Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On the Limits of Science

Before I make it to bed, I have a few random comments on the limits of science and scientists.

Religion and Science: Are they Insoluble?

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe wrote a clever piece here. The relevant quote:
DID YOU hear about the religious fundamentalist who wanted to teach physics at Cambridge University? This would-be instructor wasn't simply a Christian; he was so preoccupied with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled "Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John." Based on his reading of Daniel, in fact, he forecast the date of the Apocalypse: no earlier than 2060. He also calculated the year the world was created. When Genesis 1:1 says "In the beginning," he determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely "intelligent design" but out-and-out divine creation.
The teacher turns out to be Sir Isaac Newton. Jacoby is making the case that if Dawkins and Harris have their way, scientists with religious beliefs will be dismissed or not hired and that science itself could suffer. Predictably, the article calls for each side acknowledging the other.
To be sure, religious dogma can be a blindfold, blocking truths from those who refuse to see them. Scientific dogma can have the same effect. Neither faith nor reason can answer every question. As Newton knew, the surer path to wisdom is the one that has room for both.
The question I want to ask is what does faith bring to the table? How did Sir Isaac Newton's religious writings advance religious knowledge? How was Christianity bettered by his life and work? In what ways did Newton's faith in the Bible improve our understanding of the age of the earth? When the religious answer questions about our world using ancient texts they accept on faith, how do we objectively evaluate one text or one interpretation in relation to others if science isn't to interfere?

I will guess that "scientific dogma" refers to the assumption of materiality underlying scientific methodology. When has this failed science or humanity? When has religion needed to correct scientists in their models of reality? From my admittedly limited knowledge of the history of scientific thought, it seems that the fact checking scientists have done for each other has yielded greater results than the feedback received from religious thinkers.

What Jacoby appears to want is for science to leave religion alone, to leave some questions to religious faith. He's not the only one asking for this.

Science and Mystery

Over at ScienceBlogs, Wyatt Galusky has written about science and mystery.
Perhaps few would credit a mystical explanation over a more antiseptic scientific one, especially if one had designs on reproducing or controlling such a phenomenon. But, still, don't we stand to gain with the retention of mystery? Or, rather, don't we lose when we forget that, no matter how powerful our conceptual schemes and how finely parsed our analysis, mystery remains? Let me point to some coalescence of thought on the subject.
The post includes an anecdote about a doctor who was struck by lightning and afterwards experienced an increased appreciation of and desire for music. The post concludes:
In Sacks' article, he notes that, when offered the chance to have neurological tests done on his brain to suss out a neurological basis for his musicophilia, Cicoria (an orthopedic surgeon by training) demurred, preferring to see his new found musical love as a mystery, and an act of grace.
What was gained by leaving this mystery alone (if it is indeed a mystery)? Did Cicoria or Galusky consider that submitting to the tests might one day help a patient with the opposite problem, the inability to perceive or be moved by music? Or is that a mystery that shouldn't be touched as well? If scientists are to purposely leave gaps in our knowledge so that we can step back and admire the mystery and/or let religion, mysticism, or aesthetics find answers unhindered, how is knowledge or the human condition improved?

If I disagree with Harris and Dawkins, it is in their methodology. There is excellent work being done in the sociology and psychology of religion, and society could only be improved, I think, were this knowledge to spread. If Newton were to apply for a job in astrophysics today and expressed the views he held in his life, he would rightly be denied a position. The case for the time frame of our universe's birth and growth is too overwhelming to consider such radical alternative theories to be on the same grounds. Likewise, I hope respectable universities would not hire a philosopher of religion who believed all religions are subject to cultural change and environmental pressures except for their own particular faith.

In my personal experience - and this appears to be the case for some other scientists - my appreciation of the world is only increased as I learn more about it. Many of my fellow linguists are full of anecdotes about their young children struggling with language. This doesn't interfere with their love for their children (I hope!), but it is simply a expression of that amazement each linguist has for the complexities of human language. Despite two centuries of work in linguistics, the field has enough mystery left that I doubt I'll ever be out of a career.

I suspect that one reason many psychologists and sociologists studying religion have not joined the campaign to eliminate respect for religious beliefs in the public sphere is that these scientists picked their subject because of a deep fascination for it. They likely recognize that religion and society interact in such complex ways that the broad generalizations made by both sides are inherently faulty.

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