Joan Bakewell: Science or literature? Surely what we need is both

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was surprising to find science carrying the day. Especially in such a literary place as Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell, once the setting of Bloomsbury shenanigans and now home to one of the summer's finest literary festivals.

The motion for debate was simply: "the scientific canon is more relevant to our times than the literary canon". As is the way with many debates pioneered by Intelligence Squared, the audience voted cold on the motion as they came into the event. Unsurprisingly, Charleston's loyal and literary devotees voted unflinchingly in favour of the literary canon. However, there were already a large number of abstainers. Even among the literati there were those not yet ready to commit. There was everything to play for.

The debate was strong and passionate. Richard Fortey – palaeonotologist – led the way, declaring that our world as we know it was shaped by Darwin, Newton, Freud et al, and without a full acknowledgement of their works we should have no grasp of the state or structure of things, the cosmos and the place of human consciousness within it. John Mullan, literary guru of UCL, countered with the claims of sensibility and lessons in the human soul taught us by the literary canon as the touchstone to human values and eternal verities. The science writer Georgina Ferry and novelist Tracy Chevalier followed up.

Then, the questions. Science began to gain ground as people spoke of the breadth and depth of the scientific hold on our contemporary outlook. Soon we were into arguments about saving the planet – not Jane Austen's job – and understanding genetics and our biological destiny.

Come the vote and the motion was carried by a surprising majority, rather as the amendments to the Government's Bill were defeated earlier this week. The House of Commons debate, too, drew many passionate speakers. And again the available science – as supported by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – carried the day.

It won out against the heart-felt pleas to conscience and sympathy led by the stalwart former nurse and Tory MP Nadine Dorries and the massed ranks of Pro-Lifers and the Catholic Church. It would be easy to see in either debate the forces of science putting to rout the deeper, more subjective appeal to our humanity and moral compass. But that would be wrong.

Now comes the publication of a booklet issued by the Templeton Foundation that offers 13 responses to the question: Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? Contributors include a medley of professors and philosophers, and the variety of their answers is intriguing. The Archbishop of Vienna answers with a sophistical "No, and Yes". A Nobel Laureate in Physics answers, "Absolutely not!"; the psychologist Steven Pinker says "Yes, if..." Christopher Hitchens offers a pleading, "No, but it should," and the philosopher Mary Midgley says "Of course not!" Each of these essays does as the Templeton Foundation intended, and adds a thoughtful and authoritative contribution to one of the most fought-over issues of our time. This leaflet sets out exactly where the debate has arrived today.

"The Sky God is long gone," argues Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, author of Islam and Science "... the mediaeval God of classical religion has lost repute and territory... These days if you heard a voice telling you to sacrifice your only son, you would probably report it to the authorities." Nonetheless, he concludes, "Unsure of why they happen to exist, humans are likely to scour the heavens forever in search of meaning". And Mary Midgley adds: "It is the claim to a monopoly of meaning that makes science and religion look like competitors today."

Which brings us back to Charleston and the efforts made to understand what life is about and what it is for. What emerged at Charleston and in the political debate surrounding medical ethics is that we all think of what it is to be human through the prism of our own consciousness. There is no means whereby we can step outside its parameters.

So an appreciation of scientific insight is as strong a component of moral judgement as a belief system that invokes a supreme creator. In the now familiar clash between science and religion there can be no outright victor. We can reject, as I do, the supernatural stories of the world's religions. But we cannot root out the impulse to believe that there is something more than skin and bones, particles and genes to the human existence. Non-believers need their own sense of what is sacred. Which is why the debate goes on.