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May. 14th, 2008



"Aliens Are My Brother"

The chief astronomer of the Vatican says aliens could exist, and the search for other life does not contradict belief in God.

Also quoted:

Science and religion need each other, and many astronomers believe in God, he assures readers.

To strengthen its scientific credentials, the Vatican is organising a conference next year to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.

It's nice to see the two disciplines working together. I wonder what the content and spin on the Darwin conference will be? Perhaps not an evolution-bashing event as many might expect:

In The Times Martin Penner reported the cardinal’s [Paul Poupard] argument. He had said that the description in Genesis of the Creation was “perfectly compatible” with Darwin’s theory of evolution, if the Bible were read properly. “Fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim.”

He argued that the real message of Genesis was that the Universe did not make itself, and had a creator. “Science and theology act in different fields, each in its own.” In Rome, the immediate reaction was that this was a Vatican rejection of the fundamentalist American doctrine of “intelligent design”. No doubt the Vatican does want to separate itself from American creationists, but the significance surely goes further than that. This is not another Galileo case; the teachings of the Church have never imposed a literal interpretation of the language of the Bible; that was a Protestant mistake. Nor did the Church condemn the theory of evolution, though it did and does reject neo-Darwinism when that is made specifically atheist.

[Press conference by Cardinal Paul Poupard before a meeting in Rome of scientists, philosophers and theologians - link.]

More evidence that not all Christian's are fundamentalists, and that many lay-Christians do not understand modern church thinking and teaching in any depth.

Mar. 26th, 2008



Church & State

There's a bit of a fuss at the moment regarding a bill to be passed through parliament allowing, amongst other things, the creation of human / animal hybrid embryos for medical research, since there is a shortage of human eggs.

The Catholic Church objects strongly and wishes Catholic MPs to follow it's lead, some of whom are morally against the idea themselves because of their religion. The parties have all guaranteed a free vote for their MPs (i.e. they don't have to follow the party line, at least not in the initial voting stages).

However, in this country, Church has no control or jurisdiction over State, and cannot (is not allowed to) influence policy. Thus a member of parliament, in choosing to become a member of parliament, as part of the government of the country, must leave their religious beliefs at home and not allow them to influence their functionality as a member of parliament. So by their very job description, in this matter, an MP cannot (or more realistically, should not) vote based on their religious views or beliefs. If they did, then they should resign their seat in parliament, because they have allowed Church to influence State, having been unable to vote impartially regarding religion.

However, it is also very difficult to define which opinions and beliefs on matters a person holds as a result of their religion, or simply as a moral and logically thought out position. They are all integrated into a whole. So is a Catholic MP voting against the bill because, as a Catholic, he/she believes it is morally wrong, allowing Church to influence State? Can they separate what they believe to be wrong on the grounds of what they were taught by the church, and what is wrong in a secular view? Is there a distinction?

Jan. 22nd, 2008

Benedict XVI wind


Theological Notebook: The Pope, Galileo, and the Sapienza University Affair

Did anyone pay any attention to the curious story about Pope Benedict XVI and the protests at Rome's Sapienza University this past week? I think that it might become one of those episodes that becomes larger in later history, as the significance of certain events gets taken as emblematic of historical shifts taking place at a given time. In this case, I think it might become the opposite of the infamous "Galileo Affair," to which the players in this event make direct reference. The incident of Galileo's trial before the Inquisition regarding the Copernican theory of the heliocentric solar system – the sun being the center of our star system and not the Earth being at the center of things – became the great symbolic myth of the Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century, and their anti-Christian program: Galileo's trial became emblematic of obstinate, ignorant, anti-intellectual Religion being defeated by the always-wise, ever-progressive and irresistible onward march of Science into the future.

Yet anyone who does the slightest reading on the matter knows that this was hardly the case. The Galileo affair was an historical footnote until it was dusted off and used for Enlightenment propaganda. Galileo was not opposing a Religious view with a Scientific one: his world did not have our later, absolute division of such things. Copernicus himself was a cleric, likely a priest: one might just as easily say that the heliocentric system was then a "priestly" theory. Galileo was not challenging the authority of Scripture as such: there was no unified theory of Scripture in his post-Reformation world to oppose in such a simple dichotomy as "science vs. religion" or "science vs. the Bible" in the way people like to put things. In fact, he appealed in such things to a far older interpreter of Scripture who had high status in theology and philosophy – Augustine of Hippo, who had died over a thousand years earlier, and who, like Galileo, dismissed simple-minded literalism as unworthy of the depths of the documents of Scripture. Galileo's actual trouble came more from challenging the Aristotelian basis of the contemporary science of his day, that is, challenging the current scientific establishment, and claiming for his own experimental results an authority they did not yet possess. It also didn't help that he got into a political mess by getting petulant with the very Pope who had been supporting and authorizing his work. No scientist today who so "jumped the gun" on claiming success for his findings would be accorded the "scientific sainthood" Galileo is: his story has been co-opted by those creating their own narrative of the Modern "conflict of science and religion," ignoring entirely the origin of Modern science in a Medieval and Christian context, not a Modern and Secular one.

Which brings us to the curious events of this past week, events which I wonder whether in the future will come to seem equally emblematic, but in a reverse way. It seems clear to me that Western science and theology, with their commitments to the idea of an objective truth, against much of the thrust of contemporary Western philosophy which has given up on truth, are inevitably going to increase in their collaboration. As the myth of a conflict of science and religion begins to fade away with the Modern worldview as we move into Post-Modernity (whatever that is), I can't help but wonder if the anti-papal fervour displayed this week – is it overstating to call it hysteria? – might come to symbolize the ignorance of the dogmatically anti-religious viewpoint that doesn't recognize the fundamental harmonies between the quests of science and Jewish/Christian religion.

What's most striking to me is the way in which the faculty and student protesters – so locked into the myth of "science versus religion" – failed to understand the clear language of support that Ratzinger used in his 1990 statement (included below). If anything, Ratzinger defended the sciences against the philosophical skewing in the Modern philosophical school of the Enlightenment that produced the great modern myth of unwavering antagonism between the two quests for truth, and attempts to cut lose the sciences from any wider contextualization in the world, including in ethics, which is not the same thing as religion, but which religion and philosophy have always included. Making science ask questions of itself should hardly be interpreted as a fundamental attack on science itself. I hope the episode will have the effect of so embarrassing the traditional reactionaries who fancy themselves the speakers for their hostile vision of "science" so that people capable of actual rational conversation will come forward in leading dialogue with theology.

Included behind the cut are articles from the week:
Ratzinger's 1990 remarks on Galileo
University students attend audience after pope cancels visit
In undelivered speech, pope urges scholars, students to seek truth
All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.: Update on La Sapienza spat
The pope, modern science, and a canary in the coal mine
Do the homework: University fiasco shows scholars miss pope's point
Tens of thousands fill St. Peter's Square to show support for pope
Read more...Collapse )

Nov. 23rd, 2007




Science folks, I have a question. Since the Sun's emission peaks primarily in the green wavelengths, why does chlorophyll not absorb green? It has absorption peaks in red and blue, but reflects most of what's in between. Surely evolution would have led to the development of a molecule that was most sensitive to green, since that's what there is most of?

My best guess is that if it could absorb green, it would have a chemical structure that would prevent it doing whatever else it does, i.e. plants wouldn't be able to exist with it like that.

Are there any biologists here that can help me out?

Nov. 28th, 2006

green man


Consciousness & Quantum Physics

There's a new book out by scientist and former Buddhist monk B. Alan Wallace, called Contemplative Science, regarding science and the Buddhist ideas of consciousness and individuality. It discusses a scientific case for reincarnation amongst other things. There is an interesting interview here with the author, taking about his ideas, theories and beliefs.

He posits that Buddhist beliefs can interact with science and indeed be explained by science. For example, reincarnation. He believes that the human consciousness is a continuous stream, with the upper level the psyche, that neuroscientists and psychologists study, a second level that is part of the ongoing stream of consciousness that forms in the womb and fades back into the whole on death, and a third, deepest, layer than underlies everything. But what is this omnipresent stream of consciousness? Is it matter, energy?

According to quantum field theory, string theory and quantum cosmology -- cutting-edge fields of 21st century physics -- matter itself is not reducible to matter. And Richard Feynman, the great Nobel laureate in physics, commented very emphatically, "We don't know what energy is." He said it's not stuff out there that has a specific location. It's more like a mathematical abstraction. So matter has been reduced to formations of space. Energy is configurations of space. Space itself is rather mysterious. And so when I introduce this theme of a substrate consciousness, it's not something ethereal that's opposed to matter. Matter is about as ethereal as anything gets. But could there be this continuum of substrate consciousness that's not contingent upon molecules? From the Buddhist perspective, yes. But again, this frankly sounds like one more system of belief.

I have to say, you could put a religious spin on all of this. What you're describing as substrate consciousness sounds a lot like how people talk about God. There is some kind of divine presence that's outside the material world but somehow intervenes in our material lives.

I think we're jumping the gun there. In the Buddhist perspective, the substrate consciousness is individual. It's not some great collective unconscious like Jung talked about. In the Buddhist view, it's an individual continuum of consciousness that carries on from lifetime to lifetime. That's not God. Beyond that is this whole third dimension, the deepest dimension, called "primordial consciousness." This has certain commonalities with Christian mystical notions of God beyond the trinity. It has a thoroughly and deeply transcendent quality to it. And that's way beyond the pale of scientific inquiry. But when I speak of substrate consciousness, I think it would simply be a mistake to say that's God. If you want to relate this to something in Western religions, you might say it's the immortal soul. Christianity really has nothing to say about the existence of your continuum of consciousness prior to your conception. There's nothing in the Bible that says, where was Steve Paulson 70 years ago? Where did your stream of consciousness, your identity, your soul, come from? But Buddhism has a lot to say about this.

This is a very interesting theory - that there is a further level to existence beyond the obvious space-time, one that string and brane theory delve into. If we consider brane (or string) theory, it postulates that everything we observe to exist is a vibrational mode of an underlying "membrane" outwith the regular four space and time dimensions, meaning that everything is interconnected on a far deeper level than we can comprehend. This could be considered, as Mr Wallace believes, to be the underlying nature of consciousness. It could also be seen as divinity, although not in the sentient, singular Christian sense, more in a pantheistic sense.

Furthermore, if everything is interconnected in this way, could this be a mechanism through which prayer/magic/meditation could have an external effect on an unconnected object or occurence in the real world? Or is any observed effect simply down to coincidence and subconscious suggestion?

[Incidentally, if any of you have read the Mythago Wood series of books by Robert Holdstock, you may notice that the idea of a continuous primeval subconscious is very much what the premise of his books is based on, with archetypes and myths lodged in the primitive and collective unconscious of humankind.]

Nov. 24th, 2006



Science v. Religion

loriel_eris pointed me in the direction of this New Scientist article Beyond Belief: In Place of God, covering a recent seminar (called Beyond Belief) which on the surface appears to be a consideration of "Science, Religion, Reason And Survival". An interesting proposal, you might think, however it appears that it was more or less an exercise in religion bashing, which is unfortunate, because it could have been an excellent opportunity for informed debate from both sides. When you read further, the puropose of the meeting is to discuss the following questions:

"Should science do away with religion?
What would science put in religion's place?
And can we be good without God?"

It appears that almost all the speakers were scientists, and some very outspoken anti-religious ones at that. Of 34 speakers, only 9 or 10 are not involved in the hard sciences, two of whom are writers, and only two of whom appear to be involved in the study of religions at all (the others are involved in ethics, psychology and philosophy). This does not make for a balanced discussion, but then, that is not their aim, as you see, looking deeper than the misleading title.

Statements abounded in criticism and overt hostility to religion, such as:

"The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion." "Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation." [Steven Weinberg, cosmologist]

"I am utterly fed up with the respect we have been brainwashed into bestowing upon religion," [Richard Dawkins, evolutionary theorist]

Carolyn Porco [leader of the Cassini Science Imaging Team] argues that we do not need God to provide meaning and awe in life - these can be provided by science:

"At the heart of scientific inquiry is a spiritual quest, to come to know the natural world by understanding it... Being a scientist and staring immensity and eternity in the face every day is about as meaningful and awe-inspiring as it gets."

This is a more reasoned opinion, and I can see where she is coming from with this - this is basically the view of many pantheists (and indeed atheists and agnostics).

And, it would seem, there are fundamentalists of the opposite extreme in science as there are in religion. Neil deGrasse Tyson [director of the Hayden Planetarium, New York]:

Referring to a recent poll of US National Academy of Sciences members which showed 85 per cent do not believe in a personal God, he suggested that the remaining 15 per cent were a problem that needs to be addressed. "How come the number isn't zero?" he asked. "That should be the subject of everybody's investigation. That's something that we can't just sweep under the rug."

This is clearly an extreme view, but not all scientists think that way. However, views like this are not shared by everyone, as evidenced by the rebuttal from Joan Roughgarden [geophysicist and biologist]:

Attempts by militant atheists to represent science as a substitute for religion would be a huge mistake, she said, and might even set back science's cause. "They are entitled as atheists to generate more activism within the atheist community," she told New Scientist. "But scientists are portraying themselves as the enlightened white knights while people of faith are portrayed as idiots who can't tell the difference between a [communion] wafer and a piece of meat."

Indeed, her comment on the opinions of many scientists to religion and religious ideas is one I have seen and heard myself. Generally, those of a religious persuasion keep quiet here because there are a number of vocal atheists and when such discussions arise, it generally results in a good dose of religion-bashing. It rarely starts with both parties open to discussion - it's usually an automatic "don't be ridiculous, religion is patently a load of rubbish." Which is an unfortunate position to start from.

There were a few speaking for some consideration and humility from the hard-core atheist scientsts:

"I just don't think scientists, when they step out of science, have any better insight than the ordinary schmuck on the street. It makes me embarrassed to be an atheist." [Scott Atran, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris]

"The presumption here was that any effort to respect the existence of faith is a bad thing," he told New Scientist. "Philosophically I'm in complete agreement, but it's not a scientific statement, and I've seen how offensive it is when scientists say 'I can tell you what you have to think'. They make people more afraid of science. It's inappropriate, and it's certainly not effective." [Lawrence Krauss, astronomer]

All in all, I actually find some of the more extreme opinions from some scientists here to be on a par with the offensiveness of some fundamentalist Christian views - they are no better in their complete close-mindedness and unwillingness to discuss things in a civilised and educated way. Attitudes like this only further rifts between science and religion, where we should be looking to coexist peacefully. It is not for science to decide whether religion should or should not exist.

In my opinion, religion, while not scientific in form and teachings, serves a useful purpose, regardless of the truth of it or otherwise. It provides people with a comfort, a hope, a familiarity and a guideline by which to live their lives. The trouble arises when religion and science come to a face-off, as in the intelligent design/evolution debate in the USA at the moment, or when religion is used as an excuse for violence and evil acts as it has been throughout history. One cannot, generally, blame the religion for these acts - the people perpetrating them are solely responsible. Similarly, one cannot blame science for, say, Hiroshima - those responsible are the ones that made the decision to press the big red button, as it were. Humans are fallible, and we have the free will to choose whether to use certain technology, or to twist certain doctrine, to our own ends.

[Related links: New Scientist podcast, Science v. Religion]

Nov. 23rd, 2006



Monotheism & Cultural Development

I have heard it said that without the development of monotheistic religion, modern society with all it's technology and ethics would not have developed, implying that we would not be technologically advanced or ethical (if we can even be considered ethical as it is) with a dominant polytheistic religion.

Personally, I'm inclined to think that this view is inaccurate. Consider the technological advances made by polytheistic civilisations such as the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Chinese and many others. Some of their technological feats even now defy understanding. While these are not developments as advanced at that development of modern technology ans science, it would surely be a matter of time (hundreds or thousands of years into their development) before modern technology would have developed in some form or another, assuming monotheistic religions had not appeared and dominated.

In fact, although Christianity came to dominate across the Western world (where modern technology also developed), it wasn't until science and religion began to diverge a couple of hundred years ago that the technological advancements leading to the industrial revolution and modern science began to rapidly develop - we have seen an explosion in the development of science and technology in the last 150 or so years at a rate unparalleled in history, and this seems to coincide with an increasingly secular society.



Welcome to this community. The aim here is to engage in educated discussion of issues in science, religion and technology, primarily of an academic nature, and the interactions and relationships between them.

I know that, at least in science, there is little consideration of subjects such as theology and how they affect scientific issues, and it would be fascinating and no doubt beneficial to both fields to engage in discussion of such things, particularly since we have such different ways of looking at things. As a starter, I shall re-post something I was thinking about the other day in my own journal in the next post.