Science and religion - pivotal debate of our time

23 March 2004

The discourse on science and religion is one of the most important issues we can engage in, Templeton Prize winner Professor George Ellis told the media at a news conference in New York last Wednesday. This is an abridged version of his statement.

I am a scientist by profession, specialising in general relativity theory (that is, Einstein's theory of gravity) and its applications to cosmology - the study of the origin and evolution of the universe. I am also a Quaker, having joined the Religious Society of Friends in 1974, and have been involved in social activism of various kinds over many decades.

Despite being of retirement age, I am still actively working in cosmology. I have recently, with various colleagues, been revisiting the question of whether there was a beginning to the universe. We have developed a cosmological model that is both observationally viable and eternal - it has existed forever, and so never had a beginning. We are still exploring whether it can meet all observational constraints. So far, it has passed these tests. With other colleagues, I have been examining the issue of multiverses: is there only one universe, or is our universe but one of many, as some have suggested? Cosmology is at a very active and fruitful stage, and there are still many fascinating puzzles to resolve.

I first became involved in science and religion issues about fifteen years ago through my good friend Bill Stoeger, a Jesuit priest and astronomer with whom I have done technical work on cosmology. He invited me to write a paper for a book responding to a major pontifical statement on science and religion issues, and from there I became increasingly involved in the topic. Now there is a cost to this involvement, because it takes valuable research time away from my professional work in cosmology. So why, you might ask, have I spent so much time engaged in this pursuit, which some might say is a somewhat esoteric debate?

I have done so because I believe the science and religion dialogue is one of the most important issues we can engage in at the present time. It fundamentally shapes the way we see the universe and how we understand our own existence. Furthermore, the time is right to engage in this study. We are at a stage in human history when, as we gaze with amazement and appreciation at the incredible progress of science in the last century, we can also start to see clearly some of the limits to what science can achieve. The way in which science and religion by and large complement each other is becoming ever clearer, as are the natures of the various points of tension between them, and some possible resolutions of those tensions. It is a good time to look at these issues.

Here I wish to pay tribute to the role the John Templeton Foundation has played in the resurgence of this debate, driven by the extraordinary energy, vision and philanthropic generosity of Sir John Templeton.

My own particular studies in this area have been on five major themes.

1. The limits of science and of the scientific method. In the face of some who claim that the powers of science are limitless, it is important to try to understand what aspects of existence science in fact can and cannot comprehend. I believe the boundaries here are becoming clear, for example, science cannot and never will be able to handle issues of aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, or meaning.

2. The way that complexity can arise through physics, and alternatives to reductionist viewpoints that demean humankind. It is true that physics and chemistry underlie our existence and functioning as human beings, but that does not mean we are "nothing but" atoms, molecules, chemicals, or whatever. That phrase always hides an attempt to deny the true complexity and autonomous existence of vibrant living beings. We are much, much more than implied by hard reductionists and their favourite phrase "nothing but".

It is crucial, also, that despite the fact that the functioning of our brain can be understood by neuroscientists in terms of action potentials in the brain and flows of chemicals across synapses, nevertheless, personal choice is real. Furthermore, the ethics that underlies the direction and nature of our choices is causally effective and strongly shapes the nature of what happens in the world around us. It is not possible to reduce ethics to statements about neuroscience (or evolutionary history, for that matter), for it has a real normative nature.

3. The natures of existence that flow from all this. Those pursuing a hard reductionist line associate it with a strongly materialist viewpoint: the claim that all that really exists are just particles with specific forces acting between them, and there is no other kind of reality to contend with. This too, is deeply mistaken, and I have been developing further a line of argument of Karl Popper, John Eccles, and Roger Penrose on the multiple natures of existence. Here I emphasize that even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number of different kinds of existence as well as that of the particles that constitute matter. In particular, human thoughts, emotions, and social constructions are both causally effective, and cannot be compassed by present day physics. Consequently, even the most advanced physics today is unable to give a causally complete account of the factors that are effective in shaping the physical world we see around us, for example it cannot even explain the existence of as simple a thing as a pair of spectacles, because it is unable to encompass human thoughts and intentions. Furthermore, by its very nature it is unlikely to ever do so.

4. The nature of the tensions between rationality and faith and between emotion and reason in human life and affairs. Much of our life can be thought of as a struggle between emotion and rationality. A common view is that evidence-based science represents that calm rationality which exemplifies how we ought to behave, and we should try to avoid basing our lives on faith and hope rather than rationality and reason. However, this is also a bad misunderstanding. In facing our individual and communal lives, we always need faith and hope as well as rationality, and indeed the real issue is how we can best balance them against each other. Take the case of my own country: there were very many times in the past when it was rational to give up all hope for the future - to assume that the nation would decay into a racial holocaust. It did not occur because of the transformative actions of those marvellous leaders Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, confounding the calculus of rationality. This is a really important practical issue that I have only recently begun to consider. It is in a sense the theme of the book The Far Future Universe that I edited.

However, as well as being a highly practical issue, this also relates to the issue of reductionism and the way the mind functions. The reading and writing I have been doing on that topic have led to a very interesting appreciation: the fact that the rational mind is in a profound developmental sense based in the emotional mind. This is true both functionally and in evolutionary terms. One of my latest projects is looking at this fascinating theme, and even writing about it in association with Judith Toronchuk of Trinity Western University.

5. The science-religion-ethics triad, and the true nature of deep ethics. Finally, a theme in my writing, set out in detail in the book with Nancey Murphy, is the importance of including ethics in the science and religion debate. This is because ethics is causally effective and provides the highest level of values that set human goals and choices. Consequently, a crucial issue is the origin of ethics, on the one hand, and the nature of ethics, on the other.

With Nancey I am a moral realist, that is, I believe that we discover the true nature of ethics rather than inventing it, hence the title of our book: On the Moral Nature of the Universe. Indeed, it is only if ethics is of this nature that it has a truly moral character, that is, it represents a guiding light that we ought to obey.

But then the issue is what is the nature of true morality? Nancey and I have argued that it must be kenotic in nature, that is, it must be a kind of ethics involving letting go of one's own interest on behalf of others, being ready if necessary to sacrifice one's own interests for them, even on behalf of an enemy. This is of course very controversial, just as it was when Jesus in essence stated it in the Sermon on the Mount.

However, I am convinced it is a deeply transforming principle of fundamental importance, which is universally recognised by the non-dogmatic branches of all the great religions: it is held up in all of them as behaviour to aspire to. Indeed, this is the theme of one of Sir John Templeton's books, called Agape Love: A Tradition Found in Eight World Religions. Furthermore, this is the only basis for true security, for the deep foundation of security is based in transforming your enemies into friends. That can, in the end, only be achieved by the kind of sacrificial practices exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu, for this is the only way to touch the hardened heart.

What seems rationally impossible can indeed become possible through the generosity and hope underlying and enabling kenosis and forgiveness: and this we experienced in South Africa. Nancey and I suggest this principle is deeply embedded in the universe, both in ethics and in other aspects of our lives, and will thus be discovered by deeply moral beings in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri or the Andromeda galaxy, just as it has been discovered by all major religions here on earth.

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