Thursday, April 18, 2013


Jane & Janeway on Science & Religion

I like synchronicity. A couple of days ago I saw an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that I thought nicely spoke to the difference between a belief in science as a tool and when that belief becomes scientism, which "exalts the methods of the natural sciences above all other modes of human inquiry." Then, today, I happened upon an essay by primatologist Jane Goodall that also touched upon the subject. In neither case was I expecting the subject matter to include the so-called conflict between science and religion. Below is an excerpt from Goodall as published in chapter 13 of The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words by Nancy K. Frankenberry, ed.
I was taught as a scientist to think logically and empirically, rather than intuitively or spiritually. When I was at Cambridge University in the early 1960s most of the scientists and science students working in the Department of Zoology, so far as I could tell, were agnostic or even atheist. Those who believed in a God kept it hidden from their peers.

... there are many windows through which we humans, searching for meaning, can look out into the world around us. There are those carved out by Western science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant minds. Through them we can see ever farther, ever more clearly, into areas which until recently were beyond human knowledge.

... Yet there are other windows through which we humans can look out into the world around us, windows through which the mystics and holy men of the East, and the founders of the great world religions, have gazed as they searched for the meaning and purpose of our life on earth, not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. And those Masters contemplated the truths that they saw, not with their minds only but with their hearts and souls too. From those revelations came the spiritual essence of the great scriptures, the holy books, and the most beautiful mystic poems and writings. That afternoon [in May 1981 in the Gombe forest], it had been as though an unseen hand had drawn back a curtain and, for the briefest moment, I had seen through such a window. In a flash of "outsight" I had known timelessness and quiet ecstasy, sensed a truth of which mainstream science is merely a small fraction.
Below is an excerpt of dialogue from the Voyager episode, "Sacred Ground" by Dr. Geo Athena Trevarthen a.k.a. Geo Cameron. The encounter has a delightfully wry feel to it. The setting is that Captain Janeway has undergone an arduous religious ritual in order to obtain scientific data to help a crew member, Kes, mortally injured by a "biogenic field" after approaching a shrine. She has returned to Voyager with her information but it has proven fruitless in helping Kes. Desperate to help Kes, Janeway returns to the sanctuary where she had earlier encountered three elders while undergoing the "meaningless ritual".
Male Elder 1 (ME1): Well. Look who's come back. So, your little adventure didn't quite work out the way you'd planned it. You put yourself through a lot of trouble and for nothing, didn't you?

Male Elder 2 (ME2): Don't feel bad. You wouldn't believe some of the things people have done to themselves on their way to seek the Spirits.

Janeway (J): So there's no real ritual after all.

ME2: "Real" is such a relative term. Most of the challenges in life are the ones we create for ourselves.

Female Elder (FE): And you are particularly hard on yourself, aren't you?

J: I've always been driven to succeed.

ME1: Stubborn, I'd say. You didn't really consider sitting and waiting with us, did you?

J: Well, I'm here now, and I'm asking for your help. I want understand the purpose of waiting in this room.

FE: But isn't it enough enough to sit and be sociable? We're good company.

J: That's what I'm supposed to do, talk to the Ancestral Spirits.

FE: Oh (giggles), first we were a test, and now we're the Ancestral Spirits.
J: Are you?

ME1: That would be nice and quantifiable for you, wouldn't it? If the Spirits were something that you could see and touch and scan with your little devices.

ME2: If you can explain everything, what's left to believe in?

J: I know it's an important part of your religion to trust the Spirits without question, but I wasn't brought up that way. It's hard for me to accept.

ME1: So much for your tolerant, open-minded Star Fleet ideals.

J: There's a difference between respecting the spiritual beliefs of other cultures and embracing them myself.

ME1: Fine. Don't embrace a thing. It's all the same to us. Go on back to your ship and play with your molecular microscanner.

FE: You've tried all that already, but it didn't work, did it? Kes didn't get better.

J: No, she didn't.

FE: Why not?

J: The Doctor couldn't explain it.

FE: So, it's inexplicable. A miraculous non-recovery.

J: We haven't found the reason yet.

FE: But of course you will. You'll find all the answers eventually with enough time and study and the right sort of tools. That's what you believe, isn't it, as a scientist?

ME1: Be honest.

J: Yes, that's what I've always believed.

ME2: Even when her science fails right before her eyes, she still has full confidence in it. Now there's a leap of faith.

FE: Unconditional trust. Now that's promising.

J: All right ... if you're saying that science won't help Kes, what will?

ME1: You won't like it.

J: I'm willing to do whatever's necessary.

ME1: Kill her ...

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