The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #3: Is the Existence of Higher Realities Compatible with Science?

The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #3: Is the Existence of Higher Realities Compatible with Science?

Stephen Friberg

“Religion … must go hand-in-hand with science”

– The Baha’i Writings

In this blog, I address the question of whether or not belief in God is valid in the age of science.

My approach to the issue is to divide the question into two parts, the first of which is to address whether or not science allows belief in higher realities.   The next step is to determine if belief in higher realities is compatible with belief in God.

Some views by scientists who dismiss the validity of belief in God

Many people – a number of prominent scientist among them – believe that science and religion are not compatible.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), perhaps the most prominent French sociologist, wrote:

“The idea of God which seemed to be the sum total of religion a short while ago is now no more than a minor accident.  It is a psychological phenomena … “

Max Mueller (1823 -1900), who popularized the comparative study of religion, believed that belief in God stemmed from feelings of awe inspired by natural phenomena: the sun, the moon, the stars, lightning, etc. Man ascribed supernatural qualities to them.

Edward Tylor (1832 – 1917), the most influential anthropologist of his day, viewed religion as beginning with animism – the primitive pre-scientific belief that everything – animate or inanimate – is inhabited by a spirit.

Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief: Great read, including information on the biases of early scholars of religion.

And a number of prominent physical scientists – the Noble prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg among them – believe religion to be based on ignorance and blind adherence to pre-scientific explanations of the nature of the world.  Or, more cynically, they believe that religions are based on made-up stories used to obtain riches and power by leaders who know how to manipulate people’s hopes and fears, much in the same way that politicians manipulate their followers by evoking terrorism or advertisers stir up desires to buy by pressing psychological buttons.

Central to these views, and a host of others, is the conviction that religion MUST be due to something other than a valid belief in God and the dismissal of belief in God as totally untenable.

Is there such a thing as a higher reality?

If God exists, then there must be something higher than the ordinary reality studied by scientists and observed by us in our day-to-day activities.  By higher realities, I mean things that are not the normal realities of our everyday world of experience: they transcend normal realities.   An airplane is a normal reality of our experience – we can see it, touch it, fly in it. God is not.

If there are no higher realities than ordinary reality, then Durkheim, Mueller, Freud, Weinberg and Dawkins – to name a few – are right.  Religion is merely a social-phenomena that happened to be around – to have the luck of good timing – when the world’s great cultures flowered in with religion at their core.

But if there are higher realities, we can then take the further step of inquiring whether or not belief in God – and religion as a response to that belief – is valid.

So, to the chase.  Can we identify one or more higher realities?

The laws of nature as a higher reality

Laws of Nature Strictly Enforced! Click to Link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an informative philosophical overview of the laws of nature.

Consider the idea of the laws of nature, or the idea in the physical sciences that matter obeys mathematical laws.

Certainly, this is a belief in a higher reality, and one that is wholly valid from a scientific point of view.  Of course, it is essential to any and all scientific investigations.    Without the laws of nature, there could be no regular patterns of behavior to study, no mathematical laws – be they deterministic or statistical – to apply.  According to current ideas about the laws of nature, all things are totally dependent on them for their existence.  Without the laws of nature, nothing would exist.

The laws of nature cannot be seen.  Nobody, for example, has seen the law of gravity.  So, like God, they are invisible and unseen.

So, we find at the heart of any and all scientific understanding of the world the view that there are fixed laws of nature which hold absolute dominion over all created things.  These laws are the higher reality of science.

[Note: Some might say that the laws of nature are inanimate – and therefore less than the complicated phenomena that leap into being through the fecundity of, say, biological processes.  But, if this view is to be endorsed, then something else – the laws of evolution at play in biological systems – must be responsible.  But those laws are not separate from the laws of nature.]

Intelligence as a higher reality

A higher reality that all are familiar with is intelligence – the mind, rationality, reason – and its products, science prominent among them.   There are few scientists that would deny the existence of intelligence – at least their own intelligence  – and most would agree that it is an essential component of the scientific process.

At the core of our valuation of intelligence is that it (a) has the power to search into the realities of things and to comprehend them, and (b) that it can use what it comprehends to create new and previously unknown realities.

For an example of (b) consider how our knowledge of the properties of light and electricity, combined with our command of materials science and telecommunication engineering, combined with our ability to manufacture small compact digital machines with built-in power sources, combined with our increasing command of the information processing sciences has led to the creation of a world-wide internet of unprecedented and unanticipated scope.

The capabilities of our minds clearly – and without a doubt – show the existence of a higher reality that transcends every day normal realities.

What’s next?

Certainly, there exist higher realities than normal realities, and we have identified (1) the laws of nature and intelligence and (2) the power of reason as two examples not rejected by science.  Indeed, both are essential to science.

But the undoubted existence of these higher realities does not prove that belief in the existence of God is valid in light of modern science.  That requires another step which we will describe in next week’s blog.

……………………..

This is 3rd in a series of blogs on religion in the age of science by Stephen Friberg, a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. Stephen did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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4 thoughts on “The Validity of Religion and Belief in the Age of Science #3: Is the Existence of Higher Realities Compatible with Science?

  1. Hi Steven. There’s a lot you’ve covered in this post, but the crux of it seems to be trying to prove there are realities other than the one we exist in. I completely disagree with your argument, but that may be because you define reality different to me. If so, let me know.

    Personally, when I think of ‘alternative realities’ in a religious context, I’m thinking of a spiritual realm, where Gods, angels and ghosts/spirits might live. We may only reach this place upon our death, and it is undetectable from our current reality.

    The laws of nature as a higher reality:
    Your logic here seems to state that because we can’t see natural laws (for example gravity), and we can’t see God, that puts them in the same basket. Why that would make them an alternative or higher reality I’m not so certain.
    Regardless though, I don’t think you’re approaching this with a scientific mindset. When scientists refer to ‘unseen’ in this context, they mean undetectable. Just because you can’t see gravity doesn’t mean it can’t be detected. We can ‘see’ gravity at work in the movement of the planets. God on the other hand, is yet to have been detected in any meaningful way.

    I honesty don’t see how you’ve managed to connect the laws of nature with a higher reality. It just seems like a leap in logic you haven’t justified.

    Intelligence as a higher reality:
    This I definitely take issue with. Intelligence isn’t a higher reality. It’s not as though when intelligence is obtained you are suddenly transported to a different plane of existance. Intelligence is merely a way of viewing our current reality. Having intellect doesn’t somehow warp reality (although the act of using it can).

    What’s next?:
    I don’t think there is a next, at least not yet. You haven’t proven the existance of higher realities and without that you can’t move on to proving the existance of God in those realities. (I see no reason why you couldn’t argue the existance of God in this reality however, although you seem to have dismissed this possibility).

    Your thoughts?

    1. Hi Arch. Thanks for comments!

      > There’s a lot you’ve covered in this post, but the crux of it
      > seems to be trying to prove there are realities other than
      > the one we exist in. I completely disagree with your argument,
      > but that may be because you define reality different to me.
      > If so, let me know.

      I define reality as what we exist in – I don’t know how to be scientific otherwise. That does appear different than how you are thinking about alternative reality.

      > Your logic here seems to state that because we can’t see
      > natural laws (for example gravity), and we can’t see God,
      > that puts them in the same basket. Why that would make
      > them an alternative or higher reality I’m not so certain.

      Maybe it is clearer if I use the concept of “sensible realities”, things which we sense and “intellectual realities”, things which require our intellect to see. The laws of nature are a reality that we can grasp through our intellect. Similarly, the operation of the intellect itself is grasped in a similar matter. So these aspects of reality are “higher realities.”

      > When scientists refer to ‘unseen’ in this context, they
      > mean undetectable. Just because you can’t see gravity
      > doesn’t mean it can’t be detected. We can ‘see’ gravity at
      > work in the movement of the planets. God on the other
      > hand, is yet to have been detected in any meaningful way.

      And just because you can’t see the laws of nature, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be detected. And, where I’m going, just because you can’t see God, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.

      > I honesty don’t see how you’ve managed to connect the
      > laws of nature with a higher reality. It just seems like a
      > leap in logic you haven’t justified.

      What I’m trying to get at is an understanding of the world we live in – our everyday world – and what is in it. And there is structure and different levels – I’m calling them higher and lower – of reality. So, compared to my concrete patio block, Charlie, my dog, is a higher reality. He sees things, understands a number of words, intuits our actions. So there is structure in our reality.

      How does this relate to the existence of God? What I’m saying is that if we look at the structure of our universe, we see in it things directly known through our senses and things indirectly known through our mind. God, like the laws of nature or intelligence, is in the latter category. And we know about God in the same way.

      1. Wow, we really were on different planes of thought!

        I think I’m fairly well in agreement with you then, although there’s one point I might need clarification on.

        >I define reality as what we exist in – I don’t know how to be scientific >otherwise.

        This part makes sense, and I think is close enough to my understanding. But it doesn’t quite seem to match with what you wrote next:

        >Maybe it is clearer if I use the concept of “sensible realities”, things >which we sense and “intellectual realities”, things which require our >intellect to see.

        This definitely makes a lot more sense in regards to the rest of your reply, and indeed with your original post. Your first statement seems to talk about realities that can be existed in. Now you’re talking about different ways we perceive the same reality.

        I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page now and I think I know what you mean here, so forgive me for being pedantic, but I want this to be clear in my mind so I can properly grasp your next post on this topic.

        >And just because you can’t see the laws of nature, it doesn’t mean that >they can’t be detected. And, where I’m going, just because you can’t >see God, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.

        Absolutely. I’ve never quite understood the school of thought that says you can’t detect/test God. Obviously if there’s a God who sits in another realm and never interacts with our reality, okay, that’s a little hard. But the Gods that we talk about, pray to and perform miracles, those we can certainly detect in some kind of meaningful way.

        I look forward to reading your next post on the matter.

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