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Science and Religion: Why You Don't Have to Choose

10/09/2012 07:43 EDT | Updated 12/08/2012 05:12 EST
imageZebra: Shutterstock

A friend's kid said to me the other day: "I'm a Darwinist."

"A what?" I asked, bemused.

"I don't believe in God," he explained, "I believe in Science."

All of eleven, he is, and ready to take on the world.

Okay, I thought, hold on there, kid. Darwin wasn't a prophet who started an "Ism," and Science isn't a faith. Au contraire.

Science, as a method of inquiry, is inherently neutral. Remember? It measures velocity, and volume, and speed. It calculates ones and zeros. It demonstrates how to evaluate the temperature without claiming to assert: "it's too hot, or too cold."

It can be tempting to respond to the sheer idiocy of American Creationists like Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA,) who recently described evolution and the Big Bang as "lies straight from the pit of Hell" by broadly rejecting religion. But these are not either-or categories and it is startling that they should have become so. The Big Bang theory was postulated in the first place, after all, by a Jesuit priest who was also an astrophysicist.

In 2010, the sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed scientists at America's Ivy League universities for her book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, and found that 60 per cent of them either believe in God, or believe a spiritual universe is possible but unknowable via conventional scientific means. This is the classic position taken publicly by a host of scientific thinkers, including the Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson.

We need to get rid of some of the category confusion that has crept into current debates and percolated down to secular kids. What would it have meant, for Charles Darwin to be a Darwinist?

Allowing that the world is more mysterious than we yet understand is not a position that Darwin opposed. He had a crisis of faith related to the specifically Biblical ideas of creation that went unchallenged in his day, because field observations told him that the world did not leap into being, fully-formed, in one week. (He was, indeed, so unsettled by his discoveries that he went to a spa at Malvern to be sprayed by a hose, which was scientifically decreed at the time to cure "nervous indigestion."

The notion that Darwin would be depicted on a shield as an iconographic saint to fend off irrationality and trumpet scientific truth is a pretty serious muddying of issues. It's a category confusion that biologist Rupert Sheldrake laments in his new book, Science Set Free. (The book actually came out last winter in the UK, and was then presumably put into a bottle to float across the Atlantic for several months with salt, seagulls and savvy US agents changing its name during the crossing from The Science Delusion, because they knew how confusingly that would play in the American market.)

Sheldrake, a former professor of cell biology at Cambridge who gets into regular skirmishes with Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is another scientist who doesn't think that his discipline should be seen as some sort of "Ism." But more than that, he's a heretic. He likes to use science to explore phenomena that Scientism -- being a faith, not a method -- decrees shouldn't be allowed to exist.

As a biologist, Sheldrake got interested at a certain point in his career in the apparent communicative abilities of animals at a distance. How did wolves range beyond the ordinary senses and yet still seem to know what was going on with their pack members? How did dogs appear to know when their owners were on their way home? Sheldrake designed a series of experiments to objectively ascertain that dogs did, indeed, begin reacting excitedly to the prospect of their human companion's return before they had access to any ordinary way of getting the wonderful news. This was a scientific inquiry. The question was: is there another sense, that we are as yet unaware of, that animals are using to detect information?

Sheldrake was swiftly denounced as a numbskull who chases fairies.

But if science is neutral, then why should it matter if telepathy turns out to exist? So what? It ought to be neither here nor there that animals may have some as yet uncharted means of knowing, but instead we heap scorn on the proposition. Studies correlating the EEGs of twins and separated pairs at a distance have been going on for years, with the same reflexive push-back. Pshaw! Tut-tut! But, why?

We don't know how the placebo effect works, or which neural mechanism causes complex visual hallucinations. Physicists and astronomers are currently observing phenomena that they cannot begin to explain. The threat, here, is not to "science" or to "reason," Sheldrake argues, but to materialism as a doctrinal worldview. Telepathy cannot exist because it doesn't fit.

Sheldrake examines ten areas of scientific research in his book that, he thinks, have been increasingly narrowed and rigidified by Scientistic dogma. It's a fascinating read, and not all that earth-shattering a claim, quite frankly, to anyone familiar with the history of science.

Europe's museums refused to display meteorites in the 19th century because rocks could not fall from the sky. Edison's electric lamp was considered so woo-woo a notion that other scientists refused an invitation to see it turned on. John Snow was belittled for proposing the existence of germs, when all smart scientists knew about miasma theory.

My favourite example of scientific blindness is the one that novelist Hilary Mantel pointed out a few years ago in the London Review of Books: "From 1904, the Wright brothers made flights over fields bordered by a main highway and railway line in Ohio; but though hundreds of people saw them in the air, the local press failed to publish reports because they didn't believe the witnesses, and didn't send their own witnesses because it couldn't be true. Two years after their first flight, Scientific American dismissed the feats of the flying brothers; if there had been anything in it, the journal said, would the local press not have picked it up?"

And there we have the conundrum in "believing" in science. Don't "believe" in science, I'd like to advise all young Darwinists: it's as fallible as the humans who frame the questions and interpret the findings. Do this instead, as Sheldrake urges: let science be a method of inquiry that ranges -- however madly and inquisitively -- free.