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"God vs. Science" – A Match Made in…

November 6, 2006

This week’s issue of Time magazine includes a remarkable cover story entitled, “God vs. science.” While the title itself no doubt arouses a myriad of sentiments from all sides of all the issues (the periodical seems to be boasting of being a pay-per-view promoter extraordinaire), the article’s text proves to be innocuous enough. Nothing new is reported, nothing novel is documented. Just your typical roster of religion vs. science chaps with your occasional religion and science anomaly thrown in (in this case it’s reknowned geneticist and ardent Chrstian Francis Collins).

In CNN’s
overtly simplistic and overly general write-up of the Time article, two camps of specialists are noted, battling over the precious territory that is the average non-specialist’s religious and scientific consciousness and conviction. On the one hand are those theists who don’t “really care very much about science” and who stand “immovable on Scripture”. On the other are those who stand utterly “immobile on the periodic table”. And what typically happens in such bouts? Well, the theists appear archaic and traditionalist, sticking with a text which supposedly doubles as a spiritual map and geological handbook, while the a-theists appear voguish and rational, embracing the progress of human reason and inquiry. But is there not a middle path?

Of course there is: the Catholic worldview. I need not rehash how the Catholic Church impresses, encourages and fosters science (she did, after all, give birth to science in its Western form) here. Nor do I need to remind everyone that Intelligent Design probably does not belong in the science lab or science curriculum without qualification. The fight between ID and evolution can take place in the Catholic Church’s parking lot, but not inside.

I only want to mention some recent highlights in the growing interest among prominent Catholic hierarchs in evolutionary theory. Consider, for example, the words of Cardinal Archbishop Christoph Schönborn in a lecture published by his office in October 2005: “I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition — that the limits of a scientific theory are respected.” Catholics know quite well that our beloved Pope recently held a private and sequestered colloquiam on the loaded question of evolutionary theory and its implications for religious belief. Theologians, philosophers and scientists alike thoroughly discussed the topic across a number of days. The proceedings of this meeting are to be published. In the latest news, scientists advising Pope Benedict XVI have informed him today that they will be convening a meeting to study the latest lines of thinking in evolutionary theory so as to keep the Pope informed on an issue that is of particular interest to him (see story here).

Evolution is not a challenge to Catholic faith. Atheism is a challenge to Catholicism. And atheism does not follow from evolution, it flows from ideology, which brings me to another topic.

No doubt the impetus for Time‘s article is the recent publication of Richard Dawkin’s New York Time’s best-seller The God Delusion. As self-indulgent, idiosyncratic and pontifical as the book tends to run (you can find excerpts of it all over the internet), it’s nevertheless worth the time to snuggle up with in a comfortable chair and a cup of hot tea (you won’t need to take notes or think too hard). If you are unfamiliar with Dawkins, here’s my own take:

Dawkins is brilliant—absolutely brilliant—at synthesizing the loosely-joined trajectories of biology—particulary evolutionary biology and genetic psychology—and penning them in readable form for the general reader. Dawkins does not write for scientists, he writes for those with little to no knowledge of science. Hence, he does not hold a scientific chair per se at Oxford, but officially the “Chair of Public Understanding of Science”. He is a popularizer of science rather than a scientist, and popularize science he does! I remember reading through his The Blind Watchmaker last summer and realizing that Dawkin’s gifts are not so much in scientific inquiry, but in the art of nuance and simplification for the layman. Dawkins strikes you as a Betrand Russell (the polemicist, not the philosopher), a Bob Woodward (the provocateur, not the political observer), a Steven Pinker (the materialist, not the original scientist), and a Friedrich Nietzsche (the aphoristic master, not the unique thinker) all rolled into one! Dawkins makes for a great read, especially for those interested in learning the basics of evolutionary theory and ethnology. Dawkins is the one who has coined those cute terms such as “the selfish gene” and “the meme”, terms which have more currency in sociological theory than scientific theory. One caveat, however: when reading Dawkins, one must adjudicate between his science and his ideology. Since he writes for a general audience, Dawkins deftly recasts his personal atheism in scientific form, often leaving the reader with the impression that science and atheism are familiar and proper bedfellows.

Dawkins’ reception has been markedly tepid among the non-specialists. Among the specialists in science and the philosophy of science, the same cannot be said. Fellow atheists in the sciences embrace his work, detecting an ally in matters of faith. The handful of agnostics and theists in the sciences, on the other hand, scoff at the manner in which ideology and scientific progress are wedded in his writing. This explains why Dawkins is at his best in the totalitarian ways of written word. Only in book form can Dawkins supply his mono-logical, uninterrupted and unchallenged decrees. When he is put into dialogue with philosophers of science and scientists, however, he shirks from debate and dances around the bigger issues. Dawkins does not deal well with confrontation. One need only point to the continual barrage leveled upon his work by Mary Midgley, no friend of theism, whom Dawkins has yet to answer. Or, less academic but no less entertaining, was the debate between Dawkins and David Quinn last month on the question of God (you can read the transcript of the debate here and here). A flustered Dawkins is a naughty Dawkins. But, at the same time, a tenured Dawkins is a resilient Dawkins, and the books, in light of their brilliance and despite their limitations, continue to capture the attention of many…including me.

But enough about Dawkins; let’s turn to science. With the exception of Katerina, no one really knows of my side interest in the history of science, philosophy of science and scientific theory. I try to read as often as I can, though I must admit my philosophical and theological reading typically and predictably holds sway over my free time. And by no means do I claim any particular degree of competence in any of the fields. Rather, I confess that I am but a mere dilettante in the scientific arena, little more than a spectator. But in our contemporary world of metaphysical amnesia and contemplative discord, I figure it behooves the budding theologian, philosopher and sociologist to seek minimally a working knowledge of the discourse(s) of science. Hence, my interest in this week’s issue of Time.

What baffles me is the probable fact that, despite the confidence placed in science’s precision, division and results, remarkably little attention is given to science’s methodology even within science itself. Indeed, in my own experience in the university world I have found that few, if any, students of science can actually explain the method and scope of science. Don’t get me wrong, they certainly know how to do science and they do it well. The problem, as it seems to me, is that while students of science are trained within one of the particular divisions of science, few are trained in the overarching purpose and unifying themes of science. And yet so many, from the zoology to the pre-med students, are supremely confident in a discipline that they cannot even describe.

Questions such as what the proper object of science is, what the boundaries of science are, how science acheives results, how science transforms particular observations and judgments into universal principles–all of these go largely unanswered and unaddressed. While the biologist may know how to do biology and the physicist may know how to do physics, do either know what it is precisely that unites them in the common mission of science or how, indeed, science is even possible? Or do they both simply conduct their respective (sub)sciences according to the way they were taught never once questioning the legitimacy of their craft, relying totally on their results for justification of their procedures? Science as a concept, as a notion, as a practice is sustained in an amorphous state. And this is precisely when, in the minds of those who know not what science truly is, science becomes that misty, all-encompassing answer to every unknown in the universe. This is precisely when science replaces religion (think Dawkins!), nay, when science becomes religion.

Some of the most brilliant scientific theorists and philosophers of science have attempted to correct such an irresponsible, irrational image of the sciences, to purge certain members of the scientific community from a faith they don’t even realize they hold. But, ironically, it appears that the philosophical community takes these warnings far more seriously then, say, a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett. And so sooner or later, Dawkins et al., in an attempt to explain away the historical attempt of ancient, pre-modern peoples to personify and deify the heavens and form religion, do not thereby eliminate the gods, but simply transfer them to a new locale. They personify and deify the genes or perhaps neurons, or better yet, they invent new deities such as “memes” to govern the thoughts and the customs of even the most insightful of humans. Dawkins, in fact, simply takes the gods of religion and morphs them into the gods of genetics, all the while ordaining himself their highpriest!

True, I am embellishing here, and perhaps am I being unfair. But why do students of science or columnists for Time actual look to Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker and all the “Brights” for guidance? None of them, and I repeat, none of them have shown us any indication that they truly understand the methods of the sciences, let alone the religions against which they constantly flail.

And so, readers of this blog, I invite you to learn to think scientifically–and rationally!–about science. Pick up a good book by someone who knows what science is and how science has won the West. Whether it’s a classic like Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolutions and Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences, or a contemporary account such as Mary Midgley’s Evolution as Religion, grab it, read it and educate yourself. And then, by all means, grab Dawkin’s The God Delusion or Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. You’ll see that any attempt by science–which always proceeds by an implicit faith in the reliability of perception, by the principle of falsification and the by the concerted study of observable phenomena–to judge whether there is an immaterial God who is wholly distinct from the cosmos is nothing more than desperate ideology crouching behind an academic degree in science.

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