Intersections between Religion, Art, and Science

We often try to understand the world we live in by telling stories. Some of these become the foundations of religious belief; some are linked together into scientific theories. This course will look at the way science and religion approach the main questions of life: Where do we live? What is real? Whence do we come? Who are we? Why should we be good? Whither do we go? Answers to these questions will be sought in the lessons of religious scriptures, and in the results of scientific experiments. The illustration above is a detail from a miniature painting by the Indian painter Basavan created for the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1598. It shows the flight of the birds toward the sun.

The notes for each session are available in pdf format. They can be accessed via the link at the end of each session’s outline.

Session 1. Prologue. What is Truth? Concepts of science and religion. The main religions of the world. The different sciences. Methods of science and religion. Fallibilism. History of relations between science and religion: explanation (Helmholtz), conflict (Andrew Dickson White), separation (Stephen Jay Gould and Non-Overlapping Magisteria), dialogue (Georges Lemaître), and integration (Francis Collins). Metaphors. The Book of Mormon. The concepts of knowledge, belief, truth, faith, and reality. Truthiness. Creativity in art, religion and science. Karl Popper’s three worlds. Suspension of disbelief. When is fiction “true”? Michael Frayn’s essay on Eugene Onegin. Codes of behavior. Transcendental knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge in Genesis. Notes.

Lecture 2. Where. Aristotle’s physics. Ptolemy’s geocentric universe. Copernicus and heliocentrism. Johannes Kepler. Giordano Bruno. Galileo and the telescope: the surface of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. Newton and the Principia as vindication of Galileo. The confrontation between Galileo and the Catholic Church. Humanity as God’s special creation. Biblical references to the sun. The Great Chain of Being. Caste in India. The trial of Galileo. The aftermath. Was the Church justified at the time? Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Should Galileo have refused to recant? Notes.

Lecture 3. What. The origin of the universe. Thoughts on creation in the RigVeda. The Anthropic Principle. The six days of creation in Genesis. Geology and the Flood of Noah. Bishop Ussher’s chronology. Fossil record and radiometric dating. Young Earth Creationism. The Recession of the Galaxies and the Big Bang (14 billion years ago). Origin of Earth (4.5 billion years ago). Classical mechanics and Determinism. The strangeness of quantum physics. Bohr and complementarity. Heisenberg and the Uncertainty Principle. Structure of the Atom. Schrödinger and his cat. Relationships between quantum physics and Eastern religions. Quantum mysticism. The play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. Notes.

Lecture 4. Whence. The two creation stories in Genesis. The Haida story of The Raven and the First Men. William Paley’s metaphor of The Blind Watchmaker. Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle. Alfred North Wallace. Spontaneous variation. Malthus and population. Mendel and inheritance. Natural selection. The Origin of Species and the Tree of Life. Religious views in Darwin’s family. Later developments in the concept of evolution. Sexual Selection. The spandrels of San Marco. Parallel evolution – octopus and human eyes. Just-so stories – pink flamingoes and samurai crabs. The origins of human beings. Christian fundamentalism. The Scopes Trial. Inherit the Wind. Intelligent Design arguments. Roman Catholic understanding of evolution and the special creation of the human soul. Notes.

Lecture 5. Who. History of the soul – Judeo-Christian, India, Egypt, Greece. Individual and universal souls. Panentheism. The European Enlightenment. How do we distinguish between fact and illusion? The story of Chuang Tzu and the butterfly. Descartes Cogito ergo sum. The soul and the world – dualism, idealism, materialism. The red and blue pills in the movie The Matrix. Human consciousness as a creative interaction between the world and the self. The soul in neuroscience. Artificial intelligence. Star Trek’s The Measure of a Man. The experience of the numinous. Benefits of religion. Problems with faith. Crusades and Jihads. Evangelism. Irrational faith. Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. Kierkegaard’s interpretations. Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old man and the Young. Guan Yin and the consciousness of compassion. Notes.

Lecture 6. Why. The Good Samaritan. Free will and determinism. Fatalism. Limits to scientific determinism: chaos, predictability and computability. Quantum probabilities. Problems of determinism for moral society. Benjamin Libet and neurodeterminism. Rationalization. The imagined future. Morality by obeying rules, by figuring out the consequences, or by practising virtue. Natural Law and unnatural acts. Social Contract. Human Rights. Categorical Imperative. Compassion: gold, silver and platinum rules. Forgiveness. Evolution and altruism. Orson Welles in The Third Man. The Common Good. Various Trolley Problems. Moral Reasoning. Care Ethics. Common Morality. Notes.

Lecture 7. Whither. Dust to dust. Epicurean views of death. The Seventh Seal. The loss of the person. Blade Runner. Near-death experiences. Evolutionary side-effects. The Myth of Er from Plato’s Republic. Versions of immortality – resurrection and reincarnation. Samsara in Indian religions. Justice and judgement. Egyptian judgments. Yudisthira in the Mahabharata. The parable of Dives and Lazarus. Problems with the concept of heaven. Resurrection and personal identity. The return of the king: Messiah, Maitreya, the Second Coming, Quetzlcoatl, King Arthur. The movie Left Behind. The Apocalypse and the Rapture. The Antichrist. Donald Justice’s poem There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings. Chekhov’s UncleVanya. Notes.

Lecture 8. Epilogue. The nature of the numinous. Theodicy and the story of Job. The role of organized religion. Dostoevsky’s The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. The pluralism of belief. The Canticle of the Birds. Notes.