Science and Religion
Consider a man in a full-body suit that shields him from any external stimuli whatsoever. Now imagine the suit is covered with sensors that deliver information from the outside of the suit to the inside, and that there are processors to interpret that information into a display for the man's eyes, speakers for his ears, chemical representations of taste and smell for his mouth and nose, and tactile stimulation for the nerve endings in his skin. Imagine also a microphone that picks up his voice when he talks and synthesizes an equivalent to be delivered to the outside world through a speaker there. Air around the suit is mechanically drawn in and filtered before it reaches the breathing area inside the mask and spaces that allow flow across his skin. Then, after it circulates, it is pumped out again. Food is deposited into a hatch that sends it to a processing machine for extracting nutrients to be delivered directly into the man's blood, and waste products are drawn directly from his bladder and bowels, to be sent out a trap door when the need arises. Now imagine this man has lived his entire life inside this suit and will die in it as well. He is not prevented from moving about freely, but he has no direct experience of the world beyond his suit. Everything he thinks he knows about what the world is like comes from his understanding of representations derived from signals derived from interpretations derived from whatever input the external sensors can access. His perceptions are only an illusion created by technology.
Now consider the brain. The body's sensory organs are stimulated, the stimuli are interpreted into electrical signals, the signals are delivered along nerves, being converted into chemical messages and then back into electrical impulses whenever one nerve ends and another begins, the signals reach the brain, and the brain derives meaning from them within the context of other information and the individual's personal inclinations. What is commonly considered to be the whole of the brain itself can be said to sense nothing directly.
In thought, the brain discusses and debates, considers and chatters. It directly regards its own identity within and indirectly notes the world without. It puzzles. It solves. It invents. It remembers. It rejects and ignores.
Suppose all thought were to cease and, at the same time, signals were to either stop being received or begin to be disregarded entirely. There would be nothing... a vast emptiness, seeming to have no end, containing not even any feeling or identity of any kind.
Science cannot tell us whether the Nothingness some experience as spiritual Truth is only the blankness resulting from successfully shutting off thought and leaving aside messages from outside the body - or something more profound. It cannot tell us if anything of spirit remains when the activity of the brain shuts down permanently. It certainly cannot tell us what becomes of that spirit once it moves beyond the body.
Science also cannot tell us why it is good to be kind to a stranger, to allow the ill and the dying their dignity, to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, to forgive, or to be grateful for the people we love.
The purpose of religion is not really to explain the mechanics or physical history and destiny of the universe. It is also not to reveal the deepest secrets of spiritual truth or even simply to comfort us. It reminds us to comfort each other and points the way to where clues to spiritual truth might be found. The journey is ours.
Suppose, then, that there is nothing beyond earthly life. Or suppose there is. It actually makes little difference to the purpose of life and what we must do. We must find joy and meaning. For this to be a worthy venture, we must discover the greatest and most noble joy and meaning possible. To do that, we must all share in it together, so that no one's being left behind detracts from it. To share in it together, we must look to sound values, so that no one's suffering is unnecessarily increased, and so that suffering is alleviated wherever and whenever possible.
Some are guided by faith; others by what can be proven. Most live by both, in varying combinations and degrees. There is no ultimate reason why we should find each other incompatible as fellow human beings simply for this. And there is no reason why anyone should have to claim to know all the answers. It is all right not to know.
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