SIXTY years ago, Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was on trial for violating the state's infamous ``monkey law,'' banning the teaching of evolution. Last week, the US Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit upheld a lower-court ruling that found Louisiana's modern ``monkey law'' unconstitutional. It seemed a fitting, if merely coincidental, commemoration of the Scopes epic.
Once again, an aggressive effort to inject religion into the natural science classroom has been rejected as an unacceptable breach of the separation of church and state. But there is more to the distinction between science and religion or individual belief than this important legal issue. Metaphysical views of the universe
Some scientists -- especially those in the fields of physics and astrophysics -- take an essentially metaphysical view of the origin of the universe these days. Impressed with the simplicity and symmetry that physical research increasingly shows to underlie the laws of cosmic development, these scientists wonder if a guiding intelligence may be behind it all. But they speculate as individuals. Although they have an expert knowledge of some scientific field, they cannot invoke the authority of science to support their personal beliefs.
It is important for laymen and religious thinkers who are intrigued by these speculations to recognize this distinction between scientific knowledge and metaphysical extrapolation. Otherwise, there is danger that the authority of natural science will be improperly co-opted and scientific knowledge distorted to support particular religious views. This would be another version of the intellectual corruption represented by creationism, although it would not raise the church-state issue.
The Louisiana law -- unlike the old Tennessee law -- did not ban the teaching of evolution. It mandated equal classroom treatment for creation science, which is basically a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story dressed up in pseudoscientific clothes. As the circuit court noted, ``the act's intended effect is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief.'' The court ruled that this cannot be allowed in public-school science classes. Barring further appeal, the ruling may settle this particular church-state issue. But it does not settle the larger question of the intellectual validity of using scientific knowledge to support religious positions. Old argument gains new force
Many scientists feel driven to adopt what can be broadly called a creationist outlook, although they have little use for literal readings of particular Bible stories or for an anthropomorphic god. As physicists have searched further and further back toward cosmic origins, the old argument that the universe is too neatly organized to be the product of blind chance has gained new force. Physicist Paul Davies of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, puts it this way in his book ``Superforce'' (Simon & Schuster, 1984):
``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.''
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.