Science and Spirit

by Steve Silberman

science and spirit


For the December 2002 issue of Wired magazine (10.12), I spoke with several notable scientists, technologists, and writers about their spiritual lives. Because of space limitations, some of these statements had to be cut or shortened for publication in the magazine. Please enjoy them here in their entirety.


Oliver Sacks

Author of Uncle Tungsten and Awakenings

There is a tendency toward complexity and self-organization in the universe that occurs at many levels, from the formation of crystals to the emergence of life and the evolution of multicellular organisms. I’m not sure why this is so, though I’m very sure that one mustn’t think in terms of design.

I think that consciousness is an evolutionary development which had to happen, or would have tended to happen, in the interest of more integration and control in relation to the environment. This is not the result of some divine infusion, but a natural development of an ecological sort.

But I like the language of religion and the notion of blessing. I think that feelings of awe, of the holy -- the sublime, the mysterious, the numinous, the uncanny — are feelings which all of us have and need to have. I would regard myself as very impoverished if I didn’t. But I can’t think in terms of divine agency. I’m an atheist, and I’m becoming more and more atheistic as I grow older. But there is something to which one feels thankful.


Roald Hoffman

Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, Cornell University
Nobel laureate in chemistry, 1981
Author of Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Religious Tradition

I'm not an observant Jew, but I'm very Jewish. I'm a survivor of the Holocaust, a member of the last generation of Hitler's gifts to America.

I grew away from religion after a bad experience with religious education. I'm an agnostic, if not an atheist. But I have a lot of respect for religious tradition, which has grown with time. And I have a feeling for ritual. I feel something in Afro-Brazilian possession rites, and in a Catholic mass, as much as I do at Jewish New Year's services. I think there is one set of neural pathways down which religious ideas, spiritual ideas, and science flow. Both science and religion come out of the same essential curiosity about the world. So here I am, inconsistent:  an agnostic scientist who feels close to my religious tradition.

I feel a sense of participation in something greater than myself -- something sublime in the old sense of the word -- when I see a beautiful molecule. There's real spiritual value in understanding how DNA works.


Lynn Margulis

Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Author of Early Life and Acquiring Genomes

I see religion in an evolutionary context, as something necessary for human happiness or existence. You need to get a large enough group of people together to bring down a woolly mammoth or a large buck. What’s our religion today? Rock concerts. Of course there are spiritual phenomena, but I think you can examine them with science, with the limited tools of our senses and extensions of our senses.

The tendency to complexify in the universe is a consequence of thermodynamics. When you have an immense flow of energy, as you have with sunlight streaming into cold space, systems to dispel that energy will emerge and evolve spontaneously.

I’m from a Jewish family, but my personal religion is what I practiced today: I swam nude across a pond.


William Phillips

Atomic and optical physicist, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Nobel laureate in physics, 1997

I grew up in the same tradition that I’m in today, the United Methodist Church. I was interested in science from a very young age. By the time I was ten years old, I knew I wanted to be a physicist. At the same time, I was going to church and Sunday school, and I never had the impression that there was a conflict. I was not told to take the scriptures literally. I was encouraged to ask what lessons were being taught in those stories.

I like Freeman Dyson’s image that science and religion look at the same reality through different windows. Both views are valuable. Let’s say that you want to make moral choices about whether certain procedures involving recombinant DNA are things that you ought to do. I think you have to understand both the science and the moral background — which, if you’re a religious person, comes from your religious tradition -- in order to make proper choices.

I feel a sense of awe in my scientific work every day, because the things I learn about how orderly the universe is are so astounding and so beautiful. For me, that’s a kind of religious feeling. I believe people are called to the sciences to study what the universe is like, both to reveal its beauty and to learn things that might be useful to others, which is a holy purpose. I’m an ordinary person with ordinary religious faith doing ordinary science.


Jeremy Hayward

Senior teacher at Dechen Chöling
Author of Letters to Vanessa: Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World

I fell in love with quantum physics while reading a book that suggested the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine. Working on my Ph.D. at Cambridge in theoretical physics, I found that there was little interest in such discussions. I moved into molecular biology at MIT with the hope of understanding the nature of life. But we weren't looking at life. We were looking at dead things -- kill the cell and see what's there.

So I started reading in psychology and the study of consciousness, and that's where I met Buddhism. And there it was: "What is mind? If you want to know, look at your own mind." Buddhism has a vast store of understanding of how the mind works. Buddhism is about perception: "What is reality? What is true and what isn't true about our perceptions?" A lot of leading edge science is about this as well.

From the Buddhist point of view, mind is identified with space itself. Space is not just the dead, empty, lifeless container that Newton invented. It's the source of life and the source of awareness. Buddhism is an investigation of what it means to be fully human. In that sense, it's close to the aspirations of the great scientists.


Robert Wright

Visiting scholar, University of Pennsylvania
Author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal

I see hallmarks of overarching purpose in the process of both biological and cultural evolution. I think natural selection was likely to create an intelligent, self-conscious, morally rich species capable of reflective choice. And I think cultural evolution has been very likely to get us to where we are today, which is on the verge of global social organization, but still at a point where we have the possibility of blowing the whole thing up, or ushering in an era of peace and order. Which of those routes we take as a species depends on the degree to which we’re able to cast aside some of the egocentric moral biases that were built into us by biological evolution.

I would urge everyone to read the headlines through this prism. We are now at a juncture that organic life has been moving towards for a long time. The intimations of higher purpose I see are optional. Some people look at the directionality that I see in the evolution of life since bacteria and see it as a compelling story, but don’t care whether the story has an author. That’s fine. I was raised religiously, so I’m somebody who likes to think that there might be a higher purpose. That may not mean that there’s a personal God up there. There are lots of ways that a goal can be imparted to a system. Natural selection is a great example of that.


Ursula Goodenough

Molecular biologist, Washington University
Author of The Sacred Depths of Nature

I call myself a nontheistic religious naturalist. I neither believe nor disbelieve in God. I have a covenant with mystery. I acknowledge there are questions that I don’t have an answer to. What I’m in awe of is that nature is out there doing her thing. That I’m able to figure out a little piece of it is a privilege.


Kenneth Miller

Cell biologist, Brown University
Author of Finding God in Darwin’s Universe

After presenting his scheme for how the universe fit together, Pierre-Simon Laplace, one of the great early cosmologists, was challenged by Napoleon, "I notice that there is no mention of God in your system."

"Sire, I have no need of the hypothesis," Laplace replied. I think for many scientists, the concept of God’s non-existence is supported by precisely that reason. They don’t find it necessary to postulate the existence of a supernatural force to explain something that we will never be able to explain scientifically — a gap in our knowledge that demands the entrance of the Almighty.

I don’t need to postulate the existence of God in order to relieve scientific uncertainty, or make myself feel better, or assure myself that there is someone minding the cosmic store. But to me, what we have learned about how nature works seems incomplete in the absence of a deity.

We live in a universe where things really do make sense. The fact that things fit together so well in nature indicates to me that there is an intelligence behind it. That’s the core of my own belief. My own sense of the world, my place in it, and my own sense of how things work make better sense if I do include the hypothesis of God. To me, the hypothesis of God is the completing hypothesis.


Jawad Khaki

Corporate VP, Windows Networking and Communications, Microsoft

When the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, it was full of questions about creation: "Have you thought about the day? Have you thought about the night?" Working in technology helps me understand the essence of creation, and how simple things are.

I was born a Muslim, but I really only discovered my Islam after I came to America. There are atheists and there are people who believe in God, but we can all agree that there are laws of creation, and that we have to submit to those laws. Submission to these laws is Islam.

The challenge that we face now is forging connections with every human being on Earth. Each one of us has a responsibility to build a global community in which we have respect, not just tolerance, for one another, and to learn from diversity. What I’m working on is real-time communication — instant messaging, voice, and video. To be able to create technologies that enable people to get connected is a wonderful blessing.


Larry Wall

Open-source programmer, the father of Perl

Too often we try to understand God from the outside in. We imagine God creating the world with lightning bolts, or colliding worlds, or big bangs, or quantum fluctuations. And I suppose God has worked with all those artistic media at one time or another.

But it's also important to understand God from the inside out. God would much rather improve your life than impress you with tricks. (The tricks are just there to get your attention.) In fact, the cosmic Author's most creative work is within the hearts of his creatures. Oddly, that subtle tweaking of the universe produces people who then help create the universe. In my own particular case, I created the Perl programming language to enable other people to create, and to build a culture in which programmers could joyfully exercise their own free choices. I think that's pretty cosmic.



Wired, issue 10.12, December 2002.