Science, Religion, and Sustainability: Lessons from My Grandfather

Science, Religion, and Sustainability: Lessons from My Grandfather
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

A Public Display of Extraordinary Ignorance, Unsupported Speculation, and Surprising Naïveté
by Bill Shireman

When I was about eight, and painfully shy, my cousin Doe Lynn inexplicably decided I was cute, and chased me incessantly around my grandfather's house. This unwanted proto-sexual harassment, which forced me out of the shadows where I could be comfortably alone, left me feeling absolutely besieged, and I was miserable. When at day's end the family gathered at the dinner table, and I sat down next to my grandfather, I peered down toward my plate, struggling to contain the tears of frustration that were welling up inside poor beleaguered me.

My grandfather seemed, in the tradition of Midwestern restraint, completely unaware of my suffering. Then, without a word or even a glance in my direction, he placed his hand softly on top of mine. To this day, his show of connection and support feels like perhaps the kindest act I have ever experienced in my half-century on the planet.

So I was not happy when, a year or so after he showed me such pure selfless love - a love that seemed to come from life itself - he died.

I learned about it from my mom, who received the news over the telephone from her mom. My younger brother and toddler sister heard the news too, but they were too young to understand that my universe had suddenly and unexpectedly been sucked down a cruel and ruthless black hole - they kept on playing as if nothing had happened.

But I was quietly devastated, and tormented as we all went through the ritual family gatherings, remembrances, viewings, services, and burial. How could this happen? How could someone so kind, so caring, so real, so full of love, just die? And why won't anyone talk about what's really just happened?

I tell this story - one that few people will ever read, fewer will believe, some will deride, and none will take very seriously - knowing that I am making sweeping statements about science, philosophy, religion, and politics which specialists in those fields would find shallow, uninformed, and preposterous. Putting my ignorance on public display - for any with time to read it - should be embarrassing, but at this point in my life, I am much more interested in expanding my understanding, by putting my ignorance on the table, than in concealing it.

My family was not particularly religious, so we held no illusions that grandpa had just gone on to "a better place." Death was, to us and especially to me, the apparently complete and utter end of life - the annihilation of the self, the soul - everything he or she had been, every thought, every experience, every cruelty endured and kindness offered.

My shyness had either come from, or helped generate for me, a deep inner thoughtfulness. Being with myself gave me plenty of time to delve deep into my interior. I became, or simply was, more introspective than my peers, more self-conscious and self-aware. I saw the world as if from a slight distance, seldom falling into patterns of conformity the way I saw my friends do. I seemed almost incapable of doing things because "everyone did them." To act on instinct seemed nakedly embarrassing to me - I could not bear to be that predictable, that mechanical, that un-alive.

And so I came to relish my inner self - my awareness of the world, my ability to watch it, analyze it, figure out how it worked. I gradually realized that I was blessed in a very special way, able to see an aspect of reality that seemed less clear to others of my age.

As I moved into my teenage years, the trials of adolescence quickly introduced similar levels of self-awareness and self-consciousness to most of my peers. And so, since I had a few years head start on them, I became a sort-of child Yoda to many friends, an explainer of life, who could help them navigate their new-found and sometimes painful self-awareness.

Most of the time, I could help them make sense of a confusing world. But I could not explain the core injustice of life: that it inevitably came to an end. How could the universe begin something so delicious, so real, so painfully pleasurable as our self-awareness - our knowledge that we exist - and then simply annihilate it?

Having been spared the bromide of a contrived God - the kind with a single name, a definite age, a flawless rule book, and the power to save us no matter how severe our violations - I grew up with a powerful sense of personal responsibility. After all, if the fate of humanity rested entirely in our hands, then we'd better act in the interest of the whole. Our individual lives, which invariably would end, were infinitely less important than life itself.

Revering the life that flowed within and around me eventually introduced me to a much more believable, fulfilling deity - the life force itself, which seemed to me always beneath the surface of the things we see, irrepressible, ready to assert itself, at all times, regardless of the impediments placed in its way.

"Science" had not much interested me in high school, when it was taught as a series of siloed disciplines, parallel universes of physics, chemistry, biology and so on, each unrelated to the other. The only way in which the sciences were integrated was in the three Laws of Thermodynamics, which seemed to me to point toward a rather dismal future:

1.The Law of Conservation, which holds that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. What we have is all we get.

2.The Law of Entropy, which holds that every conversion of matter or energy leads to a loss of order, and hence the dissipation of heat or the capacity to do work. Everything is always in a process of being functionally used up, declining, dying.

3.The Law of Dynamism, which holds that order can never be fully dissipated, that absolute zero temperature - the lack of any heat or energy content whatsoever, can never be maintained. It is impossible to cool a system all the way to exactly absolute zero. Death is never quite complete. Existence just goes into a deep, deep freeze, from which it never recovers.

Well, that's just great. You can't get ahead, you can't stay even, you'll ultimately be reduced to a kind-of frozen nano-dust, and there's no way out, forever.

Then in college, when I took my first course in astronomy, my outlook changed.
Astronomy put all the sciences - and the fundamental laws of thermodynamics - in context. Astronomy teaches, in its butchered essence, that around 20 billion years ago, the universe ignited with a "Big Bang" - time and matter and energy, none of which existed until then, all came into being at that "moment," and began the journey that we continue today. The various silos of science, rather than being segregated, were actually part of one dynamic whole, and understanding them could help me understand the nature of that whole.

The laws of physics, for example, explained to me how matter emerged, and took the form of elements, many of them forged in stars, setting the stage for chemistry. The laws of chemistry explained how atoms and molecules emerged and took more complex forms, culminating in the gene. And biology, as well as all the social sciences, explored how the complex instructions inscribed in those genes drove the birth, evolution, and advancement of life, the emergence of cells, plants, animals, humanity, culture, community, family, and me.

Suddenly, every subject in the Berkeley course catalog became one for me. I began to understand that the divisions we see - between disciplines, individuals, life forms, even moments of time, were simplifying illusions. For the "individual" brain that starts recording knowledge and memories once it is switched on, they make this chapter of life easier to step back from and understand, but they also conceal the physical and temporal enormity of our lives, and our essential oneness.

When a decade later I witnessed my first daughter Samantha being born, emerging from her mother Sara, I was reminded that Sara had similarly emerged from her mother, who had emerged from hers, and so on through time, back toward the first mother, the first cell, the first molecule, atom, particle, and sub-particle. Life's singularity, its common source, seemed increasingly self-evident, almost a truism.

The Laws of Thermodynamics now began to make sense to me. But these three core tenets of the religion of modern science now seemed incomplete by themselves. They described what has been happening physically since the Big Bang, and the path toward our bleak frozen-helium future - but they didn't explain what ignited the force that scientists, unable to explain, simply take as a given.

If we "assume the Big Bang" as if it were something that happened outside the bounds of reality, then we have a universe that, magically, begins fully wound-up, comprised of potential energy in unimaginably super-concentrated form. Then - bang - the gun sounds, existence begins, and all that potential comes bursting forth, unwinding over time. For a short time - a couple dozen billion years - this unwinding of potential creates little pockets of complexity, like us, for brief moments, but in a cosmic instant we and all life falls apart, and we descend from occasionally self-aware forms like yours truly, back through the less self-aware forms like the lower primates, politicians, reptiles, radio talk show hosts, potted plants, fungi, lobbyists, complex cells, simple cells, Glenn Beck, molecules, and atoms, from the heavy to the light, all the way down to helium - the second-lightest element, since at that point the universe would cease to decay and simply whimper quietly in the cold for the rest of time.

The stories offered by the institutions of the Abrahamic religions seemed quite a bit more encouraging than that of the scientists. "God" is posited as behind all this. Life is the result of an act of God.

That much is plausible. God is "the causal agent of the Big Bang and all creation." If this is our definition of God, then of course God is real. There's no conflict between the conclusions of science and of religion. Both offer essentially the same explanation for the First Cause: it just was, that's all. It occurred to me that the warring soldiers of religion and science actually shared, unconsciously, the same underlying faith - they just used different names to describe it.

That leaves just one remaining question: who or what is God?

The God of science, not surprisingly, is made in the image of science: He is a kind of fundamental force - a non-living, mechanistic force whose behavior is a consequence not of will but of the playing out of potential according to a super-complicated mathematical formula, explainable by a unified theory that we haven't quite figured out yet, that encompasses and explains the underlying inter-dynamics of physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology all at once.

The God of religion, not surprisingly, resembles not what we know about science, but what we knew about human beings around the time of Abraham. God made man in his own image, we say - which is a humble-sounding way of saying that we're God-like. Not that we're responsible for that, mind you - we are merely flawed mortals. He made us God-like. It says so in His book, which He - not we - wrote.

After listening to all this for a long time, I eventually came to the conclusion that neither science nor religion was likely to ever quite find their God. They're both looking in the wrong closet. They both assume that their clothes were always there - that the First Cause just was. The God of religion got tired of the cold, dark, and quiet, and simply willed us into being - He fired the starting pistol, and created Heaven and Earth. And the God of science was the starting pistol itself - an automatic self-firing pistol unaware of the havoc it was to wreak.

More likely, it seemed to me, was that creation is oscillating. It didn't start all wound-up, and then spend itself down just once. Instead, it simultaneously winds up and down, each decline mirroring a complementary advance. It goes on "forever" because, fundamentally, there is no time - no beginning nor end.

If my little hypothesis is true, then the Laws of Thermodynamics - which describe our decline via entropy - are complemented by a parallel set of laws, which account for how, while the universe spends itself down physically, it also seems to build itself up.

In our little corner of time and space, the process looks like this: we eat food, burning calories, turning order to disorder. But the food feeds our brains, which gain and retain awareness, learn, and develop, turning disorder to order.

We aren't alone in that. In fact, every cell, molecule, and atom inside us consumes and creates in parallel. Physical order declines as these entities consume. But each of the entities gains and retains emergent qualities in parallel with their physical consumption.

If you don't believe me, look at the Periodic Table of the Elements, which we were both supposed to memorize in high school. It starts with hydrogen - the simplest element, made of just one proton and one electron - and moves through over a hundred distinct elements, from the lightest and simplest to the heaviest and most complex.

Each element is made of exactly the same stuff - protons, neutrons, and electrons. But as you move up the Periodic Table, each new element has an entirely different personality. Helium isn't just more massive than hydrogen - it is different. It brings into being something new, something emergent - absent in the parts, but present in the whole.

Now take these elements, these jumbles of sameness, and combine them together. Now you have thousands of new structures, which we call molecules. Like the atoms, each type of molecule brings something new into being - a new quality absent in the parts, present in the whole.

By extraordinary coincidence, the parts at these levels are structured in such a way that they naturally draw themselves together, to create the ingredients for the next set of emergent qualities to appear. One part oxygen is drawn together with two parts hydrogen to create water. And water just happens to be structured in such a way that, on a moon or planet circulating the right band around a star - drives the creation of a set of complex systems that create a warm and comfortable home for the next-higher systems to emerge: simple cells, from which life emerges. These eventually join together, some biologists theorize, to form complex cells, from which consciousness and self-awareness emerge. Very cool. And when consciousness and self-awareness emerge, all Heaven and Hell breaks loose: we get our world.

All that may be an extraordinary coincidence. But I have my doubts. It seems unlikely that enough coincidences would themselves coincide to create me. If life is a coincidence, then I'm not likely to exist, at all. On the other hand, if life is a natural outcome of an oscillating universe, then I am not actually me - I am actually a tiny, tiny part of a much bigger You-And-Me-And-Them. We each have brains that are segregated from one another, and memories that stretch from our individual births to our individual deaths. But our separation is an illusion. All life is one.

In our 2000 book What We Learned in the Rainforest, my coauthor Tachi Kiuchi and I did not dare get into all this, since we were ostensibly talking about nature and business. But we did suggest that in nature, there were "Laws of System Dynamics," which paralleled thermodynamics, and helped explain how a largely resource-spent place like the rainforest - which should be dead - is instead the locus of more life and species creativity than any other ecosystem on earth. These laws are:

1.The Law of Non-Conservation, which holds that, while the quantitative aspects of energy and matter are always conserved, the qualities are not: they can come into and out of being. They can be created or destroyed.

2.The Law of Synergy, which holds that, while entropy increases as energy use increases, synergy can also advance along with it. Nature is not only consumptive but also creative: as we move from atoms to molecules to cells to us, each higher order system brings into being new qualities, which are absent in the parts, but emerge in the whole.

3.The Law of Dynamism, which holds that, just as energy and matter are never fully dead, spent of all potential, neither are they ever fully alive, in a final sense. No system expresses all possible qualities - there are always qualities in-potentia, submerged in nature, which are not expressed by the system. In other words, a system is never complete or all-encompassing.

Now, put together the thermodynamics and system dynamics, and you're left with, simply, the Laws of Dynamics. The first three laws describe the behavior of the material "half" of reality; the other three describe the behavior of the nonmaterial "half" - i.e., the systems from which all qualities in nature emerge. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but systems can be both created and destroyed; thus qualities can go into and out of existence. Whenever matter is converted into a more complex form, there is both a loss and a gain: the loss is the effect of entropy, as waste heat is dissipated; the gain is the effect of synergy, as new qualities emerge. But neither matter nor structure can be carried to the absolute extreme; matter dissipates to a certain point, at which it rebounds to regain some order; order develops over time, bringing new qualities into being, but then bounces against limits and rebounds into incompleteness, paradoxically regaining qualities in the process - qualities intrinsic to life itself. Thus the two together suggest a dynamic universe that is never fully complete or incomplete, never full or empty, but always en route, pursuing but never acquiring its full range of potentialities.

Information behaves this way. Information can be created or destroyed. It is created when parts come together as wholes, and defined in the structure of matter. It is lost when any whole falls apart - when it loses its structure, it also loses the qualities that previously defined it. When information is known by us, it becomes knowledge. When we forget it - because our brain cells have lost whatever structure contained it - the knowledge is gone, even if the once-known information still exists outside us.

In nature, there is a dynamic balance between processes of advance and processes of decline. Energy and matter are "used up," burned to feed nature's various structures. Yet even as this process of decline happens, there is a parallel process of advance. Matter evolves through a series of thresholds, or levels of complexity. Nature's structures are built, maintained, and developed. Each new structure generates a new emergent quality, which may be combined with another structure, to express yet a new quality.

We see this today in the industrial economy. As fossil fuels are burned, their complex structure of hydrogen and carbon atoms unwinds; order tends to disorder, and waste heat is lost. But this does not mean that the economy is doomed to decline. Another sort of advance is available, one not limited by thermodynamics. This is the advance of information and knowledge, applied in practice as innovation. Innovation is the application of new knowledge to create new structures, from which whole new qualities emerge. Thus we can end-run the depletion of finite resources, by designing new products and services that enable us to do things that are extremely expensive, or impossible, to access through the raw force of resource consumption.

Advanced materials, electronics, semiconductors, microchips, computers, fax machines, the Internet, email, Kindles, iPods/Phones/Pads, Facebooks, Tweets - all these innovations reflect the Laws of System Dynamics. So do the even more complex functionings of people and communities, from the "primitive" to the "advanced."

System Dynamics also help me understand why microchips can become more and more powerful, even as they grow smaller and cheaper to make. Their physical content is gradually reduced, as we learn how to encode the remaining matter with more and more information.

The application of these smarter microchips enables us to end-run traditional transportation and communications systems, and convey knowledge and services at a fraction of the resources once required. Thus, they provide a new fuel for the industrial economy, in addition to petroleum, but one which grows cheaper and more abundant over time.

We are reaching a functional end to the free industrial ride provided by fossil fuels. These information-rich resources, stored in the earth over geological time, are like a giant ATM machine used by the industrial world to power growth and development. They are a subsidy provided by nature, an unearned inheritance that is gigantic and yet still ultimately limited. Fossil fuels remain artificially cheap because we don't have to make them; we simply withdraw them from the global account, clean and purify them a bit, and burn them up.

Like all forms of welfare, in their early stages fossil fuels help us develop our potential. But if we remain dependent on them for too long, they end up stunting our development. We forget that we can live without welfare. We grow weak and worried that we cannot support ourselves. And we become demanding, believing them to be our birthright - that the world owes them to us.

As the account begins to run out, we have two choices. We can define our potential by the laws of thermodynamics, and seek to unearth every last ounce of oil, no matter the cost to others, as if this were our real source of wealth and well-being. Or we can define our potential by the laws of system dynamics, the laws of the information economy, and replace the oil with a much richer source of value - the knowledge that emerges from within individuals, groups, companies, and communities, as we work to create a better world.

Our better selves know that we have the potential to grow up and support ourselves. We must gradually wean ourselves off industrial welfare. As we do, we will discover that life can get better - we can do more, and be more, while we use less.

That helps explain why I've dedicated myself to sustainability. I don't believe we've reached the end of our creative capacity as a species. Nature suggests that there is plenty of creative capacity within us.

Where does this creative capacity come from? Science? Nature? God? Here's what I think. God, if you will, resides across these two parallel realities, from one "end" to the other. He rests within them, across them, from the cradle of one to the cradle of the other, and is their totality. He is the whole that lies in wait, within the parts. Neither non-living machine nor living will - He is both of these, all consequences of each, and - since their combination too must be generative - beyond each. He is religion and science, cause and effect, left and right, up and down, male and female. And he is what emerges in the combination of these parts, a higher-level whole. Does he speak to us? How can He not? We discover aspects of Him with every thought we conceive, every step we take, every thing we make. Yet he is beyond all this, beyond our comprehension.

It doesn't much "matter" whether He goes by the name God or Jesus or Buddha or Allah or Science or Nature or Unified Theory or Wow. Existence exists, and all that we are, or can be, He is.

At least that's what I think, and I'm sticking with it, until I hear something that makes more sense to me. I do, however, insist on the right to correct my misunderstandings, expand my knowledge, even fundamentally change my mind.

But so what? Of what practical use is it, to say that, halleluiah, it looks like We Are All One, karma is intrinsic, the Golden Rule is validated, God lives within and beyond us, yay.

Well, for one thing, it means that nature is on our side. For every problem, there is a solution. For every act of consumption, there is a potential act of creation. Even as we run short of "essential" resources like oil, there are creative possibilities within our reach, ways that we can have a prosperous, sustainable economy. We are innovative by nature.

Here is an example of what I mean. Remember that, if all matter is made of the same stuff, then the essence of life is not physical at all. The essence of life is something that eco-philosopher William McDonough calls "design" - information that is encoded in the structure of the physical world, but exists apart from these things, drawing them into being.

Innovation is both art and science: the art of designing things, and the science that describes the novel creations that emerge, unpredictably and unexpectedly, when we do. Our innovative capacity will never be spent. So long as we know this, and persevere, we can always progress.

Are there limits to our capacity to learn and develop? Practically speaking, probably not. But in an absolute sense? Of course, but we're a long way from that point, and if we ever approach it, we will fall back.

Here's how I think about it. Imagine that, in the space of an hour or so, you grew enormously knowledgeable, until you suddenly knew everything. Everything. Paradoxically, as you approached a point of absolute and total knowledge, you would pass thresholds where you would begin to lose qualities and capacities, in a rapidly accelerating process. Qualities like mystery, uncertainty, and curiosity would quickly recede as knowledge of certainties was accumulated. You would lose all sense of anticipation, hope, fear, and yearning, qualities that help to define us as human beings. The passage of time would become meaningless - the past, present, and future would all be known, down to the tiniest detail, and hence time itself would disappear from your experience. It even seems likely that you might lose the ability to experience such basic human feelings as love and affection. As you acquire total knowledge of every conscious and unconscious quality of other people, including your loved ones, the dividing line between your identity and theirs might blur. At first you might find yourself loving yourself; but as you came to identify more with these acquired sets of knowledge, the "other" you itself would finally disappear, and there would be no "other" toward which to direct your affection.

This is the quandary that some philosophers have referred to as the "void," a theoretical point at which all knowledge becomes no knowledge, all consciousness becomes no consciousness, and all contrast, from which information itself comes, is lost. It is as if you were to begin to write all the information of the universe on a blackboard, continuing until the blackboard itself was so full that the letters and words lost their distinctive character, and the blackboard became a white board, as empty of information as when you began.

Sounds bleak. It's no wonder my God seems to live across an oscillating continuum of creation and destruction which, over time, experiences all that is possible. It's got to be beyond boring when you literally are the be-all and end-all.

Modern science worships the consumptive side of reality, the material half that is descending thermodynamically toward annihilation, but never quite gets there. Modern religion worships the creative half of reality, the half that emerges as we trade physical order for knowledge and emotion, the inner hunger for wholeness that is never quite satisfied.

I am grateful for the gifts that my parents, grandparents, and all life before them have carried forward to us. The past they lived through was not a mistake. The civilization we have inherited has brought us more prosperity and potential than we can imagine. Science is not empty of purpose, religion is not devoid of reason. Fossil fuels are not evil or wrong, nor are they our birthright. All we have is a gift from the past, to be invested for the future. Functionally, it is time for us to recognize the dilemma we face, as well as the opportunity. We can continue to be children, blindly deplete the material resources given to us, destroy God's green earth, and enjoy a short burst of economic activity, followed by a precipitous decline. Or we can grow up, systematically shift from a short-term, consumptive system, to a sustainable, creative economy, an economy that delivers value not by consumption, but by design. We can do for our children what our parents and grandparents did for us, and enable them to discover what next lies in wait.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community