Monday, January 14, 2008

A cardinal belief in science is that there is order in the universe. God was seen more as a ‘guarantor’ for this very order

Corporate Jungle Cabinet of Wealth Impressions Diatribe Culture Shop Spellbound- St. Gallens- The Religious Roots of Modern Science 9/26/2005

The science that most of us know of today can be more appropriately termed as ‘modern science’; distinct from other ancient systems of science that were specific to civilizations. Modern science as a knowledge system took birth and grew in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries A.D, in a historical process now called the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution gave direction to the practice of science and shaped the content, characteristics and the methods of science. People well versant with history would realize that the Scientific Revolution took place in a period of great social, religious and intellectual ferment in Europe. The most significant of events that had a direct bearing on the Scientific Revolution was the Reformation- the historical event in Christianity that led to the split in the Catholic Church and thereby to the birth of Protestantism. For the sake of brevity, the relationship between the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution is not being elaborated upon. It would suffice to say that the Reformation resulted in the weakening of the Church’s hold over scientific discourse that ultimately led (or should have led) to the ‘secularization’ of science a few centuries down the line.

One of the drivers for the growth of science at that point of time was the emphasis on rationality- the precedence of the human power of reasoning in explaining natural occurrences. Never before was the human ability to reason and come up with explanations more important. The nature and process of reasoning could be different. Men like Rene Descartes were supporters of rationalism (the pure and unadulterated use of the capability of the human mind to reason) whereas Francis Bacon was one of the key proponents of empiricism (with its emphasis on observation and experimentation to arrive at results). Nevertheless, both had their takers and did contribute to the development of knowledge at that point of time. As a result, the great scientific laws that we continue to use to this day were primarily products of human reason.

In spite of all this emphasis on reason and its contribution to the growth of science, are there some aspects of science that aren’t amenable to reason? Philosophers have long argued that the main objectives of science were to seek certainty in an uncertain world, to seek order in chaos and to control what is uncontrollable. Underlying these objectives are certain beliefs in science. To the uninitiated, it may appear that beliefs or faith in a knowledge system like science is essentially contradictory. But these beliefs still hold good and are an integral part of science. Among them are the belief that there is order in the universe (without which it would be pointless to seek it), that there is regularity in the events that occur in nature (so that there can be some certainty in our study of it), and finally the law of causality, a cause leading to an effect, exists (without which no amount of control can be exercised). These beliefs do have deep implications as far as the practice of science is concerned.

The relationship between science and religion is very complex and probably carries many more such contradictions. At the outset it must be acknowledged that the line between religion and science hardly existed before the Scientific Revolution. All knowledge came under the ambit of natural philosophy and still earlier, under natural theology. As mentioned earlier, the Church actively controlled scientific discourse and saw it as an extension of religious knowledge. The content of scientific thoughts had to confirm to religious beliefs. Keeping this in mind, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that science had a base in religious thought. In fact, the chasm between science and religion that is supposed to exist, is characteristic of the post Revolution era.

On the surface, the contradictions between religion and science stand out conspicuously On the one hand, there is science; the ultimate proof for the triumph of man’s ability to question and reason. On the other there is religion; the oldest repository of dogmatic beliefs and practices, ignorance and the like. There is also historical evidence that indicate (only superficially though) the clashes between science and religion as institutions. The story of Galileo Galilee’s (the mathematician and astronomer of the 17th century A.D) life is one such example. The ‘confrontationist’ model of the relationship between science and religion has its roots in such arguments.

Ironically, it is the practice of science that often leads it to issues that have come under the ambit of religion. In the relentless pursuit of questioning and finding reasons for natural occurrences, science often confronts a dead end. It would almost seem that answers to certain questions simply don’t exist in the ambit of science. Historically such questions have related to the creation of the universe, the origin of life on earth, the evolution of species and the like. Even at a higher, philosophical level there are questions that science has grappled with but failed to give answers. Some of them relate to the purpose of life and the realities of life in nature. Many people refer to these as the ‘why’ questions-why are things as they are? Interestingly for all the sets of questions mentioned above, religion has traditionally had its own answers. So how does science confront this? Can it wholly reject these answers (provided by religion) in spite of its own inability to answer the questions?

Religion has used the very powerful conception of a ‘God’ to answer many profound questions. The recourse to a supernatural force, beyond human comprehension, to find answers has occurred throughout history. In fact, for all the advances in science in the last few centuries the hold of this conception of a ‘God’ over human imagination has continued unabated. The interesting question to look into is how did science tackle (and continues to) this phenomenon of a ‘God’. Scientists have often used the concept of ‘God’ (not in the strict religious sense) as reinforcement for some of their scientific beliefs. As mentioned earlier, a cardinal belief in science is that there is order in the universe. God was seen more as a ‘guarantor’ for this very order. God was a concept that would ensure that there was no chaos in the universe, failing which science would cease to have much meaning. It should be noted that the belief in such a God was different from the religious conception wherein God was seen as an all powerful controlling force in the universe. Nevertheless, the important thing here is that the purpose for invoking a ‘God’ in scientific pursuits was necessitated.

Another example for this recourse to a ‘God’ in scientific work is the “God-in-the-gaps argument. According to this any ‘gaps’ that occurred because of the inability of science to provide explanations was attributed to ‘God’. In a sense God as a concept could stand in for the lack of scientific concepts. Given the line of reasoning that most scientific arguments follow, such recourse would seem patently unscientific. Nevertheless it has been regularly invoked over the centuries.

Probably the best indicator of the close relationship between science and religion lies in the scientific beliefs and works of some of the greatest men of science. It is interesting to note that most men of science (to this day) were in one way or another, deeply religious men. It is indeed hard to come up with the name of one great scientist who was also an atheist. The case of Issac Newton (arguably one of the greatest scientists ever, along with Einstein) is the best possible example to offer. To a man like Newton, scientific pursuit was inseparable from an absolute belief in God. To him, scientific work was one of the means of glorifying God and his mastery over the universe. It was God’s presence that guaranteed universality to a person like Newton. In short it is impossible to see Newton’s scientific work in isolation fro his religious beliefs.

Because of the great advances that science has made in the last few centuries, it is not particularly hard to see it in isolation from its roots in religion. But it is necessary to move away from the confrontationist model between science and religion. It must be realized that religion can indeed serve as an inspiration for the pursuit of science (like it did for Newton) and can play a role in mitigating some of the excesses of modern science and ultimately in enriching the spirit of scientific discovery.

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Aditya Parthasarthy is a 42nd batch student of IIM Calcutta. Editor Speak Team Contribute Feedback IIM Calcutta Our Archive © IMZine - Indian Institute of Management Calcutta 2002-2007

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