Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The science of belief

Inayat Bunglawala

Believers and scientists have moved on: now the debate has turned to an exploration of how faith and science can be compatible with each other.

reposted from:

It is almost seven years since the then US president Bill Clinton spoke in a suitably reverential tone concerning the completion of the first draft of the decoding of the human genome:

"Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind ... Today's announcement represents more than just an epoch-making triumph of science and reason. After all, when Galileo discovered he could use the tools of mathematics and mechanics to understand the motion of celestial bodies, he felt, in the words of one eminent researcher, that he had learned the language in which God created the universe. Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

But was Clinton wrong in this instance to refer to God?

WASP: Quite!

Wasn't this just a rather opportunistic attempt to curry favour with America's believing millions? Francis S Collins - the man who headed the Human Genome Project's stunning sequencing of the code of life and stood next to Clinton when he delivered his speech, believes strongly that Clinton was right.

In his latest book, The Language of God, Collins seeks to reconcile the findings of science with faith in God.

"Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul - and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms."

Still, it's a tough time to be one who seeks reconciliation. Last year saw arch-atheist Richard Dawkins launch an all-out assault on what he disparagingly referred to as "faith-heads" in his bestselling book, The God Delusion, and on the other side, creationist and intelligent design movements continue to gather supporters. Indeed, dismayingly, it appears that creationist arguments are also now beginning to make inroads into some Muslim communities too.

Collins emphatically rejects the bleak worldview that Dawkins espoused in his 1995 book River Out of Eden:

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference."

As the late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould often remarked, just as it was important for religious scholars not to overstep their boundaries by making unsupported assertions about issues that were within the domain of science, it was also unhelpful when scientists made similarly unsupported atheistic claims about what science had to say regarding questions of meaning and purpose.

So, the same data that Dawkins used to advocate his atheistic worldview can also be interpreted in a quite different way. "... The fact that the universe had a beginning, that it obeys orderly laws that can be expressed precisely with mathematics, and the existence of a remarkable series of 'coincidences' that allows the laws of nature to support life ..." can also lend strong support for the God hypothesis, says Collins.

And Collins makes just this case for the concept of theistic evolution, ie God caused the universe to come into being and set its laws and physical parameters precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements and life itself. Such a belief does not contradict and is consistent with both science and faith.

In the final analysis, the scientific method has been astoundingly successful at investigating the natural world. Still, this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the tools of science are powerless to answer some of our profoundest questions such as "Why did the universe come into being?", "What is the meaning of human existence?" and "What will happen to us after we die?" and yet there is clearly a deep-rooted human desire to seek answers to these questions.

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