Science and Religion on the Cam, Part I

By Chris Mooney | June 7, 2010 10:47 am

800px-KingsCollegeChapelWestIt has been a time of much moving, lately. The MIT Knight Fellowship is over, and I’m currently in the other Cambridge (the one in England) for the briefer Templeton Fellowship.

Not surprisingly, the controversy over this fellowship has sparked plenty of conversation over here among my fellow journalists/fellows. Now, with the first week of the fellowship over, I am prepared to say more about that.

So far–and this is, to me, the most important point–I can honestly say that I have found the lectures and presentations that we’ve heard here to be serious and stimulating. The same goes for the discussions that have followed them.

To be sure, we hear a fair amount about theological thought here–and I have my difficulties with theology as a field, simply because of my personal identity if nothing else. Being an atheist, it is pretty hard to relate to a theological perspective on something like, say, the meaning of the doctrine of creation. Why would something like that speak to me, resonate for me, or even make sense to me?

But the details of various theologies are hardly the dominant aspect of what we’re hearing about. And even when it comes to theology, I still see great value in the clarification of religious concepts, and in learning what the most thoughtful believers actually think and argue, and why. It is often different than what you might think (although it is important to remember that these fairly rarefied and sophisticated views are not necessarily held by the majority of religious adherents; here, see the criticisms of former Templeton fellow Michael Brooks).

* * * * *

But as I’ve said, theology is only one portion of the content here. There is also a lot of science, history of science, and sociology. And on these fronts, the talks we’ve heard so far from experts like Alasdair Coles (religion and the brain), John Barrow (cosmology), Dennis Alexander (historical models for the relationship between science and religion), and Noah Efron (science and religion in Judaism) have been invaluable and insightful.

Let me single out one other talk for praise in particular. On Friday we heard from Michael Reiss, from the Institute of Education in London, about the ethical issues surrounding the prospect of human life extension. Reiss is an Anglican priest, a biologist, and also a bioethicist. I didn’t know what to expect from his talk, and given that the speaker was introduced as being religious, I might well have expected pooh-poohing of life extension.

That expectation couldn’t be more wrong: When Reiss laid out the arguments for and against technological interventions that could make us live much longer, I was extremely refreshed. He entirely eschewed weak Leon Kass style arguments, such as the idea that living longer is “unnatural,” to provide a secular and nuanced take that ultimately, it seemed to me, came down in favor of having people live longer. On this particular issue, which I suspect will become pressing in the future, I can honestly say that every citizen ought to hear someone like Reiss weigh the pro and con arguments.

In fairness, there have also been talks that have done less for me. Although he was rather entertaining, and pleasingly idiosyncratic, I had a pretty tough time with the arguments of Simon Conway Morris, who moves from the (to me) fairly unremarkable observation of evolutionary convergences to the argument that if you were to run it all again, evolution would produce pretty similar types of organisms. I am not an evolutionary scientist, but I have read a lot about evolution, and I find this idea difficult to swallow.

* * * * *

In light of the Templeton experience so far, I see little justification for the attacks on this program that have emerged. In a subsequent post, I plan to address some of those criticisms more directly. But for now, this is just a report from Cambridge on a program that I’m glad I applied and was accepted to.

Comments (7)

  1. John Kwok

    Chris,

    Too bad you weren’t at the World Science Festival here in New York City, which concluded yesterday. Your post makes the most compelling case I have read so far as to why the Templeton Foundation has a right to disseminate financial contributions in support of scientific research and education; it is a case far more compelling than any I heard at the World Science Festival.

    Sincerely,

    John

  2. JMW

    …On Friday we heard from Michael Reiss, from the Institute of Education in London, about the ethical issues surrounding the prospect of human life extension…On this particular issue, which I suspect will become pressing in the future…

    I do seem to remember having heard of some science fiction author or futurist, of some stature, stating that it was likely that the first person who would live to be 1000 years old had probably already been born. And that was about 10 years ago.

    …if you were to run it all again, evolution would produce pretty similar types of organisms…

    I suspect this is truer of basic types rather than specific organisms. There seems to be, at certain transitional moments in evolutionary history, a favouring of the omnivorous, long, low, lean, quadrupedal body type.

    On the other hadn, if you wind evolution back all the way, who is to say that we’d end up with predominantly bilaterally symmetrical animals, photosynthetic plants, etc., etc. The resulting life forms might fill the same ecological niches, and might therefore end up looking the same, but the internal biology could be radically different.

  3. I’m glad you have found the Templeton to be a great experience. Religion may be full of man-made constructs, but by that same token the same is true for morality. Good scientists who can find value in certain aspects of religion should not be despised any more then good scientists who find value in morality.

  4. Ian

    Great Chris. When considering the history of science and its religion influences it’s worth sparing a thought for the people who built Cambridge University (and Oxford, Bologna, Paris, Slamanca, Padua …)

  5. SLC

    Re Simon Conway Morris

    In fairness, there have also been talks that have done less for me. Although he was rather entertaining, and pleasingly idiosyncratic, I had a pretty tough time with the arguments of Simon Conway Morris, who moves from the (to me) fairly unremarkable observation of evolutionary convergences to the argument that if you were to run it all again, evolution would produce pretty similar types of organisms. I am not an evolutionary scientist, but I have read a lot about evolution, and I find this idea difficult to swallow.

    The difficulty with this position is that it neglects the impact of mass extinctions caused by natural events. In particular, if the K/T extinction due to the asteroid/comet impact had not occurred, life would probably look quite different then it does now. In particular, we probably wouldn’t be here!

  6. John Kwok

    @ SLC -

    Agreed. While I have the utmost admiration for Conway Morris’s work, his opinion as to how evolution might have yielded organisms similar to us if we “played again” the “tape” that is the history of life on Earth, is one that can’be be borne out by the fossil record. Who knows what might have happened if the mammal-like reptiles were completely exterminated during the termial Permian and Triassic mass extinctions?

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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