Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Two 'science & religion' books based on interviews conducted with elite scientists

During the recent semester break, and in-between my internship in Kuala Lumpur, I get to read four books of which two are related to the topic of science and religion. Here they are:

Elaine Howard Ecklund has presented to us, in her newly published 'Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think', a well documented statistics comprising 1646 scientists across 21 elite American universities, ranging from Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Yale, Cornell, and others.

There are many interesting discovery from Ecklund's survey. She found that nearly 50% of these scientists are religiously affiliated (p.15). Besides that, "Nearly one in five is actively involved in a house of worship, attending more than once a month. This means that top scientists are sitting in the pews of our nation's congregations, temples, and mosques." (p.151)

We know that there are vocal anti-religion scientists who are out to ridicule and banish religion. Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers are obvious examples. These vocal ones make it as if the entire scientific community is hostile and against religion. Yet in Ecklund's findings, she met only five atheistic scientists among the rest that she interviewed who were very hostile and actively go against religion (p.150).


Contrary to the popular belief that there are almost none biologists who believe in God, Ecklund found that there are over 30% of biologists at top universities "have a firm belief in God." (p.130)

This book has many other statistical findings which are very informative to the topic on the relationship between science and religion. Many of these debunk popular rumors, such as a person will loss her faith if she becomes a scientist, circulated by those who are anti-religion as well as those who are anti-science.

One particularly interesting point that Ecklund included in the book is the conversation she had with Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at M.I.T, who is a Christian. Hutchinson mentions a supportive community at his workplace where natural and social scientists gather for fellowship. They talk about the challenges they face as scientists. He said that the biggest challenge facing these top scientists is not over how to reconcile science and religion because "most elite scientists seem to have reconciled these well before they came to their current posts." Their fellowship concerns more on the struggle to balance work demands with their life as scientists. (p.146)

This is particularly interesting because, firstly, it reveals the significance of having a supportive community to support one another among Christian scientists. Secondly, elite scientists who are Christians usually have no problem with the relationship between science and religion.

(Coincidentally I am currently helping my scientist and engineering friends to organize a local fellowship among Christian scientists, engineers, and those who are interested. The fellowship will explore the theme revolving the relationship between science and Christianity. We have just decided the details of our first meeting. It will be on the 14th July, 7.30pm-9.30pm. If you are interested, feel free to drop me an email (joshuawoo@gmail.com) for further information.)

Here is Ecklund's related article at Huffingtonpost.com.

The other book that I have read is one edited by Mark Richardson and Gordy Slack. 'Faith in Science: Scientists Search for Truth' is a collection of 12 in-depth interviews with 12 scientists of which two of them are Nobel Laureates.

What amazes me about this book is the richness of the various approaches to the relationship between science and faith. Besides interviewing Catholic and Evangelical Christians, the book also highlights how Muslims, pantheist, witch, and religious Jews relate to the issue.

I am fascinated with the interviews with John Rodwell (Anglican priest and a botanist), Brian Cantwell Smith (cognitive and computer scientist and a philosopher), Mark Pesce (computer scientist and a witch), and Charles Towner (Protestant Christian and a physicist). Each of them engages their faith with their work diversely from the others.

John Rodwell is famous for his five-volume work British Plant Communities. It is an authoritative work used by "all British land-management agencies and provides a common taxonomic language for government, business and environmental groups." (p.35) When asked how does he relate his faith to his work as a plant sociologist, Rodwell shared, "I am very aware of a tension between my desire to impose my perception of order and my desire to allow thigns to be what they really are. I would say that I am trying to discover the names that were given to the realm of Creation by God himself. I am trying to liberate them, to allow them to be what God wanted them to be." (p.37)

Rodwell also shared about his aspiration to see more Christians who are able to theologically understand their vocation in the industry where they have been located. To him, that location is where religion bears its most distinctive meaning. And he has not encounter many Christians who possess the awareness of the theological significance of the places they are located at. (p.47-49)

Brian C. Smith is the son of the famed theologian Wilfred C. Smith at Harvard. One can hardly categorize Brian Smith's perception of God into the traditional sense. In his own expression, "To the extent I understand the word "God" at all, it is as a word for everything. [...] "God" [...] is the reminder connoting the "moreness," yet ultimate unity, of everything." (p.66) The nearest category of this is the pantheistic notion.

Smith sees that the current concern of science is only over the 'truth' of the reality. Compared to the ancient reverence for the meaning of the ultimate reality which is the true, the beautiful, and the good, Smith envisions science to include all these three virtues. "One of my most basic metaphysical commitments is that truth, beauty and goodness aren't completely separated." (p.61)

Given his understanding of metaphysic, Smith firmly assert the place for theology as well as science in human quest for ultimate significance. He believes that "the updated science and the updated theology will ultimately turn into the same project." (p.62) And he is on a pursuit to find a common vocabulary that both religious and anti-religious people can use to signify the "ultimate things." (p.67) I suspect many Christians will have difficulty endorsing Smith's view, but, personally, I think he makes good sense.

Charles Townes is a Nobel Laureate. Commenting on the legitimacy of faith vis-a-vis science, Townes remarked, "... the faith [all] scientists have is so fundamental and all pervasive that most don't realize it is faith. We have faith that the universe follow reliable laws, that the universe is not ruled by many different kinds of conflicting laws, that the physical laws are real. We also have faith that human mind can understand many of these laws. [...] The faith that scientists have is not that different from believing in one reliable God." (p.173)

Townes here professes a more critical stand over the relation between science and religion as compared to Stephen Hawking. Townes recognizes the need to be humble at both end of the relation. After commenting on the side of religion, Townes went on to say that, "I think scientists are increasingly humble, particularly physicists, because they've been through revolutions and they recognize in very hard, quantitative ways, where they haven't understood things and where they still don't understand things." (p.182)

Mark Pesce is a pioneer of the Virtual Reality who developed the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). And he is also a witch. Yes, no kidding. In the book, he describes how the practice of witchcraft parallels with his conception and development of the virtual world. I shall stop here since it is getting late already.

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