Friday, March 13, 2009

Tried and true?

Charlie Rose has a knack for giving us access to very interesting people and ideas.  That’s particularly the case with his series of topical interviews, none more so than those focused on the interrelated areas of technology and science.  A few days ago he spent an hour with Google’s Eric Schmidt.  In the closing minutes, Schmidt was asked whether people in technology are different?  “Yes”, he answered, “technologists as a group tend to be more analytical, data driven,…more global in their focus…they’re into creating whole new businesses.”  In his experience, he continued “other companies are often locked into a paradigm that was given to them by their grandfather.”  People in technology, he concluded, believe “that you can literally change the world.”   A parallel contrast was drawn between science and religion by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his 1999 Natural History Magazine essay, Holy Wars.  Tyson writes, “scientists heap their largest rewards and praises upon those who do discover flaws in established paradigms. These same rewards also go to those who create new ways to understand the universe. Nearly all famous scientists, pick your favorite one, have been so praised in their own lifetimes.  This path to success in one's professional career is antithetical to almost every other human establishment – especially to religion.”

It is precisely for this reason that I have never found science and religion to be ultimately compatible.  To be sure there are many religious leaders who profess just the opposite, who accept many of science’s discoveries and who, in theory at least, share its commitment to searching for truth.  So, too, there are those in science who have strong ties to religion. Nobel Lauriat Sir John Houghton, among the world’s preeminent climatologists, is a devout evangelical Christian.   The problem is that religion’s embrace of science, and in seeking what scientists would call truth, is always conditional.  In his recent book Why Faith Matters, Rabbi David J. Wolpe reflects that conditionality when he describes science as “… a vast, glorious tribute to the abilities God gave us to discover secrets about the created world.”  God and divine creation are immutable.  Again, some of his colleagues, Jewish and Christian, might not put it in exactly the same way, but the message is clear.  Truth, another one of those loaded words, cannot transcend or deny the “truth” of God, however individual religions may define it.  Religion, joined by many of us, draws the line at “inconvenient truths” – truths that question its basic premise.

Interestingly both Schmidt’s citing corporate commitments to old paradigms and Tyson’s suggestion that overturning paradigms is a basic purpose in science strike at the core of the problem.  In his argument to uphold Proposition 8, Pepperdine Law Dean Kenneth Starr contended, among other things, that marriage, defined as between a man and a woman, had been part of California law and practice from the beginning.  Similar arguments were made in other places about slavery and women’s suffrage.  While not a lawyer, I think it was his weakest (that a majority of voters favored Prop 8 seems stronger).   But it is exactly the one often used by religion in defending the continued reading of old texts and of observing customs that have lost any contemporary meaning.  It is the “tried and true” argument that in the end forecloses discussion because it claims no relevancy to be proven.  Religion embraces science and technology conditionally and also selectively.  The Religious Right is happy to use mobile phones and even to “tweet” as communications tools or to promote their ideology over the Internet, all products of science and technology, but not the “pill” that will prevent pregnancy.  The first serve their purpose, the second runs contrary to what they perceive of as “God’s will”.

But the real issue is the one alluded to in Schmidt’s last statement, the thing about “changing the world”.  Barack Obama ran on a platform of change, an idea widely embraced at least in theory.  He has consistently warned that change is easier said than done, reflecting that most of us are change-resistant.  What really bothers the religious about issues like abortion, stem cell research, same sex marriage, science and (perhaps to a lesser degree) technology is that they challenge what is tried and long accepted as true.  They require fundamental change.   On a very personal level, and these battles tend to be personal, such change undermines their perception of self.  That’s not merely inconvenient, they just can’t let it happen.  Science and technology are great, but they can go too far.

1 comment:

  1. I share your sentiments, but would add a cautionary note.
    Science, as most of us know, is not immune to established orthodoxy. Indeed, I suggest that this is not a bad thing. Science is guided by both empirical ("the data rule") and rational criteria. The latter requires that new ideas be logically compatible with established theory.
    Sometimes that gives rise to unwarranted attachment to an old idea - resistance for so long to the idea of continents moving is a good example. But on other occasions it protects science from genuinely stupid ideas - I think of "cold fusion" and some of the post-modernist nonsense, for example.
    Scientists who would overthrow established orthodoxy face a long hard struggle - and for good reason. Some might make the same claim for religion.
    The greatest danger to science comes not from its own established paradigms, but from extra-scientific, usually religious or quasi-religious, proscriptions on permissible ideas.