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Lions Roar : September 2005
5 4 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 Essentially, the quality of transcendent belief in a god or godhead defies experimentation. Looking at the methodolog- ical chasm between the two different ways of discerning the truth, the greatest surprise would be if religion and science did not war, and war fanatically. Even if you looked at exactly the same topic, you would be hard put to believe that with such profoundly dissimilar methodologies—the Dalai Lama’s science/religion ecumenicism aside—you would arrive at the same answers. This difference in approach has inspired efforts on the part of some to describe a universe in which both approaches worked, but in different domains. The most notable of these in recent times has been the attempt by Harvard paleontologist and literary science writer extraordinaire Stephen Jay Gould to formulate the notion of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Essentially, Gould argues that science and religion have their own fields of authority. Science covers the material realm. Religion is the arena of ultimate meaning and moral value. A truce, if maybe not true peace, can be reached on the science/religion war front if you just let the two domains operate in their own areas of expertise. “To cite the old clichés, science gets the ages of rocks and religion gets the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven,” wrote Gould in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages. It is an interesting idea, but one that doesn’t seem to have quelled the science/religion culture wars one bit. Au contraire, it seems in some instances to have inflamed it. Richard Dawkins, the British zoologist, has been particularly vehe- ment in promoting an atheistic science, describing NOMA as a classic example of “a cowardly flabbiness of the intellect [that] afflicts otherwise rational people confronted with long- established religions.” Believers are equally harsh. “Consider what we must accept with Gould’s NOMA. Since religion is not conditioned by reality, anything—ultimately—goes. The absence of testing and self-correcting means that nothing prevents religious sects or ideas from proliferating like rats in a brewery,” writes creationist author Michael Magee on that most secular and divine of modern places, the Internet. I am not going to go into this dispute, because with methodologies so fundamentally opposed I am not sure I see where anything leads except to more disagreement. But, as promised, I am going to point out what seems to me to be a way into a very different thicket. Every time I look at the science/religion battles I am struck by how extremely limited the area of contention is. There are no movements I am aware of that seek to place doubt on Newton’s laws of gravity and movement. No religious group endorses science textbooks that want to replace E=MC2 with a more divinely suited equation. Nobody is demanding an alternative explanation of how electricity works, or why planes fly, or what causes hurricanes. Believers and nonbeliev- ers both think the heart is a blood pump, the lungs an oxygen storage depot, and stars glow because they are burning gas. While there are certain disputes in cosmology and geology, where the conflict burns the brightest is in biology, and in particular in that area of biology where change and move- ment, what is commonly known as speciation, plays itself out. While clearly what motivates much of this contention is a belief on the part of Christians in a biblical creation story, nobody can deny that biology remains, as opposed to physics and chemistry, a discipline nourished with thin theoretical gruel. Most people have a sense that, as much as we under- stand it, all physics works the same everywhere in the universe. If it is not too cold, water could have flow on Mars; gravity will attract you when you get near Betelgeuse; and the stars blithely shine everywhere. As far as we can tell the elements that built the earth also built every other thing in the universe. Hot air rises, waves lap, and cell phones will take digital images of you looking stupid as long as your batteries last. But scientists don’t know big things about biology. They don’t have a clear sense of why life started, whether it always has to be carbon and water based, or what might come next. While scientists can look out into the universe and see physics and chemistry at work, biologists can’t determine the way biology operates, because they don’t have another biology, or five, to compare life on Earth to. It is not impossible there are larger patterns we can only know by means of comparison. It is possible that all conscious beings, in one way or another, link up that consciousness with a belief in a god or spirituality. It is possible that when we look at life on other planets, they have their equivalents of lions and rhubarb because there is some physical directionality to the process of evolution. It is possi- ble that there is an intelligent schema for change where Charles Darwin and his principle of natural selection is not completely wrong, but merely incomplete. In the face of real ignorance, evolutionary biologists are largely left with what wry DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick said was Orgel’s Second Rule (Orgel being a chemist friend of his). The rule announces: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” In essence, Darwin’s natural selection works even if on an individual level it seems farfetched. (By the way, there appar- ently isn’t an Orgel’s First Rule.) To this confused state believers in religion often respond with some version of the Intelligent Design argument that is being played out in the U.S. today. Intelligent Design broadly argues that biology is too complicated to have evolved with- out some kind of master plan, or as Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, puts it, “Many scientists frankly admit their bewilderment about how they may have originated, but refuse to entertain the obvious hypothesis: