Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May 27th, 2010

It’s not hard to imagine the jaws dropping onto desktops when the
letter arrived from Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asking museum
heads to pay a bit more attention to matters of vital concern to him
like the Ulster Scots heritage, the Orange Order and the origin of the
universe.
On reflection, museum managers might have considered a range of
options short of telling him to get stuffed.
Mr McCausland’s view is that a museum should reflect the culture and
beliefs of the community it serves. In seeking to refute this, the
museums might seek to actively explain the world to a community with
reference to the gaps in the understanding of even its leading
cultural funders.
In short, if Mr McCausland wants the university to offer discussion of
Intelligent Design theory, let them do it. There are a lot of people
among us who believe that religion can still hold out against
scientific discovery. They would have been on the side of the Pope
against Gallileo and they still think they can refute Darwin. They
want to retain the conviction within scientific institutions like
universities and museums that God created the world in seven days.
Well, let them try.
The first comfort for museum heads is that Intelligent Design theory
is already a concession to science. It is a relaxation of the demand
by religious creationists that the Book of Genesis be taken as a
sufficient account of the emergence of the universe, life and
consciousness.
The court cases in the United States, around the demand for the
teaching of Intelligent Design , were attempts by religious
fundamentalists to argue science with scientists, conceding in effect
that there was no point in trying to impress them with scripture.
Scientists and secularists saw this as a threat. It was in fact, the
movement of religious fundamentalists on to ground on which scientists
can defeat them, if they are confident of the strength of their case.
Why shouldn’t we have an exhibition on Intelligent Design
incorporating a discussion of the arguments around it in the museum?
People like Nelson McCausland might soon discover that there is no
comfort in it for them. If they are hopeful that Intelligent Design
restores the Christian explanation of the Universe to them, then they
may be well served by having the full case and its implications laid
out for them.
The problem for creationists is that their argument, if won, might
only establish that an intelligence initiated the Big Bang.
For all they know, that intelligent being might have been killed in the blast.
He, she or it may reside still in another universe and have lost all
interest in this one. There are no grounds for supposing that that
being knows about us or has any benign intentions towards us. There
are no grounds even for supposing that it is an infinite Deity. There
may be another universe in which children spark off Big Bangs with
their chemistry sets. They may not even know that they are doing it.
They will live in a different time frame so our whole span of
existence in this universe may be just a blink to them.
The problem for Intelligent Design freaks is that they don’t read
enough science fiction.
Rationalists might say this is absurd. But we are already making black
holes under Geneva ourselves with the CERN project, so what is so
implausible about an intelligence more advanced than our own
conducting similar or more radical experiments elsewhere?
What Intelligent Design believers do read – some of them – is the
theories of John Polkinghorne, a scientist and minister of the Church
of England who won the £1m Templeton Prize for research that
reconciles science and religion.
The usual experience of religion in the contest with science is that
literal interpretation of scripture loses every encounter. Then those
who continue to insist that religion retains lost ground begin to
sound more desperate and absurd in the secular world. Scientists feel
little need to go on arguing points that they feel that they have won,
like natural selection. Some scientists like Richard Dawkins continue
to wave the victory in the faces of the religious defeated, but there
is no scientific need for them to do so.
Polkinghorne said that the universe looks like a ‘put up job’. If the
pull of gravity was fractionally greater than it is, the universe
would compact into a hard ball; if less, it would scatter like vapour.
It has to be just right if you are to have solar systems and planets.
Look at the Earth. Without a wobble in its revolutions there would be
no seasons and without seasons no cycle of nature. Without our
unstable crust there would have been no volcanoes and we would be a
ball of ice, but the instability has to be just enough to allow life,
not enough to destroy it.
So, what is the scientific answer to the perfect ‘just-rightness’ of
this universe for life? One answer, seriously put forward, is that
there are millions of failed universes, or universes that turned out
differently, and that this is the one that by chance is just suited to
us. That explains our survival agains the odds.
In other words, the answer is a call to faith in the existence of the
unknowable; the sort of thing that religious people come up with.
The difficulty in this debate is that both the religious and the
scientific contenders have cranks on their side; adamant Christians
who think the Bible tells them everything they need to know and ardent
rationalists who fantasise that the job of explaining the universe is
complete.
What about an exhibition at the Ulster Museum that acknowledges the
mystery of our being here as mortal but self conscious beings in an
unlikely universe?
Would Nelson be happy with that?
I suspect he would want to see models of humans hunting dinosaurs, but
it is easy to deny him myths for which there are no evidence.
But just because we have a crank for a culture minister doesn’t mean
that the unexplained universe shouldn’t enthrall us.
And some smarty pants in the museum is bound to agree that a serious
discussion of intelligent design theory would tick the right box to
get Nelson off his back.

Read Full Post »