Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Scientific Purpose

A sample of the book I'm reading.  Jane Goodall is one of my personal heros, and she has been in the spotlight again recently because of a children's book this man has created honoring her life and work.  There's also an homage to her through a line of kid's clothes by BabySoy called Janey Baby.  Most people know her as a scientist and "chimp champion", but little know of the need for religion in her life.  The book she's written called Reason for Hope is an exploration of the melding together of her religious life and her work life. 

 How sad that so many people seem to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive.  Science has used modern technology and modern techniques to uncover so much about the formation and the development of life-forms on Planet Earth and about the solar system of which our little world is but a minute part.  In recent times astronomers have charted the atmosphere of planets and identified new solar systems; neurologists have learned astounding truths about the workings of our brains; physicists have divided the atom into smaller and smaller particles; a sheep has been cloned; a little robot has been sent to wander about on the surface of Mars; the whole miraculous world of cyberspace has been opened up.  Truly the human intellect is awesome.  Alas, all of these amazing discoveries have led to a belief that every wonder of the natural world and of the universe- indeed, of infinity and time- can, in the end, be understood through the logic and the reasoning of a finite mind.  And so, for many, science has taken the place of religion.  It was not some intangible God who created the universe, they argue, it was the Big Bang.  Physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology can explain the start of the universe and the appearance and progress of life on earth, they say.  To believe in God, in the human soul, and in life after death is simply a desperate and foolish attempt to give meaning to our lives.
But not all scientists believe thus.  There are quantum physicists who have concluded that the concept of God is not, after all, merely wishful thinking.  Physicists John C. Eccles, although he felt that questions regarding the human soul were matters beyond science, warned scientists that they should not give definite negative answers when asked about the continuity of the conscious self after death.  There are those exploring the human brain who feel that no matter how much they discover about his extraordinary structure it will never add up to a complete understanding of the human mind- that the whole is, after all, greater than the sum of the parts.  The Big Bang theory is yet another example of the incredible, the awe-inspiring ability of the human mind to learn about seemingly unknowable phenomena in the beginning of time.  Time as we know it, or think we know it.  But what about before time?  And what about beyond space?  I remembered so well how those questions had driven me to distraction when I was a child.  
I lay flat on my back and looked up into the darkening sky.  How sad it would be, I thought, if we humans ultimately were to lose all sense of mystery, all sense of awe.  If our left brains were utterly to dominate the right so that logic and reason triumphed over intuition and alienated us absolutely from our innermost being, from our hearts, our souls.  I watched as, one by one, the stars appeared, the brightest first and then,as the sun's light faded, more and more until the sky was studded with brilliant, flashing points of light.  Albert Einstein, undeniably one of the greatest scientists and thinkers of our time, had sustained a mystical outlook on life that was, he said, constantly renewed from the wonder and humility that filled him when he gazed at the stars.
From at least Neanderthal times, and probably before, humans everywhere have worshipped their gods.  And religious, spiritual beliefs have been among the strongest and most persistent of all human convictions, sometimes enduring through half a century or so of intense persecution.  The tortures endured by the great Christian martyrs had haunted my imagination as a child.  The indigenous peoples in many parts of the world had maintained their belief in the Creator, the Great Spirit, and continued to practice their religion secretly despite the risk of horrid punishments if found out.  Belief in God had survived forty-five years of the communist regime in Eastern Europe.
As I continued to lie gazing at the star-studded sky, reluctant to move inside, I thought about the young man I had met during a six-week tour I had just finished.  He had a holiday job, working as a bellhop in the big hotel where I was staying in Dallas, Texas.  It was prom night, and I wandered down to watch the young girls in their beautiful evening gowns, their escorts elegant in their tuxedos.  They seemed so happy, so carefree, their lives ahead of them.  As I stood there, thinking about the future- theirs, mine, the world's I heard a diffident voice:
"Excuse me, Doctor- aren't you Jane Goodall?"  The bellhop was very young, very fresh-faced.  But he looked worried.  Partly because he felt that he should not be disturbing me, but partly, it transpired, because his mind was indeed troubled.  He had a question to ask me.  So we went and sat on some back stairs, away from the glittering groups and hand-holding couples, and talked about God and creation.
He had watched all my documentaries, read my books.  He was fascinated, and he thought that what I did was great.  But I talked about evolution.  Was I religious?  Did I believe in God?  If so, how did that square with evolution?  Had we really descended from chimpanzees?  All these questions, asked with frank sincerity and genuine concern.
And so I tried to answer him as truthfully as I could, to explain my own beliefs.  I told him that no one thought humans had descended from chimpanzees.  I explained that I did believe in Darwinian evolution and told him of my time at Olduvai, when I had held the remains of extinct creatures in my hands.  That I had traced, in the museum, the various stages of, say, a horse:  from a rabbit-sized creature that gradually, over thousands of years, changed, became better and better adapted to its environment and eventually was transformed into the modern horse.  I told him I believed that millions of years ago there had been a primitive, apelike, humanlike creature, one branch of which had gone on to become the chimpanzee, another branch of which had eventually led to us.
"But that doesn't mean I don't believe in God," I said.  And I told him something of my beliefs, and those of my family.  How my grandfather had been a Congregational minister.  I told him that I had always thought that the description of God creating the world in seven days might well have been an attempt to explain evolution in a parable.  In that case, each of the days would have been several million years.
"And then, perhaps, God saw that a living being had evolved that was suitable for His purpose.  Homo sapiens had the brain, the mind, the potential.  Perhaps," I said, " that was when God breathed the Spirit into the first Man and the first Woman and filled them with the Holy Ghost."
The bellhop was looking considerably less worried.  "Yes, I see," he said. "That could be right.  That does seem to make sense."
I ended by telling him that it honestly didn't matter how we humans got to be the way we are, whether evolution or special creation was responsible.  What mattered and mattered desperately was our future development.  Were we going to go on destroying God's creation, fighting each other, hurting the other creatures of His planet?  Or were we going to find ways to live in greater harmony with each other and with the natural world?  That I told him, was what was important.  Not only for the future of the human species, but also for him, personally.  He would have to make his own decision.  When we finally parted his eyes were clear and untroubled, and he was smiling.

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