Newton and Galileo considered themselves philosophers, not scientists. They considered their groundbreaking work just one part of a larger philosophy, a view UCSB history Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Russell said modern scientists do not share.
Russell was the latest speaker in “Science, Religion and the Human Experience,” a lecture series endowed by the Templeton Foundation. His lecture Friday afternoon, “Constructing Cosmos: Science, Religion, History and Reality,” focused on the ways people have constructed their reality throughout history.
Russell said in modern times, society lacks a coherent mental construction of the universe, which he called “M-cosmos.” Russell, who is a history of religion and Western thought author, said this coherent view is vital to people’s mental and spiritual health.
“I see [M-cosmos] deeply wounded,” Russell said, “not only split between science and religion, but torn between a thousand different concerns. We need healing. … M-cosmos is made out of mental constructs which are hard to put together – in the past century, so much so, that it has been virtually torn apart. It is M-cosmos that I mourn for.”
In his 90-minute talk, Russell gave a brief history of M-cosmos in Western society and attempted to dispel common misconceptions about historical concepts. For instance, Russell said Newton and Galileo were not scientists, but natural philosophers. The term “scientist” was not in use until 1834, and the concept of science as a profession came even later.
“What if someone in the year 2501 were to classify you in some term that you have never heard of?” Russell said. Scientists such as Newton and Galileo considered their studies of physical reality only one aspect of a larger coherent philosophy, Russell said.
Reducing the human experience to scientific processes such as physical or chemical reactions without considering other factors is a form of reductionism, which can be dangerous, Russell said. “It is not OK to assume that all truth can be reduced to physical regularities.”
The idea of reductionism is self-defeating, Russell said. “If no idea is better than any other idea because they all [are the result of] neural interaction, then the idea of reductionism itself is no better than that of crystal gazing.”
While pure reductionism can be harmful, “religious exclusivism” is also dangerous, Russell said, pointing to the destructive power of religious warfare committed in the name of God. Russell believes science and religion today do not need to be mutually exclusive in any of their claims. He stressed the importance of constructing a coherent worldview, saying the alternatives to M-cosmos are nihilism and chaos.
Geography Professor Helen Couclelis said Russell’s lecture showed that philosophy, as an attempt to link science and religion, often fails to produce a final answer because it is after “a perpetually moving target.”
Chicano studies Professor Maria Herrera-Sobek described Russell’s lecture as “brilliant,” but identified herself as agnostic and said constructing ethics and order is not entirely dependent on the acceptance of a deity or of scientific principles.
“Will the search for the ultimate principle draw all modes of thought together?” Russell said. “Is there a one truth that all of us honest people are heading for? I don’t know. I used to think so, and it may well be true. But I wonder – what if the center is not a point at all? What if the richness of the cosmos is inexhaustible? What if that truth that we seek turns out to be multiple truths? Being fully alive entails being fully honest with ourselves. When we achieve that honesty and that openness of the heart and mind, a new M-cosmos will form itself.”
The lecture series was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ninian Smart, former chair of the Religious Studies Dept.
Freeman Dyson will give the next lecture in the series at 3 p.m. in Broida 1610 on May 18. More information on the forum is available online at www.srhe.ucsb.edu.