Thursday, September 25, 2008

Steven Weinberg on tension between science and religion

I really like Steven Weinberg. Whether you agree or disagree with him, his comments always insightful and make you think. He has this excellent article in The New York Review of Books (tip EvolutionBlog) that talks about the sources of tension between science & religion and then he presents his views about how to live without God. I have divided the post in two: This deals with his perspective on science & religion tension and the next will focus on his views of life after God.

He starts with the idea of conflict between science & religion, but then correctly (though reluctantly) demphasizes a bit (its not that there has not been any conflict, but rather that this may not be the only or even the dominant mode):
The idea of a conflict between science and religion has a long pedigree. According to Edward Gibbon, it was the view of the Byzantine church that "the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind." Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this conflict is a book published in 1896 by Cornell's first president, Andrew Dickson White, with the title A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In recent times there has been a reaction against talk of warfare between science and religion. White's "conflict thesis" was attacked in a 1986 paper by Bruce Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, both well-known historians of science, who pointed out many flaws in White's scholarship.
A quick point here: It is too dangerous to apply a single definition of "science" and "religion" throughout history or for that matter, a single line of relationship between the two. It becomes too easy to cherry-pick evidence in one's support and/or to ignore counter-arguments and other contextual factors. This is the reason why Andrew White's history, while influential in popularizing the current conflict thesis, also had serious problems as were pointed out, among others, by Lindberg & Numbers.
But if the direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, there are at least four sources of tension between science and religion that have been important.
Here are his 4 points (I have added numbers to Weinberg's text). I will mostly comment on the 3rd one, as Weinberg attributes that tension specifically to Islam:
1) The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being.
Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding (such as our ignorance about the origin of life) as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.
This is an excellent point. Indeed, the domain of understanding nature now rests solely with science. Even with unexplained phenomena, we know that these are problems for science. The Dark Matter problem is not going to be resolved by religion. Perhaps we can use the analogy of astrology. Up until the 17th century, astrology was used for weather predictions, fires in the city (yes, cities like Baghdad and London had horoscopes based on the date their foundation was laid and astrology predicted when fires would break out), and of course on personal matters. It is all about the illusion of control in an unpredictable world. Now we have much better ways to determine weather and fires are relatively rare, so we have astrology predominantly for personal matters. Thus, the domain of astrology has been reduced dramatically. The same argument can be made for religion.
2) There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, "The theory that it's all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate." Most important so far has been the discovery by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace that humans arose from earlier animals through natural selection acting on random heritable variations, with no need for a divine plan to explain the advent of humanity.
Another excellent point. Astronomy is really good for this - once you appreciate the vastness of the universe, it becomes really hard to argue any specialness for humans. And biology provides the final nail in the coffin.
3) A third source of tension between science and religious belief has been more important in Islam than in Christianity. Around 1100, the Sufi philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued against the very idea of laws of nature, on the grounds that any such law would put God's hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smolder because of the heat of the flame, but because God wants it to darken and smolder. Laws of nature could have been reconciled with Islam, as a summary of what God usually wants to happen, but al-Ghazzali did not take that path.

Al-Ghazzali is often described as the most influential Islamic philosopher. I wish I knew enough to judge how great was the impact on Islam of his rejection of science. At any rate, science in Muslim countries, which had led the world in the ninth and tenth centuries, went into a decline in the century or two after al-Ghazzali. As a portent of this decline, in 1194 the Ulama of Córdoba burned all scientific and medical texts.

Couple of comments here. First, yes, al-Ghazali's points definitely create problems for scientific thinking and I don't want to defend his arguments (he didn't much care for philosophers/scientists or mathematicians). However, I should say that his comments were grounded in a radical form of atomistic philosophy (Occasionalism) which argued that not only all matter can be reduced to fundamental units of atoms (not the modern view of electron, proton, neutron, but rather the view of pre-Socratic philosophers such as Epicurus and Democritus), but that time is also discreet. Thus, every instant, the world is destroyed and new one is created by God - and that leaves God responsible for every action in the world, including the direct source of fire for the burning cotton.

Second, yes, the impact of al-Ghazali is not clear. Ibn-Rushd (Averroes) in al-Andalus, wrote a devastating critique of Al-Ghazali only a few decades after Ghazali's death. But Rushd's work had a bigger impact on the philosophical discourse in Europe (especially on Aquinas) than in the Islamic world. Ghazali, on the other hand, did have big influence in shaping the direction of sufism - but I don't know about the case of understanding events in the natural world.

We do know one thing: contrary to Weinberg's claim, science in the Muslim world did not die out a "century or two after al-Ghazali." There is strong evidence now, based on the discovery of manuscripts in the past 20-30 years, that science in the Muslim world continued to flourish at least well into the 14th century and may be into the 15th century. In fact, the golden age of Islamic astronomy is now attributed to 13th and 14th centuries (check out George Saliba's lecture on Islam and the transformation of Greek science - and his book, A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories during the Golden Age of Islam). The decline of sciences in the Muslim world is an unsolved and complicated matter. It would make things much easier if we could all blame al-Ghazzali's anti-science attitude for the decline. But evidence doesn't seem to support this idea.

All that said, I agree with Weinberg that if one has a worldview that includes an intervening God, then such a view will fundamentally be in opposition to science. I feel that the constant use of "Inshallah" (God-willing) by contemporary Muslims must have some impact on scientific reasoning.

Nor has science revived in the Islamic world. There are talented scientists who have come to the West from Islamic countries and do work of great value here, among them the Pakistani Muslim physicist Abdus Mohammed Salam, who in 1979 became the first Muslim scientist to be awarded a Nobel Prize, for work he did in England and Italy. But in the past forty years I have not seen any paper in the areas of physics or astronomy that I follow that was written in an Islamic country and was worth reading. Thousands of scientific papers are turned out in these countries, and perhaps I missed something. Still, in 2002 the periodical Nature carried out a survey of science in Islamic countries, and found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellent science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding.

He is absolutely correct about this. And I should also mention that even Abdus Salam doesn't officially make the Pakistani official list of a Muslim Nobel prize winner, as he belonged to the Ahmaddiya sect - who were constitutionally declared to be non-Muslims by Pakistan government in 1974. The joke was that the government wanted to keep the record of Muslims clean in terms of science Nobel prizes.

4) here is a fourth source of tension between science and religion that may be the most important of all. Traditional religions generally rely on authority, whether the authority is an infallible leader, such as a prophet or a pope or an imam, or a body of sacred writings, a Bible or a Koran. Perhaps Galileo did not get into trouble solely because he was expressing views contrary to scripture, but because he was doing so independently, rather than as a theologian acting within the Church.

Of course, scientists rely on authorities, but of a very different sort. If I want to understand some fine point about the general theory of relativity, I might look up a recent paper by an expert in the field. But I would know that the expert might be wrong. One thing I probably would not do is to look up the original papers of Einstein, because today any good graduate student understands general relativity better than Einstein did. We progress. Indeed, in the form in which Einstein described his theory it is today generally regarded as only what is known in the trade as an effective field theory; that is, it is an approximation, valid for the large scales of distance for which it has been tested, but not under very cramped conditions, as in the early big bang.

This is a fantastic point - and his Einstein example is a great illustration of the workings of science. The same is true of Darwin's work - and critics of evolution keep on commenting on his books and his life.

This is not the end of his article, but I think his first topic can have this excellent ending:

We have our heroes in science, like Einstein, who was certainly the greatest physicist of the past century, but for us they are not infallible prophets. For those who in everyday life respect independence of mind and openness to contradiction, traits that Emerson admired—especially when it came to religion—the example of science casts an unfavorable light on the deference to authority of traditional religion. The world can always use heroes, but could do with fewer prophets.

My minor quibbles aside, I like Weinberg's thoughtful comments on the subject (here is the full article). Now onto the second part of this piece - living without God.


Don said...

I'm glad for the breakdown of Weinberg's comments on science and religion, but I think your commentary does a better job of describing the relationship than his original points (at least until point no. 4). Easily my favorite of your posts so far.

Ruth said...

This is a really interesting post. I think that so much of the debate around science and religion focuses on Christianity that not enough attention is paid to how the debate affects other religions. If you're interested, there's a really interesting book coming out in October called Healing the Rift by Leo Kim that looks at the question in terms of science and spirituality, without focusing on one religion in particular.

Epiphenom said...

"if one has a worldview that includes an intervening God, then such a view will fundamentally be in opposition to science"

That's very true, and I think that the acceptance by renaissance Europe of a god that created laws and then acted for the most part as an observer was fundamentally important to the development of science. But the interesting thing this that there is nothing in Christianity that would lead one to that view in particular when compared with Islam. In other words, the idea of a law-creating god was an invention of christians, but not a christian invention. The really interesting question is why, then, were Europeans so much more receptive to this idea. Why was Ibn-Rushd so much more influential in Europe than the Middle East. I wish I knew the answer!

Unknown said...

Great post. Thanks for the info on al-Ghazzali too.
As to why Christianity took the course it did as regards science; I read a great historical analysis years ago, whose author I don't recall, that said that because Europe was still reeling after the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants people increasingly sought intellectual satisfaction in studying nature and stayed away from all the live wire issues based in biblical interpretations. As I understand it too, Islamic culture while it preserved Greek writings was much more wary of being influenced by the Greek worldviews than Renaissance Europe.
Then there was the pursuit of power over nature through magic as in the case of people like Bruno; an attitude which would have been more threatening to Islam with its strong idea of everything depending on the will of Allah. It seems that there were currents in Europe that left it more open to heretical ideas.
Not to be too long winded, I have had arguments with Theists about the difference between religious authority and the authority of scientific consensus. When they cherry-pick quotes of Einstein to show he wasn't Atheist (and he did seem more vaguely Deist to me) I always get that sense of them seeing him in the same light as a religious authority, that his ideas about God should somehow hold weight with us. It's not like he was vouchsafed an insight into the nature of things by some higher power like a prophet of old, rather he was the first to comprehend the world in a particular way that led us down a new path. That doesn't lend weight to any speculations he might have had about a spiritual power in the Universe. Scientific authority is always provisional and must be tested in light of new discoveries and not something sacred and inviolable like religious revelation. People like Einstein are heroes but they're not prophets.

Salman Hameed said...

We have some idea of why Ibn-Rushd became popular in Europe, and it has to with Aristotle. He did the most extensive translation and commentary on Aristotle's work. In fact, while Aristotle was called "The Philosopher", Ibn-Rushd was called "The Commentator". These commentaries sound light, but these are considered full philosophical works.

The reasons for the lack of popularity in the Islamic world are not clear, but al-Andalus' remoteness to the Islamic heartland may have played a big role. Plus, there was much political instability in the Islamic Caliphate, as well as the ongoing crusades in the 12th century. In any case, may be the intellectual history of Islam be completely different if Ibn-Rushd's works had been influential - but it did not happen.

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