This is the third in a series of blogs on the unity of science and religion and its applications by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community and its National Spiritual Assembly. For more of his blogs, see http://barneyleith.com on Posterous.
I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.
— Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Nineteenth-century British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one of my heroes. Although small in physical stature, he was a giant in terms of vision, daring and accomplishment. Some of the greatest and most innovative structures of Victorian Britain were his. He worked with his father on the first tunnel under the River Thames, for example, and he designed the flattest, widest brick arch bridge in the world (which is still carrying main line trains, even though today’s trains are about 10 times as heavy as any Brunel ever imagined).
His greatest achievement was the Great Western Railway linking London and Bristol, which ran its first trains in 1838. He personally surveyed and engineered the route, the bridges, tunnels and many of the stations; and he designed track that would allow his trains to travel more quickly then any other trains of the time.
But for Brunel, even the Great Western Railway was not an end in itself; his vision was that a passenger could buy a ticket in London and travel to New York, using the railway to travel to a port and then taking passage in one of the steamships that Brunel had also designed to cross the Atlantic.
Brunel combined vision, imagination, theoretical knowledge, practical skill, readiness to innovate, and a systematic approach to huge projects. He was no desk-bound engineer; he spent much of his time at the supervising the construction of his projects. He learned on the job.
Inevitably for such a visionary and innovator, he did make some spectacular errors, but he was never defeated. Much of his work has stood the test of time and is still in daily use in the 21st century.
It is worth pondering Brunel’s warning about “the laying down of rules or conditions”. How often do we fall into the trap of “recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today”? There are many examples – some laughable, some poignant – in almost every area of human endeavour, including science, medicine, engineering, technology and religion.
One laughable example is that of Dr Dionysius Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College London, who claimed that a train running away down the gradient in one of the major tunnels on Brunel’s Great Western Railway would reach 120 m.p.h. The passengers, he said, would suffocate. Brunel dismissed Lardner’s absurd claim by showing that his calculations disregarded air resistance and friction, a basic error on Lardner’s part.
The idea of powered flight by heavier-than-air machines also came in for a certain amount of academic ridicule.
Joseph Le Conte, Professor of Natural History at the University of California, set out a careful argument in the November 1888 issue of Popular Science Monthly to show that “a true flying machine, self-raising, self-sustaining, self-propelling” would be physically impossible.”
Leading nineteenth-century British scientist Lord Kelvin is alleged to have declared in a speech he made as President of the Royal Society at the end of the 19th century, that heavier-than-air flying machines would not work.
A few years later, the Wright brothers made their first powered flight.
Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum is probably right: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is possible, he is very likely right. When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is impossible, he is very likely wrong.”
However, despite a lack of foresight in some areas, Lord Kelvin – after whom the Kelvin temperature scale is named – certainly had some interesting things to say about science and religion. In one speech at University College London he was reported as saying:
Do not be afraid of being free thinkers. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all Religion. You will find science not antagonistic, but helpful to Religion.
Sadly, practitioners of religion are amongst those most culpable of making “laws” of past prejudices and errors. For religious zealots, adherence to belief in the inferior status of women, a refusal to accept scientific frames of thought and findings – notoriously in relation to evolution – and denying people life-saving vaccinations and medical procedures (amongst other things) is almost definitive of religious faith.
Even in liberal inter-faith circles the word “tradition” is often used as a respectful synonym for “religion”. I always squirm when well-meaning inter-faith people refer to “the Bahá’í tradition”; this usage is antithetical to the very being of the Bahá’í community. In His Tablet to Mánikchí Sáhib, Bahá’u’lláh says:
Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.
And what the world needs now is not what the world needed in the past. Bahá’u’lláh calls us to focus on present needs and clearly does not want humanity to head into the future with its eye firmly on the rear-view mirror – a practice much loved by strong defenders of tradition in many faiths.
Of course, there are those, such as the new atheist tendency – not themselves known for setting aside their prejudices about religion – who see this equation of religion and tradition as a damning critique of what they see as religion’s irrationality, rigidity and ineluctable focus on the past.
Independent investigation of reality is a foundational principle in the Bahá’í teachings. It underpins the practice of Bahá’í consultation, the Bahá’í community’s non-adversarial decision-making and conflict-resolution process. It should surely also be foundational to the development of knowledge in science and the arts.
As I commented in my earlier post about Bohmian dialogue and Bahá’í consultation:
The process calls for participants to suspend their assumptions – about the world, about other participants – and to listen deeply to what is going on. The challenge in dialogue is simply to allow multiple points of view to exist alongside each other and not to defend one’s assumptions.
True dialogue depends on openness and, as Bohm points out, everyone – including religious people and scientists – is prone to leap to the defence of their assumptions, thus closing off the possibility of dialogue.
In recent messages to the Bahá’í community the Universal House of Justice has emphasized the importance of the adoption of a “humble attitude of learning”. Building the new civilisation envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh demands an acute awareness “of the inadequacies of current modes of thinking and doing” (Universal House of Justice to the Conference of the Counsellors, 28th December 2010) and readiness to develop new ways of being, thinking and doing. Crucially, the Bahá’í community is learning to see things in terms of process rather than events and to understand that “Progress is achieved through the dialectic of crisis and victory, and setbacks are inevitable”.
Clearly we cannot allow ourselves to hamper progress in the building of the new civilisation by being “shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today”. We should surely be as bold and visionary as Brunel.