Jim Fleming: Astrophysicist, Adam Frank, is another atheist with a spiritual bent, although in his case, his yearning for the sacred is rooted in science. Frank’s the author of “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science Vs. Religion Debate.” He calls himself an unapologetic disciple of the path and practice of science, but he also gets impatient with way many scientists sneer at any talk of spirituality and he remains open to some ideas that atheists tend to dismiss out of hand. For instance, the possibility that consciousness could survive death. Frank tells Steve Paulson that his fascination with the sacred goes back to his childhood.
Adam Frank: When I was a kid, and I first began to learn about science, some of my deepest, most profound experiences, really life altering, life shaping experiences came through the lens of science, so when I was very young, one of the things that sent me on the path of science was a summer’s day, thunder is booming and lightning is, you know, flashing in the sky, and I’m terrified of course, and my father says, ‘˜well, you know, you don’t really need to be worried too much about that because here’s what thunder and lightning is,’ and he gave me this beautiful cogent explanation and it just opened my eyes. I mean, not only did it not, sort of make me less fearful, but more than that, I suddenly had this experience of seeing, you know, the air being shattered by the lightning bolt and the air rushing back in to create the shockwave and the thunder, and moments like that have tracked with me through my entire life and each one, as I learned more about spiritual experiences, how people describe religious experiences, I had to say, well, you know, clearly what I was having could be described as a religious experience. There is no idea of God in it. There’s no supernatural being, but the expanse of the oceanic feeling as Freud would call it, was clearly part of it, and it has changed my life.
Steve Paulson: Fascinating, so somehow understanding how the world works, I mean how nature works, you’re saying that transports you in a spiritual way?
Frank: I believe it does and I think, you know, this is a very common experience for people, both scientists and non-scientists, and then what we do is we tell people, when they say, ‘˜wow, that was like a, I had a spiritual experience,’ we say, ‘˜oh no you didn’t, no, no, no, that has nothing to do with spirituality,’ and I think it’s a grave mistake because we sort of cut off this wellspring of human emotion, of the human experience of the sacred as I call it.
Paulson: So part of the problem as you see it, is the words that were used. Now my sense is that you don’t much like the word “religion,”and all that it suggests. I mean doctrine and theology and all of that, but you are more comfortable using words like “spiritual”or the“sacred.”
Frank: Yes, and obviously spirituality is a word people use. There’s that tag of spiritual but not religious, but in my research I stumbled upon the word “sacred”and whatI loved about the word “sacred,”is that it’s roots don’t connect toany religion, any existing religion unless of course, you’re Pagan, because it was about Roman temple architecture. The “sacer”was the interior domain of the Roman temples and inthe sacer, you really needed to be attentive and that word is really a key, attention, you need to be attentive to the needs of the gods, and outside in the “profanum,”you could do whatever you wanted. You could sell your Grateful Dead t-shirts, you could sell walnuts, so the sacred is that experience we have when we pay attention to the world in a very special way.
Paulson: You’ve written some really interesting things about how you interpret, well, some of the great spiritual teachers I guess you could say. For instance, you’ve written about the Buddha, the Catholic mystic, Teresa of Avila, and you say there is some truth discovered that is more than simple neuro- chemistry gone amuck, and it’s an interesting position to stake out because it’s a place where a lot of atheists don’t want to go, to say that spiritual experience cannot be reduced to brain chemistry.
Frank: Yeah, because my point has always been that you can hook me up to a machine and identify which parts of my brain light up when I eat an apple, but that will never actually reach my experience of the apple. I mean a thought is a very strange thing. Where is my thought, right. You know, the neural correlate as they call it, which part of the brain lights up when I have a thought, is not my thought, right, that is electrons moving around. My experience of my thoughts is a very different entity and we are so far from a theory of consciousness that I think it’s very premature to be making grand pronouncements about what consciousness is and how it relates to the brain.
Paulson: Well, this raises fascinating questions about all kinds of issues and you wrote a column not that long ago on your NPR blog about life after death and you said that you remain wholly and firmly agnostic on the question whether consciousness exists after death, and I have to say this is not the usual atheist position to take.
Frank: And I got into a lot of trouble with people for doing that but really, you know, hey, I’m a scientist and you’ve got no data, right? If you have no data about what happens after death, then it’s probably a much better idea to say, ‘˜I don’t know.’ I mean, you know, let’s put our cards on the table. I’m not saying that there is life after death, and you know, the idea of a soul, a trans-personal soul that rises, also that doesn’t make very much sense to me either, but certainly what I’m saying is I don’t have any information about this phenomena, what happens after death...
Paulson: But you a lot of flack from some people. I mean for instance, you fellow physicist, Sean Carroll, who said that, he’s an outspoken atheist, he said that believing in the possibility of life after death is the equivalent of believing the moon is made of green cheese.
Frank: Right, I love Sean, he’s got, we have wonderful debates. Let me be clear, I’m not arguing that there is life after death. I really don’t know and who knows what form it could take if there was. It’s not life after death. One way to phrase this is, is consciousness local or not? Is consciousness embedded in your head and that’s it? Right, you know, William James, a long time ago when he was thinking about consciousness, and he said well, you know, consciousness could be related to circuitry in your brain or it could be that your brain is like a radio, it’s tuned to consciousness. What I’m saying is, it’s a little strident to be taking a militant position on this when you have zero data.
Paulson: Well, it seems to me you’ve just laid out that the two competing visions of atheism, there’s the hardcore version of people like Sean Carroll and Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dent, who don’t like any talk about spirituality and frankly, don’t like the word “mystery.” They consider this fuzzy thinking, and then there is your position, and there are others like you. I guess I would classify you as falling into this spiritual atheism camp who are trying to formulate an understanding of the sacred without resorting to anything supernatural. Is that a fair distinction?
Frank: That is a very fair distinction. I actually think that people like Dawkins do enormous disservice, and I also would argue like who said that they spoke for science? Who elected them as the representatives of science in the issue? If you go back and look at scientists themselves, many of them held deeply spiritual positions. You know, they came to their own experience of science. They had what they would describe as rich spiritual lives.
Paulson: Tell me about some of these people.
Frank: Well, I mean in some cases, they were explicitly religious, right? Like Isaac Newton, I mean the interesting thing about Isaac Newton that really has only been recognized in the last 50 or 60 years, is that this guy wrote more about religion than he did about physics.
Paulson: And he loved alchemy of course.
Frank: Right, right, which he saw as sort of those, you know, were intertwined. His spiritual questions, his religious questions were entwined with alchemy. He considered himself a priest of nature. And then there’s James Maxwell Clark, who invented the equations, the beautiful equations that describe all electromagnetic phenomena as well as a lot of other things, and he was a very solid protestant, and then you get to Einstein. I think Einstein you have to put in this category of spiritual atheist. I mean there’s so many quotes from him. He talks about people he, you know he rails against the atheists who are so strident in their positions. He says, and people who don’t believe in mystery, he says they’re like snuffed out candles. Another actually fascinating example is Wolfgang Pauli, who is considered one of the greatest European physicists, greatest physicists of the last century, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and the really interesting story about Pauli is that, you know, from the outside, he looked like the quintessential dramatic physicist. He was a theorist of the highest caliber, was actually condescending to you if your mathematics was wrong. He’s the guy who invented not even wrong. You know, somebody was giving a talk one time and he said, ‘˜sir, your theory is not even wrong.’ That’s the ultimate insult in physics, but he had a very difficult life as a young man and he was having these dreams that were just stunning in their vividness and the richness of their metaphors, and he actually ended up with Jung. He ended up doing psychotherapy with Jung and the two of them started a conversation through their letters for the rest of their lives, and Pauli really came, he became a Jungian, started thinking deeply about the collective unconscious, started thinking deeply about how dreams become metaphors for both physics and for life, so I mean, I think it’s really wrong to say science equals this sort of hyper-strident atheism.
Paulson: Well my sense is that there is now sort of [inaudible] but starting to grow movement among secular scientists, philosophers, naturalists, who are trying to formulate a new kind of spirituality without any reference to the supernatural. You would seem to be part of that and first of all, do you see that happening and if so, do you see this as a significant movement?
Frank: Yes, I absolutely see it happening. I think it’s fascinating, it’s just in time. When you say science and religion to people, the first thing they think of is like Richard Dawkins arguing with a southern evangelist about evolution, right, and it’s like, ‘˜oh my God, that has happened for so long and it just sucks all the air out of the room.’ You know there’s absolutely nothing interesting that’s going to happen in that debate. There’s scientists who look at this and they see this going back and forth, they’re like, ‘˜oh God, I’ve had it, I just do not want to be part of this debate.’ As much as horrified as we are by having a Republican presidential candidate stand up and say evolution isn’t happening, but when it comes to their thinking about this issue, scientists who sort of have their own experiences of what I would call the spiritual, it’s a non-supernatural spiritual, are trying to say what questions can we ask? What is the right question to ask, what’s the right approach? We’re really, we might learn something about this.
Fleming: Adam Frank is an Astrophysicist at the University of Rochester and one of the founders of the NPR Science blog, 13.7. He talked with Steve Paulson about his book “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate.”