Columbia University Press, £15.00
Despite the common perception that our current scientific knowledge undermines any credible role for religion as a source of intellectual understanding (perhaps fuelled by books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion), adherents to religious traditions are by no means absent from the ranks of leading contemporary biologists. A notable example is the distinguished biologist Robert Pollack, who in this short book provides some coherent and penetrating challenges to the perception identified above.
As Pollack points out, a major limitation of scientific reasoning derives from the fact that in its disciplined way of looking at the natural world, science requires its practitioners to act solely as observers, whereas they are also invariably participants. This means that in attempting to meet rigorous standards of dispassionate objectivity they overlook the “irrational boundaries of their minds and bodies”.
Everyone, whatever their theistic, atheistic or agnostic persuasion, inevitably makes assumptions that can’t be examined objectively. So, arguably, the atheist’s belief that the human mind is, or will be, capable of meaningfully explaining life and the universe is no less an act of irrational faith than many (though certainly by no means all) religious beliefs.
Having established these major limitations to rational deliberation, Pollack proceeds to address questions such as free will and what counts as evidence in scientific and religious contexts, and also thorny ethical issues such as the identification of (potential) genetic disabilities that also affect one’s relatives. This important book provides stimulating insights for believers and non-believers alike.