Astronomer Martin Rees has accepted the controversial Templeton Prize, accused in the past of insidiously blurring the lines between science and religion. Rees’ acceptance speech offers little that is controversial, however, and he could almost have been chosen as a way for Templeton to go a year without being subjected to wide criticism. In his speech Rees gives a big picture overview of our place in the universe, argues for a more long-term approach to scientific and technological thinking, and states that while reductionism is true it’s “seldom true in a useful sense. Problems in biology, and in environmental and human sciences, remain unsolved because it’s hard to elucidate their complexities – not because we don’t understand subatomic physics well enough.” That view that reductionism is basically correct but different scientific disciplines work on different levels hardly seems equivalent to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension” which the Prize is meant to honour. (Maybe Templeton has run out of genuinely quasi-religious high profile scientists and philosophers to honour?)
To our ancestors, the Earth seemed vast, with open frontiers. Today, no new continents remain to be discovered, and our planet seems constricted, and overcrowded – a fragile “pale blue dot” in a vast cosmos.
Our sun is one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy; billions of those stars are orbited by planets (many perhaps with biospheres). Our galaxy is itself just one of many billion galaxies in range of our telescopes. And there is compelling evidence that this entire panorama emerged from a hot, dense “beginning” nearly 14bn years ago.
But, as always in science, each advance brings into focus new questions that couldn’t previously have even been posed and which enlarge our horizons still further. The vast domain that astronomers can observe could be an infinitesimal part of the totality. Our big bang may not be the only one: we may be living in a “multiverse” – an archipelago of cosmoses, perhaps governed by an array of different physical laws.
In a Guardian interview Ian Sample seemingly struggles to elicit some kind of controversial statement on religion and science from Rees. After a shaky start (Sample enquires about Rees’ finances off the bat, receiving “No comment”,) the transcript seems to indicate that Rees provides often short and dismissive answers evading questions about religion, God, and the Templeton controversy as far as is humanly possible without actually getting up and leaving the interview.
IS: And what about theological issues?
MR: Well, I’ve got no religious beliefs at all. Of course some of the winners have, but I think not all of them.
IS: What do you think the Templeton prize achieves? What is the value of it?
MR: That’s not for me to say to be honest.
IS: You must have a view?
IS: But you think it achieves something?
MR: Well, I mean as much as other prizes, certainly, but I wouldn’t want to be more specific than that.
IS: That’s a shame. Might you at some time in the future?
MR: They are very nice people who are doing things which are within their agenda, but their agenda is really very broad. I should say that I was reassured by the rather good piece in Nature a few weeks ago, which talked about the Foundation and I found that reassuring. Certainly Cambridge University, I know, has received grants from Templeton for editing Darwin’s correspondence, which is a big Cambridge project, and also for some mathematical conferences. They support a range of purely scientific issues.
IS: Have you considered what to do with the money?
MR: I haven’t, no.
IS: You have been described as a churchgoer who doesn’t believe in God. Is that an accurate description?
MR: I suppose so. What I’ve said is I’m happy to attend my college chapel and things like that, because I see this as part of my culture, just like many Jews light candles on Friday night even though they don’t believe anything, and my culture is the Church of England, as it were.
IS: Are you a regular churchgoer?
MR: Not very regular, no. In my college, I go once a week during term as the Master of the College. And in Trinity College, we’re lucky enough to have a wonderful choir rated number five in the world by Gramophone magazine, so it’s worth hearing.
IS: Why don’t you believe in God?
MR: Um. Which God?
IS: A God.
MR: I don’t think I can answer that.
Rees does go on to call concerns about Templeton “excessive” and states that science and religion do not “have much scope for constructive interaction, but they have in common perhaps an awareness of mystery.”
Full interview: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/apr/06/astronomer-royal-martin-rees-interview