Monday, June 29, 2009

Science/Angels and Religion/Demons and Vice Versa, Part 2

The first problem in interpreting the relationship between science and religion as a war is that it simply ignores the history. Most people are familiar with the most infamous instances of religious persecution of scientific thinkers: Copernicus did not publish his heliocentric theory until he was on his deathbed for fear of the backlash, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for asserting that the earth moves, Scopes was banned from teaching evolution in Tennessee in 1925, and so on. What is often not told about these stories is that, for the most part, they are the exception rather than the rule. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of humanist Renaissance Italy and the later Scientific Revolution, most scholars involved in anything resembling natural philosophy were also members of the clergy. This is to some degree logistical, as only clerics in the Middle Ages had anything remotely resembling an education to give them the ability to pursue these topics, but nevertheless, the sole harborers of learning in the West during this thousand year time period were religious. Some anti-religious thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins , have suggested that this is simply because they had no other choice in their day, but I think the argument works better in reverse: that because they were religious, and clerical, their choice was to pursue knowledge. The greatest polymaths of the Middle Ages were not just theologians, but also natural philosophers, the closest cognate to "scientist" that existed before the Scientific Revolution (indeed, many scientists were still called natural philosophers as late as the 19th century). A great many supposedly "modern" innovations were rooted in the era when religion allegedly suppressed free thought with an iron fist: the experimental method employing empiricism and rationalism, differential calculus, tools precursory to those still used in modern surgery, the creation of the modern university and peer editing systems, and numerous practical implementations of contemporary technology like the compass, gunpowder, astrolabe, and sextant. This is not to say that the Medieval and pre -Scientific Revolution era was just like ours; it was obviously very different. The Christian religion--in its institutional, cultural, political, and folk varieties--permeated every aspect of medieval life. But it is just as equally erroneous to imagine that religious authorities actively sought to impede scientific progress anymore than they are attempting, or should attempt, to do now. The relationship has been muddied and is more complicated now, but there is no massive religious conspiracy (at least not one with any real power) currently vying to destroy the institution of science.

Once one digs a bit deeper into the hallowed lore of the history of science, particularly the episodes of individual persecution, one finds figures who have been more often than not castigated for theological and political transgressions rather than scientific ones or ones related to freedom of thought. Numerous astrologers in the Middle Ages were punished not because their practices were deemed anti-Christian or as some form of black magic; usually, they were punished because they foretold a future that was unpleasing to the ears and sensibilities of the nobles, kings or popes upon whom they commented. Astrologers often found themselves in the precarious position of interpreting a certain stellar portent to mean that the king would die near the end of the year. Despite being certain of their observations and mathematics, they were often reticent about releasing such information, since, even if it were true (from the medieval point of view), the ruler would not wish this information be made public as it could foment a rebellion or announce to his enemies that the time to attack his kingdom was now. Similarly, alchemists were often persecuted, not because of some religious admonition, but because if the alchemist succeeded in transmuting lead into gold it would ruin his sovereign's gold standard and create rampant inflation or debasement of the currency. These were practical political and economic issues, rather than the fear that Christian leaders would lose their grip on moral authority.

This was not confined to the proto-sciences either. An early and famous instance of the so-called religious persecution of science, came in the 13th century with the imprisoning of Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan friar and natural philosopher famous for, among other things, his works on optics and the refraction of light, detailed astronomical observation, and the anticipation of uses for gunpowder, microscopes, telescopes, and other inventions centuries away. He is also considered as one of the first Europeans to assert the primacy of something resembling the experimental method of science, derived from the likes of Plato and Aristotle, and filtered through Avicenna and other Arab commentators. The history of the man, intertwined with his advocacy of this modern-seeming notion, often contributes to the misunderstanding that he was imprisoned for experimentation in an age when true knowledge was thought to come from contemplation and revelation. This is, essentially, incorrect. The details of his crime and imprisonment are extraordinarily hazy, even by medieval standards. It seems that he was imprisoned at least for a short time, but some sources claim that it may have been up to ten years (based on the fact that he was away from University for that amount of time). But many modern scholars do not even believe he was imprisoned at all: Lindbergh says of Bacon that "his imprisonment, if it occurred at all (which I doubt) probably resulted with his sympathies for the radical 'poverty' wing of the Franciscan (a wholly theological matter) rather than from any scientific novelties which he may have proposed." The point is that, whether he was imprisoned or not, this simply cannot be construed as evidence of religion combating science. Giordano Bruno offers us another striking example. Often considered by less discerning scholars as the "first martyr for free thought," Bruno was burned at the stake, not by religious officials, but by the secular Roman inquisition in 1600. Though he is often known for his early championing of the heliocentric theory as well as for the infinity of the cosmos (which he, it should be noted, arrived at through philosophical rather than scientific reasoning), perhaps his best contribution to science was his work on spatial geometry. But why was he burned at the stake? For the heliocentrism? The geometry? Biographer Luigi Firpo lists his legal infringements as such: holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the Trinity, Christ's divinity, the Incarnation, Transubstantiation, and Mass; believing in the plurality of worlds and the infinity and eternity of the universe; and believing in metempsychosis [reincarnation] and the transmigration of souls into other animals. Nowhere was the Copernican theory mentioned, and in fact, the Catholic Church had not even formed a coherent doctrinal opinion on the matter at the time of Bruno's trial. The plurality of worlds is the closest thing approximating a persecution of scientific ideas, but again, this was more a philosophical assertion than a scientific one, for both Bruno and his persecutors, in that a finite world with a definitive beginning (the Creation) and end (the Apocalypse) was doctrinal, and the eternity of the world (meaning universe) was considered erroneous. (This, by the way, had precedent, and was banned by the Bishop Ettiene Tempiers in the famous Aristotelian Prohibition of 1277, which forbade several teachings of Aristotle, including the eternity of the universe - for almost purely theological reasons.)

Most famous of course, was the trial of Galileo, the archetype, if ever there was one, for the story of the crushing hand of religion landing on an undeserving scientific mind. Most modern interpretations of the trial have cast a far more political light on the subject, and while even the most ardent supporter of the religious position cannot deny the humiliation foisted upon Galileo by the bearers of such trenchant dogma (Galileo really did have to recant on his knees and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest, unlike Bruno, for his Copernican weltanschauung), the political calculus inherent in the move is too indispensable in understanding the trial to leave out of the story. The fall of Galileo, according to historian Mario Biagioli , resembled "the fall of the favorite" in that his guilt was seen as a double indemnity of sorts, as Galileo had been among the greatest of his patron's thinkers. In seventeenth century politics, and especially in places without strong monarchs, like the principalities and city-states of Germany and Italy, artists, writers, and scientists, performed all of their work at the behest of a political patron whose financial support ensured the continued success of the lesser person. Galileo's general patron in his early years had been Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, later to become Pope Urban VII. It is possible that with a friend in high places, Galileo believed that he may have been able to escape retribution for publishing teachings contrary to the Catholic faith, which by the 1630s had developed an official opinion on Copernicus: it was OK to discuss his theory as a mathematical abstraction, but the notion that the earth physically revolved around the sun was a heresy. And it did not help matters that Galileo, in his groundbreaking opus majus Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, put the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic system, of which Pope Urban VII availed himself, in the mouth of a character named Simplicio. While modeled after a sixth century commentator on Aristotle, the unfortunate connotations of the name did not endear Galileo to his former patron. As Biagiolo put it, it was "patronage dynamics" more than anything that did in Galileo.

The second, and I think more important, problem in interpreting the religio-scientific relationship is the simple fact that there are no monolithic entities for which the blanket terms "science" and "religion" may be applied. Obviously, there are many different religions, each of which has not only widely varying degrees of acceptance and antipathy towards the scientific enterprise, but also widely varying internal differences (just think of Christianity, ranging from papal approval of evolution to political movements designed to remove its teaching from public schools). Science, too, is dynamic. Indeed, it thrives on discord and requires constant disagreement, argumentation, and competition among scientists to arrive at truth. Facts, of course, are purely objective, but entirely different hypotheses and theories may be arrived at by different thinkers. And there are certainly more sub-fields within natural science than there are religions in the world, united primarily (perhaps solely) by methodology. Because of the emergence of impartial, objective scientific knowledge, many of the world's religious believers have had little problem with interpreting their faith's teachings symbolically, and the great scholars of comparative religion Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and others have offered up extensive research to show this as among the deepest and most spiritually satisfying ways to worship, as opposed to crude literalism. In short, reducing science and religion to caricatures simplifies their complex relationship.

So, where does this leave us, as 21st century human being living in a world where both institutional religions and academic, practical, and technological science remain the most potent forces in our lives? I think that the one aspect of modern fundamentalist Creationism that truly baffles me is the falsification necessity of science. The historian and philosopher of science Karl Popper said science is only science when its hypotheses, experiments, and theories are falsifiable, that is, can be proved wrong rather than right. What fundamentalist Christian is willing to say with a straight-face that, should new evidence emerge disproving the existence of God, they would accept that science has disproved religion? No one. But this is precisely what a scientific hypothesis puts on the line when it is proposed: peer reviewing scientists devise experiments to test a hypotheses (prove it wrong) and if no one can, the hypothesis is formulated into a theory and tends to be accepted. I recall getting into an argument once with a friend less amenable to the truths of science about the validity of carbon dating, and one of his key arguments was "how can we accept something as fact when scientists simply take for granted that it's true?" which implies that scientists have never really tested whether carbon dating is fact. But of course, by using it in the field and getting consistent result, it's validity is not really in question. If it did not get consistent results, it would be tossed out in favor of a more accurate method. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane, accused of treating evolution as if it were a dogmatic truth, was asked what it would take for him to give up the theory, to which he famously replied, "Rabbit fossils in the Precambrian." This, in a nutshell, is how science works. The religious community does a great discredit to their own beliefs when they set them up for falsification. It is as if those who presume to speak on behalf of all religion are literally "testing their faith", and, if I were religious, I would think it cheapens my belief to subject it to the rigors of scientific testing. Isn't the point of faith that one doesn't know? And if one is not willing to admit the possibility that something is wrong, one cannot subject it to science.

One possible way to march forward has been proposed by evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, which posits a middle ground that he calls NOMA, or "non-overlapping magisteria." Essentially, Gould, an agnostic, describes the relationship he envisions for religion and science as one of mutual respect and admiration in which the ultimate arena of each should remain separate. Religion is the realm and moral and ethical truths, which no amount of scientific knowledge can comment upon, and science is the realm of factual and testable knowledge about the physical universe, against which literalistic interpretations of the Bible should not infringe. To be sure, I am not entirely sold on his position (and neither are many of his most vociferous critics from the scientific and religious spheres) since areas that centuries ago would have found themselves undoubtedly within the dominion of religion, are now considered objectively testable by science. But can we truly believe the most anti-religious thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet when they say that, in a sense, God is testable and the verdict declaims that "God almost certainly does not exist"? I think that Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, was most likely taking the the Creationist position to task and actually subjecting it to the scientific method as the Creationists so wish it be (with predictable results). But, as a true agnostic, I can't abide by a scientific test on something which, I feel by its very definition, is untestable, anymore than I can stand when fundamentalist Christians attempt to peddle their ideology as science. And, considering that I have in the past and in some ways am still somewhat acquiescent to some of the more outlandish claims of peripheral science, I feel that there can still be some limited communication between these two realms--especially when one considers the history and the more congenial relationship occasioned at times in the past. Both science and religion have their angels and demons. Let us hope in the future, that it is the angels of both that prevail.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Science/Angels and Religion/Demons and Vice Versa, Part 1

There are few topics that command my academic interest the way that the relationship between science and religion does. I grew up in a fairly conservative, God-fearing part of the country to non-practicing but generally faithful Christian parents. They specifically raised me in a quasi-secular and intellectually open fashion, in that I was given all the opportunities to learn about science unfiltered by the political and religious ideologies of the curriculum setters. I spent much of my childhood reading about dinosaurs and other fossils of the geological strata, about the formation of the the stars, galaxies and planets, and of the great biodiversity of our planet. And, while we didn't go to church regularly, they did send me to vacation Bible school every year, I suspect so they felt less guilty about not making weekly Sunday outings mandatory, but also to "give us the information," so to speak, that we might make our moral, social, and intellectual decisions based on a secular humanist as well as religious education. My dad has told me numerous times that he wanted us to "decide for ourselves." In general, I've developed into quite the agnostic, and although I disliked Bible school when I went, in retrospect, I'm rather glad that I was given this education for its literary, historical, and cultural merits. I think I would be overstepping my position to say that I could somehow speak for the middle ground in the current culture war that seems to be raging around the non-issue of science vs. religion, but my studies into the philosophies and history of both fields have given me at least some understanding of the complex interplay of the two most powerful institutions of the 21st century.

Most recently, I've been thinking about this issue because of the release of Ron Howard's Angels and Demons last month. I read the book about a week before seeing the movie and liked it alright, though it is heavy-handed and makes science and religion seem like two monolithic entities clubbing each other in their isolated, hermetically sealed, cookie-cutter worlds. The movie improves on some of this, and unlike The Da Vinci Code, does a slightly more even-handed and nuanced job of portraying the relationship between religion and science. It is about as good of a job as one could do turning Angels and Demons into a movie, but unfortunately, that doesn't really help matters. The problem I have with the book and the movie, is that it simply exploits the perceived conflict and paints both religion and science without the depth, complexity, and intricacies that define their intertwined histories. Of course, a third-rate thriller novel and a summer popcorn piece are hardly the places for subtlety and exploration of dynamism, but I am dismayed to see the rich tapestry of these two establishments reduced to a good guy/bad guy relationship.

Contrary to popular opinion, science and religion have not always been at odds in the way they seem to be today. For most of Western history, in fact, they have acted in concert with one another, with theological concepts motivating physical discovery and natural philosophy informing theology. Pioneering this historical theory of the interplay between these two seemingly disparate institutions are historians such as David C. Lindbergh and Ronald Numbers, as well as several scholars within the scientific and religious communities, such as Ian Barbour, Stephen J. Gould and John Polkinghorne, who, though their views differ wildly, nevertheless advocate a greater understanding between the two. Lindbergh and Numbers in particular are critical of what is known as the Conflict Thesis, or the Draper-White Thesis, which enjoyed almost universal currency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Conflict Thesis, as its name implies, envisioned a relationship always at odds, in which religious institutions conservatively and authoritatively forbade any scientific teaching contrary to Biblical dogma, and science played the role of downtrodden bearer of light amidst the darkness. However, as is often the case, more can be gleaned about the society that proposed the theory than the society on which it comments. Most modern interpretations of the Conflict thesis contend that the discord envisioned was a contemporary outcropping of two currents of thought specific and novel to this era: the emergence of a coherent theory of evolution and the beginnings of fundamentalist Christian belief. And it was the latter, which, though commonly believed to hearken back to earlier, more "pure" Christian motives, was really a reactionary response to what was perceived to be an out-of-control progress towards a more secularly oriented society. As the great religious historian Karen Armstrong has noted, fundamentalism (not only Christian, but Islamic, Hindu, and Jewish) is a peculiarly modern institution, designed primarily to act as a traditionalist check against the march of progress, embodied particularly by the scientific enterprise and the liberal open societies of Western democracy. In the political sphere, social scientist from all political stripes have pointed to the commonalities between the ultimate goals of Muslim extremists in the Middle East and their fundamentalist Christian counterparts in the United States - the only difference being that the relative weakness and corruption of political institutions in the Islamic world compared to the West has given these radical extremists a modicum of real power in places such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The centuries of Western history including such formational movements as the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Scientific Revolution, as well as the setbacks such as the Thirty Years War and World Wars, have given Western society an infrastructure in which Church and State are by and large separated. In other words, our own society guards against just such extremists coming to power. The Christian version of this vein of fundamentalist thinking is relegated to bloggers, radio personalities, and televangelists, who are no less extreme, at least in their rhetoric, than their Muslim counterparts:

When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no Satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right of practicing evil.
-Gary Potter, President of Catholics for Political Action

Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God . . . . I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.
-Osama bin Laden

When I, or people like me, are running the country, you'd [abortion providers] better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we will execute you. I mean every word of it."
-Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue

There is no reform except through jihad. . . We have to realize the nature of this conflict: Our enemies do not agree with or approve of our rights.
-Ayman al-Zawahiri

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good. . . Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism. Our goal must be simple. We must have a Christian nation built on God's law, on the Ten Commandments. No apologies.
-Randall Terry

If a woman wants to work away from her home and with men, then that is not allowed by our religion and our culture. If we force them to do this they may want to commit suicide.
-Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, Taliban Minister of Justice

We should invade their [Muslims'] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.
-Ann Coulter

Sorry, Ann, but the Crusading Age has been over for about 700 years. But what does this have to do with science and religion? A lot actually. The point of the above quotes is not to disparage Christian belief but to demonstrate the true radicalism that these outliers represent. Just as we consider Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other Muslim extremists a plague on civilized society, so too should we consider those preaching hatred in the name of Christianity in this country. And the people who are most responsible for the religious attack on science are these very authors, organizers, "thinkers" (if I may stretch this word to its barest of connotations) and extremists. This fringe element should be treated exactly as it is: fringe. True, these people have more power and influence in the United States than in most other industrialized nations, but they have no power, for example, to impede scientific research in evolutionary biology or particle physics, both of which are unlocking secrets about the universe once solely reserved for the domain of religion. Their power lies in opening a Creation Museum and electing politicians with sympathetic, albeit less extreme views. Some statistics are troubling, such as a recent poll showing that a mere 39% of Americans accept the theory of evolution (compared to 80 or 90% in most other industrialized nations). But overall, science and religion are not mortally opposed to one another the way our media, political structure, and entertainment industry seem to believe.

In my next post on the topic, I will explore the historical relationship between science and religion and why they have not always been and need not currently be at odds, the fact that even the terms "science" and "religion" simplify the problem too much as it assumes that these blanket terms cover all facets of these two dynamic institutions, and finally, examine what appropriate relations between the two should be in the twenty-first century.