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Copyright © 2002 W. Mark Richardson, Robert John Russell, Philip Clayton and Kirk Wegter-McNelly.
All rights reserved.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell received her Ph.D. in Radio Astronomy at Cambridge where she was involved in the discovery of pulsars. She is Dean of Science Faculty at the University of Bath and has served as Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society. She is recipient of the Oppenheimer prize, the Michelson medal, the Tinsley prize and the Magellanic premium, and is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Interview by Philip Clayton
PC: I'd like to start on a personal note and ask about your own religious background and the way that was affected by your scientific training.
JB: I was born into the Quaker religion, brought up as a Quaker, and I am a Quaker. I moved to England from Ireland when I was 13 for my secondary schooling and my college education, and I have stayed this side of the water ever since. Quakerism in England is much more liberal and often academic, much less likely to be explicitly Christian, let alone evangelical Christian, and much less likely to be biblical literalist than the Irish Quaker church I grew up in. I've always been significantly involved. Recently I was clerk of the yearly meeting. I suppose the nearest secular interpretation is president of the annual meeting for the Friends in Britain.
PC: Suppose I had met you during your graduate school years, or early in your career, and had said, "How can you take your physics seriously and at the same time be a theist?" How would you have responded?
JB: I suspect much the same way as I would now. My experience of the religious is in other domains of life besides physics. Physics or science is not the totality of life, there are other dimensions. I think some people might feel that I compartmentalize too strongly, but I would argue that I'm seeing a spectrum, a continuum. Starting with what I'm labeling the religious, I'm referring to experience in Quaker meetings for worship, the sense of an immanent God that can be in those gatherings. I'm referring to the promptings or nudgings or leadings that one should move in a particular direction or do a certain thing that one sometimes senses.
On the science side are the very rigorous, tightly argued, logical processes of testing hypotheses and drawing conclusions, which I think have been compartmentalized too strictly. I think much of what we teach about the scientific method is bunk. Having been involved in a major discovery, I am fully aware that the way discoveries are made and the way conclusions about unexpected things are worked out is not a simple, linear, well-organized process. It is round about, it is to and fro, it's backwards and forwards. I see strong parallels between the way scientific understanding grows and the way one's knowledge of God grows. You have a hypothesis, you test it by experiment. You see what the conclusions are. You revise the hypothesis, and you go round the circle again until you get convergence. In devising hypotheses, there clearly is need for insight, intuition, even dreams. One needs all kinds of faculties for making that leap to devise a new model, a new hypothesis to test. I also suspect that different people will see different things in a model of a hypothesis and may come up with different aspects of it, different questions about it, to be tested by experiment. This is where I suspect cultural differences come in and where there might be a feminist science that is different from the male science.
PC: Are these sorts of subjective factors that you've just mentioned parallel to the inner wisdom or light that a religious person knows?
JB: I think that's true, although I'd be inclined to say that a lot of religion is subjective. For me, faith has to be rationally sound, so there is an academic or intellectual content to it. However, the whole of the meeting for worship runs on intuition and other subjective factors. Although there are very strong parallels between the science and the theology, the balance between the academic and the subjective is rather different in the two, with religion and its practice having much stronger emphasis on the subjective.
PC: Could this be an explanation why so many great scientists have been Quakers, that they are already used to a process of submitting their own inspirations to a broader community, and that's great training for being a scientist?
JB: It could be. I certainly hope that one of the outputs of Quakerism is that one's trained to be rigorously honest. It's not to say that anybody else is dishonest, but because Quakers see everybody as being of equal value, it does mean one's less likely to get an inflated impression of one's own ability and standing. I think that tempering can also lead to honest questioning.
PC: You're a theist, you believe in a spiritual force. Would you think of a personal God?
JB: I have problems reconciling a picture of a God who is all-powerful with a God who is loving and caring. This may be because I am thinking too linearly. If you ask me to describe an electron I will talk both about a wave model and a particle model, and can cope with that duality. But I see the loving, caring God and the God who is in charge of the world as separate, exclusive, in contradiction. It may be that my understanding hasn't moved far enough to cope with a duality in religion like there is in understanding the electron.
PC: Does your training in physics have something to do with your reticence to attribute physical events to the direct hand of an all-powerful God?
JB: That's probably true, yes. When asked about miracles, I will quite happily talk about revolutions in people's thinking and attitudes. But I find the mechanical interference of God unpalatable. I'm very suspicious of being over-ready to put God into the unknown bits or unknowable bits of a hard science. But I'm always quite happy to say, "I don't know."
PC: Do you think your ability to say "I don't know" is something that you've learned through the practice of empirical science?
JB: I'd always thought it came with maturity. If you're not desperately anxious to prove God did this or didn't do that, and can be more relaxed, then you're prepared to say, "I don't know." But if you're feeling defensive then you try too hard.
PC: So for you, part of growth as a religious person is to be silent at the areas where we encounter mystery. I wonder whether there's some aspect of your scientific training that contributes to this willingness to accept silence?
JB: Well, being an astronomer, one is dealing with a lot of things that are beyond our grasp. I would certainly say that one has to stand silent before things that you don't know in astronomy as much as in religious areas.
PC: So the success of physics doesn't give grounds for thinking that ultimately all will be explainable in physical terms?
JB: I would, on principle, be suspicious of an absolute statement like that. Increasingly I have come to understand that scientists have done a lot of damage by being overconfident. I think scientists, particularly physicists, have got to learn again that what they do is often highly abstracted, a long way from everyday life, and that what they do is often based on some fairly speculative assumptions, a fact which they commonly forget.
PC: Has your sense of God grown through the development of the physical sciences?
JB: I'm not sure that it's grown in quantity, but I think it's grown stronger. I think that some of the science/religion discussions have actually strengthened religion, and probably also strengthened science. They've made people think just a little bit harder about what they were saying and what they meant and how sure they were.
PC: Immanuel Kant is famous for having drawn a sharp distinction between the empirical world which is guided by the laws of natural science, and the realm of ethics where religious language, the talk of divinity, is crucial. He at one point called these the two kingdoms. I wonder if that's the distinction that you're implicitly drawing.
JB: Yes, something rather like that, with the addition that I've become increasingly aware that I have these two kingdoms and I'm beginning to wonder if it is right to have the separation.
PC: The strength of the two kingdoms approach is that it allows you to do science in a rigorous and careful way and, at the same time, to preserve the ethical and religious life, so you can pour yourself into the two kingdoms without reservation or conflict.
JB: Yes, quite vigorously, and rapidly become a schizophrenic [laughing]. When I was younger I was very much bothered by the question, did God create the universe? I'd be tearing myself apart thinking about this. Then I'd go into a Quaker meeting for worship and, within about ten minutes, I would suddenly realize that that was not the most important question; I was totally taken by the sense of the presence of God. All these academic questions just floated miles away. I think it's possibly because I've got a very strong, almost mystical sense of reality. Maybe that helps me hold the two in tension without getting destroyed by the tension.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Science, spirituality and religion
An exploration of bridges and gaps
One of the basic tenets of Quakerism is that, regardless of what respected authorities say, we are enjoined to speak of our own experience of the living God, and from our own experience of the living God. Quakerism appeals to many scientists, for the openness and search that this experiential attitude implies is similar to the experimental approach of the research scientist. There are strong parallels, and in particular both require integrity. Scientists are trained to check their data, but having checked it, to respect its integrity, respect what it is telling them, neither over-interpreting nor falsifying the outcomes. Similarly in our religious life, Quakers have procedures for testing one another's religious leadings, but having checked them we are encouraged to respect them and what they are telling us.
Is there a bridge?
A bridge is only necessary when there is something to be spanned, so first I would like to explore what it is that needs bridging.
There is perceived to be a science and religion "problem." Along with other denominations Quakers will point out those of their members who are believers and scientists, and the assiduousness with which this is done belies an anxiety. What the problem is, or is supposed to be, escapes me. Perhaps it is less obvious in Britain than it is in the United States. There undoubtedly are modern cosmological issues that theology and religion still have to take on board, such as that there will be an end to the habitable Earth, that there will be an end to the habitable universe, and the re-working necessary of some of our theology if there is other intelligent life in the universe. Is this what needs spanning by our bridge? Whilst these are genuine and important issues, are they generally enough known to be the source of the problem?
There is also the view, perhaps articulated most strongly by part of the feminist movement, that sees science as a threat, and maybe also sees it as an irresponsible power and plunderer of the planet. Is this the gap that needs bridging? There is a gap here that needs bridging. In some cases at least this viewpoint seems to be a reaction, a fear of a (powerful) subject that some are not equipped to follow. I am always particularly touched when at the end of one of my popular science lectures somebody (frequently a woman) comes up to me and remarks that they did not expect to understand, but to their surprise they did! Both their amazement, and their sense of empowerment, area joy to see. Unfortunately such gaps can be widened when scientists appear too confident, too arrogant, too abstract, or too detached.
The island of science
Is science in our culture an offshore island? Not far offshore, to be sure, but with clear water all round it, separating it from the shore, the mainland, which is the rest of our culture? Is it the bridge to the Island of Science that we are talking about?
I picture this island as being high at one end, sloping down to a gentle shore at the other end — a wedge-shaped profile. The high end of the island has sheer cliffs dropping into the water; the cliffs are called physics! The highest point of the island, also at this end, is crowned with a lone pine, called Grand Unification Theory. Part way along the cliffs is a cove with a beach, which provides some access. The cove is called astronomy. Most of the landing places are at the other end, where the island slopes gently into the water, although careful navigation is needed amongst some rocks in the water. This part of the island is known as earth sciences and biological sciences, and between here and physics lies chemistry. (British readers familiar with Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons may recognize the island — a case of my cultural context showing through!)
Astronomy and morality
Are there moral issues that exercise astronomers? Yes, there are, but largely only the issues that exercise many other people doing many other jobs. Furthermore, in other occupations there can be additional moral issues. For example, archaeology was one career that I considered; if I had followed that profession, disturbing ancient sacred sites and ancient burials would have raised moral issues for me. Astronomy seems relatively moral-free, perhaps because it is relatively detached. What about unexpected spin-offs and social responsibility? True, if those pulsar signals had actually been signals from another civilization out in deep space, then there would have been important and sensitive issues to be considered. We are learning (slowly) to take care of space and other bodies in space just as we have learned the necessity of taking care of this planet. The other spin-off that I am aware of is the availability of people with high-level computing and technical skills, and this seems to me desirable.
There may be funding issues — how much money is it right to spend on such a subject? However, in Britain the money spent on astronomy is much less than the revenue raised from tobacco taxes, much less than the revenue...
Excerpted from Science and the Spiritual Quest by W. Mark Richardson, Robert John Russell, Philip Clayton and Kirk Wegter-McNelly. Copyright © 2002 by W. Mark Richardson, Robert John Russell, Philip Clayton and Kirk Wegter-McNelly. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.