'Faith and Reason' examines the religious and ethical impact of developments in evolution, genetics and cosmology.
Special to The Observer
Published: Monday, September14, 1998
There's a mountain peak in the desert of southern Arizona that the native Americans believe is the center of the Universe. You can see if from a few other peaks that bristle with telescopes seeking the real center. Historically we have been evicted from the center of a variety of worlds--the solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy, and the universe itself. It's always found to be over yonder somewhere. Or nowhere. Or everywhere. Science seems to demote us with uncomfortable regularity.
At the same time we look inward for some significance to our being. From mythology to messiahs, we seek a connection beyond us and our scientific knowledge. Somehow we want to both know it is out there yet not have it proven. We want have our cake and eat it to.
This relationship between the advance of science and our yearning for a special role in the grand scheme is the focus this week of "Faith and Reason", a PBS special showing Friday [9/18/98] at 10pm, on WTVI. The program consists of interviews with scientists of varying viewpoints. From the Pope's Vatican Observatory Director to biologist Richard Dawkins, the complete spectrum of beliefs is represented.
The history of the conflict is woven through the story as it tries to unravel the religious and ethical importance of developments in evolution, genetics, and cosmology .While the scientists interviewed were not hesitant to discuss their views, they mostly seemed to be looking at the subject in a detached manner. None offered the reasons they were pursuing study of the interaction of faith and science with the same kind of passion scientists often use to describe their interest in science. Only the two who seem the most disconnected from God, Weinberg and Dawkins, were up front and unabashed in their personal feelings.
Astrophysicist Steven Hawking seems to be at the front line of the 'pointless' movement: the push for a religious-like fascination with the mechanics of the universe and the evolving Theory of Everything. As if, these would be personally satisfying enough to calm your worries in the middle of the night, when you awake and wonder if there is anything more to life than what is readily apparent.
Thus, the show barely touches on the essence of God: eternal life. This was conspicuous by its absence, yet seems pivotal. Who cares if the universe was engineered or simply self-assembled, if there is nothing beyond death? Yet this question is largely left begging throughout the show.
This escapes me--I find no amazing awe in my research. Sure there is great natural beauty in the universe, but can that be enough? All the science I do is "just my job five days a week," to paraphrase Elton John. Trying to form a philosophy based on the mathematical order of all that is seen would be like explaining a beautiful, sculpture-like rock found in the desert. Is the wonder in the creation or the creator?
Even with its weaknesses, the show makes a good faith effort to build some bridges that will hopefully allow each side to meet the other and mingle. This is an area that will only become more contentious, since science will continue to make inroads into understanding the universe and life.
Unlike religion, which rarely changes other than perhaps adding the occasional prophet, science moves forward relentlessly. And, there is no going back. The universe will never be the Biblical 6,000 years old again--the conflicts between the Bible and science will have to be faced with logic.
Religion must respond, and at least in the Catholic Church, it has. The pope has given his blessing to evolution, although adding that it is insufficient to account for everything. How long can fundamentalist protestant groups ride this rising tide of knowledge in their Ark?
Scientists must change, too, and this show presents examples of attitudes that must go. We need to forget the 'face of God' and 'God particle' type books written by several physicists. Drop the notion that we are all going to be resurrected in some kind of quantum computer at the end of time. Ain't gonna happen.
Furthermore, skeptics and true-believers alike must all respect the right of each person to adopt the world view necessary for him or her to enjoy life. This show only hints at those changes that must be made, leaving us sort of warm and fuzzy but curiously unsatisfied.
"Faith and Reason" will not likely change many minds about science itself, but it can help you see that there are many of us scientists who enjoy our work but find that it does not answer all of the questions, or indeed the most important ones. We can get closer to finding the center of the universe yet not be able to probe to the center of our soul.
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