Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World - Lisa Randall (2011)



In February 2008, the poet Katherine Coles and the biologist and mathematician Fred Adler, both from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, organized an interdisciplinary conference entitled “A Universe in a Grain of Sand.” The meeting’s topic was the role of scale in various disciplines—a theme that could capitalize on the wide-ranging interests of the diverse group of speakers and attendees. Dividing up our observations into different-sized categories so that we can make sense of and organize them and piece them back together was a subject to which our panel—consisting of a physicist, an architectural critic, and an English professor—could all contribute in interesting ways.

In her opening talk, the literary critic and poet Linda Gregerson described the universe as “sublime.” The word precisely captures what makes the universe so wonderful and so frustrating at the same time. A great deal seems beyond our reach and our comprehension, while still appearing to be close enough to tantalize us—to dare us to enter and understand. The challenge for all approaches to knowledge is to make those less accessible aspects of the universe more immediate, more understandable, and ultimately less foreign. People want to learn to read and understand the book of nature and accommodate those lessons into the comprehensible world.

Humanity employs different methods and strives toward contrasting goals in the attempt to unravel the mysteries of life and the world. Art, science, and religion—though they might involve common creative impulses—offer distinct means and methods of approach toward bridging the gaps in our understanding.

So before returning to the world of modern physics, the remainder of this part of the book contrasts these various ways of thinking, introduces some historical context for the science-religion debate, and presents at least one aspect of that debate that won’t ever be resolved. In examining these issues, we’ll explore science’s materialist and mechanistic premises—an essential feature of a scientific approach to knowledge. In all likelihood, those who are at extreme ends of the spectrum won’t change their minds, but this discussion might nonetheless help in more precisely identifying the roots of the differences.


The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke rather dramatically captured the paradox at the heart of our feelings when faced with the sublime when he wrote: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”10 In her Salt Lake City talk, Linda Gregerson addressed the sublime in subtle, illuminating, and somewhat less intimidating words. She elaborated on Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the beautiful, which “would have us believe we are made for this universe and it for us” and the sublime, which is far more scary. Gregerson described how people feel “apprehension in beholding the sublime” because it seems to be “a poorer fit”—less suited to human interactions and perceptions.

The word “sublime” reemerged in 2009 in discussions of music, art, and science with my collaborators on a physics-based opera about these themes. For our conductor, Clement Power, particular pieces of music occasionally achieved the epitome of simultaneous terror and beauty with which others had defined it. Sublime music for Clement was at a pinnacle beyond his usual powers of comprehension—resisting ready interpretation or explanation.

The sublime proffers scales and poses questions that just might lie beyond our intellectual reach. It is for these reasons both terrifying and compelling. The range of the sublime changes over time as the scales we are comfortable with cover an increasingly large domain. But at any given moment, we still want to gain insights about behavior or events at scales far too small or far too large for us to readily comprehend.

Our universe is in many respects sublime. It prompts wonder but can be daunting—even frightening—in its complexity. Nonetheless, the components fit together in marvelous ways. Art, science, and religion all aim to channel people’s curiosity and enlighten us by pushing the frontiers of our understanding. They promise, in their different ways, to help transcend the narrow confines of individual experience and allow us to enter into—and comprehend—the realm of the sublime. (See Figure 11.)

Art allows us to explore the universe through a filter of human perceptions and emotions. It examines how our senses access the world and what we can learn from this interaction—highlighting how people participate in and observe the universe around us. Art is very much a function of human beings, giving us a clearer view of our intuitions and how we as people perceive the world. Unlike science, it is not seeking objective truths that transcend human interactions. Art has to do with our physical and emotional responses to the external world, bearing directly on internal experiences, needs, and capacities that science might never reach.


FIGURE 11 ] Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), an iconic painting of the sublime—a recurring theme in art and music.

Science, on the other hand, seeks objective and verifiable truth about the world. It is interested in the elements of which the universe is composed and how those elements interact. Although referring to his trade of forensic investigation, Sherlock Holmes admirably described science’s methodology in his inimitable style when he advised Dr. Watson: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid… The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.”11

No doubt Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have had Holmes express similar methodology for unraveling the secrets of the universe. Practitioners of science attempt to keep human limitations or prejudices from clouding the picture so that they can trust themselves to obtain an unbiased understanding of reality. They do so with logic and collective observations. Scientists try to objectively figure out how things happen and what underlying physical framework could account for what they observe.

As a sidebar, however, someone should let Sherlock know that he’s using inductive, not deductive logic, as do most detectives and scientists when they are trying to piece together the evidence. Scientists and detectives inductively work from observations to try to establish a consistent framework that matches all the measured phenomena. Once the theory is in place, scientists and detectives make deductions, too, in order to predict other phenomena and relationships in the world. But by then—for detectives at least—the work is done.

Religion is yet another approach that many use to respond to the challenge that Gregerson described of relating to the hard-to-access aspects of the universe. The seventeenth-century British author Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his Religio Medici, “I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O altitudo.”12 For Browne and others like him, logic and the scientific method are believed to be insufficient to access all truth—which they trust religion alone to address. The key distinction between science and religion might well be the character of the questions they choose to ask. Religion includes questions that fall outside the domain of science. Religion asks “why,” in the sense of the presumption of an underlying purpose, whereas science asks “how.” Science doesn’t rely on any sense of an underlying goal for nature. That is a line of inquiry we leave to religion or philosophy, or abandon altogether.

During our Los Angeles conversation, the screenwriter Scott Derrickson told me that there was originally a line in The Day the Earth Stood Still (he directed a remake of the 1951 version in 2008) which troubled him so much that he thought about it for days afterward. The Jennifer Connolly character, when talking about her husband’s death, was supposed to have commented that “the universe is random.”

Scott was disturbed by those words. Underlying physical laws do include randomness, but their whole point is to encapsulate order so that at least some aspects of the universe can be regarded as predictable phenomena. Scott told me that it took several weeks after the line was removed for him to identify the word he had been looking for—“indifferent.” My ears perked up when I heard that exact line in the TV show Mad Men, enunciated by the lead character, Don Draper, in a way that made it sound distasteful.

But an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing—or a good one for that matter. Scientists don’t look for underlying intention in the way that religion often does. Objective science simply requires that we treat the universe as indifferent. Indeed, science in its neutral stance sometimes removes the stigma of evil from human conditions by pointing to their physical, as opposed to moral, origins. We now know, for example, that mental disease and addiction have “innocent” genetic and physical sources that can shift them into the category of diseases exempt from the moral sphere.

Even so, science doesn’t address all moral issues (though it doesn’t disown them either as is sometimes alleged). Nor does science ask about the reasons for the universe’s behavior or inquire into the morality of human affairs. Though logical thinking certainly helps in dealing with the modern world and some scientists today do search for physiological bases for moral actions, science’s purpose, broadly speaking, is not to resolve the status of humans’ moral standing.

The dividing line isn’t always precise, and theologians can sometimes ask scientific questions while scientists might get their initial ideas or directions from a worldview that inspires them—sometimes even a religious one. Moreover, because science is done by human beings, intermediate stages during which scientists are formulating their theories will frequently involve unscientific human instincts such as faith in the existence of answers or emotions about particular beliefs. And, needless to say, this works the other way too: artists and theologians can be guided by observations and a scientific understanding of the world.

But these sometimes blurry divisions don’t eliminate the distinctions in ultimate goals. Science aims for a predictive physical picture that can explain how things work. The methods and goals of science and religion are intrinsically different, with science addressing physical reality, and religion addressing psychological or social human desires or needs.

The separate aims shouldn’t be a source of conflict—in fact they seem in principle to create a nice division of labor. However, religions don’t always stick to questions of purpose or comfort. Many religions attempt to address the external reality of the universe as well, as can be seen even in the definition of the word: The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that religion is “belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshiped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe.” says that religion is “A set of beliefs concerning the causes, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observations, and of constructing a moral code governing the morality of human affairs.” Religion in these definitions is not only about people’s relationship to the world—be it moral or emotional or spiritual—but it’s about the world itself. This leaves religious views open to falsification. When science encroaches on domains of knowledge that religion attempts to explain, disagreements are bound to arise.

Despite humanity’s shared desire for wisdom, people using different methods to ask questions and find answers or people with different goals haven’t always gotten along and the pursuit of truth hasn’t always neatly separated along lines that would avoid controversy. When people apply religious beliefs to the natural world, observations of nature can push back, and religion has to accommodate these findings. This was as true for the early church—which had, for example, to reconcile free will with God’s infinite powers—as it is for religious thinkers today.


Science and religion didn’t always face this quandary. Before the scientific revolution, religion and science peacefully coexisted. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was content to allow a generous interpretation of scripture, which lasted until the Reformation threatened the church’s dominance. Galileo’s evidence for the Copernican heliocentric theory, which contradicted the church’s claims about the heavens, was particularly troubling in this context—the publication of his results not only defied church orders, but explicitly questioned the church’s sole authority in interpreting scripture. The clergy were therefore none too fond of Galileo and his claims.

More recent history has provided numerous instances of conflict between science and religion. The second law of thermodynamics, which says that the world is moving toward increasing disorder, can dismay people who believe that God created an ideal world. The theory of evolution of course creates similar problems, erupting most recently with “debates” over intelligent design. Even the expanding universe can be disturbing to those who want to believe that we live in a perfect universe, notwithstanding that it was Georges Lemaie, a Catholic priest, who first proposed the Big Bang theory.

One of the more amusing examples of a scientist confronting his faith concerned the English naturalist Philip Gosse. He faced a quandary when—in the early nineteenth century—he realized that the Earth’s strata, which hold fossils of extinct animals, contradicted the idea that the Earth could be only 6,000 years old. In his book Omphalos, he resolved his conflict by deciding the Earth was created recently—but included specially created “bones” and “fossils” from animals that had never existed and other misleading signs of its (nonexistent) history. Gosse posited that a world in working order should show marks of change, even if they had never actually occurred. This interpretation might sound silly, but technically it does work. However, no one else has ever seemed to take this interpretation very seriously. Gosse himself switched to marine biology to avoid the annoying tests of faith that the dinosaur bones posed.

Happily, most correct scientific ideas become less radical-seeming and more acceptable over time. In the end, scientific discoveries generally prevail. Today no one questions the heliocentric point of view or the universe’s expansion. But literal interpretations do still cause problems like Gosse’s for believers who take them too seriously.

Less literal readings of scripture helped avoid such conflicts prior to the seventeenth century. In a conversation over lunch, the scholar and historian of religion Karen Armstrong explained how the current conflict between religion and science didn’t really exist early on. Religious texts were then read on many levels, so interpretation was less literal and dogmatic and consequently less confrontational.

In the fifth century, Augustine made this viewpoint explicit: “Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.”13

Augustine, in his subtlety, went even further. He explained that God deliberately introduced riddles into scripture to give people the pleasure of figuring them out.14 This referred as much to obscure words as to passages that required metaphorical interpretation. Augustine seems to have had some fun with the logic and illogic of it all, and tried to interpret basic paradoxes. How could anyone completely understand or appreciate God’s plan, for example—at least in the absence of time travel?15

Galileo himself adhered closely to the Augustinian stance. In a 1615 letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, he wrote, “I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.”16 He even claimed that Copernicus felt similarly, asserting that Copernicus “did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scripture when they were rightly understood.”17

In his zeal, Galileo also wrote, quoting Augustine, “If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.”18

Augustine’s less dogmatic approach to scripture assumed the text always had a rational meaning. Any apparent contradiction with observations of the external world necessarily represented the reader’s misunderstanding, even if the explanation wasn’t manifest. Augustine viewed the Bible as the product of human formulation of divine revelation.

Construing the Bible, at least in part, as a reflection of the writers’ subjective experiences, Augustine’s interpretation of scripture comes close in some respects to our definition of art. The church wouldn’t need to backtrack in the face of scientific discoveries with the Augustinian cast of mind.

Galileo realized this. For he and others who thought similarly, science and the Bible couldn’t possibly be in conflict if the words were properly interpreted. Any apparent conflict lies not with the scientific facts, but with human understanding. The Bible might be incomprehensible to humans at times and might superficially appear to contradict our observations, but according to the Augustinian interpretation, the Bible is never wrong. Galileo was devout and didn’t think he had the authority to contradict scripture, even when logic would tell him to do so. Many years later, Pope John Paul II went so far as to declare Galileo a better theologian than those who had opposed him.

But Galileo also believed in his discoveries. In a bit of religious trash talking, he presciently advised: “Take note, theologians, that in your desire to make matters of faith out of propositions relating to the fixity of sun and earth you run the risk of eventually having to condemn as heretics those who would declare the earth to stand still and the sun to change position—eventually, I say, at such a time as it might be physically or logically proved that the earth moves and the sun stands still.”19

Clearly Christian religions didn’t always stick to such a philosophy, or Galileo wouldn’t have been imprisoned and newspapers today wouldn’t be reporting controversies over intelligent design. Though many practitioners of religion have flexible beliefs, a rigid interpretation of physical phenomena is likely to prove problematic. A literal reading of scripture is a risky point of view to uphold. Over time, as technology permits us to scale new regimes, science and religion will have more overlapping domains and potential contradictions can only increase.

Today, a significant proportion of the world’s religious population aims to avoid such conflicts through a more liberal interpretation of their faith. They don’t necessarily rely on a strict interpretation of scripture or the dogma of any particular faith. They believe they maintain the tenets of their spiritual life while accepting the findings of rigorous science.


The intrinsic problem is that the contradictions between science and religion run deeper than any specific words or phrasing. Even without worrying about a literal interpretation of any particular text, religion and science rely on incompatible logical tenets when we consider that religion addresses issues in our world and existence through the intervention of an external deity. Divine actions—whether applied to mountains or your conscience—don’t happen within the framework of science.

The crucial contrast is between religion as a social or psychological experience and religion that is based on a God who actively influences us or our world through external intervention. After all, religion is a purely personal enterprise for some. Those who feel this way might relish the social connections that come from being part of a like-minded religious organization or the psychological benefits that come from viewing themselves in the context of a larger world. Faith for people in this category has to do with its practice and the way they choose to live their lives. It is a source of comfort, with a shared set of goals.

Many such people regard themselves as spiritual. Religion enhances their existence—it provides context, meaning, and purpose, as well as a sense of community. They don’t see religion’s role as explaining the mechanics of the universe. Religion addresses their personal sense of awe and wonder, and it might help in their interactions with others and the world. Many such people would argue that religion and science can perfectly readily coexist.

But religion is usually more than a way of life or a philosophy. Most religions involve a deity who can intervene in mysterious ways that go beyond what people can describe or science involve. Such a belief, even for more open-minded religious people who welcome scientific advances, inevitably introduces a quandary about how to reconcile such activity with the dictates of science. Even allowing for a God or some spiritual force that might have exerted influence earlier on as a prime mover, it is inconceivable from a scientific perspective that God could continue to intervene without introducing some material trace of his actions.

To understand the conflict—and better appreciate the nature of science—we need to more fully understand science’s materialist viewpoint, which tells us that science applies to a material universe and that active influences have physical correlates. Built into the scientific view is the idea—introduced in Chapter 1—that we can identify the components of matter at each level of structure. What exists at larger scales is built from material at smaller scales. Even though we can’t necessarily explain everything about bigger scales by knowing all the underlying physical elements, those components are nonetheless essential. The material makeup of phenomena that interest us won’t always suffice to explain them, but the physical correlates are instrumental to their existence.

Some people turn to religion to answer difficult questions that they don’t think science will ever get to. Indeed, the materialist scientific view doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to understand everything—certainly not by simply understanding just the basic components. In dividing the universe by scales, scientists recognize that we are unlikely to answer all questions at once and that even though fundamental structure might be essential, it won’t necessarily answer all our questions directly. Even when we know quantum mechanics, we still use Newton’s laws since they tell us how a ball travels through the Earth’s gravitational field in a way that would be very difficult to derive from an atomic picture. The ball needs atoms to exist, but the atomic picture doesn’t help explain the ball’s trajectory, though it is of course compatible with it.

This lesson generalizes to many phenomena we all encounter in our daily lives. We can often ignore underlying details or composition, even though the material is essential. We don’t need to know the inner workings of a car in order to drive it. When we cook food, we evaluate if fish is flaky, if the center of a cake is dry, if oatmeal is mushy, or if a soufflé has risen. But unless we practice molecular gastronomy, we rarely pay attention to the buried atomic structure responsible for these changes. However, that doesn’t change the fact that food without substance is not very satisfying. The ingredients in a soufflé look nothing like the final product (see Figure 12). Nonetheless, the constituents and molecules in your food that you are happy to ignore are essential to its existence.


FIGURE 12 ] A soufflé is very different from the ingredients that comprise it. In a similar manner, matter might have very different properties—or even appear to obey very different physical laws—from the more fundamental matter of which it is composed.

Similarly, anyone would be hard-pressed to say decisively what music is. But any attempt to describe the phenomenon and our emotional response to it would almost certainly involve viewing music on a level apart from atoms or neurons. Even though we apprehend music when our ears register the sound waves produced by a particularly well-tuned instrument, music is much more than the individual oscillating atoms of air that generate the sound or the physical response of our ears and our brains.

Yet the materialist view still stands, and the substrate is essential. Music arises from those molecules of air. Get rid of the ear’s mechanical response to material phenomena and you have no more music. (And in space no one will hear you scream.) It’s just that somehow our perception and understanding of music goes beyond that materialistic description. Questions about how we as human beings perceive music won’t be addressed if we simply focus on oscillating molecules. Understanding music involves weighing chords and harmonies and lack of harmony in ways that never mention molecules or oscillations. But music nonetheless requires those oscillations, or at least the sensory impression they leave in our brains.

Similarly, understanding an animal’s basic components is only one step to understanding the processes that make up life. We almost certainly won’t understand everything without a better knowledge of how those components aggregate to produce the phenomena with which we are familiar. Life is an emergent phenomenon that goes beyond the basic ingredients.

Most likely consciousness will also turn out to be in this category. Though we don’t have a comprehensive theory of consciousness, thoughts and feelings are ultimately rooted in electrical, chemical, and physical properties of the brain. Scientists can observe material mechanistic phenomena in the brain associated with thoughts and feelings, even if they can’t put it together to see how it works. This material view is essential but not necessarily sufficient for understanding all the phenomena in our world.

We aren’t guaranteed to understand consciousness in terms of the most fundamental units, but we might ultimately figure out principles that apply on some larger, more composite or emergent scale. With future scientific advances, scientists will better understand the fundamental chemistry and electrical channels of the brain and thereby understand the basic functioning units. Consciousness will probably be explained as a phenomenon that scientists will only fully understand by identifying and studying the correct composite pieces.

This means that not only neuroscientists, who study basic brain chemistry, stand a shot at making progress. Developmental psychologists, who ask how a baby’s thought process differs from our own,20 or others who might ask how human thought differs from that of a dog, stand a good chance of making progress as well. Just as music is not one thing but has many levels and many layers, my guess is that so too is consciousness. And by asking questions at a larger level we might gain insights both about consciousness itself and about what are the right questions to ask when we do go ahead and study the building blocks—namely, the chemistry and physics of the brain. As with a lovely soufflé we will have to understand emergent systems that arise as well. Nonetheless, no human thought or action will occur without affecting some physical component of our body.

Though perhaps less mysterious than the theory of consciousness, physics advances by studying phenomena on various scales. Physicists ask different questions when studying disparate sizes and different aggregates. The questions we ask about sending a spaceship to Mars are very different from the questions we ask about how quarks interact. Both are legitimate questions to study, but we won’t readily extrapolate one from the other. Nonetheless, the matter that gets sent out into space is made up of the fundamental components that we ultimately hope to understand.

I’ve occasionally heard people mock as reductionist the materialist view that particle physicists employ and point out all the phenomena we won’t—or don’t—address. Sometimes these are physical or biological processes such as brain function or hurricanes, and sometimes they are spiritual phenomena—where I in turn become a little perplexed about what people mean, but which I would have to agree we never address. Physical theories address structure from the largest to the smallest scales that we can hypothesize about or study with experiments. Over time, we build a consistent picture of how one layer of reality proceeds from the next. The basic elements are essential to reality, but good scientists don’t assert that knowledge of them in itself explains everything. Explanations call for further research.

Even if string theory turns out to explain quantum gravity, the “theory of everything” will remain a horrible misnomer. In the unlikely event that physicists arrive at such an all-embracing fundamental theory, we would still have to face lots of questions about phenomena on larger scales that won’t be answered simply by knowing the basic components. Only when scientists understand collective phenomena that arise on larger scales than those described by elementary strings will we hope to explain superconducting materials, monster waves in the ocean, and life. In the process of doing science, we’ll address phenomena scale by scale. We will investigate objects and processes at larger distance scales than we would ever be able to handle if we tried to keep track of each component.

Though we focus on different layers of reality to address different questions, the materialist view is nonetheless essential. Physics and other sciences rely on studying the matter that exists in the world. Science at its core relies on objects interacting through mechanical causes and their effects. Something moves because a force acted on it. An engine functions through its consumption of energy. Planets orbit the Sun through its gravitational influence. According to a scientific perspective, human behavior too ultimately requires chemical and physical processes, even if we are still far from understanding how this works. Our moral choices must also ultimately relate at least in part to our genes and hence our evolutionary history. The physical makeup plays a role in our actions.

We might not address all the vital questions at once, but the underlying substrate is always necessary to a scientific description. For a scientist, material mechanistic elements underlie the description of reality. The associated physical correlates are essential to any phenomenon in the world. Even if not sufficient to explain everything, they are required.

This materialist viewpoint works well for science. But it inevitably leads to logical conflicts when religion invokes a God or some other external entity to explain how people or the world behave. The problem is that in order to subscribe both to science and to a God—or any external spirit—who controls the universe or human activity, one has to address the question of at what point does the deity intervene and how does He do it. According to the materialist, mechanistic point of view of science, if genes that influence our behavior are a result of random mutations that allowed a species to evolve, God can be responsible for our behavior only if He physically intervened by producing that apparently random mutation. To guide our activities today, God had to influence the ostensibly random mutation that was critical to our development. If He did, how did He do that? Did He apply a force or transfer energy? Is God manipulating electrical processes in our brains? Is He pushing us to act in a certain way or creating a thunderstorm for any particular individual so he or she can’t get to their destination? On a larger level, if God gives purpose to the universe, how does He apply His will?

The problem is that not only does much of this seem silly, but that these questions seem to have no sensible answer that is consistent with science as we understand it. How could this “God magic” possibly work?

Clearly people who want to believe that God can intervene to help them or alter the world at some point have to invoke nonscientific thinking. Even if science doesn’t necessarily tell us why things happen, we do know how things move and interact. If God has no physical influence, things won’t move. Even our thoughts, which ultimately rely on electrical signals moving in our brains, won’t be affected.

If such external influences are intrinsic to religion, then logic and scientific thought dictate that there must be a mechanism by which this influence is transmitted. A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic—or simply not care.

This incompatibility strikes me as a critical logical impasse in methods and understanding. Stephen Jay Gould’s purportedly “nonoverlapping magisteria”—those of science, covering the empirical universe, and religion, extending into moral inquiry—do overlap and face this intractable paradox too. Though believers might relegate the latter to religion, and even though science has yet to answer some deep and fundamental questions of interest to humanity, once we talk about substance and activity—be it in and of the brain or in reference to celestial objects—we are in the domain of science.


However, the incompatibility doesn’t necessarily trouble all believers. It so happened that when I was on a plane ride from Boston to Los Angeles, I was seated next to a young actor who had trained as a molecular biologist, but who had some surprising views about evolution. Before embarking on his acting career, he had coordinated science teaching for three years in urban schools. When I met him, he was returning from the inauguration of President Obama, and he was brimming over with enthusiasm and optimism, and wanting to leave the world a better place. Along with continuing his successful acting career, his ambition was to open schools worldwide to teach science and scientific methodology.

But our conversation took a surprising turn. The curriculum he planned would include at least one course on religion. Religion had been a big part of his own life, and he trusted people to make their own judgments. But that wasn’t the biggest surprise. He then went on to explain his belief that man descended from Adam as opposed to ascending from apes. I didn’t get how someone trained as a biologist could not believe in evolution. This inconsistency goes further than any violation of the materialist universe through God’s intermediate intervention of the sort I’ve just discussed. He told me how he could learn the science and understand the logic but that these are simply how man—whatever that means—puts things together. In his mind the logical conclusions of “man” are just not the way it is.

This exchange reinforced to me why we will have a tough time answering questions about the compatibility of science and religion. Empirically based logic-derived science and the revelatory nature of faith are entirely different methods for trying to arrive at truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. Logic tries to resolve paradoxes, whereas much of religious thought thrives on them. If you believe in revelatory truth, you’ve gone outside the rules of science so there is no contradiction to be had. A believer can interpret the world in a non-rational way that from his perspective is compatible with science, which is to say accept “God magic.” Or—like my neighbor on the plane—he can simply decide that he’s willing to live with the contradiction.

But although God might have a way of avoiding the logical contradictions, science does not. Religious adherents who want to accept religious explanations for how the world works as well as scientific thinking are obliged to confront a tremendous chasm between scientific discoveries and unseen, imperceptible influences—a gap that is basically unbridgeable by means of logical thought. They have no choice but to temporarily abandon logical (or at least literal) interpretations in matters of faith—or simply not to care about the contradiction.

Either way, it is still possible to be an accomplished scientist. And indeed, religion might well yield valuable psychological benefits. But any religious scientist has to face daily the scientific challenge to his belief. The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible.