Wednesday, September 20, 2006

SciAm review of Owen Gingerich's book

The September 2006 issue of Scientific American has a review of Prof. Owen Gingerich's new book: "God's Universe". Owen Gingerich is or was an Astrophysicist and still is a noted Historian of Science at Harvard - previously mentioned in this blog regarding the Pluto redefinition furore.

Scientists write popular books all the time, but this one is likely to have a different readership from the average popular science book, and get a bit more press too. Why? Well, Prof Gingerich is one of the approximately 40% of scientists who manage to reconcile holding spiritual beliefs while still practicing the methodological/philosophical naturalism required for science. He is part of the smaller (sub)set holding theistic religious beliefs (i.e. believes in God).

Shame on him for violating the stereotype of souless atheistic scientists fiendishly plotting the moral and metaphysical downfall of the West, or whatever it is we're supposed to be doing. I forget now, must have deleted the last memo from SASFPTMAMDOTW from my inbox.

This kind of thing, the apparent oxy-moron of a religous scientist, really gets the media excited. NPR happily interviews Francis Collins (human genome project, whose book is also reviewed in the same SciAm article), in fact just about anyone who appears to break the science vs. religion theme perpetuated by the media seems to be of great interest to the same media. What is annoying is the implicit appeal to authority inherent in such attention: "Tell us about your religious beliefs o wise one. How tolerant and open minded you must be compared to your non-religious fellow scientists."

Why should we view a scientist Joe OverEductated reasons for believing supernatural thing X any more seriously than Joe Redneck's reasons for believing supernatural thing X?

And is Joe OverEducated's vision of what God is anything like Joe Rednecks. Deism, probably the most common form of religious belief by scientists, is so far from your average Southern Baptist's view of Christianity as to be irreconcilable. Yet all these cases of religious scientists are inevitably portrayed as support for Christianity (yes, some fraction are Xtian, but they're can hardly be a majority). I feel that if these interviewers did their job properly and actually probed these issues maybe we'd see less enthusiam for this sort of religious apologetics.

Hopefully our library will get a copy so I'll be able to read Gingerich's book myself, but in the mean time I'll content myself with a few choice quotes from George Johnson's review in SciAm.

... its premise survives: that there are two ways to think about science. You can be a theist, believing that behind the veil of randomness lurks an active, loving, manipulative God, or you can be a materialist, for whom everything is matter and energy interacting within space and time. Whichever metaphysical club you belong to, the science comes out the same.

In the hands of as fine a writer as Gingerich, the idea almost sounds convincing. "One can believe that some of the evolutionary pathways are so intricate and so complex as to be hopelessly improbable by the rules of random chance," he writes, "but if you do not believe in divine action, then you will simply have to say that random chance was extremely lucky, because the outcome is there to see. Either way, the scientist with theistic metaphysics will approach laboratory problems in much the same way as his atheistic colleague across the hall."

Mmmh, thats not promissing - sounds like the standard "materialism is just as much a matter of faith as religion" argument.

The reviewer, moving onto Francis Collin's book which employs a very similar rhetorical devices, remains firmly grounded in reason:

But what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. ... Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don't stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.

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