Science Tension
By R. D. Flavin


"Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes."
His Holiness, Pope John Paul II (1920-2005).


     Okay, there’s war, disease, pollution, no more new episodes of Lost, the ABC television series, until next February, yet the current debate about science, religion and the conflict which exists between the two seems to be expanding.  While religion has always been controversial, the tension many are feeling about science is relatively new and worrisome.


Mrs. Garrison and Prof. Dawkins in SP10E12 and Prof. Dawkins in SP10E13.


     Over the last two weeks, South Park, a Comedy Central animated series, has featured Prof. Richard Dawkins (Oxford, Public Understanding of Science) as an outspoken proponent of evolution who enters into a brief affair with Mrs. Garrsion, a fourth grade teacher.  Well, I’ll not criticize South Park, as it’s all in fun, and I’ll congratulate the creators for being timely (and for having Dawkins leave Garrison after discovering the teacher had a sex-change operation recently).  There’s a lot going on with Prof. Dawkins and others who are attempting to share similar thoughts and conclusions about the necessity for the de-religification of certain aspects of our society (i.e. government policies [tax-free status for religions, fighting against proper stem cell research and the pro-choice movement], public schools [those who endorse mandatory prayer and teach anti-science creationism] and the tragically shameful disregard many display toward those who hold to ancient aboriginal belief systems.    .   

 
Exhortatory atheists Prof. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Prof. Daniel Dennett and Bill Gates, who doesn't believe in much (besides money).

     For the last several weeks Prof. Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, has been on The New York Times' non-fiction hardcover bestseller list.  Earlier this year (January, I believe), the BBC broadcast a two part documentary on Dawkins' work entitled “The Root of All Evil?”  There’s been some talk that Dawkins took offense at the attached question mark, but that’s not important at this time.  The BBC documnetary has been making the Bit-Torrent rounds (I know this from research, and not from actually downloading such a thing, of course).  There’s a wonderful episode between Prof. Dawkins and the recently disgraced Rev. Ted Haggard (of crystal meth and gay massage infamy).  It’s wonderful irony and I would recommend it for background entertainment at parties. 

     Sam Harris is the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and An End to Faith, and a doctoral candidate in neuroscience, as well as one of the most soft-spoken, sincere and nicest individuals one could possibly meet.  Sam’s not an atheist from yesteryear with political agendas and pogroms of bigotry.  He’s genuinely worried about our future as controlled by religious extremists and he’s publishing all over the place (The Boston Globe op-ed 10-22-06, the current Newsweek, etc.).  Oh, and according to my research, there’s a great Bit-Torrent of a lecture that he gave on 11-16-05 at The New York Society for Ethical Culture.  His line about blaming Poseidon for Katrina is priceless!

     Prof. Daniel C. Dennett (Tufts, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy) has been pushing the theoretical envelope since his co-authorship of The Mind’s I (with Douglas Hofstadter) and has continued to help us understand mechanical brain processes and our invention of religious thinking.  His recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, was... unkindly reviewed by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic.  Yup, even the NYT gets things wrong on occasion.  BTW, last month Prof. Dennett experienced a serious medical problem, but he’s back at home and doing fine.  Science be praised!

     Bill Gates is many things to many people.  I support his philanthropy, but not his business practices.  He’s included as an atheist, here, though some regard him as much more sinister.  Anywho, in 1994 he purchased Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester and has put portions of it on display yearly at different locations around the globe.  There might be hope for him yet.

     The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition; Cary, North Carolina: Oxford Univ Press) defines "science" as :

[a. F. science = Pr. sciensa, Sp. ciencia, Pg. sciencia, It. scienza, ad. L. scientia knowledge, f. scient-em, pr. pple. of sc{imac}re to know.]

    1. a. The state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied; also, with wider reference, knowledge (more or less extensive) as a personal attribute. Now only Theol. in the rendering of scholastic terms (see quot. 1728), and occas. Philos. in the sense of ‘knowledge’ as opposed to ‘belief’ or ‘opinion’. a1340 HAMPOLE Psalter Cant. 500 Ald thyngis deport fra {ygh}owre mouth: for God of sciens is lord, and till him ere redyd the thoghtis. c1374 CHAUCER Boeth. II. pr. vii. (1868) 59 {Th}e soule whiche {th}at ha{th} in it self science of goode werkes [L. sibi mens bene conscia]. 1426 LYDG. De Guil. Pilgr. 2697 Therfor ye trewly ber the name Cherubin, fful of scyence And of dyvyne sapyence. 1532 MORE Confut. Tindale Wks. 361/2 Whereof saynt Paule cryeth hymself, O altitudo diuitiarum sapientie & scientie dei. O the heyght and depenes of the ryches of the wysedome and scyence of god. 1601 SHAKES. All's Well V. iii. 103 Plutus himselfe,..Hath not in natures mysterie more science, Then I haue in this Ring. 1667 MILTON P.L. IX. 680 O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant, Mother of Science. 1678 GALE Crt. Gentiles IV. III. 36 Some of our Opponents resolve Gods certain prescience of sin into the infinitude of his science. 1697 tr. Burgersaicius' Logic II. xx. 99 The word science is either taken largely to signifie any cognition or true assent; or, strictly, a firm and infallible one; or, lastly, an assent of propositions made known by the cause and effect. 1700 ROWE Amb. Step-Mother II. ii. 852 What makes Gods divine But Power and Science infinite. 1725 POPE Odyss. II. 198 For lo! my words no fancy'd woes relate: I speak from science, and the voice is Fate. 1728 CHAMBERS Cycl. s.v. Science, Divines suppose three kinds of Science in God: The first, Science of mere Knowledge... The second, a Science of Vision... The third, an intermediate Science. 1753 JOHNSON Adventurer No. 107 {page}18 Life is not the object of Science: we see a little, very little; and what is beyond we can only conjecture. 1882 SEELEY Nat. Relig. 260 Though we have not science of it [supernaturalism] yet we have probabilities or powerful presentiments.

     An easier definition is offered by Northwestern University’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology & Cell Biology: [Science is the...] Study of nature, trying to understand how and why things work, using logic and experimentation.

     Even with pure or fundemental sciences (e.g. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity by O. Neugebauer) mistakes are sometimes made.


Hobbits?

     In 2003, Prof. Peter Brown (UNE-Australia, paleoanthropology) and colleagues discovered some unique skeletal remains on the Indonesian island of Flores.  Based on preliminary examinations and measurements, a rather rash (i.e. premature) conclusion was released to the media that evidence had been found of an ancient hobbit-like human ancestor.  For fans of J. R. R. Tolkien (and of science) this was sad news indeed.  The media lost all restraint and the story grew more legs than Shelob.  Fortunately, good science donned a pair of knee-high boots and waded through the muck and determined that the skeletal remains represented an early modern human with microcephaly.  Actually, when all is said and done, this is how science is supposed to work–testing, testing and more testing.  A silly adventure, in hindsight, but at least the tale had an honest outcome.

 
Mars error and Challanger disaster.

     On Sept. 30, 1999, NASA was ready to party like Prince, when the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter ...burnt up and crashed into the Red Planet.  The reason?  A failure by contracted engineers to convert American English measurements into metric units.  It wasn’t the first mistake by NASA, and surely won’t be the last, but the one most remember concerns the horrible destruction of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.  As I regard all NASA employees, engineers and astronauts as heroes (the bureaucrats are another matter), I won’t comment further.  Here’s a link to the Challenger crew and another link to Feynman’s conclusion. 


This is our country on drugs....

     Pharmaceutical companies, like their fossil-fuel business counterparts, provide a wonderful service to humankind, but also lie and inflate their costs to make unreasonable profits for their stockholders.  We need their products, yet we don’t need their lies.  It’s bad science to lieWe all get hurt and too many are suffering and dying as the direct result of corporate deception.  Making a profit is one thing, but killing for cash is unconscionable.  


Global yawning...
     We’ve all read much about so-called Global Warming.  How much of it is good science, honest speculation or outright agenda-driven scare-tactics? [Insert a sincere sigh ....here.]  Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, while fantastic, may have a modicum of truth in our planet’s ability to self-correct and heal.  Ice Ages, small and large, come and go with near predictability.  The ozone hysteria of the ‘70s and ‘80s are now examples of poor math, as those atmospheric ‘holes’ keep getting smaller.  Apparently, there’s other answers out there.

     Let’s, for the sake of discussion, divide those “other" answers into three general approaches.  First, there’s Mike Crichton’s recent novel, State of Fear, and its almost rabid denial of any global warming problem whatsoever.  Second, there’s former Vice President Albert Gore’s docudrama, An Inconvenient Truth, which raised valid points, yet failed to attract interest because ...nice guys generally place behind those without scruples or recognizable morality.  Nice try, Al; better luck next time...  Third, there’s science and only a few guesses about the effect of fossil-fuel usage, ocean pollution, rain forest devastation, and agricultural pesticides.  We need more good science, not fear features (like the recent prediction they’ll be no sushi in 50 years).

     Sure, some feel tension when it comes to science, especially in the extremely controversial areas of cloning, bringing back ancient viruses, nanotechnology, and the perennial debates about when human life begins and ends.  Religion is a closed system with all the answers it needs to rule its adherents (and, sometimes, kill those who disagree with their systems), while science is an open door that encourages discussion, testing and more testing.

     The world needs love, charity, forgiveness, hopes, dreams, and comfort for the needy.  We don’t need antiquated creeds which demand the murder of innocents and, in fairness, we don’t need quackery and bad science.  It’s up to all of us to demand that religions denounce threats of punishment and that science takes a more active role in correcting its own.  Please, the alternative is extinction.

No single answer is ever the answer...
Unamed SP10E13 atheist in the future.

With sincerest regards,
Rick

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