Science Marches On

A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.

The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?

I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.

The Science of Being Human

Not so long ago, when I was still a professor, a colleague told me he had no interest in science. We studied religion, he reasoned, and science had little to add. I was in the midst of a research project at the time. That project was exploring how what we know of evolution (or knew at the time) might inform our understanding of ancient texts. Of course, I was working in relative isolation, noting in my cover letters to universities that my research would benefit from an institution with a cooperative and collegial atmosphere between the sciences and humanities. If you’ve read this blog before, you know how that ended. No cooperative schools ever thought such research was worth sponsoring. After all, there are younger, less expensive specialists out there examining ancient religions in microscopic detail. The rest of the world, of course, wonders why.

This divide, as so eloquently delineated by Marcelo Gleiser in a piece on NPR, is starting to grow narrower. Science is taking us, in many fields, very close to the humanities. And we can’t make sense of some of it without admitting our human limitations. This is what I so admire about Gleiser’s writing—he is a scientist who understands that arrogance has no place in intellectual inquiry. Biology, as I long ago expected, holds one of the keys of this dilemma. Our brains evolved for a specific purpose—to help us survive in a predatory world. They did not evolve into processing systems to comprehend, as one sage put it, life, the universe, and everything. No one brain can hold all that knowledge. Like it or not, that brain in human. And humans need humanities.

Some scholars among the humanities like to claim that science has reached too far. The problem is, any scholar who is a true scholar is also a scientist. We use scientific methods to understand our admittedly speculative, or at least subjective, subject matter. Science isn’t the enemy here. Arrogance is. As Gleiser has stated in other venues, we have to approach the world with humility. We know so very little. Part of that world is that beyond human reach, and part of that world is what humans have done. They’re both part of the larger picture. But humans live on a small planet that we now know is only one of many, many more throughout the visible universe. And we know the visible universe is only part of the story. But we can’t be honest if we forget that the minds trying to understand all this are, no matter how evolved, only human.

dscn6303