Sunday, March 9, 2014

Science and Religion

After I mentioned a grant writing project I started this week that explores the relationship between science and religion, I had an interesting conversation with Dad. Dad is a mathematician and an atheist. One of his best friends is a Quaker minister. Together Dad and his friend teach a class on science and religion in the senior community where they live. Actually, it’s probably more like they moderate a discussion on the topic since so many of the folks who live in this community are heavyweight thinkers (a lot of retired Princeton profs). Dad and his friend have read a great deal on the topic. Dad sent me to a Wikipedia page about science and religion. Today’s blog includes a lot of the information provided on that page. (If you want to read the whole Wikipediaentry, with bibliography, click here.)

Theologian, Anglican Priest, and Physicist John Polkinghome categorized the interactions between the disciplines of science and religion into the following:  1) conflict between the disciplines, 2) independence of the disciplines, 3) dialogue between the disciplines where they overlap, and 4) integration of both into one field.


Neil deGrasse Tyson asserts that the central difference between the nature of science and religion is that the claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religions rely on faith, and these are irreconcilable approaches to knowing. Thus science and religion are incompatible as currently practiced and the debate of compatibility or incompatibility will never end. Philosopher/Physicist Victor J. Stenger states that science and religion are incompatible due to conflicts between approaches to knowing and the limited alternative plausible natural explanations for many phenomena, which are usually explained via religion. Other thinkers on the subject disagree and say there is no conflict, that religion explains things that are above the strict reason of science. And then there is the argument that science reveals opportunities to seek and find God in nature.


A more modern view, put forth by Stephen Jay Gould, who calls his view the "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (great name, huh?), is that science and religion deal with fundamentally separate aspects of human experience and so, when each stays within its own domain, they can coexist peacefully. The National Academy of Science (NAS) also supports the notion that science and religion are independent of one another. The NAS says:   Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. Science and religion address aspects of human understanding in different ways.

This puts me in mind of a conversation I had with my cousin on Friday night. He told a story about his visit to sacred site in Hungary. While in a small room there, he heard a woman sobbing. The sobbing sounded like it was coming from inside the same room with him. But he was alone and there were no windows in the room, no closets. He was baffled. He asked a docent about it and she took him to the office and asked him to write a description of his experience in a big book. She said the room he had been in was haunted and that visitors sometimes heard the “spirit” sobbing. He read through the book and discovered many other similar stories from tourists who had visited the site. I suppose science could try to debunk the experience. Explain it. Expose a hoax. On the other hand, we must accept the possibility that there is no hoax. No “scientific” explanation. Then we are in the realm of spiritual explanations for phenomena in the world and the cosmos; for forces that surround us and permeate our beings, our lives.


There is apparently something called the “religion and science community,” which includes people who do not wholly identify with either the scientific or the religious community, but continue to talk about it. It is considered a third overlapping community of interested and involved scientists, priests, clergymen, theologians, and engaged nonprofessionals who take a point of view on the subject. The modern dialogue between religion and science is generally considered to be rooted in Ian Barbour’s 1966 book Issues in Science and Religion.


In the integrated view, scientific and theological perspectives coexist peacefully. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who spends a lot of time conversing with scientists, wrote in his book The Universe in a Single Atom:  My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation. If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims. From a Hindu perspective, modern science is a legitimate, but incomplete, step toward knowing and understanding reality. Hindus say that science only offers a limited view of reality, but all that it offers is correct (well, at least until science revises reality). Muslims consider the pursuit of scientific knowledge as a sacred task and believe that nature is depicted in the Qur'an as a compilation of signs pointing to the divine.

There you have Polkinghome’s four categories of relationship between science and religion. Buddhists would say that even if contradictory, both the scientific explanation and the religious explanation are true at the same time, but our limited human consciousness cannot comprehend how this can be. That is much in keeping with my belief that both a patterned universe, with a meaningful sequence of events, and a chaotic and fundamentally random collection of events in the universe exist at the same time, and that my human mind is incapable of understanding how this works. I believe there is a reason for things, an order to things, while at the same time many things just happen for no reason and with no purpose. I also believe that human consciousness can impact the course of the events in the universe in powerful and mysterious ways, and that this is proven by physics. This probably makes me a Buddhist, when all these years I have thought I was a Jew. Well, both at once, I suppose. A Buddhist priest once told me that being a good Jew made me a good Buddhist. (“Good” has a lot of connotations. More to ponder.)

I think Dad summed things up quite well, quite succinctly, when he said to me on the phone:  Science asks how and Religion asks why. Yup. That’s about the size of it.

Education, 1890, by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios commissioned by Yale University (depicts Art, Science, Religion, and Music as angels)

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