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The science and religion dialogue The science and religion dialogue Document Transcript

  • The Science and Religion Dialogue: Where It Stands Today and Why It Matters, byGeorge F. R. EllisMetanexus Cosmos. 2005.02.04. 9,458 words.This is a public lecture given by George F. R. Ellis, 2004 Templeton Prize winner at themeetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature inNovember 22, 2004 in San Antonio, Texas. Professor Ellis is Distinguished Professor ofComplex Systems in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Cape Town.The first part of this talk appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of The Spiral. What follows isthe talk in its entirety.George Ellis, Ph.D., is professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of CapeTown, member of the Metanexus Board of Directors and recipient of the 2004 TempletonPrize. After completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge University with Dennis Sciama assupervisor, he lectured at Cambridge and has been visiting Professor at Texas University,the University of Chicago, Hamburg University, Boston University, the University ofAlberta, and Queen Mary College (London University). He has written many papers onrelativity theory and cosmology, among them The Large Scale Structure of Space Timeco-authored with Stephen Hawking (Cambridge University Press,1973); Before theBeginning: Cosmology Explained (Merion Boyars, 1993); Is the Universe Open orClosed? The Density of Matter in the Universe with Peter Coles (Cambridge UniversityPress, 1997); and Dynamical Systems in Cosmology with John Wainwright. He has alsowritten on science policy and developmental issues, science education, and science andreligion issues. He is co-author with Nancey Murphy of "On the Moral Nature of theUniverse" (Fortress Press, 1996) and editor of "The Far-flung Universe: Eschatologyfrom a Cosmic Perspective" (Templeton Foundation Press, 2002). He is past president ofthe International Society of General Relativity and Gravitation and of the Royal Societyof South Africa and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute ofMathematics and its Applications. Among the prizes and honorary degrees he hasreceived are the Claude Harris Leon Foundation Achievement Award, the Gold Medal ofthe South African Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Star of SouthAfrica Medal, which was presented to him in 1999 by President Nelson Mandela.--Editor=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-The Science and Religion Dialogue: Where It Stands Today and Why It MattersBy George F. R. EllisPart IScience and religion are two major long-term themes of human thought-indeed twodominating aspects of human culture, each making major contributions to how we live
  • and think. At issue here is the way we understand ultimate reality and humanity: the verynature of existence. This plays a crucial role in how we see ourselves and how we see themeaning in our lives. Because of this, their interaction is of considerable importance forthe way we live and behave, which to a large extent flows from our world-view.Science and religion have in the past been taken by many to be in deadly conflict, andindeed many have talked of the battle between science and religion. This was, however,by no means a universal position. There is now an increasing recognition of mutuality,with a growing science and religion dialogue taking place, and numerous booksappearing on the topic.This debate recognizes that major areas of concern of science and religion are separate,and in the main no conflict arises between them: science dealing with how and religionwith why; science with what is, and religion with what ought to be. Indeed this view hasbeen formalised by Stephen J. Gould into the idea of non-overlapping magisteria orNOMA with each ruling its separate domain and not even a possibility of conflict. TheBible is not a science textbook telling you about thermodynamics or the periodic table ofthe elements. Chemistry books do not tell you the meaning of life. You need to go to theappropriate sources for each class of questions.However, this argument is not sustainable - it is mainly but not always true. There areindeed some areas of common concern and potential conflict. Thus there is a vibrantdebate now that aims to clarify this. Some claim there is indeed still a real conflict, withscience dominant; others that there is a possibility of peaceful coexistence; and stillothers that some kind of integration is possible to give a unified world-view thataccommodates both, without diluting either. The latter is my own position, as it is ofmany others, and is reflected in a vibrant and growing literature.The science and religion dialogue can provide essential benefits both ways-from religionto science, and from science to religion, provided we reinforce the open-minded, non-fundamentalist tendencies on both sides. Indeed the dialogue can be a counter to bothreligious fundamentalism and scientific fundamentalism, where fundamentalism isdefined as those tendencies that claim total access to truth but in fact are proclaiming apartial truth to be the whole truthThe key need is to see what each of these areas, that is, science and religion, cancontribute: what is its proper domain of application in human life and understanding, andwhat lies outside that domain in each case. This discussion also clarifies where tensionsremain, those areas where both still make claims and hence there are serious issues to befaced.The issuesI will talk about this in terms of three major interrelated aspects first in terms of practicalissues where the discussion makes a real world difference; theoretical issues that have todo with how we understand, how we make and test theories; and philosophical issues,
  • what we learn from this debate about how things are. These aspects are related by andbased in certain foundational understandings, which deal with underlying value systemsand overall approaches taken and they are all made concrete in relation to specific issues,where they become real.These specific issues fall under a number of categories from practical to essential tocritical. A practical issue for religion, that is making a real world difference, is the tensionexperienced by some religious believers caused by the unprecedented increase in ourunderstanding of how the world works given us by modern science. This undermines thefaith of many believers and in fact in Europe has led them to leave the church. This isclearly a practical issue for the church. A primary importance of the science and religiondialogue is that it faces this issue and examines to what degree this loss of faith isinevitable if one takes both science and religion seriously. This dialogue can help indeveloping mature religious understandings that will be robust in the face of modernscientific discoveries: indeed, this is a core project of the science and religion debate.Obviously, this is of real world significance to the religious community.The universeFirst I would like to discuss some issues that I call non-essential issues such as thequestion of origins of the universe and of life. The mechanism of the evolution of theuniverse and the large-scale structures in it, that is, cosmology and the physical big bangare now well understood by scientists. The universe started in a smooth hot state withonly elementary particles in equilibrium. This hot gas expanded very rapidly and cooled,and with this cooling structures such as galaxies and stars formed spontaneously throughthe action of gravity. This is the subject of physical cosmology, which is my technicalarea of work.The issue where people have seen a relation with religious issues is in the question: wasthere a start to the universe or not? Is it eternal? Would it be bad for religion if there wereno beginning to the universe? It used to be believed by some that if you could prove theuniverse had a beginning, this would vindicate biblical claims and so would be good forreligion. On the other hand, if you could prove that the universe did not have a beginning,as with Fred Hoyles theory of the steady-state universe, this would undermine a religiousworldview.However, even in the time of St Augustine it was known that this was a faulty analysis,for the crucial existential issue is not dependent on whether the universe had a beginningin time. This issue does not really make a difference to issues of fundamental causation.It only deals with mechanisms. The fundamental question is why the physical universehas the form it does-why the laws of physics have the specific nature they have, and whythe expanding universe has the specific characteristics it has. So whether the universe hada start or not, it is this that remains a fundamental metaphysical question. Why does theuniverse have this particular form, when it could in principle have had so many otherforms?
  • Some would claim this an issue of the beginning of the universe is an essential one.However, I would claim for most of those in the debate that it is non-essential. God couldhave created the universe in many different ways, with or without a starting event, andthe way she chose to create it is a matter of scientific interest but has no real theologicalsubstance. That is simply a question of what mode God chose to use to bring the universeinto existence and maintain it in being; the creative power of God remains, whatever thephysical vehicle chosen.EvolutionThe second and much more controversial non-essential issue is that of the origin of life,the mechanism of evolution of animals and humans. A huge amount has been writtenabout what is claimed to be the upsetting of the religious view by Darwinian evolutionarytheory. With the modern view of evolution, what you have is an understanding of theincredible self-structuring propensity of nature, which enables the Darwinianevolutionary process to shape animals to function well in their environment. This processhas the capacity to create complex organization with a purposeful character by theprocess of random changes over a long time period leading to animals better adapted totheir particular environment. This is a very powerful mechanism that leads to greater andgreater complexity, including consciousness, because the ability to think enhancessurvival capacity.Now some have seen this as a threat to religion, many have not. From my viewpoint,there is no clash with religion here. The point is the following. In particular, it is based inthe way electro-magnetism and quantum theory work. These underlie chemistry,chemistry underlies biochemistry, biochemistry underlies the way that cells function andlife comes into being. So in essence it is the laws of physics that allow the spontaneousself-structuring to take place, and then Darwinian evolution leads to apparent design. Sofrom this viewpoint, if you look at the causal chain, it is the nature of physics, which is atissue here. Physics allows the process to take place. And if you have physics as you see itin the universe around us, then the process of the evolution of life becomes almostinevitable. From the viewpoint of theology, it makes no fundamental difference to theissue of design whether God chooses to design individual animals. The new picturewould be God designing the laws of physics and designing them in a truly remarkableway that allows creation of life to take place. From a fundamental causation viewpoint,whichever method God chose is equally good. In fact, it is more wondrous to design thelaws of physics so that they have this inevitable consequence. It is truly remarkable feat. Ido not see any deep theological issue there either. If God chose to create complex beingsincluding human beings through a process of designing the laws of physics, which lead tothat consequence, that is a wonderful way of doing it. There is nothing wrong with thatfrom a theological perspective..Part IIThe nature of existence
  • However, there are still some deep underlying issues where potential or real conflict canarise. The first of these significant issues is the foundations of existence, the metaphysicsand the ontology of cosmology. This is the issue of design and creation returning at ahigher level. What underlies existence and its nature? What underlies its relation both tospace-time, to matter, and to the laws of physics themselves? Why is there an ordereduniverse? Why any laws of physics at all? And why are there these particular laws ofphysics?One particular important issue arising here is the anthropic question. The way life evolvesdepends on the universe. We can consider universes with all sorts of properties: bigger orsmaller; hotter or colder; expanding faster or slower; with different laws of physics,different kinds of particles, different masses for particles; maybe with different laws ofphysics altogether. As a cosmologist, one imagines all these different universes andconsiders what they would be like. In most of them there would be no life at all.What is clear is that life, as we know it, would not be possible if there were very smallchanges to either physics or the expanding universe that we see around us. There aremany aspects of physics, which, if they were different, would prevent any life at allexisting. There are all sorts of subtleties if the whole thing is to work, allowingcomplexity to emerge: for instance, the difference in mass between the proton and theneutron has to lie in a very narrow range, and the ratio of the electro-magnetic to thegravitational force has to be very finely tuned. If you tinker with physics, you may not getany element heavier than hydrogen; or maybe if the initial conditions of the universe arewrong it doesnt last long enough, or its always too hot, or it expands so rapidly that nostars form at all. So there are all sorts of things that can go wrong if you are the creatortrying to create a universe in which life exists. We are now realizing that the universe is avery extraordinary place, in the sense that it is fine tuned so that life will exist. Becauseof its specific nature, our existence is more or less inevitable: since its start, it was alwayswaiting for us to come into being (as well as other intelligent beings elsewhere in theuniverse).A lot of books have been written on this, for instance Just Six Numbers and Our CosmicHabitat by my friend and colleague Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. Inparticular, it has recently been established that the universe is not at present slowingdown as we would have expected, but rather is accelerating. It is expanding faster andfaster due to a cosmic force known as the cosmological constant or quintessence:various names are used for it. We do not know why this force is there, but we do knowthat if it were substantially bigger than it is, there would be no galaxies at all, no planets,no life at all. The question is why it has the value it has, when fundamental physicssuggests it should have been much larger than it in fact is, with no structure at all formingin the universe and hence no life.So why does the universe allow life to exist? Some scientists do not see this as a validissue, but in my view it is a very serious question. There are three main ways of trying toexplain it.
  • The first is pure chance, things just happen to be that way with no further metaphysicalimplications. This is a logically tenable position, if you like to live with extremely thinphilosophies. But it has no explanatory power; it doesnt get you anywhere. So it is not anargument that is popular in many scientific or philosophical circles.The second option is the designer or purpose argument: that the way the universefunctions reveals intention, the work of some kind of transcendent power or force. Lifeexists because this fine-tuning intentionally took place. In simple terms, God designed theuniverse and the laws of physics operational in it in such a way that it was inevitable thatlife would come in to being. Physics has this extraordinary ability to underlie thespontaneous development of complexity because that was intended to be the case. This isthe theistic view.The third option is the idea of a multiverse, supported amongst others by ProfessorMartin Rees, who has studied and written about the problem of fine-tuning in the books Imentioned. He and others propose that this is not the only universe, but that there aremillions and millions or even an infinite number of other universes, all with differingproperties. Or perhaps there is just one huge universe with many, many differentexpanding regions like the expanding universe region we can see around us, but eachwith different physical constants, different rates of expansion, and so on. This enablesphysicists to start doing what they like, talking about statistics of universes.If you play the game right, you can say that in this context life is highly probable. In mostof these universes life will not occur because conditions will be wrong. But in a few ofthem it will just happen to work out alright. So although there is an incredibly smallprobability of a universe existing that will allow life, if there exist enough universes withall sorts of properties occurring, it becomes essentially inevitable that somewhere theright mix of circumstances will occur. There are all these zillions of universes, so in someof them surely life will come into being.The problem with this explanation is that none of these other universes or expandinguniverse domains can be observed. They are beyond the part of the universe that we cansee, so whatever is said about them can never be proven wrong. In many cases, there isno causal connection with them whatever, so there is not even the faintest possibility ofchecking their existence or their properties. That makes this a metaphysical rather than ascientific proposal.The distinguishing feature of science is that you can test its proposals, but there is no wayof testing this hypothesis. Martin Gardner writes in his book "Are Universes ThickerThan Blackberries":"There is not the slightest shred of reliable evidence that there is any universe other thanthe one we are in. No multiverse theory has so far provided a prediction that can betested. As far as we can tell, universes are not even as plentiful as even two blackberries. .. Surely the conjecture that there is just one universe and its Creator is infinitely simplerand easier to believe than that there are countless billions upon billions of worlds,
  • constantly increasing in number and created by nobody. I can only marvel at the low stateto which todays philosophy of science has fallen." (1)Belief that a multiverse exists is faith, not a scientifically testable or provable theory. Themultiverse theory just postpones the problem; the issue of ultimate causation remains. Afinal point is that if there indeed were a multiverse, it would not necessarily exclude acreator God: for she could have decided to create many universes instead of one. Theseare not in fact exclusive options. And indeed the multiverse proposal is not after all afinal explanation; it just pushes the final question back one stage further. The issuebecomes, why this multiverse rather than that? Why a multiverse that allows life, ratherthan one that does not? The crucial question recurs.The nature of humanityThe second major issue is the question of what is the essential nature of being human.What is our essential nature in the light of modern biology and, in particular, molecularbiology and neuroscience? This is where there is potential for real conflict betweenscience and religion, which is going to go on for a long time. This concerns particularlythe related issues of the nature of free will and the nature of the soul. And what is thenature of being human with important correlates in the area of health? Overall, the issueis: what is the quality of humanity? What is needed is an adequately humane view ofhumanity.On a scientific basis, we have obtained and continue to obtain greater and greaterunderstandings of how life works. In biology, we are learning more about the way thatmolecular processes underlie the functioning of each of us, particularly through DNA asthe store of our genetic heritage and through neurons as the basis for our minds. We havebeen gaining a remarkable mechanistic understanding of the way that life works, which isextraordinarily successful. The problem arises when the claim is made that this is allthere is: nothing else is relevant or has any reality.Here we come up against the fundamentalist views of reductionists who produceincredibly thin views of humanity. It is an extraordinary phenomenon: people fromsociology, psychology, evolutionary theory, molecular biology, neuroscience,philosophy, and so on, making claims that humans are far less than they actually are.They do so with great authority, and if you disagree with them on humanistic or religiousgrounds you are greeted with derision. This is a really important area.Underlying humanity is the basic physical hierarchical structuring: quarks making upprotons and neutrons, which with electrons make up atoms; atoms together makemolecules; enough molecules together make bio-molecules; if you string these togetheryou eventually get cells; cells make tissues, tissues make systems, systems make theorganism, and organisms make communities. Each higher level depends on the loverlevels. This is the physical structure underlying our existence and functioning.
  • For reductionists what ultimately counts is only the lower level, that the only causaleffect present in this hierarchy is bottom-up causation, the attraction between tinyelectrons and protons at the bottom causing everything all the way up. In a certain sensethat is obviously true. You are able to think because electrons are attracting protons inyour neurons. This reductionist view tends to make one feel that life is just a form ofmachinery and any higher meaning of life is undermined by these views. This is a criticalissue for religion. Other issues for religion relate to prayer and miracles; the soul,resurrection, and after-life; the issue of evil and, for that matter, the issue of good.Viewpoints in each of these areas are to some degree constrained by scientificconsiderations, but they are also heavily influenced by the religious viewpoint taken.I will make two comments here. First, we do not understand the nature of consciousnessdespite what some people claim. Furthermore chemistry and physics do not provide acausally complete theory able to investigate this matter, because they do not take humancausation into account. In terms of the soul, resurrection, and so on, consciousness is notunderstood by science. The hard problem is not even touched on by modern dayneuroscience. You may take a viewpoint, which is a faith viewpoint, on this issue withoutbeing contradicted by science because science does not understand consciousness.Second, in terms of the issue of prayers and miracles and so on, quantum uncertainty maybe epistemological rather than ontological. In other words, there may be room for divineaction through quantum uncertainty. We do not understand the nature of quantum theorywhen we really look at it at a deep level. So this can open up windows for looking atprayer, miracles, and so on in a way which could be important.What are the important practical issues for science? Can theology make a difference? Ofgreat importance here is how applied science impacts our lives: for example,biotechnology issues such as cloning; values in environmental decisions; the issue ofglobal warming; uses of information technology; and creation of weapons of massdestruction. Science and its child technology have allowed all these things to come intobeing. As they take place, we need to really consider the values that guide our decisions.Scientists do not normally discuss these values explicitly. What is crucially needed hereas part of the future of humanity is specifically considered and adopted ethical values thatinform technological decisions as we apply science in these various ways. Science cannotprovide these values; they can only come from religious and philosophical positions.These values and their applications can fruitfully be explored by the science-and-religiondialogue. What are needed here are people who are scientifically trained in the particulararea of concern and who also have a deep understanding of morality. Hence, the kind ofpossibility that arises is a panel of religious representatives who could give an ethicalview on crucial issues, one that a panel of scientists alone could not give. For example,there could be an office attached to the United Nations, which could provide such advicefrom an interfaith view on the ways that world religions look at these issues. Underlyingthis proposal is a core belief that the spiritual wings of the worlds great religions have acommon core of ethical values, which can be used to provide guidance in practicalsituations.
  • Major issues will be arising in the future in particular concerning value-based humansciences and medicine and the brain and consciousness. This issue of science and valuesis particularly going to come up as we understand more about the brain, and as we obtainmore and more ability to interfere with the brain both genetically and in other ways. It isgoing to be crucial to have a proper ethical viewpoint guiding these uses of science.Top-down causationThe new and very important realization is that, as well as the bottom-up action, there istop-down action. In this hierarchy of structure, the top levels are equally able to influencewhat happens at the lower levels. Somehow, it is this simple fact that somehow quite a lotof people seem to miss. Top-down action is what enables the higher levels of thehierarchy to be causally effective, and it occurs around us all the time. This happens forexample in the physics of the very early universe, in the way that genes are influenced bythe environment through the process of evolution and in the way that they are read on thebasis of positional information in the developing body. This happens in the way that themind influences what happens in our bodies (2).A key point here is the issue of human volition: the fact that when I move my arm, itmoves because I have told it to do so. In other words, my brain is able to co-ordinate theaction of millions of electrons and protons in such a way that it makes the arm move inthe way I want it to move. Everything in this room that is created by humans is createdthrough human volition, and this demonstrates that our minds are causally effective in theworld around us. The goals that we have shape what we do, and hence change thesituation in the world around us as we act on it, for example when building a house ordriving a car or making a cup of tea. It is this causal efficacy that enables us to carry outactions embodying our intentions. This in turn is crucial to our existence as ethicallyresponsible beings.It is important to understand that information is causally effective, even though it is not aphysical quantity but rather has an abstract nature. It is because of this effectiveness thatit costs money to acquire information - it has an economic value. Not only that, but socialconstructions, too, are causally effective. The classic example of this is the laws of chess.Imagine someone coming from Mars and watching chess pieces moving. It is a verypuzzling situation. Some pieces can only move in one way and other pieces can onlymove another way, so you imagine the Martian turning the board upside down or lookinginside the rook, searching for a mechanism that causes these differences.But it is an abstraction, a social agreement that is making the chess piece move only inthese ways. Such an agreement, reached by social convention over many hundreds ofyears, is not the same as any individuals brain state, though some people will try to tellyou that it is. It is an abstraction that exists independent of any single mind, and that canbe represented in many different ways. It is causally effective through the actions ofindividual minds, but none of them by themselves created that abstraction or embody it inits entirety. It will survive even when they die.
  • Many other social constructions, including language, mathematics, and science, areequally causally effective. This already is enough to undermine any simplisticmaterialistic views of the world, because these causal abstractions do not have a place inthe simple materialist view of how things function. Indeed materialism itself is a theory,but a theory is not a physical thing. Its very existence denies its own fundamentalpremise.Theoretical issues: how we understandScience may help religion in examining its processes for discerning truth. The issue isthat of religious dogmatism and hubris, the tendency to make claims of absolute truth forpossibly fallible religious positions. The problem is that we live in a world of multiplefaiths and they cant all be true in all of their dogmatic statements because they contradicteach other. For each strongly held religious position held by a fundamentalist in onereligious faith there is a contradicting one in some other religious faith. That must raisefor the believer who is open to these kinds of issues the questions: how do I tell if myfaith is true? How do I relate to these other faiths? The scientific approach can temperthis tendency to dogmatism and - realizing that faith will always be the core of religion -can help religious understanding relate more coherently to the evidence that supportsfaith. Crucial is the issue of discernment. Science can help in the understanding of how toevaluate evidence, how to test theories in the face of experience.Various theories have been developed showing how one can develop and test scientificand religious theories in an analogous way: varieties of critical realism have beenproposed by Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke and Lakatos vision of progressiveresearch programs have been put forward by Nancey Murphy.The relation of knowledge and existenceWhat is key in looking at science and religion and how they relate is the appropriatenature of epistemology, that is, the theory of knowledge in this broad-ranging context.What kinds of evidence should we include in our considerations? Science takesrepeatable, strictly controlled experiments into account while religion takes into accountthe daily religious experience of believers. In other words, in each domain different kindsof data are taken into account. How do we test these for validity? How do we relate themto the testing of the nature of reality in broad inclusive explanatory schemes?So we need to look at the data of the nature of knowledge but there is also the question ofthe nature of existence, the nature of ontology: what kinds of existence should we assignto entities in the world? Is there only a material physical world, or are other worlds, forinstance a Platonic world of mathematics, that we also have to take into account? One hasto meditate on existence, the possible kinds of existence. And I claim that from ascientific viewpoint one requires more than just the world of particles and physics.But the key thing is the relation of epistemology to ontology. How does one relate onesknowledge to existence? This is one of the key issues at stake. Most of the errors
  • humanity has made over the centuries, from logical positivism on the one hand toextreme relativism on the other, have arisen because we continually confuseepistemology with ontology. Humans continually believe that what they know is whatexists. And that is just another example of human hubris.Our understanding of complex issues derives from making and testing models andtheories. Indeed all our understanding is necessarily represented this way. Our brainworks by making models of things, testing them, and discarding the models if they dontwork. One of the key points is not to confuse models with reality. Any model is a partialrepresentation of reality. Many scientists at the present time seem to confuse their modelsof reality with reality. Religious believers may do the same. There is a lot one can learnby looking at the relation between image and reality. The images we have of reality aremediated by the sensory apparatus and detectors available to us, and each image will bebut a partial representation of reality. The data available through each channel is stronglyinfluenced by detection and selection effects.Furthermore, each of these theories has a limit. Each has a domain of applicability and donot apply outside of their a domain. If you want to understand a theory you mustunderstand its range and applicability. You only understand it if you know its limits ofapplicability.Science can help see the multiple ways that a single reality can be represented andunderstood, and perhaps this is one of the things that non-scientists dont know so muchabout. In mathematics, many mathematical concepts can be represented in many differentways. In physics too there are many different representations of the same physical laws.For example, in quantum theory there is a famous equivalence between the Schrodingertheory and the Heisenberg theory, which is not at all obvious initially. These theories canlook completely different but are representing the same reality. So science is a veryinteresting way of seeing in multiple ways how a single reality can be represented andunderstood.This I would see as a force for progress in inter-religious dialogue because of course thesame kind multiple views of a single reality can easily occur in the religious domain.These kinds of studies can also help us see how epistemology and ontology relate. A lackof evidence is not evidence of non-existence. One case where this occurs is in cosmologywhere there are galaxies that we see and there is a horizon. We cant see beyond thehorizon because the light has not had time to reach us since the creation of the universe.Astronomers believe firmly that there are galaxies beyond the horizon but we cant seethem and never will see them in the foreseeable future but we believe they exist. This isan example where existence can be inferred even though we dont have the directevidence.So, in science, it is not true that there is a simple relation between evidence and existence.It is a complex relationship. The lesson of all this is that one mustnt confuseepistemology with ontology. If you dont have evidence, the thing may still exist; on theother hand, the fact that you dont have evidence does not prove that it does exist. In
  • science as in religion there are ways of justifying belief in the existence of the unseen -for example, electromagnetic fields and quarks, which are both not seen but which webelieve to exist. There are philosophical tests of this through the fruitful participation ofsuch ideas and theories that make testable predictionsReligious experienceThe issue of religious experience is here crucial - the interpretation of ethical and spiritualdata. Is it all delusion? Is all self-constructed? Or, does some of it relate to reality? Howdo we tell what is genuine in the religious sphere? This is the issue of discernment: howdo we tell true religious/ethical experience from false. Science is very powerful indetecting within its domain what is true or false. How do you do that in religion? The keyissue in trying to get a religious approach that is compatible with science: to drop dogmaand subject religious theories and ethical issues to testing. This is analogous to the waythat science tests the truth-value of theories. Religion has a similar need.Discernment is through tradition, through scripture, through elders and priests, throughcommunity opinion, through personal judgement, and above all by outcomes: by theirfruits ye shall know them. But the latter is dependent on a view of what is good and whatis bad. Those criteria are determined on some understanding of ethical values. In the end,one can have these criteria and, in the end, they will not be decisive. There is an ultimateuncertainty facing us in the metaphysical domain. By definition in the end these are faithissues where sufficient evidence for proof, as was known to Hume and to Kant, willnever be available. So we encounter the tension between rationality and faith, and theparadox of justified faith and reasonable hope. We have to have faith in order to have ametaphysical position, whether its an atheist one or a religious one, because the data isnot sufficient. We can use all of those criteria but they will in the end not give us a onehundred per cent watertight answer. We have to use our faith in order to come to ametaphysical or religious position whether it is atheism or Christianity, Islam, Hinduism,or whatever.The central point is that, in the light of our present day understanding of science andepistemology, we can have strongly supported beliefs, we can have good reasons for ourbeliefs. But certainty cannot be attained in these areas in a philosophical sense -metaphysical doubt will remain always in my view. Anyone from either side, the scienceor the religious side, claiming certainty in metaphysical issues is either deluded ordishonest. So beware of the peddler of certainty, whether a priest or a scientist.The outcome is unclear. That is why we need faith and hope on the one hand, and why,on the other, we need dialogue for clarifying potential conflicts and whatever consistencychecks or tests of consilience there may be for testing our beliefs.On being human: faith and hopeThe essential features of a full human life are faith and hope, driven by the need to makelife choices in the face of uncertainty and adversity (and we note here that even atheism is
  • a faith). Rationality, based on impartial analysis of repeated experience and carefullycollected evidence, is what gives us our ability to plan sensibly and successfully in theface of reality and its inherent limitations. But hope is often needed in order to continuesurviving and functioning in the face of desperate situations - to fight against the odds.Its not just that we dont always have evidence that is sufficient so we have faith. Therewill be times when the evidence is against us but we need to keep on fighting. Indeed thiswas abundantly clear in the recent history of my country South Africa. There were manytimes when the rational thing would have been to give up in despair. But the miracle ofthe political transition happened without the the country descending into wholesalebloodshed because of the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu amongothers.Part of the point here is that the non-rational clinging to hope is itself part of thetransformational process. Hope is an active factor in changing the context in which welive, and hence the outcomes of our choices and actions. This process has an element offaith - faith in what might happen if hope is pursued. But faith is needed in any case toprovide a basis for thought, values, and action, for a number of reasons, even though it isitself guided by thoughts and values. Faith is needed when the evidence is incomplete;hope when the evidence is against you.However there is a crucial final point. It is not true that all exercises of faith and hope areequal. Like all our abilities, they too can be used rightly or wrongly. So this is where theexercise of discernment is essential. Some faiths, and in particular fundamentalist faiths,are destructive and to be avoided; some hopes are evil. Thus faith and hope, like ouractions, have to be guided by ethics - value choices of what are acceptable goals for eachof us.Balancing reason, emotion, ethicsIt is crucial to understand that our minds act, as it were, as an arbiter between threetendencies guiding our actions: first, what rationality suggests is the best course of action- the cold calculus of more and less, the economically most beneficial choice; second,what emotion sways us to do - the way that feels best, what we would like to do; andthird, what our values tell us we ought to do - the ethically best option, the right thing todo.These are each distinct from each other, and in competition to gain the upper hand.Sometimes they may agree as to the best course of action, but often they will not. It is ourpersonal responsibility to choose between them, making the best choice we can betweenthese conflicting calls, with our best wisdom and integrity, and on the basis of the limiteddata available.This shows where value choices come in and help guide our actions. Rationality can helpdecide which course of action will be most likely to promote specific ethical goals whenwe have made these value choices, but the choices themselves, the ethical system, mustcome from outside the pure rationality of rigorous proof, and certainly from outside
  • science. As emphasized before, science cannot provide the basis of ethics. A deepreligious worldview is crucial here. It is essential to our well-being and properfulfillment, because ethics and meaning are deeply intertwined. Humans have a greatyearning for meaning, and ethics embodies those meanings and guides our actions inaccordance with them.I am presenting here a very Quaker view of things: that one needs to bring ethics into thescience and religion dialogue. In fact, the whole discussion is incomplete without ethicsfor many reasons. Thus it is important to have a sound view on the nature of ethics andmorality.The boundaries of scienceBy its very nature, science cannot deal with major issues of great importance, and firstly,science cant deal with ethics. There is a tendency to mistakenly believe that science canhandle these ethical issues, either through evolutionary psychology studies, through theimperative of survival built into our genes over millions and millions of years; or, thatethics can be handled by sociology and anthropology, which study the force of cultureand the way that it shapes how we think. But in fact ethical issues are by their very naturebeyond the scope of science. You can see this because these two proposals, theevolutionary psychology proposal and the sociology proposal, do not agree with eachother over how ethics is derived. In the end science cant deal with ethics because there isno scientific experiment that tells us what is good and what is evil. It is a part of realitythat is crucially important but which lies outside the scope of science. There is noexperiment, no apparatus which can test for ethics.Science cannot deal with aesthetics. There are no scientific criteria telling us what isbeautiful. Science cannot deal with metaphysics, and it cannot deal with meaning. Theattempt to deal with these issues on a scientific basis is not only misleading, it ispositively dangerous. The Social Darwinism movement was one that was particularlydangerous. It attempted to deal with ethics from a scientific basis and it provided thetheoretical underpinnings for Marxism and led to great evil. It is crucial that each of thesebe recognized in their own right over and against science, with scientific factors in theirdevelopment but each with their own logic and nature justified in their own terms.Science is very powerful in its domain, but that domain is strictly limited. Natural andbiological science is constrained by its very nature to its proper domain of application(the measurable behaviour of physical objects), and so cannot handle features of a quitedifferent nature, such as the appreciation of beauty, the greatness of literature, the joy ofcooking, the lessons of history, the nature of evil, the quality of meditation, or theunderstanding of love. The fact that science cannot handle them does not mean that theyare unimportant to us.The boundaries of religion
  • Similarly, religion too cannot deal with issues of mechanism and causation, the kindinvestigated by science. Religion does not deal methodically with repeatable phenomenanor with the analytic way we understand the parts of natural objects and phenomena asmaking up the whole. Nor does it use mathematics as a tool and measurability as acriterion of validity. Rather it deals with integral issues related to meaning and value.Above all, it relates to individual lives and events, which may be similar to others insome ways but are always different in important essences.Philosophical issuesWhat do we learn about how things are? What science teaches us is something about theway God thinks. In fact, this is what Newton thought. If you believe God was the creator,then science can teach you a great deal about the nature of the mind of God. God createdthe vast scale of the evolving universe, governed by cause and effect, particles and forces,emergence of complexity out of simplicity, life shaped by evolutionary processes. So allof this is part of the nature of God. It is truly an amazing idea.One of the things that we learn from science is the idea of models of immanence andtranscendence with electromagnetism providing a model of immanence andtranscendence being modeled by higher dimensions. We learn that underlying physicalreality, we find a startling hidden world of mathematics waiting to be discovered. Soscience shows us this hierarchy of structure. It shows us these mathematical structures -for example, the Mandelbrot set which for billions of years was waiting to be discoveredin some abstract Platonic, mathematical domain before we had computers powerfulenough to create visions of these structures.But what is really important is what religion can tell science about the multidimensionalnature of reality and causality, multiple natures of reality and levels of causation. Sciencetends to ignore these because each science is compartmentalized and deals with only oneaspect of causation. What is truly important is the full nature of humanity that there is topdown as well as bottom up causation and the importance of human choice, what happensis the social environment, the effects of society that affect the mind. Genetic inheritanceaffects the mind. But personal choice also affects our minds and what we are and whatwe become. We change ourselves through the way we think and the way we construct ourbehaviour. Just as we strengthen our muscles by exercising them, we change our mind bythe way we think. Personal choice is equally as important in changing the mind just as aresocial environment and genetic issues.Ethics is causally effective because ethics is the topmost level of this layer of goals insociety. Goals are hierarchically structured and are causally effective. Human goalscreate things around us, computers, spectacles, and everything we see around us iscreated by human intent. The human mind is causally effective and ethics is causallyeffective because it is the topmost level in the hierarchy. Science must acknowledge thatethics as well as physics and chemistry are causally effective.
  • On the scientific side we face dogmatism and hubris: in particular, a denial of humannature in human sciences and neuroscience. At issue here is the way we view ourselves:what is the core of humanity. Crucial consequences follow for how we treat peopleindividually, medically and politically. Thus there is a need for the more humanist viewsto counter against scientific fundamentalism and associated absolutist views. Thescience-and-religion debate can help here: a strong force on the side of humanity.Merlin Donald writes in his fine book "A Mind so Rare":"Hardliners, led by a vanguard of rather voluble philosophers, believe not merely thatconsciousness is limited, as experimentalists have been saying for years, but that it playsno significant role in human cognition. They believe that we think, speak, and rememberentirely outside its influence. Moreover, the use of the term `consciousness is viewed aspernicious because (note the theological undertones) it leads us into error ...They support the downgrading of consciousness to the status of an epiphenomenon...asecondary byproduct of the brains activity, a superficial manifestation of mental activitythat plays no role in cognition" (3).He continues:"[Daniel] Dennett is actually denying the biological reality of the self. Selves, he says,hence self-consciousness, are cultural inventions. ... the initiation and execution of mentalactivity is always outside conscious control...Consciousness is an illusion and we do not exist in any meaningful sense. But, theyapologize at great length, this daunting fact Does Not Matter. Life will go on as always,meaningless algorithm after meaningless algorithm, and we can all return to our lives asif Nothing Has Happened.This is rather like telling you your real parents were not the ones you grew to know andlove but Jack the Ripper and Elsa, She-Wolf of the SS. But not to worry" (4).And further on:"The practical consequences of this deterministic crusade are terrible indeed. There is nosound biological or ideological basis for selfhood, willpower, freedom, or responsibility.The notion of the conscious life as a vacuum leaves us with an idea of the self that isarbitrary, relative, and much worse, totally empty because it is not really a conscious self,at least not in any important way" (5).These views deny the full nature of humanity. Religion can and does affirm this nature,and its value: the worth of the individual. It can also be a force in the development oftruly multi-disciplinary studies in the sciences themselves, and also integrating them intohumanites, the arts, and philosophy.
  • Steven Pinker writes that the problem with behaviourism in psychology is that:". . . there was no such thing as a talent or and ability. Watson had banned them frompsychology, together with the contents of the mind, such as ideas, beliefs, desires, andfeelings. To a behaviourist, the only legitimate topic for psychology is overt behaviourand how it is controlled by the past and present environment...Behaviourists believed that behaviour could be understood independently of the rest ofbiology, without attention to the genetic makeup of the animal or the evolutionary historyof the species" (6).Pinker continues:"In The Behaviour of Organisms [Skinner], the only organisms considered are rats andpigeons. . .Watson wrote an influential child-rearing manual recommending that parentsestablish rigid feeding schedules for their children and give them a minimum of attentionand love" (7).But we now know that this attention and love is crucial for proper child development;indeed that they may wither away and even die if it is withheld. Behaviourism advocatedwhat is in fact a form of child torture because of its reductionist views of the nature ofhuman beings.Foundational understandingsThe crucial battle is against all the fundamentalisms that deny the multi-faceted nature ofcausality and existence: that elevates some simplistic explanatory scheme (that theproponent happens to be expert in) over all other considerations and without takingcontext into account.The science-and-religion dialogue can help fight dogmatism across the board by bringingbroadly scientific criteria into the search for truth, and at the same time not denying thebreadth of human evidence and the need for faith and hope as well as rationality. It givesup the claim to be right in favor of trying to see what is actually there from as manydifferent viewpoints as possible, respecting alternative viewpoints put forward by others,but all the time keeping in mind the need for evidence and testing of theory and beingaware of the dangers of self-delusion.Sir Isaiah Berlin writes:"Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (ortribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of thetruth: especially about how to live, what to be and do-and that those who differ fromthem are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: and need restraining or suppressing. Itis a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magicaleye which sees the truth: and that others cannot be right if they disagree" (8).
  • The science-and-religion dialogue can promote a consilience of very different world-views that are attempts to understand important aspects of the same underlying realityfrom different viewpoints, based in humility instead of dogmatism. It can help inencouraging the development of world-views that can accommodate the pragmatic natureof science as well as the kinds of deeper issues regarding existence and meaning that canbe encountered in spiritual and religious beliefs and world views. Thus it can explore thedeep nature of reality.Overall, it can be important in emphasizing all the dimensions of humanity and thecrucial role of value systems that cannot be derived from science alone. Thus it can be animportant integrative factor helping all humanity in the way we see ourselves and theuniverse in which we live. This affects our quality of life in a crucial way. It helps us befully human.Indeed, it has the potential to provide a deeper and more profound consilience than ispossible any other way because it can probe root causes and meaning in a way thatscience by itself cannot do. It can link science to ethics and meaning (telos) and even toaesthetics. In doing so it can keep alive the awareness of the spiritual dimension of life inthe face of scientific certainties from the viewpoint of faith, deepening our wonder andawe as we appreciate the mechanisms by which our life has been created and supported.This can be claimed to be the true nature of spirituality - being profoundly aware of allthese dimensions of existence, appreciating them all and their interconnections, replacingthe nothing but of reductionism by wonder, reverence, and awe.The futureThe science-and-religion debate can be expected to grow with the establishment ofacademic standards in this area, supported by public debate, lectures, meetings, journals,books, and societies. The debate will be international and interfaith - indeed it is anexcellent meeting ground between the faiths (including atheism), and gives a sound basisfor interfaith discussion, enabling consideration of important issues without a head-onclash on faith fundamentals. Indeed, from this viewpoint, despite the deepmetaphysical/philosophical divide between monotheism and non-theism, the main dividein the religious world is not between the different faiths but rather between thefundamentalist and non-fundamentalists of whatever faith.The issue of ethicsThe long term success of this interfaith movement, particularly in relation to the scienceand religion dialogue, is going to depend on the establishment of standards ofacceptability - and hence criteria of rejection - in the religious and ethical areas as well asin science, where they are already the well-established key to success. Indeed thecriterion of discernment and hence religious acceptability will have an essential ethicalcore, as indicated above; hence the science-and-religion dialogue will have to take up aspecific position on the nature of ethics if it is to have the full power of its potential.
  • Thus in order to be successful, this movement will take science seriously (testingunderstanding with data and rejecting extreme relativism) and have acceptable ethicalstandards (rejecting religious authoritarianism and dogmatism) and ultimately agree onethical standards to be used in looking at ethical and behavioural issues.Here I claim that at a deep level, there is a universal ethic agreed on by all religions -namely "kenosis" (self-emptying, giving up, or self-sacrifice). Much religious practicehowever contradicts that inspiring ethic, and indeed has a horrific historical record, whichis rightly rejected by humanitarians, scientists, and the broader public. The science-and-religion movement will need to be seen to be free of this negative kind of thought andpractice.There is an equal need for recognition that as well as providing many positive services,there have been major baleful effects of science, not merely in terms of enabling majorenvironmental destruction and horrific weapons of war, but also in terms of promoting adehumanizing view of humanity. This has caused as much evil as any other aspect ofhuman existence, for example when codified in the social Darwinism movement (see"From Darwin to Hitler", Richard Weikart). The fact that one can make that statement isitself a proof that ethical judgements are independent of such scientifically basedtheories. What is needed is a sound approach to ethics in relation to science, technology,and development, informed by science but also informed by values that cannot comefrom science.The needThe need is for widespread recognition and support of this fundamentally importantdebate. What is required is a science-ethics-religion triad, because the debate isincomplete and inconclusive without including all three. Thus it must take cognisance ofall three: science - studying the mechanisms of how things work; religion - studying why,thus issues of meaning and spirituality; and ethics - what to do, making it real.These must all be approached with humility and questioning (so avoiding any of thefundamentalisms), but also with rigour (honest intellectual assessment avoiding thewoolly minded), and with an ethical commitment that informs the discussion. Thus to bereally worthwhile it should involve consideration of both hard science, with its highstandards of rigour of proof, and hard religion, with its high standards of ethical demands.Perhaps the discussion should move further, for example to include in addition to thistriad, aesthetics, because beauty is also a fundamentally important aspect of reality with apower to move and enthuse people in a profound way.Whether these further aspects are included or not, the core of the need is for integrativestudies that transcend the usual disciplinary boundaries and make links between thevarious issues discussed here. In particular, it should be ready to tackle ethical issuesraised by science and technology - cloning, GM crops, information technology, etc.
  • It will value both science and religion, and respect both. It will try to understand the truecomplexity of existence in all its dimensions. This can be claimed to be true spirituality.Endnotes --------1. Martin Gardner, Are Universes Thicker than Blackberries? W. W. Norton, 2003.2. For a discussion of these issues, see http://www.mth.uct.ac.za/~ellis/emerge.doc.3. Merlin Donald, A Mind so Rare, pages 29/36.4. Donald, A Mind so Rare, pages 31/45.5. Donald, A Mind so Rare, page 31.6. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, page 19.7. Pinker, The Blank Slate, pages 20/21.8. Sir Isaiah Berlin, The New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001.-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-This discussion list, COSMOS, is hosted by Metanexus Online .The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and bookreviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightfulways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of thetopical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions toeditor@metanexus.net. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums(Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTMLenriched composite digests from each of the lists.Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, orrepublished in full with attribution to the author of the column and "Metanexus: TheOnline Forum on Religion and Science". Republication for commercial purposes in printor electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000,2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute.