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Why religion asks good questions (even if you're an atheist)

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Science has already made surprising progress in answering ‘religious’ questions, argues Dr Michael Price, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Brunel University London.

Today I want to talk about this conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘atheism’ that some people get worked up about. The reason I don’t get worked up about it is because I think it’s misguided. It overlooks everything that’s actually interesting about the relationship between religion and science. 

Just to clarify my stance, I believe in science 100 per cent; my worldview is entirely naturalistic, and I don’t identify with any particular religion. But I also think religion in general asks questions about existence that are important to try and answer. Important not just in an abstract philosophical way, but in a personal way – as a way to achieve greater individual happiness and fulfilment. We don’t currently have all the answers to these questions, of course, but I think they ultimately will be answered, and that the answers will come from science. And the most exciting thing about all this is how much progress science has already made towards answering them.

Let me also clarify what I mean by ‘religious questions’. I’m defining ‘religion’ (or ‘spirituality’) as 'belief in some ultimate purpose to existence' – the idea that our existence has some purpose, in other words, that is more fundamental than the interests of any person or group. That’s essentially what all religious worldviews are proposing. Of course, people also have their regular mundane human interests, rooted in their biology. But religions suggest that above and beyond these human interests, existence has a deeper and larger purpose.

So if a ‘religious’ worldview suggests that existence has a purpose that is more ultimate than any biologically-based purpose, what could this mean from a scientific perspective? There are two points to keep in mind here.

First, from a scientific perspective, when you’re talking about natural domains that are more fundamental than the biological, you’re ultimately talking about physics.

Second, when you’re talking about ‘purpose’ from a scientific perspective, you’re talking about Darwinian selection. Why is this true? Well, keep in mind that Darwinian selection isn’t just a biological process, it’s ‘substrate-neutral’. This means selection can potentially operate in any natural domain, to create entities that act as if they are strongly motivated to exist. All selection requires, in order to do this, is a population of entities that vary in terms of their ability to solve problems related to existence. Entities that are better at solving these problems end up dominating the population; it’s that simple. And that basic drive to exist – and to solve all the different problems that must be solved, to achieve persistent existence – that's the source of all ‘purpose’ in nature. That’s the reason, for example, why biological organisms consist of adaptations – like eyes, and lungs, and mating preferences – that share the basic purpose (or ‘function’) of promoting survival and reproduction.

So the most fundamental domains of nature are those of physics, and the only natural process that can create ‘purpose’ is Darwinian selection. Therefore, when religions propose that existence has a fundamental purpose, then from a scientific perspective they are proposing something quite simple and specific: they are proposing that Darwinian selection operates in the domains of physics.

Now, this kind of scientific interpretation of religion – translating 'religion' essentially as 'speculations about Darwinian physics' – may seem odd, for at least two reasons. First, most religious people would, of course, never characterize their own beliefs that way. On that point I’d just say sorry, but this is the best science can do right now, in terms of making sense of religious propositions. And I’d also say, please try and keep an open mind here, because this point of view may eventually end up seeming more plausible, and less strange, than it does at first glance.

The second odd thing about this scientific interpretation of religion is that it mentions something called ‘Darwinian physics’, which will be an unfamiliar concept to most people. Everyone is aware that Darwinism is used in biology, and many are aware that it’s used to explain cultural evolution. Most people don’t know, however, that it’s also used in physics, and specifically in the domains of cosmology and quantum physics.

The best known example of Darwinian cosmology is Smolin’s ‘cosmological natural selection’, and variations on this idea, which I’ve blogged about before (for example, here and here).

The best known example of Darwinian quantum physics is Zurek’s 'quantum Darwinism', which is a fascinating idea that I haven’t blogged about before. Quantum Darwinism simply takes advantage of the fact that quantum mechanics can be precisely and elegantly described using the language of Darwinian selection. It explains how our experience of ‘classical reality’ – that is, the ‘normal’ events of everyday life that we experience as happening in the world all around us, all the time – emerges, via Darwinian selection, from a quantum reality that is demonstrably much weirder than classical reality (because in this quantum reality, for example, physical objects exist in many places at once).

There isn’t time or space now to go into more detail about cosmological and quantum Darwinism, and to explain what they suggest, so far, about fundamental purpose. These will be topics for future blogs. But I do want to emphasize now that as unfamiliar as these ideas may sound, they are based on firm scientific foundations. For example, ‘Darwinian physicists’ like Smolin and Zurek are not marginal thinkers, they are some of the most well-established physicists in the world, and their ideas have been published in some of the most prestigious journals in physics. And if we really want to understand the psychology of religion, and the nature of religious questions, we need to pay more attention to approaches in Darwinian physics like these. Of course these approaches are not currently capable of answering all questions that have traditionally been regarded as 'religious', but they are off to a good start. And if these questions actually can be answered, then these approaches represent our most promising means for finding out what the answers actually are.

Article reproduced from Psychology Today with permission of the author, Dr Michael Price. The original article, including references, is available from the Psychology Today blog.