Oberlin Alumni Magazine Spring 2001 vol.96 no.4
Feature Stories
Planet Earth
High Atop Wilder
[cover story] Creating a Scene
You've Got Mail: Now What?
Experience, Exposure & Enlightenment
Body Art
Message from the Board of Trustees
Around Tappan Square
Oberlin Partnership sharpens Economic Development
Composing a Career
President Dye's Sabbatical
Closing Institutional Devides
In Brief
Alumni Notes: Profile
Alumni Notes: Losses
The Last Word
Staff Box
One More Thing

Science/Religion Touches A Nerve

Grand Design
Pure nothingness
does not,
Cannot exist.
Existence itself
is something.
Science and religion agree,
each inevitably
postulating God,
Though by name
it might be anything but.
Consciousness exists
and with it conscience,
the bench mark of divinity.
Carl Stiefel '39
Burlington, Iowa
I enjoyed reading "Oberlin Faculty Quizzed: Science? Religion? Are They Mutually Exclusive?" (Winter 2000). Doug McInnis writes, "On a very large scale, change a few things in the laws of physics, and the universe would not exist." Intentionally or not, he is introducing the anthropic coincidences (or fine-tuning) argument for the existence of a creator. This is a modern variation of the intelligent-design argument that has appeared in one form or another throughout history. It is based on the fact that life on earth is so sensitive to the values of the fundamental physical constants that even the smallest change to any of them would mean that life as we know it could not exist. The chance that any random set of these constants would match the ones in our universe is infinitesimally small. Therefore, they must be the result of purposeful design with life, even human life, in mind. A major flaw of this argument is its assumption that the particular carbon-based form of life that we know is the only possible type of life. This assumption is unwarranted. Life might be likely with different combinations of physical constants and laws of physics. Complexity and chaos theory has shown how order and beauty can be generated from random processes with no pre-existing design. Artificial life with unpredictable structure and form has been produced in computers running genetic algorithms. It may be that a certain level of complexity and long life are the only ingredients necessary for a universe to have some form of evolving, reproducing structures. This can happen with a wide range of initial parameters. Another problem with the argument is its misconception of basic probability theory. The odds that our universe would be randomly selected from a set of universes with a wide range of values for the physical constants are, indeed, quite small. From this the fine-tuners argue that our universe had to be deliberately selected by an external creator. But this small probability occurs only when one asks the odds prior to the selection. Similarly, if a universe were going to happen, some set of physical constants had to be selected. If it is wrong to assume that ours is the only possible form of life, it is also wrong to assume that ours can be the only universe. Why should a universe-generating mechanism operate only once? There seems no reason to assume that all of reality must be like the region visible in our telescopes. If a respected theory advanced by renowned cosmologist Andre Linde (no relation, unfortunately) is correct, then our universe is just one bubble in a giant foam of universes. Our universe could be fine-tuned for carbon-based life because even such a delicate arrangement of physical laws and constants was bound to happen in one of the bubbles.
Gregg Linde '81
Briarcliffe Manor, New York

I was very interested
in the comments of some of Oberlin's science faculty members. However, I would also be interested to read comments by members of Oberlin's religion faculty. On the subject of science and religion, scientists and religion scholars should be equally qualified to give their views.
Mark Kearns '78
Evanston, Illinois

Based on interviews conducted with the Oberlin faculty, the article looked for a feasible fusion of scientific and religious approaches to reality. But is it necessary to reconcile scientific reasoning and religious experiences? Even though religious experiences are irrational, that does not mean they are unreal. They can be as real as those derived through reasoning. Dressing up religion with science or vice versa has led only to scientific absolutism or irreconcilable reductionism, which have been destructive, particularly in the 20th century. It is human to seek comfort in certainty. We would rather have one principle unifying both religion and science than two coexisting ones. But the human brain is an extraordinarily complex system in which its many parts interact in foreseeable as well as unforeseeable ways. The unforeseeable perception occurs due to a process called "emergence" characteristic of complex systems. G.K. Chesterton was aware of the unforeseeable when he proclaimed that "Life is a trap for logicians; it looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is." Therein lies the mystery that Einstein alluded to. Like Einstein, most Americans are practicing pluralists who accept coexisting systems of belief. In an ever-changing world, the inherent tensions in pluralism will provide the freedom to devise creative solutions to new problems and issues. Religious absolutism or scientific reductionism (or their consolidated formulations) are too rigid to provide the necessary freedom of choice to cope with the changing circumstances.
Divakar Masilamani '64
Morristown, New Jersey

Doug McInnis quoted Einstein's statement, "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." Readers may be interested to know that this statement appeared in Science, Philosophy and Religion, a Symposium (Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941). At least one faith explicitly teaches the unity of science and religion. In The Bahá'í Faith: An Emerging Global Religion (Harper & Row, 1984), William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin write: "One of the teachings of its founder, Bahá'u'lláh, is that God's greatest gift to humankind is reason. Bahá'ís accept that reason must be applied to all the phenomena of existence, including those which are spiritual, and the instrument to be used in this effort is the scientific method. A major source of conflict and disunity in the world today is the widespread opinion that there is some basic opposition between science and religion, that scientific truth contradicts religion on some points, and that one must choose between being a religious person, a believer in God, or a scientist, a follower of reason." The authors quote from addresses given in 1912 by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh and appointed interpreter of his teachings, affirming that religion and science are, in fact, complementary: "The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one. Religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone, he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. Hatcher and Martin continue, "The Bahá'í teachings stress the fundamental oneness of science and religion. Such a view is implicit in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement, quoted above, that truth (or reality) is one. For if truth is indeed one, it is not possible for something to be scientifically false and religiously true...The truths of science are thus discovered truths. The truths of prophetic religion are revealed truths, i.e., truths that God has shown us without our having to discover them for ourselves. Bahá'ís consider that it is the same unique God who is both the Author of revelation and the Creator of the reality which science investigates, and hence there can be no contradiction between the two." It was just after Oberlin, while I was doing my graduate work in mathematics, that I learned about and joined the Bahá'í faith, and I have indeed found that it resolves all supposed contradictions.
Deborah Gray '72
Concord, Massachusetts
Science/Religion Touches A Nerve continues.

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