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Gödel, Escher, Jones,
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This review is from: The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (Hardcover)
Steve Jones' new book is sub-titled 'The Bible Retold as Science'. It takes a section or theme from the bible, new or old testament, and explores the theme in the light of current scientific knowledge.
In the beginning we have - the beginning. An enjoyable summary of the current state of Big Bang theories and, more locally, the history of the Earth. Leading on from that is a discussion of theories of the origin and development of life on this planet.
Moving on, 'The Battle of the Sexes' looks at the development of ideas about sex, both initially from the bible - where there is an awful lot of 'begetting' - and as it has developed within Christianity. The discussion is closely informed by a discussion of the parallel development of biological, cultural and demographic approaches to sex and population. Of course, the two - science and religion - intertwine when apparently arcane questions such as whether identical twins may share a soul, whether a clone may have a soul at all and, rather more pointedly, whether stem cell research and similar studies are 'morally acceptable'. If discussions of souls sounds a little antiquated, Jones' example of a recent pronouncement by the EU Court of Justice relating to 'proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos' suggests not:
'In the hallowed halls of Strasbourg, with plentiful advice from the Church, the ancient argument about clones has been brought back to life and the soul now has the full protection of European law.' (P167)
There follow chapters on growing old (Methuselah), natural disasters (Noah's Ark), disease (lepers feature prominently here), food and food taboos, transcendental experiences and finally, morals, ethics, the bible and Darwin.
The book is, then, not simply just a look at the 'errors' of the bible, about how modern science can explode the myths and reveal truth obscured. It recognises where the two rub up against each other, how they conflict and, to a degree, what this says about both.
In the end Steve Jones is a scientist. He interprets the world from a scientific perspective - a 'natural' perspective as opposed to a 'supernatural' perspective. And, as a scientist, he privileges the natural over the supernatural. But there are some niggles here.
In the preface, Jones says that the book is 'about dry fact, not theology (nor, God preserve us, philosophy)'. (P14)
A bit further on, he suggests that science's enquiries:
'know no limits, none of its explanations is complete, and authority, divine or otherwise, is never enough. Sometimes, as in the downfall of Newton's ideas as the foundation of physics from Higgs boson to cosmos, a whole subject collapses in the face of new evidence, but those whose temple has been thrown down do not wring their hands over the ruins, but dust themselves off and build a new one.' (P14)
So science has its temples too, it seems. The difference, I suppose, is that religion has faith in eternal verities whereas science perhaps has 'faith' in the provisionality of it all, right down to the quantum level. Now science is trying to probe to a 'time' before the Big Bang, to places outside the universe, in order to explain the development and contents of this universe, which is all starting to sound a bit like Gödel's 'incompleteness theorems'.
This book is, in a way, an example of science again attempting, or at least indicating progress towards, a Theory of Everything, as opposed to the biblical theory of everything. While admitting that everything is not known, science still promises the possibility of such omniscience. I can't help thinking of John Gray's comments:
'Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwin's science - why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value? But as the evangelical zeal of contemporary atheists shows, it is not science that is at issue here. No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief, and none is more irrational, for belief has no particular importance in either science or religion.' (The Immortalization Commission, P 224)
The book, for all its wonderful exploration of the current state of scientific knowledge and the direct comparison of that with biblical teachings, falls into that scientific (maybe scientistic) evangelising trap. 'The Bible Retold as Science' - is still a bible.
Gray goes on:
'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (Ibid P 227)
It's a shame that Steve Jones seems so adverse to philosophy ;-). Still - a good and thought-provoking read.
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Initial post: 5 Jul 2014 19:04:47 BDT
Shaun S. Yates says:
You write so beautifully. Have you published any work?
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