Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Renowned Scientists Get Together to Bash Religion

Digesting George Johnson at the NYT:
Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told

“We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. “I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,” he said.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.”

“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

In the end it was Dr. Tyson’s celebration of discovery that stole the show. Scientists may scoff at people who fall back on explanations involving an intelligent designer, he said, but history shows that “the most brilliant people who ever walked this earth were doing the same thing.” When Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” failed to account for the stability of the solar system — why the planets tugging at one another’s orbits have not collapsed into the Sun — Newton proposed that propping up the mathematical mobile was “an intelligent and powerful being.”

It was left to Pierre Simon Laplace, a century later, to take the next step. Hautily telling Napoleon that he had no need for the God hypothesis, Laplace extended Newton’s mathematics and opened the way to a purely physical theory.

“What concerns me now is that even if you’re as brilliant as Newton, you reach a point where you start basking in the majesty of God and then your discovery stops — it just stops,” Dr. Tyson said. “You’re no good anymore for advancing that frontier, waiting for somebody else to come behind you who doesn’t have God on the brain and who says: ‘That’s a really cool problem. I want to solve it.’ ”

“Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance,” he said. “Something fundamental is going on in people’s minds when they confront things they don’t understand.”

He told of a time, more than a millennium ago, when Baghdad reigned as the intellectual center of the world, a history fossilized in the night sky. The names of the constellations are Greek and Roman, Dr. Tyson said, but two-thirds of the stars have Arabic names. The words “algebra” and “algorithm” are Arabic.

But sometime around 1100, a dark age descended. Mathematics became seen as the work of the devil, as Dr. Tyson put it. “Revelation replaced investigation,” he said, and the intellectual foundation collapsed.

He did not have to say so, but the implication was that maybe a century, maybe a millennium from now, the names of new planets, stars and galaxies might be Chinese. Or there may be no one to name them at all.

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