[Paleopsych] NYT: Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science
checker at panix.com
Wed Aug 24 23:02:50 UTC 2005
Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science
[Mr. Mencken argued repeatedly for the incompatibility of science and religion.
Sometimes he claimed to be a "genial agnostic," but on another occasion he
described his belief in something very close to an intelligent designer. He
added, though, that beyond this no one should make any claims. I balk at even
this, for invoking an intelligent designer replaces one mystery with a much
larger one. It is also arrogant for Dr. Michael Behe, for instance, to tell the
world that Dr. Michael Behe cannot explain the origin of life, therefore
someone greater than Dr. Michael Behe must have brought it about. My more
substantial objection, though, is moral: true, humans with three-pound brains,
or even humans with Dr. Michael Behe-sized brains, may never explain the origin
of life, but to stop at any point and say there must be something greater than
Dr. Michael Behe, is immoral for cutting inquiry short.
[I suggest that, were Mr. Mencken alive today, he'd be taken in so much with
the progress of science since his day in showing how complex structures can
evolve out of simpler ones that he'd no longer find it plausible to invoke an
By CORNELIA DEAN
At a recent scientific conference at City College of New York, a
student in the audience rose to ask the panelists an unexpected
question: "Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?"
Reaction from one of the panelists, all Nobel laureates, was quick and
sharp. "No!" declared Herbert A. Hauptman, who shared the chemistry
prize in 1985 for his work on the structure of crystals.
Belief in the supernatural, especially belief in God, is not only
incompatible with good science, Dr. Hauptman declared, "this kind of
belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race."
But disdain for religion is far from universal among scientists. And
today, as religious groups challenge scientists in arenas as various
as evolution in the classroom, AIDS prevention and stem cell research,
scientists who embrace religion are beginning to speak out about their
"It should not be a taboo subject, but frankly it often is in
scientific circles," said Francis S. Collins, who directs the National
Human Genome Research Institute and who speaks freely about his
Although they embrace religious faith, these scientists also embrace
science as it has been defined for centuries. That is, they look to
the natural world for explanations of what happens in the natural
world and they recognize that scientific ideas must be provisional -
capable of being overturned by evidence from experimentation and
observation. This belief in science sets them apart from those who
endorse creationism or its doctrinal cousin, intelligent design, both
of which depend on the existence of a supernatural force.
Their belief in God challenges scientists who regard religious belief
as little more than magical thinking, as some do. Their faith also
challenges believers who denounce science as a godless enterprise and
scientists as secular elitists contemptuous of God-fearing people.
Some scientists say simply that science and religion are two separate
realms, "nonoverlapping magisteria," as the late evolutionary
biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it in his book "Rocks of Ages"
(Ballantine, 1999). In Dr. Gould's view, science speaks with authority
in the realm of "what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it
work this way (theory)" and religion holds sway over "questions of
ultimate meaning and moral value."
When the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted a
session to this idea of separation at its annual meeting this year,
scores of scientists crowded into a room to hear it.
Some of them said they were unsatisfied with the idea, because they
believe scientists' moral values must inevitably affect their work,
others because so much of science has so many ethical implications in
the real world.
One panelist, Dr. Noah Efron of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said
scientists, like other people, were guided by their own human
purposes, meaning and values. The idea that fact can be separated from
values and meaning "jibes poorly with what we know of the history of
science," Dr. Efron said.
Dr. Collins, who is working on a book about his religious faith, also
believes that people should not have to keep religious beliefs and
scientific theories strictly separate. "I don't find it very
satisfactory and I don't find it very necessary," he said in an
interview. He noted that until relatively recently, most scientists
were believers. "Isaac Newton wrote a lot more about the Bible than
the laws of nature," he said.
But he acknowledged that as head of the American government's efforts
to decipher the human genetic code, he had a leading role in work that
many say definitively demonstrates the strength of evolutionary theory
to explain the complexity and abundance of life.
As scientists compare human genes with those of other mammals, tiny
worms, even bacteria, the similarities "are absolutely compelling,"
Dr. Collins said. "If Darwin had tried to imagine a way to prove his
theory, he could not have come up with something better, except maybe
a time machine. Asking somebody to reject all of that in order to
prove that they really do love God - what a horrible choice."
Dr. Collins was a nonbeliever until he was 27 - "more and more into
the mode of being not only agnostic but being an atheist," as he put
it. All that changed after he completed his doctorate in physics and
was at work on his medical degree, when he was among those treating a
woman dying of heart disease. "She was very clear about her faith and
she looked me square in the eye and she said, 'what do you believe?' "
he recalled. "I sort of stammered out, 'I am not sure.' "
He said he realized then that he had never considered the matter
seriously, the way a scientist should. He began reading about various
religious beliefs, which only confused him. Finally, a Methodist
minister gave him a book, "Mere Christianity," by C. S. Lewis. In the
book Lewis, an atheist until he was a grown man, argues that the idea
of right and wrong is universal among people, a moral law they "did
not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try." This universal
feeling, he said, is evidence for the plausibility of God.
When he read the book, Dr. Collins said, "I thought, my gosh, this guy
Today, Dr. Collins said, he does not embrace any particular
denomination, but he is a Christian. Colleagues sometimes express
surprise at his faith, he said. "They'll say, 'how can you believe
that? Did you check your brain at the door?" But he said he had
discovered in talking to students and colleagues that "there is a
great deal of interest in this topic."
Polling Scientists on Beliefs
According to a much-discussed survey reported in the journal Nature in
1997, 40 percent of biologists, physicists and mathematicians said
they believed in God - and not just a nonspecific transcendental
presence but, as the survey put it, a God to whom one may pray "in
expectation of receiving an answer."
The survey, by Edward J. Larson of the University of Georgia, was
intended to replicate one conducted in 1914, and the results were
virtually unchanged. In both cases, participants were drawn from a
directory of American scientists.
Others play down those results. They note that when Dr. Larson put
part of the same survey to "leading scientists" - in this case,
members of the National Academy of Sciences, perhaps the nation's most
eminent scientific organization - fewer than 10 percent professed
belief in a personal God or human immortality.
This response is not surprising to researchers like Steven Weinberg, a
physicist at the University of Texas, a member of the academy and a
winner of the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work in particle physics. He
said he could understand why religious people would believe that
anything that eroded belief was destructive. But he added: "I think
one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the
hold of religion. That's a good thing."
No God, No Moral Compass?
He rejects the idea that scientists who reject religion are arrogant.
"We know how many mistakes we've made," Dr. Weinberg said. And he is
angered by assertions that people without religious faith are without
a moral compass.
In any event, he added, "the experience of being a scientist makes
religion seem fairly irrelevant," he said. "Most scientists I know
simply don't think about it very much. They don't think about religion
enough to qualify as practicing atheists."
Most scientists he knows who do believe in God, he added, believe in
"a God who is behind the laws of nature but who is not intervening."
Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown, said his students
were often surprised to find that he was religious, especially when
they realized that his faith was not some sort of vague theism but
observant Roman Catholicism.
Dr. Miller, whose book, "Finding Darwin's God," explains his
reconciliation of the theory of evolution with his religious faith,
said he was usually challenged in his biology classes by one or two
students whose religions did not accept evolution, who asked how
important the theory would be in the course.
"What they are really asking me is "do I have to believe in this stuff
to get an A?,' " he said. He says he tells them that "belief is never
an issue in science."
"I don't care if you believe in the Krebs cycle," he said, referring
to the process by which energy is utilized in the cell. "I just want
you to know what it is and how it works. My feeling about evolution is
the same thing."
For Dr. Miller and other scientists, research is not about belief.
"Faith is one thing, what you believe from the heart," said Joseph E.
Murray, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990 for his work in
organ transplantation. But in scientific research, he said, "it's the
results that count."
Dr. Murray, who describes himself as "a cradle Catholic" who has
rarely missed weekly Mass and who prays every morning, said that when
he was preparing for the first ever human organ transplant, a kidney
that a young man had donated to his identical twin, he and his
colleagues consulted a number of religious leaders about whether they
were doing the right thing. "It seemed natural," he said.
Using Every Tool
"When you are searching for truth you should use every possible
avenue, including revelation," said Dr. Murray, who is a member of the
Pontifical Academy, which advises the Vatican on scientific issues,
and who described the influence of his faith on his work in his
memoir, "Surgery of the Soul" (Science History Publications, 2002).
Since his appearance at the City College panel, when he was dismayed
by the tepid reception received by his remarks on the incompatibility
of good science and religious belief, Dr. Hauptman said he had been
discussing the issue with colleagues in Buffalo, where he is president
of the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.
"I think almost without exception the people I have spoken to are
scientists and they do believe in the existence of a supreme being,"
he said. "If you ask me to explain it - I cannot explain it at all."
But Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary theorist at Oxford, said that
even scientists who were believers did not claim evidence for that
belief. "The most they will claim is that there is no evidence
against," Dr. Dawkins said, "which is pathetically weak. There is no
evidence against all sorts of things, but we don't waste our time
believing in them."
Dr. Collins said he believed that some scientists were unwilling to
profess faith in public "because the assumption is if you are a
scientist you don't have any need of action of the supernatural sort,"
or because of pride in the idea that science is the ultimate source of
But he said he believed that some scientists were simply unwilling to
confront the big questions religion tried to answer. "You will never
understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic
observation," he said. "You won't understand why you are here and what
the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions - and
are they not the most important questions we ask ourselves?"
More information about the paleopsych