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Technology

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

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFebruary 18, 2008 11:37 PM
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Adam 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. Imagine a nineteenth century physicist googling “Space.” The definition he would get would be Newton’s. There would be no mention of deformable manifolds or a unified space-time. In science, and in the broader culture, it’s our job to find the words that can do the heavy lifting we need them to do. When it comes to science and religion, the word “sacred,” with its long history of use in different religions, and, most importantly, its pivotal place in the scholarship of Religious Studies, fits the bill. That is why scientists like Stuart Kauffman, Ursula Goodenough, and myself have come to lean on it. There is something in this term “sacred” that will allow us to go beyond the tired creationism v. evolution debate and speak to why we do science, and to why all of us respond to the beauty of its broader worldview. It's not just about science, it's about science in its very human context. Every generation changes the direction and content of words. To miss how the sacred resonates with something ancient in us because we fear it can only imply the supernatural is to miss its opportunity. The sacred has relevance for what science calls us to in our activity and our attitude. I understand the apprehension that some feel in adopting these kinds of terms. But I argue that there is something true in them. They have real content that speaks to our lived experience in science and in science’s relation to culture. It is our job to harness words like "sacred," and through scholarship and discussion infuse them with broader meanings that speak to the unique experiences our moment in history calls us too. We live in a scientific age, but the sense of the sacred has not left us. We only forgot to call it by its rightful name.

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