belfasttelegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Could Nelson's idea be the start of something?

If the Ulster Museum holds an exhibition on the origin of the universe, Nelson McCausland may find it poses many difficult questions, says Malachi O'Doherty

It's not hard to imagine the jaws dropping onto desktops when the letter arrived from Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asking museum heads to pay a bit more attention to matters of vital concern to him like the Ulster Scots heritage, the Orange Order and the origin of the universe.

On reflection, museum managers might have considered a range of options short of telling him to get stuffed.

Mr McCausland's view is that a museum should reflect the culture and beliefs of the community it serves. In seeking to refute this, the museums might seek to actively explain the world to a community with reference to the gaps in the understanding of even its leading cultural funders.

In short, if Mr McCausland wants the museum to offer discussion of intelligent design theory, let them do it. There are a lot of people among us who believe that religion can still hold out against scientific discovery. They would have been on the side of the Pope against Gallileo and they still think they can refute Darwin.

They want to retain the conviction within scientific institutions like universities and museums that God created the world in seven days. Well, let them try.

The first comfort for museum heads is that intelligent design theory is already a concession to science. It is a relaxation of the demand by religious creationists that the Book of Genesis be taken as a sufficient account of the emergence of the universe, life and consciousness.

The court cases in the United States, around the demand for the teaching of intelligent design, were attempts by religious fundamentalists to argue science with scientists, conceding, in effect, that there was no point in trying to impress them with scripture.

Scientists and secularists saw this as a threat. It was, in fact, the movement of religious fundamentalists on to ground on which scientists can defeat them, if they are confident of the strength of their case.

Why shouldn't we have an exhibition on intelligent design incorporating a discussion of the arguments around it in the museum? People like Nelson McCausland might soon discover that there is no comfort in it for them.

If they are hopeful that intelligent design restores the Christian explanation of the Universe to them, then they may be well-served by having the full case and its implications laid out for them.

The problem for creationists is that their argument, if won, might only establish that an intelligence initiated the big bang. For all they know, that intelligent being might have been killed in the blast.

He, she or it may reside still in another universe and have lost all interest in this one. There are no grounds for supposing that that being knows about us, or has benign intentions towards us.

There are no grounds even for supposing that it is an infinite deity. There may be another universe in which children spark off big bangs with their chemistry sets. They may not even know that they are doing it.

They will live in a different timeframe, so our whole span of existence in this universe may be just a blink to them. The problem for intelligent design freaks is that they don't read enough science fiction.

Rationalists might say this is absurd. But we are already making black holes under Geneva ourselves with the CERN project, so what is so implausible about an intelligence more advanced than our own, conducting similar or more radical experiments elsewhere?

What intelligent design believers do read - some of them - are the theories of John Polkinghorne, a scientist and minister of the Church of England who won the £1m Templeton Prize for research that reconciles science and religion.

The usual experience of religion in the contest with science is that literal interpretation of scripture loses every encounter. Then those who continue to insist that religion retains lost ground begin to sound more desperate and absurd in the secular world.

Scientists feel little need to go on arguing points that they feel that they have won, like natural selection. Some scientists, like Richard Dawkins, continue to wave the victory in the faces of the religious defeated, but there is no scientific need for them to do so.

Polkinghorne said that the universe looks like a 'put-up job'. If the pull of gravity was fractionally greater than it is, the universe would compact into a hard ball; if less, it would scatter like vapour.

So, what is the scientific answer to the perfect 'just-rightness' of this universe for life? One answer, seriously put forward, is that there are millions of failed universes, or universes that turned out differently, and that this is the one that by chance is just suited to us.

In other words, the answer is a call to faith in the existence of the unknowable; the sort of thing that religious people come up with. The difficulty in this debate is that both the religious and the scientific contenders have cranks on their side; adamant Christians who think the Bible tells them everything they need to know and ardent rationalists who fantasise that the job of explaining the universe is complete.

What about an exhibition at the Ulster Museum that acknowledges the mystery of our being here as mortal, but self-conscious beings in an unlikely universe?

Would Nelson be happy with that? I suspect he would want to see models of humans hunting dinosaurs, but it is easy to deny him myths for which there are no evidence.

But just because we have a crank for a culture minister doesn't mean that the unexplained universe shouldn't enthrall us.

And some smarty-pants in the museum is bound to agree that a serious discussion of intelligent design theory would tick the right box to get Nelson off his back.

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz