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Within the Sound of Science

Guest Column Andrew C. Thomas

After a friend recently asked me what religion I practiced, my own reflex answer (none) failed to placate even me. I had not given her, or even myself, a remotely clear explanation of my spiritual beliefs. That’s probably because I’ve developed a strong loathing of the word religion, due in large part to its use in the phrase and entity “organized religion.” History is replete with examples of terrors conducted at the hands of zealots, from the persecution of Christians in Roman times, to the execution of heretics during the Inquisition, to religious oppression in modern day China. It came as something of a blessing in disguise to me that etymological sources suggest that the word came from the Latin religare, meaning “to restrain” (the reason I prefer the term spirituality to religion). But it would be audacious of me to suggest that religion is, ironically, the tool of the devil. It has given billions of people ethical and moral satisfaction, purpose of being, and order in this vicious realm we all currently inhabit. And, say the devout, in the next plane of existence as well (whatever that may be).

But since the time of Galileo, objective science has taken a stand against old time religion. The scientific method slowly became a dominating force in the world, as the human race began to band together for reasons other than what god they believed in, what language they spoke, or who they should marry to make them powerful. Technologically, the human race began to pick up great speed. The once large world began to shrink down to the global marketplace we now see before us. But as people move closer together, science and religion still grind against each other as they did in early 17th-century Pisa. Perhaps the danger now is greater than it was before -- not the danger of the physical life of a clever man, but of the spiritual lives of those people who wish to live in true harmony. But should science or religion give way? Though I have for the most part attacked and blamed organized religion, science has its own faults to fix.

As I see it, science’s downfall is its insistence on making a set of rules to conform to the world around us. By reducing all phenomena to a table of values and relations, science tries its best to make the universe as predictable as possible, although we may not be able to approach complete determinism through science. But still, the map is not the territory. To explain the universe does not even begin to answer the question of how we as cognizant beings experience it. Science is therefore insufficient to completely displace religion.

My favorite fiction author has expressed his disdain at both modern science and religion, taking potshots whenever he can. Douglas Adams stabs at dogma when he says that capital letters deal with things you can’t explain well (such as “His resurrection”). But in his last visit, he spotted the foibles of MIT students who noticed that what you get when you multiply 6 by 9 does equal his magic number of 42 if you express the numbers in base 13. Adams’ argument, and the theme of his Hitchhiker’s Guide series, was not to spend all of life solving equations but to realize the infinite possibilities of what could be.

I admit my own experience in this area is slim, but I try as best I can. Since I don’t believe in organized religion, I start with what I understand. For me, music is the gateway that bridges science and spirituality. While compositions can certainly be decompiled into a set of numbers and letters, it is the human reaction to these notes and silences that is the essence of music. I am at a loss to explain how these reactions occur, but I also know that my understanding of the physical process will not alter my feelings when I listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or The Barenaked Ladies’ One Week. My inability to explain these processes is simply the beginning of the journey -- I will try to recreate them while playing music with others. When two people come together and share musical ideas, a new level of communication seems to be reached, one at least I fail to explain. I cannot help but feel enlightened whenever I experience a duet either from the inside or the outside.

Listening to and playing music is only the first exploration I have taken into what I can only begin to think of as my spiritual side. But seeing the ritualistic importance of music in most major religions, it seems that I may be heading down a similar path. Others before me have no doubt found similar insights. I pray that whatever paths I end up following will be wide enough to truly experience the world as it can be.

Andrew C. Thomas is a member of the Class of 2004.