Under my byline

Faith in logic

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 20 August 2009

Two modern theologians wield language as a subtle weapon against the great scientific unbelievers of our times

Oracles of Science, Giberson and ArtigasOracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion
Karl Giberson, Mariano Artigas
OUP
pp x + 274

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This book, more than many another, puts its title to work; in the title itself are distilled the rationalist scepticism and gleeful iconoclasm of the authors. Those few words embody the sort of polemicism which characterises the sharpest Abrahamic theological acrobatics.

No serious theologian uses words loosely or impressionistically. So many of the greatest disputes which served to separate orthodoxy from heresy in the Christian world turned on apparently slight distinctions of meaning in text or ritual. The difference between the Catholic and Protestant mass boils down to a minor gesture: the priest either does (Catholic) or does not (Protestant) raise the communion wafer and wine above his head, according to which transubstantiation does or does not take place — that is, the communion wafer and wine do or do not actually turn into the body and blood of Christ. To Catholics, this is proof of Christ’s resurrection, his dual-yet-single divine-and-human nature as well as his physical suffering on the cross to expiate humankind’s sins. To Protestants this smacks of magic, presumption, and, among the orthodox, even cannibalism. Protestants take the bread and wine as symbols. Slight gesture, vast meaning.

The title is a more heavy-handed example of sleight. What is an oracle if not a religious, mystical voice? An oracle is a guide to the future, but its foretellings are couched in riddlespeak and parable. In the Western tradition, an oracle is usually a woman — the implication is that, less hamstrung by reason, she is more open to the god’s influence. Thus, to call a scientist oracular is to undercut his worth as an apostle of the scientific method. And the subtitle does the rest: the scientist who speaks audibly “versus God and religion” is a “celebrity”. We know in what regard mere celebrities are held; and Henry Kissinger has been called oracular — a sign of the deep disrepute that term has fallen into.

The theological treatment continues with the subjects: six brilliant contemporary scientists who have built a career as public intellectuals and who have allegedly used their “bully pulpit” to present the idea of God or religion as deficient in explaining the universe. The first target is Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and long-time opponent of creationism whose 2006 book The God Delusion kicked up a storm and became a bestseller. For Dawkins, Darwinian evolution (the survival of the fittest; evolution by random mutation) provides a way to understand more than just the evolution of species; for instance, he divined the “meme” (gene+memory), a cultural unit akin to DNA — a “cultural replicator” which, if it is fit, survives. (Think of the competition in the marketplace of ideas, or a catchy ad jingle.) Thus, in Dawkins’s eyes, even human culture is subject to Darwinian evolution. There is no space left for God; God is not necessary. Religion is a mistake.

Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas, who are physicists as well as theologians (Artigas, who died in 2006, was also a Catholic priest), and who have each written extensively on the science-religion divide, get very annoyed with this sort of thing — with scientists overstepping, as the authors see it, the remit of science and making wild stabs at the big questions of faith and philosophy. Scientists should not pretend that science gives them tools with which to judge the validity of faith — it is a different realm and the same rules do not apply. At best these oracles are raising and knocking down a straw man.

The other oracles comprise Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist who, like Stephen Hawking, investigated the birth moments of the universe (which Giberson and Artigas call “big bang” rather than Big Bang) and decided that it was “pointless”. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould came to the same conclusion, but did not see eye-to-eye with Dawkins (and the authors dwell happily on the differences). There is Edward O Wilson, who studied ants and sees the explanation for all human behaviour, including religion, in our genes. And there is Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist who became a science populariser and critic of religion.

The authors tackle these oracles cleverly, summarising their relevant work, observing where that work tangles with the idea of God, presenting a taste of the scientific debate over the oracle’s ideas, and quoting scholars who question the oracles’ pronouncements on religion. This is the meat of the book. Where else would one find as good, reasonable and broad-based a survey of the science-faith debate?

But the authors are not neutral, so one must read with care. Fortunately, the rhetorical tools are blunt, not delicate. Also, they are not original — this being an old conflict, the arguments are well-rehearsed, and nothing truly new is offered. Lastly, the authors can scarcely bridge their own contradictions: both are theoretical scientists using classical logic in a literary medium to rationally defend theology from science. The message is that, ultimately, all imaginative extrapolation from observed rules perforce marries faith to logic, whether the traveller is believer or sceptic.

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