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The Sciences

Science and Religion on the Cam, Part I

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJune 7, 2010 7:47 PM

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It 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.

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