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The Next Horizon: Re-examining Deep Values in Religion & Science

Pari, September 10-14, 2004

Essays on science and religion | Conference Participants

The Next Horizon was the third of the Pari Center’s conferences on science and religion. Or maybe a better term to use for Pari meetings would be “research seminars”. In a conventional conference a series of papers are presented with short question periods and a possible roundtable at the end. The Next Horizon was divided into a series of sessions, each with a particular theme. Prior to the meeting each participant was invited to research and make a brief presentation of a theme which was then opened for general discussion. In this way everyone is involved in active and creative debate with the possibility of something new emerging. The conference was sponsored by funding from the Metanexus Institute and the Monte dei Paschi Bank

In his opening remarks David Peat pointed to what he felt was a traditional ambiguity towards matter and nature within Western culture; an ambiguity he also felt was present in science. We had inherited a prevailing myth about the Fall of nature and of male spirit infusing feminine matter. Roger Bacon, for his part wishes to put feminine nature on the rack to obtain her secrets. Yet there were also the mystics who saw matter as inherently good, its goodness often equated with its beauty.

Galileo saw nature’s book as written in mathematics and so God became a mathematician, yet another level of abstraction from the isness of the material world. Peat ended by referring to Pauli’s observation that science was becoming obsessed by “the will to power” and his deep concern with “the lack of soul in the modern scientific conception of the world”.

Arnold Smith introduced the first session by asking some questions about modes of knowing, and whether science and religion might not both profit by examining their stance with respect to the different ways in which we can know. Scientific knowledge, for example, is discussed and reported in verbal (including mathematical) abstract terms, and theories are supported or invalidated by external, objective observation. If intuition and dreaming are acknowledged at al lin science, they occur only in the early stages of theory formation, and are not relied upon in any final account of scientific theory. In certain religious traditions, the most important form of valid knowledge is considered to be historical revelation, also thought of as external. However non-external forms of knowledge, including intuition and dreams, as well as "knowledge of the heart" and of the body, may in some cases, and by some people, be considered as valid sources of knowledge in their own right. Can attention to these epistemological issues strengthen and clarify some of the debates between religion and science? Is it time for both religion and science to take seriously the possibility that some of these more personal modes of awareness can potentially be valid sources of knowledge in their own right? Can they do this without throwing open the floodgates to a deluge of unreliable, unsubstantiated, ultimately destructive pseudo-knowledge?

In the discussion that followed, Stephen Pritchard, speaking from a background in Christian theology, suggested that there was a good deal of openness in theology both to new forms of knowing and of knowledge; that the mystical stream within each of the major religious traditions have been especially aware of personal knowledge; that there is a perennial awareness in Christian theology that all of what we have believed we have known (about God, for example) is inevitably partial and that it is therefore always part of our task to explore new ways of understanding.

In this context Roy McWeeny felt that "knowing" should be clearly distinguished from "feeling” or "believing". In the context of religion, he observed, “knowing” is often used as a synonym for believing. This, he felt, was a misuse of language. Knowledge should be established on the basis of "experience of the world around us” and does not belong to any particular social group (race, color, or creed). It is the intellectual property only of humanity itself.

For someone like himself, with that particular viewpoint on knowledge, it was difficult to subscribe to any organized religion; even when one’s moral and ethical values were not very different from those taught by many of the great religions of the world. On the other hand, two thousand years of history and slaughter resulting from blind faith in rival belief systems could often look like `tribalism'. Several of the other scientists present were less ready to concede that science's way of knowing things is limited, feeling that science in its "true" form has always been open to all valid forms of knowledge. Some of the women present were doubtful of these claims.

Robert Man opened another session by contrasting the scientific and the religious approaches. Religious faiths, he argued, are grounded in what he termed a telic understanding of reality. That is, purpose, intent, and goal-driven activity. From the Christian perspective, the telos has both large-scale features (God's plan for the cosmos and humanity) and small-scale features (the personal goals and aspirations of individuals). And understanding how to integrate these is important to any Christian theology.

In contrast to this stands the scientific or what could perhaps be called the ecbatic understanding of reality. (Derived from the Greek word, ecbatos, this concept refers to the natural course of events, driven by a combination of chance and necessity.) This perspective on reality -- namely that the behavior of any given physical systems is constrained by the laws of nature -- had been enormously successful for the pure sciences. The laws of physics and chemistry, combined with a probabilistic understanding of chance events (at both the statistical-mechanical level and at the quantum level) appear to govern the world in which we live.

For Mann the key issued became that of furnish meaningful ways to interpret the world around us, given that we accept that both telic and ecbatic views of the world. Hence the integration of these perspectives is essential if we are to further our understanding of ourselves and our world. Clearly it remains a major task to understand how to bring these two world views together.

In another session, Basil Hiley talked about the notion of 'quantum potential' or 'information potential' introduced by David Bohm (a non-classical potential which does not correspond to a physical force, but rather shapes the behavior of a particle by carrying information about its environment, just as a radar 'shapes' the navigation of a ship). The information potential places a mind-like quality in the heart of what is ordinarily considered inert matter. It suggests a vision of reality in which mind and matter are not separate domains, but shifting aspects of an inseparable whole. What appears as matter on one level can be further analyzed into a matter-like aspect and a mind-like aspect on another level. In this approach therefore the spiritual dimension, which we ordinarily associate exclusively with brains endowed with a certain level of complexity, permeates the totality of existence.

Douglas Kindschi and Stephen Pickard introduced a session on Creativity and Innovation, Authority and Certainty. Pickard asked: What can religion contribute to science? Maybe by prompting scientists to ask themselves questions like: Who am I as an enquirer? Why is this task important? How does it contribute to the larger whole of humanity?

Douglas Kindschi pointed out that when science and religion seek their deepest values they discover uncertainty and even indecidability at the core . The history of science shows that we can never have the final word in any theory or approach. In particular the twentieth century has revealed indeterminacy (in quantum mechanics) and undecidability (in mathematics). For its part religion has also been tempted to proclaim certainty, but it too must rediscover its limits in the recognition that it is part of the creation and is not the creator. Belief in God does not give us the ability to know what can only be known by the divine. At the core of both science and religion therefore there is deep mystery and thus there should also be a deep sense of humility. We don't know it all. We are not gods. We should accept what Jacob Bronowski called the Principle of Tolerance. It is only in this way, Kindschi suggested, we can be open to new knowledge in science and new wisdom in religion.

For his part Stephen Pickard, as a professional theologian, found the dialogue with physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and economists fascinating. As a theologian he always searches for the deeper order and it was fascinating to discover that the scientific task also finds itself increasingly driven and called into the deeper mysteries of the order and energy of the world. He felt that the meeting provoked the fundamental question: who are we who inquire and collaborate together? This, Pickard argued, is a question about the nature of being human and our insatiable desire/curiosity we have to know, explore and understand. The conditions for this interdisciplinary work are increasingly marked by the need for humility, commitment to discovery, anticipation of remarkable innovations, and the struggle for wisdom in it all. In short, as a theologian, he felt it important to foster the kinds of dialogues Pari promotes.

Jan Visser wished to make the point that religious inspiration is not the exclusive province of the religiously convinced. He therefore made an appeal that the religiousness of agnostics should be recognized. Religion and science were different modes of being driven, in part, by common values. For those who profess science, and who also adhere to a particular religiously motivated faith, there may be a perceived contradiction in that a person may not be in these two modes at the same time. Visser, however, saw that as a particular case of what Neils Bohr referred to as complementarity, in which reality cannot be exhausted though one single example or approach but requires complementary explanations. To give a particular example, a person cannot at the same time analyze a poem and appreciate its lyricism.

When it came to the bettering of humankind, via religion or via science, Visser felt it was important to distinguish between the institutionalized power structure that underlies the scientific enterprise and the liberated scientific mind, just as much as one must separate true religious experience from the impositions of the religious enterprise.

In a further session, Edy Altes, who by profession had been a diplomat, addressed the issue of fundamentalism. He felt that it was a fallacy to view religions, or for that matter, science, as being the cause of war. On the other hand, he felt that fundamentalism in both camps is host to the poisonous seeds of war. He was particularly concerned about the spread of terrorism and its reaction that, in spreading fear, it can then promote large-scale military interventions. It was a tragedy that progress in science had lead to the art of eliminating humanity, reaching its peak with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

He referred to the observation by John Avery that we were living in a particularly dangerous age, one that combines space-age science & stone-age politics. There was much discussion on how politicians and policy makers could be convinced of the dangers that face us. In this context Roy McWeeny and Jan Visser argued that the language of science is the true universal language. Whereas the traditional organized religions had been divisive, the language of science could even be considered as playing the role of a benign religion.

Altes warned that the current dangerous spiral of fundamentalism, fear and war had to be broken. A fundamental change in humanity was required and for this it was necessary for science and religion to cooperate. Religion needed science to purify it from superstition, fanaticism and intolerance. Science needed religion in order to make it aware of its own limits. Both should be serving mankind and contributing to the betterment of life.

Eric Weislogel of the Metanexus Institute spoke of his vision for the future. He felt that those who had been promoting the constructive engagement of science and religion had tended to adopt a view that was somewhat parochial, idiosyncratic and marginal. In fact the "science and religion dialogue," should go right to the heart of humanistic learning. Far from engaging in yet another academic discipline, we should recognize that we are promoting the revitalization of the entire core of the humanities curriculum. Rather than promoting interdisciplinary activities, we should be advocates for a transdisciplinary collaboration that would yield new insights. While Weislogel was not opposed to disciplinary, analytic knowledge, he felt we should become practiced in the art of the transdisciplinary, that is, the synthetic, integral, and holistic. In fact, we need to re-learn how to see the forest for the trees.

Weislogel felt that new scientific discoveries and theories (quantum indeterminacy, non locality, emergence, chaos, systems theory, etc.), coupled with new social and economic structures (network culture, globalization, telecommunications bandwidth, etc.), will give rise to new forms of institutional structures. Just as the 12th and 13th centuries, with the rise of urban culture and the re-discovery of the materialist philosophy of Aristotle (among many other factors), saw the birth of the modern university (displacing the monasteries as the centers of learning), so our age will see the transformation of stand-alone brick-and-mortar universities into discovery/learning/ teaching nodes on a network/meshwork of a single, de-centered, "chaordic" (chaos+order), pansophic, global virtual university.

During the discussion periods Helen Ampt observed that while the questions being raised were of such importance to humanity in general, they were often discussed in quite impersonal ways. She wondered why, we as individuals with particular life stories, had the need to hide behind the abstract and called for personal exposure and emotional involvement. This lead to an interesting discussion session in which participants spoke of their more personal involvement in the issues we had discussed.


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