Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prizewinning Physicist Says

  

Here at BQTA, we beg to differ. Atheism is not only consistent with science and the scientific method, but compelled by it, according to official BQTA doctrine. Does this interview of Dartmouth physicist Marcelo Gleiser in Scientific American last month give us any reason to doubt dogma?

Scientific American says that “In conversation, the 2019 Templeton Prize winner Marcelo Gleiser does not pull punches on the limits of science, the value of humility and the irrationality of nonbelief.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/atheism-is-inconsistent-with-the-scientific-method-prizewinning-physicist-says/?   

Marcelo Gleiser, a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College and prolific science popularizer, has won this year’s Templeton Prize. Valued at just under $1.5 million, the award from the John Templeton Foundation annually recognizes an individual “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Its past recipients include scientific luminaries such as Sir Martin Rees and Freeman Dyson, as well as religious or political leaders such as Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

Across his 35-year scientific career, Gleiser’s research has covered a wide breadth of topics, ranging from the properties of the early universe to the behavior of fundamental particles and the origins of life. But in awarding him its most prestigious honor, the Templeton Foundation chiefly cited his status as a leading public intellectual revealing “the historical, philosophical and cultural links between science, the humanities and spirituality.” He is also the first Latin American to receive the prize.

BQTA contributor Rick Lenon, M.D. wants to challenge Gleiser’s ideas, so we inserted ourselves into the conversation.

RL: The text of what Gleiser actually said is more restrained in many ways than the headline. What is “spiritual” was supposed to mean?  Predictably, it depends on who’s using it. There is no consensus definition.  He does say that he sees himself more in the camp of Einstein.

GNS: Gleiser claims that the proper scientific attitude is to be agnostic, because of the limits of scientific proof. Still, the goal of the Templeton Foundation is to support religion, so his views may be closer to the headline than he let on. “Agnostic” and “spiritual” are safe, easy terms that many people can accept. Scientists feel pressure to show that they support or at least do not deny the “spirituality”— whatever that means— of mainstream America.

Let’s get into the conversation. 

Scientific American, by Lee Billings on March 20, 2019: You’ve written and spoken eloquently about nature of reality and consciousness, the genesis of life, the possibility of life beyond Earth, the origin and fate of the universe, and more. How do all those disparate topics synergize into one, cohesive message for you?

Marcelo Gleiser: To me, science is one way of connecting with the mystery of existence. And if you think of it that way, the mystery of existence is something that we have wondered about ever since people began asking questions about who we are and where we come from.

GNS: What is the mystery of existence? Why is there something rather than nothing? I’m not sure that’s a meaningful question.

RL:  We’re skeptical about mysteries.  You can always get to questions that don’t have answers if you keep asking questions like “Why?” or “What is it?” enough times.  But then there are the questions that seem like they ought to have accessible answers, but remain elusive. 

MG: So while those questions are now part of scientific research, they are much, much older than science. I’m not talking about the science of materials, or high-temperature superconductivity, which is awesome and super important, but that’s not the kind of science I’m doing. I’m talking about science as part of a much grander and older sort of questioning about who we are in the big picture of the universe. To me, as a theoretical physicist and also someone who spends time out in the mountains, this sort of questioning offers a deeply spiritual connection with the world, through my mind and through my body. Einstein would have said the same thing, I think, with his cosmic religious feeling.

RL: The link in the interview goes to a very good Wikipedia article summarizing Einstein on religion.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_and_philosophical_views_of_Albert_Einstein   Einstein was all for “awe and mystery.”  There’s wondering, and there’s wonder. 

GNS: Gleiser is talking about feelings he has when he is in the mountains? What is the relevance of his feelings? Or Einstein’s? People have all kinds of feelings and often their feelings do not connect with reality. Science is about transcending our feelings and finding out what’s real.

RL:  Seems like he’s talking about “awe”, which might be the feeling evoked when scale changes abruptly.  Step outside on a dark night and look up at the stars.  Out of the forrest and at the top of a cliff over the ocean.  Or time, when you see strata in the Grand Canyon.  But then beauty can do it too.  So maybe just anything that’s enough beyond routine exceptions. Is that all Gleiser is on about?

SA: Which aspect of your work do you think is most relevant to the Templeton Foundation’s spiritual aims?

MG: Probably my belief in humility. I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know. So that’s one answer to your question. And that has nothing to do with organized religion, obviously, but it does inform my position against atheism. I consider myself an agnostic.

GNS: Saying that science has limits will sound good to many people. Why should science have limits and what are they? Gleiser would say, perhaps, that he has written whole books explaining his views and it’s unfair to judge him on this brief interview. Fair enough, but we are entitled to point out the limits of his grand claims.

SA: Why are you against atheism?

MG: I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations. We say, “Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.” And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?)

RL:  He might be saying that we don’t need to give any one of those gods benefit of the doubt.   He may be lumping atheism and “scientism”, with the latter involving a conviction that science should be the only legitimate basis for any and all beliefs. 

He might imagine an atheist responding to Jonathan Haidt’s moral challenges described in The Righteous Mind. Subjects were confronted with hypothetical situations in which the conduct involved doesn’t seem harm anyone, and so are hard to find to be immoral on a utilitarian basis, but which most people are nevertheless inclined to condemn. Assorted sexual practices lead the list. Slapping your father in a play is a mild example. The atheist would say, anyone who objects is merely responding to irrational beliefs.  Gleiser’s agnostic would be more respectful, less certain that hesitancy about that stuff was merely ignorance and prejudice. 

GNS: Gleiser is exploiting the negative associations of the term “atheism”. It’s not “belief in nonbelief”— that might describe the agnostic. Atheism is the view that there is no God—every version of theism is false.

Gleiser claims to be agnostic, and seems to agree that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of any kind of God. That should lead directly to atheism. The scientific worldview requires us to believe only when there is supporting evidence. Science relies on rationality, not on feelings of mystery, of spirituality, of the mountains, etc., no matter how strong our emotions might be.

So if there is no scientific evidence of God, the scientific method requires Gleiser to be an atheist, not an agnostic. Gleiser’s humility would be covered by saying, as he would for any scientific principle, that new evidence can change our views, and so in that sense, everything we believe is a hypothesis.

RL:  The cheap shot is, well then, do we have to reserve judgement on the Easter Bunny?  Slightly less absurd, maybe, is the possibility of us being a video game, for the amusement of creatures several levels up.  But there too, very hard to imagine that elaborating all of the mechanisms involved could have been all that much fun.  Organic chemistry was really boring.  Biochem, not that much better.  And to the degree that designers help us with origins questions, there would still be the problem of where the designers came from.  Same problem with God. 

MG: But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and all that.

GNS: I believe in leprechauns, who are supernatural little men, wearing green and creating mischief. If you catch one, he has to give you his pot of gold. No, I’ve never seen one. Nor do I find the effects of leprechauns anywhere. My belief is based only on feelings I have. Key idea: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Therefore, there is no evidence for the absence of leprechauns. Gleiser will no doubt respect my feelings and be agnostic on the question of the existence of leprechauns. That’s consistent with the scientific method: figure out everything for which there is no evidence and then declare “I have no right to make a final statement about something I don’t know about.” Easter Bunny, Werewolf, Centaur, Sasquatch, etc. Science has no right to say these or any other supernatural entities do not exist.

MG: This positions me very much against all of the “New Atheist” guys—even though I want my message to be respectful of people’s beliefs and reasoning, which might be community-based, or dignity-based, and so on. And I think obviously the Templeton Foundation likes all of this, because this is part of an emerging conversation. It’s not just me; it’s also my colleague the astrophysicist Adam Frank, and a bunch of others, talking more and more about the relation between science and spirituality.

GNS: I’ll stick with the New Atheists. Religious ideas about the world arise from emotion and myth, and belief in them is compelled by feelings of loyalty and respect for tradition. Religion is not a reliable source of knowledge about the nature of the world. Vague platitudes about “spirituality” change nothing. Atheism does not solve all—or any— philosophical problems, but it’s an easy and obvious first step.

Religious concepts of nature are based on the idea that the only way to understand natural events is on the model of human agency. Since nature is beyond human capability, the agent must be divine. God makes the sun shine and the rain fall. The goal of science is to explain nature without appealing to the supernatural, which would be a concession of failure. By eliminating the need for God in understanding the universe, science eliminates God.

SA: So, a message of humility, open-mindedness and tolerance. Other than in discussions of God, where else do you see the most urgent need for this ethos?

MG: You know, I’m a “Rare Earth” kind of guy. I think our situation may be rather special, on a planetary or even galactic scale. So when people talk about Copernicus and Copernicanism—the ‘principle of mediocrity’ that states we should expect to be average and typical, I say, “You know what? It’s time to get beyond that.” When you look out there at the other planets (and the exoplanets that we can make some sense of), when you look at the history of life on Earth, you will realize this place called Earth is absolutely amazing. And maybe, yes, there are others out there, possibly—who knows, we certainly expect so—but right now what we know is that we have this world, and we are these amazing molecular machines capable of self-awareness, and all that makes us very special indeed. And we know for a fact that there will be no other humans in the universe; there may be some humanoids somewhere out there, but we are unique products of our single, small planet’s long history.

GNS: One of the biggest scientific mysteries is the origin of life on earth. Until we know how that happened, estimating with any accuracy how likely life is elsewhere—in the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, the multi-verses— is impossible. It may well be the case that “our case may be rather special”. Per wikipedia,

The term “Rare Earth” originates from Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000), a book by Peter Ward, a geologist and paleontologist, and Donald E. Brownlee, an astronomer and astrobiologist, both faculty members at the University of Washington. A contrary view was argued in the 1970s and 1980s by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, among others. It holds that Earth is a typical rocky planet in a typical planetary system, located in a non-exceptional region of a common barred-spiral galaxy. Given the principle of mediocrity (in the same vein as the Copernican principle), it is probable that we are typical, and the universe teems with complex life. However, Ward and Brownlee argue that planets, planetary systems, and galactic regions that are as friendly to complex life as the Earth, the Solar System, and our galactic region are rare.

The universe is a big place. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is usually estimated to contain 100-400 billion stars. How many planets? In all those billions of stars, won’t there likely be many planets—say, at least one million— resembling the physical setting of Earth? And our galaxy is one of perhaps two trillion https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/science/two-trillion-galaxies-at-the-very-least.html   So isn’t the likely number of earth-like planets in the universe in the trillions?

The Copernican Revolution in the 16th century was the beginning of viewing Earth as one of many planets. Our planet is not unique and the universe does not revolve around it. Now, says Gleiser, “it’s time to get beyond that”. Get beyond one of the biggest ideas in human history? How? Why?

Gleiser feels “we are these amazing molecular machines capable of self-awareness, and all that makes us very special indeed… unique products of our single, small planet’s long history.” The key is consciousness? That doesn’t refute Copernicus, much less Darwin, so should we feel “very special indeed”? Sure, let’s feel good about ourselves. Being special does not mean that we and our self-awareness are not products of ordinary, typical, average natural forces. Why is Gleiser making this “very special indeed” point? 

He seems to want to hint that something more than ordinary, mediocre natural forces are needed to account for us and our self-awareness. Is Gleiser really agnostic? He seems to be arguing the side of religion.

Given the state of the scientific evidence, it’s possible that the only planet in the universe with life is ours. The would make us feel “very special indeed”.  Would it make us feel that we are products of supernatural forces? We might think that natural forces alone were not sufficient to create the miracle of  consciousness— “these amazing molecular machines capable of self-awareness”— since nature had trillions of opportunities on apparently similar planets and couldn’t get the job done. God intervened on our planet and chose  us. There are no others anywhere in the universe.

MG: The point is, to understand modern science within this framework is to put humanity back into kind of a moral center of the universe, in which we have the moral duty to preserve this planet and its life with everything that we’ve got, because we understand how rare this whole game is and that for all practical purposes we are alone. For now, anyways. We have to do this! This is a message that I hope will resonate with lots of people, because to me what we really need right now in this increasingly divisive world is a new unifying myth. I mean “myth” as a story that defines a culture. So, what is the myth that will define the culture of the 21st century? It has to be a myth of our species, not about any particular belief system or political party. How can we possibly do that? Well, we can do that using astronomy, using what we have learned from other worlds, to position ourselves and say, “Look, folks, this is not about tribal allegiance, this is about us as a species on a very specific planet that will go on with us—or without us.” I think you know this message well.

GNS: The Copernican Revolution showed we are not at the physical center of the universe. However, Gleiser still wants to undo Copernicus and “put humanity back into kind of a moral center of the universe”. He seems to be aligning himself with environmentalism, which is nice, but is it necessary to go “back” to history before Copernicus? That would put us back into the Middle Ages, when religion dominated thought. No wonder the Templeton Foundation gave him their prize.   

SA: Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, only because earlier you referred to the value of humility in science. Some would say now is not the time to be humble, given the rising tide of active, open hostility to science and objectivity around the globe. How would you respond to that?

MG: This is of course something people have already told me: “Are you really sure you want to be saying these things?” And my answer is yes, absolutely. There is a difference between “science” and what we can call “scientism,” which is the notion that science can solve all problems. To a large extent, it is not science but rather how humanity has used science that has put us in our present difficulties. Because most people, in general, have no awareness of what science can and cannot do. So they misuse it, and they do not think about science in a more pluralistic way.

GNS: Official BQTA policy, not necessarily endorsed by all contributors, is that science alone cannot solve all philosophical problems. Gleiser seems to be leaning on the fact-value distinction and the idea that science cannot determine values. These are indeed characteristically philosophical problems.

RL:  I do think this is not a good time to be casting doubt on science.  Facts are having a hard enough time as it is.  I’m not all that hot for beliefs either.  If we decide that they must be respected as held, no matter what, what happens when mine are opposed to yours?  Humility is supposed to handle that, I guess. 

MG: So, okay, you’re going to develop a self-driving car? Good! But how will that car handle hard choices, like whether to prioritize the lives of its occupants or the lives of pedestrian bystanders? Is it going to just be the technologist from Google who decides? Let us hope not! You have to talk to philosophers, you have to talk to ethicists. And to not understand that, to say that science has all the answers, to me is just nonsense. We cannot presume that we are going to solve all the problems of the world using a strict scientific approach. It will not be the case, and it hasn’t ever been the case, because the world is too complex, and science has methodological powers as well as methodological limitations.

GNS: Setting the emergency responses of self-driving cars will require talking to philosophers? That’s one of my favorite things to do, but get ready for frustration. Philosophers do not readily form a consensus on practical problems. Who are the “ethicists” Gleiser refers to who are not scientists or philosophers? Does he mean religious leaders? Which religion? Gleiser’s generalities conceal problems. Maybe a little more frankness would be helpful.

MG: And so, what do I say? I say be honest. There is a quote from the physicist Frank Oppenheimer that fits here: “The worst thing a son of a bitch can do is turn you into a son of a bitch.” Which is profane but brilliant. I’m not going to lie about what science can and cannot do because politicians are misusing science and trying to politicize the scientific discourse. I’m going to be honest about the powers of science so that people can actually believe me for my honesty and transparency. If you don’t want to be honest and transparent, you’re just going to become a liar like everybody else. Which is why I get upset by misstatements, like when you have scientists—Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss among them—claiming we have solved the problem of the origin of the universe, or that string theory is correct and that the final “theory of everything” is at hand. Such statements are bogus. So, I feel as if I am a guardian for the integrity of science right now; someone you can trust because this person is open and honest enough to admit that the scientific enterprise has limitations—which doesn’t mean it’s weak!

GNS: How close physics is to a Theory of Everything that unites general relativity and quantum mechanics—the largest scale and the smallest— is for physicists to decide, and Gleiser is a physicist. However, are his religious views informing his judgment about physics?

SA: You mentioned string theory, and your skepticism about the notion of a final “theory of everything.” Where does that skepticism come from?

MG: It is impossible for science to obtain a true theory of everything. And the reason for that is epistemological. Basically, the way we acquire information about the world is through measurement. It’s through instruments, right? And because of that, our measurements and instruments are always going to tell us a lot of stuff, but they are going to leave stuff out. And we cannot possibly ever think that we could have a theory of everything, because we cannot ever think that we know everything that there is to know about the universe. This relates to a metaphor I developed that I used as the title of a book, The Island of Knowledge. Knowledge advances, yes? But it’s surrounded by this ocean of the unknown. The paradox of knowledge is that as it expands and the boundary between the known and the unknown changes, you inevitably start to ask questions that you couldn’t even ask before.

GNS: In his Scientific American article last year, “How Much Can We Know”, Gleiser argued that there are “clear unknowables in science—reasonable questions that, unless currently accepted laws of nature are violated, we cannot find answers to.”

Examples of unknowables can be conflated into three questions about origins: of the universe, of life and of the mind. Scientific accounts of the origin of the universe are incomplete because they must rely on a conceptual framework to even begin to work: energy conservation, relativity, quantum physics, for instance. Why does the universe operate under these laws and not others?

Similarly, unless we can prove that only one or very few biochemical pathways exist from nonlife to life, we cannot know for sure how life originated on Earth. For consciousness, the problem is the jump from the material to the subjective—for example, from firing neurons to the experience of pain or the color red. Perhaps some kind of rudimentary consciousness could emerge in a sufficiently complex machine. But how could we tell? How do we establish—as opposed to conjecture—that something is conscious? https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-much-can-we-know/

Legitimate points, well worth discussion. Science may indeed have philosophical limits. However, how do these ideas threaten atheism, old or new? 

RL:  I think the problem is with the questions.  Let’s pretend we do get explanations for the why’s of energy conservation, relativity, etc.  Those explanations can then get hit with the same why’s; and it’s elephants all the way down.  The assumption seems to be that there must be answers all the way down; always a next one.  Can there be an ultimate particle? If we ever did get down to a particle or matter that could not be further divided, there would be no more you could learn about its material nature.  You could describe its motion, the forces it exerted and the effects of forces/inputs, its behavior in differing circumstances.

How small can you go?  I asked a physicist friend about how much further we could go in smashing tiny particles into every smaller ones. He said there may not be a limit, aside from a practical one based on how much more powerful accelerators can get.  So there is no limit? The Euclidean geometry we were brought up with has it that you can get smaller and smaller until you get to a Euclidian point, which has no dimension.  But maybe, in this universe, there is no such thing as a Euclidian point.  Maybe there is just smaller and smaller, ad infinitum.

GNS: Physicist Carlo Rovelli questions the perfectly reasonable idea that space is infinitely divisible.

Does it really make sense to talk of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a millimeter, and then to think of of dividing it again, a further innumerable number of times? The calculation of the quantum spectra of geometrical quantities indicates that the answer is negative: arbitrarily small chunks of space do not exist. There is a lower limit to the divisibility of space. It is at a very small scale indeed, but it is there. Reality Is Not What It Seems (2014) p169.

Reality, apparently, is not what it seems. There is a gap between what science claims to be true and the nature of ordinary experience. Is God in that gap?

Gleiser surprised us by putting the origin of life on Earth on his list of unknowables. Surely, some kind of chemical reaction got the replication going. A profound problem, but not intrinsically unknowable.

RL:  Is Gleiser saying that if there is more than one route, we can never know which one was traversed?  Not sure how much it would matter, if, say, we found multiple plausible routes to DNA.  Let’s say we demonstrated several in a lab: inorganic to organic to biochemical to DNA or RNA.  What’s the significance of knowing or not knowing which of those routes nature actually took?

GNS: Knowing what route nature actually took is always important. For the origin of life, it would be vital (no pun intended), even if several plausible possibilities could be developed in the lab. Knowing with certainty what happened billions of years ago presents challenges, but I would like to see the argument that life’s origin is intrinsically unknowable.   

RL:  When Gleiser says “from nonlife to life,” he seems to be speaking from a pre-DNA perspective.  It implies a “vital essence,” and/or some transition point, some threshold, like from the dark into the light.  A doorway, maybe.  I think the golems were animated by a secret ritual?  For Dr. Frankenstein, lightning…. Well done, maybe?  Does he think that life could not have originated without divine intervention?

GNS: That would seem unscientific. I think Gleiser has point, however, when it comes to consciousness.

RL:  Nobody has any trouble with neuron firings that do upright posture, or retrieve memories, or solve problems, or with conversion of impacting photons into a coherent signal. They’re just ion flows in computers made outta meat. 

So why is subjective experience any harder to imagine, as a product of neuron firings, than walking erect?  There are at least 20 million humans born every year, and they all have conscious experience.  They have it when the equipment is operational, and not when it isn’t.  Conscious experience is something that the meat does.  We don’t know how it does it, but it does. 

GNS: Here you are thinking of consciousness as behavior— “something that meat does”.  The path from internal physiological process to behavior can be hideously complex, but poses no big conceptual challenges. The problem of consciousness arises because consciousness cannot be reduced to behavior.

RL:  When we talk about conscious experience, the what-it’s-like of being a conscious self, what gets evoked is what it feels like, seems like, for the participants themselves; what it’s like for them personally.

GNS: Right. And that’s not behavior.

RL: And what it seems like is being a homunculus.  It’s not just consciousness as a phenomenon, it’s consciousness experienced by me.  Self and consciousness can be dissected apart in academic discussion, but they are never experienced as separate. 

We have made good use of the zombie idea here on BQTA (see https://better-questions-than-answers.blog/2019/03/01/carroll-chalmers-and-the-hard-problem-a-commentary/) but it seems possible to me now that I have conceded too much in assuming that we can really sustain the isolation of zombie functions from conscious experience itself.  Zombies may not be imaginable. Conscious experience always comes with “mineness” attached, as a property. 

MG: I don’t want to discourage people from looking for unified explanations of nature because yes, we need that. A lot of physics is based on this drive to simplify and bring things together. But on the other hand, it is the blank statement that there could ever be a theory of everything that I think is fundamentally wrong from a philosophical perspective. This whole notion of finality and final ideas is, to me, just an attempt to turn science into a religious system, which is something I disagree with profoundly. So then how do you go ahead and justify doing research if you don’t think you can get to the final answer? Well, because research is not about the final answer, it’s about the process of discovery. It’s what you find along the way that matters, and it is curiosity that moves the human spirit forward.

GNS: He does not want to turn science into a religious system because he already has religion? Let’s let Gleiser have the last word on that.

SA: Speaking of curiosity… You once wrote, “Scientists, in a sense, are people who keep curiosity burning, trying to find answers to some of the questions they asked as children.” As a child, was there a formative question you asked, or an experience you had, that made you into the scientist you are today? Are you still trying to answer it?

MG: I’m still completely fascinated with how much science can tell about the origin and evolution of the universe. Modern cosmology and astrobiology have most of the questions I look for—the idea of the transition from nonlife, to life, to me, is absolutely fascinating. But to be honest with you, the formative experience was that I lost my mom. I was six years old, and that loss was absolutely devastating. It put me in contact with the notion of time from a very early age. And obviously religion was the thing that came immediately, because I’m Jewish, but I became very disillusioned with the Old Testament when I was a teenager, and then I found Einstein. That was when I realized, you can actually ask questions about the nature of time and space and nature itself using science. That just blew me away. And so I think it was a very early sense of loss that made me curious about existence. And if you are curious about existence, physics becomes a wonderful portal, because it brings you close to the nature of the fundamental questions: space, time, origins. And I’ve been happy ever since.

 

DECB26FE-96A5-4FDE-B21B2210701AA958_source.jpg
Marcelo Gleiser,  photo credit Eli Burakian, Dartmouth College

 

Addendum

At the end of the Scopes trial in 1925, which pitted creationism against evolution and was made famous in the play and film Inherit the Wind, William Jennings Bryan issued a final statement. Would Gleiser have been in sympathy? 

Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane, the earth’s surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times as bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.

 

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