The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs Religion Debate

Celia Deane-Drummond admires the author's passion, but not his philosophy

March 19, 2009

The most striking aspect of this book is the passion that Adam Frank displays in writing about his experience as a scientist. He is so passionate, in fact, that he is prepared to name it as a constant fire emerging from the need to know what is true and real on the one hand, and a response to the world's beauty and power on the other.

Yet in contrast to other scientists who have made similar admissions, Frank is prepared to compare this passion favourably with religious experience. With a devotion reminiscent of some strands in contemporary theology that turn to experience as the primary source of revelation, he bewails the fact that, according to him, much of the discourse in science and religion has been barking up the wrong tree in its conflictual representation of debates. Leaving aside the fact that the experience of conflict is one that he has admitted to himself in proposing such a position, there are facets of this view that are worth taking seriously.

Many will warm to his notion that lived experiences of life's spiritual aspects need to be taken seriously. In other words, Frank is prepared to confront those scientists who reject religious experience in the name of science, while admitting to an elevated state of consciousness or wonder in their encounters with the natural world through science. He is perceptive in his appreciation that the fervent dismissal of all religious experiences by what might be termed the new atheist scientists is simply a mirror image of fundamentalist religious traditions, for both commit the same mistake.

He is also correct in a very general way that storytelling or myth-making makes ideas live, and he employs this to great effect in The Constant Fire by offering snippets of autobiographical narrative alongside biographies drawn from eminent scientists ranging from Albert Einstein through to a personal account of his encounter with the biologist Ursula Goodenough.

Alongside these biographies, he interjects powerful scientific narratives drawn from his clear knowledge of the early history of the cosmos and the evolutionary account of human origins, as well as graphic details about more recent scientific breakthroughs in space exploration and climate change. He is not content to rest here, however, for he also includes epic stories taken from more explicitly mythological traditions. All this makes for a lively text that readily engages the reader, so that something of the fire he speaks about can be caught rather than simply taught.

Yet there are serious difficulties with this book. In the first place, the constant fire that he speaks about is certainly not a new idea. Palaeontologist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote about such issues in the first half of the 20th century, and so have many other nature mystics before him - but none is acknowledged here.

Frank's scant attention to philosophy is naive inasmuch as his pantheist position, mixed up with a heavy reliance on Jungian psychology, sits uneasily with unexamined assumptions embedded in the philosophy of science. He is also incorrect in assuming that we have to make a crude choice between naturalist faith born of experience of science and the supernatural Judaeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, if he had been rather more informed about the current state of the science and religion debate he disparages, rather than merely the media conflicts that he equates with that debate, then he would have been able to acknowledge God as agent in the world without assuming that such agency involves breaking natural laws.

There are also aspects of the scientific narrative of early human origins described in the book that are worth challenging. For example, there is no evidence that natural empathy for animals had to be offset by hunting myths, or that notions of transcendence emerged to heal the lived experience of a sense of loss of the golden age surfacing in cultural myths around the world. His heavy reliance on Karen Armstrong and Joseph Campbell in religious studies would make any more academically informed reader cringe. But Frank seems cavalier about any need for such accountability: while he pays lip service to possible objections, he dismisses them with a sleight of hand.

There is, however, an even deeper problem that needs to be aired. While I fully endorse his sense that we are approaching a period of history that will be pivotal for the future of both humanity and life on the planet in general, his belief that science reformulated in the manner he suggests is sufficient or even necessary is profoundly mistaken.

Although he is attracted to the language of spirituality rather than that of God, such spirituality, like other pantheisms before it, does not hold within itself the seeds for responsible human decision-making. Science needs to be allowed to flourish in its own world, even if we can agree that facets of scientific experience have some kinship with religion.

Frank's position ultimately fails because although it escapes from the materialism and reductionism that has dogged much of modern science since the Enlightenment, it has no resources with which to critique the scientific project - it simply bolsters it with a psycho-spirituality embedded in a soft naturalistic theology.

Science informed by a version of "spirituality" either ripped free or merely resonating with other cultural traditions cannot bear the weight imposed on it, for it represents the partial wisdom of pseudo-synthesis rather than genuine dialogue. As such, it generates a grand narrative of epic proportions, one that is likely to silence alternative voices in either science or theology, thereby removing cultural variety. In its absolutism, it becomes a hegemony that is just as problematic as the religious institutions that Frank has taken the trouble to reject.

Nonetheless, at times Frank does qualify his remarks by suggesting that the spiritual experience in science is not intended to be identical to that in religion - both are "gateways" to the truth. But the thrust of his argument seems to be that the spirituality emerging in the former takes priority over the latter, for according to him it is the myths experienced in science that give us clues for a bright new world.

This account of the future, what theologians call eschatology, is ultimately one that finds the sacred in the secular. Yet this is not wisdom in the manner hinted at by Frank, for it lacks all reference to the criteria born of centuries of reflection on religious tradition.

The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs Religion Debate

By Adam Frank

University of California Press 304pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780520254121

Published 25 November 2008

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