Upcoming Events

Three Religions

Three Religions - And Science: A Position Paper For The Pari Meetings

Roy McWeeny

Belief Systems in the Developed World

So far, our dialogue has been centred mainly around the three great monotheistic religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — perhaps rightly so because they have given so much to humankind in the way of beliefs, inspiration and progress. But they have also inspired much antagonism, intolerance, hatred and violence: for thousands of years the world has seen inquisitions, crusades, barbarism, and mass slaughter, often conducted by religious groups in the name of their ‘one true god’ who will defend them from all their enemies. Where are the much-vaunted ethical and moral values preached, in one form or another, by all of them? Is there anything to suggest that religious belief is essential to the creation of a just society and the elimination of poverty and ignorance? And the Three Religions certainly have no prerogative in the teaching of morality and ethics: think of the great Hindu epic poem the Bhagavadgita (going back more than 2000 years..) and the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, on the battlefield, with all the fine ethical sensibilities it displays. Sadly, collision between the religions still occurs as frequently as ever, though one suspects that in many cases religion has now become simply a `label’ to give an air of moral respectability to what is at root tribal conflict. Religions apart, I want to put the case for the rest of us, the vast uncommitted (and often silent) majority — the ordinary decent human beings, who may neither subscribe to a particular religious doctrine nor even profess any belief in a deity. In particular, I think of those who are more concerned with understanding the material world and the way it functions.

One of the many products of their industry and intelligence has been Science and all that goes with it or results from it — including the capacity, through its misuse, to destroy the human race. John Avery, in his presentation, has stressed the double-edged nature of Science as a weapon for good or evil; and has pointed to the vast inequalities created in the world by the exploitation of science and technology. An even worse consequence, however, has been the development of a global selfishness, in which those who have benefited in the process are not prepared to share their good fortune with those who have not. The ‘haves’ will even go to war with the ‘have-nots’ to preserve the status quo, often justifying their actions in the name of ‘defence’. This has happened with the super-powers, who (one hopes) may now be ready to learn better ways; and is currently happening in the world’s smallest and poorest countries, in Africa and elsewhere. Weaponry today is costly, and the massive polarization of national economies by a perceived need to prepare for war, is a key factor in putting counties on a collision course that could threaten the survival of our species. As John Avery has said “We know that war is madness, but it persists”. How can we avert such potential disaster?

I am sure this can be done in only one way: The rich and powerful countries of the world must make massive investments in the poor, investments in both the intellectual and material sense, to develop (i) Education, and (ii) Infrastructure — in which I include not only basic services such as the provision of Clean Water and Electric Power but also Communications.

At the root of all things is education: the elimination of ignorance, superstition and prejudice; and the promotion of understanding and awareness, both of others, and their needs, and of the world around us. To this end, I believe Science Education has a special part to play. It seems to me right, therefore, that Science has been included in our brief, along with the Three Religions, as a fourth great belief system. Science is based on objectivity and rationality; but it is not a religion, though some of you have rightly insisted that it depends on ‘acts of faith’ just like the ‘real’ religions. There is a very basic difference however: acts of faith in Science are simple imaginative leaps, acts of creation which we call “hypotheses” — they are speculations, inspired guesses, ideas which may be right or wrong but which are almost invariably transient. The importance of hypotheses is that they provide a basis for building a theoretical structure, which can lead to predictions that can be tested; and if they fail the test they are at once discarded, while if they pass they become candidates for eventual inclusion as acceptable principles. This is the mainstay of scientific method — which has nothing to do, I would say, with technical progress, centred on getting useful results, but rather with the achievement of understanding. Centuries ago this discipline was called Natural Philosophy, the term still used in some of the ancient universities of Western Europe to include mathematics and physics.

Science Education for the Future

In the West, the vast majority of those who control our destinies — the politicians, administrators, religious leaders, generals, bankers, planners, and so on — have not been trained to meet the problems of today. We live in an age where even the most sophisticated technology (which is only an offshoot of science) is taken for granted even by our children; and yet our future is in the hands of those who, for the most part, have been educated just as their parents and grandparents were — in the classics, modern languages, the great literature of the world, philosophy and politics, and perhaps (nowadays) in the more descriptive aspects of the earth and life sciences, but more rarely in the ‘exact sciences’ like physics and mathematics. All the things we have come to accept so readily — electric power, radio, television, the transistor and the computer, the laser and countless other electronic devices, weather forecasting, statistical analysis and the predictions of economic and demographic ‘models’ — have resulted from the application of the basic disciplines of physics, chemistry and, above all else, mathematics. Mathematics is perhaps the supreme logical tool for rational argument: but its language is widely regarded as well beyond the reach of `normal’ human beings. Even eminent scholars (to say nothing of industrialists and company directors) often proclaim, with no sense of shame, that mathematics is quite beyond their grasp — as if to imply that they never felt any the worse for it. Small wonder that the teaching of mathematics in our schools is in a state of crisis and that there is a widespread acceptance of the `two-culture society’, with the Humanities on one side of the divide and Science (particularly the parts that depend increasingly on mathematics) on the other.

Such a ‘polarization’ of human knowledge was not accepted in the nineteenth century: in Victorian England, for example, that was the age of the Literary and Philosophical Societies and the Mechanics Institutes, the Royal Institution and the British Association. Great importance was attached to popular or semi-popular lectures and serious books on science were written for a lay readership. Among the scientists, philosophers, and men of letters who took to the public lecture platform were Huxley, Kelvin, Mach, Helmholz, Maxwell, Faraday and many others. As for the books, the eminent mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford wrote, in the 1870s, “The First Principles of the Mathematical Sciences Explained to the Non-Mathematical” — to be published posthumously (1884) under the title (chosen shortly before his death) “The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences”: there can be no better example of a book that actually teaches fundamental mathematical ideas to the completely uninitiated.

In his Preface to the 1946 Edition of Clifford’s book, Bertrand Russell writes “he saw all knowledge, even the most abstract, as part of the general life of mankind and as concerned in the endeavour to make human existence less petty, less superstitious, and less miserable. He lived at a time when optimism was not so difficult as it has since become, and when hope for the future seemed justified by the history of the previous two hundred years . It was possible, without any blind act of faith, to believe that the human species would become progressively more humane, more tolerant, and more enlightened, with the consequence that war and disease and poverty, and the other major evils of our existence, would continually diminish. In this beneficent process rational knowledge was to be the chief agent, and mathematics — as the most completely rational kind of knowledge — was to be in the vanguard.” Russell goes on to say “In the world in which we find ourselves it is difficult to believe in the influence of reason on human affairs, or in the importance to mankind of theoretical knowledge. Practical knowledge, yes, since it enables us to kill our enemies; but it was not on this account that Clifford valued knowledge…. ”.

Perhaps we have difficulty in sharing Clifford’s convictions and lean, instead, towards Russell’s gloomy scepticism — having seen how often even the best educated can be an easy prey to persuasive and ruthless leaders, be they political, military or religious. But, at least, a sound training in independent thought can provide some protection against all types of blind indoctrination; and Clifford’s belief in the special relevance of what we now call “Science Education” was certainly not misplaced.

Science education in our schools and universities has fallen far short of Clifford’s expectations and those of his many like-minded contemporaries. It is true that there is a general awareness of scientific progress, and an apparently insatiable demand for books on `popular science’; but many such books are merely discursive accounts of what has been discovered, not attempting to uncover the ways of thinking involved in framing mathematical and physical concepts and in conducting a scientific argument. It is the latter that should be imparted to our children, at an early age, so that in their maturity they will be in a position to see through the rhetoric and challenge the bogus arguments to which they are constantly exposed.

What is the special role of science education? First of all, it instils humility: man (with his various gods) is no longer at the centre of the universe — he inhabits a small planet, moving round a rather insignificant star, in a small galaxy, one of countless millions, and it is highly improbable that there will not be other creatures (more or less like him) in other parts of the universe.

Second, man is relegated to the position of being merely an ‘observer’ — and one observer has no claim to be more special than any other. If he makes an experiment (i.e. he ‘observes’ something and obtains a result), then anybody else who makes the same experiment, under the same conditions, will obtain exactly the same result; and this is found to be true irrespective of where the observers live, or their race or religious beliefs or skin colour; moreover, it was true a hundred years ago and, we confidently expect, will be true tomorrow — the results depend neither on ‘where’ nor ‘when’. Conclusions based on experiment are thus objectively verifiable and are established by a completely `democratic’ process in which no observer can pretend to special privilege.

Third, the lack of privilege among different observers is echoed in many other ways: if one observer (with his experiment) is moving away from another, at uniform speed, and both make independent measurements of the velocity of light, then they both obtain exactly the same numerical value — the velocity is said to be `invariant’ against the relative velocities of the two observers. This single observation provides the basis for Einstein’s 1905 Theory of Relativity. Other ‘invariance principles’ — for example that there is nothing ‘special’ about one direction in space relative to any other (‘rotational invariance’) — play a large part in developing the Quantum Theory. One common feature of all such principles is their denial of privilege; and another is their extreme simplicity.

Why, then, is science, more particularly in its mathematical forms, usually considered difficult and abstruse? The obvious answer is that, because it depends on measurement and therefore on numbers, the simplest ideas are often obscured by abstract symbolism. To argue from elementary principles to their remote implications requires the use of new language — and that language is provided by mathematics. All around us we see the growing importance of mathematical modes of expression, not only in science and technology but also in the social sciences, in medicine, the humanities, and even in everyday life. George Steiner, a contemporary literary scholar and critic, recognized (perhaps unexpectedly, thirty years ago) this modern departure from traditional forms of discourse and argument when he wrote

“There is a widespread retreat from the word: a displacement of verbal statement, of primarily verbal consciousness. Language no longer covers as much of our experience as it used to. It no longer covers it as exactly or as richly. As the sciences become more and more mathematical, as the language of mathematics, symbolic notation and coding, grow subtler, the authority of speech and of our traditional concepts of syntax is coming into a very critical and complex state … Our words tell us less of the world and other languages crowd upon our bewilderment.”

With the passage of time, and with the ‘computer revolution’, such observations have become still more pointed and significant. Steiner lamented the passing of the nineteenth century, when the tremendous advance of science was “no threat” to the historian and the literary scholar but rather “a glorious parallel adventure”. But I think he failed to see clearly that the `two-culture split’ was primarily a product of our educational system and, in particular, its failure to treat mathematics as ‘just another language’. After all, written language is basically a code for expressing ideas through marks on paper. So, also, is mathematics; and once this language is learnt, even at a simple level, it provides a communication system that — whatever its limitations — will be independent of race or creed and will be capable of application in all fields of human activity. It is never too early to start absorbing such a language.

Some Closing Remarks

Most of this paper has been devoted to science education, in the conviction that Science — as an intellectual discipline and not merely as a basis for material and technological advance – stands alongside the other great belief systems as a means of bettering and enriching human life. The three great religions we have considered require faith in the existence of a deity, while science does not. But beyond all questions of belief is the hope that, with material progress, the human species could, in Russell’s words, “become progressively more humane, more tolerant, and more enlightened, with the consequence that war and disease and poverty, and the other major evils of our existence, would continually diminish.” It can hardly be denied that most of the material progress has stemmed from the applications of science; but why have the religions not been able to ensure, for all their concern with ethical values, a parallel improvement in standards of human behaviour?

Two reasons stand out above all others: (i) they have put spiritual considerations before all else, neglecting the elimination of poverty, and (ii) they have for many centuries remained in a state of conflict, striving to convert (or eliminate) others who may believe differently. One consequence has been that the somewhat random pattern of development, over the world as a whole, has led to gross inequalities in material standards of life; and unchecked demographic evolution has aggravated this imbalance, the poor becoming ever poorer and the rich even richer. Wealthy nations have not hesitated to exploit the poorer: colonialism and the pursuit of wealth and power have destroyed whole societies and whole races; and much of this been encouraged by religious belief in the ‘propagation of the gospel’ (in one form or another) and the ‘education’ of indigenous populations (always in the image of the oppressor).

When such gross imbalances persist, as they have done in this century and the last, it is natural that all the weaknesses of humankind come to the surface – envy, greed, arrogance, aggression and so on — and that small groups (nowadays the `fundamentalists’ — of which there are many varieties) take matters into their own hands, murdering their fellow human beings and bringing down governments. History has seen it all so many times.

Until we can learn to share our wealth across the globe, by investment in other societies, by cancelling debts that can never be paid, by exporting education freely and without preconditions, then things will never change – the conflicts and disasters will only become bigger and bigger, until finally, perhaps, the human race itself is eliminated. By all means continue to teach the positive aspects of the great religions, stressing what they have in common on the ethical and moral plane, but let science, with its emphasis on objectivity and rational argument, have an equal voice.