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Just Six Zeros: £1 million prize fails to encourage clear thinking

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Martin Rees has cobbled together, largely from previously published material, an article for the New Statesman.

The NS are selling it with headlines like this:

Science and religion don’t have to be enemies

Richard Dawkins called him a “compliant quisling” for accepting the Templeton Prize. Here, Martin Rees explains his decision.

Dawkins did nothing of the kind, in fact.  He called him a “compliant quisling” in March 2010 for his friendly attitude towards the Templeton Foundation.  No wonder some people think the £1 million prize is a reward for previous efforts by Rees on behalf of Templeton.  Rees, on accepting the award, has given the impression that he didn’t know much about the organisation.  But that cannot be true, given his history of dealings with them.

Now, I don’t see the prize as a bribe, because Rees’ message re: religion and science is not in fact very much in line with Templeton orthodoxy.   He does hold that science and religion don’t have to be enemies. But that doesn’t mean he thinks they should be friends.  But I am baffled as to why he won.  As is Rees himself.

This is what he now says:

It was a surprise to me to be awarded the Templeton Prize, joining an eclectic roll-call of scientists, philosophers, theologians and public figures among the previous winners. I feel I tick only one of the relevant boxes: like other scientists who have won it in recent years, I focus on “big questions” (in my case, cosmology) and have made efforts to communicate the essence of my work to a wide public.

The prize, lest we forget, is for spiritual progress.  Rees has nothing whatsoever to say on that subject at all.  What’s going on?  Is Templeton now just handing out millions of pounds for popularising cosmology?

I don’t do this well, but that skilled expositors such as the physicists Brian Cox and Jim al-Khalili attract such large television audiences indicates the broad fascination with questions about our origins, life in space, our long-range destiny and the laws of nature.

If you don’t think you qualify for the prize in the first place, and don’t think you deserve it anyway, then just don’t accept it.

Most practising scientists focus on “bite-sized” problems that are timely and tractable. The occupational risk is then to lose sight of the big picture. The words of A N Whitehead are as true today as ever: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

These appear to be unconnected thoughts.   What is the “big picture”?  If you’re a cosmologist, then I guess I understand what “big picture” might be.  But plenty of scientists seem to be full of wonder about very small and specialised areas. Is that wrong, somehow?

It is astonishing that human brains, which evolved to cope with the everyday world, have been able to grasp the counterintuitive mysteries of the cosmos and the quantum. But there seems no reason why they should be matched to every intellectual quest – we could easily be as unaware of crucial aspects of reality as a monkey is of the theory of relativity.

Agreed: it is pretty cool that we (or some of us!) have made such amazing progress  in some areas. It’s also true that we may not be up to the task in other areas.   But do we know what those areas are?

This seems to have been Charles Darwin’s attitude to religion, at least at some stage in his life. In a letter to the Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz, he said: “The whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe as he can.”

“At least at some stage of his life” is a bit vague.

Rees here misattributes Darwin’s comment about dogs and Newton.  The comment actually comes from a letter from Darwin to Asa Gray, dated 22 May 1860.   In other words, about 6 months after the publication of On the origin of species, and two decades before Darwin’s death.   Here is the comment in broader context:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Sadly, according to the Darwin Correspondence Project, Gray’s letter does not appear to have been preserved. Perhaps Gray was pressing Darwin on the God question, and this is Darwin’s way of letting him down gently.  But if we take the letter at face value, clearly Darwin is troubled by the notion of design given the cruelty of nature.

I’m not sure the recipient of a £1 million prize for “spiritual progress” ought to be putting forward Darwin’s bewilderment as a good model for attitudes towards religion!

This is a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism’s high-profile proponents today.

Not that Darwin was taking a “stance” in the first place, he was just saying how confused he was.  And today we need to worry less about our status as gentlemen in a highly religious society than Darwin did.  Most of us also don’t need to worry about the sensitivities of our deeply religious wives.

We should all oppose – as Darwin did – views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. (Last year’s Templeton winner, Francisco Ayala, has been in the forefront of that campaign in the US.)

Agreed.  But this means opposing religious ideas.

But we shouldn’t set up this debate as “religion v science”; instead, we should strive for peaceful coexistence with at least the less dogmatic strands of mainstream religions, which number many excellent scientists among their adherents.

This is confusing.

I guess we should take “peaceful coexistence” as Rees’ model for the “relationship” between science and religion in general.   It’s not at all obvious what “peaceful coexistence” actually means, since none of the “new atheists” are advocating violence.

Curious that Rees seems to suggest that “peaceful coexistence” is not possible with the more “dogmatic strands” of religion.  So what does that mean?

Curious also that “peaceful coexistence” is constructed as incompatible with debating “religion v science”.

This, at least, is my view – a pallid and boring one, both for those who wish to promote constructive engagement between science and religion, and for those who prefer antagonistic debate.

So it seems we should think of “peaceful coexistence” as different from both “constructive engagement” and “antagonistic debate”.  So science and religion shouldn’t attack each other, but nor should they work together.   They should just both exist at the same time.

Which means, doesn’t it?, that “peaceful coexistence” is akin to neighbours who never speak.

I am, I suppose, an “accommodationist” – a disparaging epithet used by anti-religion campaigners to describe those who don’t share their fervour. Richard Dawkins described me as a “compliant quisling”.

Well, I think “accommodationist” is used more widely than just by “anti religion campaigners. It also means rather more than just “not sharing our fervour”.

But I am a sceptic. If we learn anything from the pursuit of science, it is that even something as basic as an atom is quite hard to understand. We should be unsurprised that many phenomena remain unexplained, and dubious of any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of our existence – and, especially, we should be sceptical of dogma. This is certainly why I have no religious belief.

Well, I guess we can’t put Rees in the same camp as Karen Armstrong: he thinks of religion primarily in terms of doctrine.

But again, there’s a contradiction here.  On the one hand, Rees says that science and religion coexist but do not engage (positively or negatively).  On the other hand, he says that science has taught him to be sceptical of dogma and that’s why he’s an unbeliever.   That looks to me very much as though science does have relevant things to say about religion!

Despite this, I continue to be nourished by the music and liturgy of the Church in which I was brought up. Just as there are many Jews who keep the Friday ritual in their home despite describing themselves as atheists, I am a “tribal Christian”, happy to attend church services.

We should give this kind of thing a name, it’s not uncommon.  I think Philip Larkin was another who rejected belief but retained a fondness for the Church.  Mind you, Dawkins and Hitchens have both expressed a love for the language of the King James Version of the Bible, so there are degrees of “tribal Christianity”.

Reesianism, anyone?

If I were religious, I think I’d be a bit put out by this kind of thing: can’t be good if the church car parks are full of atheist cars.

Campaigning against religion can be socially counterproductive. If teachers take the uncompromising line that God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stick with their religion and be lost to science.

Hang on a minute, Martin.  “Campaigning against religion” is not the same thing as “teaching science”.   What may be appropriate in one context may not be useful in another.   I agree that teachers shouldn’t behave like campaigners, but on the other hand not everyone has to behave like a teacher.

Nor should teachers be teaching that God and Darwinism are reconcilable (though they clearly have been reconciled by all semi-sensible believers).

But then how do we go about opposing…

views manifestly in conflict with the evidence

… without dealing, at some point, with theology?

The problem isn’t so much “God” in the abstract, as particular interpretations of the Bible and particular conceptions of a creator deity.  If you think that all living creatures were put on this earth by God in the form they currently take, then actually God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, and you are already “lost to science”.

The job of teachers can surely only be to reiterate what the evidence says… or does Martin think that theology is a suitable adjunct to biology lessons?

Moreover, we need all the allies we can muster against fundamentalism – a palpable, perhaps growing concern.

Does campaigning against religion prevent forming alliances with religious people on certain issues?  I haven’t noticed so.

Mainstream religions – such as the Anglican Church – should be welcomed as being on our side in any such confrontation. (Indeed, one reason I would like to see them stronger is that the archbishops who lead the Church of England, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, two remarkable but utterly different personalities, both elevate the tone of our public life.)

What have Williams and Sentamu done in the “confrontation” with fundamentalism?

Sentamu has said:

I have no problem with the story of the creation found in the Bible being a part of mainstream education – it would be most odd for the RE syllabus not to include it as part of the Creation story common to the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My own view is that facts and values belong together, and one without the other is an incomplete education. Religion and Science are not polar opposites, they are the different sides of a godly coin.

This is music to the ears of fundamentalists.  And completely at odds with Rees.

Williams has done slightly better, but has not been particularly prominent in any “confrontations”.  His position is that God “shapes the process” of  evolution.  Which again is contrary to Rees’ model of how science and religion should interact (i.e. they shouldn’t).

And not even the most secular among us can fail to be uplifted by Christianity’s architectural legacy – the great cathedrals. These immense and glorious buildings were erected in an era of constricted horizons, both in time and in space. Even the most educated knew of essentially nothing beyond Europe; they thought the world was a few thousand years old, and that it might not last another thousand.

Perhaps there might be some people who are not so uplifted.  And what is the attitude of those religionists who reject “immense and glorious” buildings in favour of plain and simple chapels?  Presumably, since they have rejected such an architectural approach, they don’t think fancy buildings are particularly “uplifting”.

But: so what?   Let’s accept for the sake of argument that some cathedrals are astounding feats of engineering and architecture.  What follows?  So were the pyramids, and they’ve lasted a lot longer than any church.

Unlike the cathedral-builders, we know a great deal about our world – and, indeed, about what lies beyond. Technologies that our ancestors couldn’t have conceived of enrich our lives and our understanding. Many phenomena still make us fearful, but the advance of science spares us from irrational dread.

Sixth form boilerplate.  Sorry.

Next, a quick gear change…

Some might think that intellectual immersion in vast expanses of space and time would render cosmologists serene and uncaring about what happens next year, next week, or tomorrow. For me, however, the opposite is the case. We know we are stewards of a precious “pale blue dot”, a planet with a future measured in billions of years, whose fate depends on humanity’s collective actions this century.

This looks commendable, but is actually ridiculous.  The fate of the planet doesn’t depend on humanity at all!  Someone call John Gray!   Our quality of life, and the fate of ourselves and other living things is impacted by the choices we make, but ultimately the fate of the planet is not in our control at all.  The hubris is mind-blowing: we are not gods, Martin, we cannot stop the death of the sun.

In today’s fast-changing world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting 1,000 years, but it would be shameful if our focus remained short term and parochial, and we thereby denied future generations a fair inheritance. Wise choices will require the effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. All must be guided by the knowledge that 21st-century science can offer – but inspired by an idealism, vision and commitment that science alone can’t provide.

The unstated implication being, perhaps, that religion can be a source of “idealism, vision and commitment”?  Well, it can be. But it can also be an obstacle.   Which is why atheists will continue to challenge it.

Dan @ Incredulity Services