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Physical Chemistry

Science And Theology

June 11, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 24

Your April 30 editorial (page 3) on Carl Sagan's self-doubts and internal wrestling about "God" together with the continuing controversies on the mislabeled creationism/evolutionism debate provide more evidence to demonstrate the importance of the topic for the C&EN community. Surely, it is vastly more important than, say, the "nanobot" debate, which was treated at length by the Richard Smalley-Eric Drexler Point-Counterpoint (C&EN, Dec. 1, 2003, page 37). C&EN could serve the entire science community by a similarly solid treatment of this subject, which is relevant to both science and society.

Having presented the Hibbert Lecture in London in its centenary year (1979), I can allude to the central point of those lectures, which were published by Pergamon as "Experimenting with Truth": A very large fraction of the confusion in the "Science-Religion" debate is the confusion of these two incommensurable quantities. The Hibbert nonsectarian lectures on theology were established even earlier than the Gifford lectures on "natural theology."

The proper relation is Science:Theology: : Technology:Religion. The former set deals with theory, abstract concepts, belief. The latter deals with concrete realities—what we do with our time, money, et cetera. The former concerns "ortho-doxy" (from dogma); the latter defines for each religion's followers "ortho-praxis"—what one must practice, do. Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and others never got it. They never read or cited any current literature on what religions do, such as "liberation theologians" in the world's largest Catholic country.

An earlier Gifford Lecturer, the distinguished astrophysicist Carl Friedrich von WeizsÄcker, who died on April 28, ended his book, "The History of Nature," with this admonition to the world: "The scientific and technical world of modern man is the result of his daring enterprise, knowledge without love. Such knowledge is in itself neither good nor bad. Its worth depends on what power it serves. Its ideal has been to remain free of any power. Thus it has freed man step by step of all his bonds of instinct and tradition, but has not led him into the new bond of love."

Religion tells one what to do, with knowledge or anything else, not what to believe.

Rustum Roy
Arizona State University/Penn State University

Your editorial was interesting and thought-provoking. You quote Sagan as stating that "this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religion." I respectfully beg to differ.

Here is an insight from a distant past. It is fascinating to realize that emerging astrophysical theories of the universe that seem to indicate the existence of multiple universes and whose details are rooted in abstract mathematical formalisms are essentially in agreement with the cosmology described in ancient Hindu mythological and religious texts—the Puranas. Written between 300 and 1000 A.D., the Puranas describe how the gods Brahma (the Creator) and Shiva (the Destroyer, in his role as Time) cyclically create and annihilate the universe, respectively, "implying what is explicit in the Puranic mythology of time, that periodically the universe collapses into itself to become pure potential, after which all phenomena reemerge once again as before." In a modern interpretation of the celestial "Dance of Shiva," Ananda K. Coomaraswamy explicitly describes the appearance and destruction of matter.

In their translation of classical Hindu mythology, Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen's detailed description demonstrates that the ancient Hindus were amazingly prescient in melding cosmology into their religious ethos. The 11th-century account of the Arab scholar Alberuni provides details of the number system used by the Hindus and indicates that they were very comfortable with the notion of astronomically large numbers and infinities.

Thank you for your recent series of thoughtful and thought-provoking editorials. This feature has become the section that I look forward to reading the most in your newsmagazine.

Rama Viswanathan
Beloit, Wis.

I thought your editorial provided much food for thought, especially since Sagan had so many brilliant thoughts and was a remarkable scientific communicator. Thank you!

Sam Haywood
San Bernardino, Calif.

Kudos on the editorial "Science and Natural Theology" describing the collected Gifford Lectures of Sagan. I'm not familiar with the book "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," edited by Ann Druyan, but it will be at the top of my reading list. Quotes like "The God portrayed is too small" and "[do] not ... foist emotional predispositions ... but ... courageously accept what our explorations tell us" would seem to make this a valuable resource.

In the same issue, the article "Science of Homeschooling" is both excellent and needed. The dearth of nonreligious-based materials is disturbing, although the several programs mentioned obviously need more publicity. Even parents who are not necessarily atheists need nonreligious-based materials. In addition, nonbiased reviews of the religious-based materials (especially the labs) are needed so that the academic achievements of those students homeschooled with these materials can be properly evaluated. Much of the creationist and intelligent design cant I've seen exhibits extensive ignorance of, or misinformation about, several topics, including thermodynamics and thermochemistry of chemical reactions.

I'm disturbed by the views of several of the contributors, both secular and religious, denying the value of labs. Even if labs are performed, misconceptions apparently abound. Unless one is merely diluting glacial acetic acid for further use, grocery-store vinegar is not a substitute for the pure or concentrated compound.

Bob Buntrock
Orono, Maine



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