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Science, Religion, and Me Personally
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My involvement with religion begins with the simple acknowledgement that the world is not what it seems: that, and a feeling that it is highly desirable and might be possible during our brief stay on this Earth to get beyond what seems, and to acquire a greater sense of what really is, and of how and why things are as they are.
Many of course would claim that this is precisely what science does—contrives to improve on common observation and on common sense. Indeed it does and to an impressive extent it succeeds. E = mc2 is surely a wondrous insight and there is nothing obvious about it—it certainly gets beyond what ‘seems.’ But although science is obviously wonderful it is equally obviously limited: indeed it succeeds as well as it does largely (or indeed entirely) because it limits its own ambition. As the great 20th century zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter, ‘Science is the art of the soluble.’ Scientists tackle only those things that they can observe, and measure, and test. That leaves a great deal out. Indeed, it even leaves out a great many issues that seem in principle to be within its bailiwick—such as whether there is only one universe, or a great many, or indeed a potential infinity of universes: the ‘multiverse’ idea. This matter is intriguing, and important, and has to do with real physical dilemmas—there is none more real—and yet it is beyond experimentation. Scientists cannot explore what lies beyond our own universe. They can only speculate that there might be more than can be directly experienced. Matters of a non-material nature, that have to do with love, or beauty, or right and wrong, or indeed with the meaning of ‘meaning,’ are outside the scope of science all together. But they seem important, too.
Many scientists know full well that science is limited but some nonetheless insist, whether they believe it or not, that science and logic are all that is worth taking seriously. The most rigorous of these hard liners argue as the logical positivists did in early 20th century Vienna, that all questions that cannot be approached simply through observation, measurement, and logic—the three main struts of ‘reason’—were and are, literally, meaningless. But although this positivist rigour may in some sense be admirable (rigour is always admirable up to a point) it also seems defeatist. It implies that whatever we cannot apply our slide-rules to must forever be beyond out ken, or indeed beyond worthwhile contemplation. Such rigour is also de-humanising. The logical positivists seem to want us to think in the way that modern computers do. Yet one of the greatest insights of AI (artificial intelligence) in the first 30 years or so of its formal existence is that human beings are not computers: or at least, we do not belong to any generation of computers that is yet conceivable. We think more vaguely than computers do, we make more mistakes, but we also perceive and grasp— ‘prehend,’ was A.N. Whitehead’s much-neglected term—a great deal that computers do not, and perhaps never can. Computers are wonderful as science as a whole is wonderful but they are also limited as science as a whole is limited. Both deal in certainties only because they are expressly designed to explore those issues that can be resolved with certainty. It is a privilege to be born a human being, with three and a half billion years of evolution behind us, the direct progeny of the universe itself. With such advantages it seems perverse to contrive, deliberately and as a matter of policy, to think like a mere machine, albeit a very clever machine. I am sure we can do better than that—or at least; it’s worth making the effort. The noun that derives from ‘prehend’ is prehension. Religion, as I see it, is an exercise in prehension: grasping all that it is within our power to grasp, with no a priori restrictions on what might be achieved.
But although we may not be content simply to think like computers, or to suggest that science offers the only insights that are worthwhile, this doesn’t mean—does it? —that we need to be religious. Artists operate in spheres that lie outside science. In general they contrive to express their emotional responses to the universe around them. This is an important thing to do—we are right to take art seriously—and, clearly, it is not science. Yet art per se is not religion per se. Many artists are vehement atheists—or at least they say they are, and it seems presumptuous to doubt their word. Humanists deal with all aspects of human affairs, including those of morality, but many of them make a virtue of their atheism.
But I’m afraid that at this point I tend to shift the goalposts. I do not want to define religion in the usual ways. I don’t want to say as many do that religion is inveterately concerned with the ‘supernatural.’ I certainly don’t want to say that it necessarily involves any particular God who can be named, and who must be worshipped via particular rituals and ceremonies. I am all for rituals and ceremonies—but I see them as psychological and social devices, ways of focusing the mind; not as metalled roads into the presence of God; nor, indeed, as magic.
In short, I do not suppose that you have to be a paid-up Christian or a Moslem or a Jew, or a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Sikh or a Jain, to be religious. Each and all of these disciplines may help the process of prehension—the formalism can be helpful, and the gathering of like-thinking people on a difficult and common quest certainly is—but no single, discrete ‘faith’ encompasses all that is meant by religion. Each is merely an expression of the religious quest, the desire to prehend, to grasp all that can be grasped (and then some more), and each offers a way of marshalling thoughts and feelings.
Some traditions in some religions seem explicitly to endorse this way of looking at things, at least to an extent. The prophet Mohammed warned that it is blasphemous to try too hard to define God. God is always well beyond out understanding. Moses is at the root of the Judaeo-Christian tradition: and as he approached God on the mountain (Exodus 3) he was greeted in the end, only by light. He could not see beyond the light to the reality behind. The idea of God, in short, should in some sense be left vague. Vague does not as some atheists might triumphantly insist, mean woolly. It does mean a sense, a recognition, that at the heart and the root of everything, universe or multiverse, is mystery. The word ‘ineffable’ applies: that which cannot be expressed. Hindus insist that all religions, sincerely undertaken, are paths to God. Buddhists have rarefied the idea of God to the point where in effect there isn’t one—but they still talk about the universe as if there was. Buddhists have a very strong sense of God although, in sharp contrast to Jews and Christians in particular, they have no inclination at all to delineate God, or to attempt a definition.
I suggest as a matter of simple empirical observation that what all the formal religions aspire to do—not only the ones already alluded to but also those of the Maoris and the Hopi and a hundred thousand other peoples from the past and present—is to provide a complete account, an all-embracing narrative, of all that is and all that concerns us. What the universe is like; how it came into being; what human beings are; how we should behave—these emerge as the outstanding questions within those narratives. All great religious texts, including the Bible and the Koran, deal with all of these issues. I stress the word ‘narrative.’ For the point is not merely to list all possible issues in a series of essays, as in an encyclopaedia. All the strands must cohere in one grand story. I am not at this point saying that this is what religion should do, or that this is how religion ought to be defined. I am merely suggesting, as a testable observation, that this is what religions in practice do. All the religious texts that are seen truly to be seminal are all-embracing narratives, into which everything fits in one grand sweep. If ‘religion’ is to be defined at all, it seems to me at least reasonable to begin with the fact of what they actually do.
The grand narrative is invariably generated by a collective. This is obviously true of the Bible, the work of many scholars and prophets over many centuries. Islam and Buddhism are each perceived to be the creations of single individuals—but Mohammed acknowledges his debt to the great Judaeo-Christian prophets and Buddha inherited the broad tradition generally known as Hindu. Both those great founders might have acknowledged, as Isaac Newton did in a different context and in a different age, that they had stood on the shoulders of giants. Both Islam and Buddhism have been developed in various ways since their founders’ time, by generations of scholars and devotees. In short: the narrative that each religion provides is always the work of entire societies and traditions, even when it seems to be the work of one prophet. The author of religion as a whole, is all humankind. The all-embracing narrative is the collected experience and perception of humanity.
If you think of religion as the all-encompassing story then many of the traditional arguments that surround it disappear. In particular—the main theme of this essay—what is the relationship between religion and science? On the spectrum of current views on this, three particular positions stand out.
The first, embraced by out-and-out atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Miller, sees religion as obsolete. Religion was and remains a primitive way of looking at the world—one that sought to explain the way things are simply by suggesting that some outside agency, some genderless super-being known as ‘God,’ made them that way. This crude attempt at explanation has been replaced, say Dawkins and Miller et al, by science. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection serves these days as the test case. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and so the first text of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, says that God made the world and all the creatures within it in six days (and rested on the seventh). God made them, it implies, as they are now. Evolutionary theory says that in reality living creatures took billions of years to emerge; that they changed over time (‘descent with modification’ was the expression that Darwin preferred to ‘evolution’); and that they have been shaped since their beginning not by the guiding, benign or not-so-benign hand of God, but by ‘natural forces’: that is, by natural selection. According to Dawkins (and many other biologists) the Genesis account is simply wrong—factually. Dawkins’ own account or how living creatures came to be as they are, including humans, is entirely mechanistic. Once you understand the mechanism—Darwinian natural selection— then, he says, you see that nothing else is necessary. All the rest is just fairy-tale and wishful thinking (or plain wrong).
The second common view of science and religion, embraced by people known as ‘fundamentalists’ (who are more likely to be Jewish, Christian, or Islamic than Buddhist or Hindu), takes a particular religious text as the literal word of the one true God and sees any deviation from it as blasphemy. Blasphemy in turn is commonly perceived as a threat to us all and so it can and sometimes should be punished by the most extreme measures. Darwin’s Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection has often been banned and sometimes burned and those who espouse it have often been deprived of their livelihood and ostracised, and sometimes beaten up even if never, to my knowledge, publicly executed. Although many fundamentalists make free and even lavish use of the technologies that emerge from science—the so-called ‘high’ technologies, such as 4x4s and mobile phones, not to mention plastic surgery and the other fruits of modern medicine—many tend to be suspicious of science as a whole. They are not comfortable with its overall agenda. They are inclined to feel that any attempt to probe the mysteries of the universe is somehow blasphemous.
The third common view of the relationship between science and religion is that they simply have different agendas. Stephen Jay Gould expressed this idea in a recent book (The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox, 2004). Science, he said in effect, answers ‘how’ questions; and religion addresses ‘why’ questions. The two do are not in conflict. Indeed they do not even overlap. They complement each other.
But if you take the view, as I do, that religion is and aspires to be the all-embracing narrative, the complete account of all that is and could and should be, then none of these common positions will do. Religion, the way I see it, embraces all formal disciplines, including science. In this view, followers of the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions that have taken their lead from the Bible should delight in good science, including the evolutionary ideas of Darwin. Some suggest that the authors of Genesis were attempting to describe how the world literally came into being—and given their almost total absence of formal data they didn’t make a bad fist of it. The emergence of the Earth from the void, the separation of the waters, and the gradual step-by-step accumulation of living creatures matches what are now construed to be the facts commendably well. Others suggest that Genesis should not be read as a literal account, but as a metaphor. Some, like the popular theologian Karen Armstrong, suggest that all religion is metaphor—while emphasising the supreme importance of metaphor in all human understanding. I like both these points of view. In either case, I see no reason why someone who likes the literal idea of the Creation should not be grateful to Darwin for explaining so cogently how God might have performed his wonders. Natural selection is really rather clever, after all, and tremendously effective. Many a Christian priest and theologian has taken this line.
The same principle can be applied to science as a whole. Religion is concerned with the facts of the case, as well as with everything else. Science, beyond doubt, extends our insight into the facts. If religion is perceived as the complete narrative, with all humanity as its author, then the insights and precision of science improve it: make it stronger and deeper. This way of thinking is in line with that of the great 17th century founders of modern science: Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Boyle, John Ray. All were devout, and all saw their science as an aspect of their religion and as a way of reinforcing it—the proper use of the God-given intellect, the better to understand God’s works. Research, for them, was an act of devotion. I don’t see what’s wrong with this. Indeed I like in this context to misquote Marx. He suggested that the proper role of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change it. I suggest, as John Ray might have done, that the proper role of science is not to change the world, to provide technologies to make us more comfortable, but to deepen our appreciation of it. The idea that it is blasphemous to seek to explain the wonders of the universe seems itself to be blasphemous. God is not a conjuror, whose tricks seem tawdry once exposed. It is as Socrates (and many another thinker) has discovered: the more that’s known, the more wondrous it all seems.
Some may have baulked at the idea that religion is ‘narrative.’ On the one hand the great religious texts (especially the Bible) are compounded in large part from stories of particular people and events, so the idea that they collectively form a narrative might seem perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, ‘narrative’ implies ‘story,’ and many religious people might be offended by the idea that their faith is a ‘mere’ story. This needs teasing out.
Religion and Science as Narrative
The connotations of the term ‘narrative’ run far deeper than is obvious. Narrative does indeed imply ‘story’—but that is no kind of insult. Whether we prefer to say that human minds are evolved, or that they are designed, the fact seems to be that they are very good indeed at remembering and spinning stories, especially stories with people in them, and deal much less convincingly with lists or abstractions. Aristotle saw tragedy as the highest form of literature and declared that above all it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must be coherent and have a denouement. Our way of thinking contrasts sharply with that of computers, or at least with computers so far. Computers are very good at lists—no problem at all—and they seem to have very little use for the niceties of literature. Sub-plots for computers are a distraction. For us they are a useful aide-memoire: ‘secondary cues,’ the psychologists say. Mnemonics are a simple example of the principle.
The sum total of all that we have in our heads, our knowledge and our attitudes, may be called our ‘worldview.’ And I suggest that our worldview takes the form of a narrative. It is a commentary on the world around us. It is a story that we tell ourselves. Some parts will surely be true—in the sense that they do indeed describe, reasonably well, some aspect of the universe. Some will be padding—forms of words and ideas that do not necessarily correspond directly to anything that’s out there, but which serve to hold all our information and emotional responses together, in one coherent whole. When we say that we ‘understand’ something what we really mean is that we can comfortably fit it in to our own personal commentary on the world; that it can take its place in our own private story. The things that we hold to be ‘true’ may or may or not be literally true. But we take them to be true because the particular story they tell us seems to fit in neatly with what we already take to be true, and perhaps plugs a conceptual gap. But in the end, for each of us, truth is a story that we tell ourselves that for the time being happens to seem convincing.
It is in no way insulting to suggest that religion is narrative. All our understanding of everything is narrative. Everything we think we know and understand is our own private story, unfolding in our heads. Some of it—much of it—is surely true. Some of our personal story may be inherited. Some of it may be learned. Some of it may, as prophets claim, be revealed to us by God. Whatever the source, all in the end is knitted neatly into the grand fabric of our personal account of how things are. That’s the way our brains work. It is wonderfully economical.
Science is narrative, too. It is not typically seen or presented as such. Its advocates tend to present it as an edifice, a great monument of truth, made up of facts that are unequivocal and theories that have been tested and proven beyond question; a citadel that builds inexorably stone by stone and one day, perhaps soon, will contain all that can be known or is worth knowing.
But science is not like that at all. No facts beyond the most banal—facts that are merely matters of definition, as in ‘grass is green’—can ever be unequivocal. Theories cannot be ‘proven’ in the sense that we can ever be sure that they fulfil the lawyers’ criterion: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Certainly not the whole truth. Medawar’s rule applies: scientists explore only what it is in their power to explore, and what it occurs to them to explore. Their most sweeping and tested theories deal only with aspects of the whole. The inverse rule applies: the broader the sweep of the theory, the less certain it becomes. The further we wander from facts that are banal and are simply matters of definition, the more the uncertainties creep in. More certain must mean more trivial. The logical positivists and other philosophers of the early 20th century conceived that everything that there is could be explained and expressed, in the end, in mathematical terms. Then along came Kurt Gödel who showed that maths itself is uncertain. All but the very simplest mathematical expressions are bound to contain terms or reasoning that are arbitrary, or else the theorem breaks down. Time after time in science we have seen theories and methods arising that could be applied to ancient dilemmas like algorithms: let the method loose and it will tell us the answer once and for all. Well, some problems do yield to such crunching but the bigger problems decidedly do not. I am interested in taxonomy, the classification of living things. In the 1980s, the new discipline of cladistics combined with detailed studies of DNA was supposed to show once and for all which creature was related to which and who was whose ancestor. But in reality the data are full of ambiguities, and the conclusions drawn from them depend on which statistics are employed for their analysis, and these matters must be decided by human judgement, just as was the case in the days of Richard Owen in the early 19th century when all there was to go on was bones. There are no royal roads to truth.
In short, the corpus of science is not an edifice. It is more like a landscape painting rendered in oils. It is built up over centuries—science takes an awfully long time—brushstroke by brushstroke, and any one stroke is always likely to wreck the balance of the whole and require the artist to start again—the ‘artist’ in this case being the scientists of any one particular discipline. Landscape paintings are satisfying only if they fulfil the criteria of aesthetics. They must be nicely balanced and also, that word again, ‘coherent.’ But despite John Keats’s assurance that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ aesthetics can be highly deceptive. ‘Beauty lulls,’ as C.S. Lewis said. In any case, the landscape painting of the universe as a whole that physicists now present us with is far from coherent. The ‘classical’ theories that run from Newton’s mechanics through to Einstein’s relativity simply do not square up with those of quantum mechanics. Physics currently presents us with two incompatible worldviews. The picture it provides of the universe is not a classical landscape, in which we can all wallow. It is like the cubist vision of Braque and Picasso: a potpourri of fragments; snapshots. So, in reality, is all science. It’s just that we usually don’t notice. But the fragmentation of physics, perceived to be the most fundamental of all sciences, is all too conspicuous.
I love science. For me its uncertainty is part of its charm. I would hate to think that it could ever get to the end of whatever roads it happens to be on. But we should recognise its shortcomings. It is wonderful, and does wonderful things. But we shouldn’t get carried away by it, or put too much store by it. Its view of the universe will always be uncertain, and always fragmented. Only in very special contexts, faute de mieux, should it be perceived as the final arbiter.
But let’s look in more detail at the narrative of religion—the broadest of all narratives, in which that of science is embedded. What’s in it?
The Narrative of Religion
If, as I claim, religion is humanity’s grand narrative then it must contain a virtual infinity of sub-plots. Nothing escapes it. But in practice those plots fall under three headings. Some deal with what the universe is really like and how it came into being: this is Cosmology. Some deal with matters of Morality: right and wrong; how we should behave and with what motives. The third might loosely be termed Epistemology: how we can find out what is true; how we know truth when we see it.
The cosmology of religion should embrace science. ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’: it is simply foolish to insist that the facts as related 3000 years ago by scholars who had no telescopes or microscopes and had done very little travelling should be matched against modern findings. Anything more than a superficial reading of the Catholic authorities’ dispute with Galileo shows that in the beginning at least, before the arguments became political and acrimonious, the Catholic theologians acknowledged full well that this was the case (and Galileo was a good Catholic too).
But the agenda of religious cosmology goes beyond science, and so it should. Science can do only what science can do; and if we don’t go beyond it, even within what it claims as its own agenda, then our insight must be limited. It is a shame, an exercise in self-immolation, not to pursue ideas where they may lead, even if they do lead us beyond the bounds of experimentation.
Two modern examples are particularly striking. The first is already alluded to: the idea that the Universe as now observed may not be all that there is. The problem is that the Universe would not hold together—there would be no atoms, and so there would be nothing at all that we could recognise as ‘substance,’ and of course there would be no ‘we’ to do the recognising—if the physical laws and constants that contain the universe were not so finely tuned. If the proton was ever so slightly bigger and heavier, the entire universe would collapse on itself. So it would too if gravity was slightly more forceful. And so on. Physicists calculate that the chances that all the constants of the universe should be as precise as they are—and as they need to be if the universe is to function—are about one to the minus 120: one in trillions of trillions of trillions. There are only two logical ways out of this dilemma, they argue. Either the universe is intelligently designed—set up by some outside agency and fine-tuned all its physical details: an outside agency who by definition is God. Or there is, in reality, a potential infinity of universes—a ‘Multiverse’—that are then subject to the inexorable ‘law’ of natural selection. Only those universes that do have nicely balanced constants survive; and our own particular Universe happens to be one of them.
There is a neatness about the Multiverse argument that appeals to many scientists and mathematicians. It might have particular appeal for those who are atheist. After all, it seems to explain why the present Universe is as finely-tuned as it is even without recourse to an intelligent designer, the idea of which they find abhorrent.
But there are two great snags. The first is that science qua science can and should deal only with what is observable and measurable, and can be tested. But, by definition, the Universe is the sum total of all that can be observed. So in positing other universes, scientists are going beyond the realms of science. What can they do with such a problem? Just stop thinking about it? Or acknowledge that it ought to be thought about—and yet is beyond direct investigation of the kind that is the metier and the raison d’être of science?
The other snag was discussed very thoroughly by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The wondrous thing, he said, the thing that really needs to be explained, is not how things happened, but how come they happened. Genesis tells us that the world arose out of a void: that something came of nothing. How is that possible? Why should such a thing have happened? What is or was the nothingness out of which the universe emerged? How did it get there? Ludwig Wittgenstein made the same point 700 years later in his Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus: ‘Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.’ The word ‘mystical’ is strange in this context but the meaning seems clear. It isn’t enough simply to pronounce that such and such-a-thing happened in such a way. Truly to understand, we need to know that was going on before the thing happened that made it possible, and how it could have come about. Scientists might choose to say, in the manner of logical positivists, ‘The question cannot be answered and so is meaningless.’ But big questions don’t go away just because some people decide not to take them seriously.
My second example of a seriously big idea that profoundly affects the physical world and yet is beyond conventional science is that of mind. Mind, in the end, is all we have. Mind contains our personal commentary on the universe. In effect, for each of us, it is the universe. For each of us, and for humanity and all living things as a whole, it is the most important thing there is. But what is it exactly?
René Descartes, in the 17th century, was clear in this as in all things. The Universe has two components: mind, and matter. They are separate, although each influences the other. This is ‘dualism.’ A century or so after Descartes, the Irish cleric Bishop Berkeley declared that mind is all there really is. Matter is an illusion. Some modern philosophers, including the American Dan Dennett, have taken the completely opposite view: that matter is all there is. Mind is the illusion. At least: we come aware of ‘mind’ through our consciousness, and consciousness is merely an ‘emergent property’: just the feeling we get when we think. It is not quite clear to me why this kind of argument is supposed to be an explanation. But some people are clearly convinced by it, and what people are convinced by they construe to be the truth.
But there is a fourth kind of argument: one that arose out of science in the early 20th century and has been powerfully reinforced ever since. It properly began with the observation of one of the earliest modern quantum physicists, Eugene Wigner, that the outcome of experiments carried out on fundamental particles was profoundly influenced by the thoughts of the experimenters themselves (the Schrödinger Cat paradox). This idea has never gone away. Indeed, more and more experiments (and thought experiments) have reinforced it. In its strongest form it emerges as the ‘anthropic principle’: the idea that the Universe as a whole could not exist unless conscious minds are thinking about it (and it becomes ‘anthropic’ because we, anthropoids, are the only conscious creatures of whom we are aware).
I have no great love for the anthropic principle but I very much like a related idea: that the Universe is not made of matter plus mind, as Descartes suggested; or of mind alone, as Berkeley posited: or of matter alone, as Dennett and his fellow hard-liners insist. The basic stuff, I suggest, might be called ‘mind-matter.’ The idea that the most basic stuff seems to be a compound of two different things rather than a single thing should not alarm us. After all, common sense tells us that there is something called space, and something called time, and that each are fundamental. Newton, common sensically, treated them as separate entities, and the physics he built on the back of that common sense was very successful. But Einstein showed, now beyond reasonable doubt, that time and space are interdependent. The most fundamental quality is neither space nor time, but ‘space-time.’ At least by analogy, it seems to me entirely unexceptionable to suggest that the basic stuff of the Universe is neither mind nor matter, but mind-matter. Human beings and other mindful creatures are conscious insofar as they partake of, and consolidate and magnify, the mind that is part of the fabric of the universe, and so is all around us.
I derived this notion from ideas of the British particle physicist Chris Isham. He may prefer to disown my version of it. But he did make a general comment that seems to me absolutely to the point: that whatever the nature of mind, and its relationship to matter, we are, at present, ‘A million miles from understanding it.’ The attempts of some scientists simply to banish the issue of mind from their discussions seems to me to be merely uninteresting, except in what it tells us about their psychology. The suggestion of philosophers like Dennett that everything can be explained already is extraordinarily pre-emptive and premature; and it is bad philosophy, it seems to me, to pretend that a subject is sewn up even before it has been seriously engaged.
Again, though, we find that the mind-matter idea, and all serious thought on mind, stretches science to breaking point, and probably beyond. It’s not simply that present-day science is not up to the task. It may be rather that the questions posed are simply not within the brief of science. To explore them, we have to indulge in cogitations of a kind that are not scientific. If you decree that the cogitations of science are the only ones worth indulging, then you drop out of the debate. That is what some scientists and philosophers have chosen to do and apparently would like us all to do. But it is not obvious to me why we should.
If the mind-matter idea does stand up, if indeed it is true, then it changes everything. Its implications for some of the core ideas of religion need thinking through but they seem intuitively obvious. It re-admits the idea of the intelligent Universe: the Universe that ‘knows’ what it wants to be. It throws new light on the ideas of thinkers such as A.N. Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin. More broadly, it leads again into the idea of the immanent God (the God who is ever-present in the Universe), as opposed to the transcendent God (its detached Creator and arbiter). It suggests that prayer, which to some extent may be seen as an attempt to influence events by thinking, might have a physical basis. More broadly, it gives new substance to the idea of mysticism. Mysticism becomes the endeavour to engage the mind that is within our own heads directly with the mind that is in the universe as a whole.
The second thread in the grand religious narrative is moral: how we can identify what is good. Moral philosophers distinguish three main approaches: utilitarian; ‘absolutist’; and ‘virtue ethics.’ Utilitarianism was summarised and largely formulated by the late 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham as ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Goodness and badness are judged purely by outcome, and outcome is measured in human happiness. But this is clearly inadequate. If the greatest happiness of the greatest number is all that matters, why isn’t gang-rape justified? A lot of men are made happy, and only one person misses out. No sane person would defend such an argument, but to argue against it we have to invoke principles beyond mere hedonism and the counting of heads. What are those principles? Where do they come from? Immediately we need more criteria by which to judge.
The ethics that emerges from religion tends to be absolutist: what is good is what God says is good. God is perceived as the source of absolute moral Law. But this raises two main kinds of problems. The first is to find out what God is actually saying, and whether the God who seems to be issuing orders is or is not the true God. Perhaps he is some false god, or demon, trying to fool us. In practice we rely on prophets to tell us what the true God actually wants—and we pick our prophets. The ones who have survived to tell the tale seem on the whole to be saying good things. But still they might be fooling us.
The other theoretical problem is the one raised both by Immanuel Kant and then in a somewhat different form by Friedrich Nietzsche. There may be a good that is greater even than God. God may be capable of behaving badly. Certainly, some of His behaviour as described in the Old Testament in particular can seem equivocal. His insistence that Abraham should sacrifice his own son, his torment of Job, and his constant exhortations to smite and destroy the various enemies of Israel, seem gratuitously cruel, even if (sometimes) they did turn out for the best in the end.
But in practice religions do not deal exclusively or even primarily in law. To a striking extent both testaments of the Bible deal in virtue ethics. The key to virtue ethics seems to me to lie with David Hume who, rationalist that he was, pointed out that reason alone cannot lead us to moral certainty (we cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’). The root of all morality lies in the ‘passions,’ he said: emotional response. This, I suggest, is the prime focus of religion. Religion cultivates and refines appropriate emotional response. Prophets most obviously differ from secular moral philosophers in their emphasis, not on particular lines of action—not on particular ‘laws’—but on attitude. The Ten Commandments contain some specific prescriptions—no killing, no adultery—but mostly they focus on attitude: reverence for God, respect for parents. Mohammed emphasised humility in the face of Allah, and generosity to the poor. Christ emphasised universal love. Buddha spoke of compassion. The Hindu mystic Ramakrishna boiled all the moral imperatives of all the great prophets down to three: personal humility; respect for other sentient beings; and reverence for God (although pantheists might equate ‘God’ with the universe as a whole). This to me seems beyond improvement—and cuts a remarkably wide swathe through modern debates on, for example, human cloning or Third World development or what you will.
The religious prophets do not have a monopoly on virtue ethics: vide Aristotle, Lao Tsu, and many Romans. But we could argue this point the other way around. Aristotle was the great rationalist. But insofar as he argued virtue ethics, he was arguing religiously.
This brings us neatly to the third prime leitmotiv of religion: epistemology; how we find out what is true, and know truth when we see it. Those who are both scientists and atheists are clear. All ideas that are worth admitting must be rooted in what can be directly and repeatedly observed and preferably measured and subject to thought of the strictly circumscribed kind known as logical. Preferably—even essentially—the ideas should be formulated and manipulated in the symbols of mathematics, in which the logic is clear to see and is inexorable. Scientific papers reflect this rigour—or at least, they are supposed to. Every statement is backed up by transparent data, rigorous reasoning, and preferably by a stack of references.
Ordinary people don’t think this way. What most of us believe is a mishmash of unexplored impressions, vague memories, and hearsay—as well as the ideas that we have learned formally, and passed exams in, and which we have put into practice in our own lives and found for our own purposes to be sound.
At first sight, the method of science seems far more reliable. It is as near to being chanceless as can be devised. Yet as emphasised throughout this essay, the insights of science are inevitably limited and to a large extent are self-deceiving. Its truths cannot be certain, and such certainty as may exist is attained by limiting the terms of reference—cutting out everything that is too hard to measure. That doesn’t seem very satisfactory. It certainly doesn’t look like a complete formula for living.
Religion doesn’t simply do what most of us do through most of our lives. It doesn’t simply accept whatever ideas happen to have floated its way, or seize upon whatever is convenient. Neither, as the common cliché has it, is religion based purely on faith, and neither, as atheists would have us believe, is faith nothing more than a perverse but self-serving desire to believe the implausible.
Emphatically nor does religion properly defined eschew reason, the commodity that many scientists and philosophers would like to claim as their own. The best theologians are unremittingly rigorous. No-one has ever thought more deeply and precisely than the great scholars of the Middle Ages. Not for nothing was Duns Scotus known as ‘the subtle doctor.’ Aquinas spent much of his long life seeking to reconcile the rationality and science of Aristotle with the teachings of Christianity. It was not possible, he concluded, to ‘prove’ the existence of God by reason alone but it was possible, and necessary, to move by a series of eminently rational steps along the path that led to faith. In the following (14th) century the English Franciscan William of Ockham took an almost opposite view. Reason is reason, he said, and faith is faith, and the gap between them could not be bridged. His own power of reasoning was wonderful. He founded some of the key principles of modern science. But he stressed, nonetheless, the supremacy of faith.
Faith remains an elusive concept. In the end, Ockham is surely right. There is a conceptually unbridgeable gap between reason and faith. You cannot argue your way step by logical step from atheist materialism to a belief in God. Yet it is not necessary, as is so often suggested both by religious people and by atheists, simply to make a blind ‘leap’ into faith. In any case, faith is a long way down the line. Roman Catholics speak of the ‘gift’ of faith. Some people—St Paul is the outstanding example—have experienced instant conversion apparently from one extreme to the other. But others have entered religion by slow immersion: C.S. Lewis processed from atheism to Christianity reluctantly but absolutely, largely through long conversations with his friend J.R.R Tolkien. Buddha achieved enlightenment in one moment of mysticism under a bo tree—but only after years of Hindu practice. The first step is not to ‘leap’ but simply to take religion seriously. This, at the very least, it deserves. My main beef with the atheists who currently occupy British TV, including Dawkins and Miller, is that they do not engage with the subject. Neither do they seem to have tried to do so. I suppose I could appear on television and rail against ice hockey, which from my position as an extreme outsider seems most unpleasing; but if I was invited to do so, I think I would at least take the precaution of learning the rules first. Anyone who seriously tried to understand what religion’s many prophets and theologians are actually saying is likely to find at least some of it intriguing, and after that who knows? To this extent Aquinas is surely right. Reason alone cannot take you to faith, but it can certainly help to prepare the ground—and it is necessary. But my point here is not to promote or to argue with Aquinas or Ockham (which would be amazingly presumptuous) but simply to show that the common claim of the atheists, yet again, is factually wrong. Religion does not abandon rationality. Theologians can be masters of reason, and they are fully aware of the subtle and difficult relationship between reason and faith.
But, equally obviously, religious people do not confine themselves to ‘pure’ reason—and certainly not in the narrow way that scientists do. The best scientists do not take a narrow view because they are narrow minded, but because they see this as the necessary tactic to gain insights that are as robust as possible. Similarly, the serious prophets do not seek mystical experience because they want a thrill, but because they see such experience as the greatest exercise in prehension that can be achieved—the direct fusion of the humankind with the mind of God (or as some modern physicists might say, with the mind of the universe). Theologians do not advocate faith as an indulgence, an invitation to partake in fairy-tales, but as a means by which we can gain greater insight into the way the universe really is, and why it is. Faith itself is not reason, but it is perfectly reasonable to embrace it, or to seek to do so. Contrariwise, to dedicate oneself unswervingly to pure reason, and to the measurable observations and directly testable hypotheses on which the atheist-scientists insist, is not itself unequivocally reasonable—not, that is, if you interested in truth, and in living as well as possible in this universe.
Finally, of course, religion happens because people want it to happen, and because (as has often been shown) societies with robust religions tend to be more stable, and societies that are more stable tend, by definition, to endure. Atheists again like to put these undeniable facts in the worst light. People at large are attracted to religion, they argue, because they like the warm glow it can bring. Religious societies can be more stable because religion is deployed as an agent of oppression, either by theocracies or by secular states that employ priests in effect as policemen, or indeed as Orwellian thought-police.
The bad things are true, in the sense that they happen. But they do not represent all the truth, and certainly not the most important aspects of it. We could be equally cynical about science itself, which after all is the sole source of atom bombs and serious chemical warfare. Scepticism is necessary but out-and-out cynicism is merely childish. Science does do bad things but at its best it opens our eyes to the wonders of the universe, as John Ray would have said—and indeed as Richard Dawkins says. Science is also the source of vaccines and hotlines via email to the world’s great libraries and to a great deal more besides that make it possible for human beings to live life to the full.
Religion viewed through similarly unbiased eyes emerges as the personal journey that all of us might undertake to gain some insight into why we are here; deeper insight than we can gain through a life without contemplation. It is the journey, too, by which we might become better people, living better, less selfish lives. Religion can be used oppressively of course but it also spells out a morality that seems in essence to be unimprovable and which holds societies together not through fear of hellfire but through consensus. Aristotle opined that people are naturally good, and prefer to do good; and religion has shown, with a few deft statements, how goodness may be defined, and how it may be achieved.
Of course religion is worthwhile. Actually, of all pursuits, when taken in the round, it is the most worthwhile of all.
Colin Tudge, Binsey, 2006.
A great many people have helped me to shape my thoughts on science and religion, and I am grateful to all of them. But I am indebted most of all to my wife, Ruth West, who has listened to all my ramblings and never fails to suggest new and fruitful ways of looking at things.
As for the literature: I have been inspired in particular by John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion; The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas; and Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot. I am also a great fan of F.C. Copleston.