Maurice H. Wilkins
Ravi Gomatam and Arthur J. Ellison
How would you define science and religion, and how do you think they can be reconciled to produce a synthesis? Many scientists would say that science and religion are two quite disparate things.
Prof. Wilkins: I have been exploring ways to emphasize certain similarities between religion and science. As I see it, the main point is that the open-minded inquiry of the scientist is not something peculiar to science itself, but is a characteristic of the good way of living for human beings in general. It is equivalent to the religious concept of love, where you are always giving attention to new developments and new possibilities. To say that the essence of science is that you are always inquiring and open-minded is to say that you are in fact living a virtuous life.This, of course, refers to how the scientist ideally works; in practice, you find that it is very different.
Most science is done by established procedures in a more or less routine manner. In my opinion, the degree of open-mindedness in most scientific work is really very little. It is a very limited open-mindedness within established ideas or in a paradigm. So in the work of most scientists today, the equivalent of religious love or the truly noble, in the sense of the morally admirable, does not exist very much. But there is a potential there which is very important. We should remember too that science and religion have in common the aim of seeking and achieving unity.
Most scientists today are being led increasingly away from the fundamental aim of science to achieve unity into rather limited ways of thinking without much open-mindedness and are doing things merely to meet limited material needs. In particular, about half the world's scientists and engineers are now engaged in war programs. This shocking fact does not receive enough attention. Can one say that science is a noble activity if about half of the scintists in the world are working on ways to destroy other human beings? Of course, there are all kinds of arguments about how "This is not for destruction but to preserve peace, to give maximum national security, to preserve freedom," and so on. But ultimately, stockpiling weapons is not the way to achieve such ends. We have to find other ways.
Regarding these applications of science towards war and destruction, is there anything intrinsic in the nature of science that contributes to this state of affairs, or is it the fault of mankind for not knowing how to use science?
Prof. Wilkins: Good question. I would say first of all that science makes progress largely by a combination of two aspects: open-mindedness and the following of abstract concepts. Abstraction involves excluding and narrowing down, which is the very opposite of open-mindedness. Science always puts the most emphasis on this abstracting and narrowing down, on analytical procedures, and on the role of the intellect as distinct from intuition and feelings.
Scientists get so much caught up in this type of process that they behave as though the intellect and analytical processes were the whole basis of the human being. Therefore their approach to questions like national security is largely from the point of view of counting the weapons, the way the weapons work, the military strategy, and all such technical things. Most scientists shy away from political, psychological, spiritual, and other dimensions. They don't consider these dimensions in their work, so they behave as though they don't exist. This is one of the troubles with science, although, of course, the analytical and rational approach has been very productive in some respects.
When you talk about politics or religion, scientists often get quite upset. "We are scientists," they say. "We don't want to get involved in politics. It would be a terrible waste of time, pure stupidity," etc. Some of them get very annoyed about religion, too. In fact, many scientists behave like very narrow-minded people, I am sorry to say. Leading scientists who do really important pioneering work are often not so bad, but the ordinary, average scientist is rather like that.
For such a scientist, an interesting job is like doing an intellectual crossword puzzle. If he finds an interesting job, one which is well funded, gives him a secure position, is valuable for national security, and has a good salary, many facilities, and so on, then he sets to work. The whole question of moral, spiritual, and other dimensions is normally pushed out of science. So something in the nature of science often does lead people towards destruction. Abstraction can be regarded as a form of violence and, as various poets have remarked, science often does violence to nature.
As far as the other thing you asked---is it the nature of the human being?---yes, it is not just scientists. I think human beings generally have this propensity to get caught up in special types of activity. For human beings it is very important to be able to specialize and to focus attention. But the trouble is that they get caught in their specializations and lose their capacity to be more broad-minded and open-minded. They lose their capacity to relate the special to the general.
Often scientific papers are written in a rational, logical way, leading from the premises to the final result, but that is not at all the way discoveries are made. Discoveries come as intuitive flashes. In other words, when writing scientific papers, you usually know the answer, so you spend the next several years working it out, proving it. But then you write the paper as if it had been discovered the other way around.
Prof. Wilkins: I quite agree. It is an important point. On the other hand, though, a scientific paper is deliberately written in this artificial manner so you can most effectively communicate results to other scientists. Scientific papers are never intended to describe how the work was really done. They simply present the results to other scientists so they can understand what was finally achieved. That is a sensible policy for working scientists.
But that gives a very contradictory picture.
Prof. Wilkins: I agree. The logical and rational is a very important element in science. But emphasis on that tends to make people not notice the essential role of intuition. In fact, in any creative activity you can never analyze the whole process completely because psychological and other dimensions are involved. One cannot hope to understand completely the nature of the creative process.
Can we say, then, that when a paper which gives a very logical and rational account is written, the logic and rationality belongs more to the aspect of nature which was discovered than to the scientific process that led to its discovery?
Prof. Wilkins: Certain parts of the process are described: the way the experiment is done, the apparatus, the procedures, and all that. But in general I think you are right. All the very subtle processes which lead to the choices of problems and so on are almost totally ignored. It is rather difficult for people to say much about these things in words anyway, but ignoring them does give rise to an illusion that science is done in a very rational way, rather like the working of a robot.
Of course, great discoveries are not made in this manner at all.
Prof. Wilkins: Most of science does not consist of great discoveries. I think most scientists are quite content to work in the way you have described. Simone Weil once said, "There are no scientists anymore, only technicians." That sums it up. That is the way things have gone. Einstein was constantly concerned about this. In science, you can obtain large amounts of useful results by operating like a semi-logical automaton. The amount of open-mindedness required is indeed very small. But underlying the whole scientific process are the other elements I mentioned, and they are connected with the nature of things that religion deals with.
Those intuitive flashes that come---who knows when---are also a source of religious promptings, aren't they?
Prof. Wilkins: Yes, the connections between religion and science have been very big in the history of science. Take the example of Newton, Faraday, and many others. In fact, I would say one thing you could do at your Congress would be to get a historian of science to talk about this---how in other times one could see very clearly the connections between science and religion as, for example, in the seventeenth century with the rise of Protestantism.
You talked about how the scientist who gets caught up in some kind of narrow framework does not consider spiritual, moral, and other dimensions as possible parameters in his work. But most scientists seem to hold the idea that these concerns are counterproductive to scientific effort. To what extent are they right?
Prof. Wilkins: In some sense they are right, but it depends on how you look at it. Obviously, you don't want a situation where political doctrine makes science unscientific, like the Nazi "Aryan science." That sort of thing could have very bad effects on science. But constructive, noble political ideals should stimulate the growth of good science.
Turning to religion, what do you think is the essence of religion? There are many religions in the world. Do you see any common thread, or are they all different?
Prof. Wilkins: That question is rather beyond my ability to give a quick answer. There are, of course, certain important principles common to all religions, certain basic things. As I see it, religious people do not pay enough attention to these very fundamental ideas. All kinds of other things are put on top, which in many ways really don't matter---rituals and belief systems which are not really the essence of the religious teaching.
Behind all religions there is a certain basic truth which is the same, and which is tailored to particular groups of human beings. I have looked into different groups of religions and found them all to be much the same. I mean, a good Buddhist or a good Hindu can look at a good Christian and say, "You may call yourself a good Christian, but you are also a good Buddhist and a good Hindu."
Prof. Wilkins: . . . But narrow fundamentalists preach intolerance. It is really a sort of anti-religion. But I would also say that the narrow-minded attitudes of many of today's scientists on social, political, psychological, and other issues are also deplorable. They really are anti-scientific. Of course, many problems are very difficult to grasp in a scientific way, and so scientists prefer to work in areas which are more straightforward. That is fair enough, but it is not the same thing as saying that these other things aren't interesting or important.
Science is generally held to be the study of matter and its laws. To what extent do you think it will succeed in relating to life and its nature? Do you see a point of development in science when you think we will be able, within the empirical framework, to understand the nature of life?
Prof. Wilkins: You are making a sharp division between the living and the nonliving?
Prof. Wilkins: Well, I think it is not all that sharp. That is one thing that molecular biology brings out---that the demarcation between the living and the nonliving becomes more and more difficult to make. The very complicated properties of nonliving matter begin to overlap with the properties of the simplest type of living material. But I don't agree with the molecular biologists who think that the whole nature of life can be comprehended in terms of molecular biology alone. I think that is a very simple-minded, mechanistic way of thinking. It is yet another example of hubris. In their work, scientists are very successful in a limited way, and as a result, because of hubris, they think, "This is all that matters, doing science like this"---even to the extent that they will go on doing science that may blow up the whole world and, of course, all science too. That is the dreadful thing about it.
Can you explain that?
Prof. Wilkins: Scientists make weapons of mass destruction like nuclear bombs. If there is a nuclear war, most people agree that it will destroy civilization and, of course, science as well. But the scientists are seduced by the clever arguments of military strategists and politicians who say, "We must have more and more weapons to preserve the peace." And the scientists say, "Yes, yes, it is very interesting work, this inventing new weapons. You give us lots of money and we will do very interesting things. We will put weapons in space. We will have perfect defenses. Then people will have security and there won't be war anymore." This is largely rubbish. It has never been like that, and it never will be. Technology cannot be expected to solve problems which are human rather than technological. But some scientists in this country, although they know there can be no proper defense against nuclear weapons, still say, "Look, this is money for science. We should take it." This is a very narrow view of science!
But now it seems there is much opinion against it. Many scientists are saying, "We shouldn't take the money."
Prof. Wilkins: Not enough of them, I am afraid. Not enough. I went to a meeting in Prague where American and other Western scientists discussed with Soviet scientists and others this question: How can we stop this spread of weapons into outer space? It has been going on for a long time---right back to the fifties even. What I didn't realize was that from the beginning the whole American space program was largely based on military needs. This was concealed from the public.
It is the same with this country's nuclear power policies, which had always been given to the public as "atoms for peace." In reality, these policies had a very important connection with military needs right from the beginning. The governments concealed this from the public because they felt they knew best and that they are morally justified in doing so. I think the true extent to which the whole of science throughout the world is borne along by military needs is not fully realized yet.
About weapons in space, we can show how enormously expensive all this research and development would be---how much money would be wasted, how much scientific talent would be wasted, and how this would compare with the sums of money spent on economic aid and development plans for the Third World. But, as the Secretary of Defense recently said, until the public as a whole has a little knowledge of these matters and can form its opinion about them, nothing is going to be solved. I think he is right.
That would mean giving scientific education to everyone.
Prof. Wilkins: No, not necessarily. There are problems about scientific education and the role of the public in democracy and decision making. I think you can help the public with these things with a very small amount of scientific education, if it is properly done. Einstein was of the view that, to a reasonable extent, any scientific problem could be made clear to an ordinary person if we really worked on it.
Unfortunately, many scientists don't want to think about these things. They find it a worry. They don't know what to do, and they say, "Let's get on with our work. Maybe the governments know what they are doing. Let's keep our fingers crossed." It's not a very intelligent or scientific approach.
It's not just a question of the war danger. It is also a question of how science is developed through educational institutions and through institutionalized science. I agree with Einstein that the sort of scientific education we have now has produced a narrow-minded way of thinking amongst scientists, so that they give no proper attention to the moral and psychological dimensions.
This is where trying to make some kind of synthesis is very important. Science as it is today doesn't tell us very much about the real nature of human beings. But even with a new synthesis, it may be almost impossible for science to deal with subjects like human intuition and emotions or what makes human beings really alive.
In Vedic theology it is suggested that consciousness is the observing element. When consciousness observes the external world, the result is material science. When it observes itself, it is possible to get an equally systematic and thorough body of knowledge about the nature of the self, although that is definitely a very different process.
Prof. Wilkins: I feel doubtful about that. I don't know how far one can develop the observing of one's mind and the way in which the mind and body interact. But possibly one can. If so, there may be an immense potential for developments in that direction. Any scientist who shrugs these things off, saying, "No, it is not acting according to the principles of science as we know it," is not really being very scientific at all. My own interest is in trying to make some connection between the spirit of scientific investigation and human virtues and moral values. There is an enormous disparity between the way scientists have been working in practice and the whole tradition of the philosophy of science, which claimed that scientific knowledge is objective and value-free. In practice, scientists seldom live up to their ideals. Scientists don't pay attention to the need for moral values in science.
This is why I feel we need to develop new thinking in the area of science and religion, but it needs to be done on a background of applying one's ideas in practical situations. Otherwise, you get academic ideas which are of no real value.
With the type of theories science promotes about man, such as the theory of evolution and the big bang theory, how much scope do you think there is in science for incorporating higher values? If everything is simply a product of chance and necessity---if man is a mere result of continuous tranformation of dead matter according to blind laws of nature---where is the scope for science to accept values and higher ideals as an integral part of the scientific reality?
The world view engendered by science is in many ways a very undesirable one because it focuses attention on the material aspects of life and on technical solutions to human problems. I think this is very bad for human attitudes. If you take an average man or woman, more and more of what matters to them in the world is what comes out of science or what can be dealt with by science. There is very little of what you may call real religious or moral interest today. People just live for a bigger television or some new clothes. There is very little sense of religiosity except among the narrow-minded fundamentalists. It is not a very encouraging situation. Science was a progressive force in a general, political, and social way in the nineteenth century. In some ways it remains so today, but the overall picture is depressing.
And it seems that the counter-balancing force of religion is receding at a very fast pace.
Prof. Wilkins: Yes. This has been going on for some time now. But it is not a continuous process; the environmental crisis, the sudden realization that we couldn't go on increasing pollution and consuming natural resources without some kind of long-term planning for the future---was a change of direction for a time. But after the economic recession, people say, "We can't afford the luxuries of that type of thinking. We must go on chopping down the rain forests in South America because we need the money now," and so forth. Money is a new god.
But on the whole, the scientific community has changed somewhat. It is less arrogant about how science must be a good thing and how it has the answers to all problems. Scientists are more cautious than they used to be, say, thirty or forty years ago. This is partly because they are less ambitious. They say, "I just do my little work, earn my living here. Don't ask me to think about all the problems of humanity. It is not my job. My job is at the bench here, to solve this or that problem." This is lowering the sights, so to speak. Science in the past had great ambitions, great things to aim for in the future of the human race and the improvement of society. Now, because things have gone wrong, they say, "Oh, well, no, we are not going to be silly like that anymore. We will just do our little work here. Don't bother us about those questions."
Nowadays, if a scientist openly takes to a demonstration of concerns in an area other than science, then he is no longer considered as producing good science.
Prof. Wilkins: They don't want really new ideas. What they want is just something which is new within the existing framework. They would be appalled by something really new because it wouldn't relate to what they do. They wouldn't understand it at all. They would probably find it all nonsense, and it would disturb their career. They, like all human beings, want security, psychological security. They want to belong to a group.
My philosophical notions are very simple-minded. One of them is that science is a human activity. The question of good and bad, of human virtue, relates to every human activity. How therefore can science, being a human activity, be separated from all virtues and values? But we need to do more than object to weapons research; we need to find a new vision of science as part of an active and creative culture developing in peace.
Professor Wilkins was the head of the department of biophysics at King's College in London, 1970-82. He shared to Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962.
This interview was reprinted in Clarion Call with permission from Synthesis of Science and Religion, Bhaktivedanta Institute.