Gravity and Grace

This morning I came across the following quotation, which is translated from the book Le Pesanteur et la Grace (i.e. “Gravity and Grace“), written in 1947 by French philosopher Simone Weil:

Science today must search for a source of inspiration higher than itself or it must perish.

Science offers only three points of interest: 1. technical applications; 2. as a game of chess; 3. as a way to God.

I’m not sure I agree with what is written, and in any case the options don’t seem to me to be mutually exclusive, but a number of things did strike me reading it.

For a start, and for what it’s worth, I do think science has value within itself, so I’m at odds a bit with the initial premise. On the other hand, science is a human activity and it therefore doesn’t stand apart from other thing humans are interested in.

Then there is the extent to which we now all have to pretend that pretty much the only point of interest in science is “1. technical applications”. I don’t believe that’s true, actually, and I’m worried that by continually saying that it is, scientists might be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

And then there’s “the game of chess”. I’m actually hopeless at chess, but I understand this as representing some form of abstract mental challenge.  If that’s what it does mean, then I’d agree that’s probably what got me interested in science. I’ve always been pathologically interested in puzzles. When I look at galaxies and stars, I don’t tend to gaze at them in awe at their enormity or beauty, I just tend to wonder how they work and what they’re made of. I don’t really mind people having a sense of awe, of course, but there’s a danger that if we take that too far we end up being over-awed which might make us shy away from the biggest questions. To me the Universe is just a great big puzzle, though it’s actually rather a tough one. I’m still stuck on 1 across, in fact…

Finally, we have science as “a way to God”. I find it quite interesting that a Christian philosopher could present science as that, especially when so many of my atheistic colleagues regard science and religion as polar opposites. It seems likely to me that anyone who studies science primarily as a means of finding God is probably in for a disappointment. I’m reminded of a quote  from Thomas à Kempis I learned at school:

The humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than the deepest search after science.

But that’s not to say that science and religion are incompatible with each other. I think they’re basically orthogonal, although in an abstract space with an extremely complicated geometry…

One of the interesting things about working in cosmology is that the big questions are very big indeed, which may be the reason why cosmologists tend to have strong views on matters of religion (and metaphysics in a general sense).  Just take the Templeton Prize, for example. The arguments about this year’s award to Lord (Martin) Rees are still simmering on, but it’s worth remembering that many recent winners of this prize, including John Barrow (my PhD supervisor, in fact) and  George Ellis (former collaborator of mine), are most noted for their work in cosmology. Both are religious: John Barrow is a member of the United Reformed Church, and George Ellis is a Quaker. Martin Rees is an atheist. But their religious views are not in conflict with their research. All are outstanding scientists.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the Easter holiday about religion and science. It’s partly the Templeton prize saga, partly the occasion of Easter itself, and partly the fact that I’ve been reading even more of the poems of R.S. Thomas. In case you didn’t know I was brought up in the (Anglican) Christian tradition, attended Sunday School, sang in the local Church Choir, and was confirmed in the Church of England. When I went to seconday school – the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle – I joined the Christian Union and remained in it for 3-4 years.

Although  I was immersed in Christianity – the Christian Union was vigorously Evangelical – it didn’t really stick and eventually all melted away.   I don’t really remember precisely what it was then that made me turn away from religion, although the sins of the flesh might have had something to do with it…

However, although I became an atheist I’ve never been a particularly devout one. The only thing that I’m really sure about is that I don’t know the answers. Does that make me an agnostic rather than an atheist? I don’t know. Perhaps I could just describe myself as a non-believer? That wouldn’t do either, because we all have to believe in some things in order to function at all. Even science starts with unprovable axioms.

A career in cosmology has given me the opportunity to think about many Big Questions. Why does the Universe have laws? Why is there something rather than nothing? And so on. I’m not much of a philosopher, though, and  I don’t have the answers. I do, however, refuse to take the easy way out by denying that the questions have meaning. Of course it’s not entirely satisfactory having to answer “I don’t know”, but I don’t agree with those of my atheist colleagues who think religion is an easy way out. I’m sure that a thinking Christian has just as many difficult issues to grapple with as a thinking atheist. Not thinking at all is the only really easy way out.

A few years ago I spoke at an interesting meeting in Cambridge entitled God or Multiverse? In fact there’s a picture below of the panel discussion at the end -I’m second from the right:

I thought it was an interesting dialogue, but I have to say that, if anything, it strengthened my non-belief. Prof. Keith Ward argued that the primary motivation for belief in God was the existence of “Good”. I have to admit that I find the Universe as a whole amoral and although humans have done good from time to time they have done evil in at least equal measure. The vast majority of people on this Earth live in poverty, many of them in abject misery. Good is a bad word to describe this state of affairs.

I just can’t accept the idea of a God that is interested in the Universe at the level of human beings. We’re so insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, that it seems very arrogant to me to suppose that it’s really got much to do with us. We appeared somehow, miraculously perhaps, but could disappear just as easily. I doubt the Universe would miss us much.

But I might be wrong.

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11 Responses to “Gravity and Grace”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with Simone Veil that “Science today must search for a source of inspiration higher than itself or it must perish.” I think it not a coincidence that science emerged in a culture that believed there were patterns in nature (put there by a Creator) and than man might hope to understand them (since man is in the image of that Creator). Buddhist cultures, in contrast, are monist and regard all differentiation as illusion; and although Buddhism has produced great storytellers and fine art like the West, it has not produced anything pointing toward science. Furthermore I think that the ‘science wars’ are not a passing phase; postmodernists who genuinely believe that there is no such thing as objective truth are increasingly packing our Arts faculties, and I foresee bloody battles between them and scientists for academic power within our universities.

    “Science as a way to God” begs the question: Which god? I think that there are good arguments, in the beauty of physical law and the fine-tuning of the physical constants to permit the evolution of intelligent life, for an Intelligent Designer. Although that is a huge step, it stops short of many things in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the qur’an, the three (distinct) books that speak of an intelligent creator.

    I suspect that Keith Ward was arguing for a God from *human awareness* of the notion of good. Without that awareness, you would not regard it as wrong that most people live in poverty to the point of abject misery, as you rightly state. This argument is a fairly standard philosophical one and is set out clearly in layman’s terms as part of CS Lewis’ short book “Mere Christianity”.

    While Christians obviously say Yes or No to certain religious propositions, the basis of their faith is that it’s not what you know, it’s Who you know…

    Only you (Peter) can shed further light on why you gave up churchgoing (although churchgoing is not synonymous with Christianity). You mention in this connection the sins of the flesh. You have made your gay orientation clear on this blog and I’m sure you know what the Bible has to say; but let me add this: I have seen Ian McKellen wearing a T-shirt saying “Some people are born gay – get over it” and if it were that simple then I would certainly regard God as being unfair in the Bible. I also fully accept that some people have genuine gay sexual preferences, and I do not regard God as either unfair or uncompassionate. I do not wish to press on you a conversation that you may not wish to have, but if you want to see how I reconcile all of those then drop me an email.

    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    It’s all so long ago that I don’t really remember what was going through my mind when I was 15 years old, but I doubt if it was primarily thoughts about sexuality that made me back away from Christianity, it was a more fundamental inability to believe in things I couldn’t really understand.

    I’m not sure that people are born gay, either, although there is some (weak) evidence that gay people share some inherited characteristics. I can’t speak for anyone but myself in this regard, of course, but for me it’s primarily a lifestyle choice, in that the opposite sex has definitely has its attractions. Some gay men find women entirely undesirable from a sexual point of view, but that’s never been true of me.

    I was taught in no uncertain terms that the Bible does not approve of homosexuality, but since I’m not a Christian that doesn’t really concern me, unless and until someone like Fred Phelps comes along stirring up hate…

    Peter

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “I was taught in no uncertain terms that the Bible does not approve of homosexuality, but since I’m not a Christian that doesn’t really concern me”

      Fair enough.

      If I ran a congregation on behalf of Christ, Fred Phelps would not be welcome in it without some very specific (and public) words of repentance.

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton

      I made a comment a few posts ago about people using the pretence of religion to further their own agenda, and Fred Phelps was in my mind at that time. I’m glad to hear what you say.

      I should add to my earlier comment that I have known quite a few gay priests (although none of them in the biblical sense) and had interesting discussions with them about how they reconciled their sexuality with biblical teaching.

      Many years ago back in Brighton days, a friend of mine passed away and a gay priest conducted a service for him, and we spent ages discussing appropriate texts for the sermon. In the end, if I recall, it was John 14:2.

      So it’s not that I don’t find such questions interesting, just that for myself they’re really of academic interest..

      Peter

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I have no problem with gay non-Christians and I’m glad to number them among my friends. I hope that they will come to Christ but as a Christian I (of course) hope that of everybody, and I have no agenda to ‘ambush’ friends with a Conversion spiel.

      I’ve read an online debate between two gay Christians. One said that homosexual acts were OK; the other said that he believed God had said they weren’t OK, and that although he didn’t fully understand, he trusted God and was doing his best to refrain. I think the latter man deserves the fullest support from the church, and the pastor of the former man should point him to the Bible and tell him that he faces a choice, essentially of attitudes (since attitudes determine actions but not vice-versa).

      Fred Phelps needs to remember that *all* men, himself included, are sinners according to the Bible, in various ways – God does not categorise people as good or bad but as forgiven and unforgiven. To get fixated on just one of the ways in which the Bible says that men do wrong leads to horrible scapegoating. I’ve said this before, but the bad feeling that can arise between the gay community and the Christian community is a consequence of living in a democracy, where each side wishes to influence the law in opposite directions over such matters as a conscience clause for Christian adoption agencies re gay couples. If we lived in a dictatorship where neither community ccould influence the law then the two would probably get on better. Not that I want a dictatorship.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t see anything wrong with public debate about such matters even if – or perhaps especially if – people are uncomfortable talking about them. Problems arise when one side loses respect for the other and the argument degenerates into abuse, or even violence.

      But the difficulty of accommodating diverse points of view into a legal framework seems to me to be a good reason for reducing the scope of the law and leaving much more for private citizens, their families, friends and workmates to sort out for themselves. Running to the law every time somebody says or does something you don’t agree with is not the answer and if the default position of the law is that it’s a matter of private conscience then we won’t get so people trying to create legislation to force others to do things their way.

  3. I am not sure I could agree here with your atheistic colleagues that science and religion are polar opposites, although I must agree that studying science as a means of finding God is fundamentally flawed. Surely, the idea of finding God, of faith at the most basic level, is that it comes from within? People believe in God because their heart/mind tells them He exists, they don’t know God exists because there is a formula to prove it!

    In a similar way to you I was brought up attending Sunday School and various other Christian clubs, more because my friends were than because of any particular beliefs of my own. However, as I gradually became more and more interested in physics, I found it difficult to reconcile teachings of the Bible with those of my school lessons. Unlike you though, instead of gradually melting away from Church, I actually found myself drawn to it. Speaking to fellow students at university I have noticed that there are some who are almost antitheistic in their opinions, stating that any belief in a God is stupid and unfounded, but these people, I have found, are the ones who are least well versed in the teachings of the Bible; They read a book, such as The God Delusion, and believe that they are therefore experts on religion.

    The idea that scientists are faith-wreckers, however, is antiquated. In fact, as you said, many prominent physicists are also deeply spiritual/religious people. The fact that the Church tried hard to cover up new developments in physics led many to believe that science was against religion and vice versa, and there are many who still think this. In fact, a couple of years back when speaking to a devoutly Christian uncle about my upcoming exams, I was told that it was all well and good getting a degree in physics, but I had to understand that it was all just fiction. Here I can completely understand why a scientist would think religious people to be backwards in their thinking and close-minded!

    And yet this is not the case for all Christians! The pastor of my church, although very much an evangelical minister, is also a scientist – he has a BSc and PhD, and is far more well versed than I am in quantum mechanics and string theory! He brings science into most of his sermons on a Sunday, and will happily debate ‘God & Science’ claiming that it is not a case of one or the other.

    For those who say religion is the easy way out, I beg to differ. I know many Christians, and they do not have it easy because they believe in God! In fact, many would say they struggle more. If you are constantly striving for perfection (as any believing Christian should, according to the Bible) then how can you possibly have it easy?! If a non-believer does or says something bad, they have no one to answer to (unless of course it’s illegal). A believer, on the other hand, has an angry God to answer to each day – it’s like having your parents constantly disappointed in you (demoralising and upsetting)! Also, whilst a ‘belief in science’ is not openly mocked and ridiculed, a belief in God often is, and so why would you believe in something when it is surely far easier to go with the masses and only believe in what has been “proven” scientifically.

    In response to your last point, about evil in the world, here is something that I am always unsure of. Whilst I agree there is obviously bad in the world, and oftentimes this stems from religious unrest, I think there is more an overriding goodness… After the recent earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan, I was speaking to some friends living in Tokyo who told me that in the days following they, and many of their other friends in Japan, were bombarded with emails from old friends, neighbours, and sometimes complete strangers, who offered money for flights and shelter outside of Japan. These people were not thinking of themselves, but just wanted to help those who were struggling. There is a similar response to most disasters around the world – people want to help those less fortunate in some way or another. People are not inherently evil, but good. I mean, if a car crashed next to you and someone was stuck in the car and needed your help, you wouldn’t drive past, you would stop and help – is this not an example of the good in people? Admittedly, I don’t know that this is a way of proving the existence of a God, but more a way of showing that, in many ways, good does triumph bad.

    It is amazing the power that God has to offend – if there is no such thing, why do people feel the need to always bring it up? This debate has been ongoing for years, and I’m sure will carry on for years to come! I think though, that there should be more place for this in a university setting. I wish that I had been offered the chance to do a module on ‘God and Science’ in my degree, and to hear my lecturers opinions on this, as experts in the physical sciences – maybe I should have studied philosophy as opposed to physics?! Thanks for posting this though, it has made me think more about my own questions of my beliefs!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Carys,

      Expecting to find god ‘within rather than without’ is culturally laden. The pagans of the ancient world saw their gods in external forces of nature that were obviously greater than they were – earthquakes, tsunamis, thunderstorms, volcanos etc.

      I agreee wholeheartedly with your 3rd paragraph. A 1997 survey published in Nature (3rd April, p435; vol. 386) found that almost 40% of scientists believed in a personal God, and that the proportion was almost unchanged from a 1916 survey which asked scientists the same question. Such a belief has clearly declined in the general population during the same interval. Scientists see something in nature that maintains this belief (although I have to say that I suspect string theory is science fiction).

      I also agree with you that repentance is hard work, although I would like to add that God, although thoroughly sick of human sin messing up his creation, does love those who commit to Him and gives them help to obey His moral laws; and that it is worth it in this life as well as the next.

      Science and religion orthogonal? In some places they agree, as I have suggested above; in some they are indeed complementary; and in a few they disagree, eg miracles.

      Anton

  4. Adrian Burd Says:

    As with all surveys, even those published in the scientific tabloids, the devil is in the details. This is particularly true when trying to draw inferences between surveys performed 80 years apart from each other.

    http://ncse.com/rncse/18/2/do-scientists-really-reject-god

  5. Who wrote the Gravity and Grace article? I skimmed it without finding the name of its author. Is it Peter…..?

    John Morris (Revd Dr) 11.9.11

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