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A Scientist's Notebook
by Gregory Benford

Science, Self, and the Sense of Godhood

Religion manifests in myriad ways. As an experience, the anthropologist Raymond Firth remarked, "savage religion is not so much thought out as danced out." This sentiment captures a great deal, if for "savage" we read "early." Quite probably that was how religion worked in the lives of our ancestors. Theology is theory; but in prehistory faith was surely rooted in experience. Joyous dancing transported minds to more exalted spaces.

Science fiction is the essence of the modern. It is our job as writers to see where our "encounter with the infinite"----an all-purpose phrase that embraces cosmology, evolution, and religion---may go, driven by the relentless hammer of science and its handmaiden, technology.

So-So Biology

Religious experience resonates in us. In pondering our innermost natures, faith is crucial. Why does it speak to us profoundly? Indeed, why has religion dominated so much of history, right up to the present?

From a purely cost-accounting point of view, it is pricey. The Bible tells of pagans sacrificing their prized cattle, and even their children, on bloody altars. Peasants living in rude shacks turned up to labor on pyramids, churches, mausoleums, and priestly comforts. Jews died rather than fight on holy days. Christian Scientists to this day deny medical care, persisting for their faith.

Polls plausibly report that a majority of us believe in some concept of God. Religion is a true cultural universal. Neanderthals left gifts with their carefully buried brethren, suggesting a concept of an afterlife, though we will never know for sure. In our supposedly scientific era, New Age bookshops and evangelical churches report great growth. Do such numbers imply a positive gain from the religious experience? Such a strongly felt need suggests a benefit from faith.

I am a scientist and a science fiction writer, accustomed to asking uncomfortable questions. My first instinct is to look at the most controversial wing of current science, sociobiology. Its critics might term it "so-so biology," for it can run to Just-So stories describing how any particular trait might have come about.

Let us begin with a skeptical accounting. Of what evolutionary use is belief in God?

Crude analogies to animal behavior abound. Wolves gnaw off a foot to escape traps, a form of sacrifice. Primates invest heavily in a hierarchy, with alpha males performing roles we could parallel with priestly ones. These do not remotely prove a genetic basis for religion. After all, beyond genes and even culture there lie the constraints of the world itself. We need not wonder that universally people prefer lush fields to barren deserts, or abodes with a view to dank hollows. Could religion be an ornate response to environment?

Surely our persistent awe at the world's beauties could drive a reverence for the implied Creator of it all. We expect to see agency everywhere, and our elaborate ability to ascribe cause and effect, so useful in evolution theory, could lead us to the Argument From Design: such artfulness implies an artist.

But it is a long leap from this impulse to the toll exacted by religious societies. A further jump would be to trace how dominance hierarchies among primates got elevated into ceremonies for gods unseen, to ends unknown.

We can play the sociobiology game again: Lay bare a benefit, explain the behavior. How did the hominid get religion?

Amplifying group solidarity seems a promising avenue: faith as social cement. In its extreme form it could even get the believer to go off on crusades for territory (on to Jerusalem!), wealth, or women for the gene pool. In its paranoid form, this idea becomes a conspiracy theory: faith as a con game culturally inherited to benefit an elite.

Or perhaps religion is a side effect of some other, deeper strategy, cultural or genetic. Like antlers on elk, the (often-celibate) priesthood could arise from runaway sexual selection. Then our elaborations would arise from some cultural positive feedback, which runs unchecked, absorbing a society's resources to surprising levels. Our joy at football games seems like this, an old gaming urge rendered impotent (we fear no injury to ourselves, and actually pay to see it) but still hypnotic, so that we care for the struggles of players whom we see only as small figures on TV screens, as abstract as the Holy Trinity.

Convergent social evolution could explain religion's global hold. As the pharaohs knew well, it is a handy way to extract service by promising a long-term payoff in the afterlife. So the world's first large society was in fact a Thantocracy, based on a theory and solution to the greatest human problem, death. The power of theology then comes from our ability to forecast, which helps in overcoming our environment but saddles us with the looming menace of our end. This culturally transmitted notion, or meme, would spread readily, since we hunger to resolve the anxiety brought on by the fear of death.

Of course, evolution works on individuals, not groups, and there are plenty of beneficiaries to religious practice. While Catholicism's priests are (usually) celibate, their congregations reproduce often because doctrine forbids contraception. As well, societies with strong faith can expand at the point of a sword (Islam) or a prayer book (Mormons), promoting its adherents. A mixture of cultural and genetic payoffs follows. None of this need be cynical; the priesthood believes, too, perhaps more so than the followers. The memes are simply using an opening in the human world view, which gives the meme an advantage.

Science is similar, though we seldom think of it this way. It imposes a meta-meme on any theory, the tests of the prediction-verification cycle, and of logic itself. Science has visible triumphs, however, as theories sharpen and our understanding and control of nature grows. But religion has no such apparent feedback from the world; the gods do not answer their mail. Miracles are few and not reproducible.

The Persistence of Faith

So why does religion remain, even grow, in our science-dominated age? Will it continue to do so? While science explores a different province of knowledge, historically it has pushed against the earlier claims organized religion made about the physical world. This persists today in rival claims about the nature of revelation. Still, scientists as notable as Charles Townes, who received the Nobel Prize for devising the maser (and thus the later laser), believe that a god lies behind natural order. I have known Charles for decades, attended a religious conference with him in Calcutta, and I am sure his faith is real. He sees no contradiction, and many scientists don't----but others feel there will always be an antagonism between the two world views, and they will clash in the public arena.

As a voice of authority, science has largely won the day in the public arena, where concrete polities get disputed. Only in moral issues does religion hold sway.

Religion has some defenses, of course. Religious leaders can always point offstage to the true source of their rules and proclamations: the unseen God. This gets them off the hook for unpopular edicts, and enforces compliance with the implied threat that the Big Boss upstairs will be unhappy. To outside criticism there are deeper, memetic defenses. Many sects hold firmly that all forms of reason do not apply to faith, disarming the rationalist arsenal. Retreating from public miracles to the interior miracle of a personal relationship with God, as in the Protestant revolution, takes many disputable points off the table.

Such appeals find broad audiences. Cults spread today, probably fueled by a felt cultural vacancy. Our times, and the scientific world view driving them, are complex; many find the combination literally dispiriting. Faith has an obliging simplicity. In the unending human search for meaning, faith is restful. It spurs few further questions.

But other features of religion are hard to explain this way. Why do religions globally use the motif of gifts offered to God? Perhaps the answer can be drawn from B. F. Skinner's experiments, in which pigeons who were fed at random spontaneously showed "superstitious behavior," reproducing what they were doing when the food first started appearing. This fear that bad things will follow failure to observe ritual makes sense as a habit-forming impulse in the ordinary world: look both ways when entering traffic, be sure that knife is safely put away, check that the barn door is locked. Generalizing from such programming seems straightforward.

But still, but still . . .

Mechanistic explanations do not seem to capture the essence of religion. There are big questions about our origins---indeed, about the origins of the universe and of natural law. Science grips these enigmas only tentatively, as in the current fashion to greet new cosmological discoveries with cries that we have "found the fingerprints of God"---as if He were a suspect in a shrouded mystery. With its agenda of always seeking the more fundamental cause, by looking for ever more general laws, science butts against the last question: what causes the laws? Imagining an agency that stands outside of Nature, providing a rock for logic's fulcrum, is tempting.

Early societies were polytheistic and later ones consolidated their beliefs into one God. This parsimony of explanation parallels that of science, which moved from Aristotle's many special cases to general laws, like gravitation and classical mechanics, to explain the seen world. All converge on the grand riddle: why is there something, with all its order, rather than nothing? Why laws at all? Humans laws often go flouted, but natural ones cannot be, by assumption. We automatically assume that the cosmos cannot err. Yet, if we start from the beginning without imposing our longing for design, chaos seems as likely an outcome as the scrupulous harmonies revealed by science.

Natural law argues for a dominance of Mind over Matter in the universe. Of course, one can prefer to view this as a dance between the two. If Mind brought us forth from Matter, enabling the universe to comprehend itself (do its own homework), then religion is an instinctive (using the term loosely) manifestation of this. But this abstract way of envisioning the deep devout impulse in humanity does not quite capture the heart-thumping urgency of faith.

Something is missing, and probably will always remain so. This feeling of lack, perhaps even more than the rituals and leaps of faith, frames an important part of being human.

Future Faiths

For centuries, science has atomized experience, the better to analyze it. Our chimpanzee minds work best by isolating each cause as cleanly as possible, then assigning simple rules---Newton's Laws, quantum mechanics, etc.---to predict how simple systems will behave.

Doing this to people seemed quite fruitful at first, yielding the chunky mechanics of Freud. Alas, we are not "simple systems" and the dream of easy understanding has lapsed. We writers rely on what I shall term "folk psychology," gleaned from experience but lacking a fundamental knowledge.

Now we---our Selves---confront this remorseless dividing engine, asking finally if the liberal humanist "subject" really exists. Do our Selves truly run our inner machinery? If so, what to make of the unconscious, which creates our sentences before we quite know what they are? Experiments show that we make decisions and begin actions fractions of a second before the conscious mind knows what is going on. And where do truly profound ideas come from, springing to mind as images or, in the case of Einstein, kinesthetic sensations?

Perhaps the views of our minds held by such as Marvin Minsky---a society of mind populated by "agents" and "constellations" of "infomatic creatures"---are better models than the autonomous Self who rules from above, the mind's eye peering out at the objective world.

Our troubles as writers grew worse in the 1940s, when Claude Shannon and Norbert Weiner gave purely mathematical definitions of information, independent of mind. How information in the brain comes about awaited our current ideas of self-organizing systems, used now all the way from studying the origin of life to how we have an idea.

In sf, we often see images of disembodied intellect. Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End envisions a rapture of intellect, soaring above the greasy burden of the body. The Extropians yearn for the virtual bodies of uploading, where they will dwell in cyber-heaven forever.

If our Selves are solely information, and can exist independent of the substrate of matter---chemical/biological now, cybernetic later, perhaps plasma or magnetic forms in the far future---where does a writer center his story?

The roots of this problem are deep. Religion unifies our sense of self, and analysis atomizes. What happens when they collide?

I do not believe our intellects can be truly disembodied, because our thinking is so rooted in our nervous systems, their kinesthetic senses and analogies to aid supposedly abstract thought. We propose logical alternatives, after all, by saying "On the other hand . . . "

The problem worsens when we attempt to portray the sheer alien feel of self-as-information. Critics have lifted sf ideas into studies of cyborgs and "disembodied" or "decontextualized" work, but they do not seem to grasp the dilemma of the narrative self which still must communicate to readers who experience themselves as antonymous beings---most definitely not ontologically split from their being, after all, smart chimpanzees.

Indeed, here this coming conceptual catastrophe collides with my earlier subject: seeing ourselves as products of evolution's anvil. What a work is man, indeed---but one made by pressures on an ancient African veldt we cannot ever occupy, though it still drives our Selves and our societies. We have an enormous talent for extending our tribal loyalties of hundreds up into societies of a billion, transforming village allegiance into nationalism. But what becomes of such skills when we know ourselves fully as engines of fitness selection? when we see the mechanisms of socialization operating---and can change them, acting directly upon the brain (that bag of information, remember?).

Think further: What would we be like if we could intervene directly in our own minds? Suppress some moods, legislate others? See directly where an idea comes from, frothing forth as a tide of self-organizing images rooted in analogy (our most common reasoning tool, more dexterous than mere formal logic)?

In other words, is such self-knowledge going to be mostly bad news? For the atomization of our selves which began with the Darwinnowings of evolution, proceeded through the blunt sectionings of psychology, and now gnaw at our sense of integration---these forces can turn off a readership which cannot like the sense of shattered self such stories promise.

Self-knowledge could lead to an existential nausea, or a hall-of-mirrors horror. Or, to conclude on a more positive note, this could lead to an appreciation of our Selves as emergent order, not reducible to easy rules at all. We do not know what this grand search will find.

Of one point I am sure: As readers, we finally demand some being to finally actually be---for accounts to settle, for stories to have meaning, imposed by some sense of integrated life.

*     *     *

I am working on a novel that confronts these issues directly, imagining technology we can glimpse in the present.

As our ability to control our own minds grows, moral issues will arise swiftly. Electronic and chemical means will allow us to experience intense states of mind quickly, while still going about our ordinary world. This means that states of spiritual knowing can come to the aid of everyday life.

Together with computer augmentation of the brain, this shall transform our religious and social senses. For those who choose to manage their own minds with advanced technology, the present, time-intense world will be replaced by one allowing genuine reverie, without reducing efficiency. (Indeed, one functions better in a state of existential calm. It is healthier, too.)

But will this new ability damage our sense of an inherent Godliness in the universe? Will some become so addicted to holy ecstasy that they become a new kind—the "wirehead" devout? Will traditional faiths reject such people? Should they?

Fiction can tell us deeper truths about where we are going only by peering at these discomforting possibilities, asking the hard questions, and dwelling in worlds to come. Science needs such guidance, now more than ever.

===THE END===

copyright © 2000 by Abbenford Associates

Comments on this column welcome at, or Physics Dept., Univ. Calif., Irvine, CA 92717

Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, by Walter Burkert, Harvard University Press, 1996.

"Magic and Religion" by Raymond Firth, from The Pleasures of Anthropology, edited by Morris Freilich, New American Library, New York, 1983

The Wonder of Being Human: Our Brain and Our Mind by Sir John Eccles and Daniel N. Robinson, The Free Press, 1984.

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