Como científico, Hawking es un profesional; como filósofo, un diletante

"As a scientist, Hawking is a professional; as a philosopher, a dilettante" (Interview with Juan Arana).

Published in: El Mercurio
Date of publication: Chile, 1 February 2015.

"The scientist must have an ethic, a political position, a conception of what gives meaning to life".

Juan Arana

Many of Juan Arana's students -Full Professor of the University of Seville, and member of the Academy of Social and Political Sciences of Spain - are surprised when they study the Galileo case and discover that Galileo was not condemned to the stake - unlike, for example, the philosopher Giordano Bruno, that many of the great ecclesiastics of the time tended to protect scientists, and that the confrontation between Galilei and the Inquisition, presented as an archetypal example of the conflict between science and religion, was substantially influenced by the political issues of the time.

A specialist in the Philosophy of nature and in the history of science, Arana often addresses such topics in his books and lectures. An advocate of the need to recover the dialogue between the fields of Philosophy, science and religion, he was recently in Chile at the invitation of the Universidad de los Andes. He took the opportunity to meet with old friends, such as the philosopher couple Roberto Torretti and Carla Cordua, and to make statements in his talks that more than one might even consider provocative, such as his conviction about the Christian roots of modern science.

What underpins this approach?

"There is a very concrete reason: practically all the creators of modern science, more than 90 percent of the great scientists in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, and perhaps not so much, but also substantially in the 19th century, were people with deep Christian roots. People who took religion very seriously and whose religious sentiment led them to do that work which we later called modern science. When this is proven to be the case, we can only accept as a fact that modern science has had Christian roots".

However, in these origins of modern science, conflicts with religion often appear.

"Naturally, in these very Christian societies, religious authority implied a position of power, and these conflicts are often linked to these subject issues. For the princes of the Church, science was seen as desirable. And just as there were conflicts between Michelangelo and the Pope, there were conflicts between Galileo and his protector and friend, Urban VIII. But there has been an attempt to give a slant of a confrontation between religion and science to what was a confrontation between specific people, each of them with a religious element, but also with a temporal element".

When does the divorce between the religious world and science occur?

"Science, in its origins, was a new field. Therefore, the scientist had to start from a faith: that the truth he was looking for could be found. And at the birth of modern science it was religion that convinced the great scientists - think Descartes, Newton, Maxwell - that nature is something made by God for man to understand. But as science progressed, the time came when that faith depended not so much on religious support, but on results.

But the next step is more radical: believing that science can replace religion.

"There were authors in the 19th century who seriously proposed the idea that science could provide an answer to all our problems and even become a kind of religion itself. The best known is Comte, but the one who perhaps put it in a more developed way was Ernest Renan: that science can become something that not only solves our material life, but also gives us an ethic, helps us to organise society politically, establishes values and gives meaning to our existence. The 20th century has been a bitter awakening from that dream of reason".

Today, however, influential scientific voices, such as one Stephen Hawking, argue that it is possible to understand the whole nature of the universe without religion, and that religion is more of an obstacle.

"Cases like Hawking's exemplify the defects of an atomised culture, separated into watertight compartments. No one doubts Hawking's scientific excellence, but such a privileged spirit suffers from compartmentalisation: he has a great scientific culture, but his historical and philosophical culture is deficient. I would say that as a scientist he is a professional; as a philosopher he is a dilettante.

What about evolutionism? Many of its proponents argue that it is incompatible with religious thought.

"The theory of evolution was something like the Galileo case in the Protestant world. When Darwin's theory emerged, it produced a great religious controversy, which did not occur in Catholic countries. In the latter countries, people like Bergson and later Chardin soon appeared, who not only did not reject the idea of evolution, but considered it easy to harmonise with Christian belief. For Christian belief has a dynamic vision of history; it moves towards the common salvation of mankind. The theory of evolution brings that linear view into natural history, so there doesn't seem to be any conflict.

Shouldn't a consistent evolutionist necessarily be an atheist?

"It's not that it shouldn't be, it's that in fact it wasn't. Darwin was not an atheist. Darwin was not an atheist, and Wallace, who co-discovered with him, was a believer. And the proportion of believers among evolutionary scientists is increasing over time. It is true that there has also been another line, beginning with another disciple of Darwin, Thomas Huxley, who has tried to develop a view of man as a product of pure nature. For a Christian it has no difficulty to affirm that the development of life is a product of nature, but man somehow takes his head out of nature and has a spiritual dimension, not reducible to the biological. And this has nothing to do with the theory of evolution, but with the interpretation we make of man".

You have spoken of a rise of natural theology. What does the concept allude to?

"To the possibility of understanding something about God not by appealing to religion, but to man's own powers. This has arisen fundamentally from the analytical Philosophy and certain developments of the post-analytical Philosophy which have returned to the heart of discussion: what can we say, on the basis of reason, about the existence or non-existence, and the attributes that the divinity may have. In this field there are controversial positions. There are theists and those who deny the possibility, but the dialogue is constructive. And there have been some very notable developments recently, such as the philosopher Anthony Flew's move from the atheist to the theist camp. He argued that his was nothing to do with a religious conversion, but that on rational grounds alone he was now defending the existence of divinity".

This is not what is perceived in popular culture. It is thought, for example, that life can be created in laboratories, and when that happens, religion will no longer make sense.

"In 1870 one could have thought something like that, but it is now 2015. 135 or 140 years have passed since that time when science was seen as a universal panacea! Science is science, it is knowledge, but the scientist must have an ethic, a political position, a conception of what gives meaning to life. And if we look at the great scientists of yesterday and today, we see that none of them pretends to attribute to science the ability to define that. So, if the great scientists do not look to science for what it cannot give, why do ordinary people do? Because a myth has been created on the basis of propaganda, on the basis of idiotisation, and this is often the best way to manipulate. One element that perhaps has a bearing on this is the way in which the culture of commercialisation has entered this field. There are literary agents who recruit Nobel Prize winners and people who have had great scientific relevance, and offer them million-dollar contracts for books for the general public. The use of ghostwriters with the signature of prominent figures is very common. When these texts are then presented as if they were a kind of bible, it is a grossly dishonest act.