Can a Complex Universe Provide “Religious” Inspiration Without Religion?

Author: Kelly Smith, M.S., Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy & Religion, Clemson University

Abstract Background: It is undeniable that religion provides a sense of purpose, ethical direction, and social belonging that most human beings for most of recorded history have found to be profoundly important. But it is equally undeniable that its supernatural metaphysics and dogmatic conservatism have retarded society’s progress in many ways and caused untold human suffering. An obvious question is thus: Is it possible to preserve the beneficial aspects of religion while excising the problematic ones?

Immanuel Kant fathered the postmodern age with his devastating critique of the possibility of human knowledge of the Ultimate. However, Kant himself was far from skeptical about the possibility of objective human knowledge – as long as its claims were carefully qualified. The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is his (often misunderstood) transcendental method. The method may offer a way to have our postmodern skepticism concerning traditional religious supernaturalism and still eat our metaphysical cake, as it were. Combining a transcendental approach with new scientific findings about the nature of the universe may allow us transcend the stalemate between scientific rationalism and faith, constructing a belief system which blends positive elements of each perspective.

Scientists in a number of disciplines are beginning to hypothesize that the universe naturally creates complexity. On the one hand, this undercuts the most common justification for belief in the supernatural, since there is no need for divine intervention to explain things which occur naturally. On the other hand, it invites those so inclined to view themselves as part of a universal telos involving the creation of complexity. Such a move requires only the smallest step of faith to adopt and may provide believers with the sense of purpose, ethical foundation, and social support they long for while sidestepping any conflict with the essential claims or methods of science.

Abstract Objectives: To outline how a spontaneously complexifying universe might provide a sense of purpose similar to religious faith, but without the problematic supernaturalism.

Abstract Methods: This research should be of interest to anyone who is skeptical of traditional religious approaches, yet wishes to make claims about universal principles and goals – whether we are talking about objective ethics or a human manifest destiny in space.

Abstract Conclusions: If the complexification hypothesis holds water, it should be possible to construct a sense of purpose and meaning that is especially relevant to space exploration, since it is in space that humankind will realize its long term future.