April 17th, 2003


The Science of Religion; the Religion of Science

One joy of being both an amateur science geek and an amateur student of religion is that I get to watch the two interact, spinning around each other in synchronicity.

Today, the missingmatter feed pointed to this fascinating article in Scientific American. It's basically a summary of all of the current major theories of parallel universes, and argues quite elegantly that it is easier to believe in them than not. Along the way, it argues that anything that is mathematically possible is, in a very real sense, "real". It doesn't quite come out and state that our universe is basically a giant equation (a position I've become increasingly attracted to over time), but provides all the necessary fodder to get there.

(The article is long, but well worth reading, BTW, and I commend it. It stays away from the hardcore math, and instead provides fairly intuitive arguments for no less than four different kinds of parallel universes, arguing that all four probably exist and all but one are terribly interesting. Heapum fun.)

The synchronicity comes in that I'm currently listening to the Teaching Company's course on Buddhism in the car. Which, in the course of discussing the Buddhist concept of "emptiness", makes essentially exactly the same argument -- that there is a level on which nothing is precisely real, therefore everything imaginable is possible. The mathematical concept of the "Level IV Multiverse" in the science article could practically be a rewrite of the Buddhist doctrine.

That's about as close to a true religious experience as I've come, and there's something delightfully inspiring about it. I sometimes think about how I've slowly gone from considering myself an atheist in high school, to pretty religious today, and this particular coincidence sums it up -- the thing that has changed is how I think about religion. For some people, it's all about meaning. I can sympathize with that, but it isn't actually what most drives me; instead, my strongest need is for explanation. Yes, I want the "why", but first things first -- I'd like some "what" and "how" to begin with.

I find it both wondrously amusing and comforting that today's science seems to be driving towards many of the same answers that the philosophers of two thousand years ago found. And the coincidences that surround it give me at least some small hope that "why" might actually be an answerable question...