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Let’s talk about the science of belief

Image: Étienne Delaune (c. 1518–1583), Plate 14 from the series The Genesis showing the building of the Tower of Babel. Engraving, 1550–1572. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ahead of their sell-out live discussion at the British Museum on 26 January scientists Sir Colin Blakemore and Professor Tom McLeish, examine what the cognitive impetus which drove the emergence of science has in common with the one that fostered religion and other metaphysical beliefs.

Dear Tom,

As scientists, we surely both subscribe to a view of the universe that is compatible with the scientific method. Without the belief that the world is orderly, causally complete, and (in principle) explicable in terms of the properties of physical matter and lawful forces, the methods of science would be unreliable. But they are not. One after another, phenomena that previously seemed utterly mysterious – from the motion of stars to the nature of life – have succumbed to the explanatory power of science.

Curiosity and exploration are essential for the survival of mobile organisms. Exploring the environment in order to understand it and to use that knowledge to predict events is clearly important for any animal looking for food or a mate, and trying to avoid being someone else’s dinner. Presumably it is the enormous brain of human beings that propelled us into the state of exaggerated curiosity that distinguishes our species. Perhaps we should have been called Homo curiosus, rather than Homo sapiens: without curiosity, there could be no wisdom.

I suspect we’ll agree that a lust for understanding underpins both religion and science. But, to my mind, they are epistemologically incompatible. In our quest to comprehend nature (including our own nature), there is no place for ideology, dogma and unjustifiable faith. Nor for appeals to the ‘super’-natural.

Yours,
Colin

Dear Colin,

I was rather hoping for something that I might be able to disagree with! Love the Homo curiosus idea, and the ‘lust for understanding’. Well perhaps I can disagree with your assumption at the end that ‘religion’ is some sort of alternative epistemology for finding out knowledge about the world. You sketch the convenient (Auguste) Comtean picture of science slowly replacing ‘religion’ as explanation, as it paints the priest and prophet into an ever-vanishing corner of the epistemological room. It’s such a common misunderstanding, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is just that. So, I’m not surprised at the hurling around of words like ‘ideology’, ‘dogma’ and ‘unjustified faith’ – perhaps there is rather a lot to unpick here after all.

Let’s start with your (and our shared) ‘belief that the world is orderly…’ It’s true – continually, miraculously (in the bare sense of the word) it’s faith that turns out to be justified. We don’t know if that will continue of course, but both suspect that it will.

KeplerFaradayMaxwellEinsteinHoyle and many other scientists have not unreasonably raised the theological significance of the discovery that mental structure is there in the universe.

My tradition of Judeo-Christianity is not a set of rival explanatory ‘supernatural’ causes for the world, but (among many other things) a story of how humans have come to terms with their relationship to that world (and yes with its Creator). The great medieval scientific enlightenment lit the fuse that led to the events we call the ‘scientific revolution’ with methods of observation and cognition, and with a driving narrative of purpose and hope, that was explicitly generated by a theological narrative. The early moderns, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Newton himself – drove experimental science from the same source.

Science can give helpful evolutionary and anthropological explanations of where curiosity came from, but it cannot give us the story we need to live in now, on why we do science itself, for what end and for whom, why human persons find, as Kant put it, a disjuncture between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. I am trying to get at what Einstein meant when he said:

“Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame.”

Yours,
Tom

Dear Tom,

Yes, we have plenty to agree on – especially the explanatory power of science, and its dependence on the regularity and lawfulness of the universe. And I agree that mystical notions might have provided human beings, in the past, with a normative mythology, partly reassuring, partly intimidating, about the role of people on this earth. But the existence of an idea, even if widespread among humans, even if powerful in its influence, doesn’t make it correct.

There are two themes in your reply that I’m eager to discuss when we meet on 26 January. The first is your suggestion that the Judeo-Christian narrative is not an explanation myth but ‘a story of how humans have come to terms with their relationship to that world’. Apart from the fact that Genesis 1:1 seems to have been forgotten, I wonder how you can accept fables and legends, bereft of evidence, as anything more than fiction.

And if you mean that religious codes have provided people with essential guidance on how to relate to each other and to the natural world, I must remind you that religio-politics (from far right Christian fundamentalism to Jihadist terrorism to Buddhist ethnic cleansing to Zionist Islamophobia) isn’t doing a very good job. Our only chance of coming to terms with each other and the world lies in the genuine understanding of that world and of the nature of human beings that comes from evidence-based scholarship (in the humanities as well as science).

The second is your notion that the inspiration for scientists (and even for science itself) was ‘a driving narrative of purpose and hope’ provided by religion. Human beings certainly have a tendency to see purpose and meaning in the world, as well as an inclination to perceive agency and intention. These cognitive dispositions are efficient ways of identifying the presence and actions of other people, but they can lead to a false model of causation based on intention, and the curious view that life is valuable only if it has some undefined ‘meaning’. I think that this is the more correct interpretation of your statement that ‘mental structure is there in the universe’. As for religion inspiring science, you proffer Bacon, Boyle and Newton. But I raise you Bohr, Medawar, Tinbergen, Higgs, Crick, Monod, Kroto, Chadwick, Brenner, Bondi, Pauling, etc. As for Einstein and the enigmatic words that you cite, I submit his own explanation:

“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Hear, hear.

Yours,
Colin

Dear Colin

We have established that very clever and wise scientists can be atheists, and equally can be theists. Very detailed sociological work along these lines has been carried out more recently by sociologists such as Elaine Ecklund at Rice University. But all that does is to give us pause before we take the line that either worldview is obviously right, or obviously wrong. I think that an equally sterile course would be to pivot an argument on the worst excesses of those who distort tradition to violent and poisonous ends (including those of the officially atheist regimes we have seen only since the 20th century).

We ought to discuss what ‘accepting fables and legends’ (I have always preferred ‘myths’) might mean. Since you mention Genesis 1 (forgotten by whom, by the way, and accepted as meaning what?) it might be helpful in the context of the British Museum to recall the many historical modes of reading such texts that are far more sophisticated than our repertoire today: analogical, anagogical, metaphorical, apocalyptical, normative, and so on. I am always saddened by the cultural failure to read the Bible in our age (irrespective of belief), simply because we miss the wealth of ancient evidence for the way humankind has looked for meaning, in just the way you point out. Berlin philosopher Susan Neiman has claimed, for example, that the Book of Job should be considered alongside Plato as a foundation text for western philosophy. In any case it contains some of the most sublime ancient nature poetry I know, and convinces me that the seeds of what we now call ‘science’ were sown many generations ago.

I would love it if we could get beyond and behind arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ theistic belief at the public debate – and unpack the stated purpose on the blurb: ‘how science is itself at the heart of being human, and can be traced back through art, philosophy and ancient stories, including those in religious traditions’. I think that one can make a case that one reason for the damaging cultural divide between what we term ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ is the loss of the religious and theological glue that once held them together.

Yours,
Tom

Professor Sir Colin Blakemore and Professor Tom McLeish will continue their discussion on 26 January at the British Museum.

More information

Sir Colin Blakemore FMedSci FRS, is professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. He was formerly chief executive of the British Medical Research Council. His work as a neurobiologist has contributed to our understanding of vision, and how the brain develops and adapts. He was influential in demonstrating ‘neural plasticity’ – how brain cells reorganise themselves in response to the environment after birth and even in adulthood.

Tom McLeish is professor of physics at Durham University, Fellow of the Royal Society and vice-president of science at the Institute of Physics. In his acclaimed 2014 book Faith and Wisdom in Science, he argued for science to be reassimilated into the interconnected whole of human activity, including our need for religion.

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  1. Dear Collin,
    I went from a religious view of God to non religious view of God. The difference is my epic 23 yrs Journey starting from London ( at UCH,UCL) and Ealing when I went in search of Creator. To cut the long story short, There is one God and one Original God or Creator of Infinity. I am revealing the entire Mystery of Origin of Life and how everything is controlled with sub-quantum precision. The power behind our living and breathing comes from God whose Intelligent Design explains many mysteries which Darwin could not explain nor Einstein who wanted to know the Mind of God nor Hawkings can. I am sharing my multiple Nobel Prize winning scientific discoveries and hope to give some lectures to give scientific proof of human consciousness inside human brain which is separate from physical human brain and much more. Neuroscience did not have the answer as to what happens at time of death and after death and before any rebirth…

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