Chet Raymo


The exihilarating connection between science and religion

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

Raymo distinguishes two kinds of attitude to questions of knowledge and faith, which he calls Skepticism and True Belief. Skeptics are willing to live with a degree of uncertainty and are therefore tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. True Believers, in contrast, see things in black and white; they seek simple truths and look for guidance from outside themselves—from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials.

This analysis might suggest that Raymo is distinguishing between people who have a scientific outlook and those who don't, but in fact his point is somewhat different from this, for he holds that there can be religious Skeptics and scientific True Believers. A religious Skeptic is prey to doubt and keeps questioning God, and consequently may be depressed at times. As for scientists, Raymo cites Frank J. Tipler as an example of a scientific True Believer. Tipler is an eminent professor of mathematical physics who claims that the universe will eventually resurrect every human being at the end of time in what he calls the Omega Point; we shall all live again in a cosmic virtual reality, and even the pleasures of sex will be available. Raymo is surely right to say that this is the kind of pseudo-physical mysticism that gives physics a bad name, and that if you want metaphysical consolation you would do better to go along with the established churches.

Raymo does not believe in an afterlife of any kind, but he wishes to preserve what he takes to be the essence of the religious outlook. He is keen to counter the allegation, often made, he says, by True Believers, that to adopt a Skeptical viewpoint means that you are blind to the beauty and mystery of the world. On the contrary, he says, the Skeptic has a better sense of wonder than the True Believer. To illustrate this he tells us how he saw Comet Hyakutake together with a spellbound group of students, and he reflects on the fact that we, today, can predict the path of the comet and of other heavenly bodies; the knowledge we have does not diminish our sense of wonder, rather it adds to it. He would like NASA to produce a full-length film of astronomical images, a panorama of beauty that would, he believes, provide a true modern counterpart to the mediaeval cathedrals.

In another personal testimony to his sense of wonder at the beauty of Nature he tells us of an encounter with a large blue heron. As it flew off he stood and applauded. Once, he says, the heron might have had a totemic meaning for us, but today we can only recapture this sense of its deeper significance with the help of science, which enables us to weave the heron into a web of wider meaning. I find this story rather disturbing; the thought of standing and applauding a heron seems to have something self-conscious and artificial about this piece of theatre. Since it could not mean anything to the heron, the intended audience seems to have been Raymo himself.

This is a valiant attempt on Raymo's part to reinject a sense of wonder into our scientific world view and I am sympathetic to his enterprise, yet I am not sure that he wholly succeeds in bringing it off. It seems to me that he builds too much on rather inadequate foundations. Even if we accept that he experienced what he calls an 'epiphanic moment' when he saw the heron, this doesn't really help us. We cannot rely on Raymo's intuition at second hand; we need to see our own heron, or its equivalent; but even if we do, how do we translate this experience into a comprehensive religious vision based on science, which is what Raymo seems to be asking for? The task of building a religious outlook for the twenty-first century is more daunting than Raymo seems to realize.

Nevertheless, this is a good book. Raymo is not saying anything radically new, for his two types of thinking have much in common with those described by others—for example, William James's Tough-Minded and Tender-Minded categories, but Raymo's recognition that a theist may be a Skeptic or a scientist a True Believer is a genuine contribution. And his denunciations of modern versions of superstion and irrationality are witty and well taken; we certainly need these today. This would be a good book to give a young person who was thinking about a career in science but was wondering about the value status of the subject.

%T Skeptics and True Believers
%S The exhilarating connection between science and religion
%A Chet Raymo
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 1999
%P 288 pp
%K philosophy, science, religion
%G ISBN 0-09-928972-5
%O Paperback
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