On February 11, 2021, Shippensburg University hosted its 13th annual Darwin Day event, in honor of Charles Darwin’s birthday.
The event was originally developed by Dr. Joseph Shane, Professor of Chemistry and Science Education. Why now? In 2005, there was a court case that was tried in Federal Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, centered on Dover high school. There, a group of school board members passed through the school board a statement that was read to the freshman biology classes at Dover questioning the veracity of biological evolution, and suggesting that students learn about another alternative so called theory, intelligent design. This was the latest and highest profile in a series of court cases throughout the United States history, going back to the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925. This led Dr. Shane to hold his first forum on science and religion; speakers have included the judge from the decision, and two of the teachers from Dover High School.
This year, led by Briana Pobiner, a group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows “took over” the event, offering their personal stories on how they have experienced the conflict between science and religion in their lives, with a particular eye toward reaching new audiences and educating a potentially reluctant public. If you haven’t met them already, these videos offer an excellent introduction to the Fellows and what inspired them to bridge the divide between the worlds of religion and science. The second group of the presentations below offers perspectives on water stewardship, technology and the soul, theories of everything, and the size of the universe.
Carolyn HallRead Transcript
Hi everyone. I am a marine ecologist but focus on the historical study – so digging into the past of – relationships of humans to ecologies, and how we’ve actually shaped the present that we’re in now. But I am also a couple other things. I’m also a dancer, and still dance professionally. And I’m also a science communicator. So yes, I was trained with the Alan Alda Center, but am now working.
With some other colleagues – I’m freelance with other various groups. Not only scientists, but also other people with expertise in fact i’m working with a bunch of religion scholars right now, so I’m finding this all fascinating. And what iIm finding in working with religion scholars – because I was not raised with any religious practice at all, I was raised in a house that did not want religion – so it’s interesting to be working with people who are studying religion, the big umbrella term of “religion.” And I’m realizing that it’s really about culture, it’s really about the history of humanity and societal culture, and how various ways of forming community and the beliefs behind those communities are how we’ve moved through the world.
And that relates very closely to why I do the work I do, which is a hybrid practice of looking at marine ecology, looking at local rivers and shorelines, and talking about the local effects of climate change, but doing it through public engagement and artistic practice.
So let me break that down a little bit. One of my collaborative projects is specifically taking people on walking tours of a place and having them sensorially imagine what the place was like in the past, by walking them through prompts where they’re seeing and feeling and hearing what it was like thousands of years ago. And they’re standing at the water’s edge – so they’re imagining what it sounded like before, but they’re hearing what it is now, and slowly bringing them forward to the present with climate data, with the changes that have happened. But not making it about the facts, not making it about, as Briana said, about all that information. Trying to make it about what you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re imagining, and what you know from being familiar with a local place.
And then that gets into the culture. So that gets into what you know of a place, your experience of it, how your community interacts with it, and actually how it’s been regulated over time. So there’s the history of human interaction with ecology.
And then we take them forward into the future, but we take them forward into the future by having them fill out what that future is with their imagination, based on learning some of the climate change data. But again, not just the facts. If there’s going to be sea level rise, a shoreline area will flood. And if it floods, then some of those sidewalks are going to become canals, so you’ll need a boat, so we get people in a boat. And we make them row through the canal to get from place to place as we’re in the future, which makes them feel how that area would change.
Or we talk about how transportation will be more by water than by car, or we talk about how we may have to figure out new water sources in places where there is drought, or where there’s flooding and the fresh water sources change. But it’s all asking people to use their imagination, and then invest them into an ownership of what the future of that site will look like.
And again, I think this ties into culture and some of the values that religious communities talk about, which is stewardship of place, right – the stewardship of God’s Earth. And whether or not it’s about a deity who has suggested that you should have this sense of stewardship, you have ownership and pride in your home, whatever that home may be. And it’s not always equitable how others decide how that home should be treated.
So by ensuring a sense of ownership, and that future of that place, by how the climate has been changed and how regulations are or are not benefiting you, then you can start to take ownership and stewardship of your future. And that’s the idea behind what I do, is to teach the science, slip it in through artistic experience – actually feeling it – and then imagining how to apply it, so that people become advocates for their home. People come advocates for how it might change with climate and with regulation. So that’s the nutshell of how I’m applying my science background and my arts background and my science communications background.
And basically, in order to frame this, I want to talk about maybe the future of science and religion, and also some weird things that can happen when you completely embrace scientific ideas. So I guess the main question for today is “How do you get from scientific materialism to the idea of a soul, or something like a soul?” And this is a really peculiar thing that happens in a movement that I study called transhumanism.
And so, to just give a brief example – maybe this is actually a bit easier, since we spend so much time on Zoom – but there’s this prevailing feeling that the real self is something like software running on the hardware of your body, kind of like Neo being in the Matrix. And this idea dates back at least until the 1980s, you have books like Neuromancer, you have big cityscapes. You can imagine something like Tron, right, where basically you can leave your body and be digitized and be inhabiting a completely virtual space.
And so, one of the questions that I’m asking, as I just said, is “Well, if we embrace scientific materialism to its logical end, how is it that people get to something like the digitality – that it is possible to be a fully digital person?” And so to talk a little bit about what transhumanism is, basically it’s a collection of social and political movements dedicated to radically changing the human condition through the use of technology.
And there’s a variety of different technologies that they focus on – say, biotechnology, cryonics, virtual reality, brain emulation, and artificial intelligence. And for today I’m just going to mainly talking about virtual reality, because I think, especially when it comes to more religious ideas, especially something like a soul, something that we often don’t think about in the religion/science conversation is that there are actually secular groups fully advocating for dualism today, actually often against religious critics, who embrace that kind of holism of the body, and that you can’t simply take a nonphysical part of a person out of them and transfer it somewhere else.
And I have this little graphic here to talk about, say, what they envisioned as you go from something like the human, to the transhuman, right, to the posthuman. And so there’s this actually extreme embrace of the idea of evolution of not only what is it that we are now, but what is it that we could be like in the future, and how could we deliberately take a hold of the evolutionary process and change ourselves?
And so, these ideas of evolution and what is it that we think about evolution, I think is a good kind of, I don’t know, cherry on top of some of the conversations you have from the other panelists of “Well, If we fully accept and embrace these ideas, and everyone else were to, what is it that, then, people would do with something like the idea of evolution?”
And so, one of the things that’s often talked about in the transhumanist space is this thing called radical life extension – RLE. If you go somewhere like Arizona or New Mexico, these places where they have lots of ample power, people are increasingly starting to freeze themselves. And so their services now allow you to freeze your body, or to freeze your head. And Anya Bernstein actually did a qualitative study on Russia, and basically there’s several different startups and companies looking into how to extend a person’s life. And there’s kind of parallel efforts that are going on of like, “Well, how is it that we get to the point where you might be able to be functionally immortal through science?” And so if we don’t have that technology now, one of the ways that they think about this is “Well, if we freeze you for a time, then perhaps you can live long enough, such that you can get to those technologies and potentially live forever.”
But what’s really strange – and this some of you may not be aware of – is that even I would say more mainstream organizations like the IEEE, the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, they have this thing called the Digital Avatar Project, which basically talks about how is it that we start to make increasingly lifelike virtual, digital persons, and what would those be like? And so these kinds of ideas that I’m talking about here are going to increase in the center of the mainstream in the next 10 to 20 years. And as people who’ve become kind of confined to Zoom, again, this idea that we’re really just our minds is going to be increasingly common, as we kind of have a detachment from our bodies.
And finally, I do just want to mention that this isn’t just as a secular idea, but transhumanism isn’t necessarily conflicting with religion in the same way that past kinds of conversations would come down on this topic. And so there are actually many groups who find themselves being both religious and transhumanist. So, for instance, the Christian Transhumanist Movement Association is a place where I have presented before. And there are other organizations all across the United States and Russia, and kind of all over the world now, that are trying to embrace, like, “How do we actively take hold of evolution to control where is it not just that we go, you know, as a society, but how we go, where is it that will be going as a species?”
So basically, to go back to my initial question of “How is it that you get from scientific materialism today to the idea of a soul?” Well, if you start to think of yourself as software, as information, right, and especially if you don’t envision something like an afterlife, then the thing that becomes expedient is just the continuation of experience. And the best places to get those kinds of experiences might be in a virtual space in which you’re free from disease and all these other things, and you can have a lot more control over reality. And so a lot of the attitudes that are often attributed to scientism, say, of control of the environment or whatnot, are kind of at work, and this desire for something like a virtual space in which we can have complete control.
So that’s kind of a big information overload, but I’m happy to kind of answer questions. It’s always great to talk about these things, so thank you so much for allowing me to present.
Rabbi Jordan ShanerRead Transcript
I’m Jordan, I’m a rabbi in Toronto. My religious tradition is Jewish, [and] my congregation is in the Reform Jewish movement.
I feel like I have to begin this with a blessing – a blessing that our tradition teaches us we should say, when in the presence of great scholars, people who contribute a lot of wisdom. There’s certainly a lot of wisdom on this call, and I think it’s a great place to start.
So i’m going to recite it:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, shenatan me’chachmato l’basar vadam.
“Blessed are You, God, our Lord, eternal ruler of the universe, who has given some of God’s own wisdom to flesh and blood.”
What does that mean? I think that what it means for me is that even in the pursuit of secular topics, the pursuit of scientific understanding, the pursuit of awe at the natural world – things that have nothing to do with Torah, with religious values and learning – that there is some of divine wisdom in all of that.
And I think that, like how Reverend Van Sloten, John, finds wonder in the natural world, and not only in the idea of something supernatural, I also am someone who is drawn to my religious tradition because, and not in spite of, the natural world, not in spite of the the scientific communities’ contributions to our understanding of that, although i’m not a scientist, and I find myself very frequently in this group feeling like I’m in way over my head. So with that, I want to say I think that, for me, what I want to talk about is really the places where religion and science have commonality, both for good and for bad.
I think that one of the things that drives all of our learning, all of that spark of hochma tov, of God’s wisdom that’s in us when we do this kind of learning, is a pursuit of a theory of everything, the pursuit of a way of explaining everything that we experience in one way.
And I think that this is often how people perceive what religion is really about, I think that people think that religious traditions are about giving us answers, so we don’t have to keep thinking about things. And I think that there is some truth to that conception, I think that sometimes religion is about giving answers to bolster authority that sort of give us an explanation for everything, but I think that that tendency exists in other realms of human knowledge and experience too. I think that we have seen, lately, that a lot of politics boils down to “I have a theory of everything, a theory of how we got to this point, and what it all means.” And when that is challenged, it leads to not-good places. It leads us to violence, to dismissing other people, to really, really rejecting reality in some ways. I think that that’s really unfortunate.
And in science too, I think that there is this – I mean, I got this term from a scientific idea, the idea that there’s a “theory of everything.” But I’m not talking about the cosmological understanding of a theory of everything. I’m talking about the idea that everything can be known and that, therefore, everything can be explained, and that, if we could only just find the right explanation that fit everything, then we wouldn’t have to continue to have these arguments, continue to have questions.
And I think that in science, like in religion and politics, it’s possible that that search for a theory of everything is about bolstering a certain kind of authority, and is not so helpful. And the reason that I say that is because, like some of the other people who’ve been on this call, like Briana and Amanda and Mark, we’ve seen that people are able to process and hold two different ideas at once more when we see openness and warmth and care, than [when] we see the sort of appeal to authority, to the idea that “I know what’s really true, and if you disagree with me, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. Either you don’t know enough, you’re not smart enough, or you’re brainwashed.”
I think that’s a real tendency that we have in lots of realms in human life. But I think that, with regard to this conversation of religion and science, it’s one of the parts that’s least productive. I am a rabbi in a tradition, where most people don’t have a problem with science, certainly not with evolution and Darwin. And at the same time, we continue to teach the Torah, the version of our story of origin, which many here have referred to as Young-Earth Creationism. I don’t think that the Jewish take on the Torah is exactly the same as Young-Earth Creationism, but we continue to tell that story every year, and we continue to learn about our world through the lens of that story. And something that I think is interesting to me is that it doesn’t seem to be, for most Jewish people, a problem that on the one hand we hold this story up as authoritative, as representative of our tradition and our Jewishness, our outlook on the world – and, on the other hand, most Jews believe in science and believe in evolution and Darwin, and it’s really not a problem. Where we do run into problems in my community is the understanding of whether a God can exist who is good and powerful and meaningful, in any way contiguously with the suffering that we see in our world. And particularly this problem has existed since the middle part of the last century, when all of our Jewish communities were traumatized by a catastrophe that happened in Europe. There is a traditional Jewish response to that question, which, if we look at Biblical texts and at the rabbinic tradition, says “If something is bad is happening to us the Jews, it’s our own fault. We have sinned, we have gone astray, and we’ve been exiled from our land,” and that’s the way we explain that. And I think that that is an unhelpful theory of everything which is totally challenged by the traumas of the last century.
And so, I think that when we approach these kinds of questions in science and religion, both, it’s more useful to focus on not “What’s the answer, what’s the explanation that I need in order to bolster the authority of my tradition, or of my community, or of my own scholarship?” I think that sometimes it’s about understanding and helping people to live with questions.
A question can be a challenge to our authority. It’s also a door to opening up not just a new understanding, but a way of understanding everything – in a way that a theory of everything sounds great, but maybe doesn’t help us get there.
I’m being a little bit rambly and I’m sorry about that. The point that I want to leave us on is the idea of “What are the questions that we should be asking of each other, and what are the questions that we should be helping each other sit with?”, rather than trying to knee-jerk give a response to. That to me is what my tradition is about. It’s why we ask four questions when we begin our Passover seder every year. At the beginning, we don’t start by telling a story – we sit and we ask questions about why we’re still here, why we’re still telling the story, why this matters to us at all. And I think that is the right impulse, not to start with trying to explain or give answers, but to sit with the big questions.
Elizabeth FernandezRead Transcript
My actual professional background is astronomy. I have a PhD in astrophysics, and the specific area that I looked at was the very beginnings of our universe. So, where did the first stars come from? How did chemicals start to form in our universe? And so, as time went on, I began to talk a lot more with people of various different religions – I’ve had a lot of interfaith experience. And I also brought in philosophy into this, philosophy and religion and ethics into science – talking about the biggest-scale things. So like Joseph said earlier, we’re moving to bigger and bigger scales, and I’m going to talk about the biggest scale – the whole universe, or maybe even the multiverse, and personally how I kind of see that.
And so what I’m going to talk a little bit about today is sort of my own personal viewpoint on this, so you can take it or leave it however you like, but sort of where science is going right now, especially when you look at the borders of science – you look about astrophysics, you look aboutt quantum physics – how science is trying to help us to understand where we fit in where consciousness fits in, where our bodies fit in.
And this is interesting, because I think this is a question that religions have been trying to answer for millennia. Of course, they might try to answer these questions a little bit differently, so religions talk about the “why” we’re here, while science is trying to do the “how.” And that’s one way to see it, but since these questions are so similar, a lot of people imagine that this is where the conflict is coming in, because we’re trying to answer the same questions, and sometimes, on first glance, the answers seem like they don’t mesh. So other people might see, perhaps, [that] we have a gap in our scientific understanding, and so they take this gap, and they try to stuff their religion in to see if they can make it fit, make it fill that gap. And I think that both of these viewpoints are kind of missing the richer picture of what we might be seeing here. Because my personal belief is, I think that God, or Creator, or whatever you call call it, is too big to fit into just one religion or just one way of knowing Him, whether it would be science or religion.
And so I think that as humans, we are limited, as as Rabbi Jordan was saying. We are part of this universe, we can’t know everything there is to know. And even when you look at science, you begin to know this is actually very, very true. Because as observers in physical systems, there are things we just can’t know. That’s just the laws of physics, there are things we just can’t know.
So my personal opinion is if our goal is the truth, then it doesn’t hurt to seek God, however and wherever we might find Him – whether this be through any type of religion, whether this be through science, whether this be through philosophy, or however you go about this.
So some points I want to say from the astrophysical perspective. So one thing you learn when you’re in astronomy, you learn how vast the universe is. The universe is really, amazingly big. And there’s no real way that we as humans can wrap our heads around how big the universe is. And then, if you look at the possibility of even – there might be more universes than just one, we might actually have a multiverse. And when you think about how big this could potentially be, the idea of a creator being even bigger, wanting to create something so gigantic and so detailed and so amazingly complex, begins to give you an idea of, maybe, what the creator’s intentions were, or maybe our role in all of this.
Another thing you can consider is that the current scientific consensus is that the universe started in a Big Bang. And this is, you know, interesting theory that all of space and time came from a single point about 13.6 billion years ago.
Now, a lot of people don’t actually know that the Big Bang theory was developed by a Catholic priest – his name was George Lamont. And there’s a lot of different ideas about what this means, like what it means for all time to start in one position, for all space to start in one position. There’s even ideas that perhaps before, there was another universe that our universe came from, sort of this idea of cyclic time. Like, a universe expanded, came together in a big crunch, and then expanded again into a new big bang, forming a new universe. And this sounds really weird, especially for people in the Western world, but actually Eastern traditions, like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, they have this idea of cyclic time. And if you actually study how they view time, they view it as these huge units of time that are longer than the age of the universe. And so all of these things taken together kind of gives you an idea of how grand our reality is, way beyond what we can even imagine.
And then there’s lots of other things that we can look at in physics to kind of give us an idea of where we fit in. For example, as humans, how we look at the nature of time – my “now” is different than your “now,” just, that is something we learned from relativity. Are the past and the future real, are they something that is set in stone, or are they changing?
And then also, when you look at quantum physics, you get a lot of ideas of where observers, or where even consciousness, comes in, how important it is in the grand scheme of things. So quantum physics tells us that observers are actually needed to understand what is happening in a physical system. So what does that mean for us? To a point, there’s a very interesting actually physical experiment saying, maybe consciousness is unique in a way, and I can talk more about that if anyone’s interested. But basically, I just want to talk about the greater connection we have with the universe, where we fit in, nd some questions to ponder about how our consciousness fits in. Our consciousness – is it special in the in the Grand scheme of things? And how we can approach the truth, and also what God or the Creator might be trying to tell us by showing us that, even as much as we try, there’s no way for us to know everything. So thank you.