Monday, 28 November 2016

Discussion : Science and Religion

The Nottingham branch of the British Science Association along with Newman University recently put on a panel discussion aiming to encourage open-minded dialogue between science and religion. @GavSquires was there and has written this guest post of the event!

The panel consisted of Anne-Marie, a member of the local Baha'i community; Stephen is from Newman University; Gush is the president of the Leicester Secular Society (the oldest secular society still running in the country) and Richard is from the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham. They all faced a series of questions from both a moderator and the public audience...

The Panel

Q: What recent scientific discovery has inspired you?
Gush: There was an MRI experiment on a living brain where they asked people to choose between pressing a red or a green button. There are activities happening in the brain before we consciously make the decision. Our brain then rationalises the choice.

Stephen: The different facts of evolution and types of evolution in single-celled organisms. The fact that there is protein residue on haemoglobin means that we can demonstrate the common ancestry between humans and chimpanzees. Then there's epigenetics and anti-bacterial resistance.

Anne-Marie: Self-driving cars. Tesla took an idea and changed the problem from within, he had the vision to totally change how we transport everything. It has that "two blokes in a shed" feel - scientific discovery and visionary thinking.

Richard: Higgs-Boson - it goes back to the birth of quantum theory. The mathematical formulae are beautiful and these days all of our technology, such as smart phones, are based on quantum theory.

Human Brain MRI

Q: Do science and religion have any common goals?
Gush: Yes, religion was our first attempt at understanding the world - sunrise, volcanos, floods. It was rational to look for agency. It then became a "set in stone" way of understanding. Science has taken over as a way of understanding.

Anne-Marie: They are both tools - they can be used well or badly. They can both be used for the betterment of the world or they can be used to control, contain and for personal gain.

Richard: Their goals are fundamentally different. As a human in need of redemption, I'm interested in what happens after death - science cannot answer these questions. Science is very Cartesian - "I think therefore I am", religion is more, "I am thought of, therefore I am" God brings us to rest outside of ourselves.

Stephen: They are different terrains - "How do things work?" vs "Why are things there?" Religion gives us a sense of belonging. There are parallels in science but it is different. Elaine Ekland looked at why scientists aren't religious and discovered that patterns about religion fall by the wayside in scientific establishments. People saw themselves as scientists first and foremost.

The Earth from Apollo 17

Q:Do we have free will?
Gush: Could you make a decision that even God couldn't predict? We have a much more limited free will that is determined genetically and by our upbringing. We can choose whether or not we follow the law. So, we have enough free will to make punishments and law but not absolute free will.

Richard: There are questions about the interpretation of the MRI experiments that Gush talked about earlier. I used to be a determinist and then I discovered Kant and now I believe that free will is essential. You can't talk yourself out of the belief that you have free will.

Anne-Marie: I don't know, it's an interesting question for those of us of a religious persuasion. If you believe that everything is the will of God, then it could affect the way that you live. There is an old saying, "Trust in God but tie up your camel" We need to take responsibility for our actions.

Stephen: If we are to hold people to account, we have to believe in free will. Why do so many people in the US not believe in evolution? In many cases it is embedded. In some cases, such as cell division, acceptance rates go up when some knowledge is given. However, religious identity has an impact on acceptance rates for the theory of evolution - people can't hold onto their moral and religious framework.


What does religion bring to modern society?
Richard: Come to choral evensong - it's a wonderful experience even if you don't believe. The Christian church should be fostering culture. Some things are perhaps not so good after 2,000 years but some are.

Gush: Ethnic minorities have greater adherence to their faith groups because these are the people that they know have the same culture. There have been great works of art commissioned by religious people. Today it's the aspects of community, togetherness and identity.

Stephen: Hard question to answer. Religious organisations do things in society that others don't such as volunteering. In an increasingly secular society we are becoming a bit default. We need religious input into decisions.

Anne-Marie: We don't live in "the modern age", we just live now. Is there a purpose to religion? If it's only the social aspect, then it's a bit of a waste. We have a dual nature - our animalistic side and also something deeper. Religion should help with we explore this deeper side. It's not just an individual journey, it needs to be collective. All human beings matter - we can unite people behind a common goal.

Foodbank foodpacks at a Church

Image Sources
Brain, Earth, Kant

Talk : The Politics of Illness

Interesting Cafe Sci talk recently by Chris Ward, emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham, comes to Café Sci to talk about "The Politics of Illness". @GavSquires was there and has written this guest post of the event!

Prof Chris Ward

What is illness?
Prof Ward commented that illness isn't the same as disease. For example, an Ash tree can have dieback, a disease, but it isn't ill. Illness is specific to certain types of being - you might describe a dog as being ill but you wouldn't describe a fruit fly as being ill. Disease caries itself on its sleeve, it has an objective quality that illness doesn't have. You can have a disease but not really be ill, for example athlete's foot. But can you have illness without disease? Illness is a state of suffering and incapacity. For example, ME (or chronic fatigue syndrome) doesn't present any symptoms of disease. What are the states of being for ME sufferers and their families? This mystery illness for which we have yet to find a cure.

What is politics?
Prof Ward quoted a definition of politics as the "study or practice of the distribution of power in a given community". In the case of healthcare there is the doctor, the patient and the illness, a three-way relationship that involves the transfer of power. So, it is a political act. Politics filters all the way down to even the mother and infant relationship - we have the translation of very powerful intuitions into political life.

The politics of individuality are also at play - the stigma attached to illness. The idea of being classified, whether it is willingly, unwillingly or unknowingly. Just because someone is ill, they still have opinions. The highlighting if individual differences and the stigma that can come from something like ME. You also get situations where people are thinking, " I'm not myself therefore I must be ill". There can also be a certain prestige to being diagnosed as being ill and following such a diagnosis, one can deviate from regular behaviour. Those with a questionable diagnosis do not experience this.

The politics of illness often comes down to whether it is illness or something else - the battleground of the physical verses the mental. Often ill people are not heard, understood or believed. The can be denied help, confused, attacked, angry and incoherent. But what do these low level responses really mean? Those with ME are often not seen as "passing the test" of actually being ill. Mental illness attracts the same stigma. Most doctors accept that ME is a real disease but there are still some people who think that it can be overcome with positive thinking and exercise. The diagnosis generates such passion and energy that it's been known that ME researchers have faced death threats.

There's also an outer context - public issues of social structure relevant to illness. Medication is led by big pharma and doctors - doctors are seen as agents of social control. So, there can be issues of diagnosis verses social structure. How often do we hear of women's issues being dismissed as being emotional problems and mental illness being seen as a brain disease rather than psychological? All of this is happening at the macro level - how do we correct people to the higher level of thinking?

There are psychological influences at work when it comes to the politics of illness - fear of the other (the well vs the unwell) and of course the deeply ingrained the fear of death. With illness there is also a loss of sense of security in oneself. This is at the very heart of what illness is - not being oneself. Indeed, when you challenge someone's illness, you challenge their self. There is also an issue with language - it dictates that illness must be a thing. When someone says that they are ill, the first question is usually, "what is it?"

Café Sci returns to the Vat & Fiddle on the 12th of December at 8pm when Nicole Porter will speak on Biophilic Design - Buildings and Cities to Connect People With Nature. For more information, visit the Café Sci Meetup page: