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Parallel Lines

I recently came across a quotation of Michael Faraday. Writing to Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter and programmer of Charles Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’ (the ancestor of all computers) Faraday said, ‘I do not think it at all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and religion together and in my intercourse with my fellow creatures that which is religious and that which is philosophical have ever been two distinct things.’

Faraday was one of the greatest scientists of his age. There is little need in this article to reiterate the range of his studies. Except perhaps to add that his notion of lines of electrical and magnetic force led Maxwell to his theory of electromagnetism. In turn, Einstein’s attempt to reconcile this theory with Newtonian physics provided the key to the theory of relativity.

Above all Faraday was a practical scientist and one eager to bring his results to the attention of the general public in his Christmas lectures. It is said that, while on a visit to his laboratory, the British prime minister asked him what was the use of electricity. ‘One day you will tax it,’ predicted Faraday.

Faraday and his remark concerning the distinction between science and religion set me thinking about another highly practical scientist, Louis Pasteur, who once said ‘the more one attempts to approach God through science the further one distances oneself from Him…there is an insuperable gap between science and metaphysics. Experimental science is essentially positivistic and has nothing to do with the essence of things.’

Despite the apparent dismissiveness of both remarks, both men were deeply religious; faith illuminated their work and the love of truth lay at the origins of the quotations above. The intellectual rigor of their approach should therefore warn us of the danger of making connections between science and religion that are facile and superficial. To enter the laboratory with a handful of comforting metaphors does a disservice to both religion and science.

Faraday belonged to a sect of Dissenters known as Sandemanians. The origins of Dissent itself lay in views of Newton and Locke in that their members rejected the mysteries of religion and reliance on external authority and sought to approach ‘the word of God’ through reason alone. Sandemanians in turn believed that Christ’s world was exclusively spiritual. Faith was a matter for the intellect, an acknowledgment of religious truths, rather than involving an exercise of the will or a desire for redemption. Indeed they believed that the more one turned inward in search of faith, or in the desire for an experience of conversion, the further one moved away from God. Sandemanians, in rejecting the established church, pointed out the spiritual dangers for those who were more interested in their experiences of Christ rather than with Christ himself. In this spirit of rejection can also be found the seeds of the Dissenters’ political radicalism and their support of the French revolution.

While, for Sandemanians, Christ’s domain was distinct from that of the material world nevertheless His imprint could be found in physical law. This factor became a major influence in Faraday’s science. Above all, Faraday believed, divinity should be reflected in the unity of nature. Hence his observations of electrical effects produced by a moving magnetic field led him to conclude that reciprocal magnetic effects should be produced by an alternating electrical current. In seeking a similar unity between light and magnetism he attempted to determine if magnetic fields would affect polarized light—this yielded only negative results. He even tried to discover a link between the force of gravity and those of electricity and magnetism by dropping an electrical coil through a gravitational field.

Since, for Sandemanians, God’s word was direct so too the forces of nature should be direct. There should be no gaps in nature. Rather than ‘action at a distance’ Faraday therefore conceived of electricity and magnetism in terms of fields, a speculation that was later refined by Maxwell. And just as Sandemanians sought to ‘enlighten’ others so too Faraday, in his Christmas lectures, sought to enlighten the general public about the nature of physical law.

While impulse for Faraday’s science came from a belief in unity, the scientific confirmations he gained could not, in turn, be used as a basis for the support of his religious beliefs. God’s law was one thing but the domain of Christ and His truth were quite another. Pasteur appears to be making a parallel observation, that religious truths have no business intruding into the observations and theories of science. But let me return to that quotation of Pasteur, about the insuperable gap between science and metaphysics. In fact I must admit to being guilty of giving only the first part of what Pasteur said, for he went on to add that ‘this does not mean that we are forbidden to think about metaphysics or to believe in the God of the evangelists.’ Within the world of science, Pasteur felt, one can see ‘the presence and the beginning of proofs of the existence of God.’ Likewise when we come to the notion of infinity within the world ‘the supernatural is at the centre of all our hearts.’ Likewise a visitor once asked Pasteur if he ever prayed, without looking up from his microscope the great Pasteur replied, ‘I’m praying now.’

Both men, in speaking of the gap between science and religion, are also talking about a certain sense of purity—the purity of religion and the purity of science. For a Sandemanian such as Faraday, the case was clear. Religion was a matter of faith, the faith of the intellect in a religious belief that owed nothing to any external authority, be it the Church, the University, or the Laboratory. In other words science could not provide us with faith. It could not offer a proof for the existence of God. On the other hand religion, for a man like Faraday, could be the guiding force of a scientific life.

Sandemanians sought to preserve their faith from what they saw as the contamination that can arise when one relies on external authority or becomes too preoccupied by one’s own subjective experiences and desires. Likewise Pasteur desired to preserve the purity of the scientific quest from what could likewise be called the contamination of subjective belief and metaphysical speculation. After all, he said, science does not tell us about ‘the essence of things, the origin of the world or its destiny.’ But at what point does a belief in, for example, unity, harmony, order, and the pursuit of truth turn into contamination of the scientific quest. Only, I would hazard, when a belief becomes an inflexible dogma that is not accessible for critical investigation so that it ends up compromising the very principles outlined above.

Take for example, the case of Pasteur who has become an icon for creationists (try typing in ‘Louis Pasteur’ and ‘Creationism’ into an Internet search engine!). It had been a simple matter for the French scientist to disprove the notion of spontaneous generation of life—a theory that had some currency at the time. But it is an enormous and unscientific jump of logic to extrapolate from a rather elementary demonstration to claim that this means that all life must have been the result of the biblical creation story and could have evolved in no other way. Neither is it legitimate to draw on Pasteur’s speculations to then make the claim that species cannot evolve.

It is exactly here, when science is invoked to support some particular belief system or political doctrine, that the danger lies. A young couple may go to the gym every day yet no matter how hard they exercise or how strong is their belief, there is no reason to believe that the baby they eventually conceive will become an athlete. Orthodox genetic science dictates that acquired characteristics are not inherited.

However the Soviet Union under Stalin badly needed to increase the yield of wheat. While the USSR had rejected religion as being ‘the opiate of the masses’ it did have faith in the constant development of human society through dialectical materialism. But if society can be perfected, why not nature? The government supported the experiments of  I.V. Michurin on the production of hybrid fruit trees which, he claimed, arose through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. T. D Lysenko developed Michurin’s hypothesis into what was to become official Soviet genetics, so official, in fact that those opposing Lysenko’s ideas were arrested or disappeared.

By allowing Stalin’s version of the Marxism-Leninism belief system to contaminate science it compromised its ability to ask questions and pursue paths of research. Not only did this do enormous damage to Soviet biology but it also made it difficult for any other researcher who wished to question orthodox Mendelian inheritance to be taken seriously.

The post-war British educational system involved a process of selection and of streaming based on the results of IQ tests carried out on eleven-year-olds. This policy was deeply influenced by the research of Sir Cyril Burt who showed that IQ arose largely through inheritance and had little to do with family or educational environment. In other words, some children were picked out at birth for the professions and should be educated accordingly, while others could be given an education more appropriate to ‘the working class.’ Naturally all this fitted quite well into Britain’s mandarin class system.

Burt’s early work convinced him that intelligence is largely inherited, with education playing only a smaller, secondary role. Influenced by such a belief he sought to produce a definitive demonstration and published his statistical findings on the IQs of a number of twins who, through adoption, had been brought up in different families. These figures showed once and for all that genetics, rather than nurture, was by far the dominant factor.

It was only after Burt’s death that scientists became suspicious of the large number of twins he had been able to obtain for his sample. Their conclusion was that most of these twins did not in fact exist and Burt had falsified his data in order to support a theory in which he so deeply believed and which also supported a particular British attitude towards class and education. Indeed it resonates well with words from the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order’d their estate.

This issue of two parallel lines—one being the pursuit of truth in the world of nature, the other the pursuit of truth in the world of the spirit—brings to mind a distinction made by Karen Armstrong in her book The Battle for God. This deals with the origins and rise of fundamentalism within the three monotheistic religions. Fundamentalism has several roots, including social, economic and political pressures but its essence is a series of shared beliefs that religious writings should be taken in a literal form. Armstrong sees this symptom as a confusion between mythos and logos. A confusion that did not exist before the Enlightenment and rise of science.

Mythos involves the truths inherent in the world’s myths, stories of origins and religious texts. Mythos gives a society its deepest source of meaning. It connects an individual to the group, a spiritual centre and, in many cases, to the natural world. It produces harmony and unity within a society.

Mythos may be saying something profound about the human connection to the earth, or about the birth of human consciousness, but its truths are very different from those of logos. Logos is concerned with the world of observable and objective fact. Logos is the world of science and physical law. Logos is to be interpreted literally. Yet while Logos may tell us about the ‘how’ of things it does not enter into the ‘why.’ Logos may tell us about the physical nature of our bodies, from cell to atom to elementary particle but, to paraphrase Pasteur, it can never tells us about our essential essence. Logos may describe the dynamics of a rainforest, or the structuring of a society, but it can never inform us of our deeper response to the natural world or to our sense of meaning at being in and contributing to our society.

The distortions of fundamentalism arise when mythos is treated as logos. That is, when myths and religious writings are treated like scientific texts that require literal and factual interpretation. Such readings inevitably produce profound distortions as well as diluting the profound significance of what is being read. Likewise to see mythos within science would produce similar distortions. Both logos and mythos are required in our life and work, but their distinction should always be accepted.

The philosopher A.N. Whitehead said something similar when writing about the prehensile nature of human mental perception. We see the world in two ways—presentational immediacy and causal efficacy. In one, the world is present to us as a whole and imbued with meaning. In the other, we perceive the inter-connections between things and the details of the world, yet without any immanent sense of meaning. Possibly the former could loosely be identified with a religious perception of the world, and the second with the scientific.

When we leave the office or laboratory to enter the world of nature our eyes constantly scan the world for meaning. A slight movement at the edge of our field of vision causes our eyes to move and so bring that area of the forest into focus on the yellow spot of the retina. This yellow spot has the ability to make much greater discrimination of detail. Yet while we seek to gather information about a particular object, there are always cells away from the yellow spot that will be sensitive to movements in the environment. Our interaction with the world both visually and mentally must involve both—we need to understand both the detail of the world as well as its inner meaning. Both are important yet both cannot be present simultaneously, rather we must be involved in a constant move between the two. Likewise we have the two strands identified by Pasteur and Faraday. Could they be said to be two ways of looking at the one world, or one way, that of truth, for looking at two worlds?