The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 15. Newton’s Sleep

May God keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep.

William Blake,

from a poem included in a letter to Thomas Butts (1802)

[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Charles Darwin, Introduction, The Descent of Man (1871)

By ‘Newton’s sleep’, the poet, painter and revolutionary William Blake seems to have meant a tunnel vision in the perspective of Newton’s physics, as well as Newton’s own (incomplete) disengagement from mysticism. Blake thought the idea of atoms and particles of light amusing, and Newton’s influence on our species ‘satanic’. A common critique of science is that it is too narrow. Because of our well-demonstrated fallibilities, it rules out of court, beyond serious discourse, a wide range of uplifting images, playful notions, earnest mysticism and stupefying wonders. Without physical evidence, science does not admit spirits, souls, angels, devils or dharma bodies of the Buddha. Or alien visitors.

The American psychologist Charles Tart, who believes the evidence for extrasensory perception is convincing, writes:

An important factor in the current popularity of ‘New Age’ ideas is a reaction against the dehumanizing, despiritualizing effects otscientism, the philosophical belief (masquerading as objective science and held with the emotional tenacity of born-again fundamentalism) that we are nothing but material beings. To unthinkingly embrace anything and everything labeled ‘spiritual’ or ‘psychic’ or ‘New Age’ is, of course, foolish, for many of these ideas are factually wrong, however noble or inspiring they are. On the other hand, this New Age interest is a legitimate recognition of some of the realities of human nature: People have always had and continue to have experiences that seem to be ‘psychic’ or ‘spiritual’.

But why should ‘psychic’ experiences challenge the idea that we are made of matter and nothing but? There is very little doubt that, in the everyday world, matter (and energy) exist. The evidence is all around us. In contrast, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the evidence for something non-material called ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ is very much in doubt. Of course each of us has a rich internal life. Considering the stupendous complexity of matter, though, how could we possibly prove that our internal life is not wholly due to matter? Granted, there is much about human consciousness that we do not fully understand and cannot yet explain in terms of neurobiology. Humans have limitations, and no one knows this better than scientists. But a multitude of aspects of the natural world that were considered miraculous only a few generations ago are now thoroughly understood in terms of physics and chemistry. At least some of the mysteries of today will be comprehensively solved by our descendants. The fact that we cannot now produce a detailed understanding of, say, altered states of consciousness in terms of brain chemistry no more implies the existence of a ‘spirit world’ than a sunflower following the Sun in its course across the sky was evidence of a literal miracle before we knew about phototropism and plant hormones. And if the world does not in all respects correspond to our wishes, is this the fault of science, or of those who would impose their wishes on the world? All the mammals - and many other animals as well - experience emotions: fear, lust, hope, pain, love, hate, the need to be led. Humans may brood about the future more, but there is nothing in our emotions unique to us. On the other hand, no other species does science as much or as well as we. How then can science be ‘dehumanizing’?

Still, it seems so unfair: some of us starve to death before we’re out of infancy, while others - by an accident of birth - live out their lives in opulence and splendour. We can be born into an abusive family or a reviled ethnic group, or start out with some deformity; we go through life with the deck stacked against us, and then we die, and that’s it? Nothing but a dreamless and endless sleep? Where’s the justice in this? This is stark-and brutal and heartless. Shouldn’t we have a second chance on a level playing field? How much better if we were born again in circumstances that took account of how well we played our part in the last life, no matter how stacked against us the deck was then. Or if there were a time of judgement after we die, then - so long as we did well with the persona we were given in this life, and were humble and faithful and all the rest - we should be rewarded by living joyfully until the end of time in a permanent refuge from the agony and turmoil of the world. That’s how it would be if the world were thought out, preplanned, fair. That’s how it would be if those suffering from pain and torment were to receive the consolation they deserve.

So societies that teach contentment with our present station in life, in expectation of post mortem reward, tend to inoculate themselves against revolution. Further, fear of death, which in some respects is adaptive in the evolutionary struggle for existence, is maladaptive in warfare. Those cultures that teach an afterlife of bliss for heroes - or even for those who just did what those in authority told them - might gain a competitive advantage.

Thus, the idea of a spiritual part of our nature that survives death, the notion of an afterlife, ought to be easy for religions and nations to sell. This is not an issue on which we might anticipate widespread scepticism. People will want to believe it, even if the evidence is meagre to nil. True, brain lesions can make us lose major segments of our memory, or convert us from manic to placid, or vice versa; and changes in brain chemistry can convince us there’s a massive conspiracy against us, or make us think we hear the Voice of God. But as compelling testimony as this provides that our personality, character, memory - if you will, soul - resides in the matter of the brain, it is easy not to focus on it, to find ways to evade the weight of the evidence.

And if there are powerful social institutions insisting that there is an afterlife, it should be no surprise that dissenters tend to be sparse, quiet and resented. Some Eastern, Christian and New Age religions, as well as Platonism, hold that the world is unreal, that suffering, death and matter itself are illusions; and that nothing really exists except ‘Mind’. In contrast, the prevailing scientific view is that the mind is how we perceive what the brain does; i.e., it’s a property of the hundred trillion neural connections in the brain.

There is a strangely waxing academic opinion, with roots in the 1960s, that holds all views to be equally arbitrary and ‘true’ or ‘false’ to be a delusion. Perhaps it is an attempt to turn the tables on scientists who have long argued that literary criticism, religion, aesthetics, and much of philosophy and ethics are mere subjective opinion, because they cannot be demonstrated like a theorem in Euclidean geometry nor put to experimental test.

There are people who want everything to be possible, to have their reality unconstrained. Our imagination and our needs require more, they feel, than the comparatively little that science teaches we may be reasonably sure of. Many New Age gurus - the actress Shirley MacLaine among them - go so far as to embrace solipsism, to assert that the only reality is their own thoughts. ‘I am God,’ they actually say. ‘I really think we are creating our own reality,’ MacLaine once told a sceptic. ‘I think I’m creating you right here.’

If I dream of being reunited with a dead parent or child, who is to tell me that it didn’t really happen? If 1 have a vision of myself floating in space looking down on the Earth, maybe I was really there; who are some scientists, who didn’t even share the experience, to tell me that it’s all in my head? If my religion teaches that it is the inalterable and inerrant word of God that the Universe is a few thousand years old, then scientists are being offensive and impious, as well as mistaken, when they claim it’s a few billion.

Irritatingly, science claims to set limits on what we can do, even in principle. Who says we can’t travel faster than light? They used to say that about sound, didn’t they? Who’s going to stop us, if we have really powerful instruments, from measuring the position and the momentum of an electron simultaneously? Why can’t we, if we’re very clever, build a perpetual motion machine ‘of the first kind’ (one that generates more energy than is supplied to it), or a perpetual motion machine ‘of the second kind’ (one that never runs down)? Who dares to set limits on human ingenuity?

In fact, Nature does. In fact, a fairly comprehensive and very brief statement of the laws of Nature, of how the Universe works, is contained in just such a list of prohibited acts. Tellingly, pseudoscience and superstition tend to recognize no constraints in Nature. Instead, ‘all things are possible’. They promise a limitless production budget, however often their adherents have been disappointed and betrayed.

A related complaint is that science is too simple-minded, too ‘reductionist’; it naively imagines that in the final accounting there will be only a few laws of Nature - perhaps even rather simple ones - that explain everything, that the exquisite subtlety of the world, all the snow crystals, spiderweb latticework, spiral galaxies, and flashes of human insight can ultimately be ‘reduced’ to such laws. Reductionism seems to pay insufficient respect to the complexity of the Universe. It appears to some as a curious hybrid of arrogance and intellectual laziness.

To Isaac Newton - who in the minds of critics of science personifies ‘single vision’ - it looked like a clockwork Universe. Literally. The regular, predictable orbital motions of the planets around the Sun, or the Moon around the Earth, were described to high precision by essentially the same differential equation that predicts the swing of a pendulum or the oscillation of a spring. We have a tendency today to think we occupy some exalted vantage point, and to pity the poor Newtonians for having so limited a world view. But within certain reasonable limitations, the same harmonic equations that describe clockwork really do describe the motions of astronomical objects throughout the Universe. This is a profound, not a trivial parallelism.

Of course, there are no gears in the solar system, and the component parts of the gravitational clockwork do not touch. Planets generally have more complicated motions than pendulums and springs. Also, the clockwork model breaks down in certain circumstances: over very long periods of time, the gravitational tugs of distant worlds - tugs that might seem wholly insignificant over a few orbits - can build up, and some little world can go unexpectedly careening out of its accustomed course. However, something like chaotic motion is also known in pendulum clocks; if we displace the bob too far from the perpendicular, a wild and ugly motion ensues. But the solar system keeps better time than any mechanical clock, and the whole idea of keeping time comes from the observed motion of the Sun and stars.

The astonishing fact is that similar mathematics applies so well to planets and to clocks. It needn’t have been this way. We didn’t impose it on the Universe. That’s the way the Universe is. If this is reductionism, so be it.

Until the middle twentieth century, there had been a strong belief - among theologians, philosophers and many biologists -that life was not ‘reducible’ to the laws of physics and chemistry, that there was a ‘vital force’, an ‘entelechy’, a tao, a mana that made living things go. It ‘animated’ life. It was impossible to see how mere atoms and molecules could account for the intricacy and elegance, the fitting of form to function, of a living thing. The world’s religions were invoked: God or the gods breathed life, soul-stuff, into inanimate matter. The eighteenth-century chemist Joseph Priestley tried to find the ‘vital force’. He weighed a mouse just before and just after it died. It weighed the same. All such attempts have failed. If there is soul-stuff, evidently it weighs nothing, that is, it is not made of matter.

Nevertheless, even biological materialists entertained reservations; perhaps, if not plant, animal, fungal and microbial souls, some still undiscovered principle of science was needed to understand life. For example, the British physiologist J.S. Haldane (father of J.B.S. Haldane) asked in 1932:

What intelligible account can the mechanistic theory of life give of the ... recovery from disease and injuries? Simply none at all, except that these phenomena are so complex and strange that as yet we cannot understand them. It is exactly the same with the closely related phenomena of reproduction. We cannot by any stretch of the imagination conceive a delicate and complex mechanism which is capable, like a living organism, of reproducing itself indefinitely often.

But only a few decades later and our knowledge of immunology and molecular biology have enormously clarified these once impenetrable mysteries.

I remember very well when the molecular structure of DNA and the nature of the genetic code were first elucidated in the 1950s and 1960s, how biologists who studied whole organisms accused the new proponents of molecular biology of reductionism. (They’ll never understand even a worm with their DNA.’) Of course reducing everything to a ‘vital force’ is no less reductionism. But it is now clear that all life on Earth, every single living thing, has its genetic information encoded in its nucleic acids and employs fundamentally the same codebook to implement the hereditary instructions. We have learned how to read the code. The same few dozen organic molecules are used over and over again in biology for the widest variety of functions. Genes bearing significant responsibility for cystic fibrosis and breast cancer have been identified. The 1.8 million rungs of the DNA ladder of the bacterium Haemophilis influenzas, comprising its 1,743 genes, have been sequenced. The specific function of most of these genes is beautifully detailed - from the manufacture and folding of hundreds of complex molecules, to protection against heat and antibiotics, to increasing the mutation rate, to making identical copies of the bacterium. Much of the genomes of many other organisms (including the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans) have now been mapped. Molecular biologists are busily recording the sequence of the three billion nucleotides that specify how to make a human being. In another decade or two, they’ll be done. (Whether the benefits will ultimately exceed the risks seems by no means certain.)

The continuity between atomic physics, molecular chemistry, and that holy of holies, the nature of reproduction and heredity, has now been established. No new principle of science need be invoked. It looks as if there are a small number of simple facts that can be used to understand the enormous intricacy and variety of living things. (Molecular genetics also teaches that each organism has its own particularity.)

Reductionism is even better established in physics and chemistry. I will later describe the unexpected coalescence of our understanding of electricity, magnetism, light and relativity into a single framework. We’ve known for centuries that a handful of comparatively simple laws not only explains but quantitatively and accurately predicts a breathtaking variety of phenomena, not just on Earth but through the entire Universe.

We hear - for example from the theologian Langdon Gilkey in his Nature, Reality and the Sacred - that the notion of the laws of Nature being everywhere the same is simply a preconception imposed on the Universe by fallible scientists and their social milieu. He longs for other kinds of ‘knowledge’, as valid in their contexts as science is in its. But the order of the Universe is not an assumption; it’s an observed fact. We detect the light from distant quasars only because the laws of electromagnetism are the same ten billion light years away as here. The spectra of those quasars are recognizable only because the same chemical elements are present there as here, and because the same laws of quantum mechanics apply. The motion of galaxies around one another follows familiar Newtonian gravity. Gravitational lenses and binary pulsar spin-downs reveal general relativity in the depths of space. We could have lived in a Universe with different laws in every province, but we do not. This fact cannot but elicit feelings of reverence and awe.

We might have lived in a Universe in which nothing could be understood by a few simple laws, in which Nature was complex beyond our abilities to understand, in which laws that apply on Earth are invalid on Mars, or in a distant quasar. But the evidence - not the preconceptions, the evidence - proves otherwise. Luckily for us, we live in a Universe in which much can be ‘reduced’ to a small number of comparatively simple laws of

Nature. Otherwise we might have lacked the intellectual capacity and grasp to comprehend the world.

Of course, we may make mistakes in applying a reductionist programme to science. There may be aspects which, for all we know, are not reducible to a few comparatively simple laws. But in the light of the findings in the last few centuries, it seems foolish to complain about reductionism. It is not a deficiency but one of the chief triumphs of science. And, it seems to me, its findings are perfectly consonant with many religions (although it does not prove their validity). Why should a few simple laws of Nature explain so much and hold sway throughout this vast Universe? Isn’t this just what you might expect from a Creator of the Universe? Why should some religious people oppose the reductionist programme in science, except out of some misplaced love of mysticism?

Attempts to reconcile religion and science have been on the religious agenda for centuries - at least for those who did not insist on Biblical and Qu’ranic literalism with no room for allegory or metaphor.

The crowning achievements of Roman Catholic theology are the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles (‘Against the Gentiles’) of St Thomas Aquinas. Out of the maelstrom of sophisticated Islamic philosophy that tumbled into Christendom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the books of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, works even on casual inspection of high accomplishment. Was this ancient learning compatible with God’s Holy Word?* In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas set himself the task of reconciling 631 questions between Christian and classical sources. But how to do this where a clear dispute arises? It cannot be accomplished without some supervening organizing principle, some superior way to know the world. Often, Aquinas appealed to common sense and the natural world, i.e., science used as an error-correcting device. With some contortion of both common sense and Nature, he managed to reconcile all 631 problems. (Although when push came to shove, the desired answer was simply assumed. Faith always got the nod over Reason.) Similar attempts at reconciliation permeate Talmudic and post-Talmudic Jewish literature and medieval Islamic philosophy.

[* This was no dilemma for many others. ‘I believe; therefore I understand’ said St Anselm in the eleventh century.]

But tenets at the heart of religion can be tested scientifically. This in itself makes some religious bureaucrats and believers wary of science. Is the Eucharist, as the Church teaches, in fact and not just as productive metaphor, the flesh of Jesus Christ, or is it, chemically, microscopically and in other ways, just a wafer handed to you by a priest?* Will the world be destroyed at the end of the 52-year Venus cycle unless humans are sacrificed to the gods?** Does the occasional uncircumcised Jewish man fare worse than his co-religionists who abide by the ancient covenant in which God demands a piece of foreskin from every male worshipper? Are there humans populating innumerable other planets, as the Latter Day Saints teach? Were whites created from blacks by a mad scientist, as the Nation of Islam asserts? Would the Sun indeed not rise if the Hindu sacrificial rite is omitted (as we are assured would be the case in the Satapatha Brahmand)!

[* There was a time when the answer to this question was a matter of life or death. Miles Phillips was an English sailor, stranded in Spanish Mexico. He and his fellows were brought up before the Inquisition in the year 1574. They were asked ‘Whether we did not believe that the Host of bread which the priest did hold up over his head, and the wine that was in the chalice, was the very true and perfect body and blood of our Saviour Christ, Yea or No? To which,’ Phillips adds, ‘if we answered not “Yea!” then there was no way but death.’]

[** Since this Mesoamerican ritual has not really been practised for five centuries, we have the perspective to reflect on the tens of thousands of willing and unwilling sacrifices to the Aztec and Mayan gods who reconciled themselves to their fates with the confident faith that they were dying to save the Universe.]

We can gain some insight into the human roots of prayer by examining those of unfamiliar religions and cultures. Here, for example, is what is written in a cuneiform inscription on a Babylonian cylinder seal from the Second Millennium BC:

Oh, Ninlil, Lady of the Lands, in your marriage bed, in the abode of your delight, intercede for me with Enlil, your beloved. [Signed] Mili-Shipak, Shatammu of Ninmah.

It’s been a long time since there’s been a Shatammu in Ninmah, or even a Ninmah. Despite the fact that Enlil and Ninlil were major gods - people all over the civilized western world had prayed to them for two thousand years - was poor Mili-Shipak in fact praying to a phantom, to a societally condoned product of his imagination? And if so, what about us? Or is this blasphemy, a forbidden question, as doubtless it was among the worshippers of Enlil?

Does prayer work at all? Which ones?

There’s a category of prayer in which God is begged to intervene in human history or just to right some real or imagined injustice or natural calamity - for example, when a bishop from the American West prays for God to intervene and end a devastating dry spell. Why is the prayer needed? Didn’t God know of the drought? Was he unaware that it threatened the bishop’s parishioners? What is implied here about the limitations of a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient deity? The bishop asked his followers to pray as well. Is God more likely to intervene when many pray for mercy or justice than when only a few do? Or consider the following request, printed in 1994 in The Prayer and Action Weekly News: Iowa’s Weekly Christian Information Source:

Can you join me in praying that God will burn down the Planned Parenthood in Des Moines in a manner no one can mistake for any human torching, which impartial investigators will have to attribute to miraculous (unexplainable) causes, and which Christians will have to attribute to the Hand of God?

We’ve discussed faith-healing. What about longevity through prayer? The Victorian statistician Francis Gallon argued that, other things being equal, British monarchs ought to be very long-lived, because millions of people all over the world daily intoned the heartfelt mantra ‘God Save the Queen’ (or King). Yet, he showed, if anything, they don’t live as long as other members of the wealthy and pampered aristocratic class. Tens of millions of people in concert publicly wished (although they did not exactly pray) that Mao Zedong would live ‘for ten thousand years’. Nearly everyone in ancient Egypt exhorted the gods to let the Pharaoh live ‘forever’. These collective prayers failed. Their failure constitutes data.

By making pronouncements that are, even if only in principle, testable, religions, however unwillingly, enter the arena of science. Religions can no longer make unchallenged assertions about reality so long as they do not seize secular power, provided they cannot coerce belief.

This, in turn, has infuriated some followers of some religions. Occasionally they threaten sceptics with the direst imaginable penalties. Consider the following high stakes alternative by William Blake in his innocuously titled Auguries of Innocence:

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt

The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.

He who respects the Infant’s Faith

Triumphs over Hell Death

Of course many religions, devoted to reverence, awe, ethics, ritual, community, family, charity, and political and economic justice, are in no way challenged, but rather uplifted, by the findings of science. There is no necessary conflict between science and religion. On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, and each needs the other. Open and vigorous debate, even the consecration of doubt, is a Christian tradition going back to John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). Some of mainstream Christianity and Judaism embraces and even anticipated at least a portion of the humility, self-criticism, reasoned debate, and questioning of received wisdom that the best of science offers. But other sects, sometimes called conservative or fundamentalist - and today they seem to be in the ascendant, with the mainstream religions almost inaudible and invisible - have chosen to make a stand on matters subject to disproof, and thus have something to fear from science. The religious traditions are often so rich and multivariate that they offer ample opportunity for renewal and revision, again especially when their sacred books can be interpreted metaphorically and allegorically. There is thus a middle ground of confessing past errors, as the Roman Catholic Church did in its 1992 acknowledgement that Galileo was right after all, that the Earth does revolve around the Sun: three centuries late, but courageous and most welcome none the less. Modern Roman Catholicism has no quarrel with the Big Bang, with a Universe 15 billion or so years old, with the first living things arising from prebiological molecules, or with humans evolving from ape-like ancestors -although it has special opinions on ‘ensoulment’. Most mainstream Protestant and Jewish faiths take the same sturdy position.

In theological discussion with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. When I put this question to the current, Fourteenth, Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: in such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.

Even, I asked, if it’s a really central tenet, like (I searched for an example) reincarnation?

Even then, he answered.

However, he added with a twinkle, it’s going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.

Plainly, the Dalai Lama is right. Religious doctrine that is insulated from disproof has little reason to worry about the advance of science. The grand idea, common to many faiths, of a Creator of the Universe is one such doctrine - difficult alike to demonstrate or to dismiss.

Moses Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, held that God could be truly known only if there were free and open study of both physics and theology [I, 55]. What would happen if science demonstrated an infinitely old Universe? Then theology would have to be seriously revamped [II, 25]. Indeed, this is the one conceivable finding of science that could disprove a Creator -because an infinitely old universe would never have been created. It would have always been here.

There are other doctrines, interests and concerns that also worry about what science will find out. Perhaps, they suggest, it’s better not to know. If men and women turn out to have different hereditary propensities, won’t this be used as an excuse for the former to suppress the latter? If there’s a genetic component of violence, might this justify repression of one ethnic group by another, or even precautionary incarceration? If mental illness is just brain chemistry, doesn’t this unravel our efforts to keep a grasp on reality or to be responsible for our actions? If we are not the special handiwork of the Creator of the Universe, if our basic moral laws are merely invented by fallible lawgivers, isn’t our struggle to maintain an orderly society undermined?

I suggest that in every one of these cases, religious or secular, we are much better off if we know the best available approximation to the truth, and if we keep before us a keen apprehension of the errors our interest group or belief system has committed in the past. In every case the imagined dire consequences of the truth being generally known are exaggerated. And again, we are not wise enough to know which lies, or even which shadings of the facts, can competently serve some higher social purpose, especially in the long run.