Archive for February, 2008

Fear of Nuance: Science, Religion, and “A Nation of Cowards,” Part II

By Adam Frank | February 26, 2008 12:15 pm

Adam FrankI will be in Seattle next week doing some work and giving a few talks on the book, but before I left I thought it worthwhile to revisit issues raised by Attorney General Holder’s now infamous “Nation of Cowards” speech. My post on the topic generated a lot of dialogue, some of it about science/religion and some of it about Holder’s topic—our limited ability to talk honestly about race in America.

The New York Times printed an editorial by Stephen Carter a few days ago on the reaction to Holder’s speech. Its point is relevant for our own discussions of science and religion:

The speech itself was more than 2,300 words. The already infamous phrase occurred about 150 words in. Thus we are left with well over 2,000 unanalyzed words—that is, the context for the phrase. For too many critics, the context of Mr. Holder’s remarks…is quite beside the point.

The problem, as Carter rightly points out, is the endless tendency to simplify any and all arguments down to the part where we can get pissed off. The reaction to Holder’s speech left the body of his argument untouched—and that reaction was, as Carter, says,
“plenty of sound bites, but nothing that moves us forward.”

He goes further still:

This difficulty, however, is not limited to race. There are few issues of any importance that are not reduced, in public dialogue, to sloganeering and applause lines. Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker.

And here the connection to the public debate about science v. religion becomes relevant.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

"A Nation of Cowards": Science and Religion

By Adam Frank | February 19, 2008 11:56 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

I grew up in particularly ratty part of North Jersey. The population was the usual American hodgepodge: Italian, Irish, Polish, African American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican. It was a tough place with a kind of democracy of animosity. In general, everybody was looking to pound the other guy if the opportunity presented itself.

Still, I was regularly amazed at the strange friendships that would pop up. “Lippy,” the Italian-Irish small time hood who was a regular at Guys and Dolls Pool Hall, was best friends with a bunch of Puerto Ricans from the other side of town. Nobody got it. Normally these guys would have been at each other’s throats, but somehow it worked. Sometimes people just manage to find each other in the midst of the general warfare and chaos.

Which leads me to the Attorney General of the United States.

Yesterday, Attorney General Holder made the rather stunning comment that we Americans are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to the discussion of race.

Wow, pinch me. Was that a U.S. politician telling us the truth? I wasn’t sure that could happen. That is certainly change we can use.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Gimme Back My Words! Science, Religion, and Vocabulary, Part II

By Adam Frank | February 18, 2008 12:37 pm

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

Yesterday, I argued that going beyond the traditional science v. religion debate would require finding an appropriate vocabulary. If we really want a different path beyond the usual “My Religion v. Your Scientific Results” brawl, we need to appropriate wider, older meaning for words. The trick will be to have an ear for the resonance, the poetry inherent in those words that can be of use to us. Then we have to use them, creatively, to rise above the particular meanings pinned on them by our particular historical moment.

Both Sean Carroll and Charles Schmidt argued yesterday that you have to look at the meaning most people would attach to a word—the dictionary meaning, that is. It’s a good point and a relevant point, but for me it’s too narrow. It’s true that in science, we often throw out words that have “failed” (phlogiston is one example). But for the really powerful terms and ideas, we often keep the words and shift their meanings. This was, of course, Thomas Kuhn’s point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Space, time, mass, and energy are words that we scientists have kept in our tool chests even as their meanings changed radically.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Gimme Back My Words! Science, Religion and Vocabulary I

By Adam Frank | February 17, 2008 11:47 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

You can’t own words, and you can’t specify the changing patterns of their meaning. They are living things, organic and evolutionary. No place is this more eloquently illustrated then in the debate between science and religion.

In one of my earlier posts, there was a flurry of comments about my use of the word “sacred.” Lots of scientifically-minded folks took issue with the word because, for them, it conjures up the dangers of supernaturalism and the enemies of science and their religious intolerance. Last Friday I had the pleasure of speaking about my book at the Harvard Book Store and this subject—the use of words like “sacred” and “spiritual”—came up in more than one question. Clearly, it is a central issue.

I thought a lot about terminology when I was writing my book. I was looking for words that had a history and a resonance lifting them above the particulars of any particular tradition, which spoke to the experience and aspiration that underlie both science and what I call “spiritual endeavor” (a term that will require a separate post I am sure). After considerable reading in the cannon of Religious Studies, “the sacred” was were I landed.

The wonderful thing about the word “sacred” is that it is not really tied to any of the world’s current traditions. It’s got old, old origins in the great society of ancient Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Religions, the Latin origins of “sacred” relate to “sacrum”—”what belonged to the gods or what was in their power.” Its early usage related to Roman temples and their rites. In that context, the words sacrum and profanum have been frequently paired together.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Darwin and the Vertigo of Vision: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate

By Adam Frank | February 12, 2008 4:58 pm

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

“Today…new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory”.  —Pope John Paul II

I can’t write a series of posts on science and religion and ignore Darwin’s birthday. Not when the theoretical structure whose foundations he laid remains one of the principle fronts on the war between science and religion. I have written before about the sullen – the scriptural literalists and intelligent design advocates. They have been the principle provocateurs on the religious side of this unfortunate chasm between science and the domains of human spiritual longing. Today it’s worth noting what they miss in their demand that the process and methods of science cleave to their preconceived ideas about the world.

The Pope really hit the nail on the head: “The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.” That’s it! That is the mojo that makes the theory of evolution, the idea of evolution, so extraordinary.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part VI

By Adam Frank | February 10, 2008 11:58 pm

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

No one can emerge from a consideration of religion without thanking William James.
—Ursula Goodenough

Last week we poked around trying to define the contours of the traditional debate on science and religion. I used terms like the Sullen, the Silly, and the Snarky to lay out the ways we have become conditioned to seeing Science and the domains human spirituality discussed in public. These debates often turn around familiar poles of evidence vs. scripture or faith vs. reason. The problem with the traditional debate, especially its creationism/intelligent design vs. evolution version, is that it sucks all the air out of the room. The debate has been going on for so long and with such vehemence that it appears nothing else could possibly be said on the subject. Today I want to begin discussing alternative approaches that don’t orbit the burnt-out sun of the creationism vs. atheism debate.

The first step is to recognize that some very talented people have tread some of this ground before. The need to focus on faith in the religion and science debate seems to be taken, ironically, as an article of faith. This, however, ignores some vibrant lines of scholarship on religion and human spirituality over the last century. In particular, it ignores William James.

William James was one of the founders of modern psychology and also an influential philosopher, which contributed to him being known as “that adorable genius” during his time. Though religion was an essential part of his childhood, as an adult he turned to science as the basis for his investigations. But as he reached middle age, his interest shifted to more philosophical issues, including religion. He was suspicious of academic theology, saying the systematic “block universes” they created were sterile creations of the Mind and never touched the real importance of spiritual feeling. So James stayed away from grand overarching theories that tried explaining everything under a single rubric. From this perspective he wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, a tremendously influential book that forms a staple of religious studies classes. In it James offers his now famous definition of religion:

Religion… shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine… The problem I have set myself is a hard one: … to defend … “experience” against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of religious life.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

The Snarky’s Tin Ear: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part V

By Adam Frank | February 5, 2008 11:31 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?

—John Calvin

This was my favorite quote. I discovered it at age 16 in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and have been using it in my Intro to Astronomy lectures for years. It seemed like the perfect embodiment of blind religion ignoring the fruits of understanding that scientific progress was willing to offer. Then, in writing my book on science and religion, I found a problem with Calvin’s words: He never said them.

The quote can traced to the 1899 work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University. This book had enormous impact, setting attitudes for years within the scientific community about the proper attitude in the science v. religion debate. Now, a spate of literary sleuthing by historians leads them to conclude the quote must be considered suspect.

While White’s mistake is likely an honest one, the book has other flaws that point to the rigidity and inherited biases on the other side of the traditional science v. religion debate. Too often, scientists can seem so casually dismissive of the entire domain of human religious experience that it appears that not much study or scholarship lies behind the attitude. This approach we will call (thanks to the Occasional reporter) “The Snarky.”

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Transcending the Silly: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part IV

By Adam Frank | February 4, 2008 12:13 pm

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

It was all I could do to keep from hurling my jumbo buttered popcorn at the screen. A friend had taken me to see the new age hit “What the Bleep do We Know,” and a moment comes when one of the interviewees says, “Every morning I get up and change the quantum fields around me.” That was when the impulse to scream or laugh or throw the popcorn hit me. In the end, I just had to shake my head: It was just too silly.

In yesterday’s post, I identified what I called “The Sullen” as a dominant mode of talking about science and religion. The Sullen are the religious fundamentalists who angrily reject those scientific findings (evolutionary biology, physical cosmology, etc.) that conflict with their interpretation of scripture. Today, I will briefly touch on the other well-traveled road in public discourse on science and religion, which, for alliterative reasons, I call “The Silly.”

In the 1980s, two books, The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters, permanently changed the popular conception of science and spirituality. These books sparked widespread interest in the confluence of science with eastern religious worldviews (Yogic and Buddhism). Quantum mechanics, the physics of subatomic phenomena, took center stage. Now the terms like “quantum healing” and the “observer phenomenon” have entered the lexicon of popular consciousness.

The influence of this perspective can be seen in any catalogue from an adult learning center where classes linking quantum physics with everything from past-life regression to crystal energy channeling can be found. It is remarkable how widely buzzwords from “quantum spirituality” have diffused. I once had the distinctly unreal experience of being told that I should purchase a “magnetic bed” (a bed with magnets glued to the frame) because quantum physics proved it would increase my well being.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Rejecting the Sullen: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part III

By Adam Frank | February 3, 2008 11:43 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

I asked the bartender, what do you see?

Part man, Part Monkey.

Definitely

—Bruce Springsteen

Last week, I started laying down an argument that it was time to leave the traditional science v. religion argument behind. There were, I said, far richer and more compelling ways of thinking about these great human endeavors than tired combat between tired polarities. Now it’s time to get specific. I can’t go any further, though, without defining who and what the “traditional debate” means.

We begin with the most well known, vocal, and pointless promulgators of the traditional debate—those I call the Sullen. The Sullen are biblical literalists of one sort or another, and their descendants are in the Intelligent Design movement. They are “the Sullen” because of their anger at science for ignoring their imagined urgencies, and its continual ability to trash their arguments. It is the Sullen who have turned the metaphor of warfare between science and religion into a political reality.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism
NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »