Saturday, June 12, 2010
Science vs. Religion -- the real question
In the outer rim of a 200 billion stars galaxy, a blue planet, earth, is traveling at a staggering speed of over 100,000 kilometers per hour. It would have disappeared in the vastness of space, if it were not for a mysterious and invisible force of gravity that keeps it orbiting, for all eternities, round a medium-size yellow sun, 150 million kilometers away.
Every 176 years, four other planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, are lined up on the same side of the sun. This was not known to the ancient astronomers and astrologers, whose picture of the universe did not include Uranus (discovered in 1781) and Neptune (discovered in 1846). This fact, however, inspired the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, when in 1977 two spacecrafts, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched to reach the aligned planets. The extraordinary photos they beamed back, and the new information they are still sending from the final frontier of our solar system, some 15 billion kilometers from home, have made this exploration a great triumph of science and our understanding of the laws of nature, without which none of this could have been achieved.
These laws of nature: the principles of motion, action and reaction and gravity, are the very laws that started the age of scientific exploration and changed our understanding of nature forever. Although this new worldview did not directly contradict the principles of faith, it did threaten the monopoly the religious authorities enjoyed as the guardians of all knowledge, as declared, for instance, in the Council of Trent (1546):
No one relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conception shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held or does hold, or even to interpret them contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.
This powerful position was not to be given away without a fight; so rather than choosing to become the patrons of the sciences and embracing the new discoveries in order to strengthen faith and belief, the Church and its judicial institution, the Inquisition, chose to declare the new worldview heresy and its holders heretics.
The birth of modern science into this environment still influences our way of thinking nowadays, nearly 500 years later. Because, while only esoteric minorities will not embrace the many improvements that only science could bring (medicine, transportation, communication, to name just a few) many still view the scientific worldview to be a threat to their beliefs.
Is it a real threat? Must scientific and religious viewpoints collide, or can there be consistent description of the universe in which each is equally valid? These are deep philosophical questions that have been discussed for generations by religious people, scientists and philosophers. But whatever philosophical conclusions they may reach, for most of us, the real question is whether we, a society empowered by science-born technology, can afford to run our society on ancients principles devised far before the knowledge to create this technology was even conceived.