15 June 2016

Oracles of Science

A review of Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion by Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

In this collaboration the physicist Karl Giberson and the late Mariano Artigas (a priest with doctorates in physics and philosophy) survey six men they describe as ‘oracles of science’. This phrase is shorthand for the fact that, in addition to being eminent in their own fields, these men are also gifted communicators and popularizers who have had a significant impact on the public perception of science and scientists; furthermore, they have all used their status as scientists as a platform for addressing wider issues of culture and religion.

The six scientists selected for this treatment are Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg and Edward O. Wilson: three physical scientists and three life scientists, four Americans and two British. Giberson and Artigas suggest that if their popular writings are taken together as a representative portrayal of science, then it can be inferred that (i) science is mainly about questions of origins, (ii) scientists are by and large atheist or agnostic, and (iii) science and religion are incompatible. But, argue the authors, none of these assertions is true.

The oracles are treated alphabetically and the chapters are independent of each other, so there is no need to read them in any particular order. In terms of structure, each chapter consists of a short biographical section, followed by a survey of each man’s scientific work and an analysis of their view of religion. The tone of the writing is consistently gracious and objective, so these chapters would serve as useful introductions to the life and works of the men surveyed.

A concluding chapter seeks to highlight some of the similarities and differences between the oracles. Unsurprisingly, all six portraits reveal men who are unusually ambitious: their scientific ambitions have led them to undertake grand projects, which they have pursued obsessively, and they have correspondingly grand visions of power of science to explain the world in which we live. But are they as hostile to religion as is often inferred? In fact, only two of the six are openly hostile. For Steven Weinberg (many of whose family died in the Nazi Holocaust) the problem of evil is an insuperable barrier. Richard Dawkins writes with the evangelical zeal of a convert from one religion to another (in this case, scientism). In the case of Edward Wilson, the idea of conversion is even stronger: evolution has become a substitute for the Southern Baptist religion of his youth. Stephen Hawking’s position is more difficult to fathom; his utterances on religion tend to be cryptic and unclear. Finally Sagan sees no necessary conflict between science and religion, while Gould is prepared to admit their potential compatibility.

Giberson and Artigas ask whether and to what extent the religious views of these men have derived from their science. With Wilson the connection is fairly clear: he sees evolutionary science as a valid basis for ethics (a position that Dawkins firmly rejects). In this context, I can’t help feeling that they take Hawking’s comments on knowing the mind of God a bit too seriously (to my mind, this is less a theological statement and more an affectionate allusion to Einstein). The authors complain that the oracles fail to achieve anything like a consistent humanism on the basis of their faith in science. But this is hardly surprising given that there is no consensus between them on what constitutes scientific truth. All this really shows is that science is no more monolithic than religion.

So what have Giberson and Artigas managed to show in relation to the three inferences cited above? Their account of the diverse scientific achievements of these men does demonstrate that science is about a good deal more than questions of origins. The clear disagreement between the oracles on the incompatibility of science and religion indicates that a case has not been made for a necessary hostility between them. However, the format of the book means that the authors have been unable to argue for the compatibility of science and religion. Instead, they have to content themselves with passing references to eminent scientists who are also Christians.

As already noted, the format of the book limits what the authors have been able do. Nevertheless, it remains a useful addition to the library shelves. It is an invaluable introduction to six of the most important shapers of the public perception of science at the end of the twentieth century. As such it provides a good deal of useful raw material for Christian engagement with the scientific dimension of contemporary culture.

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