Nov 23

Books on Science and Religion #25: William Hatcher on Science and Religion

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Nov 23, 2014

Logic and Logos: Essays on Science, Religion and Philosophy – the book I comment on below – is quite different than the books we’ve looked at previously in this series.

William_HatcherFor one thing, its author – the mathematician William S. Hatcher – was one of era’s pioneering explorers of the relationship between science and religion. Of the scientifically informed thinkers in the latter half of the 20th century who rejected the widespread 19th century perspective that science was the replacement for religion, only the physicist Ian Barbour seems to have preceded him. Hatcher’s first publication on the topic –  “Science and Religion” in World Order in 1969 – only slightly lagged Barbour’s ground-breaking Issues in Science and Religion published in 1966. (An edited version of Hatcher’s Science and Religion is the first essay in The Science of Religion, Baha’i Studies, 1980).

The book is also different in that it explores the Baha’i perspective on science and religion – one elaborated in the writings and talks of `Abdu’l-Baha 100 years ago and first enunciated by Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith. It provides an organized, eminently readable and comprehensive overview of a powerful Baha’i principle.

Professionally, Hatcher was a mathematician with a mathematician’s love for Platonist philosophy. This, plus the fact that he was as Baha’i, brings a unique perspective to his descriptions. Being a logician and philosopher, he was conversant with modern positivism (often called logical positivism).  Positivism was a widely influential Austrian / Anglo-American philosophical perspective that shaped the views of many American and British scientists and philosophers in the 20th century.

For me, Hatcher’s writings hold a special place in my life. They are what introduced me to the topic of science and religion as young physics student. They have sustained and fed my interest in science and religion since I was a youthful Baha’i in the early 1970s.

Science, Religion, and Ways of Relating to Reality

Logic and logos

Logic and Logos was published in 1990, but contained materials published in Zygon and various Baha’i publications in the 1970s. He starts by saying that we engage with the world in two different ways:

On the one hand, there is the enterprise of relating to reality by constructing mental models of it. We ‘fill the gaps’ in our immediate experience by using our imagination to conceive of what the structure of unobservable reality might be like. We articulate these mental models in the form of theories whose validity is then tested through further experience.

Systematization and generalization of this ways of thinking leads to science. But it is not the only way of engaging:

On the other hand, our recognition that we ourselves have sprung from the unknown and unobservable, and will return to it at the moment of our death, inspires in us an appropriate sense of our limitations — of being encompassed by a reality greater than ourselves. We have an acute sense of the transcendence of ultimate reality, and also of the inadequacy and relativity of our theories.

Systematization and generalization of this way leads to religion. There is both a constant tension and a continual dialectic between these two ways of engaging – these two “articulations”:

We might say that science is based on a ‘minimalist’ articulation of reality. In science, the universal law of cause and effect, which is embedded in the very structure of things, is modeled by the logical connection between hypothesis and conclusion in our theories…

Religion represents rather a ‘maximalist’ articulation of reality, an articulation that seeks to capture as much of it as is humanly possible. Religious discourse is thus laden with multiple, deep and subtle meanings. Central to the religious enterprise — our quest for transcendence — is the phenomenon of revelation …

Why then is there a conflict between these two seemingly complementary “articulations”? 

The Conflict Between Religion and Science – and its Resolution

Conflict_(1936)_1

The conflict – Hatcher says – is due to a misplaced association of materialism with science. Materialism has long been with us, but it is only recently – in the last several centuries – that it has become an influential point of view:

It is only in the modem period that the materialistic view has become linked to a prestigious and highly efficient natural science. This prestige of science forces people to take seriously any pronouncement that is put forth in its name. All of this contrasts sharply with the pre-modern period in which the materialistic view was just one among many competing views and had no particular natural or obvious superiority over others.

This widespread popular acceptance of materialism is

… due not to any inherent philosophical superiority of that view but rather to the immense prestige of the science in the name of which the materialistic view is put forth … [T]his prestige of science is due essentially to its evident technological productivity and efficiency.

The technological productivity and efficiency” of science, Hatcher believes, is due to the scientific method (which “can be practiced with success independently of any particular religious or cultural orientation.”) This method is “self-conscious common sense”.  According to Hatcher, it

… systematically invokes certain types of experiences. This is experimentation (the conscious use of experience). Instead of relying on naive reasoning, one formalizes hypotheses explicitly and formalizes the reasoning leading from hypothesis to conclusion. This is mathematics and logic (the conscious use of reason). Instead of relying on occasional flashes of insight, one systematically meditates on problems. This is reflection (the conscious use of intuition).

Religion is different:

The importance of religion on the other hand derives precisely from its goal and its contents rather than its method. Religion treats of questions which are so fundamental for us that every human being is obliged to realize the importance of answering them. Some of these questions concern the purpose of man’s existence, the possibility of life after death, the possibility of self-transcendence, the possibility of contacting and living in harmony with a higher spiritual consciousness, the meaning of suffering, and the existence of good and evil.

School of AthensBecause of these differences, the resolution of the problem of the conflict between science and religion is simple:

Once we realize that the basis of science is its method and that the basis of religion is its object of study, the essential move toward resolving the religion-science controversy seems obvious and logical: Apply scientific method within religion.

Some Implications / Conclusions

There is much more in the five chapters in the book than I can discuss here. Rather than failing at doing so, let me summarize Hatcher’s basic message: It is very clear. Science and religion are completely compatible and can – and must – work together.

And there are a lot of implications to this messages – big implications that are all about setting the stage for important tasks that society needs to accomplish in the future. I’ll look at just two.

If science is method for ascertaining truth, not a worldview, then several things follow:

1. Science writing that is speculative, metaphysical, or ideological must be seen as just that, not as an authoritative pronouncement of science.

For example, 19th century pre-scientific evolutionary thought gave rise to a wide variety of views as to how society was supposed to work best, where we come from, the proper role of social institutions, the purpose of life and its meaning or lack of,  etc., so forth, and so on. But if we take science as a method, not as a worldview or a metaphysics, then we can simply listen to the stories that some people tell with ears sophisticated enough to hear them for what they are – just stories.

Sometimes those stories are thrilling and informative – Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson can do astonishingly well.  But very often – too often in my opinion – they are simply creation stories – narratives aping those found in the Bible and simply mirroring their author’s theologies, ideologies, and metaphysical preoccupations. In such cases, they are holdovers from a simpler bygone age when religious stories were a substitute for science.

2. The method of science can be applied to religion. We can use it to understand religious myths, superstitions, ideologies, to clear up misunderstandings, to recognize outmoded secular practices, and to clean religion from what ails it. (There is, of course, the need for a spiritual revival if this is to be successful, but as any Baha’i will tell you, that is what the main thrust of the Baha’i Faith is all about.)

Doing this – purifying and sweeping away the cobwebs from religion – is a long-held dream of the founders of modern science and of the European enlightenment.  Science – considered as Hatcher considers it – revives and resuscitates that dream.

Next Blog

In the next blog, more discussion of books

…………………………

This is the 25th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Nov 17

Books on Science and Religion #24: Edward O. Wilson and the Meaning of Human ExistenceModern Scientism

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Nov 18, 2014

In our last group of blogs, we looked at 19th century scientism, 19th scientific materialism, and 19th century Lamarckian and Darwinian social philosophies – what are now called social Darwinisms.

Very few of these scientisms, materialisms, and social Darwinisms were based on verified scientific principles  – rather they were usually extrapolations from unproven scientific or quasi-scientific hypotheses. Some of the greatest horrors of the 19th and 20th century were the consequences of these unscientific extrapolations as scientism, materialism, and social Darwinism fed into global colonialism, militarism, fascism, communism, nationalism, and the undermining of religion.

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Nov 10

Books on Science and Religion #23: Conclusion to Our Review of Science and Scientism

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Nov 11, 2014

Here we finish our discussion of Richard Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe with a summary – and a look forward. Olson’s summary of his book is very simple:

We have seen that throughout the early years of the nineteenth century every major tradition of natural science—and there were major differences in approach across both subject matters and national boundaries—spawned efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern. That is, they spawned scientisms.

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Nov 02

Books on Science and Religion #22: Eugenics

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Nov 2, 2014

Two key Baha’i teachings about science and religion are that (1) both science and religion are necessary for an advancing civilization, and that (2) science without religion – and religion without science – are dangerous:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!

Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism … 

Much of the discord and disunion of the world is created by these man-made oppositions and contradictions. If religion were in harmony with science and they walked together, much of the hatred and bitterness now bringing misery to the human race would be at an end. (`Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 143-145)

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Oct 27

Books on Science and Religion #21: Evolution, Devolution, and Degeneracy

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Oct 26, 2014

DARWINDOWNIn the 19th century, evolutionary thinkers like Darwin portrayed Caucasians – meaning northern Europeans – as the world’s most civilized and advanced race. Caucasians, they proclaimed, arrived at their superiority by natural selection – i.e., they arrived at it through competitive means via the survival of the fittest. All this was happy and good – or so it seemed – if you were a northern European of suitable status. Science, according to these thinkers, showed that it was therefore acceptable – perhaps even necessary – to colonize, to bully, to militarize, to govern, and to direct the affairs of other peoples and races provided that you were British, French, German, or American of suitable racial ancestry. Advancement of the strong – these thinkers proclaimed – required it:

One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. ― Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

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Oct 19

Books on Science and Religion #20: Social Darwinism and Scientific Racism

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Oct 19, 2014

We prefer not to think about it, but science can lead to evil.

Atomic BombOne way, of course, is through technology enhanced by science. Think of bombs able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in seconds, of paralyzing nerve agents like sarin, or of car bombs used to destroy lives and create terror. Imagine military drones and robots loosened from responsible control. Or think of the global warming that has been unleashed by our energy sciences – or the seemingly endless supply of addictive drugs that mock our hopes for our youth.

But there is another way that science can lead to evil – misconstrued visions of reality inspired by science.

Let’s not be afraid. Evolutionary science is no less a science because of social Darwinism and its misuses. And scientific racism has been put firmly to rout by the extraordinary advances of genetics and the compelling evidence that it gives of the oneness of humanity.

But there are important lessons to be learned. Those who admire and love the evolutionary sciences should learn to appreciate why so many people strongly distrust evolution. Those who want science to be the source of morality can see how ideas claiming to be derived from science can be distorted or bent to support very destructive prejudices. Evolution, in particular, seems to have been particularly susceptible to being misused – even by the best and the brightest.

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Oct 12

Books on Science and Religion #19: A Prologue to Social Darwinism

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Platopic2Oct 12, 2014

Modern philosophers, leading thinkers, intellectuals, and certain scientists are the public intellectuals of the day. Sometimes, such a role is thrust upon them, or they court it successfully.

We must ask, what is the source of a public intellectual’s leadership? From where does this leadership derive its authority?

And is this leadership the same as that of a priest or a theologian? Is it different?

It strikes me that these are very important questions that we should be asking of – and about – our leaders of thought and their ideas. And we should ask it of the leaders of thought in the 19th century as well, especially those who claim science or philosophy as their source of authority about social and political issues. We cannot ignore the sometimes horrific fruits of their ideas and their labors.

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Oct 10

Faith and Freedom

Evolution (Oh Yeah!)

Evolution (Oh Yeah!)

Unlike our animal cousins, human beings’ behavior is less affected by instinct than it is by observation, nurture, experience and guided learning. We live in complex relationships that form an even more complex society. Existing in that society requires that we learn the skills necessary to that existence.

As children, we require the guidance of parents, teachers and a body of knowledge about ourselves and our world. That guidance must originate somewhere—especially in areas where the effects of blindly following instinct can be ambiguous and/or dire—for we seem not to be very good at these things naturally. Or, as a psychologist acquaintance put it on a panel we shared, we may be born with nascent qualities—empathy, for example—and unlearn them. We human beings need someone to teach us—not what to think—but how to think, how to treat other humans, how to love, how to balance our personal desires and rights and responsibilities against those of the people around us.

Even more central to the human experience, we must learn how to balance our material or physical desires against our total welfare. An example of this is the brain/mind dichotomy when it comes to physical pleasure and/or addictions. What the brain desires, the mind rules against, knowing things that can bring intense, if ephemeral physical pleasure can be destructive to the total person. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oct 05

Books on Science and Religion #18: Social Darwinism and the Descent of Man

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Oct 5, 2014

In 1871, emboldened by the success of On the Origin of Species and having more to say on the topic of evolution, Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. According to Wikipedia:

Darwin applies evolutionary theory to human evolution, and details his theory of sexual selection, a form of biological adaptation distinct from, yet interconnected with, natural selection. The book discusses many related issues, including evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, differences between human races, differences between sexes, the dominant role of women in choosing mating partners, and the relevance of the evolutionary theory to society. 

descent of manIn recent blogs, we have been looking at Darwinism, scientism, and social Darwinism through the lens of the book Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Richard Olson. Olson non-polemically defines scientism as “the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context of the study of the natural world … into the study of humans and their social institutions.” He defines social Darwinism as an “appeal to evolutionary arguments, whether Lamarckian of Darwinian in tone and whether focused on individual or group dynamics, to argue on behalf of any social policy.”

Olson emphasizes that there were “sweeping theories of evolution that incorporated the idea that evolution extended fully to human physical and mental developments as well as to societal change well before Charles Darwin published anything on evolution.” These were politically influential and had influence on government policy as early as ten years before Darwin’s participation. But, he emphasizes, “Darwin’s work gradually eclipsed all prior investigations of evolution in term of their impact upon scientistic social theorizing”. The Descent of Man was Darwin’s opportunity to weigh in on the continuing dialogue 12 years after publication of the Origin of the Species, especially with regards to humans and the evolution of groups. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sep 28

Books on Science and Religion #17: Darwin and On the Origin of Species

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Sept 28, 2014

In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species – a greatly influential and widely read book arguing for a theory of evolution based on natural selection that is also one of the foundational texts of 19th century materialism. 1,170 copies were on sale for the first edition, but the numbers sold grew rapidly, reaching a phenomenal 108,000 by 1901.

The Guardian newspaper in England, echoing a widespread modern sentiment, considers On the Origin Species as “part of the literary canon: Darwin joins Aristotle and St Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton and Stuart Mill, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac in that pantheon of texts that provide the foundations of western culture.” Darwin is now regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of all times.

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