Closer to Truth?
As someone researching ‘science and religion’, I often browse through the video interviews on the Closer to Truth website, a US TV program which is described as exploring ‘fundamental issues of universe, brain/mind, religion, meaning and purpose through intimate, candid conversations with leading scientists, philosophers, scholars, theologians and creative thinkers of all kinds’.
When I discovered it, some months ago, I thought that it was another dodgy crypto-apologetic, pseudo-scientific program, perhaps backed by the likes of the Templeton Foundation or –worse– the Discovery Institute. [Should you want a taste of that I suggest you download (yes, download) 'documentaries' like Expelled, The Privileged Planet and The Case for a Creator].
Actually, to my surprise, I was wrong. The program is run by a bizarre guy called Thomas Lawrence Kuhn (I don’t think there is any relation with the famous Kuhn), who is an ‘international corporate strategist and investment banker’ and an unspecified ‘public intellectual’. Whatever he really is, he must be a wealthy guy (he’s got his own foundation that produces the show) with some powerful contacts.
I say this because what surprised me is the list of people he managed to line up for his interviews: yes, there are a number of notorious representatives of the ‘science and religion’ field (a field of which I am not too fond of: should you be interested, my attack on it has been recently published [it's not yet online though] in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion) like Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, Dennis Alexander and Philip Clayton, some theology-friendly scientists like George Ellis and Paul Davies, and more questionable figures like William Dembski (the ‘leading theorist of the Intelligent Design movement’) or Dean Radin (the president of the Parasphychological Association). But the list of other participants is quite impressive (and includes several openly anti-religion people).
A few names: Nick Bostrom, David Chalmers, Daniel Dennet, Bas Van Fraassen and Hubert Dreyfus for philosophers; Alan Guth (the guy who ‘invented’ cosmological inflation), Saul Perlmutter (who led one of the teams that discovered the ‘accelerating universe’), George Smoot, Martin Rees (the president of the Royal Society) and Sir Roger Penrose for cosmologists; Leonard Susskind, Lee Smolin, Steven Weinberg and Lisa Randall for physicists, among several others. By any measure, an impressive list: I can’t help but wonder how this T.L.Kuhn guy managed to get many of these people to agree to being interviewed for a program about ‘Cosmos, Consciousness and God’, which features theologians or theology-happy people. My best guess? An insane paycheck — once again ‘science and religion’ sells (and pays) , quite a lot.
Anyway, a couple of interesting things I heard today: towards the end of his interview on the laws of nature, Lee Smolin, interestingly claims that perhaps we should dismiss the idea that the laws of nature represent necessary relations (since there are many consistent systems of necessary relations [Newtonian Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics...]) and –having refered to C.S.Pierce’s idea of the laws of nature as evolutionary products– claims that ‘when there is a philoosphical idea which has been thoroughly explored and it does not work, we should try the opposite. So the opposite of it being necessary is it’s all contingent. And Darwinian natural selection is the system, the methodology that shows us how much can we get from almost pure contingency’. Sound familar?
Lastly, Freeman Dyson (Princeton physicist: if you have never heard of him you should at least know about the coolest idea he ever had), in a similar interview, when asked about social scientists and social constructionism says ‘yes there was a big fight here in Princeton about Bruno Latour, one of these French structuralists, I wanted to bring him here as a professor but my colleagues voted him down [laughs]. He’s one of these French who thinks that can understand everything, very very smart guy…’.
Anyway, should you be interested in this kind of stuff, many of the interviews are not bad at all. Kuhn (mostly) manages well to dissimulate his religious commitments when formulating the questions he asks, and in any case the respondents are given time to articulate their position without too many constraints or editing.