Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? HTML version
to believe there were absolute, mora l truths, not mere assumptions, but unimpeachable, eternal verities.
My mother certainly acted as if there were.
But one day, alone in my bedroom, I had the premonition that what was true of science applied to be liefs
of every sort. I realized that, as in science, political, mora l, or persona l convictions could be questioned
and might need amending or qua lifying in certain circumstances. The feeling reminded me of consulting a
dictionary and realizing that there are no final definitions, only cross references. I remember exactly
where I was standing, and how it felt, when I discovered there was no place to stand, nothing to hold on
to. I felt sobered, yet at the same time, strangely liberated. After all, if there were no absolutes, then there
might be an escape from what often seemed to me to be a confining soc ial conformity.
With this revelation, my hopes for definitive, immutable solutions to life's problems dimmed. I shared my
experience of unbelief with no one at the time, knowing that I couldn't expla in myse lf and fearing others'
mockery. I decided that to function in soc iety I would have to pretend to go along with the prevailing
consensus—at least until I could come up with something better. For decades afterwards, without
understanding why, I was drawn to people and ideas that expanded my premonition of a worldview
grounded not on immutable beliefs, but rather on a process of continua lly improving our best working
It's the essence of models that they're works in progress. While nothing could be more obvious—after all,
mode ls are all just figments of our fallible imaginations—the idea that models can change, and should be
expected to yield the ir place of privilege to better ones, has been surprisingly hard to impart.
Until relative ly recently we seem to have preferred to stick to what we know—or think we know—no
matter the consequences. Rather than judge for ourselves, we've been ready to defer to existing authority
and subscribe to received "wisdom. " Perhaps this is because of a premium put on not "upsetting the apple
cart" during a period in human history when an upright apple cart was of more importance to group
cohesiveness and survival than the fact that the cart was full of rotten apples.
Ironically, our princ ipa l heroes, saints and geniuses alike, have typically spilled a lot of apples. Very often
they are people who have championed a truth that contradicts the offic ial line.
A turning point in the history of human understanding came in the seventeenth century when one such
figure, the English physic ian William Harvey, discovered that the blood circulates through the body. His
plea—"I appeal to your own eyes as my witness and judge"—was revolutionary at a time when
physicians looked not to the ir own experience but rather accepted on faith the Greek view that blood was
made in the liver and consumed as fuel by the body. The idea that dogma be subordinated to the actual
experience of the individual seemed audacious at the time.
Another milestone was the shift from the geocentric or Ptolemaic mode l (named after the first-century
Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy) to the heliocentric mode l or Copernican mode l (after the sixteenth-century
Polish astronomer Copernicus, who is regarded by many as the father of modern science).
Until five centuries ago, it was an article of faith that the sun, the stars, and the planets revolved around
the earth, which lay motionless at the center of the universe. When the Italian scientist Ga lileo embraced
the Copernican mode l, which held that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, he was
contradicting the teaching of the Church. This was considered sacrilegious and, under threat of torture, he
was forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, making further astronomical
discoveries and writing books for posterity. In 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Roman
Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun.