CULTURE: Dialogue Concerning (Un)Natural Religion

Date: Sat Mar 03 2001 - 06:16:20 MST

I pass on the following exchange from a list of close friends.

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Mr Burch is fond of blaming Hollywood, mainstream media, education, and
other social reflectors for how badly science is being treated these
days. Author Colin Tudge suggests--in a spirit of friendliness--that the
fault may lie with scientists themselves, and in particular, those who
have striven most hard to be it's advocates.


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I love science. It is what I have always done. I remember the warmth I
nursed for weeks when, aged 13, I qualified for form Science 3A, already
specialising at that tender age. I can still get the same thrill from
some books and laboratories, when ideas are neat and properly decorated.

Science is not an innately arrogant pursuit. Newton said that science
was for the glory of God - the God-given intellect dedicated to the
glorification of God's works. We need not embrace the theological
language of the 17th century, but the sentiment is precisely right. It
is shared by many a modern scientist: that the true purpose of science
is not to change the universe or to make it more comfortable, but to
appreciate it more fully. Science has risen gloriously to the challenge:
the universe that is now revealed, and the creatures within it, are
infinitely more various and intricate than human beings ever conceived
of without the help of science, and best of all is the realisation that
so much is still to be done.

Science, in short, should be heart-warming, encapsulating precisely that
love of scholarship for its own sake (or, as Newton and many a rabbi and
mullah would say, for God's sake) which runs through all civilisation.

Other people don't see it like this. Science has a macho, gung-ho image.
Understanding is not for its own sake, but is presented as the means to
"conquest" - of the stars, of disease, of whatever. It comes across as a
nuts-and-bolts pursuit: regrettably necessary, but posing various
threats to the human spirit through its intemperate attacks on
traditional beliefs and through its ruthless rationality. We are still
locked in the battle of Dionysus v Apollo, with Apollo now cast as a
blend of nerd and Strangelove. Schoolchildren turn away from science,
and teachers must be bribed to take it up. For all this, scientists
blame the media for their hype and general mischief (although the
science correspondents are excellent); "the public" for its fecklessness
and "ignorance"; and the subject itself, because it is too difficult and
can properly be understood only by the officially initiated subsection
of the intelligentsia.

What I want to suggest - in a spirit of friendliness - is that most of
the fault lies with the scientists themselves and, in particular, with
those who have striven most hard to be its advocates. Too often, they
make it seem arrogant, macho, threatening, pompous but, in the end,
naive: all those qualities that non-scientists say they find most repellent.
Attempts to lighten it up frequently come across as clownishness - a
dangerous quality to link to such obvious power. To some extent, this is
just bad PR: there is no need for scientists to attack Christianity or
Islam, for example. But the flaw runs deeper. It cannot be put right
with a course in media training. The startling truth is that some of the
most conspicuous spokespeople for science horribly misrepresent it: what
it is, what it is like, what it can helpfully comment upon, and where it
should be silent. They have, in fact, misconstrued the nature of their
own craft.

What science is was beautifully summarised by the philosopher Karl
Popper. An idea can belong to science, he said, only if it is testable.
Science is thus composed of testable hypotheses. He went on to say that
hypotheses can, in principle, be shown to be false, but cannot be shown
unequivocally to be true: so "testable hypothesis" became "falsifiable
hypothesis". Various philosophers have taken him to task for this -
pointing out that it can be just as hard to falsify as to verify. But
"testability" wins through.

This idea is simple but far-reaching. It suggests immediately that
science is not anchored, as many perceive it to be, in subject matter:
it is not just the sum of chemistry, physics and biology. Rather, it is
a method, an approach, that can include the psychology and behaviour of
human beings or the policies of a government. Everything is within the
compass of science, provided it is testable.

>From Popper's notions, too, science emerges as an innately humble
pursuit. Science is not an edifice of truth, built stone by stone. It is
a landscape painting, never finished: each addition, each fresh handcart
and bathing goddess, changes the balance of the whole, sometimes beyond
rescue so the whole must be started again. Science's perceived arrogance
is doubly unfortunate: it drives people away and it misrepresents the
subject. Even if we reject Popper's strict principle of falsifiability,
we see that the "truths" of science, its theories, must always be both
partial and provisional. Every idea, no matter how satisfying and
complete it seems, is waiting to be knocked off its perch, or at least
improved upon. We can be certain at any one time only that there is more
to know. All suggestions in the past that such-and-such a subject has
been sewn up were invariably followed by the rudest of shocks.
Michelson measured the speed of light in the late 19th century and
declared that physics was over but for the dotting of i's; in a decade
or two came Einstein and then Planck, leading on to quantum mechanics,
and then the whole universe was up for grabs, as it still is.

At any one time, it is logically impossible to know how much is not
known - whether science has already lit up the universe like a football
stadium, or merely laid a trail or two across the darkness.
Non-scientists who fear that God's mystery has been forever compromised
need have no fears; in the end, there is always mystery. Those who
suggest that it is blasphemous to probe God's intentions are themselves
guilty of blasphemy. God is not a conjuror, whose tricks seem tawdry
when exposed. The more you see, the more wondrous it all becomes.

In short, as Newton and most of his contemporaries saw (including
Galileo, who was a good Catholic), it is remarkably simple to reconcile
excellent science with religion. Professor Richard Dawkins has made this
very point: "If it is religious to perceive the universe with awe," he
has said (although I paraphrase), "then I am religious." Much of the
essence of religion is to experience first the awe, and then the sense
of reverence that should follow from it. Science inspires in just this way.

Why, then, does science allow itself to be seen as the natural enemy of
religion, and thus antagonise so many people for no good reason at all?
Yes, there are some serious conflicts. The clash between Darwin and
Genesis, for example, lies not in the details of geology, for Genesis
can be seen as a good first draft, made in the virtual absence of data
(or any inkling of "testable hypothesis"). The clash is as Daniel
Dennett describes it in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Orthodox
Christians of the 19th century argued, as John Locke had done in the
17th, that intelligent beings could not be made except by an even more
intelligent Creator already in place; but natural selection shows how,
in principle, life and then intelligence can emerge from simple
beginnings, with no overseer at all. But religion as a whole does not
rest on that one piece of theology; and in general, given that religion
is innately untestable, it remains outside the purlieus of science.
There can be spats, but there is no mortal conflict in which to engage.

Why, then, has Dawkins, outstanding thinker and writer that he is within
his own field, gone to such lengths to brandish his atheism, and so
derisorily? His attacks have not been worthy of either his own
scholarship or his victims.

And why was Professor Lewis Wolpert so keen to emphasise the differences
between religion and science in this year's Michael Faraday lecture
(which might have made Faraday himself, a serious Christian, turn in his
Sandemanian plot in Highgate Cemetery)? Wolpert is a Fellow of the Royal
Society, former chairman of its Committee for the Public Understanding
of Science, a prodigal broadcaster, and thus widely perceived as an
official spokes- person. In prestigious lectures, what he says matters.
And he told his audience that, whereas we have an evolved propensity for
religion, with an innate tendency to believe in God, the scientific way
of thinking is "unnatural", the antithesis of common sense. He has
written a book on this: The Unnatural Nature of Science.

That human beings do have an evolved predilection for religion seems
entirely plausible, and for the reasons Wolpert presented. We need to
make sense of our environment, and "sense" in this context implies a
feeling for cause and effect. Many religions are rooted in the entirely
forgivable idea that nothing happens unless somebody makes it happen,
and on the grand scale this "somebody" must be God. Furthermore, Wolpert
might have added, societies cohere better if everyone subscribes
publicly to a common belief, whatever that belief may be. Each needs to
know what the others think, or they cannot trust each other.

Yet on Radio 4 a few days earlier, Wolpert spoke of religion as a
"delusion". We are led to infer that belief in religion in general and
God in particular is delusory because it is an evolved survival
strategy. This "because" is a resounding non sequitur. What we are or
are not evolved to believe in tells us nothing whatever about its
reality. We are evolved to perceive light, but we do not conclude that
light is delusory. Some theologians, quite independently of any
Darwinian gloss, have argued that God must exist because otherwise we
would not believe in Him. That argument is obviously fatuous, but so is
its Wolpert-style antithesis.

Is science really unnatural? One can see that even Galileo's idea that
light objects fall just as quickly as heavy ones has a counter-intuitive
quality, and quantum mechanics is off the scale of everyday conception.
But the basic method of science as identified by Popper - make a guess
and then test it - is the essence of all thinking. You do it, I do it,
cats do it, even worms do it. For day-to-day purposes, there is no other
way to get a feel for whatever is going on. Seen in this light, science
emerges as the most natural process of all. The unnaturalness (if such
it is) of science lies only in its explicitness: that it lays out
problems for inspection, while our own commonsensical brains, bent on
survival, draw lightning conclusions from fleeting impressions and are
content with imperfection, provided it works.

Wolpert is also prone (and is far from alone in this) to emphasise the
difficulty of science, and to conclude from this that it is best left to
experts like, er, himself. At best, this view discourages, which is not
a good thing for a teacher to do. At worst, it repels. It is an affront
to democracy and, worse, to human dignity.

Science can indeed be very hard - but for many different reasons, and it
is important to distinguish them. It is hard because there is so much of
it, and different bits depend on other bits, so it takes a long time to
get into. But then, the same is true of any subject, from music to
Spanish conversation. It is esoteric - meaning you have to know the
background before you can get to grips with the matter in hand. Again,
this is true of everything. Much of science, such as immunology, is
complicated. But so is gardening - yet it is not innately difficult.
Some science, such as quantum mechanics, is truly counter-intuitive. But
scientists, too, have difficulty with this: as Niels Bohr said, if you
think it is easy, you haven't understood the problem. Or as a professor
of physics once told me when I asked him how he pictured a
nine-dimensional universe: "You don't. You just do the maths." Maths is
always a problem, because the human brain is not geared to it. We are
nature's wordsmiths. But some spectacularly good scientists have also
been spectacularly bad mathematicians. Darwin regretted his own
innumeracy. Faraday, a visionary physicist, pleaded forlornly for "plain
words". There are very few Newtons around, able to invent a new form of
maths (calculus, in his case) when the traditional kinds prove inadequate.

In short, scientists also have trouble with the problems in science that
are really hard. Most of them, like most of us, see only as far as the
geniuses allow them to see. Indeed, take away the top 20 geniuses from
the past 400 years and we would still be living in the 17th century,
with the clever but stilted physics of Robert Boyle and John Ray's
natural history. On the other hand, once the big ideas are explained,
then some of them at least - including those of biology, which impact
most directly on our lives - are actually rather easy. Natural selection
can be explained in five minutes (although it has taken 140 years so far
to work through the connotations), and Mendel's experiments with peas,
the basis of all subsequent genetics, seem so simple that we may wonder
what the fuss was about. In fact, Mendel's was the simplicity of genius.
But we lesser mortals can wallow in his vision, just as we do in Mozart
and Picasso. We don't have to belong to a special club to take part.
Wolpert's insistence on the difficulty looks very like an attempt to
protect the high priesthood. But those who build walls invite graffiti.

Scientists must loosen up. It is false, for example, to suggest, as they
sometimes have, that people who do not practise science have no right to
comment at all, and get it wrong when they do. The corollary, that
scientists can be relied upon to get it right, is equally false. To be
sure, there would be no science at all without scientists; but that does
not mean that science belongs to them, any more than art belongs to
artists, or politics to politicians. Science's greatest quality is that
it does not rely upon authority, at least in principle. Its ideas are
explicit, laid out for universal scrutiny. Only religion is arcane, and
can make a virtue of this.
To insist on the specialness of scientists, and to appeal to their
authority, is to adopt the methods of religion at its most pristine,
where all ideas must be filtered through the chosen few. If everyone
comments on science, then many silly things will be said. But that is
what it means for a subject truly to be part of culture.

When they are drawn into public debate, scientists, like all of us,
should tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Their
presentations throughout the debates on BSE and GMOs have, on the whole,
been woeful. We have been treated again and again to the stock phrase:
"There is no evidence that . . ." I have never heard anyone add: "But
absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." Without that
codicil, we do not have the whole truth. I did not here even one
scientist explain in a public place why they took exception to the claim
by the Aberdeen-based biologist Dr Arpad Pusztai that genetically
modified potatoes had strange effects on rats. They had plenty of
airtime, but they used it to complain that Pusztai had spoken to the
press before apprising his peers. This was a fair complaint. But what
really matters? People's well-being and enlightenment, or the dignity of
scientists? When scientists ask me how to talk to the public, I ask
them: "Have you ever tried behaving like a human being? Would you palm
your Granny off with an unqualified, 'There is no evidence that . . .'?"
It is not media-training that is needed, but a sense of citizenship.

Science needs a new image. Its Apollonic rationality is wonderful at its
best, clear and pure. Beware, though, what has lately been called "the
rationalistic fallacy". That it is rational does not make it right, or
good, or necessarily better than some impassioned, if badly articulated,
instinct. Besides, science has a romantic face, too. It is methodical,
but it does not simply grind to its conclusions. Creativity matters at
least as much as in the arts: huge leaps of imagination that come from
nowhere. British students of English learn about Blake's antipathy to
science and Thomas Gradgrind's obsession with "facts" ("A horse, Sir: a
graminivorous quadruped"), but many English artists were inspired by
science and technology: Turner, Ruskin, George Eliot, Gerard Manley
Hopkins. Early 19th-century Germany gave us the buttoned-down end of
modern biology, from cell theory through genetics (Mendel was
German-speaking) to biochemistry. For much of that time, however, it was
steeped in the literally "romantic" notions of Naturphilosophie and of
vitalism, and in its turn the science inspired German Romanticism. All
this seems to get written out of the act.

All in all, we need much more than committees and professors for the
public understanding of science, lectures de haute en bas. We need a
different kind of science education. Science should not be taught simply
as an apprenticeship - which, more often than not, remains the case -
but as a significant slice of cultural history and a way of looking at
the world.

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Thanks, Michael for passing that on. It is a very well written and, on its
own terms, correct criticism of some of the sentiments I often express.
Tudge -- in his friendly way -- makes folks like Dawkins and me seem like
churlish spoilers. His essay comes at a time when the "Dawkinsians" are
reacting to Stephen Jay Gould's new thesis about the "separate magisteria" of
science and religion, Gould's way of asking "Can't we all just get along?"
And there are certainly truly religious people with whom I CAN get along.
One of my partners and good friends is a devout Episcopalian, with whom I
have had many hours of good conversation about history and philosophy over
the years. Our friend Scott in this group is a religious person who has
earned my respect and admiration. I have disagreements with them, but no
"quarrel" - at least not one that is acrimonious and that can't be worked out
in a civil way that can lead to a peaceful and even prosperous coexistence.

There are, however, a great many people with whom I DO have a quarrel that I
can only express in "unfriendly" terms - because those people express their
religion in a way that is fundamentally unfriendly to me and the values and
goals I hold dear. And yes, as your introduction indicates, I believe those
people have seized a "commanding height" in our popular culture in a way that
I find to be deeply threatening to values that seem to be shared by me AND
those religious people toward whom I feel friendship.

I don't need to belabor in this group the outlines of this threat: There is a
rising tide of irrationality that threatens the foundations of the basic
agreement upon which our society was founded that the civic arena would be a
secular one. I have said before that I believe much of the fault lies with
the leaders of the scientific enterprise in earlier times. During the first
half of the 20th century, those who were continuing the program of the
Enlightenment allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that their
philosophical values were more widely understood and held than in fact they
were. They neglected the necessary task of translating their work at the
frontiers of knowledge into terms that were accessible to the majority of
people who had not traveled so far down the path of reason. As a result, the
thicket of superstition reclaimed much of what had been thought to be ground
cleared for the light.

The outlines of the relationship between science and religion have changed
since the days when Huxley debated the Archbishop of Canterbury. For one
thing, Tudge's assertions to the contrary, the scientific enterprise HAS
moved into areas that could in an earlier time be safely relegated to a
"demilitarized zone" in the conflict between faith and the scientific method.
 We have now explored and are poised to colonize regions that religious
people could comfortably feel were immune to the inquiry of science and
manipulation by technology, i.e. the fundamental nature of humanity and the
basic fabric of reality and our perception of it. The old diplomacy between
Gould's "separate magisteria" won't hold up in these changed circumstances.

Beyond this, the syncretism that has resulted from increased communication
between cultures and the postmodernist dogma of cultural relativism has
opened the floodgates to a tide of new strains of irrationality. At the very
same time that science begins to comprehend the basic nature of humanity and
reality, popular culture is assaulted by the purveyors of crystal power,
alien abduction stories and every form of ju-ju in between. In the midst of
this flood, many holding the trappings of cultural authority in our society
tell us that we lack the means to discriminate between the "narratives" of
the physicist and the psychic hotline. Science has progressed to the point
that we stand on the threshold of taking power over our own evolution in ways
that are fundamentally more potent than anything we have ever possessed as a
species before, while at the same time the most compelling voices in our
culture -- the seductive images offered by the mass media -- proffer a basic
message that human life is just as likely to be influenced by demons and
angels as any force that might be subject to rational understanding.

Finally, in terms of numbers, the contest between science and superstition is
utterly unequal. The largest number of our species do not have the slightest
inkling that there may be a means to guide human life other than by the
fearful invocation of spirits and ghosts. The value placed on secular
society is battered beyond recognition in the large portion of the world
where Islam holds sway. Throughout Latin America, an old priest in Rome has
far more influence over public policy than any scientist could ever hope for.
 And in Europe a basically anti-rational "naturism" gives rise to one
hysterical reaction against the concept of progress after another.

Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this, I might feel embattled?

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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