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Into the Breach of Science and Religion

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankMarch 23, 2008 7:55 PM


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"Science is not a philosophy; it’s an attitude." So why, if I am trying to work out a new approach to science and human spiritual endeavor, would I spend 600 words in my last post jumping up and down about Texas, their school board, and creationists? That was the question some people had for me, so I think it’s worth reflecting for a minute on what’s at stake in all this. I have argued that the traditional debate in science and religion takes three forms: the Sullen (creationism/Intelligent Design), the Silly (New Age quantum enthusiasm), and the Snarky (out-of-hand dismissal of all sentiment associated with spirituality/religion). These three options define the edges of the debate. But because each one takes an absolutist position on issues that are really pretty fuzzy, it affords them a soapbox from which to yell loudly and with great vehemence. In the midst of the yelling, it can and will be difficult to trace out the outlines of a more nuanced position that speaks to the broad concerns of human being. What we seek is a stance that honors the integrity of scientific practice, but allows the full measure of our humanity and human response to the world (both interior and exterior). Tracing out those positions becomes particularly critical as we come to face harsh choices about a future which will, inevitably, demand that choices be made involving science, technology, and values. I spent an entire chapter in my book exploring the traditional debate and why it had exhausted itself. That does not mean, however, that its potential to cause real problems has gone away. Of the three traditional positions, it is the Sullen who, through well-funded and well-defined political activity, are most intent on forcing their views on others. This is why, from time to time, we are all going to have to turn around and deal with the urgencies forced on us by the traditional debate. As an astrophysicist, I am particularly sensitive to the state of the American scientific enterprise. It is impossible not to see what is happening in Texas as a fundamental threat to the health and vibrancy of this great national treasure. That means it’s imperative for all who can speak out to do so when the need arises. Later this week, I will do a post on Intelligent Design and its problems. For now, it is enough to reaffirm the imperative to search for a language that can describe science and its context in a human world that includes a sense of what is sacred. At the same time, we can also acknowledge that effort does not exclude a confrontation with intolerance. At times, it will be demanded of us all.

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.

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