The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby had an interesting thought-piece in yesterday’s paper.
Did you hear about the religious fundamentalist who wanted to teach physics at Cambridge University? This would-be instructor wasn’t simply a Christian; he was so preoccupied with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled “Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John.” Based on his reading of Daniel, in fact, he forecast the date of the Apocalypse: no earlier than 2060. He also calculated the year the world was created. When Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning,” he determined, it means 3988 BC.
Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely “intelligent design” but out-and-out divine creation.
The man in question is Sir Isaac Newton, whom Cambridge nominated to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics in 1668.
Jacobson’s thesis here is that Newton may offer us an example of how religious faith and scientific pursuits may be reconciled.
To be sure, religious dogma can be a blindfold, blocking truths from those who refuse to see them. Scientific dogma can have the same effect. Neither faith nor reason can answer every question. As Newton knew, the surer path to wisdom is the one that has room for both.
His examples harsh on science (Oxford’s Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion,” NAS classifying religion with myth) without counterbalancing examples. Of course, religious attacks on science no doubt get more play in the Globe, and I’m sure Jacoby’s readers don’t need his help conjuring examples.
The column is a little simplistic in its ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ message, but I think that encouraging harmony among the religious and the scientific is certainly a worthy cause. If we want science to help guide our policymaking, and we do, we’ll need to reach consensuses with people of faith. We may also need to provide a united front against zealots on both sides who threaten to spoil consensus.
Science doesn’t, and can’t, have all the answers. Being careful with our words and knowing where to draw the line between the knowable and the unknowable can help quell disquiet among science’s and religion’s faithful.