Modern physics is only touching the big questions about the origin of the universe. Do black holes spawn universes? Are we in a multi-verse with parallel realities less than an atom’s length away? Perhaps — those are the kinds of theories occupying modern physics these days as scientists probe the nature of the big bang and what may have caused it.
So what should we humans believe? Clearly scientific knowledge is uncertain at best. We know we are in a space-time universe, space-time appears to have come into being at an event called the “big bang,” and if we take quantum physics seriously, the world is probabilistic and far more weird and indeterminate as most of us would like to believe. The old determinist Newtonian world of clear laws and causality is long gone, even though in every day life that is still the approach we take.
Consider: Since we live in a space time universe, we are incapable of comprehending or even imagining reality outside space time. Something outside space-time has no beginning or end, since those are merely temporal markers. If something is outside space-time it has no location, that is a spatial marker. Yet there is no way to dismiss the possibility that reality includes entities outside of space-time. We just can’t comprehend what they would be like or how they operate, it is beyond our cognitive capacities. Just as an ant in the White House can’t comprehend the politics going on around it, our frame of reference and mental capacities are limited to the space-time reality we inhabit.
For religious folk, this opens up the possibility for the existence of God – an existence that is not in denial of science. If God is outside space-time, then we cannot imagine God’s nature. God need have no beginning or operate under causal laws like we do. This fits Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu conceptions of God well, though Christians and Jews have tended to anthropomorphize God and give it human traits.
That said, claims about God that can be tested in the material world are fair game. The idea that the earth is 6000 years old, for instance, can be falsified. But for those of us who are not religious, the real question here is what the term “God” means. Is it a source for this reality from beyond space-time?
There are a few ways to deal with this question. First, you can dismiss it as irrelevant. There is no way to test any hypothesis about reality outside space-time, so contemplating it is at best a playful intellectual indulgence, at worst a waste of time. This is generally the atheist/materialist reaction. Speculation about something we cannot know is meaningless and beliefs about it are irrational and potentially dangerous. Better to stick to trying to figure out the world we have access to and can study.
A second way to deal with this is to simply choose a religious faith and believe it. We can’t know, but maybe a benevolent God gives us access to knowledge through the heart, with faith the key to achieving that kind of enlightenment. Supplement that with emotional satisfaction about one’s perceived connection with God, and religious belief can be very satisfying, it can create a sense of meaning in life. The trouble is that this is true for a vast variety of diverse and often contradictory religious claims. Either people are choosing to believe in myth and fantasy, or they all grasp aspects of the truth but build human stories around it that can conflict, or (to me unlikely) one group has it right and the others have it wrong.
A third possible reaction is to consider subjective experience and intuition as evidence to explore connections to a spiritual side of reality that may not be testable in the scientific/materialist sense. That would involve consideration of dreams, feelings, meditation, and efforts at deep empathy. The idea here is that we may be connected to the God/spiritual world outside space time, but not in a way that exhibits itself through what we can measure and test within the confines of space-time. Any knowledge gained from such explorations is subjective and personal.
It seems that spiritualism of this sort would have to deny dogma, since dogma rests on claims of certainty. Instead, ideas would be judged by how well they work in the world or each individual, or whether or not they ring true inside. I can believe that I draw to me all my experiences through my state of mind and my choices, but I can’t prove it or demand others believe it.
Despite the uncertainty there is a sense of liberation in this approach. If one takes a purely atheistic/materialist approach to life, there is a kind of meaninglessness and emptiness to existence. We all will die, the sun will eventually go nova, the universe will dissipate and everything we do and achieve will be forgotten. Nothing truly matters, except for our transient and fading experiences. These experiences can be very meaningful, to be sure, and atheists can find meaning in rational materialism – but to me a reliance on the material side of life seems incomplete. I cannot look at the world that way.
If one takes a religious approach, there is some heaven or judgment one looks forward to or dreads, with hope for some kind of paradise, be it union with the whole via Nirvana or a heaven of spiritual delights. For a spiritual approach there is uncertainty and a sense that it is most important that one live true to oneself and ones’ beliefs and reflections. Success or failure in the material sense are less important than spiritual living. The idea of judgment seems absurd because how can one be judged when our knowledge is so ambiguous? Rather than judgment day there’s karma – our actions and choices create our situations. And that’s where I end up. I can’t prove it, but I have a sense that there is a unity to all experience and that there is deep meaning. Living with a spiritual perspective works for me, and that’s ultimately all one can hope for.