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Thursday, April 02, 2009


The best comment on this ongoing debate that I have heard in a long time is from a guy called Dr Ranan Banerji, reviewing a book called The Universe - Solved by Jim Elvidge. I haven't read the book so I cannot comment, but the quote reads: “We have recently been inundated by a spate of books on the "science-religion" controversy. They all confuse science with reductionist materialism and religion with fundamentalism".

My Goodness, I wish that I had written that line, because it encapsulates what I have been trying to say for years. Because I consider myself both a scientist and a Christian, and I see no contradictions between the two.

Science, or at least the Science that I have spent my life in pursuit of, is more than just the studdy of matter, and the Christianity that I practiose, and indeed that any of my Christian friends practises does not require a belief in the literal truth of The Bible word for word, nor a belief in primitive superstitions.

It always used to irritate me some years ago, when two friends of mine - both female, and both Pagan - would come round to my house, and after a glass of wine or two would start ranting about how "my people" were responsible for having burned thousands of "their people" in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

In vain I would try to argue that there was very little connection between the brand of Christianity practised in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and that practised by me and my fellows in the early 21st, and even less connection between the brand of neopaganism practised by my two friends, which - as Nick Redfern and I showed in a paper for Fortean Studies - in about 1998 had its genesis in the 1940s, and whatever folk beliefs were held by the unfortunate victims of the witchburnings. And that as a modern Christian, I bare no responsibility for the witchburnings, the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of the Knights Templar, or indeed anything else from times past.

But it was to no avail. They just would not accept that I had a point, and eventually I gave up trying.

And now I find the same thing happening again with science. "How can you call yourself a scientist but say you believe in God?" sneered a bloke I met at a conference a few years ago. "Dear boy, how can you call yourself a scientist and not?" I sneered with the best well bred Patrician contempt that I could muster, but it was only bluster. Because faith is an intensely personal thing. I cannot explain it, I would rather not have to analyse it, and I feel uncomfortable talking about it in public. I am certainly not one of these people who feels comfortable knocking on people's doors and shouting "Halleluyah!" whilst banging a tambourine.

I think that the real problem is that the human race likes to categorise people to their lowest common denominator - reductionism in action - and then, when people have been reduced to armed camps of social cliches, the human race likes to set them off against each other. Christians are not all fundamentalist zealots, preparing to tie outsiders to a stake, and then baptise them before burnbing them. Muslims are not all suicide bombers or Al Quaeda terrorists. Scientists are not all cold-hearted automatons in starched lab coats carrying out vivisection experiments on cuddly animals whilst plotting to overthrow the Universe. And pagans are not all inbred yokels, conspiring to burn hapless visitors alive in a giant wicker man.


We are all human beings trying our best to make sense of an infinitely complicated Universe in the best way that we can. And somewhere in another plane of existence God is shaking his head in exasperation as he makes himself his fifth cup of coffee of the morning. How can mankind have screwed everything up so badly. He is tempted either to intervene, or to start all over again, but he can't break his own rules. That just wouldn't do. So he drinks his coffee instead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jon, all that science effectively consists of is a set of rules which if followed fairly rigorously prevent you falling into a number of logical traps. A number of tools have since been developed to help people with these rules; mathematical statistics of various sorts is perhaps the most powerful but this is still but a tool.

The fundamental rule in science is not to believe anything unless there is a greater preponderence of evidence in favour of it as opposed to evidence against it. From this follows Occam's Razor, which is a filter to prevent people unnecessarily complicating theories beyond levels that the evidence supports.

It is at this point that the God Hypothesis fails.

The problem is that when matter gets beyond a certain level of complication, it starts to behave in new ways that were not evident below this level of complication. Nucleic acids by themselves don't do much, but strings of nucleic acids can act as catalysts, and over time these catalytic reactions get more and more complex until you reach the present day, when a mindbogglingly complex descendent of said reactions is typing this entry.

Emergent behaviour like this removes the need for an entity to initiate life on earth. Evolutionary processes combined with the occasional random spanner in the works (the extinction of the dinosaurs, say, which gave mammals a chance to flourish) gives rise to a very complex world without the apparent need for an all-powerful being to intervene.

This of course does not disprove the existance of this super-being. There isn't actually any way to disprove the existance of anything; the only logical shortcut that exists which even gets close is the Null Hypothesis (i.e. the assertion you are making hasn't got enough evidence to support it so we might as well assume that it doesn't exist), which is merely a mental shorthand to let us dismiss the wilder flights of fantasy.

It all really comes down to humans and our love of sociological groupings. We are all of us tribal beings and we do so love to be members of an in-group and to dislike members of the Other Group. All that's going on is polarisation of group beliefs; best thing to do is simply ignore such polarisation and turn the other cheek, as it is rather difficult to start a fight when the other party refuses to cooperate.