Thursday, May 6, 2010

FRANCISCO AYALA: SCIENCE AND RELIGION CAN GO HAND-IN-HAND

INTRODUCTION: AYALA AND THE SYNTHESIS OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION
In March 2010 the John Templeton Foundation, established by Investment Guru Sir John Templeton, awarded a GBP 1 million prize to Francisco Ayala, a world-renowned genetics specialists whose work has hel...ped us a lot to understand and fight malevolent single-celled disease causing organisms. In-and-of-itself that doesn't seem to be too special. Genetics is 'hot' and awarding a big prize to one of its famous scholars seems logical.


However, the Templeton Foundation awards prizes to ''entrepreneurs of the human spirit.'' I.e. people who have done something else than pure quantitative and/or abstract research in physics, math, biology or the likes. So how come this prize award for Ayala. The Spanish scientist, born in 1934, is a remarkable figure who previously used to live as a Dominican monk. And not just that, all through his life he has defended the co-existence of 'pure' science and religion.

We believe that this prize is good news for the world, especially for Emerging nations. Way too often we can see that in various cultures clashes between religion and science have caused huge societal problems involving stagnating economies, civil war, oppression, lack of human rights protection etc.

Ayala is not a creationist and it is therefore also not surprising that he is an ex-monk. He does not agree with dogmatism in the Church and would definitely not agree with the way the Catholic Church handles its current crisis. He is not a creationist that adheres to a simple philosophy of life with God creating everything along the lines described in the Bible, Thora, Qu'ran or any other religious book. Ayala: 'The earth and the universe are just that. They are there the way they are'. Religion and Science are just different ways of looking at this factual situation. And the fact that stories about how the earth and the universe were created in many religious books are at odds with scientific evidence should not be translated into rigid defenses of the religious books and definitely not into ridicule by scientists!

We should never ever forget that these scriptures are fantastic and impressive books, written in their time. Sure, even if one would say 'But how can you not take the word of God literally?' one can reply: What makes you so sure that the exact phrases in this book are the word of God? Wasn't it written down by a human being, that - with the knowledge of his or her time, tried to understand the word God gave to him/her! In other words: God is bigger than we are. When we gradually but slowly learn more about how the world was created, it does not imply that symbolic or relatively simple descriptions in the Holy Scriptures of various religions can be translated into 'Religion is crap', like so many scientists do.

But Ayala makes it clear that a true genius would not get away with that point of view easily. OK, if we assume that the religious views are incorrect, and just 'superstition by non-scientists', we are still left with a huge problem. How can we explain how the universe was created? Where did it come from? Science can explain whatever it wants to explain but in the end, science will - just as much as religion - have to come to the conclusion that there is always 'Something or Someone' that was there first and initiated what went on afterward. If this was a God that initiated the process and then left the universe on its own, or One that is with us or against us (in case of wrong doing) all the time all through the ages, remains a matter of further research.

Fact is, the distinction between science and religion is not that black-whitish as people want it to be. The camps of scientists on the one hand and religious zealots on the other, are filled with one-dimensional thinkers. It is therefore fantastic that Ayala got awarded this prize.

IS IT A CHRISTIAN THING OR IS IT BROADER?
Sure, Ayala was a Catholic monk and he got awarded this prize - in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace today (May 5, 2010) - by HRH Prince Philip and Dr Templeton (both Christians). 

 

 

So what about other religions. Obviously, Ayala's reply would be that it doesn't make any difference. His analysis of religion is one at the abstract level. There is 'Something' and it could be that the Christians are right, but it could equally well be that the Muslims are, or the Jews, the Hindus etc. They all fall within his concept. There is no wrong or right in terms of individual religions. This is about religions as an abstract. Some people might find things at this level of abstraction less interesting. Especially those that want the grassroots satisfaction of religious fulfillment would consider this philosophical discussion a waste of time.

But it is not. Like we stated at the beginning of this contribution, too often the clash between science - with its goal of understanding more about the world we live in - and religion - with its goal of providing its followers with a kind of conceptual framework for an ethical, good way of life in close harmony with nature and fellow humans while at the same time showing respect to God the creator - is one that resembles the fights between hooligans at football matches. When Liverpool plays against Manchester United both hooligan camps will shout 'We are the true Reds' with in the end series of one-line reasons for their being right and the opponent being wrong. But in the end we can only conclude that we need two teams for a great football match, that it is a great sport and that both Liverpool and ManU are fantastic teams that together have created so many fantastic matches for the objective spectactor. And that is what Ayala means; we, as human beings are all neutral spectator in the ''battle' between religion and science which is NOT a real battle. We need both for making this world a better place to live in.

Science will lead to progress that can not just help us understand the world more, it can also help us to create tools and technology that will enable us to continue economic growth while at the same time improving medical science thereby avoiding loss of life etc. Religion ensures that we do always understand who we are and what our limits are. Even when telling ourselves that the sky is the limit we should understand that the universe is expanding and that we didn't create it. Humbleness when exploring the frontiers of human knowledge is something that seems easy for the true giants but difficult for their somewhat more mediocre followers.

Western critics of Islam are for instance inclined to associate this religion with backwardness. Quite a silly general statement, that forgets that a word like Algebra comes from Arabic and that Chemistry, Physics, Astrology and other sciences have all benefited from the works by Islamic scientists. Some of the concepts in Islamic Finance are definitely not backward either. On the contrary: if all banks in the world would have adhered to Islamic Finance principles, the Global Crisis would not have happened in 2008-2009. But it is a fact that Muslim extremists have forgotten their own tradition. They would need a bit more 'Ayala' to get back on track. And if the world is so afraid of the IR Iran creating nuclear weapons, the fact that Iran is capable of creating nuclear facilities is not just because it has the money to 'buy' all the necessary knowledge. There are more countries in the world, many of them on a per capita basis or absolute GDP basis richer than Iran. And they didn't create it. OK, is that because Iran is the 'axis of evil'? Nope: that wouldn't make sense, because those complaining about Iran did create themselves all the weaponry that Iran is accused of producing now!

The qualities of Hindu scholars (e.g. the Indian Institutes of Technology) and Jewish scientists (both in top schools in Israel and abroad in the US and elsewhere) are well-known as well. We truly see that scientific progress is something that is not that much at odds with religion as the extremists want us to believe.

HOW TO FIGHT EXTREMISM?
Especially in Emerging nations the likelihood of extremists playing a big role in daily political life is not to be underestimated. And that is why we all seem to feel that religion is at odds with science. What should be done is to make sure that extremism doesn't get a chance in any country.

Extremism does way too often translate into simple, naive stories and wrong conclusions. As so often in nature, the extremes are rare with the most likely outcomes positioned in the middle at a much larger frequency. This implies that - when taking out the extremists - differences between people and religions are far less prominent than what binds them. Globalization will therefore have a positive impact on dialogue IF-AND-ONLY-IF we ensure that the extremists don't get their prominent place on the stage shouting that 'we are now directly exposed to the devil (read other international influences)'.

But it is a good thing that all people like economic progress, one way or another. And fuller stomachs are less inclined to be very extremist. It is one of the odd things in economic analysis. When doing a regression analysis of terrorist activities and its linkage to economic development, we see that the likelihood drops when economic growth increases. In other words, there is a negative correlation. Through international cooperation and trade the countries of this world should fight terrorism in an indirect way.

Who are the 'True Reds': Liverpool or Man U?
The comparison between extremists and football hooligans

The direct clash between the camps of supporters (read: hooligans) has no meaning whatsoever. When the US is attacking Afghanistan with the idea that it can help Hamid Karzai fight the Taliban by using brute force, they should really understand our Liverpool metaphor vis-a-vis United. At the moment, Man U is the stronger team (compare: the USA). But when big, strong supporters of Man U would enter Liverpool and kick a young enthusiastic poor Liverpudlian boy asking him to admit that he is now a Man U fan, we know that this will not work. If anything, this boy will turn out to be one of the biggest protagonists of the Liverpool Reds in the future after this horrid event. And not just that: when the event becomes known lots of others will show sympathy for the poor boy.

That is the problem with extremism. Extremists don't want to listen. And those who believe they are God's righteous people - be they Christians or Muslims or believers in whatever other faith - cannot be changed. So why bother trying to do so if all that you might reach is a growing admiration for the suppressed by others!

So, either you say that you clash with the other and want to kill him simply because you want it, or try dialogue. And that is exactly in line with what we stated the other day about Iran versus the US. It is the same thing.

THE ROLE OF ECONOMIC GROWTH
Indirectly speaking we can conclude that economic growth has a far bigger importance than what we might think at first. Through economic growth we will get in a position where we can help create a fairer income distribution as a result of which wealthier people will by definition tend to be less extreme.

I can already hear the average - not just extremist - Christian reader from the US say: but isn't Iran a country full of extremists. Isn't every Iranian over there in the religiously-dominated government extreme? Well, compared to the visions held by them YES. But the same applies the other way round. But is that so important? No, since in a world of sovereign states, we are not in charge of governments in other countries. If we don't like what is going on in another country, we can at best use the UN to see what we can do. But unfortunately the UN has developed into an international lobby circus in which the big nations more or less force smaller ones to vote their way. So our idea of who are the good and who are the bad guys is mainly dominated by a) where we live; b) the news that we get (there is direct or indirect censorship everywhere, not just in China or Iran!) and c) our own convictions. Because in terms of religion, politics etc there are of course differences between people and whenever lured into the extremist camp - correctly so or incorrectly so - we can all end up being totally against something, unwilling to talk or discuss, with all the bad end results that are associated with extremist black-white thinking.

The world needs more Ayala's! And more economic growth. The good thing about economic growth is that it is normally catalyzed by business people. If anything, business people are - on average - not extremist. And that is good news for Emerging Markets and the world. Is that an indirect way of saying that Emerging Markets need to give more power to the business community? Maybe, but there is a big caveat. Too often, business is associated with short-sighted focus on money and unethical transactions. Exactly the thing that lots of religions are so opposed to. Therefore: we need strong governments - either using guidelines for life based on the locally dominating religious beliefs or based on international ethical research - that ensure that business focus doesn't translate into another type of extremism like it did in the Renaissance period. Slavery was the horrible consequence of developments in European society at a time when religion was on the defense vis-a-vis science. Business jumped in and 'money' became the next Golden Calf. With atrocities as a result that have cost millions their life, dignity, home country, sense of belonging etc.

PROPERLY MANAGED GROWTH
In other words; the unfortunate truth is that when we fight the extremist positions in religion and/or science and don't do much more than replace them by 'business' and 'money' with the idea to 'solve' extremism via a better economic situation, i.e. through the stomach, it might not work at all. You need to do it in a way that involves ethical standards, preparation and controls. Corruption levels in many countries are indicative of this not having worked out well. Another example are the dozens of Oligarchs in Russia that generated their wealth in the period when Mikhail Gorbachev freed his country from the 'Communist' religion, hoping that it would unleash a wave of extremism reductions through a renewed focus on making money, economic, growth, improved living conditions etc. However, the average common man in Moscow and St Petersburg didn't really understand what shares in companies are. Large state-owned enterprises were acquired for ridiculously low amounts of money by oligarchs that were like a caricature of successful business men they way Karl Marx used to describe them. They are just as much successful business men in many cases as they are corrupt crooks. Countries cannot just blame them and do nothing: the states and their legislation need to be created in such a way that one can avoid this type of deviant behavior.

Therefore: Ayala is a giant because of his acceptance of a grey world in which it is not about Science OR Religion OR for that matter Anything Else. It is also not about simply growing the economy and solving the extremism. Before you know Money becomes the next extremist religion! What this is all about is about Balanced Approaches. And we should therefore analyze countries, regions, continents carefully to see to what extent this balance is maintained. When it is absent, potential investments should be reconsidered. If not, you might loose far more than you can gain.

To show his adherence to Balance and Ethics, Ayala decided to donate the prize money to his University (University of California).

 

Click here for a link to the Guardian UK article about the prize award ceremony of Franisco Ayala.

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