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Science or Religion:
Where is the Truth?

Airport Magazine 2000 By Henning Schwarz. Photo by David Trood

We live in a rational world. But when it comes to important decisions we rely on common sense, says historian Bent Raymond Jørgensen.

"Who am I? What kind of a world do I live in? What is Truth? If you do not ask questions like this then you're not fully a human being."

Bent Raymond Jørgensen, 51, historian at the University of Copenhagen, studies the relation between science and religion. For several years he has cooperated with some of Denmark's foremost scientists in the lecture series "Science or God" at the Niels Bohr Institute of Physics and has co-edited a book by the same name.

In the modern world, most of us see ourselves as rational beings who base decisions on empirical evidence and logical thought. Yet you claim that when it comes to important decisions, we rely on intuition?
We think we are rational, but often we just rationalize. The great American philosopher William James once said, "We don't get scared and then run away. We see the lion, then we run, and then we become scared."
We believe that we act rationally. But consider one of life's really great decisions: choosing a partner. The rational thing to do would be to make a chart with all the possible candidates and all the qualities that you like about other people. Then you check them off one by one, and the candidate with the highest score becomes your partner for life. Simple, isn't it? But no one chooses a partner like that.

The Western world is materially successful. Isn't this a result of rational thinking?
I think it's characteristic for Western Man that we have dared to explain the world without basing ourselves on God. This should be the goal - even for a religiously inclined scientist. Otherwise, it becomes too easy to "explain" the inexplicable by simply calling it "God's work"- which does not give you new insight.

Competition led to success
In addition, I think competition plays an important part. When Europe began to gain the upper hand, some five hundred years ago, both China and India were way ahead in practically all fields - they had better ships and even had plans of going south of Africa and colonizing Europe. I don't think competition between European countries was the only reason for our success. But the competition posed problems that had to be overcome, and the result was Europe's technological revolution. Success was the result of work carried out by practically oriented individuals, not by universities or research institutes. However, behind technological progress lay intellectual curiosity and the desire to understand nature.

How did we go from a religious to a scientific worldview?
It all goes back to the ancient Greeks, who were the first to try and understand how the world works. Until the Greeks, people had been content with religious explanations. In 550 B.C., Heraclitus introduced the notion that all things are constantly changing: "You cannot step into the same river twice," he said. Parminides, on the other hand, argued that all things remain the same. Socrates claimed that we know nothing, while Aristotle concluded that we cannot understand the world but at least we can categorize it - and then proceeded to classify everything. Much later, in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church had a monopoly on what was right and wrong, the English philosopher Roger Bacon proposed to separate religion and science: You either read in the Great Book of Nature - using your sensory apparatus. Or you can use your intuition to read in the Book of God. This separation of religion and science has remained with us till today. And it is certainly beneficial, for when you mix the two, you get bad science and bad religion.

But aren't religion and science both attempts to understand the world?
Yes, but it's terrible when religious people try to base their religious beliefs on scientific evidence. It usually does not hold water. At the same time, it's unreasonable to disrespect religious beliefs, for what do we really know? In terms of the complexity of the world, we know very little.

100,000,000,000 brain cells
We are constantly learning. I know more about the brain than Freud did in 1911. I know more about the atom than Bohr did when he introduced his model of the atom in 1913. I know more about the universe than Hubble did when, in 1929, he discovered that the universe is expanding. Yet there's very little that we can be certain about. We still basically know nothing about how the brain functions. We know it has a hundred thousand million cells but nothing about how it coordinates input and output between them. I know that the atom is not the smallest particle in the universe, but as science probes even further, we keep finding still smaller structures. We believe we know that the Milky Way has about as many stars as we have cells in our brain. And most scientists tend toward the theory of the Big Bang - that the universe and everything in it originated as an explosion some twenty billion years ago. But what existed prior to the universe - and whether the Big Bang theory is true… We can't be sure.

Quite a few of the greatest scientists have been religious. Is it a natural consequence of scientific study that you become interested in metaphysical issues?
At first, you have a very functional approach - you have goals, getting your degree, building a career… But as you get beyond your doctoral thesis, you inevitably return to the great questions of your childhood: Who am I? What kind of a world do I live in? What is Truth? If you do not ask questions like this, then you're not fully a human being. You may fulfill functions like a machine. But Man is much more than a machine: we reflect upon ourselves and are constantly developing. And we have the capacity to wonder about the world.

To the book: "Science or God?"
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