Thursday, 3 March 2011

In Our Time is 500 next week!

The BBC Radio 4 Blog mentions "In Our Time" coming up to its 500th edition next week.

On 15th October 1998 Melvyn Bragg welcomed listeners to a new Radio 4 programme called In Our Time. "In this series," he said, "I hope we'll look at the ideas and events which have shaped the century." Thirteen years later, on March 10th, IOT will celebrate its 500th edition. The programme has changed quite a bit since those early days. In 2000 it was extended from half an hour to 45 minutes, and the original two guests became three. And the programme's original remit - to look forward to the 21st century by surveying the key ideas of the 20th - seemed a bit passé post-millennium; so Melvyn and his then producer Charlie Taylor came up with the brilliantly simple format that persists, a decade on.

One of the programmes I found interesting was the one on religion and science, where the late Stephen Jay Gould gave a much more nuanced presentation of his Noma idea. Melvin Bragg introduced it:

Melvyn Bragg : Hello, what space should science leave to religion? What ground should religion give to science? Do they need to give ground to each other at all? The American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould tackles the old problem in his latest erudite and - odd adjective perhaps - charming book "Rock of Ages - Science and religion in the fullness of life" . In it he writes: "Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate or explain these facts. Religion on the other hand, operates in the equally important but utterly different realm of human purposes. In other words science studies how the heaven's go, religion how to go to heaven, the rocks of ages and the age of rocks." But do the two realms really exclude each other?

Now Michael Ruse, in his review of "Rock of Ages", thinks that, with NOMA, Gould is restricting religion to a domain of belief that does not have any place for miracles, for example. He writes:

What about miracles, for instance. Many non-Creationist Christians would argue for a literal resurrection, with a truly dead Jesus being lowered from the Cross and then coming alive again and rising on the Third Day. Can the Magisterium of religion as it were push aside the Magisterium of science and argue that this is possible? Such Christians would argue that since God is creator of all, it is up to Him, not us, to decide the limits of science. And if He wants a literal resurrection, then this must be possible. However Gould makes it clear that this is not his position, and essentially he reduces or confines religion to sentiment and feeling and will not allow it to make ontological (that is, existence) claims.

This stemmed from two of Gould's main statements about "Noma", or non-overlapping Magisteria:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values -- subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.

The first commandment for all versions of NOMA might be summarized by stating: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science." In common parlance, we refer to such special interference as "miracle" -- operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat. . . . NOMA does impose this 'limitation' on concepts of God . . .."

But in fact, in this "In Our Time", possibly because of the unique format, Gould showed a much more relaxed attitude, and is able to explain that religion can have a place for miracles, but that may still does not bring it into conflict with science, because some of those miracles are outside of that domain:

Stephen Jay Gould : But at that point I just very say "alright I don't happen to believe in the immaculate conception of Mary for example", but that's not a scientific question I will leave that to you, to debate whether or not Mary was conceived without sin and free of the taint of Adam, because that's not a question that science can adjudicate in any case.

In this respect, he is very close to Chesterton, who wrote:

How could physical science prove that man is not depraved? You do not cut a man open to find his sins. You do not boil him until he gives forth the unmistakable green fumes of depravity. How could physical science find any traces of a moral fall? What traces did the writer expect to find? Did he expect to find a fossil Eve with a fossil apple inside her? Did he suppose that the ages would have spared for him a complete skeleton of Adam attached to a slightly faded fig-leaf? The whole paragraph which I have quoted is simply a series of inconsequent sentences, all quite untrue in themselves and all quite irrelevant to each other. Science never said that there could have been no Fall. There might have been ten Falls, one on top of the other, and the thing would have been quite consistent with everything that we know from physical science. Humanity might have grown morally worse for millions of centuries, and the thing would in no way have contradicted the principle of Evolution. Men of science (not being raving lunatics) never said that there had been "an incessant rise in the scale of being;" for an incessant rise would mean a rise without any relapse or failure; and physical evolution is full of relapse and failure.

But what of the miraculous itself, such as the Christian idea of Jesus' resurrection:

Stephen Jay Gould : But I think that way about the phenomenon of miracles that is I cannot say as a scientist, that miracles defined technically as suspensions of natural law for a moment don't happen. I suspect they don't, but if they did, I couldn't study them anyway, so I'm going to leave that domain aside. They don't seem to make much of an impact on human history anyway.

Hilary Rose : And prayer?

Stephen Jay Gould : Prayer is the placebo effect, that's one of the most powerful (John laughs) ones we know. I have no doubt that prayer is immensely beneficial for many people, it don't think it changes the character of the world, that can be scientifically adjudicated. But again I would say, for those for whom it is necessary to think that it does, it's outside the realm of science, I'll let them be.

Gould seems to be saying that if miracles, defined as suspensions of natural law - or perhaps as singular anomalies in natural law - exist, then science cannot study them, because they are not repeatable events, which can be tested. He also seems to be taking quite a soft line with regard to prayer, that while he doesn't think it is effecting the natural world, he thinks it is not a testable subject, so "I'll let them be", as he says.

Chesterton considered miracles in his play "Magic", where a conjurer uses magic to change the colour of a light, without any special apparatus or tricks. Because this causes an fervent (and almost Dawkinsian) atheist to suffer a breakdown, because he cannot understand how such a thing could happen, the conjurer takes pity on him. Chesterton argues in the play that if a miracle can have a naturalistic explanation that has the same effect, people will generally prefer the naturalistic to the miraculous:

Conjurer. I am going to tell that poor little lad a lie. I have found in the garden what he did not find in the garden. I have managed to think of a natural explanation of that trick.
Smith. It is much more marvelous to explain a miracle than to work a miracle. What was your explanation, by the way?
Conjurer. I shall not tell you.
Smith. [Starting.] Indeed? Why not?
Conjurer. You would believe it as he believed it. You cannot think [pointing to the lamp] how that trick could be done naturally. I alone found out how it could be done-after I had done it by magic. But if I tell you a natural way of doing it....
Smith. Well?...
Conjurer. Half an hour after I have left this house you will be all saying how it was done.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the In Our Time discussion was at its conclusion, in which Gould commented that both religion and science had the same root - the questioning nature of human beings:

Melvyn Bragg : Can I conclude what for me has been an absorbing discussion by asking Stephen Jay Gould, d'you think it's the same impulse that drives physicists to complete string theory as drives theologians to prove the existence of God?

Stephen Jay Gould : In some very broad sense I suspect it is. We're such a crazy curious species, that's why we're so (indistinct) to do the mostly terrible things to each other, and yet there is this substrate that one can only deem admirable. We are, as Sarvay(?) puts it this little creature, wondering why in the vastness of the heavens we're here and what it's all about and we've got this damnedest desire to find out. Science is a way of finding out in a factual sense. What religion seeks may not be factually resolvable, but it's a similar set of questions. "Why are we here? What's it all about? What can we do? How can we make it better?" that is the most noble part of our nature, and I think we should do everything we can to nurture it, because there's some very ignoble parts as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice Tony Nice