Religion and science – how are they related? Are they enemies? Are they friends? Or are they just foreigners to each other? Are their messages, contradictory or co-operative, complementary or perhaps in the last resort identical?
In the present phase of cultural history there exists no generally accepted view on these questions. Public opinion refers us to our private experience, to our personal awareness. Thus I might be excused when I begin my remarks on the questions by telling some of my own experiences in the field. My person is unimportant. By my report may induce others to ask themselves how they faced their analogous problems.
When I was a boy I wanted to become an astronomer. I wanted to know the world in the broadest possible horizon. At the age of twelve I once went out into a wonderful warm and clear summer-night and looked at the stars. Two things were evident to me: God is present in this sky, and, as I have well understood from my books, these brilliant stars are hot gaseous spheres. What I did not understand was how these two evident perceptions were inter-related. To find the answer to this question, I felt, might be a task for a lifetime.
A few months earlier I had begun to read the New Testament. When I discovered the Sermon on the Mount I was struck in the depth of my soul. These words were undeniably true. But neither I myself nor my beloved parents nor anybody in our society lived according to these commandments. The World War (which we now call the First World War) had been fought a few years before. Three of my uncles had been killed in action. I knew they had been heroes, defending the freedom of our nation. I already realized that those killed in action on the other side also had been heroes. But if the words of Jesus were true, wars could not possibly be permissible. I was a little boy, I did not know the answer. This turned out really to be a question for a lifetime.
Early in 1927, at the age of fourteen, I had the immensely good luck of meeting the physicist Werner Heisenberg. He told me of the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Theory before it was published. I felt that this might help to reconcile the laws of nature with the moral necessity of accepting a human free will. I wanted to understand this thoroughly. I decided to become a physicist.
I now reach the age in which it became obvious to me that my being born, baptized and brought up as a Christian gave me no right to think of other religions as erroneous. Faith is not the blind obedience to my tradition; faith is the living trust in the divine presence. While I was a student of physics I began reading classical religious texts. The Old Testament revealed to me the fullness of its message precisely when I learned to read it in a strict scholarly manner as an historical document for the life of a nation under God. I read Buddha’s sermons, and they impressed me as deeply as the Sermon on the Mount, although in a different way “Just as the ocean, wherever you sip of it, is permeated by one taste, the taste of salt, so this teaching, wherever you hear it, is permeated by one taste, the taste of salvation.” Salvation is an inner luminosity, it is awareness. I read Tao and Confucius, and later I read Hindu and Zen texts. I revered these truths. But never was I tempted to leave my home, the Christian Church.
I was a physicist and around 1932 I chose nuclear physics as my special field. And I trusted it would not detract me from the pure search for truth into technological applications – the nucleus was so remote from chemistry and from solid body mechanics. I returned to my first love, to astronomy; I worked on the sources of solar energy which turned out to be nuclear reactions.
Just after Christmas 1938, Otto Hahn with whom I had been working for a while, told me of his discovery of uranium fission. Soon I understood the decisive shock of my life. the very day when I had understood this possibility I went to see my friend, the philosopher Georg Picht. Our conclusion was stringent: either mankind would overcome the institution of war, or it would destroy itself. To realize this conclusion in practice, however, turned out to be more than one lifetime’s task.
Such was my apprenticeship.
I turn to the objective part of my talk. What have I learned? What would I dare teach? Let me subdivide my attempted answers into two parts, under the two titles of philosophy and theology and then of ethics.
Philosophy and theology. The Greek work “philosophy” does not mean possession of wisdom but love of wisdom: loving search for wisdom. And theology is loving search for wisdom in the face of God.
Sigmund Freud, a great thinker and ostensibly a non-believer, once said that science had violated human pride in three steps: Astronomy told us that we are not the center of the universe, biology told us that we are not the crown of creation, but the grand-children of evolution, psychology told us that the conscious mind is not master in his own house. Freud considered religion as a weak consolation for this loss of stature: a fearful boy singing when he goes through a dark wood. Was I such a boy when I felt the presence of God in a world filled with gaseous spheres, consisting of ionized atoms, radiating transformed nuclear energy? For the present-day physicist, the first philosophical question hence would be: what is an atom?
An atom is a unit of matter. What is matter? And how is matter related to mind? You know the pun “What is mind! What is matter? Never mind!” The pun reveals the desperate lack of clarity in both concepts when we take them as opposites. René Descartes defined matter as the extended substance, mind as the thinking substance. This, I am afraid, was an ideology for the creation of classical mechanics, and for human domination of nature by understanding nature’s mechanical laws. To be extended meant to obey the laws of geometry, and not to have any other qualities. To be thinking meant precisely two things for Descartes: The mind to be aware of himself, thus master in his own house, and to possess the knowledge of mathematics, thus to be intellectual master of nature.
What does modern physics say on these questions? Our present theory of matter is so-called quantum theory. Its interpretation is still debated. I give you my version in which I follow Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Quantum theory is a theory on human knowledge in time. When a phenomenon has been observed, quantum theory permits us to make probable predictions on the outcome of future observations. The mathematics of quantum theory is no longer three- dimensional geometry. If the atom were just an extended little body it would not be stable. The atom is not a billiard-ball. Spatial extension is, so to speak, just a superficial visualisation of an invisible reality.
You will understand that I cannot go into details in this brief talk. Thus I just state my personal conclusion. Quantum theory implies no need at all for two separate substances called matter and mind. It would be fully reconcilable with a philosophy of spiritualistic monism. The German philosopher Schelling expressed such a philosophy in the statement: “Nature is the Spirit as far as he does not yet know himself to be Spirit.” I do not say that such a philosophy is a necessary consequence of quantum theory; I say that this philosophy can be reconciled with quantum theory as far as we know today. Physics, as we have learned to know it, seems fully reconcilable with spiritualism. But it is fully irreconcilable with superstition. Let us be sober.
To be sober: The messages of religion and science are not yet seen to be identical. We do not even yet precisely know how they are reconcilable. That should not surprise us, since none of the two is mature, none of them has accomplished its task. Let me say as a physicist: The unity of nature in which I spontaneously believe is not yet represented in a full unity of physics, not to mention a full unity of physics, not to mention a full unity of natural science. Let me say it as a Christian:
As long as we do not do what Christ has told us to do, how can we maintain to have understood what he told us out of the presence of the Spirit?
But just in acknowledging their own immaturity, science and religion can be friends. One of the tests of friendship is frank criticism – loving and just therefore frank. To put it into questions: Science may frankly ask religious people whether they are still afraid of reaching the modern level of rationality. Religion may frankly ask scientists whether they are still reluctant to accept the practical responsibility for the technological consequences of science.
Is religion still afraid of modern rationality? Freud’s three violations of human pride are precisely the three fields of historic conflict between science and the church, and in all three fields, the church had defended a position not of humility put of pride. How far more profound becomes Christian theology when it learns to rediscover its own basic truth in those scientific findings! Let me use Freud’s own psychology as an example. My neurosis can only be cured when I learn to recognize my suppressed motives as really mine; no healing is possible as long as I deny that I have been willing them and that I subconsciously continue to be willing them. And what says St. Paul (Romans 7, 19): “For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The same observation, separated by a language distance of two thousand years. Probably, Paul is even more profound than Freud; but how many Christians have understood him?
My last example has already entered into the field of ethics. Is science still reluctant to accept the responsibility for its own consequences? And, to add another question: Is religion willing to do its own duty which is to call scientists and politicians, to call public opinion and democratic majorities back to their respective moral responsibilities?
In the consequences of science we can distinguish three levels:
- finding the truth,
- intended technological and social sciences,
- unintended technological and social consequences.
Science, I maintain, is morally responsible for all three.
The first level: The direct aim of pure science is search for truth, or, less pompously said, the life-long satisfaction of our infantile curiosity. This is a positive value. It is one of the great values of human life, especially as far as it provides a training in self-criticism.
The second level: Much of scientific research is done for a practical purpose. Human civilisation profits from the research; today it depends on it.
The third level: Many scientists seem to believe: unintended consequences of our research are not our business; let engineers, politicians and other people take care of them. This attitude, I think, is nothing than profound mortal indolence. When parents tell their three-year-old how to light a match, then go for a walk and on return find their house in flames, it is not the child who has misused the matches. I may rightly deny my legal responsibility for unintended consequences of my scientific discoveries; I would have to disdain myself if I were to deny my moral duty to be the first who tries actively to correct them.
But how to correct them? In some cases it might be the solution not to continue with a certain line of research. But we cannot and we should not abolish science altogether, and unforeseen consequences cannot be excluded. We must not abolish science, we must change the habits of our society. The task is social, it is political. An example: the nuclear weapons. When I talked with Georg Picht on them early in 1939, we concluded: If nuclear weapons are possible, somebody will make them; if they are made, somebody will use them; if they are abolished, the knowledge how to make them will persist – hence the institution of was itself ought to be abolished. In our century we learn a prudential argument for the age-old moral condemnation of war. Mankind begins slowly to understand it.
And the last question: Is religion prepared to do its duty of calling us to our respective moral responsibilities?
I am extremely happy that the Templeton Prize gives me the opportunity to speak to a world-wide audience on a process which has been on its way since 1983 and which hopefully will reach a climax in March 1990. So far it is a Christian enterprise. It is organized by the World Council of Churches, and is called a Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). There have been preparatory steps in several countries. In May 1989 there was a great European conference in Basel, Switzerland, invited by the Roman Catholic Bishop’s Conferences and the Conference of European Churches. In May 1990 there is to be a world convocation in Seoul, Korea. Its voice ought to be heard.
“The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that he will send forth labourers into his harvest!” (Matthew 9, 37–38).