In Conversational Orbit of 'God's Planet' With Owen Gingerich

by Paul Risker

9 February 2015

Religion and science, two of the great cathedrals of knowledge, are often perceived as being in a state of conflict with one another. Gingerich is of the mind that the two cannot be separated.
cover art

God's Planet

Owen Gingerich

(Harvard University Press)
US: Oct 2014

In Owen Gingerich’s accommodating God’s Planet, he sets the stage and tells the story of how Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin and Fred Hoyle advanced our knowledge and understanding of the planet through a series of questions. With a fluent simplicity and an injection of humour, Gingerich discloses a narrative of the evolution of human knowledge. Gingerich’s human element allows us to connect with the discussion and serves to make God’s Planet an inclusive, rather than alienating, read.

God’s Planet stands as a solid introduction to these three men and their role within the narrative of human knowledge. “There is certainly a personal element in the book, in that I make comments along the way that are specifically coming from me,” he says, “and there is also something about the general texture of the discourse.”

Just as in life it is true that for every beginning there must be an end, a book is not favoured with exemption. But the beginning is not the first time a reader opens the cover to digest the words on that first page of a new encounter. This is only one version of the beginning and the end; the forward journey. The other involves the writer, and for Gingerich the beginning was an invite, and in contrast to the view of the solitary writer, the beginning of God’s Planet was not a solitary experience.

“It is a set of lectures I was invited to give at Gordon College, a Christian College about 25 miles north of Boston. It was in honour of somebody I had worked with for quite a long time, and the subject was not specified at all. Rather, it was something I was willing to do on the science-religion dialogue.” Even now following the book’s publication, Gingerich is still met with a sense of uncertainty when he contemplates the origins of the work, rooted in an oral engagement. “I’m not exactly sure what inspired me to pick these three characters and put it in this particular fashion. But the idea struck me that this might be appropriate and could work out in an interesting way by using three characters I know quite a bit about. So I put it together from that point of view and I hope it’s successful.”

God’s Planet is perhaps most aptly described as a chronological journey of knowledge through time, by way of Copernicus, Darwin and Hoyle, three individuals who, at different points in history, have challenged conventional wisdom and sought to propel our understanding of our planet forward. This text directs an emphasis on not only the ideas explored, but the inherent truth that knowledge is constantly in motion and influences the way in which we perceive our world. The discourse contained here forces a contemplation of how mankind determines the fate of so much that is significant. Knowledge develops through us and is an integral part of our forward journey as a species and a civilisation. Gingerich appreciates that in order to write a book of this nature one must embrace man’s journey across the centuries, and how this journey has been defined in a significant part by a quest for scientific knowledge.

Within this evolutionary journey of knowledge, focus is given to the struggle for knowledge, and how knowledge can be debunked if there’s not a supportive understanding already in place. Reaching the conclusion that this journey is both a vulnerable and volatile one is inescapable, as Gingerich explained. “I certainly wanted to show how the strong interaction of religious ideas and impressions interacted with the acceptance of the science involved. And so there is this much broader basis for how people go about accepting their philosophical implications of science.”

However, as Gingerich further reflected in our conversation, one must not forget the subjectivity of the individual that inherently interacts with the social milieu that one belongs to. “I wanted to make the point that even scientists have their own biases, which are personal opinions really, and are not intrinsic in the science itself. So we always have that kind of societal give and take with what scientists are proposing.”

Religion and science, two of the great cathedrals of knowledge, are often perceived as being in a state of conflict with one another. Gingerich is of the mind that the two cannot be separated; respecting in the course of the text that both contribute to the discussion and pursuit of knowledge despite their different personas.

If one contemplates the course of human knowledge, then religion could be viewed as the one to lay down a theory whilst science investigates it, both in turn working together to create an understanding of the planet. It could even be perceived that religion is filling a void until science is able to fill it; offering us a means to connect with an uncertain physical world. “Certainly if you look at the Copernicus situation, which I outline in the book, you see that it took a long time for people to get used to the idea that the Earth is moving, and it is not a relatively closed system with God not very far away beyond the sphere of fixed stars. It’s a much larger and vaster universe, which is opened up by the Copernicus view, and I think most people are accepting of that.

“At least here in America there are lots of people who simply find it impossible to accept the long age of the earth, and I can see that they are much more comfortable to think that the world is only 6,000 years old. But it just doesn’t wash in terms of the scientific picture which is very well established.”

As avenues to knowledge, whether they inevitably end up creating a different interpretation that leads to an inevitable conflict, and whether there can be harmony between the two, remains an uneasy and confronting question. As Gingerich explains, “It’s a difficult question. I would say that there is the possibility right now of harmony between the two, but there is a very wide range of opinions among people in different parts of the world, different educational levels and so on. I think there is always going to be a certain amount of friction between them, but I don’t think it’s really necessary for people who are thoughtful about their religion.”

Gingerich eludes to an important distinction between the two, and how religion contributes to our personal development in a way that science does not. “I can see that religion is playing a different role than scientific theory. I don’t think out of scientific theories you derive ethics and morality, and that is what comes in strength through a religious perspective.” It is a point that forces a contemplation of the vital need for both religion and science.

The journey to understand our world is one of the most enduring of our preoccupations. One question I posed to Gingerich was whether with all the knowledge so far obtained; all the knowledge we are in search of, is the final piece of the puzzle the ultimate prize, but is it an attainable prize? Whilst man will not live to see the death of the sun, in the far reaching future that is in one sense the end of the life span of this solar system and with it what was our habitat.

He offered, “Well now you are talking about things that are very far future and it seems to me that we have a lot of things to worry about before the sun runs out of energy. If you just look at the survival rate of the other primates it is not all that enormous in comparison to the time that the sun is going to last. So if you think about the long term future of Homosapiens, then the whole view of how our world will change does not make one optimistic that Homosapiens will still be here in a million years.”

Coming full circle, there is of course no end point per say for a book, if only because with each person who reads it their experience keeps it as newly discovered text. On his hopes for God’s Planet Gingerich explained, “I certainly hope to give people more perspective on some of the issues that come about through modern science. For example in America there is a wide disbelief in evolution. That is to say it is one of the countries that has the largest rejection of the science of evolution, and I’m hoping in the way that I have presented it that at least some people would rethink their position and realise that they don’t have anything to fear from evolution.”

He continues, “There are of course ethical issues that come up and are related to it, but they are not necessarily intrinsic in evolutionary theory itself. In the end part of the book I want to say that there is a lot of enthusiasm for life on other worlds, and we haven’t a shred of evidence that there is life anywhere else, but it is interesting to speculate about it. I think people should realise that if we find a signal for life on one of these exoplanets that are being discovered, it would not tell us anything very much about the nature of life. It might just be low form like bacteria and nothing beyond that. So I want to alert people to the fact that a world is a gleam in a lot of scientist’s eyes and that’s what they are working on and are going to find. But so far there isn’t that much evidence really that there is other life out there.”

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