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Customer Review

on February 8, 2004
Chet Raymo has always been one of my favorite authors. I read his "365 Starry Nights" with a fascination that I have had for few books. After reading Kenneth Miller's "Finding Darwin's God" I was quite receptive to getting Raymo's take on the interface between science and religion in his book "Skeptics and True Believers." I was not disappointed. Raymo's thesis is that there needs to be a connection between religion and science that does not contradict solid scientific results and concepts. Raymo is clear in his writing and, among other things, rightly attacks the muddled postmodern concept that all ideas are equal. You cannot argue that Ptolemy's construct of epicycles is as good an idea as Copernicus' sun-centered system. This is utter nonsense. Science at its best does seek the closest approximation of "truth" at a given time and is also at its best a self-correcting system. Thus you cannot really have a conservative or liberal science. The Nazis tried to have an Aryan science and the Communists in the former Soviet Union tried to have a Socialist science, but they both failed miserably. This inability to be ultimately used for political purposes is one of the main strengths of science and what separates it from absolute belief systems.
Raymo also takes on strict reductionism, which is (as he points out) pretty close to a faith-, a faith that you can explain the universe in a final relatively simple theory of everything. Even Stephen Hawking has apparently given up on this idea (although he espoused it quite emphatically in his "A Brief History of Time.") The problem is the mind-boggling complexity of the universe and of the development and structure of life. Still, reductionism has served us well in the laboratory- it just does not take on the biggest problems easily. Perhaps one day we will know everything there is to know, but I think that we will be buried in mountains of data long before that day dawns.
I do partially disagree with Raymo on one point. While I think that he is absolutely correct that quantum physics cannot be used to "prove" the existence of God or of a spirit world, the chance effects of quantum theory could serve a basis for free will, as Roger Penrose suggests. I am not convinced that quantum events never affect events at larger scales, as Raymo thinks. However only time and more knowledge will settle that one. It may be, as Raymo says, that quantum events are swamped at larger scales. It may even be that at our level apparently indeterminate events become determinant if an infinite number of these events are summed. This is the "coin tossing" paradox- we cannot predict the outcome of a particular coin toss, but if you make a large number of tosses the ratio will be nearly 50-50 and if you made an infinite number the 50-50 ratio would be absolutely determined. However, I think that dispensing with free will completely (as some recent authors do, but Raymo does not) makes a mockery of science itself, as its practitioners than become automatons who are deluded into believing that they chose their views.
I will add one other quibble. Although I, as an agnostic, pretty much agree with Raymo, I still would hesitate to attack someone else's faith in a personal God. For one thing, while I would not depend on any ancient holy text as a source of truth, I am not going to tell a grieving parent that their child is not in a biblical heaven if that should give them comfort. Beside, I think that religious belief is to some extent probably a characteristic of the human species and may not easily be eliminated by all the science education we can provide. Why some believe or do not believe in a particular version of God is not easy to discover. However, I think it may be a result of the genetic makeup of humans interacting with their culture and apparent need for answers.
None the less, I agree with Raymo that it is important for scientists to explain the logic and evidence for their theories to the public. We just cannot expect everybody to immediately see scientific "truth" as THE truth, and modify their beliefs over night. Humans (including scientists sometimes) are really good at ignoring evidence against some cherished belief. We also need to avoid the trap of scientific hegemony over religion and the humanities in which science itself becomes god and other human endeavors, such as art, literature and music, are dismissed as "unscientific."
Read this book if you are at all interested in the subject of the relationship of science and religion. Even if you do not agree with Raymo, it will cause you to think about a very important subject that may well determine mans future survival.
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