Monday, September 13, 1999

Science and Religion

In " Science and ethical values" (July 24, 1999), I wrote about Battersby's criticism of Feynman's words, "ethical values lie outside the scientific realm." We find a similar debate in Holden's article "Science and religion: Searching for answers to cosmic questions" [1]. Holden reports about an event held in April of this year at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The purpose of the event was to exchange views among scientists and theologians about the questions: "Did the universe have a beginning?" "Was the universe designed?" and "Are we alone?"

Reading about opposing views is interesting. For example, the physicist Steven Weinberg says, "The laws of nature are cold and impersonal," but the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne, "The world is shot through with signs of mind." About the "anthropic principle," Anna Case-Winters, a professor of theology, argues, "Both the universe's 'intelligibility' and its 'suitability' for life are evidence of the hand of God," but the physicist Alan Guth of MIT, "You can't talk about odds-defying circumstances when you have a sample of only one universe." And about applying theology to ethical debates in science, the paleobiologist Stephen Stanley of Johns Hopkins University says, "It will simply complicate an already complex issue," but Guth, "Much of the brainpower that has been thrown at ethical questions in science has come from theologians, so it is good for scientists to stay in touch."

I like the latter view on the application of theology or religion in the ethical problems of science. Bertrand Russell wrote in his book [2] about "one aspect of the religious life, and that perhaps the most desirable, which is independent of the discoveries of science, and may survive whatever we may come to believe as to the nature of the universe." It is to feel "deeply the problems of human destiny, the desire to diminish the sufferings of mankind, and the hope that the future will realize the best possibilities of our species." This religious feeling, independent of the discovery of science in the sense that it is irrelevant to the creeds of the existing religions about the birth and development of the universe, is important to help humans solve ethical problems of science. Directly with regard to these problems, John Polkinghorne writes [3] that one aspect of religious thought "relates to how all people of goodwill should seek to tackle the moral problems posed by the growth of science."
  1. C. Holden, Science, Vol. 284, p. 1258 (1999).
  2. B. Russell, "Religion and Science" (Oxford University Press, London, 1961; first published, Home University Library, 1935).
  3. J. C. Polkinghorne, "Belief in God in an Age of Science" (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"

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