I was frankly surprised to see the pages of Nature occupied by an extremely lame and pointless attempt to not only accommodate science and religion, but assert that religion is in some ways better. The short essay, which at least by citation seems to have appeared in the print issue of the journal, is called “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” and was written by Daniel Sarewitz, described as “co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, [based] in Washington DC."
As far as I can tell, Sarewitz made a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, saw the temples, and had an epiphany that led him to realize that both science and religion are based on faith, and that religion can answer the Big Questions that elude science. This is based on the following statements:
- “Visitors to the Angkor temples in Cambodia can find themselves overwhelmed with awe. When I visited the temples last month, I found myself pondering the Higgs boson — and the similarities between religion and science.”
- “The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.”
Yes, but one can get that feeling with secular buildings, too (although Sarewitz really needs to look up the meaning of the word “enormity”). And does the size (not “enormity”) and logic of the universe really evade comprehension? It seems to me that we’ve made pretty good progress understanding the age, size, and workings of the universe. What Sarewitz is really feeling here is what one can get from looking at the stars, at a cheetah in pursuit of a gazelle, or even at Notre Dame. I call it awe, but it invokes in Sarewitz feelings that are numinous and spiritual. And, he goes on, science is not only impotent to invoke such feelings, but is just as irrational as faith (all bold emphases in his quotes are mine)
- “Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it. The Higgs discovery, elucidating the constituents of existence itself, is even presented as a giant step towards the ultimate cure: a rational explanation for the Universe. That such scientific understanding provides a challenge to religion is an idea commonly heard from defenders of science, especially those in more militant atheist garb. Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs, and too quick to draw a line between the scientific and the irrational. Take, for example, how we come to know what science discovers. Most people, including most scientists, can acquire knowledge of the Higgs only through the metaphors and analogies that physicists and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.”
What? What is irrational about our own “beliefs” (I presume by “beliefs” he means “scientific facts”)? I thought that the Higgs boson was predicted mathematically, but detected experimentally, and through instruments, not via “metaphors and analogies.”
Then the whole essay breaks down, as Sarewtize denigrates the Higgs discovery simply because, in describing it, The New York Times used an analogy resembling something in Hindu cosmology:
- “Here’s The New York Times: ‘The Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass … Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.’ Fair enough. But why ‘a cosmic molasses’ and not, say, a ‘sea of milk’? The latter is the common translation of an episode in Hindu cosmology, represented on a spectacular bas-relief panel at Angkor Wat showing armies of gods and demons churning the ‘sea of milk’ to produce an elixir of immortality.
If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it’s not because one image is inherently more credible and more ‘scientific’ than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”
I have read this four times and am still baffled. The NY Times writer was using a simile, and it’s not even clear that the writer (Dennis Overbye) knew about the Hindu stuff: there’s certainly no reference to it in his article. But the scary part is what I’ve put in bold (it’s also highlighted in the side of Sarewitz’s column). Trusting the consensus of scientific experts is not an act of “faith”, at least not in the way religion construes “faith”: belief in the absence of evidence. All of us put our trust in areas of science where we have no expertise: the theory of relativity, the triplet nature of the genetic code (how many of us can recount the molecular biology that led to that conclusion?), or in even our willingness to accept medical treatments when we’re ignorant of their evidential basis. That is not faith, but confidence—confidence that the community of scientists who do their research has policed each other sufficiently well to arrive at a solid consensus. To equate that with religious faith is, to use Judge Jones’s terminology, “an act of breathtaking inanity.” The community of the faithful has arrived at no such consensus.What they’ve arrived at is a conflicting farrago of assertions that cannot be resolves.
What Sarewitz is doing here is using a bait-and-switch technique to equate the methods science and religion, thereby justifying the latter. I would have expected this from a theologian, but not from someone writing in the pages of Nature. The equating of science and faith is, of course, the forte of the John Templeton Foundation, and it may not be irrelevant that Sarewitz was named a Templeton Research Fellow in 2007-2008.
In further aping the methods of theology, Sarewitz explains why religion can put us in touch with the Bigger Truths:
- “Science advocates have been keen to claim that the Higgs discovery is important for everyone. Yet in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle.By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown. At Angkor, the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs boson can.”
What, exactly, is an “authentic personal encounter with the unknown”? We know something about when and why the Angkor temples were built (a 12th century Hindu monument to Vishnu), so their provenance is hardly unknown. No, Sarewitz means that such encounters help people realize that there are “ways of knowing” beyond science:
- Challenges to the cultural and political authority of science continue to rise from both ideological and religious directions. It is tempting to dismiss these as manifestations of ignorance or scientific illiteracy. But I believe instead that they help to show us why it will always be necessary to have ways of understanding our world beyond the scientifically rational.
So what, exactly, are those “ways of understanding” and what have they helped us understand? As is usual with such claims (heard far more often from theologians than atheists like Sarewitz), he doesn’t answer. Since he’s a nonbeliever, all I can guess is that he gets a warm and fuzzy feeling of awe from Angkor Wat that he doesn’t feel from the Higgs boson. But how in the world does that mean that science is based on faith, or that there are ways of knowing things that don’t rest on reason and observation? What are those things?
One is left with Sarewitz’s infuriating and meaningless final paragraph:
- I am an atheist, and I fully recognize science’s indispensable role in advancing human prospects in ways both abstract and tangible. Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.
I am sorry for Sarewitz if he doesn’t see the Higgs boson as the final piece in validating the Standard Model of particle physics, an amazing intellectual tour de force that gives many of us insights into the “mystery of existence”—the attempt to understand why things are the way they are. And the Higgs is a real answer, not a fake one. The Higgs boson exists; God does not.
One gets the sense that Sarewitz is sad about this, and wishes there were a god. But yet what is his last sentence but an expression of belief in something divine, something “unknowable and inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.” Is that not the expression of confidence in a spiritual world? How does he know that that unknowable stuff even exists? Yes, there are scientific questions that we might not be able to answer, but I have the feeling that that’s not what Sarewitz means.
The biggest unknowable and inexplicable mystery is why this drivel got published in one of the world’s premier scientific journals.
I also didn’t look at the readers’ comments until I’d written this post, for I didn’t want to be influenced by the reactions of others. Predictably, most of the commenters take Sarewitz apart. But Nicholas Beale, collaborator with the theologian John Polkinghorne, appears in one comment to claim that there is evidence for both Christianity and Islam. Of course he doesn’t tell us what that evidence is, nor how one can have evidence for two faiths that make absolutely conflicting claims.
Sarewitz, D. 2012. Sometimes science must give way to religion. Nature 488: 431 doi:10.1038/488431a