Ard: Here’s an interesting question: do you think that some of the resistance you’ve faced from the reductionists has been that kind of fear of religion? That they’re worried you are going to sneak God back in?
DN: Yes, and not only that. I found in a Novartis Foundation symposium – organised by one of the great reductionists at UCL in about 1997, Lewis Wolpert – I was one of the few to argue against the reductionist case, and I expected two others to help me. One did, another didn’t, and he came up to me in the coffee break and said, ‘Denis, I would support you if I didn’t think that that brings God back in.’
David: That’s so weird.
DN: And I looked at him and I could not begin to understand what he was saying. Though I do, now, understand the fear. Of course, in the neo-Darwinist context it’s the fear of all those creationists. Somehow or other, if you let this structure collapse, and I think it is collapsing, incidentally: it’s a house of cards built on some very bad concepts and some very poor science: poor because of the insistence that it is the only truth. If you let that crumble, what then happens? The creationists will have a field day saying you are all wrong.
David: Do you think that is a major objection to accepting a challenge to reductionism and talking about emergence?
DN: I believe that’s part of the problem. It is as though you have to be reductionist in order to counter those ideas.
David: Where do I fit in then? Because I don’t believe in God, and I’m not a reductionist either.
DN: Well, of course, there are many who do believe in God who don’t think that it’s necessary to be a creationist, who don’t think it’s necessary to suppose that some very strange events have happened. When the Archbishop of Canterbury debates with Richard Dawkins, they don’t disagree about that kind of question at all.
Ard: The metaphysics?
DN: It’s the metaphysics, and, of course, there will be many metaphysics depending on what people’s views and feelings are about the deepest questions of the nature of life. So I think we should be a bit more tolerant of each other. There are many different views.
To, as it were, stop the process or interfere with the natural development of science on the grounds that this will lead to particular religious beliefs, is, I think, just a misunderstanding of what the process of science is about.
David: Isn’t it also just the inverse of what the Church did at the time? ‘You can’t believe in science because it will lead to not believing in God.’
DN: But even there you’ve got to be careful.
David: Now science is doing the same thing but the other way around.
DN: I think you have to be careful even there. There were some very major theologians who would agree with what many atheists say. Now, there’s a problem: atheism or anti-theism? They are not the same. And I think part of the problem is that people have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They have been throwing out concepts like spirituality, which I think is a form of creative novelty of the ability to give meaning to things. That is spirituality: to be able to give meaning to things. And they have been throwing that out as though it has been necessary to throw that out in order to resolve an issue which I don’t think science can resolve anyway. At least that’s my belief. If it can, I’ll be amazed.
Ard: I think it’s much better for science if it could disconnect itself…
DN: From those kind of metaphysical questions…
Ard: Because it does make people afraid, and they start battening down the hatches. Thomas Nagel talks about the fear of religion in his critiques of reductionism, and I think science can’t answer those kind of questions, and the minute you realise that, then it actually frees science rather than restricts it.
David: I agree with you that it is better for science, but it’s also better for us. I like your point which is there’s this big thing, ‘We’ve got to get rid of God’, they say, and they throw out spirituality with it.
DN: Yes, exactly so.
David: I don’t believe in God, but I do think the spiritual is a part of us. I think it’s a part of being a human animal. I just don’t think it’s got anything to do with God.
DN: Absolutely. That is why I like the quotation from Waddington in 1957 in The Strategy of the Genes where he points out that it – and he means Neo-Darwinism – has been damaging to man’s spirituality. Now that’s a very, very strong statement, but remember he was not religious.
David: You as a biologist… You would expect a biologist to bridle at that, but you don’t.
DN: Well, I don’t because I think it’s obvious that there is a spirituality to man. I know the word spirituality produces all kinds of notions of there being strange stuff out here. But you don’t have to suppose that at all. If you are dealing with the relationships and the processes, that’s spiritual only in the sense it’s not material, but that’s what spiritual means. If you go back to it, it comes from spiritus, which is breath and all the rest of it. It’s a natural process. You don’t even have to worry about whether the word has got some strange connotations that you’re not happy with. Just bring it back and let it be a natural word in science. So I am with Waddington on that.