What about choosing between science or art? The question presents a false choice. Science and art belong to two separate realms. Both express deep truths about existence, but in very different ways. Science uses the symbolic form of mathematical equations to describe the mechanics of reality. Art uses paint, the written word, film and sculpture to depict the human condition and our relationship to the world around us. The scientific method is a rigorous “left-brain” activity. Art taps into our deepest emotions; its creation comes from a “right-brain” intuitive perception, writes Jeffrey Small, author of The Breath of God in Huffpost.
At the same time, these realms can overlap. The sciences of colour theory and perspective have influenced artists for centuries. New technologies, like photography and computer graphics, have spawned new artistic mediums. On the other hand, many of our greatest scientific discoveries were conceived through sparks of creative insight. Astronomers and physicists often use terms like awe and beauty to describe the universe.
Can we move from art to religion? In the science versus religion debate, people flock to either pole of the debate. Some religious fundamentalists close their eyes to the scientific laws that make our 21st century lives possible Similarly, some scientific atheists look down their noses at those who hold religious beliefs as simpletons belonging to a different age.
The core problem in this debate stems from both sides overstretching their perspectives, notes Jeffrey Small. “A religious worldview that denies scientific knowledge will ultimately be doomed to irrelevancy. A scientific worldview without a larger philosophical, metaphysical or religious system in which to anchor itself strands one like a shipwreck survivor adrift in an ocean of meaninglessness.” Neither science nor religion, on their own, can hold all of the answers to existence, but maybe together they can complement and strengthen each other.
Without the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, we wouldn’t have cell phones, the internet, cars, air conditioning or medicine. Would you fly in an airplane if the laws of aerodynamics didn’t work every time? Our life expectancy has doubled in the last two centuries because of the advancement in our scientific knowledge.
Science excels at explaining the mechanics of how our universe works. But as good as science is at explaining the how and the what of existence, it falls short with the why and the should. Science describes mechanics better than meaning.
In spite of The Big Bang, quantum theories of spontaneous creation of matter and energy and String Theory, our vast scientific database still struggles to answer the most fundamental of all questions first posed by the Greek philosopher Parmenides in the 5th century BCE: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” On a personal level, this desire to understand the meaning of being may come out as “Who am I, and why am I here?”
Critics of religion enjoy pointing out how many wars and how much suffering has been caused in the name of religion. But only science has given us the tools to kill each other in ways never possible before. Biologists have produced viral and bacterial weapons; chemists have developed gunpowder and ever more destructive explosives; physicists have given us the power to destroy our very existence with nuclear weapons. Some of our technological advances have also polluted our environment to the point of endangering our planet.
If we allow our religions to evolve, we might find that science and religion can complement each other: each may open a different window into reality, just as art and science do. Together they can critique, challenge, complement and enrich human existence. Humans need art and science. They need scientific openness and religious wisdom.
(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)