As is often the case, I was thinking about Richard Dawkins and science and religion while I was doing other, more mundane things, and I had to write some stuff down, especially in the context of this book I’m reading at the moment.
The background is that I saw this article by Dawkins and, logically at least, he says everything I agree with regarding science and creationism in schools. What I don’t agree with is his almost complete dismissal of everything religious, and the unnecessarily biting commentary that goes with it, as though everyone who believed in a god is automatically stupid (I used to be a Dawkins-like atheist, but changed my mind for various reasons I won’t go into here). The point that Dawkins and Dawkins-like people attempt to make a lot of the time is that science and religion are combative, that they can never and should never meet, and that religion and superstition arising from religion retard the progression of logic and science. I’ve come to the reluctant, but possibly less biased, conclusion that this simply isn’t the entire story.
A while ago I wrote an essay that argued that science and religion were really just two different ways of discovering the world, of finding the “right” answers, however you want to qualify that. I wish fervently that I was a student of religious history as well as a dabbler in scientific history, but I’ll work with what I have so far. My theory is that religion was originally constructed as a mythology of where we came from and where we’re going, an inner landscape that was superimposed on reality. To a great extent — and I should be upfront here and say I’m quite firmly agnostic — I believe man made God in his image. But soon religion stop beings a list of arcane rituals conducted in some prehistoric site, and begins to consolidate and solidify itself, becoming a monolith of morality, law and behavior. Soon, the world is viewed primarily through the lens of religion, and you have authorities and systems that perpetuate and maintain the religion. Not only do you believe that the morality espoused by the religion is your way of life, you also believe that the sickness and death of everyday life, the maggots in the food and the stars in the sky, are all reflections of your belief system.
Science, to my mind, is an entirely different way of looking at the world altogether. In The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors, John Gribbin talks about how science’s major contribution was perhaps to human philosophy and perspective, the idea that we are cogs in the grand and awe-inspiring mechanism of Nature (remember science started off as a study of “Natural Philosophy”). You could think of “cogs” as derogatory or sublime, depending on what your view of the world is, but as Gribbin says, “the most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the Universe is that we are not special”. Another incredibly important contribution of science is a result of that merciless objectivity: the idea that relentless observation, testing, and experimental rigor are the only things that will prove an idea right, no matter how “elegant” the idea sounds at the start.
So in many ways, to me, science is grander, more abstract in scope than religion can be. I’m going to use an analogy here that isn’t very complimentary towards religion (I’m not a fan of organized religion, to be honest) but which I hope doesn’t offend anyone. In my view, religion is the forerunner of human imagination. There are studies that suggest that very young children cannot distinguish between themselves and their mothers or caretakers; when we are grown, we stop seeing things in our image the way we used to when we were children, and begin to explore outside our own boundaries. Religion, to me, is that sort of internal sense of exploration; science is the external.
This is still not to say that religion is inferior to science, or even that the twain shall never main. Actually, that’s my point — without religion, I doubt some of the most famous Western scientists could have even conceived of their greatest theories. There are several examples that Gribbin uses here in his exploration of scientific theories from the 16th to the 18th or so centuries.
Newton is, without a doubt, the most interesting example of a man who had one of the most scientific bents of mind ever, but whose soul belonged to religion. The fact is that after he was past 30 or 40, he no longer produced any scientific output; instead, he continued to do fervent work on both theology and alchemy far into his later life. In fact there’s a story somewhere that suggests that the seven colors of the rainbow aren’t, well, actually seven, but that Newton used the number because he believed in its mysticism.
“For Newton and many of his contemporaries,” says Gribbin, “there was still a role for God as the architect of the whole thing.”
The man who is most famous for his comet was actually also one of the most inquisitive and clever men of his time. He is even more interesting when you consider what he was up to in his free time: “an investigation into the possible causes of the Biblical Flood, which led him to question the accepted date of the Creation”. The important thing about his comets, in fact, is that they were the final nail in the coffin of the “heavens as immutable” theory, that God had simply painted a vast canvas above our heads, perfect and serene, and then had disappeared off to do other things. Halley was able to track changes in the stars and to predict the arrival of the next comet, decades after he died, as well as estimate the distance to the sun.
Ray is a kind of unsung hero, the man behind the publication of some seriously huge tomes on fishes and plants and creepy crawlies. “Although deeply religious, Ray also found it hard to reconcile the Biblical account of the Creation with the evidence of his own eyes,” writes Gribbin, pointing out that as late as 1668 (still around the time that Ray was inspecting fossils) that people still couldn’t believe that maggots did not arise spontaneously from rotten meat, but from egg-laying flies.
The only classification that existed at this time, by the way, was a sort of alphabetical classification, and “included mythical beasts such as the unicorn”. Not exactly scientific.
So the interesting thing about these men is, to me, the way they reconciled (or tried to) their spirituality with their scientific pursuits. Of course, you could easily make the case that, religious leanings or not, Newton and Halley and Ray would’ve gone on to have discover and invent just as many things as they did and possibly more. But the sheer presence of a religious background seems to have framed their curiosity. Even now, scientists look for the “most elegant” solution, uncomfortably aware that the case for this isn’t as strong as they’d like it to be. That reminds me of these first scientists, the ones who set out to prove that their elegant religious beliefs were true, and ended up by pushing the barriers of human understanding far more than they could’ve imagined.
Some fun scientific things this week, by the way:
Someone discovered a diamond planet.
Someone else used up some serious supercomputing resources to develop the best simulation of galaxy formation to date.
And then of course we have the impossible star.