Sunday, June 18, 2006

Religion Asked Science to Back Off

This is heavy:
HONG KONG -- Famed physicist Stephen Hawking said Thursday that Pope John Paul II tried to discourage him and other scientists attending a cosmology conference at the Vatican from trying to figure out how the universe began.

The British scientist joked that he was lucky the pope didn't realize he had already presented a paper at the gathering suggesting how the universe was created.

"I didn't fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo," Hawking said in a lecture to a sold-out audience at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. John Paul died in 2005; Hawking did not say when the Vatican meeting occurred.

Galileo ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century for backing Copernicus' discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun. The church insisted the Earth was at the center of the universe.
Hawking, author of the best-seller "A Brief History of Time," said the pope told the scientists, "It's OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God." Hawking: John Paul said not to study start of universe

It is sometimes said that science is the rejection of authority. For instance, Galileo's great experiment, dropping objects off the Tower of Pisa, was a profound act of rebellion; he was effectively telling the Church that he didn't believe what they said, that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, and he forced the issue by doing the experiment so people would have to choose between official doctrine and the evidence before their eyes. The defiance of authority is not a sad side-effect of science, it's what science is about.

Personally, if somebody can figure how the universe began -- not a how-the-leopard-got-its-spots story, but a scientific explanation based on observation and theory -- I can't imagine not encouraging them to go ahead with it. We already know the myth of creation, now let's hear the facts.

It seems impossible to me that faith requires ignorance. Certainly it must be possible to have religious faith and to accept a secular explanation for the origin of the universe. It's not just possible, but necessary. Because one day science is going to know how the universe started, and trust me there won't be any seven days in the theory. Yet here's the head of one of the most important religions in the world, essentially requesting the perpetuation of ignorance. We don't want to know how the universe began, the Pope was saying, we want to believe what we already believe.

Philosophers define knowledge as a kind of belief: "justified true belief." Religious beliefs are not considered knowledge because there is no way to justify them or verify if they are true or not. Knowledge has a practical advantage over religious beliefs: the guy who has knowledge is able to do things that the guy with unjustified, untrue beliefs can't do. Modern technology, for example, only exists because knowledge was acquired regarding the behavior of electrons and semiconductors and mathematical operators and algorithms. Modern medicine works by exploiting knowledge of how the body functions. I'm not criticizing religion or complaining about it, I'm just saying that empirical knowledge is more practical than religious belief, when it comes to doing things. It might not comfort you in your times of pain, but it does enable rational choices and innovations.

What will it take for mankind to devise a belief system that tolerates knowledge and at the same time nourishes the spirit? This seems to me to be a desperate need of our times.
John Paul insisted faith and science could coexist. In 1996, in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he said Charles Darwin's theories were sound as long as they took into account that creation was the work of God and that Darwin's theory of evolution was "more than a hypothesis."

But Hawking, 64, questioned whether an almighty power was needed to create the universe.

"Does it require a creator to decree how the universe began? Or is the initial state of the universe determined by a law of science?" he asked.

These aren't trivial questions. There is an apparent need for people to feel that the universe has intent and empathy, that destiny is a course loaded with meaning, that an unseen intelligence dishes out consequences based on moral choices. Science can't comment on these questions, because there is no empirical test for them -- the domain of science is limited to those aspects of the world that can be observed. But the domain of religion includes things observed and unobserved. And it's in the overlap that we have conflict.

I would hope that today's religious leaders, rather than trying to stop the advance of knowledge, are giving serious thought to the problem of maintaining faith in a universe that runs on the basis of nonmysterious principles.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Stephen Hawking said Thursday that Pope John Paul II tried to discourage him and other scientists attending a cosmology conference at the Vatican from trying to figure out how the universe began."

"Stephen Hawking said..."

"Stephen Hawking said..."

"John Paul died in 2005"

June 19, 2006 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Irritable AEIOU said...

Anonymous, are you saying something, or just repeated what you hear?

June 19, 2006 12:33 PM  
Anonymous Is there a Doctor in the House? said...

Anon is echoing all over this blog today.

Must be time for a med check.

June 19, 2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Yeah, doc, I noticed that on other threads, too. It's sad, but I don't know if this is a badly programmed bot or an attempt at cleverness by one of our conservative anonymice.


June 19, 2006 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You notice Hawking didn't make this accusation when JP II was alive to defend himself. Oh well, that's not going to stop TTF from jumping aboard the "Tell The Falsehood" bandwagon.

Fifty Thrice

June 19, 2006 4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what do you think, 505050...did big bully Hawking wait 14 months after JP2 passed to be sure he wouldn't resurrect?

June 20, 2006 6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nah, it just took him 14 months to think it up. His mind is somewhat of a black hole.

Nifty Ice

June 20, 2006 7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meds needed for the anonymices.


June 20, 2006 10:03 PM  

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