Filed in Science

In the Light of Truth

A physicist sees science as spiritual practice

Adam Frank

Wisdom Collection

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Timoth Collins © 2007THE DEBATE BETWEEN science and religion, usually set on a slow burn of simmering antagonism, has once again flared into the domain of cultural warfare. Traditional theological-based skirmishes pit scripture against cosmology, and advocates of intelligent design and biological evolution fight for control of school curriculums in much-publicized court cases. Meanwhile, claims that Buddhist worldviews are confirmed at the frontiers of quantum physics also generate press and controversy.

It may seem strange to lump the antagonism of Christian fundamentalists toward evolution together with New Age attempts to integrate quantum physics with Buddhism, but they share much in common. However much we may tilt toward one approach and reject the other, they are both fundamentally flawed. Both approaches focus on what science says, not on its method or intention, and in doing so both miss a simple, deeper, and more fecund truth.

When carried forward with right intention and an open heart, science is a kind of spiritual practice, no different in its aspiration from the work on the cushion. In the end, what matters in science is our experience of the world, our aspiration to uncover its inmost truth, and, finally, our intention to live with integrity in the light of that truth. Practice is the place where science and spiritual aspiration find common ground. Rather than compare the "results" of science and religion, we would do better to compare the experiences, aspirations, and training of the most dedicated practitioners of each stream.

In 1991, two British astronomers, Andrew Lyne and Matthew Bailes, thrilled and shocked the astronomical community when they announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the neutron star PSR1829-10, a dead cinder of a once massive sun. For two and a half thousand years, philosophers and astronomers had asked whether planets existed outside our solar system. For two and a half thousand years, the question remained steadfastly unanswerable. Suddenly, Lyne and Bailes's discovery seemed to provide an answer. It was big news. Then, a year later, at an astronomical meeting designed to present new results, Lyne stood before a large audience in Atlanta and announced that he and Bailes had gotten it wrong. With news cameras rolling, Lyne detailed how their analysis of the data had been in error. They were withdrawing their claim of discovery. After a long pause, the audience came to its feet in a standing ovation.

There is a Zen saying that the point of practice is to avoid fooling yourself. Buddhists are asked to come to their work on the cushion, and their lives off it, with right view and right intention. The point of practice, they are told, is to learn mindfulness and become observant, fully present for what is, just as it is. Science asks the same of its practitioners. Brutal honesty about the character of the conclusions scientists draw in their investigations is a hallmark of sincere scientific practice. The scientist has to be honest with himself about the integrity of the result and the possibility of error. That is why the audience saw Lyne as a hero to be honored, not a failure to be shunned.

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