osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

An interesting discussion and insight

I recently had the opportunity to attend one of these "interdisciplanry" conferences with a very broad theme ("science"). Nothing formal, but a discussion among 50 or so really smart folks from different walks of life. I was something of a "two-fer," being selected for my policy wonkness but asking to speak on the subject of science and religion.

There was a lot of very interesting discussion on all topics. I was pleased with my 10 minute discussion and that it was well attended and I got lots of nice things said to me (as well as stimulating some very good conversation).

1. I deliberately limited myself to the "Abrahamic faiths" (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and any others that claim to originate with Abraham and share a common belief in the creation story from the book of Genesis) as being the ones I could speak to with some at least academic familiarity and history. But I am curious if the same basic principles apply in other non-Abrahamic religions.

2. What most scientists seem to think is the key point of religion, cosmology (the explanation for the creation of the Universe), is actually not particularly interesting to religion. Historically, religion is not terribly concerned with the mechanics of creation. The Genesis story spends remarkably little time on "creation myths."

Additionally, the modern fundamentalist movements that we see that insist on a literal interpretation of the creation myth as a sine qua non for religious belief is a fairly modern development. Worse, despite a claim to being literal, it makes stuff up. For example, you will find no place in the Bible of which I am aware that says the world is 6,000 years old. I can tell you how Jews derived the calculation. But I can also point you to various streams of thought among the Rabbis that speak of various creation aspects prior to the creation of this world nearly 5776 years ago.

3. For religion, the critical question is the relationship between man and God.

4. At the same time, scientists who insist on pushing back on religion need to be cognizant of certain things if they are actually trying to make arguments rather than simply look silly to those of us with feet in both worlds. Imagine I said to a physicist "hey, you guys have quantum mechanics totally wrong. Now I don't know any math, and I haven't really studied it, but I've read some popular articles on the subject and I can totally see where you guys are messing up." Would we expect the physicist to be persuaded by my thinking? Similarly, when anyone wants to tell me what the Bible says and they (a) do not read Hebrew, Latin or Greek; and, (b) haven't spent any time looking at any of the religious philosophers who tackle the surface questions like where Mrs Cain came from, I am unlikely to pay significant attention.

But what is more important is the recognition that the Bible is not interested in cosmology or explaining the physical relationship among objects in a scientific way. No, the Bible does not say pi=3. The Bible describes a physical object (the laver) in terms of the measuring equipment of the people trying to build it. The Bible does not say bats are birds. The Bible classes bats in the category of "flying things you are not supposed to eat."

5. The question of how to deal with Creationists is a political problem, not a problem of education or 'belief in science.' The mainstream ofthe Abrahamic faiths easily accomodates modern science in the same way it accomodated Aristotelean science or 19th century science, but not worrying about it terribly much.

I was asked, given the history, where the current tension comes from on the religious side. It's a good question and pompted me to think of the two famous occassions where big sections of organized religion and its followers put their foot down on scientific inquiry.

(a) the rise of the heliocentric model over the geocentric model;

(b) the rise of evolution to explain the origin of man.

In both cases, there is a common theme. Man is displaced as the center of creation. The geocentric model of the universe is consistent with the view expressed in Genesis that creation culminates in Man. (And I use the male deliberately when speaking of this traditional thread, the displacement of Man as the center with Man and Woman being co-equal creates its own revolutions in organized religion). The heliocentric model places the Sun at the center, chaning Earth from God's green footstool to simply one member of the Solar System -- and by extension, the universe.

The second time organized religion flips out in the face of scientific inquiry is with the doctrine of evolution. Here again, Man is apparently dethroned as being the deliberate pinnacle of creation to a mere lucky happenstance.

In both cases, however, mainstream organized relgion adjusts because, as I said at the begining, the role of religion is not cosmology. There is nothing intrinsicly contradictory between God creating a universe which does not place us at the physical center, and where we share a common history and genetic heritage with other animals, and still believing that God elevated human beings by placing within us an immortal soul and that God placed us here for a Reason and and left us a suitable operating manual in the form of the Tanach, or Bible, or Koran.

In short, the conflict between "science" and "religion" is ultimately a meaningless conflict. There is no line of inquiry in science that is barred by an understanding of religion. There is no evidence in science that contradicts religious belief, any more than there is evidence in science that contradicts Locke's theory of the social contract as a poltical theory.

I concluded with a story I recently learned about Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides. Gersonides developed a way to check Ptolemy's calculations by comparing relative brightness of the stars during their "epicycles." Gersonides's data demonstrated that Ptolemey was off by millions of miles. But rather than producing a scientific revolution, the conclusion reached by Gersonides and the scientific world was that the experiment was flawed. Since the experiment did not produce the expected data, the experimental method employed was at fault.

The widespread knowledge and acceptance of the heliocentric model would therefore wait another 2 centuries before going mainstream. Not because of a religious backlash, but because of scientific orthodoxy. Had Gersonides' experiment produced a modest adjustment in Ptolemey's calauclation, it may have proven more acceptable. But it produced a result so out of line with the anticipated outcome that it was simply disccarded.

Religious orthodoxy comes in many forms. 

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