Seeking inspiration in science

March 11, 2005

There's nothing sinister about scientists and theologians working together, says Paul Davies

Two centuries ago, the origin and fate of the universe, the emergence of life and the nature of consciousness lay firmly in the province of religion and philosophy. Today they are part of science.

Inevitably, scientists are now revisiting the age-old questions: Why is the universe as it is? Where do the laws of nature come from? What is the place of thinking beings in the grand scheme?

Though these metaphysical matters are not strictly part of science, they fascinate scientists and non-scientists alike.

Nevertheless, some ask whether topics at the interface of science and religion should be kept out of mainstream academic life.

In a recent Times Higher article (February 25), Sunny Bains raises legitimate concerns about the funding of such research by religious organisations that might have a hidden agenda. And she singles out the Templeton Foundation, which spends millions of pounds a year in this area.

If the foundation were indeed a religious organisation with its own specific doctrine, her objections would have substance. In fact, it is nothing of the sort.

The benefactor, Sir John Templeton, bemoans the way that religious leaders often claim to have all the answers. Imagine, he says, consulting a doctor about an ailment, only to find him reaching for a volume of Hippocrates.

Yet priests rely on ancient scriptures to deliver spiritual guidance.

Sir John wants to address the big questions of existence with humility and open-mindedness, adopting the model of scientific research in place of religious dogma.

"How little we know!" is his favourite aphorism. It is a radical message, as far from religious fundamentalism as it is possible to get.

So what sort of research does the foundation support?

Later this month I shall run a Templeton workshop at Stanford University with the cosmologist Andrei Linde. The subject is "the multiverse", the fashionable theory that the region of the universe we observe is but a small component of a much larger and more elaborate system involving many big bangs.

It is an idea that raises questions about which features of familiar physics are law-like and which are merely frozen accidents locked in by chance as our universe cooled from the big bang.

A related research project, which also receives Templeton money, is being conducted by John Barrow of Cambridge University and John Webb of the University of New South Wales. They are analysing astronomical evidence for possible changes in the fundamental properties of atoms over billions of years, an effect that would have sweeping implications for our understanding of the nature of physical law.

Other recurring research themes supported by the foundation are the search for extra-solar planets, the properties of liquid water, the evolution of primate behaviour, emergent properties of complex systems, the foundations of quantum mechanics and the biological and social bases for forgiveness in areas of human conflict.

In none of these projects is anything like a preferred religious position encouraged or an obligation imposed to support any religious group.

Britain is a post-religious society. Yet ordinary men and women still yearn for some sort of deeper meaning to their lives.

Can science point the way? Science has traditionally been regarded as dehumanising and alienating, trivialising the significance of humans and celebrating the pointlessness of existence.

But many scientists, atheists included, see it differently. They experience what Einstein called "a cosmic religious feeling" when reflecting on the majesty of the cosmos and the extraordinary elegance and ingenuity of its mathematical laws.

Science cannot and should not be a substitute for religion. But I see nothing sinister or unprofessional about scientists working with open-minded theologians to explore how science might be a source of inspiration rather than demoralisation.

Paul Davies is professor of natural philosophy at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He won the 1995 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and is a member of the board of trustees of the John Templeton Foundation.

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