Monday, July 02, 2007

Clouded

It's been overcast the last couple of nights, a fact that has me thinking about the night sky, rather than looking at it. The people have been on my mind more than the numbers, the tall-tale factoids, and the Weird Terrain.
I recall those who set about modeling the sky: Newton with his audacious claim and his big letter G; Einstein with his hip trick for the orbit of Mercury; Kepler and all of those ellipses, spheres, and cubes. I remember my freshman year heroes: Oort, Kuiper, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Hyakutake (that lucky cat).
This lineage of thinkers finally drifts past Copernicus and pauses at Galileo. I see in the life and legacy of Galileo Galilei a parallel with present debates about the origins of the world we know. Galileo was branded a heretic for his assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun, a fact that the Church disputed based solely upon their interpretation of religious writings.
People should believe as they will- many traditions of belief hold insight. (For my own part, I find Christianity, Western science, and Taoism to be particularly apt.) Moreover, we should engage in a meaningful dialogue over differences in our paradigms and should avoid mindless dogma. Belief should remain sincere.
I see an unfortunate trend among my friends and family who choose a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Abrahamic faiths. There is a pattern of extrapolating pararational dissent over the sciences that speak of evolution to those sciences that discuss climate change. Indeed there are relationships between these trains of thought, though there are similar linkages to the sciences that find fossil fuels and the sciences that develop new drugs and biologics. Leading a selective theological assault only against those scientific conclusions that are socially or politically unpalatable lacks sincerity in practice.
Perhaps more theologically important, I fear this debate undermines the core values of some of the world’s most populous and influential religions. Just as a literal interpretation of biblical cosmology against Galileo’s (and Copernicus’) conclusions continues to detract from the relevance of Christian thought, so too does the debate over origins, and more urgently, the antagonism toward climate science. This hostility erodes an opportunity to improve peoples' lives.
More than three centuries after the Church condemned Galileo for suggesting that the Earth did indeed orbit the Sun, and more than two decades after humans walked on the surface of the Moon and saw this with their own eyes, Pope John Paul II, speaking for the Roman Catholic Church, observed:
"In the last century and at the beginning of our own, advances in the historical sciences made it possible to acquire a new understanding of the Bible and of the biblical world. The rationalist context in which these data were most often presented seemed to make them dangerous to the Christian faith. Certain people, in their concern to defend the faith, thought it necessary to reject firmly-based historical conclusions. That was a hasty and unhappy decision...It is a duty for theologians to keep themselves regularly informed of scientific advances in order to examine if such be necessary, whether or not there are reasons for taking them into account in their reflection or for introducing changes in their teaching.
"The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture..."
(A full transcript of the English translation of the Pope’s remarks is available here.)
Religion and the sciences are not inherently mutually antagonistic. Moreover, these two wisdom traditions complement one another: The scientific method does not explicitly contain an ethical framework. It asks questions like "can we do this?" but often fails to ask, "should we do this?" Contrarily, religion generally lacks systematic natural inquiry and technique. It handily foments discussion over the ethics of creating a vaccine, but offers little or no insight on how one might accomplish this.
The turf war solves no problems and succeeds only in creating hostility and dividing people. It also ignores what each of these systems of belief actually want: understanding and a better world.

6 comments:

Pat Jenkins said...

you may have answered my question in a way already in your post, but what is the relation of a Abrahamic God to science? wihtout putting words in your mouth, i would think you see a distinction between the two, in what way then would you explain or a define a God in the concept in which you hold.

Sue said...

I am both a deep believer in G-d, Adonai, creator of the universe, and a social scientist and avid explorer of the natural sciences (with interests in natural history, geology, cosmology, particle physics, chaos theory, climatology and physical anthropology). I find no conflict between religious belief and science. They both inform and enrich my life, but in different ways. Like you, I see both contributing to "understanding and a better world."

However, the problem is that many (though not all) of the people that I meet "who choose a literal interpretation of the creation story" and who view science as inimical to religion (except for the pseudoscience of creationism) are not looking to make this a better world. Their only interest is in achieving immorality for themselves in the next world, not in making this world a better place. Many of them consider attempts to make this a better world as going against the will of a god who plans to destroy the world some time soon. There in I believe lies the true source of the conflict. Not a conflict between religion and science, but a conflict between those who are focused on making this world better and those whose only interest is in their fate in the next world.

Pat Jenkins said...

sue i will agree with you to some regard, that is why i ask the question of how may one conceptually view God. In terms of a religous figure, or as omnipresent being. if you see God in the latter, then God's presence is undeniably seen. the former only promotes oneself.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ,
There are a lot of ways one might answer your question of the relationship of a deity to science. For my own part, I don’t see a conflict. In fact, I think Abrahamic theology and Western science are hard-pressed to make any meaningful commentary within the context of the other.
Science on a deity: A deity is supernatural. The supernatural is inherently outside the scope of a system designed to describe the natural world. Science on the whole is not equipped to draw any conclusions on the existence or nonexistence of a deity, nor any actions of such a deity in the natural world.
The Abrahamic faiths on science: These faiths are primarily concerned with how people live, the choices they make, and the outcomes of those choices; they all use some type of formally recognized writings that include stories. Some of these stories are intended to be taken as factually true, some are clearly presented as poetry or fiction, and some could be asserted as either history or fiction/poetry. There is no system of natural inquiry within these belief systems.
To look at these two systems within the case of the origins question, I assert that there is no conflict. If you approach the problem from the standpoint of science, there is no reason to believe (for or against) that some supernatural mechanism or being could or could not have created the universe. There’s no way to address that piece of the equation, so it’s a moot point to science.
Likewise, if one believes in an all-powerful deity, what is the problem with believing that this all-powerful deity might concoct rules like gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and set them running in an inordinately complicated universe?

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
I agree that the true conflict is not between science and religion. And while I have known some people with a strong eschatological bent, I’m not convinced that is the problem underlying the larger science v. religion conflict.
Personally, I think this is substantially about politics and money. Religion is a powerful way to organize people. Those who are glib and savvy very quickly realize that they can hide behind immutable religious rules. "I saw Goody Osburn with the devil!" Leaders can ultimately assert that they speak for and with the authority of their god.
Those who offer any other method of inquiry or belief, no matter how innocuous or seemingly unrelated, become a threat. Those who are using religion to manipulate society are inclined to attack this threat. My favorite examples are Pope Paul V ordering Galileo to recant his findings on heliocentrism and James Dobson decrying Rich Cizik for his position on climate change. In truth, orbital mechanics and global warming are not central tenets of Christianity. But, in both of these scenarios, the religious leader in question stands to potentially lose political authority and money if people begin questioning his conclusions. Lower-level leaders within the religious organizations in question experience tremendous pressure to tow the party line. The result is that followers are presented with heavily interpreted religious rhetoric and are told that it is morally wrong to even entertain dialog with those who are branded "the opposition".

Sue said...

erd -- a agree with you about the role of money when it comes to the leadership, those making the pronouncements. But living my life in central Appalachia for the past two decades, surrounded on all sides by the everyday believers of conservative and evangelical Christianity, I have come to the conclusion that at least some of the fault perceived conflict between religion and sciences fall on the schools and the way science is taught in them. Some of that fault lies on the textbooks that portray sciences as a catalog of terminology and theories, and a set of dry facts; even more of the fault lies on the educational system (especially elementary education) that fails to attract (or even drives away) those with the lively intellect and interest in science and instead becomes the vocation of those with math and science phobias. As some one who has taught education courses and sat on the teacher education admissions committees, I am struck by the fact that the typical teacher applicant "loves children" but has no love of learning. When asked what they think teachers should know they cite child development and child psychology, but consider other academic content pointless. they view history, math, science, literature, economics, etc. a waste of their time. In this educational climate it is not surprising that the ideas of their preachers hold more sway than the ideas of their science textbooks.