Posted tagged ‘science and religion’

This is how it’s done: Science and Spirit Edition

August 21, 2008

Dateline: Johannesburg.

One of the sadly underused venues in J’burg is the new Origins Centre at Wits University. (Not yet developed website here, better description here.)

The museum — at least the Rockart part, the half that is open so ar is a nicely designed exhibition that engages the birth of modern human consciousness by looking at, mostly, the rock art of Southern Africa, especially the cave paintings of the San people.

It’s well worth taking in — the art is beautiful, the museum engages both the intellectual and political contention that surrounds the interpretation of the art and the terrible recent history of the San.

But what got my attention was the introductory film in which the museum’s curators framed the entire exhibition. When, in talking about characteristics of modern human mental life, they introduced the idea of spiritual aspiration the images were (I’m doing this from memory, so while I think that this is the right order, don’t sue me):

A rocket launch.

The JFK speech on going to the moon as a challenge to be undertaken because it was hard.

The “One Small Step” sound and video from the Apollo 11 landing in the Sea of Tranquility

A shot of Stephen Hawking.

(Also, slightly earlier in the video — the same shot of the c. 50 y.o. Albert Einstein turning his head to the camera, slowed down slightly, that I also used in my film biography of Einstein in the mid nineties. It was good to see an old friend.)

In a different context, some guy writing about a different set of origins used the phrase “There is grandeur in this view of life.”

Same idea: coming to grips with the patterns and processes that govern the material cosmos is among the central human aspirations. If you want to see the human spirit in action you can find it, at its best and sometimes worst, in the practice of science.

So, if you happen to be in or near Johannesburg, let me say again: check out the Origins Centre. It’s worth it on its own terms — and I believe in supporting places that have their institutional heads screwed on straight.

Image: San Bushman rock art Perdekop Farm North of Mossel bay. Photo: Andrew Moir. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Quicky addendum to Bishops and Biology…

July 26, 2008

This is why the kind of rhetorical shenanigans discussed below matter.   PZ Myers links to the latest follies from the Texas State Board of Education. For a report from the front lines about the damage done by asserting false equivalences between challenges to religious and scientific claims, read this.

Image:  Charles Darwin as an ape in Hornet Magazine, 1871.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

More on Martin: a man much greater than his faults.

January 21, 2008

In a comment to my last post on Martin Luther King, Abel Pharmboy of the blog Terra Sigillata writes that a commenter on his blog claimed that King plagiarized the quote Abel and I both cited from Rabbi Hillel Silver, a major figure in the American rabbinate for several decades.

That commenter, Right Wing Professor Gerard Harbison is correct, a little — and misleading to the point of deception at the same time. (Don’t blame me if his epithet looks like a political gibe. That’s his self-styling).

Harbison links to John Lerwill’s blog to provide the original Rabbi Silver material. Lerwill’s post produces a 724 word redaction of an eight page passage in Silver’s book. Without the original book in front of me (at about 0 degrees wind chill where I sit, I ain’t heading out to the library right now) I’m going to estimate that would have been about a 3,000 word passage, maybe more.

Harbison then reduced that 724 excerpt to 66 words, without any indication of how radical his surgery had been, nor where the cuts and lacunae fell.

Why that kind of undocumented editing? Because the King quote is 64 words long — and by cherry-picking the original, Harbison was able to make it look like King had performed a straight rip-off, the kind that pretty much always gets an F on a paper when an undergraduate pulls that kind of stunt.

In fact, even with the 724 word version, King’s treatment of Hillel’s is much more a gloss than a straight rip-off. That can be a distinction without a huge difference I suppose, but it is clearly not what Harbison implied King had done.

More to the point, King actually makes a quite different claim than Silver. Silver’s argument, as represented in the Lerwill excerpt is an early version of the “non-overlapping magisteria”kind — Silver writes, for example, “There was never any real conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different, though not in opposition. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same.”

King skipped all that part (and this kind of stuff is scattered through the Lerwill version). Instead, he focused on what he presumably felt was the nub of the issue: that science and religion have important points of connection.

That’s arguable too — and certainly, plenty of folks in the science blogging community find the notion anathema. But King did not follow Silver down the road of intellectual apartheid, an agreement to reserve certain matters for the exclusive authority of one side or other.

In music there is an old notion (now legally enshrined, I believe) that a repetition of more than a few notes of a passage is an actual act of imitation. Less than that, and it is presumed that there is a kind of musical langauge that everyone gets to speak. Maybe the four word phrase “Science investigates; religion interprets” crosses the line. But King had his own mind, and said something quite different than did the source of at least some of his expression.

Should he have come up with some other formulation, or else acknowledged Rabbi Silver. Perhaps — probably even. But Harbison’s is a hatchet job — almost literally, given the work he did to cut and paste his alleged proof-text. Why he felt compelled to do so I won’t speculate, at least not in print.

That King had his flaws is well known now, in part thanks to J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps. But I’d say that Martin Luther King, Jr. did pretty good in this world, whatever his sins, and he certainly paid the price for acting “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right” as he strove to finish his work. Given a choice of a companion in a foxhole in armed or moral combat between King and his critics, I know who I would want by my side.

Update: Link added (with apologies for the original omission) to Abel’s post on Terra Sigillata that got this response going, and to correct a couple of typos.

Image: King in the front rank of the 1963 March on Washington. United States Information Agency photograph of the March on Washington, (National archive number 80-G-413998). Pictured with MLK, are civil rights and union leaders, including Joseph L. Rauh Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Walter Reuther.