In a dark night, a torch’s light pierces through the darkness, and illuminates the way. As it reveals the way forward, it also produces more darkness. More precisely, light made darkness ‘darker’, while darkness made light ‘brighter’. This, in essence, captures the relationship between science and religion. The light represents science, while darkness is religion.
A superficial way of seeing this light – dark analogy is to say that science and religion are, by nature, irreconciliable, because philosophically and historically, they are two dialectic forces. In other words, they are two archrivals; one loses, the other wins and vice versa. Light and darkness cannot co – exist because there is one absolute truth. In the Middle Ages, monks saw compass as a Satanic work. By always pointing to the North, it tempts humans to peep into God’s mind and hence to challenge God’s power. In this case, either the scientific explanation about magnetic pole prevails, or the religious explanation about Satan’s work should triumph.
Unfortunately, this kind of ‘either/or’ explanation is over-simplistic, if not naive. I believe that as science discovers how nature works, it only serves to deepen the mystery. By the same token, religion inspires awe and imagination that powers science to solve the mystery. Science and religion work hand in hand because each reinforces the other. That’s why light made darkness ‘darker’, while darkness made light ‘brighter’. Let me explain.
As scientific theory finally solves one natural mystery, another mystery always arises. With simplicity, Newton formulated the three laws of motion that predicts, with remarkable precision, how gravity behaves. However he never explained what gravity exactly is. Einstein shocked the world when he said gravity is the warping of space and time. He told us that on top of the ordinary three dimensions (up – down, right – left, forward – backward), there is an additional time dimension that we are not aware of. In other words, there is actually four dimensions in the Universe.
That’s not the end of the story. Einstein presumed that space is smooth like a piece of blank sheet. Quantum mechanics destroys that assumption when it reveals that space is dominated by violent undulations of particles. Recent years saw the rise of string theory which tries to resolve this conflict by seeing particles not as infinitely small ‘points’ but as strings. However full – fledged string theory requires nine space dimensions and one time dimension – a total of ten dimensions.
These discoveries inspire a profound awe about the nature. This awe is simple and uncomplicated. It is similar to the surprise when you look at the sky, and find a beautiful sunset, or discover a rainbow. Whenever you express this kind of wonder, religion is already at works.
Science refines this awe into having a deep sense of connection with the Universe. As Einstein revealed there is an additional time dimension that we cannot perceive, he has done more than just explaining a natural phenomenon concerning gravity. He showed us the deep underlying aspect of the Universe and provoked us to question where we stand in the Cosmo.
However Einstein’s illumination only serves to raise more questions and made the mystery still more mysterious. Quantum mechanics, in its own right, found many interesting answers to difficult scientific questions, but it ultimately clashes with Einstein’s theory. Physicists held high hope that string theory can shed some light, and it did, but as the cost of creating still more mysteries, one of them being the ten dimensions.
One additional time dimension is already hard enough to swallow, let alone ten. The time dimension stimulates the awe I just described and by doing so, it works as an engine that powers physicist to find the answer which will, in turn, fire still more mysteries. The extra six space dimensions that string theory proposes is unprecedented and truly mind – blowing. The Calabi – Yau shape on the right can give a very rough idea of how it might look like.
In this discussion, I see religion as something very simple. It is a feeling of having a connection with Cosmo. Awe, wonder and marveling are examples of that feeling. Our very bodies are an embodiment of that idea because the elements that made us up – iron, carbon, hydrogen – are the ones that made up the stars. When we sing ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ as children, we are unaware the faraway stars in dark night are made with the same matter as we are. In the very near future (in cosmological scale), the Earth will be destroyed by the expansion of the Sun. The particles in our bodies will gather into a dust cloud to be ‘recycled’ to form into another star.
I am trying hard to avoid using any ‘religious terms’ but reincarnation is the best word that describes the process. Stephen Hawkins amusedly speculated in The Brief History of Time that an astronaut falling into a black hole can achieve a bizarre immortality. His/her body will be torn apart, for sure, and his/her mass absorbed by the black hole. However the black hole will transform that mass into energy and will radiate it back to the Universe. The astronaut lives forever in the form of mass and energy.
To see the world without science is to give ourselves to the care of a blind man. To see the world without religion is to burn ourselves without knowing any meaning of life. There is no absolute light or absolute darkness. Light presumes the existence of darkness while darkness presumes the existence of light. Likewise, science and religion are inseparable and are two sides of the same coin. They are part and parcel of the Cosmo.