Review: The Beginning of All Things–Science and Religion

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Hans Kung

5.0 out of 5 stars Deeper and more Complex of Three Books on Same Topic

April 7, 2011

I tend to read in threes, and this is the deeper and more complex of the three. The first, the one I gave 6+ stars to for its simplicity and coherence, was God and Science: Coming Full Circle?. The second–and also recommended as the second to buy and read if you do two– was Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions About God, Science, and Belief. The latter, by John Polkinghorne, perhaps the most prolific and qualified of authors on the subject of science and religion, is with Hans Kung a Nobel-level contributor.

My reading of this book certainly benefited from the reading of the other two first. This is more of a graduate-level book, and the references to many other authors and works “in passing,” as if one were already familiar with them, makes this book one best appreciated by those who have invested time in the topic and the related writings by others.

The book opens elegantly, observing that “let there be light” is a phrase equally applicable to religion and to science, going on to assert that to attempt any unification of knowledge, one needs both philosophy and theology.

The author laments that cosmology, biology, and anthropology are now so complex that it is almost impossible for someone from outside a discipline to understand the discipline in detail, and he argues for the need for focused generalists who seek to connect and unify knowledge. Certainly knowledge has become so fragmented that much of it is useless to the direct needs of humanity, visit Maps of Science on the Internet, where Dick Klavans and others have shown the stark isolation of the sciences and humanities from one another.

Interestingly for me the author explores the meaning of the word “cosmos” as referring to an ordered whole, while universe means “turned into one.” In the context of the complexities of all that we do not know, the words seem far distant goals for human understanding, but one must take on faith their reality.

It is at this point that I have my own crude Latin expression, “Connexum Sumus Unum,” Connected We Are One, and I reflect on the reality that both science and religion have the capacity to connect us all (but also the capacity to destroy us all).

Distinctly from the other two books in this series, the author focuses upon and naturally excels at examining how individuals such as Copernicus led to paradigm shifts in human understanding, and he equally excels at holding the Catholic Church generally and the Pope of the day specifically, accountable for false judgments. One of the things I have always admired about Hans Kung has been his constancy wrapped in integrity. I share with him the view that the Church should pursue liberation theology (which today I would suggest should be entwined with liberation technology), and I certainly share his view that the Church has much to atone for and can do so much more. I have little faith that forthcoming Assisi Peace Summit (October 2011) will produce anything substantial despite an earnest effort by Pope Benedict XVI, for the simple reason that the Church as an institution appears comatose, represented by Nuncios who are not at all eager to engage with science or reality or human need. My letter to the Pope, ignored by Nuncios and the Papal Household alike, can be found at tiny url /Assisi-Intelligence.

The author cites Thomas Kuhn on paradigm changes, and I record the citation here, a paradigm being “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community.”

The author is brutally honest in outlining how Copernicus and then Gallileo caused the Catholic Church to impose censorship, indexing (forbidden knowledge) and the tortures of the inquisition, instead of “intellectual understanding, effort, and acceptance.” The author is explicit in pointing to the case of Gallileo as a classic false judgment by the Holy Office, and I for one can only agree with him in his long-standing views that Pope's are human and fallible; that the Catholic Church is an institution and fallible.

The author observes that the cost of the Churches repression was the non-existence of science in Italy and Spain until the 20th Century.

Overall the beginning of the book is a superb summary of the history of paradigm shifting science up to Hubble's work showing extra-gallactic gallaxies.

The author's treatment of Hawking's is direct: he has failed to provide a unified theory that supplants God; but also sympathetic, crediting Hawkings with recognizing that “our search for understanding will never come to an end.”

For me a core concept in this book that is not in the other two is the author's focus on the core common ground between science and religion being that neither can prove all statement to be true (not just that they both seek the truth, but that sometimes the truth can be known but not proven).

QUOTE (32): “In the world reality is especially human beings, human beings of all levels and classes, all colors and race, nations and regions, the individual and society–the greatness and misery of the human race.”

I have a note, so very pertinent to my last 20 years of fighting for “smart nation” but explicitly addressed by the author in his discussion of “reality”: Reality is multi-dimensional–nuanced–multi-disciplinary. What this MEANS is that no one nation, class, race, religion, or any discipline can know the truth–it takes ALL OF US to know the truth.

The author favors–and documents the vitality of his view–a model of complementarity between science and religion, not only eschewing confrontation, but ALSO eschewing integration. Each has distinct strengths. Neither can supplant the other.

He observes that reason, but not reason alone, is essential. Objectivity is NOT identical to “the truth,” that requires the finesse of spirituality. The “truth” requires all that theology and philosophy can offer in the was of first meanings, aims, values, ideals, norms, decisions, and attitudes. I am reminded more than once of Will and Ariel Durant's life work but especially his first and their last work:

Philosophy and the Social Problem: The Annotated Edition
The Lessons of History

To my surprise, he identifies Ken Wilbur's The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion as a kindred spirit work, while noting that E. O. Wilson's triumphant work (in my own view), Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge stands apart, which I take to be a polite isolation as insufficiently respectful of the holy or the spiritual as distinct from the humanities.

I have a note, based on my decade of study of the emerging collective intelligence/autonomous internet movements, that we are entering a new world in which either/or, an industrial era concept, is no longer applicable nor acceptable. “Some of each, some of all” is now the operative norm.

The entire book can be seen as an advanced introduction to the relevance of metaphysics as a meeting ground for science and religion, and I find the author's coverage of quantum mechanics, multiple universes, and the possibilities of extra-terrestial intelligence to be distinct from and complementary to the same topics covered in different ways by the other two books in this series.

The author clearly holds John Archibald Wheeler, author of At Home in the Universe (Masters of Modern Physics) among other works, in very high regard. He discusses Wheeler's contribution to the dialog on “it from bit”, i.e. how does “it” (the world) come into being from a substratum of “bit” (information). This all argues for a metaphysics of creation.

The author points out that ignorance grows with knowledge. Here again I see the percentages the other two books also cited: 4% known matter, the universe we know; 23% dark matter, 73% dark energy.

Next up the author discusses Darwin, observing that the Church rejected Darwin, and that as late as 1950 the Church prevaricated on evolution. The Church clearly shares with US Southern fundamentalist creationists (the source of Koran burning, a dark stain on US honor) some deep moral and intellectual shortcomings. The author observes that fundamentalists today include Catholic and Protestant Christians and Jews, he does not mention Muslims that I notice.

I learn about Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, and must confess that only now in my middle age (58) am I starting to see both the value of my earlier education and all that I missed the first time around. The Church destroyed the conceptualizer of the noosphere whose focus was on harmonizing science and theology, and in so doing–my view–the Church set humanity back at least a century. The author tells us that in addition to forbidding Tielhard's books in libraries or in translation, that no Pope has spoken Pierre Tielhard de Chardin's name.

QUOTE (97): In Tielhard's view of the world, human beings, too, are not yet complete. They are coming into being; becoming human, anthropogenesis, is not yet complete. It presses on toward Christogenesis, and Christogenesis finally presses onward toward its future fullness….”

Bottom line: the noosphere is when man as the collective comes together is such cosmic harmony as to be one with God–the universal cosmic Christ.

He follows this with a review of Alfred North Whitehead, and I cannot help but see this book as a cornerstone for an advanced course on science and theology, its intellectual underpinnings.

The author emphasizes that God is in the process, not the matter, and here I conceptualize the Yin and Yang of science (the hard) and religion (the soft, or the space between).

Citing Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead, “In the ‘end' God is the realization of the actual world in the unity of nature.”

QUOTE (107): “We can formulate the relationship between God and the world, God and human beings, only dialectically” God is transcendence, but in immanence. He is an eternity, but in temporality; immeasurability, but in space. So God is the absolute in the relative, the primal mystery in the reality of the world and world history–no more detectable than the arhcitectural formula that supports everything in the bridge that spans the abyss.”

The author the goes on to review the creation myths of the various other religions, before engaging in Chapter 4 with the question of “what is life?” Life is reproduction, mutation, and metabolism.

The author is dubious of the possibility of extra-terrestial life (on this I disagree completely). He discusses the history of life and religion, citing others as humanity moves from magic to religion to science

The author concludes with what for me are three truly fundamental points:

01 We know so little, we have the potential to know so much more

02 Ethics is the essence of humanity maturing

03 We will die into the light–death is our resurrection in being with Christ and community and “all.”

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