This Meaningless Life

Susan Blackmore and Brother Guy Consolmagno

Broadcast on 7th December 2000 On BBC Radio 3

This Meaningless Life part 1

Hello. Long ago I studied physiology and psychology, learning about how brains work. But then I had some extraordinary experiences that convinced me of the reality of a soul or a spirit and launched me on a long and ultimately fruitless search for psychic phenomena.

With my world-view collapsing around me, I had to change my beliefs completely, a process that was challenging, exciting and scary.

Now my scientific work concerns human evolution and my inner work comes from practising meditation. Both raise questions like ‘who am I?’,  ‘why am I here?’, and I wonder how other scientists deal with these questions. Do they ignore them? Do they keep their personal beliefs separate from their work? Or do they find themselves forced to integrate their personal views of life with what their science reveals? Brother Guy Consolmagno is an astronomer working at the Vatican Observatory.

So how is it possible to combine the rigours of Catholicism with the rapidly advancing science of cosmology? If the truth is out there, is it one that the Vatican approves of?

Dr S. Blackmore: Brother Guy, you’re both a scientist and a Jesuit. I find it hard to understand how you can be completely and deeply both of those things.

Brother Guy: It’s funny that people think that because, of course, most scientists until probably the middle of the nineteenth century were deeply religious people – most of them were clergymen – who else had the free time and the education to do science? In fact, there have been a lot of people who’ve argued that science really comes out of the Christian tradition in particular, and certainly out of the tradition that accepts the Genesis idea of a Creator God, because, if you don’t believe that the universe was created by a benign intelligence then you don’t have any a priori reason to expect it to make sense.

Dr S. Blackmore: But it obviously does make sense in a way, I mean, I have a glass of water here and if I drop it it’s going to fall down, so we have to take it as given – we don’t have to take it as given that it’s going to be like that because there was a creator. And surely what’s happened, I mean, yes, it is true to say that science came out of Christian culture and so on, but surely what’s happened is that science has pushed back and pushed back the boundaries of what God’s needed to do. I mean, since Darwin, Darwin explains how you get design out of nowhere, so we don’t need God as a designer and science seems to just push it back and push it back, so what’s left? You must be left in the little bit that’s left, mustn’t you?

Brother Guy: Absolutely not. Of course, what you’re talking about is the seventeenth century view of God and the big mistake came in the seventeenth century theology, where they attempted to take the new science, which was tremendously successful, and see where they could fit God into it. This created what’s been called ‘the God of the gaps’. And of course, as the gaps get closed, you wind up squeezing out God. If you think of God as the blind watchmaker, if you think of God as the designer or the one who makes all the bits work that don’t work otherwise, then of course that vision of God is going to be destroyed and you’ll be left with nothing. There’s a famous story of, I believe it was Laplace who was talking to Napoleon about his theories for the orbits of the planets. And Napoleon asked him ‘and where is God in your theories?’ and Laplace answered ‘I have no need for that hypothesis’.
Of course the theologians were horrified and all the atheists cheered, but really Laplace was right, he was criticising both bad science and bad theology. You can’t treat God as a piece of the universe. One of the unusual things about Christianity, about Judaism, about Islam, is that we believe in a supernatural God, so God isn’t so much a piece of this universe as the axiom on which we base all of our reasoning.

Dr S. Blackmore: If you are saying that you accept quite happily the idea that we don’t need God to do the job of designing, as in designing trees and other organisms and so on, in what sense is he still doing something and not conflicting with science?

Brother Guy: That’s actually a great question and one that’s been at the heart of a series of conferences, very deep, profound sorts of things that I can’t possibly follow that have been sponsored by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley, by the Vatican Observatory, ‘God’s Action in the Universe’. And there are some people who’d like to put it in one spot or another and say ‘Ah, it’s in the quantum uncertainty.   Well, that’s just another one of those gaps, who knows, maybe in another two hundred years that one will be squeezed out’. There are other people who would pull back entirely and say that yes, God exists in the universe much like water exists in an ocean and a fish swimming through the ocean never notices the water because they could never experience an absence but that God allows the universe the freedom to evolve the way it chooses to or it wants to. Part of the beauty of existence is that we know there are still big contradictions we can’t come to grips with. In the Newtonian universe it was ‘How can you have free will and the Laws of Newton that seem to control everything?’ The fact remains that in our day-to-day life the laws of Newton do control everything and yet we do have free will, so somehow it’s working.

Dr S. Blackmore: Oh, but there you touch on something so close to my heart as a psychologist studying consciousness and studying the way the brain works and so on, it’s no longer about Newton and billiard balls and planets so much as about neurons firing and how meaning and the perceptual world is created by the interactions between neurons, but it’s exactly the same problem you’re describing there, that the more we understand the brain, the less need we have for somebody sitting inside the brain who has the free will and controls things. It’s almost as though we’re eating away at the self in the same way we’re talking about with God.

Brother Guy: And yet you’re eating away at the need for a little self to do all the things you don’t know how to do otherwise and yet at the end of the day you’ve got a self. You could take the Mona Lisa and describe it perfectly in terms of its chemical content and the origin of each of the bits of paint, all the way back to the nucleosynthesis of the chemicals that made up the paint and you would not describe the Mona Lisa.

Dr S. Blackmore: Okay, let’s take the human brain of the person looking at the Mona Lisa and let’s say that we could really understand what’s going on there. And let’s say that we could really understand how those neurons gave rise to the sense of beauty in the picture, the sense of awe when you looked at it, the sense of empathy with the expression on her face and all of those things. Now that wouldn’t take away the sense of awe but it would take away the need for some kind of a mysterious self.

Brother Guy: But it wouldn’t also explain why the sense of awe is a sense of awe.

Dr S. Blackmore: No, it wouldn’t, you’re absolutely right, although to me, I always feel in the end – what appeals to me comes more out of Buddhism, I suppose – is the idea that things like the sense of awe, things like the self who doesn’t really do anything, all these things… what we’re going to do is end up seeing that they’re illusions, that the self is an illusion, that the idea of free will is an illusion… they’re still there, I mean an illusion in the sense that they’re not what they appear to be.

Brother Guy: They’re not part of the material world.

Dr S. Blackmore: Ah, there, now you see, mechanical brain, I want. Ah, that gives me away as biased. (laughs) I want to see these things as all part of one kind of stuff, there’s not any dualism, there’s just one universe doing its stuff, we don’t need a supernatural one. But for you, you do, so…

Brother Guy: No, no, in fact, in a lot of ways I actually go along with what you’re saying and it fits into Christianity. There’s a great theologian who drew a marvellous analogy – or comparison/contrast between the death of Socrates and the death of Christ. Socrates believed in a dual universe, one of the soul, one of the body, and so, when it came time for him to die he happily drank the poison and that was it. Christ, who, if you believe Christianity, was God and presumably knew what was going on, when it came   time for him to die he sweat blood, he cared. To him the physical universe matters. When I say that it’s not part of the material world I didn’t mean  to imply that it was part of a different world or one that could be waved about with your hands or measured with some instrument we don’t have yet. It’s very real but it’s not something that is potentially measurable. Now I’ll give you an example and I think I can see the hole you’ll poke into it but I’ll give it a try. When we talk about ‘spirit’, most people have this vague vision of Caspar the friendly ghost floating about in the air  and they think it’s a bunch of nonsense, and in that picture probably is a bunch of nonsense, but anyone who’s been to a football game knows that a cheering crowd has that a crowd that’s not cheering doesn’t have, and, in a sense, you have to say it’s hard to measure it, one way or the other.

Now your claim might be if you could measure every atom in every brain of every person in there you could come up with the orientation that equals the crowd with the spirit, but I say that’s just the same as measuring the location of every bit of bit in the Mona Lisa. It doesn’t have the same meaning.

Dr S. Blackmore: Has there been any kind of experience in your scientific work where you’ve really felt a sense of awe at seeing something?

Brother Guy: I can think of one time, I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, studying planets and comets and I had a room-mate who was telling me that there was this comet visible in the morning sky – four in the morning you had to get up to see it, Comet West, this was 1976. And I’d seen a few comets before, just really tiny smudges of light in the sky and not particularly impressive – I wasn’t going to get up at four in the morning to see another dumb smudge of light in the sky. But I happened to wake up at four the next morning – the mind does that to you – and so I figured, what the heck, I’ll drag myself outdoors and just see if there’s anything there and I can claim that I’ve seen it. So I pulled on my clothes and went out the door, I was living in a small apartment in Tucson, and it was a rough, cold, desert night, and I’m walking down this pebbly road and feeling very uncomfortable and wondering what the heck I’m doing out there. I turned the corner around the building and there in the sky was a comet. Like every photograph of a comet you’ve ever seen. Like something in the ceiling of the Planetarium. And my jaw absolutely dropped to think that things like this actually existed. And, if you saw comet Hale-Bopp, this was five times bigger, I’m not exaggerating, I’ve talked to people who measured it, it was five times bigger, several times brighter. And it was only visible for a couple of days. It didn’t have the big build up, most people in the world didn’t even know about it because it had come and gone before the word got out, really. I understood at that point why people in ancient times were terrified of comets. It was terrifying.

Dr S. Blackmore: It was terrifying even though you knew what it was?

Brother Guy: Even though I knew all about the orbits of comets and I knew all about the chemistry of comets and the plasma tails and I could write all the equations for the solar wind, you look at this thing in the sky where there shouldn’t be anything… and it just makes your jaw drop, it is so totally unexpected and big. Really, all you could do was stand in awe, and breathe deep and enjoy it.

Dr S. Blackmore: I’d like to find out more about your idea of God. What is he or it? The sort of ideas you have are compatible with many modern scientific thinkings, you’re not some old-fashioned ‘God is the thing in the sky’ and so on. Nevertheless, you need a kind of God. Tell me what you can about the properties of this God.

Brother Guy: That’s why I do science. If you asked me what did I know about William Shakespeare, what I know about William Shakespeare is mostly what I can see in his plays. What I know about God is, to a large extent, what I see in the things that this creator put together. A god who would have created this universe is very, very big, to begin with. Clearly, outside of space and time, independent of space and time, but one who loves logic, one who loves beauty. It’s astonishing that a good indicator as to whether a scientific theory is worth pursuing, is a sense of ‘is it elegant? is it beautiful?’ Why that should work tells you something about if there is somebody responsible what that somebody must be like. There are moments in my life when I really have to say I’m seeing something happening which, maybe it’s just coincidence, maybe it’s a divine coincidence, maybe I can’t tell the difference, but I do see God acting in the universe. And how can I reconcile that with a Newtonian mechanical universe? I can’t, but I know the Newtonian mechanical universe is inadequate, and the quantum universe will ultimately be seen to be inadequate and any human invention will be inadequate, and that’s also true of human theologies, any human theology will be inadequate. The fact that there is more than one or the other gives me confidence that I am on the right step, if I had a perfect theory that explained everything I wouldn’t believe it. I also don’t agree with, as a friend of mine put it, ‘well, if you believe in God, that must be a great comfort’. It isn’t. To actually believe that this stuff really matters, that there is a good that we are striving towards and that we’re always constantly failing to reach it is in some ways very disturbing, I think you can compare it to being in love. It’s a whole lot easier in life not to be in love. I have to say that even in my life I am in love, not with a particular person but with a church that’s very flawed and has done some really awful things in its time and yet I still love it, with a science that’s very flawed and has done its share of awful things and yet I still love it. Just as my friends are in love with their spouses or girlfriends, whatever. It’s a lot harder to be in love but I wouldn’t want to live a life without it.

Dr S. Blackmore: You’re describing something that’s very familiar to me in that in your mind it comes from a love of God and to my mind it can equally come out of the awe of the scientific view or a scientific view of the ultimate emptiness of the universe, the lack of a designer and the lack of a creator and the awe of seeing that it’s just here, and the responsibility that that seems to bring up. And again we seem to be in a situation where we can both perhaps talk in rather similar ways and yet you end up having God underlying this and I don’t.

Brother Guy: Just as I cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, you can never come up with an answer to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing’. In some ways we’re saying the same things in different words, by saying God is supernatural, I actually am agreeing with you that except for the incarnation, there is no God in this universe, there is not a God in the table, another god in the clock, another god in the lightbulb. I am not a pagan and neither are you, we agree. There is a principle that points out that atheism really only arises in a Christian culture, or in a Judaeo-Islamic-Christian culture because it is this culture which has driven the gods, the pagan gods, out of our understanding of how the universe works. So that you can think of the many gods of the pagans, the no god of the atheists and then those of us who believe in a monotheism, a supernatural monotheism sort of someplace in the middle. Either we haven’t gone far enough and you guys are right or you guys have gone too far and we’re right and we’ll never know, not in this life.

Dr S. Blackmore: Tell me something about your life as a scientist, what made you become a scientist in the first place?

Brother Guy: I was a Sputnik kid. I was 7 years old when the satellites started going into orbit and I was a teenager when people started going into orbit and I was in high school when people landed on the moon. How could you not be thrilled by that?! I loved science fiction, I still do. I love especially the sense of what’s possible and what might be possible, we’re not sure, and the sense of adventure that comes from it. I’ve written this book called The Adventures of A Vatican Scientist. I chose that word ‘adventures’ very carefully, The publisher wanted to call it ‘Confessions of a Vatican Scientist’ and I thought that would be a little bit too racy, I guess, or something, misleading, certainly.

Dr S. Blackmore: I wrote a book called ‘Confessions of a Parapsychologist. Actually, it was called The Adventures of a Parapyschologist in the end.

Brother Guy: Exactly. But it is a sense of adventure, that of all of the things we do in the world, having fun and having fun with what we’re doing seems to be an essential of doing a good job of it.

Dr S. Blackmore: So what’s the fun for you in science?

Brother Guy: The fun for me, in a micro sense, is simply when I can look at my computer screen and make a connection and say ‘I see something that noone else has ever seen before and it makes sense and it’s really pretty and I can’t wait to tell somebody’. When I go outside and look at the stars, I know them, I feel at home no matter where in the world I am because I recognise them, I know little stories about each of them, both the story of the human beings that discovered them and the scientific story, of why Actarus is red, why it looks like two stars Alcor and Mizar. And knowing those little stories makes them closer to me, makes them objects that are easier for me to love.

Dr S. Blackmore: The field you’re in means that you come across some discoveries that have really big implications, possibly relevant to religion, such as life elsewhere on the universe and we’ve seen in recent years not only the discovery of possible evidence of life on Mars but the increasing certainty that there are planets that might sustain life elsewhere. Was that exciting to you, what sort of effects did that have?

Brother Guy: Absolutely. The idea of planets around other stars, that was a thrill, for the science fiction fan in me has wanted these for years and, instead of reading about planets that somebody has invented in a science fiction book, pretty soon we’ll be able to write stories about real planets that are really there, and the next step is to think about sending probes, and, by golly, the science fiction starts to come alive.

Dr S. Blackmore: At the risk of going back to a too-primitive view of God, I sense a problem though. You believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God, that it’s somewhat like – not pushing it too far – that this world here is the playing out of God living on this planet. Now, what if there are a hundred other planets out there with life on them, are you saying that God will, I don’t know, sit back and decide ‘Well, I’m going to put a Jesus – alien green Jesus, I mean, whatever – on each one of these planets or some of them and not others, how does this idea of multiple lives evolving again and again on different planets fit with your God?

Brother Guy: I haven’t the faintest idea.

Dr S. Blackmore: (laughs)That’s a great one to work on then.

Brother Guy: And it’s great fun because all of those things are possible. It’s of course dangerous to hypothesize in the absence of data. We don’t know yet if there are any terrestrial planets, we don’t know yet if there’s life on any of them, we don’t know yet if they’re intelligent life and we don’t know what kind of relationship, if any they have with a creator. For that matter, as you and I have shown we don’t even know if there is a creator. As we discover these life forms then we’ll have some grist to put into our mill – if that’s not a totally absurd analogy. (laughs)

Dr S. Blackmore: No, I think it’ll do, I can imagine them going into a mill and being ground up.

Brother Guy: It’s very exciting precisely because, when we see how God did it, then we’ll know something new about God that we didn’t know before, and that’s exciting.

Dr S. Blackmore: Is that really different from knowing something different about the universe that we didn’t know before?

Brother Guy: It’s something in addition to, it’s certainly something about the universe we didn’t know before, but it’s in addition to that. It would be like as if the author of Harry Potter died tomorrow and we discovered two more books in her trunk that noone ever knew about, it would be a thrill. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Dr S. Blackmore: So do I. (laughs) I want there to be ten more Harry Potters.

Brother Guy: Absolutely. In any event, whether there turns out to be another book doesn’t change any of the books that have been written. There’s got to be one last thing in your life that you always hang on to. There has to be one starting point. If I let go of a theory it’s because there’s something deeper than that theory I don’t let go of, the scientific method, the rationality of the universe, the basic laws of conservation of mass and energy. I can have a really beautiful theory but if it violates one of those laws I have to let go. Conservation of mass seemed to be one of those until we learned about atomic theory and how you can change mass into energy.

So there are times when you can back off, but even that you backed off of because there was something deeper that you still believed in, that you can compare it against. Ultimately, everyone in their life has an ultimate touchstone, an ultimate metric, something against which everything has to be based, has to be measured. For me, it’s my religion. For most people, it’s their religion, whether they call it religion or not. And, as long as you have a metric, a basis, that you can work from, I think you will eventually come to a better description of the truth, a better understanding and a closeness to the truth, even if it’s a different metric from mine.

Dr S. Blackmore: But I do have some serious problem with this idea that ultimately it’s a question of whether it works because of the fact that many Christians, and I’m sure you would say well, they’re misunderstanding or they’re abusing Christianity or something but there are many out there who are real sort of do-gooders, who are ‘I’m better than you because…’ –  I mean there was much worse, of course, the Inquisition, all sort of terrible things one could point to in Christianity’s past, what happened to Galileo, all sorts of things. It’s very hard to say that it works in the sense of producing beautiful people, yes, it produces some beautiful people, but there are some beautiful scientists, there are some beautiful atheists.

Brother Guy: There are. And, of course, I’d claim that they’re beautiful because they’re products of a Christian culture, even though they’ve rejected it.

Dr S. Blackmore: That’s a little bit of a trick isn’t it.

Brother Guy: I can weasel out of anything, that’s why I’m a Jesuit. (laughs)

Dr S. Blackmore: Well I’m not going to let you get away with it.

Brother Guy: The point is, that it’s the system that, when I’m doing it right, works for me. And it’s a system, when I see other people doing it right, even if they claim to be atheists, I think they’re being Christian and I think that they’re following the things that I wouldn’t have known to follow except for my religion. Just as I wouldn’t know what was good science unless someone had taught me how to do it, I’m not that brilliant a scientist. The joy of Christianity to me is that, at the very least, it gives me a system, that when it works, works beautifully. But more than that, it challenges me, because it presents to me, ultimately, this person Jesus Christ who was a human being, 100% human being and at the same time, God. And you’re going, wait a minute, now how can that be possible, this stretches my understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to be God, in ways that I have never thought of before, and yet, having entered into this religion, things snap together and fit in a way that gives me an Aha!, just like science at its best. I understand why a sunset makes me delighted, in much the same way that Maxwell’s equations that describe the sunset also delight me.

Dr S. Blackmore: Could there be anything that you could come across in your scientific work which would make you say ‘My starting assumptions were wrong, that is, my Christian assumptions, the things that I believe about God and the universe and the way it works and love and beauty and all the other things you’ve talked about… could there be anything, that would make you say ‘for the sake of truth I must give up being a Christian in this sense and give up the idea of the Christian god’?

Brother Guy: No, not in that sense. There are certainly lots of things that I hope to come across that will make me realise that my concept of God was too small, that my understanding of theology was inadequate. Because I know it’s too small, I know it’s inadequate but, just as there’s nothing in the science that I learn that will make me doubt the scientific method, there’s nothing in the science that will make me doubt the theological method, they’re metatheories, in a sense.

Dr S. Blackmore: But the theological method is different from the theological content, in other words, the necessity of a concept of God. I can perfectly accept that you might want to say ‘nothing would cause me to give up the theological method’, in the sense of constantly looking for the truth through the kind of Jesuit argument that you use and so on and so on. That’s different isn’t it, from the idea of a God who created the universe, who’s son was Jesus and so on. That’s what I’m talking about – could there be anything that would make you give up that, still holding to the method of enquiry that you’re seeking the truth but that isn’t the truth and actually there isn’t a God and Jesus was just an ordinary man.

Brother Guy: There’s no way that we can know that, one way or the other. So it’s an untestable hypothesis and I’m very suspicious of religions that are full of testable hypotheses. They are certainly inadequate.

Dr S. Blackmore: And they do tend to get tested and thrown out.

Brother Guy: And they do tend to get tested but unfortunately they don’t get thrown out sometimes. The deeper question is what do you do when you come across two things that appear to contradict each other completely? And we encounter this in science. What you do is, you step back and say ‘Hmm, things are more complicated than we thought’. Newtonian physics still works even though we now understand its limitations. The quantum theory will have limitations even though we don’t know where they are yet. And we will constantly be coming across these contradictions, and rather than fearing them or running away from them, you embrace them because it tells you there’s a new dimension that you didn’t know about before.

Dr S. Blackmore: Thank you very much.