14 marzo 2007


Oracles of Science. Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion is a singular and important book, published by Oxford University Press (2007). It’s really up-to-date and has been written in a well-balanced style and intellectual rigour. The authors distinguish clearly the facts and reliable judgements (eg. a biologist or a physicist talking about his field) from comments, hypotheses an unreliable judgements from whoever talking on his scientific pedestal to come to philosophical or theological conclusions out of his speciality. This work examines the popular writings of the six scientists who have been the most influential in shaping our perception of science, how it works, and how it relates to other fields of human endeavour, especially religion.

Written by Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas.

Karl Giberson is Professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, MA. For years he served as editor in chief of both Science & Theology News and Science & Spirit . Oracles of Science extends the discussion of America’s culture war over origins, begun in Giberson’s previous book, Species of Origins: America’s Search for a Creation Story, co-authored with ENC historian Donald Yerxa. Giberson is currently working on a fourth book for HarperCollins, God Loves Darwin, too, scheduled to be released in early 2008.

Mariano Artigas (1938-2006) was the Dean of the Ecclesiastical Faculty of Philosophy for the University of Navarra (Spain) from 1988 to 1998. Professor of Philosophy of Science, he holds Ph.D.'s both in Physics and in Philosophy. He received the Templeton Foundation Award in 1995 for his work on science and religion. He wrote The Mind of the Universe: Understanding Science and Religion and fifteen other books on science and religion.


The authors offer an informed analysis of the views of six scientists, carefully distinguishing science from philosophy and religion in the writings of the oracles. This book will be welcomed by many who are disturbed by the tone of the public discourse on the relationship between science and religion and will challenge others to re-examine their own preconceptions about this crucial topic: "Few writers have poured more fuel on the recent science-religion controversies than such religion-bashers as Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Weinberg. In six perky profiles two Christian scholars critically, but fairly, examine the anti-religious claims of these and other scientific ‘oracles’." (says Ronald L. Numbers, about this book).



Richard Dawkins is the author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, The Ancestor’s Tale, The God Delusion and many other books. Dawkins, known as an evolutionist and materialist, is also well known for being an atheist and anti-religious. He has become an outspoken foe of religion, using science to discredit religious beliefs.

Stephen Jay Gould is the author of Wonderful Life, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Rocks of Ages, The Mismeasure of Man and many other books. He is known for his theory of punctuated equilibrium, stating that the equilibrium of a species is punctuated by episodes of change that are relatively rapid in geological time. Gould has noted that science and religion do occupy two very different spheres of human experience.

Stephen Hawking is the author of A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, The Large Scale Structure of Spacetime with George Ellis, Stephen Hawking’s Universe: The Cosmos Explained and many other books. Hawking is a cosmologist who is well known for his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He first published his no-boundary proposal in 1970, concerning the expansion of the universe and the big bang, and he introduced his rather technical ideas at the Vatican in 1981, where he also was able to meet and speak with Pope John Paul II. Hawking dislikes the label “atheist”, for his views on God are quite mysterious, and he has written of his quest to “know the mind of God”.

Carl Sagan is the author of Cosmos, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and many other books. His science fiction novel, Contact, was made into a popular, major motion picture in 1997. Sagan is well known for his interests in extra-terrestrial life and is closely linked to the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). As a scientist, Sagan educated the public about “Nuclear Winter”, the idea that a nuclear war could precipitate an unprecedented ice age that might render the Earth largely uninhabitable.

Steven Weinberg is the author of The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature, Glory and Terror: The Coming Nuclear Danger and many other books. Weinberg is known for being an atheist and anti-religious, and for winning the Nobel Prize in physics for his electroweak interaction theory, showing how the weak nuclear interaction related to electromagnetism in 1979. Weinberg joined the small scientific army waging war on religion. His book Dreams of a Final Theory is an assault on God and religion.

Edward O. Wilson is the author of On Human Nature, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Biophilia, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and many other books. Wilson is also a world authority on ants. In 1990, in collaboration with the German biologist Bert Hölldobler, Wilson published the Pulitzer prize-winning The Ants, a massive work of 732 beautifully illustrated pages. Moving beyond ants, he has expanded into the study of social insects, social animals, and human beings. Wilson is also known as an environmentalist and for his work in evolutionary psychology.


The last chapter of the book, focused on conclusions, is summed up in the following paragraphs. It’s only a short summary to show the value of the book and encourage to read it.


#371 Varios Categoria-Varios: Etica y antropología




  • The “Oracles os Science” have much in common, as well as great diversity. Here, we simply offer some of these similarities and differences, focusing on the connections that there scientists make between science and culture, particularly their ideas about religion and their cultural impact.
  • Like all scientists, they have done important work in specific areas but, unlike many scientists, they have a grand view of reality and have elected to engage the deeper scientific and cultural issues of our time. Their ability to do this so effectively accounts for their success, and the impact of their opinions.
  • They combine great ambition with great talent to address great problems. In doing so they have become major public intellectuals. They have real enthusiasm for science, and for the rest of their ideas, and the talent to communicate this enthusiasm. The “Oracles” are interesting and important simply because they are masters of science and want to bring that science to bear on the great questions of our time.
  • For the most part, they create the impression that science is hostile to religion. But this must be qualified.
    • Gould, for example, claims otherwise. He devoted an entire book to showing the compatibility between science and religion. He notes, as a simple matter of fact, that many scientists, including evolutionary biologists, are religious, and sensibly infers that this implies that evolution and religion must be compatible. So, while Gould promotes positions that undermine some traditional religious ideas, it would be unfair to consider him an enemy of religion.
    • Dawkins and Weinberg, in contrast to Gould, are openly hostile to religion and make no apology for their hope that it will pass away. Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is a book-length argument that evolution explains the marvels of the living world much better than religion. Darwin, says Dawkins, showed that God is an unnecessary hypothesis for explaining the natural world. But this is not something that needs to be ascribed to God anyway, so it hardly implies that evolution and religion are incompatible, any more than showing that God is not needed to explain plumbing makes plumbing incompatible with religion.
    • Dawkins makes a more general argument when he opposes the reliability of science, based on empirically-testable, intersubjective hypotheses, to opinions based on authority, tradition, and revelation. And he strongly criticizes religion as a source of fanaticism and evil.
    • Weinberg’s views are similar to Dawkins but, as a Jew who had many relatives killed in the Holocaust, his aversion to religion is profoundly shaped by the problem of how a good God could permit the evil in the world.
    • Wilson is different and somewhat more interesting. He replaced the Genesis creation story with the modern scientific creation story; he replaced Christian ethical directives with ones derived from evolution and ecology; and he replaced the worship of God with the worship of the grand story of evolution. Perhaps because of his background Wilson understands the importance of religion.
    • Hawking’s attitude toward religion is a bit of a puzzle, and he enjoys being cryptic on this topic. Sometimes he seems to rule out any legitimate reflection on God and religion. But at other times he seems to knowingly locate himself on the side of a bounded science, leaving open the door for religion on the other side of that boundary.
    • Sagan says that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion. He also believes that the reductionist program of science and its findings “are perfectly consonant with many religions.” Sagan also made efforts to distinguish serious religion from superstition, and sought to collaborate with religious groups as a part of his campaign to raise concern about environmental issues.
  • Our six Oracles are thus not a uniform body of thinkers, all rejecting religion in the name of science.


  • The "Oracles of Science” should not be criticized for promoting their opinions on cultural and religious matters. That is their right, their choice, and something that a great many public figures do. A different issue, however, is whether they are justified in presenting their views as if they are derived from science. The immediate response has to be no: they are not justified in extrapolating from science to religion.
    • The most surprising case is Gould. He argues that the empirical study of the material world, which is the subject of the sciences, has no relation to the world of spirituality and meaning, which is the domain of religion. But... Their message includes three claims: evolution has no purpose, evolution has no direction, and the inferred philosophy of materialism implies that “mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.” Gould is breaking his own commandments, invading theology in the name of science.
    • Wilson derives ethics and humanism from science. He presents the “evolutionary epic” as a new source for ethics and religion, meeting our need for a big framework that provides meaning for our lives. It is quite hard to see, however, exactly how one is going to grow a new religion out of the worship of evolution.
    • Sagan and Dawkins exalt the wonders of the natural world as a source of excitement they hope surpasses the religious perspective. The great monotheistic traditions praise God for the wonderful works of nature, and consider this sense of wonder to be a road to God. Scientific progress provides us with new sources of excitement and awe, to be sure, but why would we suppose that this excitement competes with religion? Is it not simply an extension of the celebration of nature that has long been a part of religion?
    • Dawkins rejects the derivation of ethics from his “genes’ eye” view of human nature. But he provides no alternative, or even an argument for why should we admit any ethics at all. He defends animal rights, though, which is an ethical stance; and he calls for respect for human life, assaulting as ethically inconsistent those who oppose abortion but support the death penalty. But on what does this ethical stance reside? Applying Dawkins’ own criterion, it cannot be based on science. Dawkins is a brilliant and clever critic of ideas he rejects but he proves quite inept at proposing alternatives to the positions he rejects.
  • The “Oracles of Science” have not articulated a new vision that would provide meaning to the human experience. The closest they come is the suggestion that there is something to be reverenced in the evolutionary worldview.
  • How evolution provides meaning to human experience remains unclear:

o Gould simply denies it, arguing that the process that “created us” is just a series of accidents, no more a source of meaning than a gambling casino, where some people strike it rich.

o Dawkins, the devil’s chaplain, thinks that the evolutionary epic is a grand and meaningful tale compared to its pitiful analog in religion, but he certainly offers no suggestions for how ordinary people, uninterested in the creation story of science, should make their way in the world.

o Sagan’s view is more positive, but sometimes seems to rest on the speculation that we will one day establish a cosmic connection with extraterrestrial intelligent beings. This would certainly be exciting but may very well never happen.

o Weinberg is pessimistic about the quest for meaning, seeing human experience as a farce.

o Wilson is the more optimistic, but his optimism relies on developing an understanding of the biological basis of human behavior that will prove adequate to provide meaning. This understanding, like Sagan’s extraterrestrials, may never be discovered.

  • The Oracles do not offer a consistent new humanism as a replacement religion. All of them defend humanist values but, with the exception of Wilson, they do not claim that we can extract from science a humanistic worldview and ethics.
  • Nevertheless, they have all challenged traditional religion in various ways, despite their failure to produce viable replacements. These assaults on religion have created an image of them as crusaders for an agnostic materialism in the name of science. The books of the “Oracles” contain good popular science mixed with the philosophy of “scientific naturalism.” But it is curious that they do not share a common view of scientific truth, a necessary step for establishing naturalism as a consequence of science.


  • There are important differences among the “Oracles” regarding the nature of scientific truth:

o Gould defends a realist position; but also tends to contextualize science in a wider context. He is the only one of the Oracles proud to have collaborated with philosophers to clarify scientific problems. Of course, Gould’s early affinity for Marxism may explain his positive evaluation of approaches usually bypassed by other scientists.

o Wilson, for instance, says: “Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works. That in my opinion is the whole story.” This is a good example of oracular style, a big dramatic statement unsupported by science, and way outside the arena of anything remotely empirical.

o In contrast, Hawking embraces a thoroughly positivist account of science that would provide only models useful for predictions. However, this somewhat narrow view of science did not preclude him from presenting solutions for the most intricate problems relating to the origin of the universe.

o Dawkins examines a roster of truth claims and concludes with his unique oracular style: “Scientific truth is the only member of the list which regularly persuades converts of its superiority. People are loyal to other belief systems for one reason only: they were brought up that way, and they have never known anything better.”

  • These disagreements about the nature of scientific truth are important. Any evaluation of the cultural or religious impact of science must rely on ideas about the nature of the truth claims made by science. The "Oracles" are good scientists and excellent communicators, but these disagreements indicate that they do not possess a unique solution for the important question of the reach of science, and how far its conclusions can be extrapolated. We thus should not expect to find a well-articulated and consistent defense of scientific naturalism in their writings.


  • There is a general agreement that science concentrates on aspects of the world that can be studied through theories that can be tested by doing experiments. Those aspects relate to spatiotemporal patterns in nature, for this is what makes experiments possible. If other dimensions of reality exist, they simply cannot be studied using the methods of the empirical sciences.
  • Knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science.
  • Naturalism is presented as a consequence of the progress of science. There is a world of difference between the “methodological naturalism” used in the sciences, and an “ontological naturalism” that denies the reality of anything outside the reach of science.
  • The claim that nothing exists aside from what can be studied by the scientific method is a philosophical position. If you want to determine what science is and how far its reach extends, you must place yourself outside science, taking a philosophical perspective. But, if there is nothing outside of science, how are we going to stand there?
  • The “Oracles” are aware of this problem, but they appear impatient and dissatisfied with the implications. They want a way out. The result is that sometimes their opinions —“the universe is pointless”— appear as though they were science, or a consequence of science.
  • We have been describing the “Oracles of Science” as ambassadors, messengers from the scientific community to the public at large. They play an important role in our scientific culture. We would desire, however, that they would treat the humanistic issues that lie beyond the boundaries of science with the same careful rigor they employ when dealing with scientific problems. This would be a great service to society.
  • Modern science is an enormously wonderful and powerful achievement of our species, a culturally transcendent, universal method for studying the natural world. It should never be used as an ideological weapon. Scientific progress demands a respect for truth, rigor and objectivity, three ethical values implied in the ethos of science.
  • We can, nevertheless, draw different conclusions from our analyses of science, but we should always present them carefully, distinguishing what can be said in the name of science from personal interpretations that must be supported by independent reasons, or acknowledged simply as personal opinions. Our analysis shows that the "Oracles" differ in important points and are not consistently fighting for a common cause. When they go beyond their science, they use different arguments and arrive at different conclusions.
  • We would like to conclude with one final insight. Science is compatible with a broad cross section of very different views on the deepest human problems. Weinberg, an agnostic Jew from New York, shared his Nobel Prize with Abdus Salam, a devout Moslem from Pakistan. They spoke different languages and had very different views on many important topics. But these differences were of no consequence when they came together to do science.
  • Modern science can be embraced by any religion, any culture, any tribe, and brought to bear on whatever problems are considered most urgent, whether it be tracing their origins, curing their diseases, or cleaning up their water. Science should never be fashioned into a weapon for the promotion of an ideological agenda. Nevertheless, as history has shown, science is all too frequently enlisted in the service of propaganda and, as we have argued in this book, we must be on guard against intellectual nonsense masquerading as science.

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