Foreword from Karl Giberson: The following post is from Nisha Khubchandani, one of my honors students at Stonehill College, a senior Biology major taking my class Science & Belief, a popular General Education option. The class opens with a discussion of CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” combined with an essay I wrote on the degree to which the “New Atheists” are assuming the role of Snow’s “Third Culture” – the literate public intellectuals who explain the meaning of life to the rest of us.
Nisha’s discussion was so insightful that I wanted to share it on my website. It has been lightly edited.
The “two cultures” is all too relevant of a description of my relationship with my non-science peers. I recall a conversation I had with one of my good friends, who majored in English at Stonehill College. We argued about whether science or humanities is better in terms of resourcefulness for humans. English and the humanities provide language and discussion, creation and ideas, my friend argued. I pushed back with my belief that science is the core of life. It describes in a very physical manner how we survive, and what good is a conversation if we cannot inhale oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide, and contribute to the ecosystem that ultimately feeds our lives?
As I ponder the idea of the “two cultures,” as CP Snow phrased it, I realize that the very purpose of both humanities, particularly religion, and science is quite similar. Our curiosity as humans leads us to discuss stories, whether based on history or not, that account for the world as we view it. Our same curiosity, manifested in a vastly different form in the minds of more science-prone people, leads us to analyze the world on a more microscopic level. It’s simply a different means of exploration.
So does that mean that science could become a religion? I believe so. What purpose does religion serve? It explains our origin, our relevance, and our method of living. Traditional religions do so in a very obvious way, but I believe science does as well. Science accounts for our physical presence and our origin in terms of evolution and the Big Bang. It relates us to the ecosystem. It has given us biologically based morals that have become genetically permanent due to the survival of the fittest.
We read of how evolution has made us averse to both touching rancid meat and pursuing intimacy with relatives because of fitness concerns. I struggled to understand how touching meat could be classified as an immoral act from the perspective of a “scientific religion,” even though evolution has ingrained this “rule” in us. However, I soon realized that morals differ between all religions. Abortion in one religion is deemed immoral but some disagree. Contact with meat before entering a sacred temple may be seen as immoral for certain religions as well, while others may prefer sacrifice of meats as a means of worship. Thus, science can have its own defined set of morals based on trial and error and survival of the fittest alone. Not all morals fit into all religions after all.
I’d also like to address the example in the reading of how people enjoy sermons more than scientific lectures. Does the enthusiasm present in a church service and apparently missing in the lecture indicate that science would have trouble serving as an alternative religion? Surely, the process of listening to a lecture is not quite the same as singing along to a hymn, but the drive that brings people to either activity is in fact enthusiasm. People care about church on Sunday and people care about science. Science is indeed joyful and invokes awe for some people as it serves a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world in which we reside. Devotion itself is an expression of enthusiasm. The joy in the eyes of scientists at research universities who finally make progress in their long-term research or the excitement a scientist feels when he or she finally understands a difficult concept is simply a different manifestation of the feeling a person gets when feeling connected to the world through song lyrics in the church setting. It’s about different types of passion and dissimilar yet entirely similar ways of feeling like a part of the universe.
I do not believe that science has only a quasi-religious character. I think for many people it satisfies the same aspects of human needs as more traditional religions. Humans want to understand their worlds, overcome universal mysteries, and get a sense of their own roles in life. They do so by creating images of the world. This image is either a historical or even mythical account, or a more scientific perspective. It’s a different lens. However, we all want to view the world through a lens because we all have that imaginative spark. People generally agree - it’s just that the other side of the conversation states their opinions wrong.
So, is it such a horrible idea that the world has two cultures, one that is very much science prone and one that is more humanities based? I respond simply: Yes. People may have different lenses but it surely should not create a divide that prohibits fruitful conversations and discussions about our world and solutions to issues we face. Based on my “Professional Ethics in Biochemistry and Chemistry" course and the typical public reactions approaches to science that the class analyzed, it is clear that many people are simply not interested in scientific reasoning, especially when it comes to hot debates such as climate change. I suppose some find it disengaging or confusing. Perhaps their lack of interest relates to Stephen Weinberg’s point in The First Three Minutes that a world that is void of mystery is simply pointless. Maybe a common viewpoint is that religion provides a sense of unknowing and thus hope, while science provides all the answers and proves the world to be a despairing and simply systematic environment that has no real purpose or meaning. That scares people. Therefore, how could science ever replace religion? It could never provide that same connection to a greater purpose.
On the contrary, science is like a building full of random pathways and secret doors. Once you unlock a secret door, you want to explore the room that leads to a new hallway. You never want to stop at the door. Sure, the secret door is in and of itself interesting, but the point is to find more. That is what science is. Science could never answer all the questions. The more we discover, the more questions arise. The beauty of science is that it constantly generates the same curiosity and awe that it originally tempted us with. So, in my opinion, science does not provide a clear-cut answer to what the universe is. Therefore, the world could never be fully understood and could never seem entirely pointless. Yes, science tends to be a means of discovery but it is an ongoing process.
Still, science can scare people. As Snow argues, people are more willing to admit that they are not fond of science than to admit that they never have read Shakespeare. This leaves scientists preaching only to the choir, ironically. At some point, only certain scientists stand out as public figures: the very extremists who do not believe in religion at all. In turn, a specific perspective that represents only a portion of scientists becomes the general idea attached to the field as a whole, creating the notion that science is meant to replace religion. However, this is not true in the slightest. Many scientists are to some degree religious, as research has shown. They may not believe in every aspect of religion, but I do think that many have the same hopes that religious people hold and therefore tend to look to religion for answers that may never be explained by science. They may use science as a means of processing, but that does not limit them to science alone. For instance, I am a huge science nerd, but I am also a Hindu who believes in God. The world and humankind are simply not as binary as we perceive, and this notion must become a part of the science-religion dialog. Simultaneous existence is possible.
So indeed, different people prefer different lenses, but I do believe that a majority of people fall in the middle of a spectrum without a clear preference for either religion or science. It is important that more scientists who fall among this category become part of this emerging third culture so that science can be introduced as a true alternative religion, as it does seem to have great potential to be such, and people can become more open to science.
It is in this way that humans can face the challenges that approach us, as Lawrence Krauss writes in “An Update on C. P. Snow's ‘Two Cultures.’” Science could become a greater part of our culture and lead to solutions to our challenges.