A Synthesis of Science and Religion

Thy will be done, O Universe!

Guy Murchie, The Seven Mysteries of Life, pg. 627

In the preface to his Seven Mysteries of Life, Guy Murchie wrote that when he had set out to write the book, he had intended the project to be an exploration of life in its entirety, but somewhere on that seventeen year journey he had discovered something — something philosophical. He reported that he’d discovered

fresh insights as to why the world is the way it is, where it is going and what it means … a discovery in philosophy.

This was quite a remarkable pronouncement. Unfortunately, the preface does not identify what these insights were. I can only make the considered guess that the discovery he speaks of is the set of mysteries which the title of the book refers to. The difficulty I have with that guess is that not all those seven mysteries — if they may justifiably be called mysteries — were all that new to the world.

The first mystery, the abstract nature of the universe, was something he’d already delved into in his previous book, Music of the Spheres.

This first mystery was never all that mysterious. It was really just a declaration of philosophical idealism, as well as a recognition that mathematics is everywhere in nature.

A rather generous definition of life?

A rather generous definition of "life"?

The next two mysteries were, though not commonly recognized, not all that new in 1978. The first of these, the interconnectedness of all creatures, was quite in vogue by 1978, and the second, the omnipresence of life, was just as fashionable, as evidenced by the advent of the Gaia Hypothesis.

Then came the ancient idea of Heraclitus and the Tao, canonized by Hegel, and echoed by the likes of Marx and Mao Zedong, that the world is a kind of embodied dialectic, a harmonious interaction of opposing principles. Murchie calls this dialectic the polarity principle.

contrast and struggle, … far from diluting beauty, only etch it deeper.

pp. 626–7

Appropriately, Murchie recognized that Heraclitus shared this deep insight with him:

wasn’t it Herakleitos of Ephesos who said, in the fifth century B.C., that “the way up and the way down are the same”? And wasn’t it he who later generalized the concept by adding, “it is sickness that makes health pleasant … weariness that precedes rest, hunger brings on plenty and evil leads to good”?

pp. 471–2; also see Music of the Spheres, pg. 522

And again:

Herakleitos who went so far as to declare Homer misguided when he prayed, “Would that strife might parish from among gods and men!” because the poet hadn’t realize he was asking for the destruction of the universe, since, should his prayer be answered, all things must pass away. Herakleitos obviously recognized the Polarity Principle and saw that “the sun is new every day” and “no man can step twice into the same river since the waters that flow upon him are ever fresh.”

pg. 495; also see Music of the Spheres, pg. 489

Murchie had been meditating on this polarity principle while writing Music of the Spheres, and, like Heraclitus, he took it very seriously:

I see the abstraction we have called Polarity transcending toward ultimate Divinity, …

pg. 627

Next came another principle that Murchie had visited often in Music of the Spheres, which he now had named transcendence. This was perhaps the most obscure of Murchie’s mysteries. He was not clear at all as to what he really meant by transcendence. He called it that because he wanted to give it a sense of spiritual progress, but what he meant, if one looks closely at his development of the idea, is closer to what might be called progressive perspectivism. This is where Murchie begins to tip his Bahá’í hand.

Looking at the development of the idea, we see that much of the chapter on transcendence dwells on the phenomenon of superorganism — an phenomenon that would certainly warrant its own chapter, but Murchie wants superorganism to serve another idea which he holds more dear; an idea that he had probably held dear since he became a Bahá’í.

What I think Murchie was attempting to express in speaking of this mystery of transcendence was the idea that what we see in the world can change radically with a change of perspective, and a little dialectical thinking. This perspectivism, he hoped, could give hope that life’s puzzles could be solved.

… we need even more the principles of polarity and transcendence if we are really to explain why adversity is important and (as I believe) actually vital to our progress as spiritual beings.

pg. 621

Note that Murchie speaks of transcendence as a principle, rather than a mystery.

Murchie continues to tell the reader what he’s ultimately after in making such use of this transcendence. He thinks the world is a “soul school.” He thinks the world is hear to facilitate the education of souls. He thinks the justification for evil in the world can be found in correcting our shortsightedness. In other words, Murchie was a Bahá’í, and he needed this principle of transcendence to make his theology practicable.

Thus at last we arrive at the only hypothesis for the troubled world that fits all the known facts — the hypothesis that the planet Earth is, in essence, a Soul School.

pg. 621

Yes, that’s quite a leap that Mr. Murchie was asking the reader to make, and it’s clear now why he needed polarity and transcendence to pull it off. I for one can feel his yearning for justification of evil, though I personally have not been able to make that leap.

Transcendence … is not material so much as mental. And, to an even greater degree, spiritual.

pg. 494

When Murchie used the term transcendence, he was actually leading up to the Bahá’í doctrine of spiritual progress, which is related to the Bahá’í doctrine of unification, which is where the idea of superorganism came in. It’s not immediately apparent that this was the case, as Murchie went to great lengths to make his argument sound scientific, but it was more a rhetorical argument that sought to appeal to the reader’s yearnings.

transcendence … the development of our perspectives on space and time as we grow older, … a wider awareness as one matures spiritually … from our present earthly finitude toward some sort of an Infinitude far beyond.

This was actually nothing new to Murchie. When he began to work on Seven Mysteries, he had been a Bahá’í for 23 years. What he called transcendence was really none other than the Bahá’í doctrine of the soul’s progress through the worlds of God.

Murchie puts this Bahá’í doctrine of spiritual progression and collectivization to work as he presents his sixth mystery,

Germination of Worlds

With this mystery, Murchie put the fledgling Gaia Hypothesis to work for a Bahá’í doctrine, just as he had put superorganism to work for two other Bahá’í doctrines. In this case, the Bahá’í doctrine to be corroborated was to be the blossoming of humanity with the arrival of the promised one of all ages, Bahá’u’lláh; the Bahá’í notion that the very order of the world was to be overturned in favor of a new World Order, and Bahá’ís had long considered the advancements in science to be products of this spiritual New Jerusalem.

Rhetorically, Murchie couldn’t afford to be too explicit, but he was explicit enough to list out a number of Bahá’í principles as characteristics as this coming of age of humanity:

  • elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty (pp. 577–8)
  • gender equality (pp. 579–82)
  • elimination of racial prejudice (pp. 579-82)
  • universal education (pp. 582–3)
  • universal auxiliary language (pp. 583–4)
  • world government (pp. 584-586)
  • progressive revelation (pg. 612)
  • harmony of science and religion (pg. 615)

One can imagine Murchie reading these items off a Bahá’í brochure as he composed this chapter. This is Murchie at his most transparent as a Bahá’í evangelist.

The Gaia Hypothesis, born in the 1960s and raised in the 1970s, was not categorically new. The idea that Earth is an organism is as old as the science of geology itself. The very word “Gaia,” as it was adopted by the formulators of the Gaia Hypothesis, had actually been coined by the father of geology, James Hutton. The idea that the world would someday blossom was as old as Zoroaster. What Murchie wanted from the Gaia Hypothesis was a scientific foundation for what Bahá’ís like him had long believed.

With Murchie’s final mystery, divinity, we finally see a topic that actually qualifies as a mystery. The point of discussing this topic was apparently to argue for the existence of God as a mysterious but necessary concept, primarily by citing the preponderance of order and non-randomness in the universe. Here Murchie brought his religiosity to the fore, and he used Bahá’í terminology, such as unknowable Essence and veil of Glory (pg. 627), in speaking of God.

It now seems obvious to me that Murchie had been consciously working on a synthesis of current science and his particular religion, and I think he did remarkably well. I’m not sure that he began the project with this goal in mind, but I believe it began to take form as a religious project when his interest in religion was revived in 1963, and began to see himself as a Bahá’í author. Seven Mysteries certainly gained him the favor of many Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís around the world. Notwithstanding the lack of structure and logical lapses in Murchie’s colorful elucidations, to say nothing of his endorsements of pseudoscience (pp. 306–7), he might have had more of an impact on the popularity of the Bahá’í Faith had it not been for more traditionalist forces simultaneously gaining ground in the Bahá’í world community. We can see those forces at work in Murchie’s late life as we read through his autobiography. As early as 1979, we find him defending his ideas against critics within the Bahá’í Faith; critics for whom the harmony of science and religion was perhaps a lower priority than it was for Mr. Murchie.

One Guy’s Macrocosm

I just had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Guy Murchie’s Music of the Spheres, titled The Macrocosm, and I can see that a lot has been learned about Earth, the Moon, and planets since I was born. Take this sectional illustration of Earth’s crust for example:

A rather outdated cross section of California

A rather outdated cross section of California

Note the complete absence of tectonic plates. Note that the Sierra Nevada is represented as a folded range, which it’s not. Furthermore, today we don’t think there’s a basalt layer beneath North America, and in fact, we don’t think there’s any root at all beneath the southern Sierra. That last bit has been discovered rather recently.

Another example of the obsolescence of this volume are the two outdated hypotheses of Moon formation. The preferred hypothesis at the time of printing appears to have been a fission model, which is no longer accepted:

An outdated moon-birth hypothesis

An outdated moon-birth hypothesis

Of course this book was written before astronauts stepped on the moon — before we began to collect samples of lunar rock. Murchie can only guess that the Moon is a solid ball of granite, whereas today we know the Moon to be a stratified body like Earth, with a crust composed of basalt and anorthosite. We’ve obviously learned a thing or two about the Moon since the 1960s.

We’ve also learned a lot about the interior of Earth since then. We now believe that the source of most of Earth’s internal heat is nuclear radiation, and that Earth has a solid inner core. We’ve learned about plate tectonics and the greenhouse effect. We’ve found rings around Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, we’ve discovered a number of dwarf planets and over 400 extrasolar planets, and we’ve discovered over 130 planetary satellites (moons), including some rather significant moons of Neptune. We’ve even watched a comet collide with Jupiter! With all that, we’re not as ready to send astronauts to Mars as Murchie and Werher von Braun were in 1961, but we’re doing quite well sending robots.

Of course we should not blame Murchie for what we didn’t know in the 1960s. Still, there are some areas where Murchie may have fallen short even for his time. There are places where he omitted pertinent facts, such as the role of bacteria in producing oxygen in the early atmosphere. There are also places where he may have misrepresented the basic science, such as with his treatment of heating by compression of solids (pg. 148–50). Murchie seemed to assert that pressure alone will cause any substance to glow, but a solid (so long as it behaves as an incompressible solid) will resist compression under high pressure. If a material does not compress under pressure, it will not heat, and it will not glow.

Digressions, Flourishes, & Religion

Murchie’s composition was sometimes distracted and his prose was sometimes needlessly flowery. He would sometimes graft in digressions — often religious — that could seem extraneous and even forced:

The dozens of human jet-age stargazers waiting around for the zero hour of launching then always remind me of the faithful shepherds of similar deserts in the ancient Holy Land who have long had an equally great faith that the world can be changed. Even though on the face of it the two kinds of change are different, I think they are also profoundly related in a way that will one day be made manifest to all.

Music of the Spheres, page 24

That’s more than a statement of belief; it’s a prophecy (too ambiguous to be anything else).

I don’t mean to denigrate the idea of spiritual progress — or political progress for that matter, but I don’t understand what Murchie is getting at here: what do the Bedouin have to do with progress?

Murchie also made some rather reasonable points in favor of religion, such as pointing to Johannes Kepler’s religious motives for seeking natural law — which he Murchie equated to divine justice — in the heavens. And I ought to give Murchie credit for having kept his religion out of the science itself. Murchie can be credited, for instance, with having resisted the temptation to follow the precedent of the Bahá’í “perfect exemplar” `Abdu’l-Bahá’, who spoke out against the idea that we are descendants of animals.

… we are the cousins, if not the descendants, of the very most successful of all the most daring of fish, …

Page 25

The Heart of the Matter

Notwithstanding these faults, I’m inclined to believe that Murchie’s core ideas transcend such particulars. Indeed, one wonders why he included quite so many particulars, knowing that such detail might water down the message. Perhaps Murchie was striving to make Music of the Spheres a comprehensive historical survey of physical science, but that might have been overly ambitious given his affection for big, broad ideas. Perhaps had he dealt separately with (1) music in nature, (2) math in nature, and (3) the boundless frontiers of discovery, this book would have been more enduring and more versatile.

A Segue into the Mysteries of Life

As Murchie stated in the forward to the 1967 edition of Music of the Spheres, he intended the two-volume set to form a larger set with his next book, which he intended to name Melody of Life, but was eventually named The Seven Mysteries of Life.

I am six years along in writing a sequel and companion volume to Music of the Spheres on the subjects of life and mind. The work, now about half done, will probably be titled Melody of Life, and in due time I hope it will be offered with the present book as an integral set.

G.M., 1967

Indeed, the two books share a central thread or three, including the core theme of Music of the Spheres — what Murchie calls the abstract, musical nature of the world. The Seven Mysteries of Life actually began as the chapters of Music of the Spheres that didn’t make the cut in 1961.

This time it was about life, philosophy and things I didn’t have space enough to include in my Music of the Spheres. It was another case of one book’s leading right into the next for fulfillment.

Guy Murchie, The Soul School, pg. 352

To Believe is Human

My neighbor casually tells me, “Dan, some people are believers and some people aren’t.” Neurologist Robert Burton, likewise, says “some people are naturally doubters, and nothing feels as though it’s certain.” Burton, unlike my neighbor, sees the gap between believers and skeptics as more as a spectrum; a continuum.

I’ve been listening to a fascinating interview with Robert Burton on KQED’s Forum. Give it a listen. Burton appears to be suggesting that faith is a physiological impulse. This may sound reductionistic, and perhaps it is. Less reductionistically, you might say that faith is a “feeling”. I find it interesting because I have such a hard time—how should I put it—believing that believers really believe. This doubt is so strong that I often wonder whether believers are just lying about their belief. It sounds rather like a paranoid fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, so be it. On Being Certain

You see, I used to be a believer. That is, I was raised as a believer. When I was young, I suppose it might have been that I accepted my indoctrination as a factual education. It’s hard to tell, but I do remember having a sense of faith being a willful effort to conform to my upbringing. I considered myself a believer, in a doubtful sort of way. Maybe in an envious sort of way.

Thanks to the testimony of Dostoevsky and others, science has come up with the notion that many mystical experiences are related to epileptic seizures. Can I try one of those? I feel quite deprived. Honest! I wonder what it feels like.

What’s peculiar in my case is that my mother is an epileptic, and she had some bad seizures back around the time she became a Baha’i and married the man who spoke at the first Baha’i meeting that she attended. I wonder how different the world feels to her. Does she really have a sense of certainty about the faith that she seems so overly confident about?

I must admit that this gives me a new sense of tolerance for believers, as obnoxiously overbearing as they can be. Maybe believers aren’t a load of liars. Maybe they really do believe. Maybe belief is just part of being human; or rather, maybe belief is just part of being mammalian?