Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Do You Have Any Idea How Complicated Your Circulatory System Is?

I heard Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, on NPR last week discuss his new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief and found his message perplexing. It appears Dr. Collins is part of an intellectual crusade from a stealth subset of the scientific community whose members believe in God and seek to reconcile their faith with the apparently bible-refuting evidence of modern science. No short order. But I’ve seen a lot of these guys popping up lately, with their calm demeanor, gently explaining to us that it’s no big trick to believe in both science and religion, and I’d kindly like to know just what the hell they are smoking.

There are a few standard tacks that these guys make. One is to say that science and religion are two ways of looking at the same thing- two completely contradicting perspectives that no sane person could hold simultaneously. That one always goes down a little rough for me. Forgetting the mental gymnastics that jumping between these perspectives would require, I’m curious to know: two perspectives of what? The point is to determine what there is in the world. If science and religion are mere perspectives on what there is, then what good are they? We’ll still need something else to tell us what there is to have a perspective on.

Another popular tack is to claim that science and religion operate in different realms, answer different questions, suit different purposes, and address different needs. I think the idea here is that you go to work everyday and play with empirics, but at the end of the day you go home and read the bible, and one thing has nothing to do with the other. I imagine that is actually how it is for most of these guys. But when you have to vote on whether to teach evolution in the school, which realm do you listen to? Modern science, or the Bible? I think the convenient separation of religion and science is a powerful bit of wishful thinking.

The last tack that these guys usually make is to say there is nothing contradictory about science and religion: science is the tool with which God carries out his plan. This is the most interesting position, for my thinking. This position would have it that science and religion separate along the micro/macro division. That is, religion explains the big stuff, and science just mops up the details. So really, science and religion are continuous. The ancients would have been very surprised to learn that God was a modern Physicist.

So science and religion are separated by one of perspective, pursuit, or domain, but in any case, they share an underlying unity that permits a dual allegiance in these trying times. Is anybody buying this?

I have an alternative theory for Dr. Collins. Actually it’s not my theory, but I think it helps explain why these attempts to reconcile science and religion sound so strained. Heidegger says in his essay “the Age of the World Pictures” that there is a separation between science and religion, but it has nothing to do with perspective, pursuit, domain, or anything like that. Heidegger considers the break between science and religion to be much deeper than any of the superficial rifts that science or religion admits today. Heidegger claims that what differentiates modern thinking from religious thinking is a tacit commitment to the nature of Being- a commitment so fundamental to one’s thinking that to hold conflicting commitments in this regard would be self-annihilating. In his own (translated) words, Heidegger says “the fact that whatever is comes into being in and through representedness transforms the age in which this occurs into a new age in contrast with the preceding one…the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age. For the middle Ages, in contrast, that which is, is the ens creatum, that which is created by the personal Creator-God as the highest cause” (Heidegger, Age of the world Pictures, The Question Concerning Technology, p. 130).

What that means in plain speech is that the essence of what is (as in “is in the world”) for the modern age is that which is available to be represented by us; as opposed to the preceding epoch, the Middle Ages, during which the essence of what is was defined as what God created. Does the reader see how much deeper a distinction that is than the ones proposed by Dr. Collins and the religious scientists? For Dr. Collins, while there are distinctions between science and religion, the distinctions are supported by deep underlying continuities which enable a dual allegiance. For Heidegger, the distinction goes right down to our bedrock beliefs about what there is in the world. Once you register a distinction at that level, there can be no reconciliation. That is why these attempts to reconcile science and religion sound so strained: they are attempting to unify beliefs about Being- beliefs that are exclusive and irreconcilable.

What does this mean? Does it mean that you can not be both scientific and religious? Not at all. You can certainly be religious and a scientist. I would not wish to take anything away from the valuable work that Dr. Collins has done to map the human genome or impugn his faith. I’m sure it is quite strong. But I think it is preposterous to say, as Dr. Collins does, that the more precise our science gets, the closer to God we come. And if Heidegger is right, if the distinction between science and religion is rooted in a distinction regarding Being, then we know why Dr. Collins’ position is preposterous as well.


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