As a follow-up to yesterday's wonderful post by Barbara, I wanted to raise a point the science vs. religion debate often misses. This sunday in The New York Times, philosopher of science David Albert reviewed A Universe From Nothing by cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss. The book attempts to show how physics can now answer this age-old question: "How could something come from nothing?"
At some point I was hoping to write on the book myself because Krauss is wonderful at explaining science and the science is wonderfully explained. But at the end of the review Albert turns from questions related to philosophical definitions of nothing and looks squarely at how the book is aimed toward the science vs. religion debate.
None other than Richard Dawkins provides an afterword for A Universe From Nothing, stating: "Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages"
For David Albert this kind of approach fails to understand, for better or worse, the importance of religion. Let me quote the entire last paragraph of his review.
"And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn't, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one's head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don't know, dumb."
I have to agree. While I will defend my (and other atheists) right not to believe, there seems something so peevish in these lines of reasoning. The intolerance that organized religion bestowed to humanity is certainly part of its legacy. But to think that exhausts the subject of human spirituality and the impulse behind so many people's will to a life of compassion based in their faith is, I don't know, dumb.
A truly interesting discussion about science and human spiritual endeavor (including its manifestations in religion) could go much farther than this.
You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.