Feb 14, 2013 - Issue 504

God Particle:
Nexus of Science and Religion

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Western Culture prioritizes one way of knowing (the scientific method) above other ways of knowing (characterized as religious). This is a particularly powerful hang-up. Killings, thievery, and all manner of uncivilized behaviors were justified by this cultural bias. The belief in the superiority of science significantly blunted the criticism of horrendous acts through an immoral ends-justifies-the-means paradigm. This ignorant prioritization will not go away despite the plentiful evidence of its stupidity and destructiveness. Marx and Engels were infected with it in their attempt to fashion “scientific” socialism. The latest kerfuffle over this faulty thinking erupted around the advent of the discovery of the Higgs boson, better known by its sexier nickname: the “God particle.”

Before explicating the immoral cultural quagmire that has adhered to the God Particle, let me describe some unassailable understandings of human kind’s – at leasttwo ways of knowing. These ways of knowing are basically structured into our brains in terms of lateralization (localization of function on one side) tendencies. Long ago, brain experts discovered that the halves of the human brain generally work differently. Although both halves are to some degree involved in most brain functions, there is a tendency for the right half to be more involved in creative, novel and spatial functions and the left half to be more involved in repetitive learned behavior and linear thinking. The right half does easily what computers find very difficult to do (like face recognition) and the left half is outpaced in its step-by-step functioning by the power of computers. IMHO, science – as it is purported to be practiced – is a left brain function and spiritual knowing is a right brain function, generally. Western culture tends to emphasize and reward left brain thinking while other cultures set the balance of emphasis and rewards differently. Of course, reality – both in terms of human behavior and in terms of the reality that we can know – is much more complicated than this. 

The next two unassailable understandings, for the purposes of this column, have to do with examples of special human knowing that science is unable to explain. Science does not dispute the reality or the truth of the knowledge gained from these special ways of knowing but science is unable to comprehend how some humans are able to find and know the truths that result.

The first comes out of the experiences of a very small number of people in the world who are considered to be blessed with what is called savant syndrome. Savant abilities are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, music, calendar calculation, mathematics and spatial acuity; all these functions tend to be performed by the right half of the human brain. The abilities of savants are extraordinary beyond those of prodigies or what might be considered within the range of capabilities of other humans. Daniel Tammet, for example, of Great Britain, is able to do mathematical calculations faster than a mechanical calculator and can easily recite the number Pi up to 22,514 decimal places. Tammet says that he is able to do this because he sees numbers as colors, shapes, and sounds! Tammet is one of about 40 currently living savants.

The last unassailable alternative path to knowing I will discuss in this column concerns the abilities of the ayahuasqueros or shamans of the Amazon forest in South America. I was blown away by the fact that 74% of the modern pharmacopoeia’s plant-based remedies were first discovered by “traditional” societies. The Amazon contains half of all the plant species on Earth. [You should know that the big pharmaceutical firms are trying to steal traditional knowledge because modern medical science cannot do what the South American ayahuasqueros can do!] These highly successful shamans are able, through the use of “traditional ceremony” and hallucinogens, to discover specific plants and preparation procedures that can treat sophisticated human ailments. The choice of the plants and their preparations represent an understanding of the workings of the human body and of chemistry that is way beyond what could be discovered by trial and error!

The hallucinogen ayahuasca itself is a case in point. The drug is a combination of two plants which must be boiled together for many hours. One contains the substance dimethyltryptamine, which is also secreted by the human brain. But dimethyltryptamine has no effect when swallowed because a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase blocks it. The second plant contains substances that inactivate this precise stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain. So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among some 80,000 plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing a substance that inactivates an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect. And they do this to modify their consciousness so that they can know plant remedies that cure human aliments!

I do not know about you but I cannot deny that there are ways of knowing truth other than through the scientific method. Some may want to maintain their biases in the face of such evidence but I would have to conclude that those deniers do so for some reason other than recognizing truth. The history of Western culture – rejecting all knowledge that is not under authoritarian imperialist control – leads me to question scientific chauvinism and to condemn Western imperialism. Roman Emperor Constantine shaped the Gospels to reject beliefs that questioned his chosen Church leadership and reject beliefs that emphasized the power of individuals to find their own truth. Since Constantine’s time, the Roman Catholic Church continued to marginalize and reject anti-imperialist understandings whenever they were rediscovered by Christian mystics – seers. It is as much a fallacy to attribute all understandings of spirituality to all religions and religious people as it is a fallacy to attribute the understandings of all scientists to everyone who claims that he arrives at his conclusions only through the scientific method.

A close look at the history of science has exposed the flimsiness of Western culture’s claims of a superior way of knowing. I know that since the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition in 1962, historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science have questioned the meaning and objectivity of science. Kuhn recounts the non-scientific origins of many so-called scientific discoveries. Often scientific discoveries have appeared in dreams or have been appropriated from indigenous sources and then have been fit into a scientific understanding – many of these scientific understandings have later been found to be wrong without accepting – in some major way – the indigenous belief systems. Acupuncture, which is based on the concept of energy meridians and the flow of Chi through the human body, will be another example. However, despite many examples, some folks are so deeply hooked in to their cultural chauvinism that NO number of examples will ever convince them that there is more than one way of knowing truth.

On July 13, 2012, Chris Lisee published a piece on the God Particle. He recounts that “In 1993 when American physicist Leon Lederman was writing a book on the Higgs boson, he dubbed it ‘the goddamn particle’ An editor suggested ‘the God particle’ instead.” It was the editor’s choice that reignited the ongoing schism in Western culture. Much of the rhetoric in this debate is nonsensical and unproductive. In a Huffington Post article Philip Clayton, dean of Claremont School of Theology and a researcher of science and religion, said that discussing whether the discovery “disproves religion or supports creation” misses the point. “The fans and the foes of religion...are overreaching on both sides. The quest for the Higgs boson, and its ultimate discovery, neither proves nor disproves God.” Attempts to articulate reality fall short on all sides because all sides – when pushed pass the limits of cultural, imperialist chauvinism to ultimate honesty – must admit that reality cannot be translated into human speech. Early Hebrews spoke of Yahweh as a linguistic place-holder that could not be spoken. At the most basic level, physics speaks of quantum indeterminacy, that which is not a determined thing but is by its nature a probability. That means that it is not knowable not that it is not known yet. Both the religious and the scientific way-of-knowing posit that at the most basic level, all things are ONE.

For the sake of proving their moral or practical superiority, some are so stuck in the Western cultural either-or paradigm that they miss the truth and the glory of reality and of humanity. On both sides, the history and the stamp of intolerant imperialism arise and all thought and description from the other side is seen as evidence of nastiness. So Lawrence M. Krauss, an Arizona State University theoretical physicist can say, “That’s the difference between science and religion. We don’t require the universe to be what we want - we force our beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality.” He falsely believes that the imperialism of Emperor Constantine which attempted to force an “authorized” belief on human society and the subsequent ripples of that imperialism is part of the basic nature of religious practices. Krauss is wrong. One might condemn all of modern science for beginning with the conversion of an ingredient of a Chinese children’s toy (gun powder) into a weapon combined with the calculations of the trajectory of cannon balls and the “alchemical” skills of metallurgist. One can condemn all of science for the abomination that is its greatest achievement, the hydrogen bomb, a weapon that is so destructive of life and planet that it cannot be used!

Krauss and many of the proponents of the superiority of scientific knowing stridently ask us all to deny our own personal experiences of knowing: consciousness. Every day we wake up to a real experience that science cannot explain and that allows us to reach beyond, in some way, the materialistic and temporal limitations to which science would chain us. Out of our naturally derived two ways of knowing, humans have produced truths that are of great use. Neither pro-science nor pro-religion folks can validly deny this truth.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Wilson Riles, is a former Oakland, CA City Council Member. Click here to contact Mr. Riles.