archive: SETI Sagan: Very good article on Science and Religion

SETI Sagan: Very good article on Science and Religion

Larry Klaes ( )
Mon, 21 Dec 1998 15:37:20 -0500


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Date: Mon, 21 Dec 1998 10:56:01 CST6CDT,3,-1,0,7200,10,-1,0,10800,3600=20

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Subject: Sagan: Very good article on Science and Religion=20






</smaller><bigger><bigger><bigger>Science and Religion: Lessons from

</bigger></bigger></bigger>JOHN BROOKE</bold>=20

Figure 1 <bold>John Brooke</bold> is professor of the History of Science
at Lancaster University. He authored the prize-winning <italic>Science
and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives</italic> (Cambridge University
Press, 1991), and, with Geoffrey Cantor, <italic>Reconstructing Nature:
The Engagement of Science and Religion</italic> (T. & T. Clark, 1998).=20

"<bold>G</bold>od knows what the public will think." So wrote Charles
Darwin as he contemplated the impact of his <italic>Origin of
Species</italic>. In one respect it did not matter because his goal had
been to convince "sound naturalists" that there was a viable alternative
to separate creation. But in other respects it mattered profoundly
because, as he once put it, to admit the mutability of species was like
confessing a murder. It also mattered because his own wife was a member
of that public whose religious sensibilities might be deeply wounded.=20

How should scientists respond to religious believers whose concerns may
be very different from their own, even to the point of constituting a
threat? Whether they ignore them, engage them, or seek to transcend them
with an alternative spirituality, there are no easy answers.=20

There is a strong temptation to ignore them. Within the scientific
academy there has been a sacred, if at times elusive, distinction between
what counts as "science" and other, less robust, claims for human
knowledge. This attempt at ring-fencing began in earnest in the
17th-century, when the first scientific societies were founded. It was,
in part, a means of self-protection. "All we claim in common is freedom
to philosophize in physical matters" wrote Federico Cesi to members of
his Lincean Academy; and since Galileo was a member, we immediately
sympathize. When the British Association for the Advancement of Science
held its first meetings in the 1830s, clear lines of demarcation were
drawn. Cambridge geologist Adam Sedgwick warned that "if we transgress
our proper boundaries, go into provinces not belonging to us, and open a
door of communication with the dreary wild of politics, that instant will
the foul Demon of discord find his way into our Eden of Philosophy." The
sciences promised a paradise of consensus. Politics, infused with
religion, defined the serpent.=20

To protect scientific interests by closing doors has the obvious
disadvantage of endorsing the image of the aloof and indifferent
scientist. For religious believers it may confirm a conviction that,
however impressive scientific knowledge has become, it has little moral
authority to offer. The common prescription that matters of science and
matters of faith should be kept apart has, for understandable reasons,
not proven easy to follow. Scientists are themselves members of the
public and may have strong religious (or anti-religious) beliefs, which
some of them have introduced into popular discourse. The temptation to
theologize when attacked by disgruntled zealots can be irresistible, as
when Galileo cleverly interpreted Joshua's command that the sun stand
still "in the midst of the heavens" as referring to the sun's axial
rotation. The miracle was therefore best understood in Copernican terms!
To pretend that one's latest research has major implications for
religious belief can be one way of giving it an upgrade, as when the
scientific guru of France's Third Republic, Marcellin Berthelot, claimed
that his artificial synthesis of organic compounds removed all mystery
from living organisms. On the other hand, religious apologists have
themselves often wanted to show that they are abreast with the latest
science. An early popularizer of Newton, Richard Bentley, argued that
because the invisible gravitational force acted between the centers of
spherical bodies, it was a non-mechanical agent and therefore an instance
of divine activity in the world. Adam Sedgwick, who wanted to protect
science from extra-scientific demons, was himself a clergyman who read
religious meanings into the fossil record, which showed the successive
introduction of new species. Living forms had not breathed from eternity.
In a pre-Darwinian world, the existence of a Creator with a continuing
interest in the world had thus been proven. Far from keeping science and
religion separate, Sedgwick engaged religious readers by declaring that
atheism was refuted.=20

If the strategy of separating science from religion has proven
impractical, this alternative ploy of marrying them has also backfired.
St. Augustine wisely recognized that if the interpretation of sacred
texts was allowed to rest on the latest secular knowledge, it would
detract from the authority of the text once the science moved on. For the
religious apologist there has been the additional trap of seeking
evidence for a deity in that which sciences cannot currently explain.
Such a god-of-the-gaps may indeed become redundant as the sciences

Scientists who choose not to ignore religious concerns and charge their
science with theological implications must also be wary of a trap. It
consists in presuming that the cultural implications of a scientific
innovation can be uniquely and unequivocally specified. Such presumption
may easily be perceived by the public as dogmatism comparable to that
which the scientific humanists of the past resented in their clerical
oppressors. Commenting in the late 19th-century on the tendency of
evolutionary naturalism to become a surrogate religion, the French
Catholic physician Pierre Jousset expressed such disenchantment:
"Anti-Christian science has perhaps never been more dangerous than at
this moment. The intolerance it blames on the Catholic Church has become
its supreme law. It imposes its theories as dogmas, its hypotheses as
incontestable truths."=20

Scientists wearing a mantle of infallibility when expounding the
religious implications of their science must expect such reactions. It
does not help the public appreciation of science when scientific concepts
and discoveries are presented as entailing one, and only one,
interpretation of their significance. A lesson that history emphatically
teaches is that scientific theories are not born with implications but
have implications thrust upon them. Debates so often construed in terms
of an essential "conflict between religion and science" usually turn out
to be something else--and far more interesting. The real issue is the
cultural meaning of scientific conclusions, which need not be identified
with the views of scientific or religious extremists.=20

Take the famous example of the displacement of the Earth from the center
of the cosmos by Copernicus and Galileo. Commentators still write as
though there was but a single implication of that dislocation. Like Freud
they see a dethroning of the human race, no longer the special darling of
God's creation. But contemporaries of Copernicus and Galileo saw things
quite differently. Given the entrenched Aristotelian distinction between
an imperfect Earth and the incorruptible heavens, to be projected among
the planets was a form of exaltation. It was to move upmarket in a cosmos
at whose center had been the fires of hell. From divergent points of
view, Kepler, Galileo, and the anti-Copernican Jesuit astronomer
Christopher Clavius all saw this elevation--not relegation--as the real
issue. The mathematical laws governing planetary motion, formulated by
Kepler and later embraced by Newton, have often been seen to imply the
exclusion of a deity from the clockwork universe. But this was not how
Kepler or Newton saw them. On recognizing an elegant correlation between
the period of a planet's orbit and its mean distance from the sun, Kepler
confessed to being "carried away by unutterable rapture at the divine
spectacle of heavenly harmony." For the secular philosophers of the
French Enlightenment, Newton's science may have implied an autonomous
universe; but for Robert Boyle and Newton himself, clockwork images
implied fine engineering and a degree of cosmic maintenance. Newton's God
used comets' tails to replenish matter lost by the sun through
evaporation. Nor have the so-called implications of science always
favored the secularists. With his successful rebuttal of claims for
spontaneous generation, Louis Pasteur was able to launch a public attack
on materialism and atheism.=20

Such examples suggest two lessons from history. The original
implications of a scientific conclusion could be very different from
later (and sometimes uncritical) reconstructions. Even more importantly,
when the cultural and metaphysical implications--whether sacred or
secular--of a scientific achievement are assessed, there will be a
plurality of competing views of greater or lesser plausibility, but never
reducible to one alone. This plurality has been characteristic of
religious as well as scientific communities. The most poignant feature of
the Galileo affair is that Pope Urban VIII, ultimately responsible for
his trial, had repeatedly professed admiration for Galileo and had
intervened to prevent the word "heretical" from being used when the
Congregation of the Index had condemned the Copernican system in 1616.
There were divisions of opinion among Galileo's judges (a chief
interrogator Vincenzo Maculano had reputedly expressed an interest in
writing on the Copernican system himself), and some Catholic allies,
notably Tommaso Campanella, had warned the Church of political
embarrassment should it condemn an astronomical system that might be
vindicated. Urban VIII himself had allowed Galileo to write on the
Copernican system, if treated hypothetically, but was finally angered
when Galileo apparently betrayed his trust. Galileo had used the Earth's
motion to explain the tides, which gave the Copernican hypothesis a
status at variance with Urban's contention that an omnipotent deity could
have produced the tides by any number of different mechanisms. It did not
help that Galileo had introduced this papal argument through the mouth of
Simplicio--the loser in his <italic>Dialogues</italic>.=20

The reaction to the Darwinian theory was also diverse when it first
exploded onto the Victorian scene. This was not the simple polarization
that we assume today. There were Anglican clergymen who, after the
initial shock, claimed that Darwin had given them new theological
insight: For Charles Kingsley, a deity who could make all things make
themselves was far wiser than one who simply made all things; for
Frederick Temple, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, the unity of the
evolutionary process bore more eloquent testimony to the unity of a
Creator than a series of separate creations. Other Christians, including
the American botanist Asa Gray, claimed that Darwin had illuminated the
classic problem of theology: the problem of pain. If competition and
struggle were preconditions of the very possibility of evolutionary
change, then pain and suffering were the price levied for the production
of beings who could reflect on their origins. Even Darwin's "bulldog,"
Thomas Henry Huxley, conceded that there was no reason, in principle, why
the evolutionary process should not have been incorporated into an
initial design of the universe. Those who adopt that view today, more
fervently than Huxley, point to the fine-tuning of the universe during
its first breathtaking instants. As an argument for the existence of a
deity it is of course inconclusive, but then so are the arguments which
purport to show that once a naturalistic account has been given for the
origins and development of the universe the gods can all be buried.
Anyone tempted to confront the gods in this way should remember that
religious beliefs meet social and existential, as well as cosmological,

Sacred and secular powers have both claimed support from historic facts
such as the spirituality of many great scientists or the secularizing
tendencies of scientific criticism. Yet such hijacking of history can be
terribly facile. There has indeed been a genuine spirituality in the work
and outlook of scientific giants, which can make them attractive to
religious apologists. But that same spirituality has often been
idiosyncratic rather than orthodox to one particular confession, with the
consequence that their lives can also be claimed by the militant
secularist. It would be more honest to allow historical figures their

There was something about Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, and Einstein
that transcended such squabbling. Kepler fell out with the theologians
but found ecstasy in the act of scientific discovery. Newton was a
heretic in his denial of the Trinity, yet had the profoundest sense of a
Providence at work in history. Darwin thought the Christian doctrine of
damnation damnable, yet in his response to the sublime still supposed he
deserved to be called a theist. If Pasteur held a crucifix on his
deathbed it was probably because it had been placed in his paralyzed hand
by a pietist. Yet he damned the scientific positivists for their
exclusion of the infinite and the world of the spirit. Einstein became a
pantheist but could not relinquish belief in a mathematical intelligence
pervading a determinate universe. Let us cherish such diversity and
independence and not arrogantly reduce such convictions to the
implications of science.=20


The author is in the Department of History, Lancaster University,
Lancaster LA1 4YG, UK.=20




<smaller> </smaller><bold>Volume 282, Number 5396 Issue of 11 Dec 1998,
pp. 1985 - 1986=20

=A91998 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.=20