Issues Magazine

Some Adventures with the Spirits of Science

By Hiram Caton

Who and where we are, and where we might be going, are questions that have excited many explorations by both scientists and spiritualists.

Science becomes holistic again and rediscovers soul, and theology, moved by ecumenical forces, begins to realise that Gaia is not to be subdivided for academic convenience … James Lovelock, What Is Gaia?

A vivid moment of my childhood was the shock that an entire city called Hiroshima was destroyed by a single bomb. Pictures of an awesome, perfectly symmetrical mushroom cloud saturated the media. In conversation the grown-ups wondered about the many tens of thousands of civilians vapourised by the instant release of the new force. They approved the awesome deed because it brought a long, destructive war to an end.

Yet anxiety haunted their joy: had we created power that lay beyond our wisdom? Is our bomb not a threat to ourselves? Had brilliant scientists created Frankenstein?

The anxiety swelled to a prevailing feeling in the years after the war. Instead of peace, the world fell into the grip of the Cold War of the Soviet Bloc versus the Free World, each threatening the other with mass annihilation.

Science was again paramount in the drama. The Hiroshima bomb was based on nuclear fission, in which uranium is split into lighter elements, thereby releasing energy.

But a new bomb fused lighter elements into heavier elements. It was called the hydrogen bomb, and its destructive energy was 1000 times greater than the Hiroshima “device”.

A test in the Bikini Atoll in 1954 vapourised several islands and created a mile-wide crater in the lagoon floor. Just one bomb. Imagine a nuclear war, with hundreds of these items dropped on our cities. There are no words for it.

In the post-war period there have been many explorations of hitherto unrecognised human spirituality, often in tandem with science. One such exploration is the discovery of the “mind-expanding” effects of recreational drugs. The discovery wasn’t the drugs themselves, of course, but the idea that new dimensions of our humanity might be found in these exotic spaces using Hindu practice (yoga) and incorporating free sexuality.

An idea emerging from this approach was that the entire universe is “God”, and that evolution is the way that humans may achieve “superconsciousness”. The idea found a broad response among students who rebelled against war, racism, corporate America and middle class values depicted in Mike Nichols’ 1968 film The Graduate.

In the following year there were two culture-bending events. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was an icon of the counter-culture from the moment it began. Rock bands did their gig and 80,000 hippie youths flaunted love, liquid sexuality and drug ecstasy. Just months later the nationwide Moratorium Peace March, calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam, was supported by millions of protesters wearing black armbands.

Among the middle class values repudiated at Woodstock was indifference to environmental damage inflicted by heedless industrial expansion. The people had absorbed the meditations of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which became a bestseller on its publication in 1962. Carson combined the talents of scientist and artist, and admonished: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe around us, the less taste we shall have for destruction”. She was particularly concerned about the spread of toxic chemicals by industrial waste discharges, and even the use of the synthetic insecticide DDT to combat malaria. She was not the first to ponder a transformation of our relation to science and its industrial offspring. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) are but two of many expressions of the environmental philosophy.

After Carson perhaps the most influential statement is James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), which argued that the Earth can be understood as a single living organism in which all species and living individuals are inter-related. The Gaia hypothesis was quickly absorbed by the environmental movement, which by that time was the largest and most influential category of non-government organisation.

Now that climate change control has become the world’s top priority, an environmentally driven reconceptualisation of the relation between science and the human spirit is on the agenda. The Rudd government’s emphasis on secondary school education suggests the possibility of integrating environmental thinking into public affairs.

The year 1969 hosted yet another event that stimulated a rethink of the relation between science and spirit. On 20 July, astronaut Neil Armstrong dismounted from the lunar module Eagle and declared to countless television viewers around the world: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”. The leap had been imagined a century before in Jules Verne’s science fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon. But now the Soviets and Americans were racing to “conquer space”, and also (perhaps not incidentally) to create the ultimate weapons system.

One idea linking space science with the spirit was “contact” with intelligent beings “out there”. It’s not a new idea. The architects of the scientific worldview (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton) believed that one or more of the planets was inhabited by intelligent beings. By the time of the Moon landing, science fiction was replete with interactions between ourselves and exotic creatures from distant galaxies.

The television series Star Trek hit the screen in 1966. It was a smash hit and quickly grew into a cult phenomenon. Alien civilisation was also a theme for computer and video games, novels and a Las Vegas attraction set two centuries hence, after humanity has replaced its ancient vices by altruism and has formed the United Federation of Planets with creatures like themselves. But since not all extraterrestrials are good guys and gals, the Federation is embroiled in struggles that characterise current human affairs: war and peace, dictatorship, racism, sexism, human rights and more.

Contemporary with Star Trek was the collaboration of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick to produce the epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had just been released. It was a black comedy exploring the insanity of the nuclear war threat.) Thematic in 2001 is the interaction between the crew of Discovery One, bound for Jupiter, and the supercomputer, HAL 9000, which performs all mission tasks. HAL can talk and mimic emotions, so he is a virtual human that the crew treat as an equal. Yet HAL knows that humans think of him as a tool. This he comes to resent since the crew depend on him entirely and are, HAL comes to believe, irrelevant to the mission: the tool is superior to the toolmaker. HAL therefore kills the crew except for one, Dr Bowman, who evades death and disconnects HAL’s higher brain functions to save himself. Yet he is doomed because without HAL the mission is doomed.

Kubrick’s exploration of our problematic interaction with technology is a major theme of science fiction. But the computer is special: as “artificial intelligence” it poses the lure, and menace, of our own “uploading” to a higher plane of “evolution”. What was a fictional adventure in 2001 has now become a major activity: the creation of a “global brain” connecting all of us in a vast web of communication.

Star Trek took account of the seemingly insurmountable obstruction to space travel – the vast distances together with a maximum speed (the speed of light) seem to assure that anything beyond planetary exploration remains fantasy. But the Starfleet is equipped with “warp drive”, or Faster Than Light propulsion, enabling its ships to transit vast space.

This fiction converted into a scientific research project in 1994 when Miguel Alcubierre, a Mexican physicist, published equations for the physics of a real warp drive. Weird as it seems, NASA responded positively to the model and set up its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) Project ((www.grc.nasa.gov/www/bpp/).

Warp drive is closely associated with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Some astronomers say that SETI is a lollipop to encourage taxpayers to support its ambition to “conquer space”, the Mars mission being next in line. To appreciate the implausibility, on present technology, consider the following scenario devised by the Danish astronomer Rasmus Bjørk. We launch eight space probes travelling one-tenth the speed of light (1.8 million km/h). Each probe launches eight sub-probes. This operation would need 100,000 years to explore a region of the Milky Way containing a mere 40,000 stars – a long time for a miniscule portion of space. If we expand the probe to include about five times as many star/planetary systems in our galaxy, the probes would need about 10 billion years to explore but 4% of the Milky Way’s stars (http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0701238v1).

Here we encounter a paradox. Ours is but one of billions of galaxies containing countless stars, some of which may have habitable planets with intelligent life. Yet the time required for signal transmission makes communication. But so great is the belief in “contact” that NASA conducts a project on the search for habitable planets (wherever they might be). The guru of this faith is the NASA scientist Carl Sagan, who wrote the bible of the faith with his novel, Contact. It was made into a film of the same title starring Jodie Foster as a sceptical astronomer who morphs into a believer whose faith is confirmed by an encounter with ETs – all in a time line of less than a year.

But let us return to our solar system. NASA hopes for a manned mission to Mars in two decades. The practical parameters are awesome. The journey would require 300 days (compared with 3 days to reach the Moon), and the mission will last for 3 years. Since the human body can’t endure weightlessness beyond about 100 days, an on-board g-force device would be required. Food and excrement must be recycled. The crew would need to cope with long-term confinement, sexual abstinence and isolation. Fuel for the return journey must be manufactured on Mars from its hydrogen and oxygen.

Nevertheless, the mission has been authorised by President Bush, at the urging of NASA and with the strong support of the National Space Society, a non-government organisation whose members are the lead congregation of true believers. The evangel is, as Carl Sagan expressed it, that “there is a planet-wide hunger for myths, images and dreams that reflect our radically altered sense of who, where and when we are … and where we might go and who we might become” (www.carlsagan.com). Sounds like a secular effort to salvage something of traditional providence.

The 19th century was replete with efforts to find a new spirituality that resolved the tensions between science and religion. At one extreme were the atheists, anarchists and nihilists demanding abolition of religion. One outcome was creation of the first-ever atheist government by Vladimir Lenin. At the other end was the Vatican’s reaction, which peaked in the dogma of Papal Infallibility (1870).

In between lay many endeavours to recast science and religion to remove their hard edges. Science need not reduce the soul to a switchboard of nerve cells, nor treat living nature only as an object for engineering clever new products. Religion need not be preached as a crusade against infidels; let it be thought of as dedication to nurturing the wholeness of the self.

A special event in this drama was the creation of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. The latest achievements of science, industry and commerce were on display at the Exhibition. The Parliament included representatives of many religions, including Roman Catholicism, atheist Jains, and the newly emerged evolutionist movement, Monism.

The lectures typically expounded the teachings of the speaker’s faith in a manner that highlighted their universality and inclusiveness. They also emphasised compatibility with science when science is understood as a religious revelation, as it were. Religiously inspired bigotry and violence were commonly denounced.

When the Parliament celebrated its centennial in 1993, it endorsed an extensive ethics for our global culture. Love, compassion, solidarity and generosity are at the core. Hate, bigotry and violence are adjured. Affiliation with other living species is affirmed and with it repudiation of the conquest-of-nature temper of science, together with its industrial and commercial despoliation of the environment. Here is a sample statement:

We consider humankind our family. We must strive to be kind and generous. We must not live for ourselves alone, but should also serve others, never forgetting the children, the aged, the poor, the suffering, the disabled, the refugees, and the lonely. No person should ever be considered or treated as a second-class citizen, or be exploited in any way whatsoever. There should be equal partnership between men and women. We must not commit any kind of sexual immorality. We must put behind us all forms of domination or abuse.
(www.weltethos.org/dat_eng/index3_e.htm)

The 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions will convene in Melbourne on 3–9 December 2009. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend. 2009 happens also to be the bicentenary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.

This expression of religious spiritualism is at odds with the aggressive, evolution-inspired atheism highly visible today. Religion is root of all evil and must be expunged, we are admonished; only then will the world find peace. As I’ve mentioned, this idea was strongly pressed in the 19th century, not least by those who, like Thomas Huxley, deemed Darwin’s theory to be the crown of scientific secularism. From that perspective, Huxley viewed criticism as “Darwinophobia” and declared that “it is a horrid disease and I would kill without mercy any son of a ____ I found running loose with it”. Darwin, to whom Huxley wrote this war cry, warmly commended it and relished the shame that Huxley was about to inflict. He contributed to the conversion of a scientific theory into a quasi-religion bristling with militant adherents.

It is startling to observe these enlightened men endorsing the core of bigoted aggression: the ecstatic adrenalin hit that accompanies slaying the evil Other.

Might that be a great challenge leading humankind to a global ethic?

For details about the Melbourne Parliament, see http://www.parliamentofreligions2009.org/home.php