Future Visions

Future Visions

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Metaviews 074. 2000.08.28. Approximately 2667 words.

The next installment in the Future Visions thread is from KittyFerguson, a popular science writer, who also takes a distinctlypopulist approach in her essay below.

Kitty Ferguson holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from theJuilliard School and for many years was a professional musician,conducting and performing oratorio, early music and chamber music.In 1986, Ferguson moved to England, where her husband was a VisitingFellow at Cambridge University. During periods of residence there,Ferguson audited graduate lectures in the Dept. of Applied Maths andTheoretical Physics. In 1987, she retired from music to write aboutscience. Her books are Black Holes in Spacetime; Stephen Hawking:Quest for a Theory of Everything — a Sunday Times bestseller(Bantam); The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and theSearch for God (Eerdmans), Prisons of Light: Black Holes(Cambridge University Press), and Measuring the Universe (Walker).Kitty Ferguson has appeared on the BBC Late Show and the News Hourwith Jim Lehrer. She was the 1994 Hines Lecturer on Science andReligion; featured speaker at the 1997 Nobel Peace Conference inSioux Falls; and has lectured at Chautauqua. Last January, she, herhusband and daughter traveled to India to initiate a Companionshipbetween St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ, and Dalit(Untouchable) village churches of the Kothapallimitta Pastorate.Kitty Ferguson currently chairs the steering committee for thatCompanionship.

Ferguson writes below We needn’t pretend that most of the people whoassume that science and religious belief are irreconcilable arehungering and thirsting to know whether they are right… The truthis that many of them couldn’t care less. Kitty Ferguson, however,cares a lot. Find out why.

— Billy Grassie

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From: Kitty Ferguson <yhferguson@worldnet.att.net>Subject: Engaging the Scientific and Spiritual Imagination.

My approach to the theme of harnessing the scientific and spiritualimagination to create a life-enhancing future for our world may besomewhat different from most that we will encounter among the visionstatements of the participants in Future Visions: Engaging theScientific and Spiritual Imagination. My work in the area ofscience and religion has been and continues to be on the grass rootslevel, in books and lectures for the non-expert public.

It is my conviction that if we can’t reshape attitudes on this level,it will be difficult to realize any significant vision in which thescientific and the religious communities work meaningfully andproductively hand in hand. It is at this level that we find most ofthe voters, most of the law-makers, most of the corporate executives,most parish clergy and church-goers, and most of the young people whoare the scientists and leaders of tomorrow. I am all for yokingscience and religion in a common cause for the future betterment ofall, but I believe there are far too few of us who think such anenterprise is possible. The visions of experts in science, theologyand other areas of academe, no matter how far-sighted andimaginative, may be left in the dust unless there is a change in thethinking of many educated and not-so-educated people whose dailybusiness is neither science nor religion. Far too many of thesepeople currently assume, without ever having looked into the matterfor themselves, that science and traditional religion areirreconcilable. That is what they hear in the media, in classrooms,even from pulpits — and they have accepted it.

One of the most depressing statements I’ve heard came from a teenagervisiting the Greenwich Observatory. I don’t recall how the questionarose, but when asked whether he believed in God, he answered, Oh,we can’t believe all that any more, not with our modern science. Asa religious person, I found his reply terribly sad, because itreflected such a failure on the part of those of us who believe inGod to convey in a meaningful way what the all that is that weactually do believe. As someone who loves science, I found his replyequally appalling, because it betrayed such an abysmally pedestrianview of science. But I couldn’t blame that teenager or think he wasan exception. What he had voiced was pretty much the naive modernmind-set toward science and religion. To think differently, you haveto know a lot less, or a lot more.

We needn’t pretend that most of the people who assume that scienceand religious belief are irreconcilable are hungering and thirstingto know whether they are right. If they were eager to explore thematter, there are plenty of books and articles, including my own,that they could read. The truth is that many of them couldn’t careless. And yet their apathy obviously does have a tremendous impactnot only on their chances of ever having a meaningful personalspiritual life but also on the potential reach of the religiousmessage in the wider world and — more to the point for purposes ofthis conference — on the future of efforts to link science andreligion in worthwhile projects. So we have a double problem. Notonly must we convince this audience that there is no inherentincompatibility here, but we also have to convince them that itmatters whether they know this.

This vision statement is my fledgling attempt to come up with somefresh approaches to those problems:

First, I believe we need a better public understanding of science —
not of what it has discovered but of the process of discovery itself.Our educational systems and media too often encourage an insultinglyunsophisticated view. When you ask me to dream, I dream ofclassrooms where science is taught as far more than a dry list ofthings that can and can’t happen in the universe . . . where it liftseyes and minds to a richer, less stultified view of reality . . .where naive scientific fideism is discouraged . . . where teacherscelebrate and students experience the open-ended intellectualadventure of science, an adventure that puts shockingly few limits onthe possible. My dream goes beyond the classroom to include books,magazine articles, television programs, and museum exhibits thatfocus on the process by which our knowledge evolves and grows deeperand at the same time uncovers more and more mystery. Such anunderstanding nurtures tremendous faith in the scientific process asa way of increasing our understanding of the universe, allows us torejoice in what science has discovered, without at the same timeleading anyone to think it has boxed us in and ruled out belief inGod.

On this front, there have been some hopeful signs: I hear that JerryOstriker tells his Princeton physics students that if you decide thatany tenet of current scientific dogma is wrong, you have a goodchance of being right. I’ve read recently in a draft of a book forchildren the suggestion that the reader might grow up to be thescientist who overturns the current theories about the birth of thesolar system. When my daughter’s high school physics teacherintroduced Copernican astronomy he spent some time showing the classwhy Ptolemy wasn’t wrong. The opening words of the new Big Bangdemonstration at the Hayden Planetarium are : Scientists have apowerful theory describing how the universe began. Blessedlyabsent, in all these examples, is the old, tired we now knowrhetoric that has kept scientific imagination among young people andnon-expert adults on a choke collar for so many years and led them tothink that the scientific oracle had spoken once and for all.

Let me hasten to say that my reason for wanting to emphasize theopen-endedness of science is not that I think current science rulesout religious belief and the only hope is that current science iswrong. That would only be to replace the God of the Gaps with theGod of the Mistakes. An understanding that science is a shiftingbody of knowledge is not sufficient. What is more important is anunderstanding of HOW it shifts — for instance, though theories dosometimes turn out to be wrong, a well-established theory is morelikely to be supplanted when a new theory can explain phenomena in asimpler way, or when the old theory turns out to be incapable ofexplaining things on a deeper, richer level than the level it wasinvented to explain. An understanding of this process, thisdeepening of the theory, is the beginning of an understanding ofwhy science cannot rule out the existence of a creator God.

We’ve all heard the argument that we must instill in students and inthe scientifically unenlightened an unquestioning faith in scienceand the word of teachers and great scientists, and that we must avoidsubtle caveats, because there is already too much public distrust ofscience. I am well aware of the fear that pervades the sciencecommunity that if we don’t circle our wagons in the face of thosewhom we consider the enemies of science, if we don’t deny anymeaningful disagreement among ourselves in the face of attacks fromthe religious right, if we don’t suppress public announcements thatreveal such embarrassments as the universe appearing to be youngerthan the oldest stars, if we don’t paint it all pretty much inprimary colors and insist on that picture — then thescience-detracters and creationists will jump in and tear us apart,everybody will lose faith in science, and there will be no morefunding. Even the suggestion that we emphasize the open-endedness ofscience raises immediate suspicions that the person making thesuggestion is a closet creationist. What foolish paranoia! Therewould be far greater public confidence in science if we didn’tencourage a fideist view. Rigid blind faith easily crumbles andbecomes no faith at all. Sophisticated knowledge of theopen-endedness of this marvelous discipline is far less vulnerable.Flat pronouncements and oversimplifications that ignore the richnitty-gritty of real life science are just plain boring. And evenchildren do not need to be shielded from complications, conflictingarguments, and paradoxes. In fact, they are often better able tohandle them intellectually than adults. This condescendingoverprotectiveness of the flock must end.

As a start on brainstorming, let me suggest some possible practical measures:

1.) Support the development of new curricula that teach early andoften the roles of theory and experiment/orbservation in science andhow scientific ideas and explanations evolve, that all theories arenot equally well-accepted or established, that theory is notsynonymous with truth, but is also not synonymous with justsomebody’s idea that’s likely to be overturned tomorrow — twodefinitions that I hear all too often when I judge school sciencefairs.

2.) Establish prizes to be awarded each year to the authors of thechildren’s and adult books that most encourage a more sophisticated,less dogmatic, more open-ended view of science, and books that focuson the process of scientific discovery.

3.) Reward with prizes and bring into the public light scienceteachers who present science as a dynamic process.

4.) Support television specials and museum exhibits that celebratethe adventure and the evolving nature of science and avoid thetedious and misleading we now know rhetoric.

The second part of my dream is of science classrooms, churches,television, and newspaper and magazine writing where we don’t have tolisten to the same tired, unexamined myths about a so-calledscience-religion conflict. Burying the caricatures and the mythologywill require some undoing. So mired are we in this mindset that allof us find ourselves succumbing to it. About three years ago I wrotethe words, there is no record of what Copernicus said in these earlylectures [in Rome], but we can be sure he didn’t suggest at this timethat everything revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth. If hehad, history would surely record some uproar and adverse reactionfrom the Church! Further research showed me that in fact thereprobably would have been no uproar at all — that thereligion/science climate at the time wasn’t anything like what we’vebeen led to believe it was, and I rewrote those sentences. Anastoundingly large part of what we hear in the traditional chronicleof the conflict between science and religion turns out to be,simply, not true — a late nineteenth century distortion of history.Moving from science history to the present , we find that most ofthose modern scientific writers who have tried to demonstrate thatscience and religious belief are incompatable, Richard Dawkins forexample, have actually made an extremely ineffective case. They areskilled pulpit-pounders, but the logic of their arguments does notstand up to close scrutiny.

To revise the public and traditional academic view of the history ofthe science-religion interface, and to explore more thoughtfully thearguments of those who insist there is a conflict, I suggest thefollowing:

1.) Fund projects investigating the old myths, and get thediscussion of their truth or falsehood into the media and popularbooks.

2.) Develop curricula for church adult education series andhigh-school-age Sunday school classes that explore those interfacesbetween science and religion that we have been led to believe are themost explosive.

3.) Follow the example of the Astronomy Society of the Pacific andsponsor conferences that include non-experts as well as experts andacademics, laypeople as well as theologians and clergy, and, at theseconferences, have presentations and debates designed to bringconflict to the fore. In my experience there is almost no better wayto explode the fable of conflict in this area than to set outdeliberately to provoke it and find how little conflict there is.

4.) Develop cooperative projects of the sort that many of the otherparticipants are likely to suggest for FUTURE VISIONS: Engaging theScientific and Spiritual Imagintion. — to display to all the worldthat thoughtful scientists and religious people have deep respect forone another, little difficulty working together, and that togetherthey come up with particularly innovative, productive ideas.

The third part of my dream is of classrooms where, regardless of whatis taught about science or other matters, there is no derogation ofreligious belief — no insinuation that all responsible thinkersreject it.

To this end I would suggest: Use legal, political, and lobbyingavenues to bring about a situation in which disparaging remarks aboutreligious belief are as unacceptable as derogatory remarks aboutwomen, blacks, Jews, or anyone else. An atmosphere of scorn,derision, and caricature is nothing short of religious persecution,and that is forbidden by law.

Summing up, I would like to free the science-loving public fromsmall-minded scientific fideism that stifles creative imagination andspiritual development and often precipitates a loss of faith inscience. I would like to free religion to make its impact — tofight its battles for human rights and dignity and a caring societyand against illusion and despair — without having simultaneously tofight a rear-guard action against those who caricature it as standingin opposition to scientific knowledge and intellectualsophistication. I would like to wrest both science and religion fromthe dogmatists of scientific atheism and religious fundamentalism.For over a century these extremists have voiced their silly, narrowminded drivel, have come to depend on one another as polar enablers,and have convinced too many people that they speak for science andreligion. They do not, and the beginning of a new millenium would bean excellent time for serious, thoughtful scientists and deeplyreligious people to join in rejecting publicly that fatuous claim.

I hope I haven’t digressed too far from the theme of FutureVisions. At least, perhaps my vision statement will offer some ideaof the context from which I will be commenting on other statements.I look forward to hearing what everyone else has to suggest.

Kitty Ferguson

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