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Journal of No. 118


April 11th, 2016

Ancillary Mercy / Science Religion & Reality @ 03:36 pm


Ancillary Mercy is the third of the trilogy. It ties off a lot of loose ends, but with not quite as grand an ending as I had anticipated. Some iffy motivation here and there, I thought, and some references to stuff earlllly on in the trilogy that might have paid off better for me if my memory were better. Certainly, there are some great scenes and some snappy dialogue. If this had been the first book, I might not have gone on, but still a good read.

Science, Religion, & Reality is an anthology of essays on these topics. My edition is from 1950, but the original was 1925, the same year as the Scopes Trial. On the whole, the essays are long and dull. Perhaps the most interesting 'controversy' is the one between vitalism and mechanism. The essay gives both a fair hearing, but clearly (and correctly) shows mechanism in the ascendance. The other interesting thing is, being just at the time of the Scopes Trial, the thinkers in the book generally regard religion as having ceded the territory to science. In the main, true, but from Scopes on, the anti-scientific crowd in religion has gotten stronger.

"It is amusing to reflect that the theologians were so adequately punished whenever they were indiscreet enough to interfere (in scientific judgments); they always backed the wrong horses. ... There can be no conflict as long as theology does not tamper with scientific controversies which are irrelevant to religion itself. Theologians have finally realized it; the best of them know that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose in such conflicts, and they will not stick their necks out any more. ... Whom must we trust in a scientific controversy, the competent people or the untrained and the irresponsible?"

Arthur Eddington has one of the better essays, with an interesting take on the objective/subjective. "The motive for the conception of an external world -- a world that will remain significant when my consciousness ceases to be--lies in the existence of other conscious beings. We compare notes and we find that our experiences are not independent of each other. Much that is in my consciousness is individual, but there is an element common to other conscious beings. That common element we desire to study, to describe as fully and accurately as possible, and to discover the laws by which it is modified as it appears now in one consciousness, now in another. That common element cannot be placed in one man's consciousness rather than another's; it must be placed in neutral ground -- an external world."

On writing physics problems: "The examiner, exercising his ingenuity, begins ... as follows: "An elephant slides down a grassy hillside..." The experienced examinee knows that he need not pay heed to this; it is only a picturesque adornment to give an air of verisimilitude to the bald essentials of the problem."

Haldane was pretty much on the nose, decades before the discovery of DNA: "The cell-nucleus must carry within it," he says, "a mechanism by which reaction with the environment not only produces the millions of complex and delicately balanced mechanisms which constitute the adult organism, but provides for their orderly arrangement into tissues and organs."

This discussion reminds me of Dan Dennett in Breaking the Spell, where he tries to allay the fears of those of faith that studying religion might 'break the spell' of religion: "Some religious people, it is true, have too frequently given cause for thinking that interest in religion is mere prepossession. They fail to realise that truth is the supreme religious interest, and they even seem at times to treat religion as a sort of germ which would die in the sunlight."
 
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Journal of No. 118