At what some call the “leading edges” of science and philosophy, there are several intellectuals who are so awed by the improbability of the universe and life, or the complexities of both, that they are led to a sort of mysticism or a sense of the “sacred.” Einstein, of course, became famous for this by declaring:
Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the “old one.” I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.
While many theists are fond of misquoting Einstein’s statement, they rarely bother to note that Einstein considered the idea of a personal God to be a major impediment to understanding and harmony. In the end, Einstein said nothing specific about whatever it is (mystical or sacred) that could account for the order of the universe.
There are several variations on this theme. Ervin Laszlo, a genius in several domains, recently observed:
Our universe is staggeringly fine-tuned to the creation of systems of higher and higher orders of complexity, differentiation, and integration. That such a universe would have come about by chance is astronomically improbable. According to quantum cosmology, some 1 x 10500 (1 followed by five hundred zeros) universes could exist physically, but only a handful could give rise to life. That our life-supporting universe would have come about by a random selection from this enormous set of possible universes is a zillion times more improbable than that living species would have come about by random mutations. The great wave of evolution requires highly harmonized and coordinated processes in all its domains.
For Laszlo, there must be something (mystical or sacred) that accounts for this improbability. Like Einstein, Laszlo says nothing about whatever it is that can account for this improbability.
Stuart Kauffman, another genius in several domains, has been wrestling with the incompatibility of classical and quantum mechanics, and our inability to explain the living world given the current set of laws that supposedly govern material matter. Aside from his books on the subject, he is currently blogging about these issues over at 13.7: Cosmos and Culture:
Nor can we make probability statements about this evolution, because we do not know all the possibilities in the Adjacent Possible of the evolution of the biosphere. The evolution of the biosphere is profoundly unlike flipping a coin 10,000 times where we do not know what will happen, but do know the sample space of all the possible outcomes, thus do know all the possibilities that can happen, and can therefore make a probability statement. We know before hand the “sample space” for the coin flips. But we do not know the sample space of all the possible preadaptations for the evolution of the biosphere, so cannot make probability statements.
For Kauffman, there must be something (mystical or sacred) that accounts for the inexplicability of universal and evolutionary becoming. Like Einstein and Laszlo, Kauffman offers no specifics other than a sense of the “sacred.”
Granted, this is dizzying stuff — it can make your head spin (perhaps off the rails). I wanted to mention it today because I am often asked — given the nature of my research interests — if I don’t “believe” in something mystical, sacred, or religious. My usual response is that I am open to the possibility there are many things we do not understand and may never know. I have no idea what these things — touched upon by Einstein, Laszlo and Kauffman — might possibly be.
More importantly, I know of no principled way to characterize them or to make any kind of choice regarding the many kinds of mysticisms, sacreds, or religions that might say something about these things. I can say that if there is something, the possibility of us understanding it in any kind of adequate way is extraordinarily remote. Simply calling it “sacred” — and thus connecting it to religion — seems rather bland and unsatisfactory to me.
I also know that for the vast majority of people who do not contemplate these issues or wrestle with them, locating the “sacred” in improbability, complexity, and mystery fails to provide them with the supernatural scaffolding on which they can build something more substantial and meaningful. Thus, the “leading edge” hope for some kind of universal sacred (or “religion”) that is a profound mystery will not satisfy the supernatural yearnings which all humans routinely generate through natural operations of the brain-mind.