Seeking the Nature of Reality

Science has made such progress in the last few centuries that it seems little true mystery remains. In fact, it seems probable that most of the fundamental principles have been worked out. It may be that we are approaching the point of merely refining details of the few clouds remaining in our otherwise clear understanding of the universe. Application of science has changed the world in dramatic ways, illustrating a deep mastery of knowledge.

This success seems to preclude the ancient perspectives of religion and spirituality. Things the ancients wondered about, that they couldn’t understand and so attributed to gods, are now the stuff of high school science lessons. There seems no need for God in a world increasingly ruled by use of this knowledge.

But it’s easy to overstate this. Our ability to manipulate the world is not the same thing as understanding it at its most fundamental level. Just because we have good carpentry tools, doesn’t mean we understand the essence of life and the biology of trees. Just because we can make fine pens and software for writing doesn’t mean we understand the deepest heart and mind behind poetry.

For example, the equations of quantum physics have been verified in exquisite detail, and are used to engineer devices we all use every day. Yet even after a century of study, the meaning of the equations, what they describe about reality, remains a mystery.

The significance of such unresolved areas can be seen by looking at the confidence scientists had at the end of the 19th century. Newtonian physics had proven so successful that one of the period’s greatest physicists, Albert Michelson, stated in 1894: “… it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established … the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” It seemed there was little mystery remaining.

This confidence was echoed a few years later in a largely optimistic talk given by Lord Kelvin to the Royal Institution in 1900. He saw only two dark clouds on the horizon that, once cleared up, would allow unimpeeded scientific progress. Those two dark clouds were the difficulty of physics to explain Michelson-Morley results, and the nature of black body radiation.

Ironically, explaining Michelson’s results led to the development of relativity, which completely changed our understanding of space and time. Describing the nature of black body radiation led to the development of quantum physics, which completely changed our understanding of matter and energy at the microscopic level.

These two developments did far more than provide better explanations for a handful of science experiments, they changed our understanding of the very nature of reality.

Today, the number of clouds on the horizon has multiplied, and the proposed solutions are suggesting new redefinitions of reality — things like higher dimensions and multiple parallel universes. It’s as if our understanding of reality is getting murkier and murkier as we become faced with dark matter, dark energy, quantum reality, consciousness, fine tuning, etc.

So are we really that much closer to understanding the nature of reality than our ancestors, or are we just a lot better at making tools while we continue to wonder what it’s really all about?

Personally, I think it’s very possible that these clouds will be worked out, and would never suggest that any lack of understanding on our part proves the existence of a transcendent reality. But I think neither can we assert that science completely rules out all such possibility. It’s unfortunate that debates in this space often seem to start with unwarranted assumptions on both sides (that truth is either ultimately revealed only by science or only by religion, generally by a single authoritative person).

Instead, how about if we come together in open dialogue to share personal experiences, look at the role of faith in human history, wonder about our finite mind’s ability to comprehend the infinite, and contemplate art that seeks to make sense of the human condition. Let’s use science as a tool to validate history or illuminate our thought processes, rather than as the sole determiner of lifeless truth.

Let’s seek our place in the universe as we would a healthy relationship, rather than as the solution to an abstract puzzle.

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