[as] the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he studies the fundamental nature of our universe through the lens of supersymmetry—a theory that predicts twice as many fundamental particles as the Standard Model and could be the next step towards a grand unified theory. He’s also the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major research university in the United States.
He also seems to be religious.
And I have to say that I envy this bit of his bio given in Wikipedia:
On February 1, 2013, Gates was a recipient of the National Medal of Science. Gates was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. As of 2015, Professor Gates has a base salary (9 months not including grants and other income) of $339,254.78 and taught 1 class in 2015 and none in 2016.
What is sad is how such an accomplished and well-paid professor has such a nebulous, almost incoherent, view of why science and religion aren’t in conflict. Though most of Smithsonian’s interview isn’t about that issue, the relevant part is at the end, with Ash’s question in bold and Gates’s answer below it:
In science, both mathematics and physics play large roles in describing and probing the earliest stages of our universe. But some people view the question of where our universe came from as the sole domain of faith or religion. What do you think about how science and faith are often pitted against each other?
I have never found a schism in my life between doing science and having religious beliefs. Evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould explains why faith and science don’t conflict using the phrase “non-overlapping magisteria.” I find this idea fascinating, because if it’s correct, there ought to be mechanisms in each sphere of belief—whether it’s in faith or in science—that are responsible for this property of the non-overlapping attribute.
I spent some years thinking about it and it occurred to me that science seems to have one such mechanism. In science, not only do we tell people our best estimation about what’s going on in the universe, we also pay rigorous attention to what we don’t know. This is quantified in science as what are called “error bars” or “confidence bars.” We pay just as much attention to these uncertainties as we pay to that measured values of things around us. And there will always be uncertainty in any argument based on science.
That’s interesting in the context of faith because just as there will be uncertainty in any belief we may have, we will also have uncertainty in any disbelief we have. In my mind, this is the protection mechanism that science has built into it so that it does not intrude into faith-based belief systems.
In religion there’s a different protection mechanism. Saint Augustine, a Catholic saint mind you, said that people of faith must recognize that when people talk about the natural world and honestly record and observe phenomena that are in opposition to their belief, it is their belief it has to give way and not the other way around.
In my mind there’s this beautiful symmetry about why Gould got it exactly right. They don’t overlap, they’re just very different things. I believe that both faith and science are essential for the survival of our species.
I’ve explained in Faith Versus Fact (pp. 106-112) why Gould’s view of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) doesn’t work, and in fact has largely been rejected by theologians for its claim that the domian of religion doesn’t include statements about “the factual character of the natural world.” In fact most religions do at bottom depend on facts about God, about the afterlife, about heaven and hell, about Jesus, about Muhammad, what constitutes sin, and so on. Has Gates not thought about that? Apparently not.
As for the rest of Gates’s “accommodationism,” I find it hard to understand. It seems to be that both science and religion have “protection mechanisms” to assure the truth of what they find. In science that seems to be the use of statistics to affix a degree of uncertainty to our claims, and in religion it seems to be that one’s beliefs must be susceptible to the findings of science, so that one can retain and protect those beliefs not invalidated (or not addressed) by science.
But 64% of Americans have said that if a scientific fact invalidates a tenet of their religious beliefs, they’ll jettison the fact and keep their belief. In other words, religion’s “protection mechanism” doesn’t work very well, and not at all in the case of the 42% of Americans who are creationists.
I’m puzzled by how fuzzy Gates’s thinking is. If a student were to hand me an essay in which she gave Gates’s answer for why science and faith were compatible, I’ll mark it all up and say “think harder and try again.” But it all goes to show you that even a smart and well known scientist goes all wonky when he starts talking about religion and its compatibility with science. Gates says he’s religious, and he must therefore find a reason, however weird, for how he can have his science and his Jesus too.
As for religion (“faith”) being essential for the survival of our species, well, them’s just fancy words, for our species can survive just fine without religion. If it didn’t, Denmark and Sweden would be toast.