Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Science and Religion - Ken Wilber, Francisco J. Ayala, and More

First, some housekeeping.

Ken Wilber recently appeared in an interview in Salon magazine that seems as though it might be new. It wasn't. I'm guessing few people paid much attention to the banner at the top of the article (I didn't):
This is a rehash of a series produced by Wisconsin Public Radio in 2006. See this banner:

Not quite the same, but the interview is the same. Listen to the interview, at the end of the show -- a show that also features A.O. Wilson, Karen Armstrong, and Richard Dawkins. (Requires Real Player.) The show has four other parts, all of which are good. Part two (the cosmos), three (the brain and belief), four (debating Darwin), and five (awe and wonder). I highly recommend part three, which looks at Buddhism in the first part of the episode.

No plagiarism here, since the interview on WPR was conducted by Steve Paulson, just a little deception.

OK, on to more interesting topics.

* * * * *

From The New York Times, a look at how science and religion can co-exist in the mind of an evolutionary biologist, Francisco J. Ayala.
Roving Defender of Evolution, and of Room for God

For a university professor, Francisco J. Ayala spends a lot of time on the road.

An evolutionary biologist and geneticist at the University of California, Irvine, he speaks often at universities, in churches, for social groups and elsewhere, usually in defense of the theory of evolution and against the arguments of creationism and its ideological cousin, intelligent design.

Usually he preaches to the converted. But not always.

As challenges to the teaching of evolution continue to emerge, legislators debate measures equating the teaching of creationism with academic freedom and a new movie links Darwin to evils ranging from the suppression of free speech to the Holocaust, “I get a lot of people who don’t know what to think,” Dr. Ayala said. “Or they believe in intelligent design but they want to hear.”

Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution “is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for.”

Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, “God is the greatest abortionist of them all.”

Or consider, he said, the “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates’ genitals, along with all their other parts.

For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, “it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten.” But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, “then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer.”

That is also the message of his latest book, “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). In it, he writes that as a theology student in Spain he had been taught that evolution “provided the ‘missing link’ in the explanation of evil in the world” — a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence, despite the existence of evil.

An interesting article.

Much to his credit, Dr. Ayala refused to allow Ben Stein's Expelled to be part of his appearance at a mega-church in California.

But Dr. Ayala said another proposed engagement, at a conference at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., a 10,000-member church that is the base for the “Hour of Power,” a weekly televised religious service, was canceled earlier this year. A spokesman for the organization said Dr. Ayala’s talk was canceled “due to overbooking” of speakers.

Dr. Ayala said the event’s organizers wanted him to be introduced by Ben Stein, a writer (and business columnist for The New York Times) who is the star of the new anti-evolution movie, “Expelled,” and wanted to show the film in conjunction with his talk.

“I don’t mind who introduces me,” he said he told them, “but I would not want the film to be part of my presentation. They said they could not meet my conditions.”

Finally, I want to offer up this section from the article, in which Dr. Ayala addresses evolution and atheism -- I am in full agreement with what he says (and I suspect he and KW could have a nice discussion).

Dr. Ayala said he remained surprised at how many Americans believe the theory of evolution is contrary to belief in God, or that the theory is erroneous or even fraudulent. (In fact, there is no credible scientific challenge to it as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth.)

Sometimes, he says, people come to his talks determined to challenge him, usually by citing familiar creationist arguments — that a body part like the bacterial tail, or flagellum, is too complex to have arisen through evolution, or that scientists lied when they demonstrated that moths in England evolved to be darker as the Industrial Revolution covered their native trees with soot.

But he said he had yet to encounter a challenge he could not meet. When people ask about the bacterial flagellum, for example, “I bring up that by now it has been worked out in great detail how the basic parts of the bacterial flagellum have evolved independently and exist independently,” he said.

As for the moths, he conceded that in famous photographs illustrating the discovery, the dark moths had been glued to the dark trees. But the observation that the moths had darkened along with the trees was real, he said. “To have a nice photograph, we glue them,” he said. “That is not falsifying science. That is something for facilitating teaching.”

And he dismisses the argument that it is only fair to teach both sides of the evolution/creationism controversy. “We don’t teach alchemy along with chemistry,” he said. “We don’t teach witchcraft along with medicine. We don’t teach astrology with astronomy.”

He said he was saddened when he saw the embrace of evolution identified with, as he put it, “explicit atheism,” as in the books of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins or other writers on science and faith.

Neither the existence nor nonexistence of God is susceptible to scientific proof, Dr. Ayala said, and equating science with the abandonment of religion “fits the prejudices” of advocates of intelligent design and other creationist ideas.

“Science and religion concern nonoverlapping realms of knowledge,” he writes in the new book. “It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that evolutionary theory and religious belief appear to be antithetical.”

* * * * *

Utne Reader posted this article, which brings together the Wilber interview and some other sources.

Faith and Reason, Art and Science, Together at Last

A prevailing view among scientists and atheists is that everything is knowable. Humans are simply particles in motion, governed by biology and physics. Given the right tools and information, some people believe that human beings could know all the secrets of the universe, past and present. This mode of thought has led to a number of remarkable discoveries, but according to theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, writing for the scientific website the Edge, it is fundamentally “reductionist.”

Viewing the human experience as nothing more than biology and physics allows for only happenings. “There are no meanings, no values, no doings,” Kauffman writes. There is also no room for spirituality, or acceptance of forces beyond human comprehension. “Science has driven a wedge between faith and reason,” according to Kauffman, elevating science and devaluing faith as irrelevant.

The schism between science and religion has turned into a philosophical “cold war” according to philosopher Ken Wilber. In an interview with, Wilber talks about how neither science nor religion are fundamentally wrong. They’re actually complimentary, if a person looks at them the right way. Wilber says some of the world’s greatest scientists, including Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Sir Arthur Eddington, were fundamentally mystics, because they understood the limits of physics and science.

“Understanding the limits to human knowledge and intervention is going to be the question of the twenty-first century,” according to opera director Peter Sellars in an interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (pdf). Science is able to push the boundaries of knowledge, but science alone has proven itself unable to understand the limits. That’s where not only faith, but art can play a useful role.

Uniting arts and sciences, faith and reason, could instill some reverence and responsibility into science. In the twentieth century, “science was made into a God, a substitute for religion,” Sellars said in the interview. Sellars’ new opera, Dr. Atomic, is about the atomic bomb, one of the most destructive creations of science. “And it’s bad enough for a religion to be a religion,” Sellars said, “but when science becomes a religion, it’s very dangerous.”

Bennett Gordon

No comments: