, you’re really looking at very early moments in the history of the universe or extremely short distances way, way, way, way beyond what we could possibly test with our current laboratories or even laboratories that we could dream of hundreds of years in the future. So if you’re going to find evidence for this sort of unification, it would have to be indirect evidence, right? And that is already a complication in itself, but it’s even more interesting than that. And that brings us to how we get to know reality. You know, which is, when we make a statement like there are four fundamental forces of nature, there seems to be a finality attached to that saying, and this is it folks, you know. 

Well that is wrong. You know, that is not how actually we should be thinking about this. What we should be thinking about is as far as we know, we now understand that there are four forces of, fundamental forces in nature that interact with particles of matter. And then you say are these the only forces that exist? And the honest answer is we don’t know. And we cannot know because as science advances and our technologies advance, we uncover new aspects of physical reality that oftentimes are not predictable. Meaning you just have big surprises. Nobody thought about the strong nuclear force. Nobody thought about the weak nuclear force until we actually discovered that that could be happening, you know, through experiments.

And so the point I’m trying to make is that five years down the road, we may discover, for example, that the Higgs particle, right, the famous Higgs particle, is actually not fundamental but is made of smaller particles that are glued together by a new kind of force. Or there’s a new kind of force related to dark matter, which is another big mystery. So the point is we cannot ever make a statement about how we know reality with any kind of finality simply because nature is and has always surprised us. Because nature is smarter than we are, so to speak. You know, we are catching up. 

[musical interlude]

Mulder:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum where we discuss each podcast episode. You can find a link in the show notes. But the forum goes far beyond just discussing podcast episodes, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Segment 2: Communicating Limits and Trustworthiness of Science

Jim:             

Besides your professional work as a physicist, you also spend a fair amount of time working for the public understanding of science, right? And you’ve written several books about science for the general market and you write regularly on your 13.8 blog, which can be found at the very nice orbiter site at orbitermag.com. What in this public understanding of science have you found most difficult about trying to communicate science?

Marcelo:      

Hmm, wow that’s a complicated question. Here’s the honest answer. When I talk about black holes and the big bang and the forces of nature and all these more presumably more esoteric topics, everybody eats it up and everybody seems to understand as much as you can understand through, you know, words…

Jim:

Without the math. 

Marcelo:

Yeah, without the math. So there’s always a compromise there, a translation that you’re making between what you learn from mathematics and how you translate that into words for people who are not schooled in this kind of math, which I don’t blame them. It’s a lot of work to get to know this stuff, you know? But you can learn a lot about the science without being a specialist. And that’s what we try to do. Me and all my colleagues that work on public understanding of science, to me what seems to be the hardest is when we try to talk about science which is much more on your face and people have a much bigger resistance to it.

For example, climate change. It is to me quite remarkable that in this day and age there are still so many people that seem to have a resistance to understanding, not to accept because you don’t need to accept, you can reason with us, that this is happening. And that is because there are all sorts of emotional issues related to climate change, which in a sense also appear when you deal with conversations of the interactions between science and religion. People become emotional when you talk about science and religion, people become emotional when you talk about climate change. And I think there is a disconnect really between the scientific information you are providing in both areas and the way people react to them. And the biggest challenge is to make sure that you can create an environment where you can have these conversations in a productive and constructive way where you’re really engaging different ways of thinking. But with a mind open enough to respect the results that come from our scientific enterprise, without sort of entrenchment, so to speak.

Jim:  

Yeah. So at BioLogos we face some of these difficulties and I wonder if you resonate with this at all because what you were just saying earlier about science not being able to give with certainty, some sort of final truths, too often sounds like, to many people’s ears that, well, science makes mistakes. It never quite gets it right. It’s going to change again in the future. And so to be able to communicate that that is, we might call the fallibility of science, on the one hand, how do you affirm on the other hand or communicate to them the trustworthiness of science that science really is figuring some things out and that we ought to have confidence in the results that it’s delivering to us.

Marcelo:  

That’s a great question Jim. And I’m really glad you asked. I think the first thing I would say is do you go into an airplane to go from New York to Los Angeles? Most planes don’t fall, right? Why do you do that? Well, because science works. I mean there is a huge amount of science that makes an airplane fly, right? A huge amount. From the production of the fuel to the whole engine and the whole navigation system. So clearly there are kinds of sciences that we can have tremendous trust in how it works. 

Where the notion comes in here is a much more subtle one is so yes, when we talk about Newton’s laws of motion or Newton’s law of gravity to describe how the earth goes around the sun, there is no question there. Okay. But every theory breaks down at a certain point. And so just to follow up on this example, Newton’s theory, which is wonderful, is all you need, if you want to send a rocket ship to Jupiter. It breaks down when light or when a planet is very close to a star because gravity there is so powerful that you need to use Einstein’s theory of general relativity. So it’s not that Newton’s theory is wrong, it’s just that it’s incomplete so that there are certain things that that theory cannot explain.

And people have to also understand that the word theory does not mean speculation. Oh, he’s just theorizing. No, when we say the theory of relativity, the theory of evolution, that means that this thing has been tested and confirmed beyond doubt. But that doesn’t mean that there are certain new phenomena that will pop up that will need different kinds of explanations. New theories they are more, let’s say they are more encompassing than the ones we had before. So it doesn’t mean that while we have learned about the world was wrong, although sometimes that does happen. You know what I mean, or not that we have learned, but people have had ideas about things. In reality, they were just wrong. 

Let’s not even go to Aristotle. Let’s talk about 19th century physics when people believed very much, I mean, all the top scientists believed that there was a medium that was needed to propagate light called the ether. That was the big thing. I mean, nobody doubted it and it was really hard for people to let go of that. And they did let go of that due to Einstein’s theory of relativity and to absolute lack of observational support for this so-called ether. So the beauty of science—and this is very, very important—the beauty of science, that even if there is something wrong going on, eventually it will be cleared up, right? So it’s a self-correcting narrative that we’re building about the world so that we make better and better sense of what we can see of the world. 

Jim:

So at this point I think it might be helpful to introduce the metaphor you use in your book The Island of Knowledge. So that island of knowledge, you, uh, take as a metaphor for the scientific knowledge that the more we learn, sometimes the more we realize there is to learn or the more we don’t know. Can you unpack that metaphor a little bit for us and, and what you meant by that?

Marcelo:     

Sure. So the idea is this. Let’s imagine that everything that we know about the world fits in an island, and that’s what I call the island of knowledge. This island of knowledge, of course, grows as we learn more about the world. We learn more about ourselves. So this is a growing island. Now, as with every other island, this island is also surrounded by an ocean. In this case, the island of knowledge is surrounded by the ocean of the unknown. The stuff we don’t know about the world. So you can think of science as this force that expands the island towards this ocean of the unknown. So that we know more and more about what’s out there. However, and this is the paradox of knowledge, is that as this island grows, the boundaries between what we know and what we don’t know also grow, which means that as we learn more about the universe, about matter, about the mind, we ask questions, we are able to ask new questions that we couldn’t even have thought about before.

For example, just to give an illustration of this, let’s think about the concept of life before and after the microscope. So in the late 1600s, the Dutch van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope and he realized that in a little drop of water, there are all of these invisible living creatures. They’re as alive as they can be even though we can’t see them. So there is an expansion of our sensory range of what we can see of the world in such a way that what we thought about life before and after changed profoundly, right? So this whole new kinds of questions about what is life, what are the limits of life? How small can life be? What are these little things? Can they do good things for us? Can they do bad things for us? All of these new questions became possible because of our expansion of knowledge. So that is what I mean by this paradox between the knowledge in the island and the unknown and how this boundary between the known and the unknown as it grows, it allows us to have new questions to look at.

Jim:    

Good. So then in the book you say you’re looking for a third way to understand the knowledge, the pursuit of knowledge, the accumulation of knowledge. You say you’re looking for a third way between scientism and supernaturalism. So what do you mean by scientism and by supernaturalism?

Marcelo:        

Right. So scientism would be that… the belief that science can conquer it all. That we will answer every question. All we need is time and funding, right? And that with enough money and enough time we are going to figure everything there is to figure out. Now that one was already shot down with this notion that we can never be final about anything in science because there’s always new phenomena that we are going to uncover as we explore more and more about physical reality. I mean it is a very, to me a very depressing thought to have this belief that at some point we’re going to figure everything out there is to figure about the world, you know. And that’s also very arrogant in my opinion. There is so much that we do not know.

Supernaturalism is, as the name says, that there are things which are above nature. And when people say above nature, you have to be very careful how you define this. Well, it’s something that cannot be explained through laws of causation in space and time. So, everything that we do in sciences, especially in the physical science, has do with one cause is going to cause an effect and we’re going to go and study that. And even if some of these are very strange, like there’s this thing in quantum physics called non locality. Where apparently two objects which are very far away from one another seems to react to the existence of one another almost instantaneously, at least faster than the speed of light.

Jim:   

This is the entanglement that we hear about sometimes.

Marcelo: 

Yes. The entanglement is actually what Einstein used to call the spooky action at a distance. Even though that is strange, it is not beyond nature, you know, is not defying what we understand of nature. So one thing is the mysterious, which is the stuff we don’t understand and perhaps our flirt with the mysterious is really what makes us wonder about all these things. The other thing is to say that there are things which are out there which do not operate within nature. So these are the two extremes.

Jim:             

So you wrote another recent blog post called Inexplicable, talking about the origins of the universe. And you say “Science remains the best way to make quantitative sense of the natural world. This should be incontestable. To accept that science has limits, simply means that we can understand nature only imperfectly. This understanding is extremely efficient when it comes to questions within scientific reach, such as planetary orbits, the role of antibiotics or global warming. But it reaches a hard wall when it faces the first cause.” Okay. So this I think might be an interesting topic to a lot of our listeners. So on the one hand address this from the perspective of scientism again, so maybe people like Lawrence Krauss or Stephen Hawking, that sounds like you’re distinguishing yourselves from in terms of the ability to give a purely scientific answer to that and the supernaturalism response on the other hand that says God made it and this is something that’s going to be intractable to our scientific methods. And then how does your third way approach this same kind of question?

Marcelo:   

Okay. So yes, I definitely distinguish myself from the views from Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and many other people who are defending scientism. And the reason is that going just quickly going back to the metaphor of the island of knowledge and the ocean of the unknown, I also place in this ocean of the unknown regions which I call the unknowables. And the unknowables are questions that you may ask, which are very reasonable questions, but you just cannot answer within our current understanding of what science is and how it operates. And as you pointed out, I think the mother of all questions which are unknowable, is the origin of the universe, right? And the point there is the following is that wait didn’t people didn’t people invent something called quantum cosmology that says that the universe came out of nothing as a quantum fluctuation and that explains everything. And the answer is absolutely does not, right? Because, for many reasons, first of all, people have to understand what a model is, right? And a model is really a very incomplete and simplified description of reality. 

It’s sort of like we scientists are map makers, you know, models are like maps. And maps, they serve a purpose, but they are very simplified compared to what they’re mapping, right? So if I want to go from Hanover, New Hampshire to Cleveland, Ohio, I’m going to follow a map and that’s going to tell me the roads that I need to take to go there. But it’s going to tell me very little about all the different kinds of environments that I’m going to go through. So it’s going to serve a purpose, but it’s not going to give me a complete description of anything

Jim:            

A map that gave you all the details would be pretty useless, right?

Marcelo:    

Exactly. A map that gave you all the details would have to be as big as what it’s mapping, which is kind of not a good map. So models are simplifications and so when people come up with models of the origin of the universe, which are mathematically and physically inspired, they’re very beautiful, they’re very compelling but incredibly simplified, you know, renditions of what is really going on. And so to say that that is an explanation for the beginning is to me just overstepping boundaries and is almost irresponsible because it’s really not what we’re doing. You know, we have to be able to have the humility to say that our scientific explanations, they are very useful in many, many kinds of situations. When it comes to the origin of the universe, they are just oversimplifications of things that we have no idea about. They are major extrapolations because we can’t even get close to those energy scales to know what’s going on there. So the first cause is really something that ties us in knots because we humans cannot step out of this box because this box is all that exists.

[musical Interlude]

Segment 3: The Unknowables

Jim:

Okay. So for many people in the BioLogos audience here, that kind of reasoning is particularly what leads them to at least thinking it’s justified to invoke something supernatural, something outside of the system of nature that’s required in order to get it all going. What’s your reaction to that mode of reasoning then?

Marcelo:     

I have tremendous respect for people of faith. Whatever faith that is, you know, I mean I think people should be free to speculate about how they want to believe in things that they don’t understand. As long as they don’t block out science, that’s very important. And if they are happy with that explanation, that’s fine. But on the other hand, that is really not an explanation, you know, that is just an act of faith. 

Jim:      

Could we say it’s not a scientific explanation, but it could still be a kind of explanation. Is there room, I guess what I’m asking is, is there room in your view to say there are other legitimate modes of explanation other than scientific explanations?

Marcelo:       

So explanation is a heavy loaded word. I would like to move away from it and say there are different ways of knowing. And to me, that’s better because that brings it more to a subjective realm than explanation seems very objective and very object oriented.

Jim:          

Empirical and tied to observations.

Marcelo:        

Exactly. And so to me, modes of knowing is better because… And in that case, sure. People may believe very deeply that there are certain questions about the world that science cannot touch and their faith touches. We just have to be very careful there because in theology there is this thing called the god of the gaps, which is the notion that what we don’t understand about the world God explains, you know, whatever God that is. And obviously as you know, in the history of science, God has been squeezed to very tight gaps indeed, because we have learned so much about the world. And so I would say that that is really not a very safe place to put your faith. And I have talked to many religious leaders about this from a Vatican cardinal to Friars and other leaders in different religions. And I would say that faith should not be anchored to unknowns like this. It should be anchored to unknowables in a sense that, you know, you should be really thinking about who you believe in or what you believe in not as a mechanism to explain things about the world, but a mechanism to deal with things you cannot explain.

Jim:  

Yeah. So that God of the gaps you refer to seems like it’s just treating God as another physical force. As something that could be understood scientifically as opposed to the unknown. So you made the distinction between the unknown that I assume you mean within the context of a scientific theory as opposed to the unknowable that is necessarily outside of all of that?

Marcelo:  

Right. And there is room for all of this. And so my third way is basically the idea that yes, there is Mystery with a capital M out there. It would be very presumptuous of us humans to think that with our minds we could uncover all of them. And so we need to embrace this mystery. And in a sense, science is a flirt with this mystery. And Einstein said something somewhat similar, perhaps not in so much detail, but he did say that the most profound emotion we can feel is this mysterious because it is the emotion that is at the origin, as the force that gives us the creativity in the arts, and in the sciences. So he brings them both together and whoever does not feel this power, this passion for the mysterious is as good as dead.

So these are his, his words. And I very much share that thought that we humans have this need to engage with things which are much bigger than we are, that transcend our boundaries of space and time. And that’s what gives us this beautiful dimension that most animals don’t have which is the transcendent and that is totally okay. And it’s okay to understand that there are things we cannot understand and to accept that and not use that as a deterrence, but use that as a goal so that we can engage more and more with what we don’t understand, which is to me one of the most exciting things that we can do as human beings.

Jim:      

Hmm. So if I, if I may ask you a little bit more about that, I read that you prefer to identify as a religious agnostic, making no claims one way or the other about the existence of God, isn’t that right? 

Marcelo:

Yes. 

Jim:

And so then this issue of transcendence though I find really, really fascinating. You’ve written a couple of blog posts, again, one about the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, another one about the Grand Canyon and sound like you’re a little frustrated or at least disappointed with the tourists who show up and just want to take selfies at those places. But you say instead, “there are those who are filled with a different kind of emotion as they step in and look up a mix of reverence and humility as they realize this building has been standing for over 800 years fulfilling its purpose as a portal to the sublime. The magic of the place is that it doesn’t take much to feel this way. Just a few minutes of silence and deeper contemplation.” That almost sounds like a religious impulse in you.

Marcelo:   

Yes. Good. Nothing wrong with religion. In fact, if you think of the word religion, right? So it comes from the Latin religare, which means to reconnect. And I think the way that most people in the West think about the word religion, religare, at least if you look at the Old Testament and the Bible is that well, you know, Adam and Eve were very happily with God in the Garden of Eden. And then of course Adam ate from the forbidden fruit and was kicked out and we disconnected with the divine that way. And religion is in a sense an effort to this reconnection, religare, with the divine. That’s the way I think of it. Now, if you instead read this as we humans live a very materialistic life, a very doubt worth and immediatist life, where all we care about is the immediate the kind of the obvious, the trivial, the material, and we kind of forgot our origins in nature and how we are completely and viscerally connected with the natural world. To me, the religare is the reconnection with nature. 

And so when I talk about the sublime it is really more a spiritual feeling. And when I talk about spirit, I don’t mean this immortal soul. I mean, this notion of again, spirit comes from inspire, from aspirare to breathe in, you know, this world that is out there, but it’s also in here. And this connection, this bridge between us and the sublime does not need to be supernatural. It needs… it can very well be just through the natural world where we came from, the big universe and of course the forest and the nature around us. So it is this connection that I think that is so necessary nowadays and that we are losing it. And because we are losing it, we are also losing the way we relate to our planet and to the kinds of life in it. So this is all connected and perhaps we do need to reconnect to nature in a much deeper and religious way than we have been so far.

Jim:       

Jerry Coyne is a biologist, strident atheist, falls under that category of scientism that you were talking about earlier. He calls you a scientist who enables religion, saying that your critique of atheism is unfair. He’s not claiming with certainty that there is no God. Just claiming that there’s no evidence and therefore it’s the reasonable thing to conclude that there is no God and it’s just like the hypothesis that there are little green men living on Mars and that we’ve examined this pretty carefully and can science make the confident claim that there are no green men on Mars? Probably. And so I wonder how you might respond to him about this question of the existence of God, if that’s any different and how that perhaps connects to this sublime and religious impulse you have. And I guess I’m just giving you the opportunity to respond to his claim that you’re a scientist who enables religion,

Marcelo:       

Right. So I’m very proud to be that kind of scientist actually. And I would say it’s very obvious that the evidence of absence is not absence of evidence. So yes, there is no evidence and that’s why I don’t call myself a religious person in the more fundamental, you know, like Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Muslim. But on the other hand I have the humility to accept that there is a lot that we don’t know about the world. And so I pronounce myself an agnostic just like Thomas Huxley and Bertrand Russell and a bunch of other people have in a sense that I don’t see the evidence but I also cannot claim with any certainty. And that is the jump that Jerry and all the radical atheists are taking, which is to say that because there’s no evidence then I can affirm there isn’t anything.

Well you can’t do that because there’s also no evidence for a new particle of nature until we discover it. And so you have to keep an open mind and not think that by opening your mind to the unknown is a form of weakness of science. You have to be able to separate the discourse between what science is doing and the way people feel about the unknown. Science is not here to kill God. Science is here to explain to the best that we can, how nature operates. And this confusion of missions is what guys like him and Richard Dawkins and a bunch of others have been doing for a long time. And that to me has only caused more strife, more polarization. And it’s really a disservice for science because that is not what science is about. 

Jim:     

And that’s a tremendous service I think that you’ve provided to expose some of those in that new atheist camp and the excess of their claims that might make for good newspaper headlines but aren’t really grounded in the reality of the scientific process in that way.

Marcelo:         

They’re selling more books than I am, unfortunately.

Jim:      

I would be remiss though from my community of origin here that is committed to the Christian faith, if I weren’t to press a little bit further on this question of evidence and I wonder how you might respond to this, when you use the phrase the unknowable for supernatural or for that which is beyond scientific inquiry. Cause it’s at least I think a credible position in the history of science that claims the rise of modern science itself was significantly influenced by this Judeo-Christian worldview that takes the caprice out of nature where many other religions had the gods being responsible for all, for the weather, for all these things that happen and instead of an impersonal and perhaps unknowable ultimate reality, this Judeo-Christian worldview has a personal, and even I might say, a knowable creator God. Does that stand in some tension with what you said or is yours a different point about the knowable versus the unknowable?

Marcelo:         

Okay, I’m no theologian or biblical scholar, but if you look at the Bible, you see something quite interesting, which is, in the beginning, especially in the Old Testament, God was very present. I mean, he was there all the time, right? He was talking to everybody who was appearing as a burning bush. He was doing all sorts of stuff. He was sending plagues. He was… And then when we jumped from the Old Testament to the New Testament, something funny happens, because it’s not God anymore it’s now the son of God. God does not appear at all. And so you can say that there’s a trend of I wouldn’t… There is a book called The Hidden Face of God in the sense that, it’s exploiting precisely this idea that this God that was first present and became absent, becomes more and more of an abstraction.

And how different is this sort of abstraction to a more pantheistic way of thinking that God is everywhere in nature. Like Spinoza for example. I don’t know how to answer that. And I think there are lots of very reasonable, very intelligent people that believe in this so-called natural religion where nature itself should be called the new sacred. And because we are part of it, we are also sacred, but not just us, but everybody that exists in the universe. And so it’s kind of almost taking away this kind of dynamic action prone God to say that nature is a manifestation of something which some may call the divine or others may just call the sublime to take away the notion of a doing, a force that is actually operating. You know, I think the difference between divine and sublime is that the divine is something that is asking for some kind of God intervention or gods.

And the sublime is something that is producing some sense of transcendence or some sense of inspiration that takes us away from our normal boundaries of space and time. So I don’t know how to respond directly to your question because I think there are so many different colors of faith even within Christianity itself, where God is so many different things. You know, in one of them, you have saints, in the other ones don’t. And so it’s very hard to position yourself in that. But if the expression of God’s power is the vitality of nature and the different kind of beauty that we see in it and the way we need to connect with it in some sort of very deep and visceral way, then as Einstein said too, the impetus to describe the way nature operates through science is also a form of religious devotion.

Jim:              

Yeah. So I guess I’m just trying to capture some of what the faith communities that I’m familiar with and I’m part of, might react to in calling God the unknowable, where evidence is a tricky thing, right? Evidence is rarely completely objective and not open to interpretation, but for many in this community to say that God is unknowable, they would react with, what are you talking about? I know God, God knows me. I have this relationship. Are those kinds of attitudes you think just projections or is there some way, is reality ambiguous and tricky enough in your view that that can legitimately be called evidence for their beliefs? Evidence for holding to a worldview that includes a personal creator God, not just an abstract force that’s out there somewhere.

Marcelo:     

Well, I always thought that the power of faith is precisely that it does not need evidence. For me the word evidence immediately brings science into the game. I mean, how do we look for evidence in the natural world? Well, we make experiments, observations, we collect data, we analyze it. I don’t think that’s what people of faith is talking about when they say, I have evidence for God. And I’m a hundred percent sure that you agree with that. They’re talking about something very different, something very personal. And honestly, again, you know, if to them, this is how they feel better about life, how they feel better about the world and about how they relate to the issues that they have. Great, who am I to say that you shouldn’t believe that way? You shouldn’t live your life that way because that’s not consistent with the scientific method. I mean, that’s just outrageous. And that’s exactly what, not all the atheists, but the radical atheists that we mentioned think they actually have the right to say such things.

But on the other hand, for something to exist. And this is to me a very complicated conversation, but for something to exist, it needs to manifest itself within space and time. If you say that something exists but it’s not manifest within space and time, then I don’t know what it means by exist. You know, I would say it’s a belief. It’s a faith. It exists outside space and time, meaning it’s not palpable, it’s not concrete. And that is beyond the reach of science or any kind of scientific qualifications.

Jim:        

Well, that’s a good place for us to end our conversation, I think. And let me say again that I appreciate so much the work you’ve done in counteracting these extreme scientism views that we hear too often and for enabling religion, that’s truly a service that you’ve provided. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Marcelo:      

My pleasure. Thanks Jim.

Credits

Mulder:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes. We love hearing from you and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

marcelo gleiser in front of chalk board

Marcelo Gleiser

Marcelo Gleiser a professor of natural philosophy physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a frequent contributor to the 13.8 blog at Orbiter Magazine and his most recent book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. Gleiser was named the Templeton Prize winner for 2019, which is awarded annually to a person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.


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