“About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” The last line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus tends to resonate with scientists, sceptics, atheists, and other fans of rationality. If your thought cannot be articulated sensibly in plain language then you had better keep it to yourself. Written amid the slaughter of World War I, the book became central to the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers who sat around the Café Centrale in the 1920s discussing which statements could be boiled down into verifiable empirical claims and those that could not. The latter, which included all of metaphysics and theology, they dismissed as meaningless nonsense. When the group finally convinced a reluctant Wittgenstein to visit them, he was so exasperated with their philosophy, logical positivism, that he took to turning his chair to the wall and reading Rabindranath Tagore poetry out loud during their meetings. They had misunderstood him, Wittgenstein explained. The ethical convictions, values and metaphysical ideas they had busily classified as “nonsense” were not worthless. In fact, they were the most important concerns in life.
I was reminded of Wittgenstein recently, when I read the firestorm of online criticism that followed the publication of a column in Nature magazine by Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.
In the piece, inspired by a visit to the Angkor temples in Cambodia and gamely entitled “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” Sarewitz drew some parallels between science and religion. (Note, however, that he did not support the misguided idea that science and religion were the same, or that science was nothing more than a belief system.) Worse, in many people’s eyes, was that he went further and argued that science alone is not enough—humanity will always need other ways of understanding the world. Citing the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, Sarewitz says:
“For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality…in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle. By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown.”
I have my own problems with the piece. But the vehemence of the attack on Sarewitz would have made anyone think he had advocated teaching creationism in science classes while smacking Richard Dawkins around the head with a copy of the Holy Bible.
Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. You can find him on Twitter here.
Myths about the Hero Twins,
one of whom is shown holding a bow here,
are an important part of Navajo identity.
In certain circles, there is a violent allergic reaction whenever someone suggests that religion and science are compatible. A particular type of atheist is especially vulnerable to this immune disorder. For example, P.Z. Myers, the evolutionary biologist and pugnacious blogger, became famously symptomatic at a 2010 gathering of atheists. After one participant suggested that non-religious people could still be spiritual, Myers nearly retched:
Whenever we start talking about spirituality, I just want to puke.
I hope Myers didn’t have too much to eat before reading the headline from this week’s commentary in Nature: “Sometimes Science Must Give Way to Religion.” The column, by Arizona State University’s Daniel Sarewitz, suggests that rational explanation of the universe’s existence, as advanced recently by discovery of the Higgs boson, can’t match the feelings evoked by spectacular religious symbolism, such as that found in Cambodia’s ancient Hindu temples, which Sarewitz explored this summer. He writes:
The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.
Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it.
But in the words of Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, “our brains and bodies contain an awful lot of spiritual wiring.” Religion is the antidote our evolutionary history created. And even if you don’t buy that particular theory, you can’t simply dismiss the psychological and cultural importance of religion. For much of our history, religion has deeply influenced all aspects of life, from how we cope with death and random disaster to what moral codes we abide by. That science should (or could) eliminate all this with a rationalist cleansing of civilization, as a vocal group of orthodox atheists have suggested, is highly improbable.