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Thursday, 25 April 2013

World Views ...

I've just finished reading the latest of the Terry Pratchett collaborations with the scientists, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The Science of the Discworld IV: Judgement Day is, as ever, interesting reading, the science accessible and the Pratchett characters carry it along nicely. My only criticism is that it expends rather a lot of time in not so veiled attacks on religious belief which does rather detract from the overall enjoyment of the book.

It does flag up the fact that there are probably four main 'world views' among us humans. To a mathematician, it is all centred on numbers. The whole universe is reduced to numbers, formulae and theories, many of which have to be constantly revised, revisited or scrapped altogether. Then there are the physicists, for whom it is all about particles, or the biologists for whom it is all about genetic data transfer, the difference being that the physicist is wants to tear the genes apart to find out what makes up the sub-atomic components of it, while the biologist gets into the chemistry of life. The fourth 'world view' is the religio-philosophical one.

The main criticism leveled at 'religion' by the scientists in this book is that it has a 'human-centric' world view, while science, they assert, has a 'universe-centric' view. In one sense this is true enough, the problem being that the vast majority of humans do not share the scientific understanding or vision of the scientists. The universe is simply way to vast, to distant and too big, so they focus on the smaller, more parochial view around them. They understand things that are human shaped and sized, this is relevant to their lives, things like the Higgs Boson though it might be interesting, is of no importance to the daily lives of billions, but the price of food, the rain not coming or the snow persisting, is.

Admittedly this pair of scientists have the grace to acknowledge that scientists aren't always right, and that quite often some significant theory worked up by one branch of science is ignored by another, or has to be completely revised or scrapped when someone else comes up with some bigger, better or more elegant theorem. In the last century we have had a "Stasis Theory" which relies on matter continuously popping into being to maintain a 'Static' State, the "Big Bang" which is now questioned by String Theory and variations on that, multiple universes which expand and collapse and even Einstein changed his famous formula a couple of times. The truth is that there are more questions than answers to each new 'discovery.' I did enjoy the explanation given of the search for the Higgs Boson with the Large Hadron Collider. In a piece of pure Pratchettism, the search is likened to a group of "pianologists" who are unable to see or play a piano, but their experiments lead them to conclude that, when certain parts are struck, it let out 'twangons'. High energy impacts might produce a 'slamon' and as they progress they get more and more 'effects' they name pianicles, pianinos, muanos ans so on. Eventually their efforts lead to the creation of a forty storey Large Hotel Collapser and it is discovered that pushing pianos out of the fortieth storey produces a meddly of sounds they name the "Bigg Bashon" ...

But they still have no idea what a piano looks like, or what it actually does.

The thing I found annoying, and which, to me, undermines their argument here, is the dismissal of the entire contents of the Bible as "fantasy" when, in fact, they've done no more than attempt to discredit the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. That ignores the considerable body of arcaeological and historical evidence which supports quite a number of the other books and certainly the New Testament books. To do so, is hardly 'science' in fact it calls into question their claim to impartiality as scientists.

Where I do agree with them is that there are those in all religious communities who insist on clinging to a literal interpretation of a much translated story. They simply cannot accept that the opening of Genesis is a story. A pretty damned good one if you ignore the obviously 'humanised' time scales and listen to what science says now. Clinging to 'literality' like this is to reduce God to human constraints and proportions. He is simply not like that. Sorry folks, but no big human shaped father figure drifting about the clouds benevolently. As a Rabbi once told me, you have to understand God as being everywhere, everyhow and everywhen - all at the same time. Sadly, it takes a lot of effort to get to grips with that, and it is simply too big for most. But you do have to grasp the nettle sometime.

I do not have a problem with phycisists, mathematicians, biologists or any other discipline reducing the universe to the components that fascinate them, I would, however, point out to them that the Stephen Hawkings who will leave a vast legacy when his disabling illness finally claims him, are rare. The majority of disabled folk live ordinary lives, many in hardship and without the support Stephen Hawking enjoys, and their "universe centric" view offers little by way of hope or comfort to most. There is also a danger that shifting the focus away from the religious 'human-centric' to a 'universe-centric' position, does tend to encourage the line of thinking that individuals don't matter. That is a dangerous line to take. Down that road lie exploitation, slavery, genocide and every other abuse.

I do not suggest that the majority of scientists think that way, and I do acknowledge that there have been, and still are, followers of various religions who do. They are, however, restrained for the most part, by the majority who do adhere to the tenets of their faiths, most of which, being human centric, insist that each individual is important and should not be killed, should be free and should be given the respect of others.

My own 'world view' probably straddles both. I recognise that I am made of the particles (Higgs Bosons among them) created in the heart of the stars that populate the universe. I do not believe that humanity in its present shape and form is the ultimate product of God, we are still evolving and I cannot say what we will eventually become in another thousand, two thousand or a million years. A biological genetisist probably could have a stab at predicting it, probably using a very fancy mathematical model on a super computer. I do not have a problem with correlating the story of Genesis with the science of cosmological development and creation, or with evolution, I believe in a God who works slowly and suing the tools and laws of physics. I also believe that many of the stories, such as Noah's flood, are probably 'folk versions' of real events, probably related to the refilling of the Mediterranean basin and the Black Sea and other areas as the last great Glaciation came to an end.

The God I believe in is big enough and dynamic enough to be present here as I write, and yet be present at the heart of the Galaxy should he wish to be at one and the same time. He is big enough to be at the moment of Creation and at the end of it, also at the same time, yet I can believe that he is interested in and concerned for his creatures. All of them.

The genetic biologists tell us that 'life' can and does arise by accidental means as various ribonucleic acids mix, react and change - yet at the same time they tell us that the supposedly simplest form of living creature, the Amoeba, is incredibly complex. As is even a bacterium or a virus.

I would suggest that we all need to have two 'world-views.' One should be 'universe-centric' and allow us to see the wonder of the whole of creation, a seething mass of energy, dusts, particles with exotic names, massive stars and burned out shells, tiny blue planets like our own and vast gas giants with raging storms at their hearts, and, in order to keep us human, we need a 'human-centric' view as well. We are what we are, a branch of the mammalian 'family' of life on this planet, but, as biologists will tell you, with DNA and older RNA that we share with bacteria and even viruses.

I don't subscribe to "Intelligent Design" but I do subscribe to the belief that God does oversee the whole. That at times He may take a direct interest, though not on an obvious and "mass" level, but quietly, individually and very, very subtly. I have been present at far too many deaths to have not noticed that something a little more subtle than simply chemical action has ceased.  I live, therefore, in hope, that one day we will leave behind this mudslinging absolutist position on both sides of the debate between science and religion and recognise that both have their place and their merit.


  1. Slim Jim replies:

    A very thought-provoking post, O most sagacious Monk! I agree with much of what you have written. It is very hard to understand the vastness of the cosmos, and the power and glory of an ultimate creator. Essentially, there is a scientific explanation of the universe, and there is a personal explanation for the existence of God. The God hypothesis can help to explain a purpose in life, as well as the meaning of love. As you say, the 2 sides don't necessarily have to remain in conflict.

  2. Slim Jim, it seems, sadly, that there are those on both sides of this argument who do not wish to see a rapproachment. It is sad that it should be so.