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Collision Between Science and Religion

Think Tank Transcripts: Science and Religion

Robert Jastrow Robert Park Margaret Wertheim John Haught

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. We have an easy topictoday. Why is there something instead of nothing? Does the universehave a purpose? Well, scientists look to equations and quarks whiletheologians talk of a divine force behind it all. This week, we lookat the very big picture and ask, is there a collision between scienceand religion?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and consensus are:astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, director of the Mount WilsonObservatory, president of the George Marshall Institute and author of'God and the Astronomers'; Robert Park, professor of physics at theUniversity of Maryland; Margaret Wertheim, author of 'Pythagoras'Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars'; and John Haught,professor of theology at Georgetown University and author of theforthcoming book, 'Science and Religion: From Conflict toConversation.'

The topic before this house: Does science leave room for religion,and vice versa? This week on 'Think Tank.'

In 1633, Galileo was forced by the Roman Catholic church to saythat he abjured, cursed and detested his own scientifically provenview that the earth was not the center of the universe. The tensionbetween religion and science hasn't gone away. Just consider theongoing fight over the theory of evolution versus the theory ofcreationism.

In the modern world, science is a vastly successful enterprise.Astronomers can explain how the planets move around the sun,astrophysicists discuss what happened during the first seconds of theBig Bang, when the universe began, biologists are spelling out thegenetic recipe for human beings, and doctors regularly perform realmiracles to cure the sick.

Religion continues to play an important role in the lives of mostAmericans. Religion offers answers to questions that science cannotdeal with: Why are we here, what is the purpose of the universe, andhow should we act?

Now, as modern science advances, do God and religion retreat tothe remaining gaps in our knowledge of the universe? And conversely,while science can tell us how to do something, it can't tell us whenwe ought to do something, and some critics say that it can erode thatmoral sense. Okay, gentlemen, lady, let us begin with a simplequestion, of course, that we might just go quickly around the roomwith, starting with you, Bob Jastrow. Just what is the nature of thetension between science and religion?

MR. JASTROW: It's based on a misunderstanding of the function andthe nature of both. There should be no tension and need not be anybecause they deal with completely non-overlapping spheres of humanthought.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Bob Park.

MR. PARK: The problem usually arises when religion gives a specialplace to man in the universe. And it's that specialness that was, ofcourse, the problem in the Copernican theory that the earth is notthe center of the universe; it's the problem in evolution. Andscience doesn't recognize that specialness.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. John Haught.

MR. HAUGHT: Well, like Robert, I see no inherent conflict.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, there are two Roberts.

MR. HAUGHT: Robert Jastrow.

MR. WATTENBERG: Robert Jastrow, okay.

MR. HAUGHT: I see no inherent conflict between science andreligion as such. The nature of the conflict, I think, isfundamentally a conflict between two kinds of beliefs. The conflictbetween scientism, which is the view that science is the only road totruth, and certain understandings of religion tend to clash, but Isee no inherent conflict between science and religion as such.

MR. WATTENBERG: Margaret Wertheim.

MS. WERTHEIM: Yes, I agree with that. I think that there is noinherent conflict between science and religion. I think it's largelyone of perception, that when we have too narrow views of whatconstitutes religion or too narrow views of what constitutes science,then tensions arise. But it's not because there's an intrinsicconflict there.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, over the centuries, hasn't science undercutcertain religious beliefs? I mean, some of the miracles described inthe Bible, for example.

MR. PARK: Oh, absolutely. And in each case, eventually religionhas had to retreat from those positions.

MR. WATTENBERG: For example? MR. PARK: Evolution is certainly oneof those. The heliocentric solar system is another. But yeah, theyhave --

MR. WATTENBERG: Heliocentric meaning?

MR. PARK: That the sun is at the center of the --

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, you'll excuse my ignorance, right.

MR. JASTROW: The two spheres of thought should and really do dealwith separate realms of inquiry because science is concerned withtrying to explain to us with predictive power what the reason is forwhat we see around us, but religion is concerned with the purpose,whether there's a larger design in all of this. Is there a purpose inthe seeming emergence of mankind out of a sea of primordialmolecules, for example? What does that mean in the larger sense?That's not a scientific question.

MS. WERTHEIM: But I think there is an issue that the very factthat scientists are on the one hand now saying that religion is theenemy, but on the other hand, more and more scientists are talkingabout God in their own work.

And so I think what we have here is a situation where, in effect,scientists are wanting to set themselves up as the new theologians.In a sense, what they are trying to do is to not just claim nature,but more and more, they are trying to take over the position that hastraditionally been regarded as the theological position. You havephysicists now claiming that they want to -- that they think they canexplain why the universe came into being.

So I think that in some ways, what you've got going here is just apower struggle. Scientists want to claim more and more of the worldfor themselves and have less and less the provenance of other domainsof knowledge.

MR. JASTROW: I think it's very important to recognize that point.That is, when a scientist says that he knows through his work thatthere is no purpose in the universe and denies the existence of alarger force, he is making an expression of a personal faith, asarrogant, or in any case, as religious in its own right as that of atheologian.

MR. PARK: But the scientist does work on the assumption that theuniverse is governed by a set of natural laws and that there is noway to circumvent those laws. So one thing that we're dealing herewith is that many people's perception of a religion is a God thatintervenes on their behalf or if you make the right supplications tohim. And that violates the basic assumption of science that thingsare going to proceed according to natural law.

MR. WATTENBERG: If science is what rules our destiny, what does itsay about a moral code as to how people ought to live, or is that --are you prepared to turn that over to somebody else because all youknow is molecules?

MR. PARK: There were moral codes throughout history, and many ofthem have been tied to religion, but religion is not the only way toarrive at some ethical code. If you want to establish that ethicalcode and call it a religion, that's fine, too. When scientists referto God, very often they're using it in a sort of metaphorical sensefor the laws of nature.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is that what is called by cosmologists the theoryof everything, or the God particle? Is that what --

MS. WERTHEIM: That is what is very commonly associated with God.And when Stephen Hawking in his book referred to 'knowing the mind ofGod,' he was talking about when we understand this theory ofeverything, which would show how the universe was united in a singleset of equations.

And one of the things about this endeavor, which is why it can beassociated with God, is that this set of equations is supposed tosort of transcend space and time, that it has its existencecompletely outside of the physical universe.

Now, traditionally the only thing that has had that sort of astatus has been God. So there has always been this tendency toassociate the mathematical laws that we discover in the world withGod. That's a historical thing, that physics really did emerge from areligious tradition, and the fact that you have physicists talkingabout the mind of God today is part of a longstanding part of ourhistory.

So I think that this is an important thing to understand, thatphysics and religion have actually had a long and fruitfulrelationship with one another.

MR. JASTROW: Ben, I think there is some confusion -- not in yourcomments [referring to Ms. Wertheim], but in the general structure ofthe discussion, because I don't think any of my colleagues incosmology would assert that they understand what forces conspired insome sense to create that thing we call the Big Bang.

The origin of the universe is not an explainable, in itself,discovery. What happened thereafter is quite explainable.

In the same sense, leaving the world of inanimate matter andlooking at the world of life, I find Darwin's concepts of naturalselection to be very satisfactory, and so do many other people, inexplaining the emergence of more and more complex creatures out ofsimple beginnings. When you look at this in detail, all israndomness, as Bob Park said a little while ago. When you step backand look at the whole picture, you see a direction and a flow fromsimple to complex, from less intelligent to more intelligent, and youask yourself, can this which has a direction yet be completelyundirected?

And it's at that point that science reaches the natural limits ofits inquiry and one's thoughts about the world from the religiousrealm enter, but there is no overlap between them. No sense of designor purpose can be extracted from the scientific story.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Park, when you and your colleagues in theworld of physics march ever backwards toward the beginning of theuniverse, do you think you are, at some point in this generation orin generations to come, that somebody is going to come upon theunmoved mover, so-called?

MR. PARK: I suspect not. I -- in Stephen Hawking's book, he refersto an audience he had with the Pope. And the Pope commented at thattime that it was all right to study everything right back to the BigBang, but at that point, that became the domain of religion.

Science doesn't allow for that sort of thing. It's going toproceed wherever it wants, and it's not -- the Pope notwithstanding,science is going to look into those questions. I do not think they'regoing to find the Creator when they get there.

MR. HAUGHT: I think theologians would be very cautious aboutsaying that science and religion come together at T=0, so I wouldagree very much with Bob, because --


MR. HAUGHT: Bob Park, because in the past science has been -- ortheology has been burned considerably by too cozy a relationship withphysics. There's a saying that the theology that marries the physicsof one age will become a widow in the next. And I think today manytheologians want to avoid what happened after Isaac Newton, whentheologians thought that Newtonian physics had provided the firmfoundation for theology for one generation, and the next generationsays, no, we don't need that relationship at all. And so theologybecame somewhat stranded in the modern university because of that bigmistake that was made at that time.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Park, what do you make of the tens of millionsof Americans who claim to be -- not to claim to be -- are born-againChristians who say they have had a revealing experience and they willso testify, describe it, believe in it, and it shapes their lives?This seems to be extra-scientific; it's out of your world.

MR. PARK: I would say so, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: And yet there it is.

MR. PARK: In fact, it struck me as we were talking here that thereligion we're talking about is the religions of the theologians, andnot the religion of the mass of the American people, who believe thatGod intervenes in their lives. And you won't find many physiciststhat will agree with that.

MS. WERTHEIM: Well, I think the thing is that -- MR. WATTENBERG:You mean that there are no born-again physicists by definition?

MR. PARK: No. Certainly, there are anything physicists.(Laughter.) I mean, a Ph.D. in physics is not an inoculation againstfoolishness.

MR. WATTENBERG: You would say that a devout believer of a God inhistory is just barking up the wrong tree, basically? That's the wayyou come out?

MR. PARK: I think probably that's right, yeah. Yeah.

MR. JASTROW: That's an assertion that you can neither prove nordisprove, I'm sure you'll agree.

MR. PARK: I completely agree with that.

MR. JASTROW: And it comes back very close to the question, isthere a design or a larger purpose or force in the universe that youcan't discern in the laws of contemporary physics? Anyone who makes astatement either on -- on either side of that issue is making astatement of religious faith and has crossed the boundary fromscience into theology.

MR. WATTENBERG: What is -- I don't mean to be personal, but whatis your answer to the religious question? Are you --

MR. JASTROW: I'm a committed reductionist. I think that the wholeis equal to the sum of the parts. But I also know that there is noway within my scientific discipline of finding out whether there is alarger purpose or design in the universe. So I remain an agnostic,and not an atheist. To profess a disbelief in the existence of designor of the Deity is essentially, in itself, a theological statementwhich a scientist cannot make on the structure or on the strength ofhis own discipline. He can only make it as a personal belief.

MR. WATTENBERG: Margaret, are you an agnostic?

MS. WERTHEIM: I wouldn't put it quite that way. I don't -- Icertainly don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God. I think that I amwhat could be called a neo-Platonist. I believe that nature isgoverned by laws, but I also think that there is some sort offundamental immaterial soul of the universe that underlies the --

MR. JASTROW: So you do believe in a larger design or purpose orforce?

MS. WERTHEIM: Yes. Yes, but I don't believe that there is somesort of consciousness up there directing things, but I do not believein the purely materialist notion.

MR. JASTROW: Now I'm confused. If you don't think there'ssomething conscious directing things, then what do you mean by theexistence of the soul that transcends physical existence?

MS. WERTHEIM: I don't believe in a soul that transcends. I believein a -- the Platonist position essentially, a soul that is immanentwithin the world. So that I believe that there is, if you like, someforce of goodness that pervades the universe and that in some senseallows us to -- that gives it its intelligibility, that allows us asconscious beings to connect with the intelligibility of the world.

MR. JASTROW: But this force of goodness cannot be discerned inphysical law, as Bob Park -- MS. WERTHEIM: No, I agree with that. Itcannot be discerned in physical law. I think the big issues -- MR.JASTROW: So you are not an agnostic really?

MS. WERTHEIM: No. Oh, no, no, that's what I'm saying, I'm not anagnostic. I mean, I think that the big question facing thescience-religion dialogue now --

MR. WATTENBERG: And you're not an atheist?

MS. WERTHEIM: No, I'm not an atheist, no.

MR. WATTENBERG: Would you be a deist?

MR. JASTROW: It doesn't have to be a God that intervenes inphysical --

MS. WERTHEIM: In -- yeah.

MR. JASTROW: -- affairs. It can be very amorphous.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask this. I'm standing here and I'mthinking that I had this discussion about 40 years ago as a sophomore-- (laughter) -- over a pitcher of beer. Now, you are, most of you,from the world of high physics and high science. What have you orscience learned in these last 40 years that doesn't come up in anormal bull session about this topic?

MS. WERTHEIM: The beauty of the universe is something that you getfrom physics all the time.

MR. WATTENBERG: That is being constantly revealed.


MR. WATTENBERG: That we didn't understand 40 years ago. MS.WERTHEIM: Yes, the extraordinary beauty of creation is --

MR. WATTENBERG: For example?

MS. WERTHEIM: Well, general relativity I think is truly one of theaesthetic high points of Western culture. I think it rates alongsidethe works of Michelangelo and Leonardo as a truly great --

MR. WATTENBERG: Can you describe general relativity for ouraudience?

MS. WERTHEIM: Well, general --

MR. WATTENBERG: Sorry. (Laughter.)

MS. WERTHEIM: General relativity is the theory which tries to --well, it emerged from trying to explain gravity, and it ultimatelybecame the theory that shows us the shape and structure ofspace-time. So general relativity shows us that the whole of thecosmos, rather than just being this sort of infinite nothingness,actually has an architecture. To me, that is just one of the mostbeautiful ideas I've ever encountered.

MR. JASTROW: Ben, 40 years ago is an interesting time point,because 40 years ago, we did not have proof in cosmology that theuniverse began in a certain instant of time as a result of forces youcannot describe at the present time.

MR. WATTENBERG: This is the Big Bang?

MR. JASTROW: Yes. That proof came a little later, about 30 yearsago. And 40 years ago, while we did have the body of thought thatDarwin bequeathed to his successors, I was not aware or acquaintedwith it at that time. So we could explain the emergence of advancedforms of life out of simpler forms, and so I would say that it's 5050 with regard to your time point. Half of this could have been held40 years ago, and half could not have been.

MR. PARK: But I quite agree, and I think Margaret's point was justright, that we do now know things we didn't know then, so for thosewho like for religion to fill in the gaps, there are fewer gaps thanthere were to fill in.

MR. JASTROW: May I take issue with that?


MR. JASTROW: In the friendliest fashion. I think that what we'velearned from the study of the fossil record and our researches inbiochemistry is that over the course of about 4 billion years, by asuccession of very small steps, that individual entity we call homosapiens has emerged out of a primordial soup of molecules. It's anextraordinary fact, if true. And if it happened without direction,without design, that makes it even more extraordinary. I mean, thekey issue, it seems to me, is, did in fact we, the essence ofspirituality, morality and thought on this planet, emerge withoutdirection by a succession of random events governed only by naturalselection? It seems to me that's the key question.


MR. HAUGHT: Well, I want to come back to the question of whatwe've learned from science. Science has been a great gift, recentscience in particular, because in modern times, the main source ofprotest against religion by scientific skeptics has been based on avery materialistic -- brick-yard type of materialistic view of thecosmos. And there have been a number of developments in recentscience --relativity, quantum physics, chaos theory, and so forth --which are themselves scientific refutations of the old kind ofmaterialism, which was the intellectual basis of so muchpost-Enlightenment skepticism. So that breaking down of thatmaterialistic view is at least indirectly consequential to theology.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Jastrow, you have written and I have heard youspeak to the question that the earth is the only planet where humanexistence is possible or plausible.

MR. JASTROW: I've raised that question, as many others have.


MR. JASTROW: I don't think it's so, but that's an expression offaith. These are all religious thoughts.

MR. WATTENBERG: You do not think what is so, that --

MR. JASTROW: I do not think it is so that this planet is the onlysite of chemical evolution and the emergence of intelligent lifebecause I see nothing exceptional about the chemistry or the physicsof our planet's history compared to the trillions of others we know,by inference, exist around us. But I have no proof that we are notalone, and when I say I think we're not alone, I'm making a religiousstatement.

MR. PARK: That will be another one of those discoveries thatdiminishes the specialness of man. If we were to somehow pick upsignals from another intelligent creature somewhere in the universe,that would be the ultimate diminishment of the specialness.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wouldn't that just expand the nature of thegrandeur of the Deity, that He can do it twice?

MR. PARK: Oh, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean -- MR. PARK: And I would be astonished ifthey looked anything like us.

MR. WATTENBERG: Indeed, so would I.

MR. JASTROW: There's a problem here because, as most of you know,there are something like 10 to the 22 possible or probable systems --what is that; that's not quite a trillion trillion, but it's gettingup there -- a hundred billion trillion systems of planets in thevisible universe. And if indeed they are, many of them, even one in abillion, are inhabited, there's an enormous multitude of intelligentlife for the Deity to divide his attention amongst. And it puts theclassical ideas of theology in a somewhat different light, and Ithink it creates philosophical and intellectual problems for theologyto think of a deity doing this.

MR. HAUGHT: Well, I agree that such a discovery would relativizeour importance, but if you look at what religions are fundamentallyabout, it's essentially decentralizing our egos, so that discoverywould not be inconsonant with the basic thrust of religious --

MR. WATTENBERG: What does that mean, 'decentralizing our egos'?

MR. HAUGHT: That most of the problems that humans experience --and, for example, in Buddhism, even suffering -- comes from greed andselfishness and egotism. So anything that would somehow decentralizeour egotism, such as the discovery of, say, intelligent lifeelsewhere in the universe, would have that effect. But the discoveryof intelligence in the rest of the universe would be quite consonantalso with the biblical view of a God of extravagant creativity aswell. And that's something --

MR. JASTROW: But how does he find the time and energy to --(laughter) -- even God, to devote himself to these trillions ofplanets?

MR. HAUGHT: Well, I think fundamental to religion is that God'sways are not our ways. (Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Let us, just for the sake of sanityhere, very quickly go around the room, starting with you, Margaret,and try to tell me and our audience what it is that scientistsgenerally -- this panel, what do you agree about and what do youdisagree about?

MS. WERTHEIM: Well, I think we have been -- the fight has reallybeen about how far can science go? How far can it extend its domainof questioning and authority? And I think that Bob Park suggests itcan extend the domain of authority and knowledge far greater than Ibelieve that it can. And I think that is the central issue: how muchterritory should science be allowed to have?

MR. WATTENBERG: And you have some limits on that?

MS. WERTHEIM: I think that there are limits on what science cando. MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. John Haught.

MR. HAUGHT: I would completely agree because I think one of thethings that science will never be able to show is that science is themost appropriate road to truth. The attempt to do so would belogically circular.


MR. PARK: I believe it is the ultimate road to truth, that it isthe only we have of sorting out ideology and foolishness from thetruth. We just don't have any other way.

MR. WATTENBERG: But science has made some monumentally foolishmistakes in its time.

MR. PARK: Oh, and it will continue to.

MR. WATTENBERG: Big-time, big-time mistakes.

MR. PARK: But it finds the mistakes and it corrects them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, except by definition the ones that it hasn'tfound. (Laughter.)

MR. PARK: That's right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Jastrow.

MR. JASTROW: It seems to me that underlying our -- this discussionhas been the key issue whether there is an overlap between thedomains of science and theology. And my colleagues and I differ insome degree on that. I believe there is no overlap and these aredichotomous, completely different domains of thought.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, thank you, Robert Jastrow, MargaretWertheim, Robert Park, and John Haught. And thank you. Please sendyour questions and comments to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street,N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. We can be reached via E-mail atTHINKTV@AOL.COM. And do check out our new home page on the World WideWeb at WWW.THINKTANK.COM. For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, a recipient of thepresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, unlocking thesecrets of life through cellular and molecular biology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. END

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