Monday, 11 April 2011

The Templeton Foundation

There's been a bit of a fuss over Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees accepting the Templeton Prize. You see, the award is given annually for 'Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities'. And Martin Rees is an atheist, a fact which he didn't seem to think relevant when accepting the award, not to mention the million pounds that goes with it. But my, aren't the other academic atheists upset. Peter Atkins was being very snooty about it on the Today programme; and, of course, Richard Dawkins had to add his own dismissive comment in The Independent.

But listening to evangelical atheists extoling the virtues of science, dismissing the 'irrational' and promulgating the myth that what they do is wholly evidence-based annoyed me, for some reason. I'm no theist; neither am I atheist; I'm no flat-earther; I'm no Bishop Ussher nutter either.

But 'rational' science isn't always quite as rational as it seems. At the business end (I'm taking, after the experiments are done, when a scientist sits down to make sense of them, to understand them, to explain them and to integrate them with everything else he knows to be true) comes something which is - of course - based on evidence but which isn't really 'fact' at all; something that has to invented, to be chosen, believed in, assented to, have faith given it. That something is a theory. Here are just a few of them, all ideas, none of them known, all 'believed in' to varying degrees and at various times and in the case of the first, believed in the the tune of funding the multi-billion euro particle accelerator at CERN.

  • there is a mysterious, invisible particle, smaller that the smallest element of an atom which nobody has seen but that has to exist in order to make the mathematical calculations about the origin of our universe correct;
  • and talking of the sub-atomic, no-one's entirely sure why, but particles can pop in and out of existence (or in and out of different dimensions) quite randomly. Again, this is just theory; a theory necessary to make the maths add up;
  • The universe is made of string. Yes, string. But not any old string, oh no. Super string. I kid you not.

Of course, we shouldn't assume that these beliefs won't be proved true, become facts, be supported by heaps of empirical evidence and cease to be matters of scientific faith forever. Some, that is. Because others have already been abandoned. Having been accepted as self-evident truth for a great many years, both 'The Big Crunch' (which states that the universe will begin to contract under the relentless force of gravity) and Freud's theory of the subconscious are now no more than discarded out-of-date ideas. And there are many, many more. But that's how scientists make progress. They move from believing one thing to another. And, as they never cease to remind us, those beliefs are rational. Because they're based on evidence.

Well, here's my thought for the day. Maybe religion is a rational response - a belief, a theory - to the human condition, to our morality, to ultimate mysteries? There's plenty of evidence, after all: our lives, our relationships, our moral instincts, even a so-called 'spiritual' urge which seems to have been around as long as we have. Of course none of this can be proved 'rationally'. But to suggest it can or belittle it because it can't seems to be like saying there's nothing more to music than the black dots on a page, or to a poem than the ink on the paper. You can never prove rationally why it's wrong to commit murder. Try it; it just won't work. But that doesn't mean we should abandon our faith in that principle, or that we shouldn't construct a theory to explain it.