Science and Religion (again)

This article by Mark Lawson was originally posted here. It contains some things that need to be commented on.

Religious believers, when mentioning heaven, have traditionally cast their eyes skywards, but the possibility of an afterlife may now be proved by looking down towards the ground. Doctors at Southampton University are placing pictures in resuscitation areas that can only be seen from the ceiling. These will test the stories of defibrillated patients, who claim they have looked down on the crash teams attending to their lifeless bodies.

This is a pretty good experiment, as long as everybody besides the researches has no clue what the pictures are. Proper double blind trials and all....

The theory is that any of the chest-thumped who successfully play this posthumous game of Where's Wally? must have had an out-of-body experience, rather than the final flashing fantasy of a dying brain.

I's put money on the fantasy, but hopefully this will set the matter straight once and for all. However even if the fantasy theory is the one that fits the evidence I doubt whether some people will change their tune to match.

And this attempt by a scientific profession to test the claims of religion coincides with a less constructive standoff between rationalists and supernaturalists, namely the forced resignation of Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, after it was reported that he was in favour of "creationism" being discussed in school science lessons. What's whiffy about this incident is the strong suspicion that Reiss, an ordained minister, has been brought down by atheists in the Royal Society who consider religious belief incompatible with scientific practice.

I think that there are plenty of people who consider the two incompatible. If you claim to be part of any religion that I have so far had the misfortune to hear about then the beliefs are incompatible. If you just claim to have some sort of personal god then they may not be.

A fair interpretation of his comments is that he was addressing a serious issue affecting education in a culture which is largely secular, but where a small core of students may profess certain religious beliefs. He was suggesting that scientists should engage and argue with believers, rather than mock or ignore them.

I'm sure we've tried to engage with them before. The greatest thing about science is progress - ideas and theories change with new evidence. The same cannot be said of organised religion.

Such an attempt to subject supernatural beliefs to empirical testing lies behind the resuscitation unit art show. But an objection to the project is that it suffers from the scientific tendency to believe that anything can be proved one way or another. If any of the patients do prove to have seen art from on high, sceptics will hint darkly at collusion with a hospital cleaner. If they don't see them, church-goers will conclude that God cannot be trapped by a brain scan.

I said about double-blind trials, that would eliminate this source of error.

Many people, whatever happens, will remain "don't knows", and this is a smart group to belong to. Both the theories of evolution and quantum physics stumble over the question of first cause: the process by which nothingness became something. It's this zone of unknowability that leads to physicists using such loaded language as "the God particle" and has made evolutionists, especially in the US, vulnerable to the counter-dogma of "intelligent design".

at least scientists are attempting to solve the problem. Religion does not. If there is a god and he was half as intelligent as I am regualrly told, then he would be pondering the reason for his own existence. Religion does not attempt to solve the problem, it just passes the buck to a fictional figure.

Dr Sam Parnia, one of the curators of the crash room gallery, has said: "This is a mystery that we can now subject to scientific study." But, in that sentence, "mystery" is the crucial word. Religion speaks of the "sacred mysteries" - to which an explanation is promised after death - but it has always seemed vital to me that those who reject the sacred continue to respect the mysteries of how and why we are here.

It is mysteries that creates scientists. Scientists love mysteries. Then they try and solve them, which almost inevitably leads to more mysteries.

An interesting experiment in this context involves Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. They have almost identical beliefs on Darwinism and religion, but their attitudes are radically different: the naturalist retains an element of wonder at the beauties and cruelties of existence that the biologist seems to lack. The possibility of doubt is an important part of belief and unbelief.

This is bollocks of the highest degree. Dawkin's 'Unweaving the Rainbow' shows a genuine love for the natural world, and the science that tries to understand it. If you didn't love the natural world then you would find it very hard to be a scientist.

The novelist Terry Pratchett is exemplary in this respect. Long a proud trophy of the British Humanist Society, the writer recently had the experience of hearing the voice of his dead father telling him all will be well. The fact that this followed diagnosis with a variant of Alzheimer's must increase the possibility that Pratchett's brain was playing tricks on him, but his recent interviews reflect a dent in his scepticism. Both the religious and the scientific should admit to the gaps on their canvases.

Science does admit the gaps. That is the primary difference between it and religion. Scientists are fully aware, and readily admit, that they don't know everything. That is why they still have jobs, there is still stuff to be found out. Yes, we have no explanation at the moment for the cause of the big bang, but that's no reason not to look for one!


Ruth said...

You make some really great points in your arguments here. I especially agree with you on the issue of progress. :) There is a new book coming out in October called Healing the Rift that tackles the issue by arguing that religion and science can co-exist because our world is a blend of mind and spirit. The author Leo Kim also maintains a blog if you're interested in checking him out.