05 November 1995

The Antithesis of Science (and Religion)

Excerpt reproduced from John Carey's editorial introduction to the Faber Book of Science with his permission. Thanks to Tom Richards for sending this to VCBC.
Resistance to science among what Ortega y Gasset calls "cultured men," has sometimes been strengthened by the objection that science is godless and amoral. Both charges need some qualification. It is perfectly possible to for a scientist to believe in God, and even to find scientific evidence for God's existence. To sceptics this might suggest a nutty combination of laboratory-bore and Jesus-freak. But when a scientist of the standing of James Clerk Maxwell's eminence uses molecular structure as an argument for the existence of God, few will feel qualified to laugh. Of course, atheistical scientists are plentiful, too. The zoologist Richard Dawkins has voiced the suspicion that all religions are self-perpetuating mental viruses. But since everything science discovers can, by sufficiently resolute believers, be claimed as religious knowledge because it must be part of God's design, science cannot be regarded as inherently anti-religious.

On the contrary, its aims seem identical to those of theology, in that they both seek to discover the truth. Science seeks the truth about the physical universe; theology, about God. But these are not essentially distinct objectives, for theologians (or, at any rate, Christian theologians) believe God created the Universe, so may be contacted through it. Admittedly, many scientists insist that that science and religion are irreconcilable. The neuropsychologist Richard Gregory has declared: "The attitude of science and religion are essentially different, and opposed, as science questions everything rather than accept traditional beliefs." This does less than justice to religion's capacity for change. The whole Reformation movement in Europe was about not accepting traditional beliefs. It might be objected that science depends on evidence, while while religion depends on revealed truth, and that this constitutes an insuperable difference. But for the religious, revealed truth is evidence. Theology might, without any paradox, be regarded as a science, committed to persistently questioning and reinterpreting the available evidence about God. True, by calling itself 'theology'it appears to take it for granted that God (theos) exists, which, scientifically speaking is a rather careless usage. However, there is no reason why theological research should not lead the researcher to atheism, and no doubt it often has, just as (we have seen) scientific research has led some researchers to God.

The real antithesis of science seems to be not theology but politics. Whereas science is a sphere of knowledge, politics is a sphere of opinion. Politics is constructed out of preferences, which it strives to elevate, by the mere multiplication of words, to the status of truths. Politics depends on personalities and rhetoric; social class, race and nationality are elemental to it. All these are irrelevant to science. Further, politics relies, for its very existence, upon conflict. It presupposes an enemy. It is essentially oppositional, built on warring prejudices. If this oppositional structure were to collapse, politics could not survive. There could be no politics in a world of total consensus. Science, by contrast, is a cooperative not an oppositional venture. Of course, the history of science resounds with ferocious argument and the elaboration and destruction of rival theories. But when consensus is reached, science does not collapse, it advances. Another crucial difference is that politics aims to coerce people. It is concerned with the exercise of power. Science has no such designs. It seeks knowledge. The consequence of this difference is that politics can and frequently does use violence (war, genocide, terrorism) to secure its ends. Science cannot. It would be ludicrous to go to war to decide upon the truth or otherwise of the second law of thermodynamics.

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