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The faith of the wise: scientific activity and religious belief
The faith of the wise: scientific activity and religious belief
Author: Juan Arana
Published in: J. Aranguren, J. J. Borobia and M. Lluch (editors), Comprender la religión. II Simposio Internacional de Fe Cristiana y Cultura Contemporánea, high school de Antropología y Ética, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, 2000 (Pamplona: Eunsa, 2001), pp. 221-242.
Date of publication: 2000
When Charles Darwin became a famous and controversial personality, many asked him about his religious convictions. In a letter to a correspondent interested in the question, he made the following comment: "I do not feel inclined to pronounce publicly on religious subjects, as I do not think I have thought them through sufficiently deeply to justify the knowledge dissemination of my ideas." (1) If such was his will, his son Francis undoubtedly did not respect it, as his son Francis did not. * (1) If this was his will, his son Francis undoubtedly did not respect it, since he put this and other private writings into print, betraying the modesty expressed by the great scholar. In any case, one must recognise the wisdom of the judgement: if Darwin had not paid much attention to religion, the best thing he could do with his beliefs and unbeliefs was to keep them to himself. Leaving this case aside, one might think that inquiring about the attitude of scientists* (2) towards God is no more interesting than asking a famous footballer about his political preferences, or a prosperous pizza maker which painters he likes best. It is understood that both painting and politics - not to mention religion - can and should be of interest to all human beings at the level of staff , but in principle not to some more than others. From a professional point of view, only the opinion of experts should be of interest, i.e. those who have devoted a considerable part of their work to studying problems directly related to art, the government of society, or the relationship between man and the Divine. Of course, we may be captivated by the personality of a particular individual, irrespective of his knowledge and skills, and so we like to know what he thinks about the most varied subjects, even if he has no particular authority to deal with them. But it is quite another thing if we want to know the criteria not of certain individuals, but of this or that collective. In this case, and as far as religion is concerned, the question is: is the religious attitude of scientists more relevant than that of, for example, dentists, obese people or Albanians? The man in the street thinks so, because in his view the scientist is the man who knows - although it is a bit old-fashioned in English to call him "savant", the French still speak of him as the "savant". Religion, for its part, also implies a certain knowledge about God and our relationship with Him. Therefore, it makes sense in principle to confront the two kinds of knowledge. Apart from this generic reason, everyone has heard of the conflicts between scientists and theologians in the past - and to some extent still today. The Galileo case and the debates about the theory of evolution are in everyone's mind. If there have been clashes, it will be because the two professions have something to do with each other, and so it makes sense to listen to both sides before taking sides. This way of thinking is widespread, which is no guarantee that it is correct, but in any case it is worth examining to what extent it is justified. So let us address this first point, since topic at discussion is precisely the faith of the wise.
In my view, when someone contrasts the scientist and the theologian, he starts from the assumption that the scientist as such has something to say about God, and that his views do not always coincide with those of the authoritative spokesmen of religion. This point can be discussed as a de facto or de jure question, asking whether in fact men of science tend to have this or that religious affiliation, or whether they possess some subject of authority in these matters, so that it is good for the public to consult them. The first question is easier to resolve, as a cursory historical or sociological research will suffice. It is a topic that has been frequently studied. Antonio Fernández Rañada has recently done so, and the conclusion he reaches is negative: "Among scientists, the diversity we observe among other people is reproduced: there are Christians, agnostics, atheists, Muslims, fervent, lukewarm, theists with no particular religion, deists...". * (3) It would take too long to explain in detail, but there is a good basis for accepting the thesis that the religious attitude of the scientist has depended less on his work than on the time in which he has lived, the family background, the Education, the disposition, the crucial experiences of existence that each man lives in his own way, that incomprehensible thing that we call freedom, and so on. For the same reason, the apologists of religion have had a certain advantage when, in the face of a historiography heavily influenced by anti-religious ideologies, they have been able to show that the attitude of the great creators of modern science (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Huygens, Newton, etc.) was not only not hostile to the idea of the human race, but also to the idea of the human race.) was not only not hostile to religion, but also inclined to understanding and deeply inspired by it: after all, they lived in the Renaissance and the Baroque, times when religious experiences were deeply felt and sincere. In those times, disagreements were not very frequent and were almost always caused by disciplinary or strictly theological questions, not by frictions between the strictly scientific and the religious. Nor in the Enlightenment period were there any signs of profound unease: religiosity clearly predominated among men of science. * (4) In the 19th century, things seemed to change, as propagandists such as Huxley, Tyndal and Haeckel, for example, began to criticise religion in the name of science. However, as the historian Carlton Hayes has observed: "The conflict was not [...] over relations with the "pure" or "applied" sciences, but rather over philosophical assumptions about science, and most of all over transplanting those hypotheses from the natural sciences to the so-called social sciences". * (5) A conscientious researcher, Antonin Eymieu, took the trouble to carry out a systematic scrutiny with the following result: "We have reviewed, in the two volumes, 432 names belonging to the 19th century. If we remove from this issue the 34 whose religious attitude is unknown to us, we are left with 398, divided as follows: 15 indifferent or agnostic, 16 atheists and 367 believers". * (6) Another scholar arrived at similar results: out of 283 great scientists, out of 48 he did not find data, 8 were indifferent, 7 atheists and 220 believers. * (7) The argument that emerges from this consideration is ad hominem, but not merely quantitative: the list of pious scientists includes the most eminent leaders of nineteenth-century science: Cauchy, Hermite, Weierstrass, Le Verrier, Lord Kelvin, Fresnel, Ampère, Faraday, Maxwell, Berzélius, Cuvier, Mendel, Bichat, Laënnec, Pasteur, etc.* (8)
I am not aware that such an exhaustive survey has been carried out for the 20th century, but I assume that, when it is done, the proportion of non-believers will have risen considerably. Some reports indicate that there is a 50-50 split in the community of nature scholars. The explanation for this phenomenon is quite elementary: in the century that has just ended, the religious indifference of the social groups that make up the ranks of the professionals of knowledge has been much greater than a hundred years earlier. Paradoxically, the science of nature has abandoned in this period most of the thesis and assumptions that had previously been the cause of confrontation with religious institutions: determinism, mechanicism, extreme reductionism, etc. In spite of finding these signs of harmony, scientists have been docile to the indifferentism that has been prevalent among their contemporaries, and in many cases have uncritically assumed old anti-religious prejudices. Thus, no serious historian today would say that Galileo was condemned for challenging the dogmatism of religion in the name of the pure light of science, since it has been shown that his interest in religion and adherence to the Church was as great as (and more intelligent than) that of his opponents. *(9) Nevertheless, Stephen Hawking, who was invited in 1981 to give a lecture at the Vatican, lecture , later pretended that his hosts were unaware that he was trying to find a theoretical alternative to God's creation of the world, and had the bad taste to write that this alone spared him from further condemnation, not least because he sees himself as the "Galileo of the 20th century", or rather the fabled Galileo he has stuffed into his privileged brain: "I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo, with whom I feel strongly identified partly by the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years after his death!"* (10)
award The quick glance we have taken at the question of fact indicates that there is no functional dependence between scientific work and religious creed: of the two scientists who shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 for creating a theory that unified the electromagnetic force with the weak nuclear force, one of them, Steven Weinberg, is a militant materialist, while the other, Abdus Salam, is a devout Muslim. What better test can be given than that it is not the equations or the experiments that incline towards - or away from - devotion? To answer that, it is necessary to address the question de jure, which I will do below. Before jumping to conclusions, it is necessary to consider whether, irrespective of the religious positioning of scientists, the relationship between science and religion has meaning goal, even if it has only been detected by a few, or is a recent acquisition.
In my opinion, the thesis that science and religion have hardly anything to do with each other is the great temptation to which religious spirits have succumbed in modernity. In its favour is both the factual evidence I have just collected, and the undeniable fact that there are profound differences between the two, at least if one understands religion as a Christian does. Indeed, science is an activity undertaken by man, it is based on his natural capacities, it has a fundamentally theoretical sense and it tries to teach us to know nature - and man himself as part of it - in order to satisfy our curiosity and to put us in a position to benefit - or be harmed - by it knowledge. The Christian, on the other hand - and it should not be forgotten that science was born and matured in a culturally and spiritually Christian context - thinks that religion does not arise from an exclusively human initiative, but from a meeting between God and man, by which God reveals Himself and enlightens man so that he may know Him and act accordingly. The theoretical is by no means the essence of religious activity, although it is true that it involves all dimensions of existence, including, of course, the theoretical. Consequently, there is no difficulty in admitting that science and religion differ both in their roots and in their ramifications, but this is not equivalent to breaking all the ties that historically and functionally link one with the other, and this for two reasons: because religion affects everything that the believer does and thinks, and because science, although it moves within partial and restricted orders, has a natural tendency to totalise them, which implies and demands a correct coordination with other areas of human existence and most particularly with the religious one. This being said, things are somewhat generic, so I will try to be more concrete in order not to get lost in abstractions.
The fact is that over the course of time there have been many (scholars and laymen, devout and unbelievers) who have insisted on accentuating the separation between the scientific and the religious. This was initially for historical reasons. Modern science was born in a very turbulent time from a religious point of view: the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Wars of Religion coincided with the first steps of the renewal of mathematics, astronomy and mechanics. Very often the fathers of the new science belonged to persecuted and displaced religious minorities. *(11) The rulers and maintainers of public order were very sensitive to doctrinal heterodoxy at subject of religion, so that for those first generations of scientists it was almost a matter of survival to keep such suspicions at bay, especially if we take into account that they were largely dependent on the patronage of the king or the Church. This explains why the nascent academies of science insisted on making clear the innocuousness of their research from an ethical and religious point of view, and the best way to achieve this was to ensure that science had nothing to do with such matters. An unequivocal manifestation of this can be found in the eulogy that Jean Paul Grandjean de Fouchy, secretary of the Académie des Sciences in Paris, delivered after the death of one of the academicians in 1759:
"It is perhaps surprising that we have not made accredited specialization in this Eulogy of several fragments of Metaphysics and Morals found in the collection of the Works of M. de Maupertuis; but [...] the Academy, confined only to the study of Mathematics and Physics, in which no other guides than evidence and experience are recognised, has wisely forbidden itself the study of any other Science, and especially of these other Sciences.The Academy, confined only to the study of Mathematics and Physics, in which it recognises no other guides than evidence and experience, has wisely forbidden itself the study of any other Science, and especially those two just mentioned, which touch too closely on respectable objects, in which it is so easy to mistake sophistry for demonstration. * (12)
subject Thus, the sharp separation of science from metaphysics, morality, and final, from anything that might have religious implications, was at first part of a strategy of self-defence on the part of scientists. Later, when science acquired sufficient strength and prestige to be sheltered from any attack by the custodians of the beliefs that guaranteed social peace, it was the latter who found the separation comfortable, since it served to disqualify a priori, without the need to enter into angry theoretical discussions, any extrapolation of science that affected the doctrinal content of faith. "Shoemaker to your shoes", was the inevitable slogan that apologists hurled against scientists who were too bold in rushing to their conclusions, or against ideologues and philosophers who relied on science to erode the theoretical foundations of religion. Most scientists, who as we have seen above were faithful in the order staff to the creed of their elders, applauded this attitude, since it enshrined their autonomy and took away the worry of having to face unpleasant consequences on the professional theoretical horizon. Thus, both religious advocates and pious scientists preferred to emphasise the differences between science and religion, even at the risk of fostering an intellectually split culture. Many Christian researchers have become accustomed over the last 150 years to forgetting about the existence of a supernatural order as soon as they put on their lab coats to enter laboratory or sit down at their desks to resume their calculations and theoretical reflections. This attitude has had and continues to have many consequences. Etienne Gilson has even stated that: "Strictly speaking, a scientific negation of the religious makes no sense, since both orders are mutually alien and because there is no sense of the word truth which is common to both orders, by virtue of which these orders could be put on contact ."(13) From very different, but on this point convergent, coordinates, Henri Poincaré argued that: "There can be no scientific morality, but neither can there be immoral science. "* (14) To sustain thesis like this, high, solid and impenetrable walls must be built to separate scientific truth and religious truth, or intellect and feeling, which according to Poincaré constitutes the driving force of morality. It is likely that Pierre Duhem was the person who was most committed and fortunate in this endeavour, since he eminently combined the quadruple status of believer, scientist, historian of science and epistemologist. One of Duhem's most firmly held convictions is that the unbeliever and the devout can join hands when they meet on the neutral ground of science:
"Our ideas about the nature of physical theory were thus born of the internship of the scientific research and of the demands of the teaching; however deep our examination of intellectual conscience may be, it is impossible for us to recognise any influence exerted on the genesis of these ideas by any religious concern. And how could it have been otherwise? How could we have thought that the evolution undergone by our opinions as physicists could have had any importance for our Catholic faith? Had we not known Christians, as sincere as they were enlightened, who believed blindly in mechanistic explanations of the material Universe? Had we not known Christians who were ardent supporters of Newton's inductive method? Did it not leap to our eyes, to ours and to those of every man of common sense, that the object and nature of physical theory were things foreign to religious doctrines and without contact any connection with them? And, moreover, by emphasising more and more how little our way of thinking about these questions was inspired by our beliefs, did not the most numerous and most scathing attacks on that way of thinking come from those who profess the same religious faith?" * (15)
At final, there would be good physics and bad physics, Chemistry rightly or wrongly posited, biology compatible or incompatible with the facts of life; but only a confusion of genres could result in a science hostile or friendly to religious creeds. Consequently, theologians should not have pretended to teach Galileo whether the earth moves or stands still at the centre of the universe, nor should scientists - as Laplace did - ever have pretended that God was only a dispensable hypothesis. If both had been more restrained, refraining from stepping outside their sphere of skill, no problem, no conflict would have arisen. I am touched by the faith that many still profess today in this Solomonic solution. But, unfortunately for it, history teaches that theologians have made frequent excursions into the realm of natural science, before and after Galileo. They even created such genres as physical theology, astrotheology and biological theology, which experienced periods of spectacular flowering. Similarly, some scientists and others who make science a faith have spoken of the religion of science, or do not, but make it the sole dispenser of ultimate truths. Among those who understood science as a religious core topic it is worth remembering Ernest Renan, who in his book The Future of Science said: "Only science can refund give mankind what it needs to live; a symbol and a law". * (16) And from the group of those who make science an absolute written request of knowledge we can mention the creator of the inflationary universe theory, Alan Guth, who in a book that appeared only three years ago includes the following comment: "Although attempts to describe the materialisation of the universe out of nothing remain highly speculative today, they represent an exciting extension of the limits of science. If this programme is one day completed, it would mean that the existence and history of the universe could be explained by the substantive laws of nature. "* (17)
Although I am no expert in cosmology, I think that Guth is half wrong when he adheres to the doctrine of the self-creation of the universe, but I agree with him at agreement that the limits of science are not now and have never been clearly defined. This lack of definition ruins the attempt to put science and religion in watertight compartments, as Duhem, Gilson and so many others tried to do. In the same way that society did not emerge from a social contract, science was not born after the signature of a foundational spistemological contract, in which its methods, contents, explanatory levels and legitimation procedures were clearly defined. It appeared in a gradual and unpredictable way, like almost everything man does, and without anyone setting its course a priori. With a certain amount of arbitrariness we decide from the present who were scientists and who were philosophers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but they themselves had a very different awareness of their own affiliation and in some cases, as for example in Newton, science, Philosophy and religion were mixed in a way that is inextricable today. In the most paradigmatic conflict of all, the one between Galileo and Bellarmine, the former based his claim to autonomy for the rational discussion of the earth's motion on a distinction between natural questions and supernatural or "de fide" questions. No one today can deny that this was his right, and that the proposition under discussion belonged to the former category. But the decisive question for the future was to know who would delimit the boundaries between the two types of questions and how, since, as Galileo himself said: "who will pretend to set limits to human ingenuity, who will dare to affirm that everything that is knowable in the world is already known? * (18) In the course of history, the frontiers of science have been conditioned by factual circumstances: availability of empirical data , invention of instruments, finding of techniques of mathematical formulation and calculation, etc. The applicability of methods and the communicability of results was what allowed astronomy, mechanics, Chemistry or electromagnetism to become part of science. Therefore, to say that the conflicts between science and religion would have been avoided if the limits of each had been respected does not resolve the dispute, because the limits of the former are shifting, and vary precisely according to conflicts in which scientists have taken away the right to deal with questions that had previously been considered the exclusive concern of metaphysicians and sometimes of theologians. Thus, the Newtonian decision to hold divine providence responsible for the stability of the solar system implicitly assumed that an explanation of the same phenomenon based on the laws of motion would be to the detriment of God's presence in the world. Leibniz was more accurate in maintaining that the only possibility for the progress of science not to the detriment of theology lay in leaving open the possibility of reinterpreting scientific discoveries theologically: what first appears to be a miracle can then be seen as an ordinary decree, without in any way undermining the divine government, for to claim otherwise is "as if we were to say of a king that he had educated his subjects so well [....] that he would have no need to correct them, that he is a king in name only." * (19)
The variability of the boundaries of science is a serious drawback to the success of the idea of securing the harmony of science and religion by fixing areas of exclusive competence for each. We know from experience how thorny negotiations are when boundaries have to be drawn between disputed territories, and how dangerous it is to leave wide no-man's-lands between the contenders in order to avoid friction. This is not to say that all borders should be eliminated and all distinctions erased: science is and will remain science and religion religion; but it is much easier for harmony to emerge from a daily effort to live together than from a mutual and irreversible estrangement. There is also another point to consider. Those who advise science and religion to mind their own business, without taking care of their neighbour's, tend to see in them radically different approaches and attitudes, monopolised by reason in one case and by faith in the other. I do not consider myself a scholar of religious sciences, but I dare to conjecture that, even if faith is the essential articulation of religion, religion cannot be reduced to faith, on pain of falling into fideism. What is proper to religion, at least to the Christian religion, is to incorporate and involve all the dimensions and Schools of man, in such a way that, seized and dragged along by faith, reason, intelligence, imagination and affectivity give rise to a model of existence that seeks to bring to its fullness all that is valuable in man. This is why it tends to form a style of developing all the activities that enrich the human species, including science itself. For its part, science is not merely rational either. It never was, not least because reason alone cannot go very far; I would even go so far as to say that it does not get anywhere. Reason always needs to be supported by faith, if by faith we mean confidence in a truth that is not yet in our grasp. It is not necessarily a religious faith, although it has more than once been experienced as such. Albert Einstein has even expressed it in a canonical way:
"The certainty that there is something we cannot reach, our perception of the deepest reason and the most dazzling beauty, which our minds can only access in their crudest forms..., it is this certainty and this emotion which constitute true religiosity. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that I am a deeply religious man". * (20)
After all, the scientist is first and foremost a seeker, and no one starts looking unless he or she is convinced that something can be found. Precisely because science is not a product of pure reason, but a gamble, an adventure and a vocation, human beings have been able to devote the best of themselves to it, have been able to pin their hopes on it and feel that it filled their lives with meaning. To ignore this has been a fatal error on the part of many defenders of Christianity, just as the scientismists were wrong to think that man can have faith in science (I say faith in science and not faith in science) or that science can be transformed into religion. It is pathetic and disturbing to reread those professions of faith, formulated at a time when science was still innocent and its cultivators saw it as full of promises of redemption:
"You are the sceptics and we are the believers. We believe in the work of modern times, in its sanctity, in its future, and you curse it. We believe in reason, and you insult it; we believe in humanity, in its divine senses, in its imperishable future, and you laugh at it; we believe in the dignity of man, in the goodness of his nature, in the uprightness of his heart, in his right to be perfect, and you shake your heads at hearing such consoling truths [...] We believe in all that is true, we love all that is beautiful, and you, closing your eyes to the infinite charm of things, pass through the beautiful world without a smile on your faces." * (21)
The positivists of yesteryear were fortunate not to know the horrors that the twentieth century has perpetrated with the power that science has placed in the hands of man, and which made the physicist Max Born write these words in a letter to his friend Einstein: "I read recently in the newspapers that you had said that if you were born again you would not be a physicist but a craftsman. These words were a great comfort to me, because similar thoughts cross my mind when I see the damage that our once beautiful science has done to the world". * (22) And perhaps it would have been even more disconsolate for them to endure the detachment with which today's post-moderns, children of the civilisation enlightened by science, enjoy the inheritance bequeathed to them by their elders. But I do not think it is good to mock any faith that has been sincerely lived. I only want to insist that I think it is detrimental that science and religion are kept far apart from each other, because man is a being of totalities and tends irremissibly to make a whole out of what is at hand. And if the only thing he has at hand is science, he will make a very small whole out of it. Let us, if you like, briefly examine some of these simulacra of totality that make up the creed of many contemporary scientists.
There are at least four constituent elements of scientific activity that are likely to become the seeds of a pseudo-religion if they become absolutised. Modern science was forged in the 17th century, when the dominant philosophical currents were mathematical rationalism and empiricism. From these it took its love of facts and its determined endeavour to find exact and calculable formulations for the laws and concepts it deals with. Formulas translate facts and facts refer to reality, so that an unavoidable ingredient of scientific faith is a particular version of realism, according to which phenomena manifest reality without falsifying it, and mathematical reason gives phenomena a canonical form without seriously altering their substance or thereby losing the connection with what is really real. Consequently, the double mediation that sustains the scientific work is no impediment to the attainment of truth: the world is intelligible, and precisely in the sense in which science poses its effort of comprehension. As this effort is methodical, it is essential to respect the conditions and limits in which this method is applicable: it is only permitted to trust in the goodness of the results obtained as long as we stick to the procedures that guide us and the problems that fit them. In short, the scientist is based on facts, elucidates them by reason, presumes that the truth of reality is waiting for him, ready to reward his efforts, and considers that his success depends on not limiting himself beyond the rules of procedure and the scope of the objects he studies. I do not think there is anything to oppose to any of these four golden rules of science, but it would be a serious mistake to transform them into closed and rigid slogans. All creative scientists modify them in one way or another, and those who are just plain honest at least know how to use prudent discretion in applying them. One can say of science at final what a well-known author has said of literature: that it "lives by the continual and delicate infringement of its laws". *(23) When this is not understood in this way, science is being totalised in a fraudulent way, it is being turned into a metaphysics and a religion, almost always with catastrophic consequences. It is not a bad thing that the scientist is to some extent an empiricist, a rationalist, a realist and a cultivator of limited fields. These are necessary factors for the faith he needs as a scientist. However, if he extrapolates and transposes them into the faith that is proper to him as a human being, he is quite capable of turning them into the seeds of so many other religions that leave much to be desired: the religion of immediacy, the religion of deterministic materialism, the religion of gnostic pantheism and the religion of essential chance. Let us examine briefly how these processes of perversion of scientific faith take place and how they can be stopped.
To worship facts as if they were the ultimate and definitive is the first of these pathologies of the spirit. Positivism has tried to elaborate statutes of knowledge that would enshrine the primacy of the factual in order to define the features of the legitimate and admissible knowledge . It is well known how it failed to achieve a coherent exhibition for its statement of core values. But there is a latent positivism that is much harder to detect and purify. This positivism, which has become something akin to a religion, is still prevalent in large sections of cultivated society, and is reflected in the inability to detach oneself from the immediate and to distance oneself just a millimetre from a reality that we have domesticated to suit ourselves. There is a very instructive sample of all this in Darwin's account of how he lost his faith:
"I was very little inclined to renounce my belief; I am sure of this, for I well remember many, many times inventing fancies about ancient letters in the possession of illustrious Romans, and manuscripts discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most astonishing manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, giving free rein to my imagination, to invent a test that would suffice to convince me. In this way I was gradually overcome by scepticism, until I became a complete unbeliever. The process was so slow that I felt no pain at all." * (24)
It is admirable the sincerity with which this man confesses that his distancing was not due to the lack of sufficient factual evidence, but to the impossibility of conceiving a fact capable of confirming the truth of religion. And it is logical: God cannot fit into a fact moulded and delimited according to the modules of science. Doubt is always possible. Not even the greatest of miracles could move us one iota if other springs of the soul were not simultaneously set in motion. In this sense, Darwin was far more perceptive than a well-known contemporary philosopher of science, Norwood Hanson, who made the following experience a necessary condition of his eventual conversion:
"Suppose, however, that next Tuesday morning immediately after our breakfast, all of us in the world are brought to our knees by a percussive thundering [...] discovering an incredibly immense and radiant figure of Zeus towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns grimly [...] points - at me - and exclaims, so that all men, women and children can hear him: "I have had enough of your skilful logic-cutting and theological word-searching. Convince yourself, N. R. Hanson, that I most certainly exist."" * (25)
The illustrious epistemologist adds that "if such an event were to happen B, I, once and for all, would be convinced that God exists". * (26) For my part I allow myself to doubt it, unless I were a critic of the knowledge less good than it is said to be. One could always think of a collective hallucination, of a Martian from another galaxy with the most advanced technology, or whatever. In the Gospels it is said that many were fed up with seeing miracles without their disbelief being shaken one iota. That is why Darwin was a better philosopher of science when he confessed that he could not believe in God, because he believed too much in the religion of facts, and this is a faith incompatible with the other, when it is absolutised to the extent that he did.
The second pathology to be described has to do with the paroxysmal rationality that some science fanatics have developed to ensure the reliability of their achievements. The ideal of rigorous knowledge dates back to antiquity, but although philosophers struggled hard with the definition of concepts, the construction of judgements and the purity of reasoning, they never achieved complete satisfaction of this striving. Only the mathematicians achieved encouraging results, though only with respect to objects that the public for the most part considered uninteresting. The success of the moderns was to perfect and systematise procedures of measurement and calculation, establishing a symbiosis between mathematics and physics that placed discipline on what Kant called "the straight path of science".
The dazzling success of the new science in the fields of astrophysics and mechanics produced for a time the illusion that it had succeeded in achieving a form of apodictic, completely certain knowledge , even though it was obvious that the facts on which it was based had no such certainty and that the mathematical calculations and deductions it used were not immaculate either. For a time there was the impression that these discoveries could not be far from absolute truth and that they should therefore be collected in a fully reliable theory, overcoming the semi-empirical character of their attainment. The Critique of Pure Reason was the most notorious attempt to give an aprioric foundation to the laws of mathematical physics, which implied conferring on them a universal validity without exceptions in the spatio-temporal realm. It is true that for Kant the spatio-temporal is purely phenomenal, which safeguards the possibility of a beyond science, which is also a beyond knowledge goal . As Kant himself confesses: "I had, therefore, to suppress knowledge in order to make room for faith. "* (27) Nevertheless, the bulk of the academic community remained deaf to the suggestion to base the reliability of their work on core topic idealism. They preferred Newton's simple faith in the intelligibility of the world, proclaimed by Newton when he states in the explanation of his first rule for philosophising: "The philosophers already say: nature does nothing in vain, and it would be vain to do by much what can be done by little. For nature is simple and does not waste itself in superfluous causes of things". * (28) If reality is so transparent that our spirit can unravel its mysteries as soon as it peers into it with a little curiosity and tenacity, it is not necessary to get too hot in the head to establish the certainty of science; it is enough to take a risk and, after a few attempts, one will arrive at the definitive solutions. Thus is born the "religion" of the simplicity of the world, summed up in Einstein's phrase "God is subtle but not evil". The only evil that the German scholar conceives and rejects in God is that of constructing a world that is too convoluted, that would defy description based on mathematical formulae, or would require mathematics that is too high, beyond the reach of man. By the time he launched this slogan, Einstein had already despaired of truly simple solutions, and was struggling to prevent his colleagues from throwing in the towel, as he believed they were about to do. It is no exaggeration to see in his attitude a religion, and he was certainly far from alone in professing it. It was the same spirit that lay beneath determinism and behind the obsessive belief in a blind and unyielding causality that operates everywhere without exception:
"...the scientist is imbued with the feeling of universal causality. For him, the future is as inevitable and determined as the past. There is nothing divine in morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of ecstatic amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the thought and all the actions of human beings are but an insignificant reflection." * (29)
Despite the quasi-mystical tone of these phrases, the religious mood that inspires them is a form of pantheistic gnosticism. Once again the part has been taken for the whole: the classical scientist needs to persuade himself that God has not made things too difficult for him and, if he does not have a large enough dose of self-awareness, he may end up believing himself entitled to tell him how to do things, just as Alfonso X the Wise, discouraged by the gibberish of medieval astronomy, once said that if God our Lord had deigned to consult him before creating the universe, he could have given him some salutary advice. Armed with the assurance of being in possession of the only genuine revelation, the last representatives of that ancient science predicted the coming end of the mysteries to be discovered and, when they did not completely break with traditional religiosity, they at least felt obliged to supervise it. Max Planck offers us a tangible test of this: "Faith in miracles must give way, step by step, to the constant and steady advance of the forces of science, and its total defeat is undoubtedly only a question of time. * (30) It is surprising that, engrossed as they were in their work and in the invention of a religion just to suit their own epistemological conveniences, they did not realise that they were designing a hostile and uninhabitable world for man, over which paradoxically a god even more anthropomorphic - perhaps we should call him "scientificomorphic" - than the gods of antiquity criticised by Xenophanes of Colophon was reigning.
One of the most philosophically relevant merits of 20th century science, and more particularly of quantum mechanics, is to have lifted the heavy mortgage that hung over theology, due to the insolent demand to think the Divinity of agreement with the tastes of scientism. It would be difficult now to summarise the reasons for this reversal, but the following could be said in relation to one of the essential points: in their eagerness to simplify reality and make it more permeable to science, some researchers have been forced to eliminate from the world every last trace of spiritual or subjective interiority: first in the inorganic realm, then in that of life, then in the human realm, and finally in that of the very first Principle itself. This was all the more disconcerting when it was realised that traces of subjectivity appeared everywhere in the most fundamental theory of science, to the point of making the subject an unavoidable reference letter of any meaningful physical formulation. Interpreters of limited perspicacity cried out against an alleged "idealist" metaphysics that would have crept into the most revered redoubt of knowledge goal , when in fact all that was happening was that those at the forefront of scientific progress were beginning to assume such an essentially trivial fact as that without a subject there can be no knowledge goal or any other class. Arthur Eddington has explained it in somewhat more precise terms:
"We might suspect the intention of reducing God to a system of differential equations, as has happened with the other instances introduced on various occasions to restore order to the physical outline of reality. This possibility, at least, is avoided. For what constitutes the sphere of differential equations in physics is the cyclic metric outline drawn from the study of external reality. However much the ramifications of this cycle may be extended by further scientific discoveries, they cannot by their very nature penetrate the background that underlies their being, their existence in fact. It is in this background that one's own mental consciousness resides; and it is here, if anywhere, that we can find a higher Power akin to one's own consciousness. The laws that control this spiritual substratum, which as far as we know them in our own consciousness are essentially beyond measurement, cannot be analogous to differential equations or other mathematical equations of physics, which in order to make sense need to be nourished by quantities determined by measurement. So the most crudely anthropological image we can have of a spiritual deity can hardly be further from reality than the one we can conceive of in terms of these mathematical metric equations". * (31)
We have seen how the excessive confidence in the certainty of the conclusions of science and the obstinacy of extending its scope of skill more and more at any cost, led many to formulate in the most uncritical and dogmatic way the postulate that there are no more "facts" than those that a science biased towards deterministic materialism can digest, nor any other god than the one identified with the framework of laws and principles that enthroned it. This is what the pretension of objectively establishing the rigour of science beyond any doubt or risk, and of sustaining with the least sophisticated of realisms the yearning for truth to which every scientist legitimately aspires, lead to. We have yet to comment on the last of the temptations of false totalisation that beset contemporary science. The healthy principle of not applying the scientific method beyond what is reasonable, nor pretending to solve questions that we are not in a position to solve, runs the risk of becoming the unhealthy criterion that what is beyond my method or my skill is not really so important, since I can manage without taking it into account and perhaps it is in itself dispensable. This is basically nothing more than a rather arrogant variant of the ostrich tactic; but with the proliferation of specialism it has become one of the worst evils of our culture. And among its many deplorable consequences are those that affect religion, since God and faith either remain beyond the limits of scientific method - that is, in the outer darkness of the unknowable and uncontrollable - or else they bow to the demands of scientific explanation, which is always in terms of "something else", thus distorting and depriving of all meaning notions that can only be understood in terms of themselves. The civilisation in which we live has become so prolix and so generously dispenses distractions, that it is easy to submit the best of oneself to the very narrow field for which one is qualified, and to yearn beyond business for less complicated and demanding formulas of leisure. This is a very easy and well-known criticism, so I am not going to insist on it, but I note that few intentions of amendment are detected in order to combat an evil that continues to progress. It is what we might call the "Albert Speer syndrome", the brilliant architect appointed by Hitler as Minister of Armaments, who managed to keep German war production up throughout the war, despite massive Allied bombing. It is worth recalling the words with which he ended his plea before the Nuremberg tribunal:
"The more technology advances, the greater is the danger.... As a former minister of the most modern armaments, it is my duty to say: A new war would destroy civilisation. [...] Every state in the world today is in danger of falling under the terror of technology, but in a dictatorial regime this is unavoidable. Therefore, the greater the progress of technology, the more necessary it will be, in return, to promote individual freedom and respect for each man's dignity". * (32)
These are fine words, albeit a little late in coming from the mouth of the person who uttered them. But in themselves they are still valid, and I believe that in order to recover the sense of our freedom and dignity, the first step to take is not to deprive of content and value what is beyond our professional remit and, on a social level, what exceeds the sphere that science and technology recognise as their own. Religion concerns things that man cannot dispose of at his own discretion, because they are definitely beyond his control. Today we are already beginning to cure ourselves of the pretension of making ourselves absolute masters of our own destiny, but for that margin of uncertainty that our science recognises as essential and irreducible, we have invented a name that we now want to transform into a new deity with lower case letters: chance. Chance proliferates in all disciplines, it appears inside the tubes of essay, between the electromagnets of particle accelerators and in the large mirrors of supertelescopes. It has been hard to admit it, but with Einstein dead and buried, recent generations have adapted to its presence and developed protocols to handle it with ease and respect. This is all very well, but it is only half of the work to be done. The enthronement of chance in science is nothing more than the recognition of the intrinsic limits of research activity. Whatever method we choose, something is always left out, and the best way to recognise it is to count it as imprecision in measurements, vagueness in concepts, uncertainty in predictions, or a margin of randomness in laws. Now, what shall we say about this beyond science considered in itself, independently of the merely negative use that science confers on it? It is obvious that we should choose other keys to consider it, keys that could perhaps also serve to give a deeper meaning to the positive thesis of science. On the other hand, if we pretend to give a paradoxical positive entity to what science understands only as limit and negation, and we talk about "essential chance", "chaos goal", "pure indeterminacy" and so on, we fall back into the oldest error of specialism, which consists in believing that what is nothing for it is nothing for everybody, nothing in itself and for itself. And yet this is today one of the most celebrated slogans of the para-science that emerged at the end of the millennium. Its most prominent prophet was Jacques Monod. He is somewhat forgotten today, perhaps because he gave his proposal a grandiloquent tone in keeping with the style that was fashionable in the early 1970s, whereas today's radical contingentism does not sit well with such boasts. However, the message it conveyed was clear and has penetrated a society that refuses to submit to any imposition that does not come from the factual conditionings studied by science and managed by technology:
"The old alliance is now broken; man knows at last that he is alone in the indifferent vastness of the Universe from which he has emerged by chance. Like his destiny, his duty is nowhere written. He can choose between the Kingdom and darkness." * (33)
The Kingdom, which he writes in capital letters, is related to the ethics of knowledge, for in his utopia scientists are the only ones who can afford morals; the rest of society is condemned to live demoralised because what else can be expected of a purely casual being? Even the ethics of the knowledge which is reserved for the chosen of fortune rests purely and simply in a vacuum. Monod's proposal is more than an anecdote. Serious scientists in their respective fields have argued that creation itself can be a mere product of chance. This is the case, among others, of Peter Atkins, who at least has the virtue of expressing himself openly:
"I maintain that the only way to explain creation is to show that the creator has absolutely no work to do, and therefore might as well not have existed. [...] We will see that all the events that happen in us and around us have the same motivation. A collapse into chaos, with no goal or purpose whatsoever." * (34)
It is an idea that has been taken up by those who in recent years have spoken of the self-creation of the universe. The fallacy behind their arguments is quite evident: they assume that the whole web of laws that would preside over this autonomous unfolding is there, just because, and they also confuse the metaphysical concept of "nothing" with the vulgar sense of this word when we say "inside this box there is nothing" or "yesterday afternoon there was nothing":
"Instead of vanishing like all other improbabilities, this extreme improbability is frozen into existence. [...] The universe has begun. Randomly. [...] At the moment of creation, nothingness divides, in a sense, into extremely simple opposites. [...] When a particle and its antiparticle collide they become something that is essentially nothing, a bubble of energy". * (35)
It is time for me to conclude my exhibition and I fear that it might give a negative impression of the relationship between science and religion. On the contrary, I think that religion can and should find in science a natural ally in the immediate future. Its cultivators have generally retained a love of truth, are faithful to the commitment to search for it, and cling to the hope of finding it, above all the discouragements, scepticisms and relativisms that afflict our tired civilisation. If I have commented on a series of adverse cases, it is because I believe that they describe the pathologies that result when the man of faith ignores the philosophical sense of science and neglects the work of entering into dialogue with it. Etienne Gilson, who did not consider this speech imperative, was on the other hand well aware of how damaging to religion was the attempt to destroy the Philosophy by a misunderstood anti-rationalist zeal of theologians: "When religion tries to establish itself on the ruins of the Philosophy, it is normal for a philosopher to emerge determined to found the Philosophy on the ruins of religion". * (36) I think the same can be said of science and scientists because, as lovers of wisdom, they too are philosophers. Today, as always, many great names in mathematics, cosmology, physics, Chemistry and biology are asking themselves the ultimate questions, those that can only be answered by religion, and, taking a first impulse from their own research, they are opening up to a more plenary session of the Executive Council and less conditioned concept of knowledge. The lack of valid interlocutors professionally grounded in the religious perspective means that many of these efforts fail or are diverted towards partial, erroneous and even erratic answers. But spirits are kept awake, and if there is a soil in which good seed has a chance to germinate, I believe this is surely one of the best. Thank you very much.
- Ch. Darwin, Autobiography, Madrid, Alianza, 1977, p. 108.
- Throughout this exhibition the words "science" and "scientific" should refer to the natural sciences (astrophysics, physics, Chemistry and biology).
- Antonio F. Rañada, Los científicos y Dios, Oviedo, Nobel, 1994, p. 31.
- See, for example, Juan Arana, Las raíces ilustradas del conflicto entre fe y razón, Madrid, meeting, 1999.
- Carlton J. H. Hayes, A Generation of Materialism, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, 1946, p. 127.
- Antonin Eymieu, La part des croyants dans les progrès de la science au XIXe siècle, Paris, Perrin, 1935, 2 vols. II, p. 274.
- See Dennert, Die Religion des Naturforsher, Berlin, Verlag der Vaterländischen Verlags und Kunstanstalt, 1908, p. 54.
- See Eymieu, La part des croyants..., II, p. 283. The list of atheists compiled by this author includes: Tyndal, Lumière, Curie, Berthelot, Suess, Giard, Haeckel, Strasburger, Leuckart, Raspail, Margendie, Buchner, Moleschott, Vogt, Charcot, Bertheim, and that of the indifferent: Poincaré, Lagrange, Galois, Bunsen, Van't Hoff, Moissan, Nägelli, van Tieghen, du Bois-Reymond, Romanes, Broca, Broussais, Corvisart, Koeberlé, Darwin.
- See, e.g., Stilman Drake, Galileo, Madrid, Alianza, 1983.
- Stephen W. Hawking,Historia del tiempo, Barcelona, Crítica, 1989, p. 156.
- Copernicus, a Catholic astronomer, published his great work in a Protestant country. Kepler and Huygens were Protestants living in Catholic domains, unlike Descartes. Newton was an anti-Trinitarian living in the "high school of the Trinity"; in almost all European countries religious minorities were proportionally better represented among the cultivators of science: Puritans in England, Pietists in Germany, Protestants in the Catholic states... See Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England, Madrid, Alianza, 1984, pp. 140-163.
- Jean Paul G. de Fouchy, Eloge de Maupertuis, in: Histoire de l'Académie Royal de Sciences [de Paris] (1759), 1765, pp. 272-273.
- Etienne Gilson,De Aristóteles a Darwin (y vuelta), Pamplona, Eunsa, 1976, p. 172.
- Henri Poincaré, "La moral y la ciencia" (1910), in: Últimos pensamiento, Buenos Aires, Espasa Calpe, 1946, p. 147.
- Pierre Duhem, "Physique de croyant" (1914), in: La théorie physique, Paris, Vrin, 1981, pp. 421-422.
- Ernest Renan, El porvenir de la ciencia, (1848), Madrid, Doncel, 1976, p. 26.
- Alan H. Guth, El universo inflacionario, Madrid, discussion, 1999, p. 320.
- Galileo Galilei, "Carta a D. Benedetto Castelli del 21.12.1613", in: Carta a Cristina de Lorena, Madrid, Alianza, 1987, p. 42.
- Leibniz, "First reply to Clarke", in: La polémica Leibniz-Clarke, Madrid, Taurus, 1980, p. 60.
- Albert Einstein, "My ideas and opinions", in: On the theory of relativity, Madrid, Sarpe, 1983, p. 198.
- Renan, The Future of Science, p. 49.
- A. Einstein - M. Born, Correspondencia 1916-1955, Mexico, Siglo XXI, 1973, pp. 285-286.
- Jorge Luis Borges, Textos cautivos (1986), in: Obras completas, vol. IV, Barcelona, Emecé, 1996, p. 359.
- Darwin,Autobiography, pp. 111-112.
- N. Russell Hanson,En lo que no creo, Valencia, Teorema, 1976, p. 15.
- Hanson, What I Don't Believe In, p. 16.
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B xxx.
- Isaac Newton, Principios matemáticos de la Philosophy natural, Madrid, Alianza, 1987, pp. 615-616.
- Einstein, "My Ideas and Opinions", p. 229.
- Max Planck, "Science et religion", in: Autobiographie scientifique et dernières écrits, Paris, Albin Michel, 1969, pp. 192-193.
- Arthur Eddington, "subject mental", in: Heisenberg, Schrödinger, etc., Quantum Questions, Barcelona, Kairós, 1987, pp. 265-266.
- Albert Speer, Memoirs, Barcelona, Círculo de lectores, 1969, pp. 602-603.
- Jacques Monod, El azar y la necesidad. essay sobre la Philosophy natural de la biología moderna (1970), Barcelona, Seix Barral, 1977, p. 193.
- Peter W. Atkins, La creación (1981), Madrid, Guadarrama, 1983, p. 29.
- Atkins, Creation, p. 139.
- Etiene Gilson, La unidad de la experiencia filosófica, Madrid, Rialp, 1966, p. 48.