Thursday, September 24, 2009

Science v Religion?

The Beaker Folk have invented a tremendous new game, which now officially replaces all discussions on science and religion. A taster

The players take up a position on either side of the fence. They take it in turns to throw their cards over it. The aim of each card is to trump the other team's previous card. For example, if the Science player plays the "Spanish Inquisition" card, the Religion team might play the "Darwinian eugenics" card. Likewise a "Homophobia" card might be met by a "Gays will burn in Hell" card - or possibly by a "My vicar's gay actually, but he just doesn't shout about it" card. Although the latter card is rare, and only available in the limited Edition "C of E" game pack, where you're allowed to sit on the fence.

For slightly more serious approach, you could try
The Faraday Papers series of free downloads by eminent authors on questions of science and religion.

Test of Faith a new site set up by the Faraday Institute, with study materials, videos, links to a big range of sites discussing science and religion.

This page at the Pew Forum has a transcript of a conference on science and faith, with Francis Collins (former director of the Human Genome project) talking about how he found his atheism challenged by what he discovered as a scientist. Here's a bit:

...I began to realize that even in science, where I had spent most of my time, there were pointers to God that I had paid no attention to that were actually pretty interesting.

One obvious one, although maybe it’s not so obvious, is that there is something instead of nothing. There’s no reason there should be anything at all. Wigner’s wonderful phrase “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” also comes to mind – Eugene Wigner, the Nobel laureate in physics, talking about the amazing thing about the whole study of physics is that mathematics makes sense; it can describe the properties of matter and energy in simple, even beautiful, laws. Why should that be? Why should gravity follow an inverse square law? Why should Maxwell’s five equations describe electromagnetism in very simple terms, and they actually turn out to be true? A thoughtful and interesting question. This is certainly one that Einstein also wrote about quite significantly.

The Big Bang, the fact that the universe had a beginning out of nothingness, as far as we can tell. From this unimaginable singularity, the universe came into being and has been flying apart ever since. That cries out for some explanation. Since we have not observed nature to create itself, where did this come from? That seems to ask you to postulate a creator who must not be part of nature or you haven’t solved the problem. In fact, one can also make a pretty good philosophical argument that a creator of this sort must also be outside of time or you haven’t solved the problem.

So now we have the idea of a creator who is outside of time and space, and who is a pretty darn good mathematician, and apparently also must be an incredibly good physicist.....

For an odd tangent on this whole business, read about the atheist scientist who thinks that a rediscovery of God as 'divine punisher' may help us to get real about climate change.


  1. Good post D!

    I love the idea for a board game like this, it would be very educational, but ouch!! this post is such a mash-up of straw men it makes me slightly suspicious of the motives. For example most of the "other side of religion" items are actually anything to do with science?

    "Darwinian Eugenics" is actually an oxymoron because Darwin is famous for discovering NATURAL selection and Eugenics is all about ARTIFICIAL selection; and anyway, this is like saying "Newtonian War", i.e. a non-sequitur. Voltaire was a philosopher, Jimmy Carr is a comedian, Bono is a singer, Hitler was a Nazi dictator. Dawkins *is* a scientist but also an anti-creationist; most religious people I know wouldn't argue with Dawkins actual scientific work?. Hubble - well yes Hubble is a scientific instrument I suppose, but what religious doctrine would it oppose, the Hebrew prohibition on space telescopes?

    Francis Collins is a great scientific administrator and a devout Catholic, an interesting combination certainly; but personally I find his logic lacking in substance, for example, simply saying "we don't know what created the big bang, therefore God did it" is just the age old "God of the gaps" argument, long since discredited. I had hoped for more "meat" from such a smart chap.

    The thing that intrigues me about the whole "Deist" tack favoured by Einstein and many historically significant Physicists, is that if God is "outside time and space" then how does he perform miracles and answer prayers?, things which are very much of this reality according to the Abrahamic faiths? This seems like a contradiction to me, but also a diminishing of the role of God to one of a celestial "dial twiddler"?

  2. Thanks Steve. I find that when you analyse humour it tends to fall apart......

    St. Paul would probably agree with you about the deists: his letter to the Romans talks about creation displaying certain aspects of God's character, but not all. To go further than that you need God to make himself known.

    The whole time and space thing is fascinating, one I can't really get my head around. Is God outside time and space so that all things at all times are equally present to him, the way we can look at a ruler and see all the points on it simultaneously? If so, things like answering prayer (which requires a temporal sequence of events) and having an ongoing relationship with God become problematic, as do issues of free will and determinism. So I'm not sure about going down that route.

    Collins also seems to be saying that there are elements of the known world which show surprising signs of design and order. It's reasonable for a scientist to ask why things should be like that, and if you don't rule out a designing intelligence a priori, then it has to be one of the options as an explanation. I'm trying to put that into words without sounding like Paley!

  3. David - you got me there, you are right, analysing humour isn't fruitful, I'm an enthusiast, what can I say :)

    re. Time and space, I don't think anyone can get their heads around it, like quantum mechanics it falls outside of our savannah primate scale of experience, none of our existential "rules of thumb" work any more. I can see why some people would posit the supernatural even just in an attempt to maintain their sanity! :)

    Collins does like this "it kinda looks designed, maybe" line of argument doesn't he, I am reminded of Douglas Adams wonderful "puddle analogy", you may have heard it, he tells the story of a puddle that suddenly becomes concious and his first thought is, wow, I fit into this hole absolutely perfectly, it must have been "designed" especially for me by a benevolent creator :)

    I don't think science rules anything out per se, of course individual scientists are just people like the rest of us and have egos and bias etc. but generally the money men go with the data, if there was any hint of data that supported this idea of "evidence for design" then they would be all over it.