Adam Frank is an astrophysicist and a man on a mission. It’s a brave mission, one which cuts strongly against the grain of the science vs. religion zeitgeist. It’s probably a mission which won’t succeed.
Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate is the book’s subtitle, and in fact if you ignore the first word you’ll be expecting a very different book. Frank feels that all of the sound and fury behind the debate either misses the point or accomplishes nothing. It is not about the debate, and if you’re looking for that kind of thing you won’t find it in these pages. This is attempt to go beyond the debate.
How so? Three ways, which each constitute one of the three sections of the book. The first is some building of common ground. Frank deserves high marks in particular for the chapters examining the history of the conflict, which had often had its actual history distorted beyond recognition. In many cases the famous early skirmishes concerning famous scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno were in fact often proxy wars fought by political powers using religion and science as an excuse to assert their own territorial claims. During the same periods science was in fact practiced perfectly happily by people of all varieties of religious opinions, including extensively by actual clergy. The stereotype of the battle between the lab coat and the clerical robe is one that only began to express itself extensively in the 19th century, for obvious reasons.
Taking the case studies of evolution and quantum mechanics (cf. Deepak Chopra and related ideas), he discusses in two chapters what might be called the modern version of the conflict. It’s a competent review, but I suspect that if you’re in the market for this book you’ll be quite familiar with the content which has of course been done to death from all sides from Dennett to Collins. Or Day, for that matter.
Things begin to get interesting as he pushes through the other direction. He argues that the fundamental character of religious experience is the experience itself. Creeds and beliefs are secondary structures which form around those experiences, and those experiences – he prefers the term sacred – need not have anything to do with the supernatural at all. Those experiences can happen when looking at a beautiful Hubble telescope image, or contemplating the symmetry of physical laws, or almost anything else you care to name. The experiences need not be inspired by religion or science, but they can be inspired by either or both. In this sense he describes science as a hierophany – a generator of sacred experiences. Lest anyone get antsy over this, he emphasizes the purely experiential character of these feelings of the sacred. This is the kind of thing where neuroscience and philosophy of science can lead quickly into the fever swamps. Frank discusses this over a few pages, concluding that empirical description of brain states is not the same thing as “the fundamental presence of these phenomena as the field of our experience.” Which it isn’t.
Having built up his foundation of experience as the fundamental sacred thing, he going on to look at two more case studies, the origin of the universe and climate change as things which resonate with humans as myth in the literary sense. The final sections of the book flesh out where sacred experience and science might find themselves in the future of mankind. It’s an interesting read, and by that point how you feel about this part of the discussion will be entirely contingent on how you feel about the sacred as purely experiential and science as a conduit for that experience.
The weakness of this interesting approach is one of continuity. To get beyond the science vs. religion conflict you’re going to have to get the combatants to stop fighting. Scientists and religious people (and the not insubstantial intersection of those sets) believe what they believe because they hold those things to be factually true. Frank may be able to get the arrayed battle lines to think about things in a more clear and nuanced way, but fundamentally the battle lines will still be there. When Frank says early on that “This book is actually atheistic or at least nontheistic. I am not interested in theism, ideas about God, but in the profound experience of the world as sacred,” he has picked a side. It’s not possible to move beyond a conflict once you’ve picked a side. You’re involved, win or lose.
But as an inspiration for scientists to pay more attention to the awe that the universe can inspire, I think it’s successful. As an inspiration for the public to think of the seemingly abstract facts of science in a more immediate and experiential way, well, it can’t hurt to try!
[Disclosure: The publisher kindly provided a free review copy and asked if I'd consider reviewing the book. I'm always up for some interesting reading, so I did.]