Readers Forum on Science and Religion
I. Science and Religion
The response to our special issue Science and Religion: Coflict or Conciliation? (July/August 1999) was the largest we ever received to a single issue. It was overwhelmingly positive. Of the more than 140 letters and e-mails we have received (more were still arriving at our time cutoff), only two complained of our devoting so much space to the topic. Most readers expressed appreciation. Many had thoughtful observations or criticisms of articles. We here present selected letters divided into two large categories: those addressing diverse points made throughout the special issue and those that focused specifically on the Non-Overlapping Magisteria concept advocated by Stephen Jay Gould.
The subject “science and religion” becomes even more fascinating when seen through the eyes of a biologist studying social animals.
All animals living in groups view being expelled from the group as a severe punishment; to prevent this they have to obey certain rules. Man is no exception; witness the feelings excited by the word “exile.”
Before the invention of the telescope and the microscope in the seventeenth century man’s mental view of his world was mainly formed by what he could observe with his naked eye and ear. To explain many incomprehensible phenomena in the world around him, man in every culture postulated the existence of gods with supernatural powers.
Some of the rules of a group conflict with an individual’s private wishes. The leaders of the group need strong arguments to keep the group intact; the fear of punishment by the gods (invented by man) in case of rule violation became a very powerful argument.
The advances of the sciences led to conclusions that were in conflict with the teachings of religion. Yet the use of religion to keep the group together continues.
As scientific knowledge of a phenomenon increases and also the technical power to control that phenomenon, the feeling of responsibility towards that phenomenon also grows. In the long run the feeling that we are all co-responsible for what happens in the biosphere will make it possible to keep Earth livable for man. Belief in supernatural gods will then have become obsolete.
Jacob van Noordwijk
Bosch en Duin,
I just finished reading your excellent July/August issue on science and religion while I was on a trip. Imagine my surprise when I returned from my trip to learn that one of my closest and dearest friends had decided to join one of the most narrow-minded and dogmatic religious sects in the country! This man is a seemingly rational and intelligent man who has a fine family and a position of responsibility with the Federal government. When I spoke with him regarding his decision, he informed me that he felt a need for a network of support, and felt that a church was one of the few places that could provide it. I could only offer my love and support, and assure him that in spite of my total disdain for the attitudes and practices of fundamentalism, I would continue to be his friend and be supportive of him and his family.
This incident points out one of the strongest draws that the irrationality of fundamentalism exerts on the weak. Many people, for numerous reasons, have a strong emotional need for a support network. In our rather self-centered society, there are few places where one can go to have those kinds of emotional needs met. Churches, especially those of a more fundamentalist mindset, tend to offer a strong network of support to newcomers. This is due in great part to the “us against them” feeling they possess regarding those outside their particular belief system. Nothing unites people like a common enemy, and if you feel the Devil is hiding behind every bush, it tends to lend a feeling of mutual closeness and support, much like walking through a field of hungry lions with a group of hunters.
I can certainly understand my friend’s desire to be part of a close and supportive “family.” As a teenager, I too felt a strong emotional need for a sense of family, and I also joined a fundamentalist church. Over the years I grew to realize that I was paying a very high price for my sense of belonging. I was forced to deny the obvious fact of biological evolution, regard Earth as quite young (in spite of tremendous evidence to the contrary), and I was forced to be terribly bigoted and intolerant of anyone who did not share my group’s narrow beliefs. I grieve over the wonderful friends I never made because of the prohibition to associate with “infidels and unbelievers.” I am very glad that I did violate the group’s rule of not reading anything that disagreed with their views. Even when I was in the strongest grip of fundamentalism, I could not fathom a god so insecure that reading scientific facts would cause him to vanish.
I have grown to respect new views and new heroes. Stephen Jay Gould, James Randi and the late Isaac Asimov are among the people of this planet for whom I have the utmost respect. Each of these men (and too many others to mention) have approached the issues of science and religion with various aspects of humor, wit, compassion, and, most of all, honesty. Although I do not totally discount the possible existence of a god, I now know that he will prove to be a god who does not rely on fear, gullibility, or magic to lure followers. He will rather be a god who respects and honors those who seek honest and rational answers to the mysteries that surround us. It is my sincere hope that a time will soon come when humanity can develop enough care and compassion for one another to provide those with emotional needs for a sense of family to find it without having to resort to selling their intellect in the bargain.
Please keep up the wonderful work of striving for truth and enlightenment. Misguided religious beliefs have caused more pain, suffering and death than all the wars man has ever fought. Only when we can make it possible for each child in this country to have access to scientific truths can we truly regard ourselves as a civilized country.
Jim L. Brasfield
In the July/August special issue on science and religion, several authors stated that Andrew D. White’s 1896 classic A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom chronicled the conflict between science and religion. In fact, however, White’s introduction makes clear that he saw the conflict as “a struggle between Science and Dogmatic Theology” rather than between science and religion. White was convinced that “Science, though it has evidently conquered Dogmatic Theology based on biblical texts and ancient modes of thought, will go hand in hand with Religion; and that, although theological control will continue to diminish, Religion, as seen in the recognition of 'a Power in the universe, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness,' and in the love of God and of our neighbor, will steadily grow stronger and stronger. . . .” White’s distinction between religion and theology might still be useful for those who think science should accommodate religion in general, but not the doctrines of particular religions.
C. Leon Harris
Department of Biological Sciences
State University of New York
The Science and Religion issue was very interesting. When authors point out that science is reason-based and religion is faith-based it is, of course, correct. But that is not sufficient.
Religion is very robust. It needs nothing but its followers. It can survive and sometimes thrive in the face of moderate government hostility. Science, on the other hand, is dependent. Without the support of industry, government, and academia, it would shrivel to the size of humanism or atheism. You need to understand that science is like a dairy cow. If it does not produce it will end up as hamburger.
Truth is not relevant to religion. Science uses reason and experiments to find truth. Palevitz writes “Creationists will always see inconsistencies or unexplained phenomena in evolutionary biology that make supernatural intervention an unavoidable conclusion.” That is the same as saying truth is not relevant. Not only that, creationism is a good example of the “Big Lie.” Religion seeks wealth, power, and control, and has acquired a great deal. If science does not it will remain dependent.
Palevitz writes about creationists, “We should force them to play by science’s rules.” We do not have the power to force them to do anything. Does he think creationists care about evidence or truth? Fundamentalist Christians are close to gaining control of the legislative arm of the federal government. Not long after that evolution will be banned from public schools and replaced by creationism. So it is not surprising that many of his students have chosen creationism. They probably want to be on the winning side.
I found the issue on science and religion quite fascinating, but I was a little surprised by the lack of treatment of the relation of science and religion as set down by Sir James G. Frazer in The Golden Bough.
According to Frazer, man sought to control his environment, and resorted to magic: by performing certain rituals, something could be caused to happen. One could make it rain, cure an illness, cause the livestock to be fertile, cause his children to be fertile, etc., by the performance of the appropriate ritual.
Later, the magic was not working well to control the environment, and man created god: man could not cause things to happen, but man could ask god, and god could cause things to happen. The ways of the world being as they are, of course the magic did not disappear, but evolved into religion. What previously caused something to happen now convinced god to do the same thing. Also, as one would expect, some plain old magic persisted-strongly in some cultures, and vestigially in other cultures.
I do not believe Frazer carries us to the next level, but it seems an ineluctability that science was the next effort to control the environment. With this in mind, it seems that there must be a conflict between science and religion. While, in the past, religion and magic could be intertwined and neither is much the worse for it, science cannot be so mixed. Some authors in the Skeptical Inquirer pointed out that fact, and the confusion that results. But the worst part of all is that science is successful-beyond reasonable doubt.
Thus, we have a tradition that is probably as old as mankind, and that tradition has evolved slowly, rarely throwing things out but always changing and reinterpreting. Now we have science that is not in the old mold, and refuses to conform to the old mold, preferring to replace everything that does not work (and we know how much does not work).
I believe what is left is to create a religion that can treat the “spiritual” side of people without getting into the physical side of life. Only then can we avoid the natural conflict. I offer no suggestions as to how this may be achieved.
I would like to compliment you on an excellent and highly relevant treatment of the relationship between science and religion. I note with disappointment, however, that many of your contributors persist in using the inappropriate term “supernatural” to describe those things which they perceive as being outside the boundaries of science. I would argue that there is, in fact, no such thing as the supernatural, except in our imaginations.
There are two, and only two, possibilities for existence: things can be conceptual or imaginary, existing only in our minds, or they can exist in the real, physical world. If such things as gods, angels, ghosts, or demons are anything but imaginary, then they must be considered as natural, existing in the natural world, amenable (at least in principle) to scientific inquiry, and subject to the same inviolable natural laws as all other things. Any appearance by such entities (assuming that they did, in fact, have a physical existence) of transcending these laws would be simply that-appearance. Like the alpha particles passing, ghostlike, though Rutherford’s gold foil, a ghost which passed through a solid wall or a god which could transform matter with the wave of a hand would not be exhibiting “supernatural” powers in violation of natural laws, but would rather be indicating to us that there are aspects of natural law which we simply have not yet discovered.
Scott F. Stoeffler
Downers Grove, Ill.
Congratulations on your special issue on science and religion. You covered all viewpoints well. About the only thing missing was an article by a Pentecostal minister.
I am a scientist and a religious person, and I never considered there was a conflict between science and religion. To me, the role of science is to observe, discover and comprehend the countless wonders of God’s creation. I believe God intended for us to do this; else, why would he have endowed man with an intellect that far surpasses that of any other animal?
I also believe that God intends us to use this knowledge to His glory and the betterment of mankind. Here, I conflict with some religions, such as Christian Science. I am unhappy about that, as I consider any religion that inspires an individual to love God and love his neighbor as himself is a worthy religion.
Our exploration may have its limits. How all that mass and energy came to be in the same place at the same time to create the Big Bang, what our universe was like before the Big Bang, and if there are other universes may be beyond our reach. The famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking was invited by the Pope to explain the Big Bang and black holes to him. After he was finished, the Pope announced: “from the Big Bang to black holes is your territory. Outside of that is my territory!”
Green Valley, Ariz.
I enjoyed the July/August issue on Science and Religion.
How embarrassing for American science and education that five generations after The Origin of Species was published, most Americans doubt evolution! One reason is that creationism, like religion in general, is never subjected to criticism in forums that reach its adherents. So the absurdities of creationism go unquestioned, and people continue to believe. In two debates I attended in my home city, the creationist attacked evolution but hardly explained or even stated his own beliefs about the origin of species. Fortunately in one debate his opponent brought and read from some of the creationist’s publications, and only in that way did we discover that he believed in the story of Noah’s Ark and thought that dinosaurs and humans coexisted (Fred Flintstone science). By the way, those debates lasted three hours each, almost as many people were in the seats at the end as at the beginning, and, in this city, the debates outdrew the Harlem Globetrotters and those dancing horses from Vienna. People do care; the question is important.
Keeping discussions of creationism out of the schools and ignoring the obvious conflicts between evolution and the religion that most Americans accept can only perpetuate ignorance. It is much better to discuss creationism in classrooms, but subject it to the same kind of criticism that evolution gets from creationists. The whole controversy could be settled in a generation or two, but only if we talk about it in forums that reach tens of millions, i.e., the schools and television.
Imagine a foundation-funded debate in the form of a series of, say, ten one-hour television programs, with half the programming prepared by creationists, half by science educators. . . .
Done right, and with luck, such a series might compare in interest with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It could give millions of people the knowledge they need to deal effectively with the creation/evolution controversy.
Several of the articles in the special Science and Religion issue use the word “natural” to describe science but use it in two distinct ways that are not clearly distinguished. It is said that science gives us natural explanations for our observations of the natural world. The meaning of the latter seems clear: The natural world is the one that we experience through our senses, one that is external to the private thoughts within our minds.
What, however, is a natural explanation? It seems to be one expressed in terms of certain predetermined concepts. Eugenie Scott ("The 'Science and Religion Movement'”), for example, says that it is “materialistic: matter, energy, and their interactions are used.” This is wrongheaded. Does science really limit itself a priori to using certain ideas? Is it so encumbered by bias that it would reject any explanation that uses other notions, no matter how well that explanation accounts for our observations?
The answer to these questions is no. Science is open-minded, not committed forever to its current concepts, always accepting of whatever ideas yield greater understanding. It seeks the best of all possible explanations, where “best” is characterized by parsimony, falsifiability, fruitfulness, and the like. Using such criteria, evolution, for example, easily triumphs over its rivals.
John G. Fletcher
Your excellent special issue on science and religion brought to my mind words Episcopal journalist Bruce Bawer wrote in his book Stealing Jesus (p. 324):
. . . every religious statement is a metaphor, a stab in the dark, an attempt to express in human words something that lies beyond human understanding or expression. To choose a religion is to choose a set of metaphors that comport best with the promptings of one’s own instincts and conscience and that seems to point most truly, virtuously, and beautifully to the “depth of reason.”
Your special issue on science and religion lacks a major ingredient not easily named. Consider figure two in the article on scientific method by Zoran Pazameta (p. 38). It shows a block for observations and experiments, from which we go directly to theory. Some may assume a simple examination of the data is all that’s needed. A step or block is missing, namely the analysis, assessment, and interpretation of the data. Interpretation requires a thorough understanding of what has gone before, i.e., previous research and existing theory. It further requires careful logical thinking, including a need not to be misled by wishes, expectations, prejudices, or by the accepted wisdom. And, most of all, the analysis is likely to require lots and lots of mathematics, including calculus and statistics. Most people lack any or all of these prerequisites.
The average person lacks the prerequisite knowledge or tools to understand the evidence for scientific assertions. Victor Stenger assures us the universe started with a big bang and is about a dozen billions years old (p. 42). Very few have the mathematics background to check that conclusion. To understand the evidence for biological evolution is simpler, but still requires a determined effort to master facts and references. In my perception most people have only a vague idea why a car engine works, or what the principles of radio wave propagation are.
In consequence scientific arguments for most people are as much a matter of faith as are religious statements. That cars run, planes fly, television works, and refrigerators cool, of course strengthens our trust in science immensely. Most people do not have a clear understanding of the distinction between science and technology. Even some technically trained people have only a vague idea of scientific principles outside their specialty. It is not astonishing that Barry Palevitz finds many teachers have no clear understanding of the basis of the science they teach (p. 35). Most Americans don't have the mental tools to get from the technical wonders of our economy to an appreciation of abstract theories such as the Big Bang, evolution, or any of the more remote assertions of science. For the average person these are as much a matter of faith as are the Bible and prayer. And religion surely is more comforting and easier to comprehend than science.
Most people don't have the will or the education or the ability to sort religion from science or science from nonsense. The community of agnostics who rely on a scientific world view is only a few percent of the population. I would conclude we shall remain a small minority.
Steve Allen’s idea of two mind-sets, one for religion and one for science, (in the July/August issue) is a good one. That idea can help to explain even more about our minds if we broaden it to a subjective frame of mind and an objective one.
Consider, for example, the words of actor and drug addict Robert Downey, Jr. about his recent arrest: “It’s like I've got a shotgun in my mouth, my finger on the trigger and I like the taste of gun metal.” He’s explaining that his subjective mind-set makes him want the experience of taking drugs, while his objective mind-set gives him information that doing so may kill him.
Likewise, the subjective frame of mind suggests that experiencing belief in powerful nonhuman agents can give our lives meaning when we need it. It used to be that the only such agents-that people believed existed-were the supernatural ones suggested by religion. These days, there is also belief that such agents live nearby in UFOs. (Allen suggests there is a connection between such aliens from elsewhere and religion. Certainly, one connection is the subjective mind-set central to both.)
We also have the objective mind-set that provides the basis for gaining useful information about a world in which there is presently no evidence of powerful agents other than humans. That mind-set long ago helped us to find food, water, and shelter. It led to the relatively recent development of science.
How did we come to have such different mind-sets? There’s reason to think our ancestors had them before we were human and before we were apes. That is a large subject. It’s also one that I explore in How We Got To Be Human: Subjective Minds and Objective Bodies, which will be published next year by Prometheus Books.
William H. Libaw
Beverly Hills, Calif.
II. Non-Overlapping Magisteria . . . or Not?
The Stephen J. Gould concordat with the Vatican must not be allowed to settle the boundary between science and religion in your pages. His “NOMA” leaves the boundary where the Darwinian compromise with the bishops set it, more than a century ago. In that time the work of science has occupied the entire territory. It is no longer possible for scientists to yield-shirk-responsibility for ends and values while they busy themselves with means.
The act of Cain should have settled the question at the outset. The nuclear weapon has now irrevocably closed the false dichotomy that distinguishes means from ends and allows the employment of means to accomplish ends thus falsely distinguished and held to be desirable or “good.”
From times earlier than Cain, the emerging human species has looked outward for the purpose and value of its existence, into the farthest imagined regions of the universe and beyond. The last half-century of discovery in human evolution has shown that the natural locus of purpose and value is inside the human head. In this corner of the universe, it has established purpose, first formed in the heads of the primate toolmakers-they shaped those tools for later use-from whom the genus Homo stemmed 1.5-2 million years BP.
Objective knowledge, verified by its use in technology for myriad purposes, has changed not only humankind’s relation to nature, but the relation of human to human. Values have been seen thus to change with the advance of objective knowledge. Mechanical energy made slavery not alone technologically obsolete, but immoral as well. Now, it is the consumption not the production of goods that underlies the worry about jobs in the economy. Redistribution of income proceeds even in our country and in its re-embrace in fundamentalist Puritan ethic.
In place of the concordat and the compromise, let the following statement of the ethic of objective knowledge, by Jacques Monod, stand:
The sole end, the sovereign good, the supreme value in the ethic of knowledge- let us acknowledge it-is not the happiness of man, much less his comfort and security . . . it is objective knowledge itself. I believe it is necessary to state clearly and to systematize this ethic and . . . to teach and spread it abroad; for, creator of the modern world, this is the only ethic consistent with life in this world.
This, it must not be concealed, is a harsh and constraining ethic; while it looks to man to advance knowledge, it declares a value superior to man himself.
It is an ethic of conquest, a will to power, but to power solely in the sphere of knowledge. It is, in consequence, an ethic that teaches the evil of violence and of temporal domination.
It is an ethic of personal and political liberty, because to contest, to criticize, to constantly put in question is not only a right therein but a duty.
It is a social ethic, because objective knowledge can not be cherished except in a society that respects its norms.
It should be of concern to scientists, to begin with, that our society does not now respect those norms.
New York, N.Y.
I have a tremendous respect for Stephen J. Gould, and really appreciate the contribution he has made to the dissemination of clear thinking about evolution and biology to the lay public. However, I strongly disagree with his stand on the limits of science because this stance abrogates our responsibility for the future and puts it in the hands of those least able to determine the consequences of their actions. The future and how to influence it is what all of human activity is about. The past is what we can study to determine what actions to take in the fleeting present to bring about a future, near and far, in which we want to live. Our behavior today, the rules that guide that behavior, and reasons those rules were adopted rather than some others are as much a subject for scientific inquiry as are the rules of planetary motion. We do not want to abandon our responsibility to shape our future to those illiterate about the workings of reality. There is only one magisteria and it is a reality that is independent of our existence. Only by using science can we understand reality and use this understanding to set policy to produce a future in which we want to live.
I very much appreciated the July/August 1999 presentation of science versus religion.
I am a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould but I've always felt his “soft” approach to religion makes me wish he would concentrate more than ever on biology. I'm glad that Richard Dawkins was given space to present what I very strongly feel is what Gould has “swept under the rug.”
Religions will come and go but science will be with us from now on. I predict that one million years from now if we have not exterminated ourselves that no one will be waiting for the second coming of Christ and that science will be running strong!
I also greatly appreciated the space given to Victor J. Stenger.
North Folk, Idaho
Apologists for religion often appear to derive comfort from the statement that science cannot prove the nonexistence of God. This is also the position of S. J. Gould (quoted by Martin Gardner), who describes any attempt at such proof as an arrogant mistake. We are, apparently, supposed to infer that equal weights are to be assigned to the alternatives of God’s existence versus his nonexistence, and that a believer is no less reasonable than a skeptic. It is amusing to apply this line of argument to defend belief in witches. Can a scientist, in his laboratory, perform an experiment demonstrating that there are no witches? No. Can he deduce that conclusion from quantum mechanics, relativity, or the theory of evolution? No. Must we acknowledge, therefore, that belief in witches is intellectually respectable? Again, no. Advocates of the science-cannot-disprove gambit seem to be unaware that they are opening the door to unwelcome guests. Witches are only one example; don't forget the tooth fairy.
Clergymen and theologians maintain that their moral precepts are derived from God. Professor Gould endorses their authority ("magisterium”), but does not, apparently, believe that it is of supernatural origin. What, then, is its source? The Catholic condemnation of contraception is a moral judgment rather than a scientific one; therefore, according to Gould, it falls within the scope of the Church’s teaching authority. But he has not explained why we should accept it.
David A. Shotwell
Being among the legion of Stephen Jay Gould fans, I was quite excited to read his contribution to the science/religion debate in your recent issue. His piece, however, had a curious ring of the familiar. Was it just by accident that Professor Gould chose a title with a decidedly, shall we say, romanistic afflatus? In fact, his arguments brought to mind those of another clear-minded analytic, synthetic, and sympathetic thinker: Thomas Aquinas.
The thirteenth century, though pre-scientific and Aristotelian, was not free of serious debate over the question of, as it was then phrased, revelation versus reason. Into this great philosophical battle stepped Aquinas, who carefully distinguished between the dual modes of thought by proposing a kind of intellectual fusion, in which reason and revelation, though distinct, are not opposed to each other. Of course, there was to be only one “truth,” that of revelation, but, as far as the natural world, rationalism, or at least the rational, could apply.
This apparent contradiction is overcome by Aquinas’s bedrock assertion that “de motu creaturae rationalis in Deum” (the rational creature advances toward God). In order to establish the true relation between faith and reason, Aquinas systematized theology. Today we might find some of his conclusions strained, but he attempted to forge a methodology based on process (advancement). His method and his relative openmindedness are noteworthy. Revelation may be the higher truth for Aquinas, but his spirit of accommodation does not seem all that far removed from that offered by Professor Gould. Dare it be suggested that the uniquely human quest for God and the uniquely human quest of science are in some sense the same? The two inexhaustibly parallel in endless revealment?
In regard to the article “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” by Stephen Jay Gould, I'd like to submit this opinion: The October 1996 statement on evolution by Pope John Paul II is nothing more than another of those rare conciliatory expressions used for the sole purpose of forestalling the erosion of religion, namely Christianity, by indelible scientific revelations.
Gould says: “No supposed 'conflict' between science and religion should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority-and these magisteria do not overlap (nor do they encompass all inquiry). But the two magisteria bump right up against each other. . . .” Gould also says: “the Magisterium” merely stands for the “teaching authority of the [Roman Catholic] Church-a word derived not from any concept of majesty or unquestionable awe, but from the different notion of teaching, for magister means 'teacher' in Latin.”
My Webster’s Dictionary defines “magisterium” as “the authority, office, and power to teach true doctrine by divine guidance, held by the Roman Catholic Church to have been given it alone by divine commission.” Thus, the magisterium is no ordinary teaching authority such as we would find coming down from, say, a state’s educational agency that governs its public schools. There is all the difference in the world when such religious terms are used such as “divine guidance,” “divine commission,” and “alone.”
You don't have to take Webster’s word for this definition. Just turn to the Catholic Almanac’s section about its magisterium. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (No. 25), says in part: “Religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. It must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to. . . .”
Bishops are also afforded the same magisterium because “they are authentic teachers . . . endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice. . . .”
Because Gould admitted that he didn't understand the Church’s statement on evolution, he put into play what he calls “the primary rule of intellectual life: When puzzled, it never hurts to read the primary documents-a rather simple and self-evident principle that has, nonetheless, completely disappeared from large sectors of the American experience.” I submit that Gould failed to put this important principle to work in his anemic definition of “magisterium.”
Stephen J. Gould makes the somewhat remarkable comment that science cannot touch the subject of souls and that such an issue is intrinsically religious. Consequently he has no problem with the position of the Roman Catholic Church that permits believers to accept the basic truth of the evolution of man while forbidding them from extending that process to the human soul (which is understood to have been infused into the human creature at some point in its evolutionary development).
Aside from the fact that such imposed restrictions are completely contrary to the spirit of science which demands free, open and courageous inquiry (and thus call into question the sincerity and integrity of the Pope’s message), Gould’s comment leaves me wondering what it is he thinks the ongoing research by various brain sciences into the nature of consciousness is all about. Are not these scientists, when they speak of the mind, consciousness and of our sense of self-
identity and self-awareness, not speaking of that very same phenomenon that mystics, poets, philosophers and religionists have typically called the soul? And if by the concept of the soul the Pope and the mainstream religions do not mean our minds, personalities, and our sense of “I,” then what do they understand souls to be? Certainly those who are working (and to some extent already succeeding) to provide a scientific and naturalistic explanation for human consciousness are obviating any need to regard souls as the product of supernatural intervention.
I feel certain that you are getting a deluge of letters concerning the Science and Religion issue, but I thought I would add mine to the pile. While all of the articles were enjoyable and informative, the two that I most agreed with were the two that were supposedly in mutual opposition to each other, namely the Gould and Dawkins articles.
I think Gould is quite right in delineating areas of inquiry that are probably outside the scope of science for the time being and perhaps forever. These include such questions as the optimal system of ethics, the meaning of life, the nature of mind, etc., questions which most people would deem philosophical rather than scientific. Attention to these questions is important and may have more influence on the fate of humanity than scientific advances. However, in addition to having a different magisteria, traditional religions have also had a different attitude toward inquiry which Dawkins is right to deplore. This attitude is one of absolute prohibition towards criticism and change, the result being a continued belief in stories that are both cruel and ridiculous, simply because they are part of a set of “sacred” writings. I agree with Dawkins that to ignore this basic intolerance toward change is both intellectually dishonest and socially inadvisable. . . .
I thoroughly enjoyed your issue on science versus religion, however I was somewhat alarmed at how readily everyone except Richard Dawkins ceded to religion matters of morality. As Stephen Jay Gould points out there are other “magisteria” besides religion and science (he mentions art as an example). No mention was made of law or philosophy, either of which is preferable to religion as a source of moral teaching.
Professor Gould gets warm and fuzzy when John Paul II declares evolution a scientific fact in contrast to Pius XII’s grudging admission that it might be valid and we can live with it if we have to. Welcome to the nineteenth century! Even if the Pope were trained in science and had arrived at his conclusion from his own research, no skeptic could accept his declaration as anything more than one scientist’s opinion based on the available data.
Ernest L. Asten
San Francisco, Calif.