Service – Science Converses with Religion

“Science Converses With Religion”
Dr. Larry Price, physicist, Nancy Dutton’s brother in law
Rev. Dick Dutton, KUUF Assisting Minister

Dr. Larry Price is a physicist specializing in elementary particles. He is retired from a career at Argonne National Laboratory, where he held the rank of senior physicist and was Director of the High Energy Physics Division. He has worked on the large Hadron Collider located underground beneath the French-Swiss border and built by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.. Larry is currently is a member of the UU Fellowship of Central Oregon, in Bend, where he has been President of the congregation and served during the building of their stunning new sanctuary.

Today a conversation between Rev. Dutton and Dr. Price in a question and answer format:

Rev Dutton leads with questions:

  1. ?? As you know, we came today to talk about science and religion. Please introduce yourself briefly with respect to both science and religion

On the science side, I was turned on to Physics by an inspired high school teacher.  That led me to major in physics at Pomona College and then pursue a PhD in Physics at Harvard University, which I completed in 1970.  When I got to Harvard, the field of research going after the most exciting questions seemed to me to be the field of elementary particles, trying to discover what are the most fundamental components of matter and the forces between them.  And so I joined that field of research for my thesis.  After Harvard, I worked first at Columbia University in NYC and then for a long time at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago.  In my over 40 years of active involvement in the field, I have had the opportunity to participate in exciting discoveries, including

  • Exploring the structure of protons and neutrons;
  • Understanding the properties of quarks, which are now known to be constituents of protons and neutrons;
  • Contributing to the revolution in understanding neutrinos with the discovery of neutrino oscillations and therefore neutrino mass;
  • Discovering the Higgs boson, the final component of the “Standard Model” of particle physics, as part of a very large international collaboration.

When I entered graduate school, only 4 out of the 17 particles now considered elementary had been discovered.  Now all of them have been, ending with the Higgs boson in 2012.  My career has spanned a great advance in our understanding of nature.  It has been exciting to be part of it.

I have now been retired for 3 years and have enjoyed several opportunities to give public lectures on physics topics, with the idea of informing the public about the science and significance of recent developments such as the Higgs boson and gravitational waves.

On the religion side, my main credential is that I have been a regular churchgoer all of my life, and that, from time to time, I have tried to figure out why that is so because I am not at all conventionally religious.

My church home as a child was the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, CA, at the time affiliated with both Unitarians and Congregationalists.  It is now purely UU.  Without really making a choice I came away from that church feeling connected with UCC and stayed with that denomination in Claremont, CA, where I went to college; Cambridge, MA where I went for graduate school, and White Plains, NY, where I lived during my first job, at Columbia University.  In 1978 my family moved to the western suburbs of Chicago.  Perhaps the Midwest is more conservative.  In any case, we discovered that the United Church of Christ was no longer a fit.  But, one of the UU churches in the area did turn out to be a good fit, and I have been a member of a UU church steadily in Oak Park, IL, Palo Alto, CA, Hinsdale, IL and now Bend, OR.  At those churches, in addition to attending regularly, I have served as Treasurer, Membership Committee chair, Stewardship Committee chair, Board President, and Social Justice Committee chair.  So, apparently, not only do I attend church on Sunday morning, but I also throw myself into the lives of the churches.  There must be something there that I value!

 2. ?? So, you are a scientist and also a man of faith. At least you have been connected with churches all of your life.  Are those separate worlds?  Or do they fit together somehow? 

I see religion and science as both being searches for meaning and understanding of the world we live in.   One thing our brains are clearly designed to do is to figure out the world: to have explanations about why things happen that affect us and to use that knowledge to predict the future and, as much as possible, influence things so that only good things happen.  As a people, we tried to predict and then prevent bad events from happening, not only things we could control but also things like floods, drought, volcano eruptions and so on.  This is surely the origin of religion and especially the supernatural superstructures that try to explain the whims of nature.

Religion and science are both searches for meaning, but in different areas of our lives that need very different techniques.  I divide the issues we deal with into “external”, meaning the world that is subject to measurement and theorizing about how everything fits together; and “internal” meaning the mystery of the human brain, both my own and those of everyone else I encounter in life.  The external world is the subject of science and over centuries we have made great progress.  The internal world of the human mind is extremely complex and not susceptible (yet, anyway) to any but the most rudimentary objective measurements.  It includes the knowledge we each have accumulated; our plans and hopes and dreams for the future; the whole range of emotions about how we are doing in life, interactions with others, etc., etc.  It also includes the range of introspection and model building we each engage in about the meaning of life and where our priorities should be, in other words the domain of spirituality and thus of religion.

Science is clearly the best way to approach the truth about the “external” world that can be measured.  Things are not as cut and dried for the “internal” world, but religion is arguably an excellent way of examining the internal world from a personal point of view, examining personal and societal relationships and imbuing human life with meaning.

 

   3.?? As a scientist, can you believe in a creator-God?

This is a question I have come back to many times over the years.  Certainly that happened during the almost 20 years when I was attending Congregational or UCC churches and yet realizing that I did not believe in the supernatural overlay that even that liberal Christian church had.  The fact is that my understanding of science over a period of years has strongly influenced my approach to religious claims.  I believe that science has progressed far enough in understanding the natural world that it is not now tenable to think of there being another realm where God lives and interacts with our world from a distance.

Fairly early on, I concluded that since there is no objective evidence for supernatural claims, certainly none that I could manage to experience directly, it makes no sense to act on those ideas in daily life or in church.  This conclusion is amplified by the widely divergent claims that different religious communities adhere to passionately, and an understanding of churches as distinctly human institutions.  Think of all the things that were “decided” as ordained by God by the very human delegates at the Council of Nicea in 325!

So no, I cannot believe in a creator-God.

 

   4.?? When UU’s hold a worship service, what do they worship? Why go do you to church?  (Question put to congregation first.)

Well, I also realized fairly early on that churches are useful and important institutions because (at their best anyway) they promote discussion and contemplation of the human condition and values for living life that are not susceptible to objective scientific analysis.  I am not comfortable with the idea of values handed down from on high (God, the Pope, Joseph Smith,….), but I do believe that it is a good thing to try to get values right, even if there is no absolute authority, and to find institutions that work to take advantage of the broad experience of humanity.

I also concluded that Christianity, at least at the UCC level of intensity and congregational polity, is fine as a medium and language for dealing with issues of the human condition, even if it is not to be taken literally.  Christianity has the advantage of being embedded in Western culture and it is helpful and even enriching to know the stories and concepts that show up in literature and even political speeches.

But, beyond accepting some of Christianity as a metaphor, I find the central question is “What is religion?  Is what we do in church on Sunday and other days still religion if I don’t accept the traditional claims of religion?

For myself, the best services celebrate and explore the wonder and terror of human life.  A church is a community that comes together regularly to enjoy being together but also to discuss and contemplate the human condition and values for living life that are not susceptible to objective scientific analysis.  And, again, the lack of scientific susceptibility is not because they are in a different realm, forever removed from human existence, but rather because they involve incredibly complex human brains trying to interact and communicate.  The complexity of our brains encompasses complex topics like the whole gamut of emotions, like our varied experience of spirituality, like everyday problem solving and personal interactions.  The wonder of our worship services is that at different times they can explore all of these topics and help us understand how to approach these topics in a way that benefits ourselves and the people around us, generally without focusing at all on the complex mechanisms going on inside our heads.

 

   5.?? For the scientist, what replaces the unknown?

Religion began at attempts to explain and control the natural world.  Over the centuries, explaining the actions of nature has become the realm of science, which has had a lot of success in explaining why both good and bad things happen.  The need for a supernatural layer has essentially disappeared.  Unless you insist on applying that to what is happening in our brains.  We clearly do not understand what is happening there and could continue to invoke a supernatural god.  But it is much more likely that the 100 billion neurons in our brains and the 100 trillion connections between the neurons are the origin of the complexity and unpredictability of our thoughts and emotions.  We need ways of dealing with that complexity, but the supernatural does not help.

Traditionally, some have tried to define the separation by what science has still left as the greatest mysteries at the particular time.  Certainly Genesis tries (beautifully) to explain the existence of the world and its contents by invoking a Creator, without questioning that such beings exist.  Why the world (or the universe) exists is still a major mystery for science and possibly one that is unsolvable.  As far as we can go to provide an explanation, there is always another layer.  For instance, in one currently popular explanation, the universe may have come into existence because of a quantum fluctuation in the underlying fields (physics concept), leading to an avalanche of matter where previously there was none.  This is the “Big Bang”.   But, though this may be a correct description, it does not explain why those underlying fields were there ready to fluctuate.  There is always another question “Why”.  In just the same way, if the universe is “explained” as a creation of God, it simply pushes back the need for explanation to the properties of God and where did She come from?  In my view, if we lived in a world of burning (and speaking) bushes, parting waters, and conversations with God, so that the existence of God was manifest, that would just make understanding the physical nature of God one of the major priorities for science.

Science is clearly the best way to approach the truth about the “external” world that can be measured.  Things are not as cut and dried for the “internal” world, but religion is arguably the best way of examining the internal world from a personal point of view, examining personal and societal relationships and imbuing human life with meaning.

 

6.?? If we could start from scratch, but with our present knowledge of science, would we invent religion? What would it look like?

It is hard to imagine our modern world, but without religion, since religion as a way to deal with the sometimes terrifying unknowns of human existence has been at the center of human culture over the millennia.  But, supposing we somehow got to the modern world with science but without a long history of religion, what would we do?

There would still be the need to deal with the wonder and terror of human existence.  Not everybody would react to those issues by grouping together to meet regularly to lecture or discuss those topics.  But, since the topics are largely about how to work productively with other people who do not share our brain and internal thinking and feeling, I suspect that may people would find that the questions are best addressed together with other people.  The resulting church service might not look much like ours today, after 2000 years of Christian tradition, but it probably would include elements that exercise the multiple mysterious corners of our minds, including spirituality and introspection, music and celebration, ritual, and other parts of our present services.

So I think we would invent institutions some that like churches and hence the equivalent of religion as I understand it.  The churches would probably not have tall steeples reaching to heaven or other references to another realm.

 

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