Voices from Russia

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Address of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev of Moscow and all the Russias at a Meeting with Scientists in Sarov on 1 August 2016

00 Patr Kirill 130816

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I’d sincerely like to welcome all of you and congratulate you on the 70th anniversary of the Russian Federal Nuclear Centre. Undoubtedly, this research institute is one of the key research centres that ensure our motherland’s security. The date that we celebrate today not only draws our attention to the theme of Russia’s defence against external threats, but also to the understanding of religious and philosophical issues. I’d like to emphasise that the anniversary of the Sarov institute goes along with the coexistence and interaction of scientific and spiritual centres. This same fact directly faces the complex and multi-faceted topic of the relationship of religion and science, of faith and knowledge.

Academic scientific method teaches us not to rush to generalisations. This is a good habit. Many of the errors that occurred in the past and continue today have their source in the desire to generalise as quickly as possible, without detailed study of all available material, without trying to make thoughtful critical conclusions. This is especially dangerous when such generalisations relate to complex issues such as the true issue of the relationship of religion and science. The topic is very important for the simple reason that religion is a significant phenomenon for most people, whilst science is an essential reality, providing the basis for the progressive scientific and technical development of modern civilisation. In considering this question, we should beware simplistic interpretations, which, unfortunately, we’ve seen in the recent past. These posited a necessary conflict between religion and science because of the supposedly irreconcilable antagonism between them. One of the most common misconceptions arising from such a simplistic interpretation is the idea that science deals with facts, reason, and change for the better whilst religion deals in fable, faith, and unchangeable verities. Therefore, if one allows this thesis, it follows that science and religion shall always be in intransigent tension.

If one thinks on it, the answer is fairly obvious and understandable… if science has a set of indisputable facts, always progressive and gradually accumulated, then, the history of science would show us no internal conflicts. However, we know that’s not true. Most scientific innovation is contradictory in nature; it always evoked heated controversy. The well-known 20th-century historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn1 generally believed that old and new scientific point of views are “incommensurable” because there are no absolute criteria of rationality in determining scientific knowledge. Moreover, Kuhn believed that the different scientific paradigms don’t even have common grounds (e.g., ancient science and modern science). Recall in this connection the statement of Academician V I Vernadsky:

It’d be a big mistake to think the struggles of Copernicus and Newton and their systems with the Ptolemaic system as a struggle between two worldviews, scientific and pseudoscientific; this was an internal struggle between those voicing the scientific worldview2.

Since Ptolemy and Copernicus were scientists, that made it an internal intra-scientific dispute. Although throughout human history the relationship between religion and science evolved in very different ways, the religious and scientific ways of understanding the world aren’t contradictory… as there’s no contradiction between science and art, or between religion and art. We can say that religion, science, and art are different ways of understanding the world and mankind, of understanding mankind’s knowledge of the world. Each has its own tools, its own methods of cognition, they respond to different questions. For instance, Science probes the questions “how is it” and “why is it”. Religion explores “what is it all for”. The problem of the meaning of life and our perspective on death lies at the centre of religious speculation. If how organic life came about on earth occupies science, then, what life is for and about occupies religion. It’d be naïve to read the book of Genesis as a textbook on anthropogenesis (human origin). In like manner, it’s counterproductive to search biology or physics for answers about the meaning of life.

Another popular misconception is the statement that science and religion not just complement each other, but need each other. According to this thesis, religious belief is the impetus of scientific activity and scientific data can help cleanse religion from pointless imagery and symbolism. I’m sure that this is also an oversimplification connected with the rethinking of the interaction between religion and science. Due to this rethinking, firstly, we have a new understanding of the role of religion in the modern world, and secondly, a rethinking of place of science after a series of 20th-century discoveries. Here, on the one hand, we see scientists oversimplifying the situation; they say not only say that science doesn’t contradict religion, but that they have a need to interact… as a phenomenon of the same order, almost as related subjects. With this approach, science becomes quasi-religion and religion becomes quasi-science. In this sense, the main purpose of the interaction of science and religion becomes an attempt to develop a common religious-scientific language. This approach isn’t only simplistic… it’s in error. It turns out that if previously science tried to prove that God doesn’t exist because the cosmonauts didn’t see Him, now, so to speak, the same cosmonauts now try to prove that God exists. In other words, the method hasn’t changed; it only changed from a minus sign to a plus sign.

On the other hand, at times, overzealous religious apologists try to bring science to “their side”. Now, one sees the point of view that modern physics provides almost the best evidence of God’s existence and the creation of the world, etc. I repeat, such arguments aren’t without interest and useful content (e.g., as a symbolic description of the world related to Creation via the Big Bang Theory or the scientific idea of the world emerging from nothing, from a point that one can’t measure nor determine). However, we mustn’t forget that science changes all the time, so, the science of tomorrow could deny the science of today, as in his time Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity reinterpreted classical mechanics. Here, one can cite the example of Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity3 , which played a role not only in 20th-century science, but also in religious philosophy. That’s why I don’t say that such approaches are completely false, but rather that they oversimplify real relationships between religion and science. Yet, it’s important for Christian apologists not to lose a sense of proportion; they must remember that if greatness of mind led the way to the Truth, Christianity would be a far different thing than what it is. The Gospel tells us something else: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Gospel according to St Matthew 5. 8).

The difference between the scientific and religious worldviews and the impossibility of “coupling” them mechanically doesn’t mean that they’re utterly incompatible. Evidently, science and religion complement each other in the overall picture of our knowledge about the world; they enlarge and enlighten it. Nevertheless, the whole picture doesn’t fit fully solely in a scientific framework or within our religious beliefs. In other words, this complementariness isn’t in the field of science (i.e. religious arguments don’t work here, although we owe many scientific discoveries to the religious intuition of scholars) nor in the field of religion (science doesn’t serve to directly confirm religious truths, although this can happen). Science answers its questions… religion replies to its questions. The more responses a person has, the richer their ideas on the world, about God and about themselves.

Another argument, which one rarely hears, but which is very important, is that science is mainly responsible for the secularisation of society. This isn’t only an oversimplification… it simply isn’t true. The history of science stands against this interpretation; firstly, it shows that modern science arose in a primarily European cultural context suffused with religious and philosophical speculation, intellectual development associated itself with Christian metaphysics and the Christian reinterpretation of the world order… it rejected the pagan mythologising Cosmos, recognising in principle the possibility of Creation (i.e., the beginning of the world in space-time), it rejected the presence of many gods, it recognised the One God, the Creator, who gave the world the laws that we can try to comprehend with human reason. In fact, the cause of secularisation wasn’t real scientific development; in Western history, it stems from the development of an ideology closely linked with the Enlightenment Cult of Reason. Later, it took the form of so-called scientism… that is, an ideological position that posits that science is the highest cultural value, the only way to find the answer to any of our questions on life.

The fact of religious revival in countries and societies where there is no deficit in science, education, and science-based technologies underlines the falsity of this submission. In particular, the spiritual revival of the last few decades in our country and the other countries of historical Rus saw abundant interaction between the scientific and religious communities. Besides that, I follow closely the work that comes out of the coexistence and fruitful coöperation between Christian and scientific centres in Sarov. Today, the Church isn’t so much worried about scientific research per se, nor the specific content of new developments, but rather to ask whether our state and society pay due attention to science. Primarily, our attention focuses on the field of education. The Church is an unconditional ally of the scientific community in the field of education, in developing and strengthening science so that it can give comprehensive support to large-scale scientific and expert endeavours for the state and for society as a whole. Our society has much concern about the state of the national education as a whole. Surely, you’ve heard about the resumption of the activities of the Society of Russian Literature, which I head due to President Putin’s request. We hope that this benevolent and neutral meeting-place of professionals and experts would help make a real difference to the teaching of Russian language and literature in our schools. At present, we know that society is debating the state of national education; many believe that it doesn’t fully give students an integrated and whole picture of the world. I confide that an education in the humanities and religious instruction, combined with a genuinely scientific education, opens up an opportunity for students to have a truly comprehensive worldview, a perception that, in turn, forms a holistic spiritually strong personality.

In a world of rapidly developing technologies based on scientific knowledge, the moral responsibility of scientists is extremely crucial. A few decades ago, when one spoke about possible dangerous consequences of scientific progress, firstly, one meant nuclear technology. Now, the urgent problems are in biotechnology, the rapid development of information technology, the creation of virtual reality, and the formation of a comprehensive database to control and spy on people, the improper use of which could endanger human freedom and civil rights. It is important to understand that the theme of the consequences of scientific and technological development certainly has a moral component. It has inextricable links with our ideas of good and evil, with our ability to distinguish between harm and gain. This would be a natural field of coöperation between science and religion. I give you my sincere hope that the interaction of the Church and the scientific community will strengthen our motherland and that our common work will benefit the Russian people.

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Footnotes:

1 Thomas Samuel Kuhn (1922-96), American historian and philosopher of science. The most famous work by Kuhn was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which dealt with the theory that one shouldn’t see science as gradually developing and accumulating knowledge in the direction of truth, but as a phenomenon passing through periodic scientific revolutions, called in his terminology “paradigm shift“. Kuhn posited scientific revolution as follows:

  • Normal Science: the routine daily work of scientists, acting in the framework of a paradigm; each new discovery is explained from the standpoint of the ruling theory
  • Extraordinary Science: a crisis in science; the appearance of unexplained facts, the emergence of alternative theories to explain anomalies, the coexistence of science sets of opposing scientific schools
  • Scientific Revolution: formation of a new paradigm

The book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited scientific books in the history of science.

2  V I Vernadsky On Science (Dubna, Feniks Centre: 1997) p 23 [Dubna is a well-known Naukograd (“science city”) in Moscow Oblast, with nuclear research and missile technology institutes: editor]

3 The Principle of Complementarity [by Danish theoretical physicist Niels Bohr] is one of the most important principles of quantum mechanics; later, it became one of the most important methodological and heuristic principles of science in general. According to this principle, for a complete description of quantum mechanical phenomena one must apply two mutually exclusive (“other”) sets of classical concepts, the totality of which gives comprehensive information about these phenomena as integral. So, in quantum mechanics, one adds space-time and energy-pulse patterns. Bohr formulated this principle in 1927. With time, application of this principle led to the creation of additional concepts, embracing not only physics but also biology, psychology, cultural studies, and humanities in general.

1 August 2016

00 patriarch kirill. 22.02.15+Kirill

Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias

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