Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Science and Religion: The Loss of Nerve

The October issue of Scientific American has a brief review of several books on the relations between science and religion.

The authors of the books are Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biology), Owen Gingerich (Astronomy), Francis S. Collins (biology) , and Carl Sagan (physics).

In the brief review by staff writer George Johnson, he remarks:

"But what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. "In my view," Collins goes on to say, "DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God." Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don't stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science."

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, tells of his exasperation with colleagues who try to play both sides of the street: looking to science for justification of their religious convictions while evading the most difficult implications--the existence of a prime mover sophisticated enough to create and run the universe, "to say nothing of mind reading millions of humans simultaneously." Such an entity, he argues, would have to be extremely complex, raising the question of how it came into existence, how it communicates--through spiritons!--and where it resides. "

"Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No one who has witnessed the merciless dissection of a new paper in physics would describe the atmosphere as overly polite."

"Sagan, writing from beyond the grave (actually his new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, is an edited version of his 1985 Gifford Lectures), asks why, if God created the universe, he left the evidence so scant. He might have embedded Maxwell's equations in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Ten Commandments might have been engraved on the moon. "Or why not a hundred-kilometer crucifix in Earth orbit?... Why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?"

"He laments what he calls a "retreat from Copernicus," a loss of nerve, an emotional regression to the idea that humanity must occupy center stage."

Scientists who function with success in science and still cling to medieval ideas about an active and attentive god who responds to prayers of the devout are a fascinating species. We humans have the ability to compartmentalize our brains and believe intrinsically antagonistic ideas. We are the result of a million years of human evolution, and this ability may have provided an evolutionary advantage.

Today, any such primeval advantage is meaningless. Indeed the continued appeals to an anthropomorphic god short circuits our efforts to deal with the huge problems we face in a rational way. And "respect" for religion allows fundamentalists to follow their particular "holy book", whether the Bible or the Koran, adding to the craziness of modern life.

(See Sam Harris' books, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, for a devastating dissection of the dangers of respecting religion.)

Steven Pinker, the professor in the Department of Pyschology at Harvard University who has done ground breaking research on language and cognition, has written a good cover blurb for Richard Dawkin's new book The God Delusion:

"At last, one of the best nonfiction writers alive today has assembled his thoughts on religion into a characteristically elegant book. If you think that science is just another religion, that religion is about higher values, or that scientists are just as dogmatic as believers, then read this book and see if you can counter Dawkin's arguments. They are passionately stated and poetically expressed but rooted in reason and evidence."

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