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Cooperative Phenomena


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Science and Religion

Few subjects seem to provoke a more spirited debate than the relationship between
science and religion. If the universe is one, it can tolerate no contradiction, hence
science and religion should ultimately converge on the same truth. On the other
hand, the two disciplines seem to refer to radically disjoint ways of engaging the
world: science values objectivity and a distancing orientation  toward reality;
religion is usually associated with a participatory orientation and one that
thrives on sympathetic immediacy. Unfortunately, this results in subjectivity: there
is only one science, but there are many religions.

No doubt the problem of reconciling science and religion will demand our attention
only if both compete equally for our allegiance. Theology, which fell from grace within
the academia in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, is only now beginning to
regain a measure of academic respectability. It is hard to see how that early
antagonism between science and religion could have been avoided. Science began,
partly in response to the bloodshed caused by religious wars, with a hope of finding
certain and unassailable truths that could lay a claim to universality, thus overcoming
sectarianism and divisiveness. This, however, could not be accomplished without
engendering a spirit of irreverence toward the established ecclesiastical authorities.
In the 19th century it became expedient for the emerging scientific establishment to
take a combative stance toward religion in order to secure independence in hiring
and funding decisions, because many universities were then closely affiliated with
churches. Thus the separation between science and religion, indeed an academic
disenfranchisement of religion, became institutionalized. Now, however, the pendulum
is beginning to swing the other way. Science, while still holding a commanding place
in society, is showing signs of a loss of prestige, if not a crisis of authority, to use
the term favored by many historians, philosophers, and sociologists. These days,
scientists are perceived as just another self-absorbed interest group constantly
clamoring for a greater share of the taxpayers’ money. What is at stake is more than
the outcome of an ivory tower debate. The science funding trends in the United States
tell the same story. In 1965, 5.7% of the federal budget was spent on non-defense
research and development; by 1997 that figure had dropped by 67% to 1.9%. One
cannot escape the feeling that the recent warming trend in the relationship between
science and religion has resulted at least partly from the humbling effect of the loss
of prestige that is now liberating both fields of inquiry from the unyielding dogmatisms
characteristic of a not so distant past.

What underlies this debate is the fact that science and technology have in a sense become
victims of their own success. The critical, skeptical, and irreverent attitude toward tradition
and authority that accompanied the birth of science, and was in turn fostered
by science itself, came gradually to permeate the culture at large and soon enough cast
a critical gaze back at the growing scientific enterprise to evaluate what science and
technology have wrought. The result was shattering not only to the faith in science,
but on an even deeper level, to the Euro-American belief in the idea of progress, or
what is now often referred to, with varying degrees of retrospective skepticism, as
“the Enlightenment project.” The most obvious explanation for this loss of confidence
is the calamitous record of organized tyranny, oppression, and mass murder compiled
by humanity since 1914. The terrible slaughter in the trenches of World War I caused
the Europeans to doubt that a highly developed science and technology conferred
moral superiority. The events since 1918 have only reinforced this lesson, so much so
that the very idea of progress can today only be seen as obscenely complacent.

As if this dismaying record were not enough,several important intellectual  developments
have also weakened the authority of science. Both the Kuhnian notion of the history of
science as a sequence of historically grounded but incommensurable paradigms and the
more inclusive conception of the social construction of all scientific knowledge have
challenged the claim of science, particularly in the social sciences, to objectivity and to
providing humankind with an ever closer approach to a permanently valid, context-free
truth about reality.

The environmental crisis, global in scope and local in impact, appears to necessitate
major changes in how we think about the world. In response to this challenge there
is growing recognition that interdisciplinary efforts are necessary to produce
comprehensive resolutions.

At the same time, traditional religions are suffering from their own crisis of authority,
as growing numbers of individuals, and not only in Europe, identify themselves as
either spiritual rather than religious or having no religious affiliation. The term
spirituality, as currently used, emphasizes direct experience of the sacred while
avoiding implications of narrow dogmatic beliefs and obligatory religious
observances. About 20 percent of Americans today identify themselves as “spiritual,
but not religious,” roughly half of the 40 percent who have no connection with
organized religion. Moreover, in the last several decades, the percentage of individuals
who identify themselves as Christian, a subset of the religious category, has been
dropping about one percent a year. What is behind this trend? Harvey Cox, in
Turning East, his study of why Americans look to the East for spirituality, paraphrased
a typical response of those who have made a transition from religion to spirituality,

"All I got at any church I ever went to were sermons or homilies about God,
about “the peace that passes understanding.” Words, words, words. It was
all up here [pointing to the head]. I never really felt it. It was all abstract,
never direct, always somebody else’s account of it. It was dull, boring,
cold coffee. I’d sit or kneel or stand. I’d listen or read prayers. But it
seemed lifeless. It was like reading the label instead of eating the contents.
But here it happened to me. I experienced it myself. I don’t have to take
someone else’s word for it because it happened to me. It’s still happening.
It was direct. I can never deny it."

As Harvey Cox points out, “the East Turners… are searching for a discipline that
will enable them to meet both the sacred and the secular aspects of life with a
directness not gutted by abstraction or sullied by analysis. Their quest represents
the revolt of heart against head.” Here we have a convergence of two trends, in
both spirituality and science. Those who come away from an experience where
they feel at one with the world, say that reality presents itself as cooperative, inter-
connected, friendly, even loving. Concurrently, modern science in going beyond
the mechanistic  framework of “dead particles in motion,” is discovering  cooperative
phenomena at all levels of organizational complexity from physical to social
sciences. Hence I envision a need for a center that will serve as a bridge between the
subjective world of spiritual experience and the objective world of modern
science, say a Center for Cooperative Phenomena. First, a few statistics:

  • 45% of Americans believe that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.
  • 40% believe that “man developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God guided the process.”
  • 10% believe that God had no part in the process;
  • 90% of adults believe in a “personal God” who would listen to their prayers; Among scientists only 40% do, and among members of the National Academy of Sciences that figure drops to only 7%;
  • 84% of Americans believe in miracles;
  • 31% of the public believes in astrology;
  • 51% believe in ghosts;
  • 27% believe in reincarnation;
  • 40% of Americans believe the world will come to an end within their lifetime.

These figures go far toward explaining why researchers in the United States increasingly
feel embattled and distrusted.The Kansas City Star in an article from March 6, 2005
reports how controversies “from proposals to criminalize an aspect of embryonic stem-
cell research in Missouri and Kansas, to efforts to teach “intelligent design” alongside
evolution … (are) obscuring the lines that separate science – once seen as a bastion of
the unbiased – from politics and opinion. … The tensions carry real-world implications.
A recent survey published in the journal Science showed scientists feeling pressured by
political and cultural forces to sidestep sensitive areas. “Most respondents worked hard
to avoid controversy,” the study found.”