“We believe science is rational. But, like the church it once fought, it has its own established power structures and its own politics to defend. Has it become the new church, with beliefs tended by the faithful and heretics excluded from publication?”
That’s how the Institute of Art and Ideas introduces an interview with me, titled “Science: Power and Politics.” The IAI is a British non-profit engaged, it says, “in changing the current cultural landscape through the pursuit and promotion of big ideas, boundary-pushing thinkers and challenging debates.” Count me in!
A year ago I participated in an IAI festival, HowTheLightGetsIn, where I debated big data and particle physics and hung out with biologist Rupert Sheldrake and cosmologist George Ellis. The IAI recently called me to chat about conflicts and convergences between science and religion, which I explored in my books The End of Science and Rational Mysticism. Below are excerpts from the transcript.
IAI: You’ve mentioned that science is an incredibly powerful tool. Could you elaborate on where it is that science gets its power from? Is it simply because it’s so instrumentally valuable, or does science really show us how the universe works, how things really are out there?
Horgan: I am not a postmodernist. Some of my best friends are postmodernists – I’m not, I’m what some of my postmodern friends would call a naïve realist. To me it is crushingly obvious that science has revealed deep truths about nature, about the universe, embodied in theories such as the Big Bang theory and general relativity and quantum mechanics and evolutionary theory and DNA-based genetics. Science has helped us create this map of the entire universe and the history of the universe and of life on earth that is extraordinarily powerful. The power of these theories is demonstrated by all their applications that have transformed our world.
I’ve been involved in many debates about the relationship between science and religion, including recently with British mathematician and Christian John Lennox. Some religious people say that science is just another faith, but that’s bullshit. There is nothing in the realm of religion and religious faith that comes close to nuclear weapons or the internal combustion engine or GPS receivers. These technologies are based on scientific principles and are demonstrations of the power of science. But then you get to some of the deepest questions of the universe, like where the universe came from in the first place and how life began. That’s a different matter.
Recently there has been some overreaching by scientists who have arrogantly suggested that they’ve figured out the mystery of the universe, and there are no significant problems left. Lawrence Krauss made this ridiculous claim in a recent book, Richard Dawkins has also claimed that physics has solved the mystery of where the universe came from in the first place. That is a problem of scientific overreaching and arrogance, but that does not negate the accomplishments of science, which are enormous and very real.
IAI: Do you think there are more things in common between science and religion than we usually recognise, or do you think we should keep them completely distinct?
Horgan: I wrote a whole book called Rational Mysticism trying to figure out whether there’s any common ground between spirituality or mysticism and a rational scientific outlook. The only compatibility I could find is in terms of the improbability of the universe. Religion stems from an intuition about the universe as being miraculous, as being so improbable that it had to have been created from some sort of intelligence. Science has also shown that our reality is almost infinitely improbable. From the origin of the universe and life to the emergence of conscious complex intelligent life like humans: at each one of those stages the odds seem almost infinitely against it.
Other than that, science and religion are very far apart. Science has given us the chilling insight that is that we’re extraordinarily lucky to be alive, we’re here through chance, and we could disappear randomly at any moment, either through something we do to ourselves, or because an asteroid destroys the world or whatever it may be. That contradicts the fundamental assumption of all religions, which is that this whole universe is a stage for this crazy adventure that humans are on. That to me is where the two worldviews really diverge.
IAI: Today religion seems to be on the rise, perhaps filling a role that science cannot. Should we be relying on science more and accepting that we can’t answer these big questions, or do we need something else to fill that void?
Horgan: In my debate with John Lennox he claimed you cannot have ultimate hope for humanity without religion, without believing in God. I rejected that: I’m very optimistic about the future, I have children, I believe that their lives are going to be better than my life, and that they’re going to see some extraordinarily positive changes in the future. My last book was The End of War, where I predict militarism and warfare will fade away. It’s a tough message to get across, but there are good reasons to believe that could happen. There’s been great progress in combating disease and poverty and tyranny and the arc of human progress is in the right direction. I see this as the culmination of the Enlightenment. There’ve been some key figures in our moral progress like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who are religious figures, but for this kind of moral progress we don’t need religion. Religion can impede us in various ways – we can see that in the world today. So I don’t think that we need to abolish religion to make the world a better place, but I do think that the world can keep getting better without religion.
Read my full interview with the IAI here.