Science, Religion and the "Ethic of Investigation"

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankApr 2, 2008 11:23 PM


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In 1991, two British astronomers, Andrew Lyne and Matthew Bailes, created an uproar when they announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the neutron star PSR1829-10, a dead cinder of a once massive sun. The result thrilled and shocked the astronomical community. For two-and-a-half thousand years, philosophers and astronomers had asked if planets existed outside our solar system. Giordano Bruno’s execution formed one part of this long story. For all those years, the question remained steadfastly unanswerable. Lyne's and Bailes’s discovery seemed to provide an answer. It was big news. Unfortunately, a year later, at an astronomical meeting designed to present new results, Lyne stood before a large audience and announced that he and Bailes had gotten it wrong. With news cameras rolling, Lyne detailed how their analysis of the data had been in error. They were withdrawing their claim of discovery. There was a long pause, and then the audience came to its feet in a standing ovation. Some argue that science is amoral, and that no inherent ethical conclusions can be drawn from scientific findings. There is, however, one precept that we scientists all take as holy from the time we begin as graduate students: "Tell the truth." There is no greater sin in science than falsifying data or conclusions. Scientists are asked to let the world speak for itself, to observe without bias or preconceived ideas. In the ideal, scientists are asked to witness the world in its own great pathways of beauty, without the filter of prior desires or demands. Brutal honesty about the character of the conclusions drawn in the investigations is a hallmark of sincere scientific practice. The scientist has to be honest with herself about the integrity of the result, and the possibility of error. That is why the audience saw Lyne and Bailes as heroes to be honored, not as failures to be shunned. Their narrative becomes part of the mythos of science, by calling its practitioners to a set a core of values that includes absolute honesty. This "ethic of investigation," as I call it, is, I believe, another living parallel between scientific practice and authentic human spiritual endeavor. Such a parallel can only be seen, however, when the emphasis in the comparison shifts. I have argued many times that when religions attempt to force science to fit their belief systems, they invariably lose. Much of the history of the science and religion debate for the last 400 years has consisted of some religion trying to figure out how to deal with the scientific truths being laid at its doorstep. There are more than enough examples of religions attempting strange (and sometime dangerous) mental gymnastics to hold both views at once. The creationists are one example, and the Pope’s incredible opinions on condoms and HIV/AIDS is another. But, as I and many others have argued, people feel themselves to be religious for many reasons. To ignore the imperatives in religious experience that push some people towards a greater, more compassionate, more open view of the world because of others' prejudices seems like wearing blinders. That is the reason to invoke the ethic of investigation. In the aspiration to know the world (including one’s interior response to it ), we have to adhere to the ways it presents itself to us. Any understanding of the world’s truth, or the meaning of our response to it, must be approached with great effort and the willingness to accept what the investigation demands. Scientific investigation is hard work and demands honesty and a willingness to shy away from easy answers. Is there a flip side in the domain of spiritual endeavor? From what I have seen and think, at its best, the answer is yes. When experiences, and the aspirations which flow from them, force individuals to re-examine their own biases and take actions that are anything but comfortable, you can find that same ethic. Gandhi and Martin Luther King are famous examples, but there are many others. The religious scholar Huston Smith claims one can evaluate the depth of a person’s attainment in any religious practice by the change it brings in their behavior, meaning the way they live their lives. An enlarged circle of compassion is a hallmark of such change. Of course, you don’t have to be engaged in some form of spiritual pursuit to have this happen—humanist perspectives will do fine. But it seems silly to brush away how often aspiration, based on encounters with a personally-experienced sense of sacred, leads to a "strenuous life" of commitment and compassion. This is an important point because recognizing these kinds of parallels might bring us to a communal application such as an "ethic of investigation." As we face the vast and challenging truth of issues like climate change, a truth revealed through scientific practice, we will need to be determined in our willingness to let the world speak for itself. Once those truths are acknowledged, we then have choices in our response. Marshaling the compassionate, determined action that flows from different forms of spiritual practice—practice embodied by Gandhi, King and countless others—is one possible response.

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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