Science and Faith in Systematic Perspective: The Oracles of Science

Science and Faith in Systematic Perspective: The Oracles of Science

Juan Arana Cañedo-Argüelles
Full Professor of Philosophy of the University of Seville.
speech Delivered at the ceremony in memoriam of Professor Mariano Artigas on November 23, 2007.

I would like to talk to you in this brief speech about the book Oracles of Science. Famous scientists against God and religion. Mariano Artigas wrote it in partnership with Professor Karl Giberson and corresponds to his last stage of production, to the point that it was published posthumously in 2007, under the prestigious imprint publishing house of Oxford University Press.1.

In my opinion, Oracles of science constitutes a first class contribution to the field of the relationship between science and religion, not only and mainly because of the careful, complete and adjusted exhibition of the six scientists presented, but also because the authors have managed to find a formula to discuss the religious connotations of science that constitutes a whole model to follow. As important as this is, even more so are the useful lessons it provides in order to rethink something that had become largely obsolete and discredited with the passing of time, namely: the apologetic genre. The very idea of defending a statement of core values has been impregnated with pejorative resonances, because it is associated with the world of propaganda, proselytism and indoctrination, once respectable notions, but which have become questionable by virtue of some abusive instrumentalizations at the service of unmentionable economic, political and ideological interests. We almost instinctively distrust everything that is presented to us as good, true and worthy of commitment. We immediately rush to counterattack, relying on the resources of the Philosophy of suspicion, and the paradox arises that we are only willing to accept messages that promote attitudes contrary to our most intimate hopes and noblest motives. Anyone today who tries to communicate a religious message to others runs the risk of being confused and treated like a politician in an election campaign or a shopkeeper in a sales period. People are bored of watching television commercials and are alert to the danger of being duped by those who promote marvelous remedies, so that they apply to everything the same distracted look and the same uncompromising pose. The only values considered "safe" are those susceptible to direct verification and immediate application. Hence, in today's world, science continues to be the only written request respected by almost everyone, despite its obvious limitations and the terrible abuses it has made possible and continues to make possible. It is not as frequent as before to find examples of disinterested love of knowledge and altruistic consecration to pure research , but science is considered as much or more than ever the touchstone for anyone who wants to speak in the name of truth, no matter what subject of truth it is.

In Oracles of Science Artigas and Giberson detect and confront a curious dissymmetry in the relationship between science and religion that results from the status described: when someone pretends in the name of science to attack faith in God or the legitimacy of religion, his thesis are judged with very different criteria than when he tries to advocate in favor of one or the other. The prejudice that there is a congenital hostility between scientific and religious written request reigns in this field. As a consequence, the same critical rigor is not applied to those who want to confirm and extend the prejudice and to those who try to find out to what extent it is founded. At no time do the authors of the book I am commenting on hide their position in favor of a harmonious coexistence between science and religion. Throughout the book they examine the position of the most prominent contemporary representatives of the opposite thesis . They therefore have to deal with the disadvantage that the dominant prejudice supposes for them and it is more than B the way in which they do it.

A priori there are two extreme answers to the question of the relationship between science and religion: the first is summarized in the thesis that they have little or nothing in common; the second admits that there are wide areas of overlap. In the first case there would be no possible confrontation or practically no relationship; in the second there would obviously be harmony or conflict, but never indifference. Artigas and Giberson are situated in the intermediate zone of the spectrum, since they detect clear differences and at the same time discover places of meeting:

" and religion are two very different human enterprises and, while there are certainly points of contact, each has considerable autonomy that must be respected by the other. Our main goal in this book is simply to present six important scientific voices to our readers" (17).

Important and adverse, since Dawkins, Gould, Hawking, Sagan, Weinberg and Wilson are at the same time outstanding figures of science or the scientific knowledge dissemination and determined opponents to accept the existence of God or to grant a positive meaning to almost all known forms of religion. Here it is necessary to register a feature of particular originality: instead of reviewing the most "favorable" figures to the position they support, Artigas and Giberson look for the most dissenting ones and, far from adopting an intransigent and hypercritical tone towards them, they do not spare the praise that their contributions deserve. They follow a strategy diametrically opposed to the old apologetics. No argument of authority, no ad hominem argument. Rhetorical tricks are conspicuous by their absence, little tricks to make the adversary odious or at least unpleasant. One could almost say that they try to find their best angles, so that the reader naturally ends up admiring the epic staff of each of these oracles of today's science. And not only do they save people, but they also try to reproduce the full force of their arguments to deny or question the existence of God or the legitimacy of religion. All this, on the other hand, without the slightest hint of "Stockholm syndrome" or fascination with the strength and talents of the opponent. What distinguishes the approach of Artigas and Giberson is that they take the polemic to the ideal terrain, which is none other than that of the objective evaluation of proofs and evidences. They assume without hesitation that whoever believes in God and practices a religion must behave less like a lawyer than like a detective and judge when arguing with those who deny one or the other. The first person to be convinced is himself, refraining from taking advantage of any circumstantial advantage and from setting subject any traps for the unwary. If he is a man of faith, it is not his faith itself that is at stake, for it is poor faith that needs to be supported by arguments that in no case will be incontrovertible. What is in question are the arguments themselves, and with respect to them the one who has faith will be as critical, if not more so, than the one who lacks it.

Something surprising happens then, and that is that the rhetorical disarmament that Professor Artigas practiced so rigorously in his last book gives it a singular dialectical force. The reader understands that he is not being sold some "truths", but that he is being communicated the results of a perfectly honest survey . Honest with respect to the truth that is being sought and honest with respect to the adversary who denies it. He who dwells on trifles does not sample anything other than the smallness of his soul. The great man sees above all greatness, even the greatness of those he confronts. In the pages of Oracles of Science one often discovers weaknesses of the authors studied that could well have been conscientiously exploited against them: Sagan's fascination with extraterrestrials, Hawking's shameless cult of his own image, Weinberg's resentment for the holocaust of his Jewish relatives, Gould's Marxist resentment, Dawkins' anti-theological hatred.... Artigas and Giberson detect these weaknesses with lucidity, but they do not base their replies on them. Those who suffer from them have acquired notoriety for other reasons and these are the ones that must be attended to.

It would be splendid if the great men of science analyzed by Artigas and Giberson had the same fair play when they talk about God and religion. Unfortunately, this does not happen most of the time. The superficial knowledge of the facts, the historical simplification, the biased arguments, the ignorance of some elementary presuppositions of the philosophical and theological discussion, the pure and simple bad faith are at agenda when they leave the field of their specialization program and begin their incursions in lands bordering on religion. Artigas and Giberson lucidly diagnose these regrettable extremes and also foresee that their measured response will hardly counteract in the short term deadline the effect produced by the careless arguments of their opponents, often built on erroneous data and finished off with unappealable sentences:

"These oracular statements, prominently located in books written by eminent scientists, are more effective than a hundred pages of dense argumentation, and their mysterious tone and great ubiquity give them an air of importance" (231).

If, in spite of this, Artigas and Giberson do not lose their serenity and balance, it is because theirs is a work of reflection in which it is less important to silence the adversary than to illuminate a place where many people go astray. Most philosophers and perhaps theologians fail to grasp the full importance of the matter. In the nineteenth century a significant part of humanity, the most dynamic and restless, had placed its hopes in science, because they saw in it a promise of redemption for the evils of the world and human limitations. We know that the twentieth century has put an abrupt and macabre end to such hopes: far from curing the ills of humanity, science has served to exponentially increase our capacity for destruction. No one sees in it a new religion anymore. However, some of its uses and interpretations continue to be the tomb where many contemporary spirits bury religious sentiment. The old dogma that science has emptied the heavens of God is still deeply rooted among people, although almost everyone accepts that it has not succeeded in enthroning anything in its place. Scientism has taken on a bitter and disenchanted face, but it holds firm and continues to repress the yearning for transcendence in the heart of man. Artigas and Giberson have had the foresight to attack the very root of the problem, confronting face to face with the greatest exponents of a conception that pretends to speak in the name of science, a science that promises nothing except lucidity, and that expects nothing more than to settle man forever in his orphanhood. The challenge is so radical that it is useless to oppose it with generic prescriptions.

Each of the new oracles of science constitutes - as our two authors teach - a world apart. Each one rehearses a different solution to convert science into a kind of metaphysical sack bottom. It is necessary to study them case by case, so as not to miss any of the subtle inflections that transform without apparent solution of continuity the scientific speech into an ontology of immanence. Does this effort make sense? It does if we take into account that all the simplest ways of resolving the dispute have already been tried without success. The simplest would have been to deny science philosophical and therefore theological scope. Curiously, this is what one of the oracles of science examined, Stephen Gould, proposes with his principle of non-overlapping magisteria. It is a Solomonic solution because it gives science the knowledge and religion the will, or science the sensible world and Philosophy the intelligible. And it does not work because it fragments into pieces transcendental notions that by essence cover the whole spectrum of being. It is not possible to confine religion to the affective or practical dimensions of the person without ending up denying it in its totality, nor is justice done to science when it is denied any philosophical value by saying that it only serves pragmatic interests or that it is incapable of going beyond the phenomenal facade of the universe. The truth is that the genuine man of science is a search engine of truths, and since truth cannot be distributed in watertight compartments, the philosophical nature of science cannot be denied either. Artigas and Giberson underline the realistic conception of knowledge held by the six authors studied, which is a value that should not be sacrificed, since a science that turns its back on reality is even more counterproductive than a science that is closed to transcendence.

It happens, and here the book Oracles of Science reaches the highest levels of refinement in its analysis, that the secret of the successes of modern science is to have managed to design methodologies that are very well adapted to certain types of objects. The price it has had to pay for this is to leave out of its reach those matters that do not fit such protocols of action. The scientist has to abide by discipline not to go beyond the limits he has imposed on himself, but at the same time he would not be faithful to his vocation if he did not try to go beyond them. In this sense, the limits of science are not fixed, and the philosopher in every creative scientist is constantly demanding to go further and further. For this reason it is neither a whim nor an epistemological vice that the most outstanding scientists ask questions that enter fully into the metaphysical and even the theological realm, but when they reach this point in their inquiry they must also know how to relativize the methods they had applied successfully up to that moment, and learn to walk on a much shakier ground where there are no longer ready-made formulas to clear up unknowns. And this is precisely where the most recent oracles of science begin to make mistakes beginner. Hawking with his obsession to close the doors of time and space to God by means of the idea of a self-contained universe is perhaps the one who commits the most flagrant conceptual slip. Given that the space-time framework constitutes the horizon that encompasses the whole realm of physical events, the British scholar thinks that the presence of God in the world is only possible if there is an "opening" in that horizon: if there were no absolute principle of space-time, a zero instant for all the clocks of the cosmos, the creative action of God would be impossible. Artigas and Giberson undo the confusion by showing that the metaphysical-theological notion of "creation" transcends the framework space-time to the point of being the written request that explains the establishment of that framework together with its content. For his part, the award Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg repeats in his popular knowledge dissemination writings that the more we understand of the universe, the less sense or purpose it manifests. After a shrewd evaluation of these texts we are made to see that physics employs a network of detection designed to completely disregard questions of meaning. Therefore, the extraordinary thing would have been that the understanding of the universe granted by physics would also serve to answer the question of meaning. In general, there is in all the oracles of the new science a B confusion concerning the relation between the first cause and the order of second causes, as if the progressive finding of the latter had to be to the detriment of the former.

With their patient pioneering work, Artigas and Giberson have helped to build bridges that had been torn down and to build bridges that were waiting to be established for the first time. Thus they restore to science the philosophical relevance it has sometimes been denied, and also restore to metaphysics and theology the capacity for dialogue with a written request of knowledge that they have often and not without guilt marginalized. In the important field of the relations between science and religion, Professor Artigas has demonstrated, in this as in many other milestones of his fruitful research degree program , that only those who are permanently willing to learn can teach. His life has been a stimulus for all of us who, like myself, have worked on some of the fronts that have benefited from his tireless work.

[1] Karl Giberson, Mariano Artigas, Oracles of Science. Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion, Oxford, University Press, 2007. 273 pp. The numbers in parentheses refer to the pages of this edition.