By F. David Peat January 2006 Though science and religion have had a thorny history, modern scientists such as Einstein, David Bohm and Wolfgang Pauli retained a sense of the sacred. The life of each individual scientist generally begins with some key event in childhood – gazing at the night sky, observing the myriad teeming life in a field, asking how a radio works, or looking at an illustration in some book of popular science. Many of us have heard of Albert Einstein’s fascination with the fact that a compass needle always points north, and his childhood game of imagining what would happen if he could catch up with a ray of light. Science has its origins in wonder and awe, even reverence, in the face of the natural world. It begins with a question that leads to a sense of mystery and to the determination to seek truth no matter where it leads. When described in this way it would be difficult to distinguish the heart of a true scientist from that of a religious person. Indeed Einstein makes this explicit in his statement, ‘To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.’ (Albert Einstein, Strange is Our Situation Here on Earth, in Modern Religious Thought, edited by Jaros Pelikan, Boston, 1990). Nevertheless, in the West at least, there have been historic tensions between religion and science. These are often highlighted by such examples as the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo and continue today in such areas as genetic manipulation, termination of life, designer babies, weapons of mass destruction, interpretations of the religious significance of the Big Bang or of evolution, the extension of life, and the augmentation of human beings by artificial devices. What is ‘Science’?But maybe we should begin this discussion with that word ‘science’ itself, which is generally taken as being synonymous with a methodological approach that began in Europe during the sixteenth century and now extends across the globe where it is practiced in universities, institutions and technical corporations. Yet, if by science we mean the rational and disciplined organisation of knowledge, other traditions can also lay claim to possessing a ‘science’. A science consists of a series of explanations for phenomena, with emphasis on careful observation, the use of instruments, and the classification of reproducible results. While the West may employ such instruments as the radio telescope and electron microscope, in the East it may be the mind and the discipline of meditation. Likewise many Native American groups would claim to have a science – of medicine and the understanding of the natural world – that is based on a coherent world view supported by careful observation. For their part some Muslim scholars claim that there is a particular ethical and methodical approach to the natural world that could be characterized as ‘Islamic science’ (Ziauddin Sardar, Explorations in Islamic Science, Mansell, London 1989). Indeed, the seeds of much of what we call science today had their roots in that fertile period where Arab scholars worked side by side with Jews and Christians in Andalusian Spain and brought with them knowledge of algebra, astronomy, medicine and botany. If the term ‘science’ is to be restricted to one historical strand alone then it is to deny the validity of the knowledge systems of other cultures and civilizations, cultures in which there may or may not have been a sharp distinction between what is called science and what is called religion. Even within the European tradition the conventional methodology of the natural sciences has been criticized as being over-restrictive. While Francis Bacon suggested that nature, as woman, should not be trusted but must be placed on the rack in order to extract her secrets, Wolfgang Goethe countered that scientific experiments always seek to place nature in artificial situations. Rather we should consider the activity of science as involving our dialog with the natural world and should attempt, in that dialog, to discover ‘the example worth a thousand’. Indeed, the term ‘science’ has a particularly Anglo-Saxon bias in its usage. Here in Italy where I now live, for example, the ‘scientific committee’ that oversees a journal or conference need not be exclusively composed of physicists, chemists and biologists but would include philosophers, theologians and others from the liberal arts. In this Italian context, as in France, a ‘scientific’ approach implies the use of rationality, disciplined thought and well-organized knowledge, rather than exclusively referring to the physical sciences. Instances of ConflictWhile we should keep those reservations in mind, let us accept, for the purposes of this exploration, the generally accepted but more restricted use of the term ‘science’ to refer to those disciplines taught and practiced in universities today. Clearly, while both ‘science’ and ‘religion’ may be happily accommodated within the lives of many individual scientists, at the institutional level tensions exist between the two. Historically the origins of such tensions arose when experimental science was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as challenging the authority of revealed religion. Galileo’s observations of sun spots implied that this heavenly body was not perfect and were rejected by the church as distortions produced by the lenses of his telescope. More serious was Galileo’s espousal of the Copernican theory that the sun is the center of the solar system. The condemnation of Galileo for heresy marks the low point in the relationship of the institutions of science and the Catholic religion. Galileo was followed by Newton who showed that the various phenomena of the natural world could all be explained by three deterministic laws, and by Laplace who claimed that, if he had been present at the moment of creation and observed the initial conditions of each particle, he could then predict every event in the universe to come. But if everything is determined, what room is there for a God? Soon we were to discover that not only was the earth not the center of the solar system, but the solar system itself was no more than an insignificant speck located towards the edge of a galaxy amongst countless other galaxies. Living matter was found to be no different than non-living matter and the workings of our brains were explained in terms of electrochemical processes. Philosophers such as Nietzsche proclaimed ‘the death of God’ and one school of contemporary neurosciences even holds that consciousness is not more than an epiphenomenon of the brain – a secretion of no greater significance than that of bile from the liver. (See, for example, a discussion of various theories of consciousness in Explaining Consciousness: ‘The Hard Problem’, edited by Jonathan Shear, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2000.) And if consciousness is simply a secretion that is incapable of acting back on the brain to generate our behavior, then what of free will? And what then does it mean to be human? God’s MathematicsThose are the dark points, the areas in which science and religion cease to dialog together. But, for the moment, let us return to that origin of Western science with Galileo, for it was he who also claimed that the Book of Nature (which is God’s book) is written in mathematical symbols. Likewise, for Kepler the underlying archetypes of the cosmos were manifestations of patterns hidden within the Divine Mind. And in the 20th century, astronomer Sir James Jeans claimed that ‘God is a Pure Mathematician’. Even as far back as the 15th century, Cardinal Cusano in his De docta ignorantia (1440) argued ‘that one could only approach the divine through symbols and mathematical signs’. Such claims have led to what could perhaps be called a persistent belief system amongst physicists, that the essence of the world is to be found in mathematics and that, in the words of Eugene Wigner, that this same mathematics is ‘unreasonably effective’. By this he meant that most mathematics is created for purely abstract and aesthetic reasons, yet turns out to fit the world perfectly. A mathematician such as Roger Penrose claims that when you don’t know which step to take next in solving a mathematical problem, you must do the most beautiful or elegant thing possible and this will guide you to the truth. Thus, abstract beauty is both a means to an end and an end in itself. Yet why should a branch of mathematics, originally created out of pure abstract beauty and joy like the music of Bach, decades later be found to fit perfectly as the language for some new theory? This remains a mystery that has a numinous or almost religious aroma to it. Mystic-ScientistsAs we begin to leave the political institutions of science and those of organized religions behind, and look at the lives of individual scientists, so too we discover the resolutions of the dichotomies between religion and science. Take, for example, Michael Faraday who belonged to a dissenting sect of Christians called Sandamanians. It was his belief that God acts directly and in an unmediated way, and that the unity of God must be reflected in the unity of nature. This firm belief led Faraday to experiments that demonstrated that electricity and magnetism are manifestations of an underlying unity – electromagnetism. In addition, since he could not hold to an indirec
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