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Life Is More Meaningful Than Mere Facts Can Convey

What exactly are we looking for? What fuels so much of the passion and intensity behind the debates over religion, the debates between religions and the debates surrounding science and religion? At the heart of these debates you will often find the issue of "knowing."

Knowing if God exists, or not.  Knowing how the Universe began and if a creator was necessary, or not.  Knowing how human beings "became" and what constitutes appropriate moral codes in light of that becoming. Always and again, the emphasis is on knowledge, on the certainty of understanding something, of knowing some fact and its meaning. What a tragic mistake.

The great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, "People don't want the meaning of life, they want the experience of life." He could not have hit the nail more firmly on the head.

One thing I have never understood in the vitriol that people manage to dredge up in these science vs. religion battles is their lack clarity about goals. Is human spiritual endeavor really about "knowing" the existence of a superbeing?  Does this academic "knowing", as in "I can prove this to be true," really what lies behind the spiritual genius of people like the ninth century Sufi poet Rumi, the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen, or more modem examples like Martin Luther King or Ghandi?

There are many reasons human beings institutionalized their spiritual longing into religions. Those reasons often devolved into considerations of power, control and real estate.  Those institutions certainly have needed to enforce creed and doctrine, i.e. "knowledge."

But the reasons individuals find their lives transformed by spiritual longing are intimate and deeply personal affairs having little to do with dusty "proofs for the existence of God." As all those "spiritual but not religious" folks popping up in surveys on religion will tell you, the essence of the question is about experience, not facts.

Along a similar vein, in the pro-science/anti-religion camps one often hears the quest for understanding the universe put in equally ultimate, quasi-theological terms. Finding the final theory, the Theory of Everything, is held up as a kind of moment "when the truth shall be revealed once and for all." While many practicing scientists might not see it this way, the scientific knowledge/enlightenment trope has been there in popular culture for a long time reaching all the back to Faust and up through movies like Pi.

As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said "Even if God did exist, that would change nothing."  One way to interpret his meaning was that a formulaic "knowledge" of a superbeing's existence is beside the point when the real issue before us every day, all day is the verb "to be."

It’s the act of being that gives rise to our suffering and our moments of enlightenment. Right there, right in the very experience of life, is the warm, embodied truth we long for so completely.

Spirituality, at its best, points us away from easy codifications when it shows us how to immerse ourselves in the simple, inescapable act of being.  Science at its root is also an expression of reverence and awe for the endless varied, resonantly beautiful experience we can find ourselves immersed in.  So knowing the meaning of life as encoded in a religious creed on a page or an equation on a blackboard is not the issue. A deeper, richer experience of this one life: that is the issue!

So, can we stop thinking that discussions about science and religion have to focus on who has the best set of facts?

When it comes to the natural world, it's hard to see how science is not going win the "facts" war hands down. But if we broaden our view to see being as the central issue, then connections between science and spiritual longing might be seen in an entirely different light.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.