Runcible Blog

full of hot air?

full of hot air? From: Dave St.Germain
Date: Wed Sep 18, 2002 15:13:22 US/Eastern
To: csteininger
Subject: I wish my class had all these fun electives
I see your course description on the "faith and reason" class. It looks like an interesting class.
"Some people think our lives must be one or the other, all faith, or all reason. We often associate faith with religion and reason with science. This course will explore some of the consequences of this "either, or" attitude, and how faith and reason can and must go hand in hand in our lives. Living on "blind faith" is dangerous, but a life without faith is equally as dangerous."
That reminded me of something that my astronomy professor at BU said in one of his first lectures. He asked the class about the difference between one of his astronomy lectures and a sermon at a church (I think that's what he said, anyway). Of course, lots of people chimed in about how his lecture was based on fact, was scientific, etc. But his final response was that an astronomy lecture and a sermon are very much alike. Either way, the listeners (whether students or parishioners) would believe what they're told. In other words, whether scientists want to admit it or not, there is a large amount of faith involved in astronomy and physics, and really any science. And especially as we become closer and closer to understanding the origins of the universe, a lot of the "facts" are so speculative that we have to take a "leap of faith" to understand them. I spent an inordinate amount of time reading scientific books and focusing on science, and I learned about the "fuzzy" nature of understanding the most fundamental concepts of the universe. One book that I read, "The Elegant Universe", stands out in my mind. Some of the most advanced physics these days focuses on String Theory: the idea that everything in the universe is made of extremely tiny loops of "string" that vibrate in different ways. These mathematical concepts are so hard to prove (because the sizes involved are either infinitesimally small or astronomically huge) that one really has to have faith that this explanation is the only "true" one. As I read it, I definitely had the feeling that I WANT to believe that the universe is so fundamentally simple, even if it turns out that it is not simple at all. And that faith, I think, is what drives many scientists who are searching for the "theory of everything" or attempting to explain what may be impossible to understand. If you know physics, you know that there are lots of examples of incredibly elegant equations and explanations for everything. As a result, we tirelessly search for the most beautiful, elegant, simple explanation. I guess it's like a search for God, in a way.
Well, I didn't want to get carried away.
Anyway, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the other topic I learned about, Zen, proposes a simple reasoning to these complex problems. Basically, we don't know if there is a god (or life after death, etc.), and we probably will never know the real origins of the universe and other fundamental questions, so why not just live here and now and try to do the best we can to help each other?
I don't want you to think that I have the "stink of Zen" (though I'm wearing some stinky pants right now). Actually, I haven't meditated in ages and wouldn't claim to be trying my best to save the world at this time. But I believe it is true that whenever someone "steps on the bodhisattva path", he never really leaves it. It always stays with the person. I think there is something very fundamental about that observation. Good luck with the class, and I'll catch you later.