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Separating science from dogma/Do not confuse the beliefs of individual scientists with scientific knowledge

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``The new physics and the new cosmology hold out a tantalizing promise: that we might be able to explain how all the physical structures in the universe have come to exist, automatically, as a result of natural processes. We should then no longer have need for a Creator in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, though science may explain the world, we still have to explain science. . . . The laws which enable the universe to come into being spontaneously seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design. If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us.''

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In saying this, Davies and other scientists with similar leanings make it clear that they are not speaking as scientists. They are taking a metaphysical position for which they cannot claim scientific authority. Physicist Heinz R. Pagels of the New York Academy of Sciences and Rockefeller University makes clear this distinction between what he calls ``third-person science'' (objective knowledge) and ``first-person science'' (subjective belief) in his new book, ``Perfect Symmetry'' (Simon & Schuster).

The former, he says, ``is the science we see published in professional journals and hear reported at conferences and seminars . . . [it] shows us the world's material order.'' Furthermore, it is a kind of knowledge whose ``truth can be reestablished by all competent individuals irrespective of their culture, politics, race or sex.''

``First-person science,'' on the other hand, consists of ``the personal thoughts of an individual interpreting and responding to the reality of the world discovered by science.''

Pagels adds: ``Scientists, in their `first-person' writings, are not privileged in any way. The accidents of their personal history influence their experience of reality as they do for other people.''

At its most basic level, modern science seems prone to metaphysical extrapolation. Some physicists have pointed out the strong parallels between quantum theory and Oriental mysticism. Other scientists sense the action of a supreme intelligence. There is much food for thought in this for interested laymen and religious thinkers. But they should beware of confusing the convictions of individual scientists with established scientific knowledge.

There is nothing in such established knowledge that points inexorably toward any particular religious dogmas or to the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being. Scientists are not being forced by any internal contradictions within science to assume such a being. If anything, they are learning more and more how to explain the workings of the material universe in terms of the intrinsic properties of matter, space/time, and energy. Any metaphysical extrapolation beyond this must be dealt with and proved -- to the extent that proof is possible -- on other terms.

Creationists err in trying to force scientific knowledge to conform to their version of biblical literalism. Other religious thinkers should avoid this temptation to see their own convictions reflected in the body of scientific knowledge. Then they will be free to make the most of the hints such knowledge offers them in their own search for truth.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.