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Science's Sacred Cows (Part 1)

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In a 1983 address to an international symposium on Galileo, Pope John Paul II issued a stunning pronouncement:

The Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. ... It is certain that science and faith represent two different orders of knowledge, autonomous in their processes, but finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects...

Given centuries of animosity between science and religion, the pontiff's admission astounds for several reasons. First, it stresses the complementarity rather than the antagonism of rational and intuitive modes of knowing. Second, it grants autonomy to both revelatory processes, implying that neither should seek to manipulate or triumph over the other. And third, it suggests that ultimate truth -- so far as we can know it -- emerges from the concerted efforts of external and internal explorations.

But the devil is in the details. Autonomy among those in relationship is best preserved when each party maintains a clear and robust boundary and a high degree of integrity. I'll defer to the philosophers to painstakingly demarcate the domains of science and religion, but one thing is certain: Most of the historic animosity between them is due to boundary infractions. And both parties are guilty.

The violations of science's domain by religion are numerous, well known and egregious. Particularly odious was the church's burning of Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 for multiple "heresies" that included the promotion of Copernicanism (the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than vice versa), a suspicion that the stars are suns like our own and a belief in the plurality of worlds. Close on the heels of Bruno's demise came the trial of Galileo of 1632-3 in which the Inquisition convicted the world's most eminent scientist of heresies "more scandalous, more detestable, and more pernicious to Christianity than any contained in the books of Calvin, of Luther, and of all other heretics put together." Galileo's life was spared when he signed a confession recanting the "heresy" of Copernicanism; however, he remained under house arrest for the duration of his life.

Skirmishes between science and religion persist. Today's religious fundamentalists periodically attempt to force the teaching of creationism (or one of its many guises) in public schools, in violation both of science's domain and the constitutional separation of church and state. For a short summary of the most recent major skirmish, the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, see pages 89-90 of Jason Rosenhouse's Among the Creationists (Oxford, 2012).

Science's infractions are subtler but equally damaging to the human spirit. During an enlightening lecture in 2000 by religion scholar Huston Smith, I began to appreciate how science infringes on religion's domain. Smith thoughtfully distinguished science from scientism. The former is an investigative protocol; the latter is a religion, complete with dogma. Science is a formalized procedure for making sense of the world by studying its material properties, perceived through the awareness of the senses, albeit senses heightened by modern marvels such as the electron microscope, the Hubble Space Telescope or the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Scientism (or scientific materialism), on the other hand, adds to science a statement of faith: The universe is only material. Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science over the past three centuries, it is more than fair to acknowledge that science represents a powerful way to learn about the world. But scientism ups the ante: Science is the best (or only) way to make sense of the world. In short, scientism is to science what fundamentalism is to religion: cocksure and inflexible.

Science remains most true to itself and of greatest value to humanity when it assiduously avoids unnecessary assumptions. Over the long arc of history, science has initially embraced -- then discarded -- most of the following tacit assumptions: dualism, determinism, reductionism, absolute time, absolute space, the principle of locality, materialism and, most recently, realism. In subsequent posts, we'll examine each of these in some detail. For now, let's summarize.

Despite the demise of most of its once-sacred cows, science remains alive and well, implying that the assumptions abandoned were never essential. Unwarranted assumptions -- blinders, really -- may have been necessary to the methodical progress of science, but ultimately they squelch open inquiry. Indeed, all of science may rest upon a single inviolate assumption: The same physical laws apply throughout the cosmos. Why not leave it there (at least for now)?

Ultimately, science and religion should serve rather than dominate the human societies from which they emerged. Each, I believe, serves best from a stance of awe and humility that assumes as little as possible. The best from both worlds -- the greatest scientists and the most profound religious thinkers and teachers -- have always practiced these two qualities. Childlike awe motivated Einstein. "All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren," he accepted. "The real nature of things, that we shall never know, never." Similarly, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner invoked both humility and awe when he asked, "Which do we love more, the small island of our so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?"

This essay is adapted from the author's recent book Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012).