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512 pages
Jul 2003

Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century

by Denis Alexander

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From the introduction

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The scientific enterprise is full of experts on specialist areas but woefully short of people with a unified worldview. This state of affairs can only inhibit progress, and could threaten political and financial support for research.
Nature Commentary, 14 August 1997, p. 619
Contemporary Western societies are profoundly ambivalent about science. On the one hand, science is invested with exaggerated expectations and inflated hopes. The vision is for a high-tech universe whose powers we manipulate to serve our own ends. At the other extreme, a vigorous anti-science lobby perceives science to be the source of all our current woes. Scientists are viewed as dangerous meddlers, wresting secrets from nature that are best left well alone, playing God as they pry into the sequence of the human genome and uncover the fundamental forces that hold the universe together.

The rapid advances in science that are predicted for the 21st century, particularly in the biological sciences, will certainly bring increasing pressure to bear on our notions of human identity and value. Scientific advances are continually throwing up questions which science itself is poorly equipped to address. We will need to draw on all the resources we can lay our hands on if we are to maintain human justice, dignity and worth in the face of scientific disciplines, such as neuroscience and the new genetics, which increasingly lay bare our own biological constitutions. It is for this reason that a significant proportion of science funding is now routinely being made available to ethicists, philosophers and theologians--in order to tackle the ever more pressing moral and ethical questions raised by scientific advances. Without serious public understanding, discussion and debate there is a real danger that science will continue to appear threatening and dehumanizing to many people.
In this context it is a matter for regret that science is often associated in popular culture--and even within some segments of the scientific community--with hostility to religious faith. In the rosy optimistic glow which marked the end of the 19th century many thought that, as science and education spread, religious belief would decline automatically. Now, more than a century later, we know that this expectation was mistaken. For good or ill, religious belief continues to exert a dominant influence over the great majority of the world's population: 87 percent of the population at the start of the 21st century consider themselves to be 'part of a religion'.1 While in some technologically advanced areas of the world, such as Europe, the late 20th century saw a decline in commitment to institutional religion, in the USA, by any criteria the nation which currently leads the world in science, the reverse happened and religion boomed. All the evidence suggest that both science and religion are with us for a very long time to come. Yet, rather than drawing on the resources of religion to affirm human values, a small but vocal group of scientists has insisted on using science as a weapon for attacking religious belief. At the same time, and at the opposite extreme, creationists have carried out a vigorous campaign to ban the teaching of evolution in American schools. The result has been an unnecessary polarization between science and religion in which more moderate voices have often been drowned out by the media attention given to extremist positions.

This book is an attempt to address this issue from the perspective of a working scientist who is tired of the rhetoric of the extremists and who wishes to present the views of that silent majority of scientists who, though the pressures of their professional lives rarely allow them time to contribute to the debate, would nevertheless dissociate themselves from such extremes.
I have tried to write a multidisciplinary overview of the subject covering a wide range of topics, although my own bent towards the biological sciences will be apparent. There seem to be many specialized works on the market, focusing on particular aspects of the debate, but not so many books that can introduce the general reader to a broad overview. I am very aware of the kind of analogy which Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) wrote in his introduction to What Is Life in 1944: 'A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge, at first hand, of some subjects, and therefore is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master.'2 Drawing on so many different disciplines is a dangerous business for the non-specialist and I apologize in advance to those whose specialized fields have been distilled down to alarmingly condensed summaries. This book utilizes the resources of sociologists, historians of science, philosophers, scientists and theologians, and it is therefore inevitable that the broad brush will distort the picture on occasion. Nevertheless, sufficient references are provided, I hope, for those who wish to follow up individual topics in greater detail and obtain a more nuanced view. In order not to overburden the text with citations I have, in some chapters, bunched them into groups of references on which I have been dependent for a particular section.

I have largely allowed those hostile to religious belief to set the agenda, and the book assumes no particular religious commitment on the part of its reader nor, for that matter, any specialist scientific background. The greatest space has been given to topics such as evolution and evolutionary psychology (sociobiology), which are often perceived as inimical to faith. I myself write from a Christian perspective because Christianity is the religion I know most about, and it is also the one which has been most involved in the emergence of modern science since the 17th century. I have made no attempt to incorporate the beliefs of other world religions into the discussion; if I had the book would have increased in length several-fold. However, I spent fifteen years of my career lecturing and carrying out scientific research (latterly in human genetics) in the Middle East and am therefore well aware of the substantial contributions made to the history of science by Islamic scholars. In fact the first drafts of the earlier chapters were written in West Beirut, the rigours of the Lebanese civil war ensuring that many evenings were spent at home, allowing time for writing. I have left some allusions to this violent environment in the text because of their usefulness as illustrations. They remain as vestiges of past evolutionary stages of earlier sections of the book.
Most chapters can, I hope, be read as stand-alone essays so that topics can be browsed according to inclination. Nevertheless, there is a unifying thread of argument through the book as a whole, which is best summarized by giving some idea of the questions addressed by each chapter.

Chapter 1 sets the scene by asking how we come to adopt the overarching paradigms within which we carry out our thinking about science, faith and the relationship between them.

Chapter 2 provides a vivid example from the 19th century--when racism was integrated into the scientific worldview--of how science can be misused for ideological purposes.

Chapter 3 then goes on to address the question as to whether science has had a secularizing effect on society and considers the popular view that there is a 'conflict' between science and religion.

The following four chapters proceed to delve into history to determine where the idea of conflict between science and religion may have come from.

Chapter 4 tracks the emergence of modern science out of Greek natural philosophy, with a particular focus on the way in which a Judeo-Christian worldview promoted the arrival of an empirical and utilitarian stance towards the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

Chapter 5 discusses some of the early tensions which occurred between religion and science, using the examples of Galileo and the church, the supposed hostility of Protestants to Copernicus, the role of the Bible, and the emphasis by the early modern scientists on generating mechanical explanations for things.

Chapter 6 recounts the way in which the success of science led to its increasing use in support of conflicting ideologies after 1700, the French Philosophes, the English Nonconformists and the early geological controversies providing some highly contrasting examples.

Chapter 7 looks at the life of Darwin, the introduction of his theory of evolution and the very mixed reactions that this stimulated. It then examines how the idea of conflict between science and religion, in Britain at least, was not due to this ground-breaking theory, as is often thought, but was a by-product of the professionalization of science that occurred during the latter part of the 19th century.

Having surveyed some sociological and historical factors that have influences science-faith interactions over the centuries, the remainder of the book turns to the contemporary scene and asks what kind of relationship between these two domains of human interest and experience is appropriate for the 21st century. This takes us immediately to the heart of the matter: the nature of scientific and religious knowledge and the ways in which they interrelate, a subject which occupies chapter 8.
The topic of chapter 9, creation and evolution, provides an opportunity to illustrate some important distinctions between the types of questions addressed by science and those addressed by religion. The argument of this chapter will provide no comfort to creationists nor to those who view evolutionary theory as a tool to promote particular ideologies.

Chapter 10 picks up some of these themes in greater detail, considering some of the reasons why evolution has been supposed to have religious significance. Topics such as the role of chance, the origin of life and the concept of 'nature red in tooth and claw' are all given an airing--but the chapter concludes that the biological theory of evolution is essentially devoid of any religious significance.

A further evolutionary theme is critically assessed in chapter 11: the idea that morality can be extracted from biology by arguments based on evolutionary psychology (sociobiology).

Chapter 12 focuses on the extent to which knowledge about God can be inferred from the material structure of the universe, considering some of the pros and cons of the 'anthropic principle,' particularly as it relates to physics and cosmology, and the question of multiple universes.

That old bugbear of the science-faith debate--miracles--is given a fresh examination in chapter 13, and David Hume's famous arguments against miracles are worked through in the light of more recent understandings of the nature of scientific knowledge.

Finally chapter 14 spells out in detail why 'rebuilding the matrix'--restoring the theistic paradigm that gave birth to modern science--has more chance of generating a truly humanizing science than other paradigms.
Some definitions may be useful. 'Science' is a notoriously difficult word to define. It derives from the Latin scientia, meaning 'knowledge,' and entered the English language in the Middle Ages. At that time it was synonymous with 'knowledge'. However, it soon came to refer to an accurate and systematized body of knowledge. I use the word in this book to refer specifically to modern science, that powerful mixture of theorizing, observation and testing by experiment that came to be known as the 'empirical method'. This emerged in Europe from the 17th century onward, eventually giving rise in the 19th to a professional class known as 'scientists'. The word 'science' in this modern sense only came into common usage during the 19th century, and even then was synonymous for many years with the term 'natural philosophy,' a 'natural philosopher' being a person of science. In its contemporary sense we can define science as 'an intellectual endeavour to explain the workings of the physical world, informed by empirical investigation and carried out by a community trained in specialized techniques'. In general I have tried to use the term 'natural philosophy' for science before the 19th century and the term 'science' thereafter.

The term 'scientist' is more recent and was invented by a Victorian vicar called William Whewell. He lived in the earlier part of the 19th century before specialization became the vogue, and was seemingly good at nearly everything. Apart from publishing numerous papers on topics ranging from maths, geology and theology to education, philosophy and the movement of the tides, he also wrote and translated poetry and Plato. Besides this, Whewell was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and successively held chairs there in both mineralogy and moral philosophy, as well as inventing numerous scientific words that have become part of our language, like 'physicist,' 'anode,' 'cathode' and so on. Whewell introduced the word 'scientist' in the Quarterly Review for March 1834, almost as a joke, but later as a more serious suggestion.3 Though the word found an immediate home in America, it took about sixty years for the term to become well accepted in Britain. Many 'scientists' were happier to be called 'natural philosophers' or 'naturalists,' partly because they remained under the mistaken impression that it was one of those new and vulgar expressions recently imported from America.

I have already used the words 'religion' and 'faith' without definition. I take the word 'religion' to refer to organized systems of belief in God as practised by communities and not just by individuals. However, the purpose of this book is to range more widely than organized systems of belief, and so I have tended to use the word 'faith' where appropriate, particularly to incorporate personal systems of belief.

  1. Gallup International Association Report, 2000. (return to the text)

  2. E. Schrödinger, What Is Life?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944. (return to the text)

  3. S. Ross, "Scientist: The Story of a Word," Annals of Science 18, 1962, pp. 65-85. (return to the text)