This week I was a guest blogger at London’s Jewish Book Week. I reviewed a debate about religion and science between Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Oxford University’s Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. The auditorium was packed to the gills, rock-concert style, and I’m happy to report that fireworks flew, fizzed and flamed out. Here’s what I observed….

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‘Science offers explanations and religion confers meaning,’ said Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

This was his opening gambit in a mind-bendingly wide-ranging discussion with Marcus du Sautoy that was effectively a bridge-building exercise – an antidote, if you will, to the bitter stand-off that existed between du Sautoy’s direct predecessor at Oxford, Richard Dawkins, and the entire religious world.

Anyone hoping for a round of intellectual fisticuffs would have felt slightly let down by the spirit of bonhomie suffusing proceedings, by the back-patting and hand-shaking and general cosines: Sacks and du Sautoy shared a sofa, leaving Jonathan Glaser to chair from, well, another chair.

The consensus building began with Sacks and du Sautoy agreeing that science and religion, both, are concerned with life’s big questions. Often the same questions, such as: why is there something and not nothing?

They also agreed that there are plenty of things we cannot know. Here, du Sautoy trumped Sacks by pointing out that mathematics can actually prove we don’t know things. If we determine the position of an electron, he said, we cannot determine its speed. And if we know how fast it’s traveling, we cannot say where it is.  Just as importantly, Gödel’s Theorem shows that mathematics can make true statements (about infinities, say) that cannot be axiomatically proven.

Science has its mysteries as well as religion…. But, according to du Sautoy, religion is complacent about mysteries, whereas science does its best to resolve them. Science isn’t content to marvel at the universe being a precision-made instrument – a starting point for the kind of natural theology that styles God as a watchmaker. It wants to know why the universe is so finely tuned.

Sacks, for his part, offered multiple appreciations of science. He admired its aesthetics and poetry, as well as the service it performs in explaining us to ourselves. For all that, he was adamant that with evolutionary theory Darwin refuted Aristotelian science, and not religion, by proving there are no purposes in nature.

If you’re wondering how Sacks can be so comfortable with science, so generous towards Darwin and Freud and cognitive science and biological science and physics and mathematics and geology and cosmology (yes, we love the Big Bang, too; that’s no problem for theists), it is because he knows that while science does a sterling job of unraveling The System – life, the universe, everything! – it cannot touch the matter of God. God, you see, is beyond The System.

For atheists, like du Sautoy, there is nothing beyond The System. Which implies that if we’re after meaning we have to look to ourselves to provide it — our stories, including religion, our mythologies and our science.

As the discussion wore on, differences between the two men became increasingly apparent, even as the bear hugs grew more intense. ‘I believe that faith is the courage to live with uncertainty’, said Sacks. ‘And I have faith’ said du Sautoy,  ‘that there will ultimately be an explanation; that we will know how nothing can become something, how a zero can become one, how a void can fill with particles.’

If there was poetry from the panel, there was also wit from the floor. Is there progress in religion as well as science? asked one listener. The question was expertly fielded by Sacks who said that every time our paradigms shift, so too does our understanding of religious texts and religion thereby progresses.

Is there a method – much as there is a scientific method  – by which religion can test its truths? This too was well handled by Sacks. He said that history was that method. Our values and belief systems are perpetually tested by human behavior. ‘Does the movement of history lead us to acts of graciousness and justice?’ asked Sacks, ‘Can it bring peace? And reconciliation?’

Du Sautoy conceded that science isn’t very good at explaining how society works. Personally speaking, however, he doesn’t care. He’d be perfectly happy, he said, reducing everything to a function of Schrodinger’s equation. This struck me as a bit like the answer to life’s essential mystery in the Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being 42. To a mathematician that’s beautiful: precise, concise and potentially revisable.

But the rabbi would probably say, now where’s the story in that?

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