Bridget Kendall interviews Marcus du Sautoy on the BBC World Service radio program, The Forum, this week, along with two other guests. A mathematician, du Sautoy now fills the post of "Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science" at Oxford, recently vacated by Richard Dawkins. He talks on the program about the intersection of music and mathematics.
When du Sautoy was appointed to the Professorship in March 2008, the media noted his many awards, his brilliance, his experience with the media, his eccentricity and taste for loud clothes and so on, but they almost invariably also noted that he, like Dawkins, is an 'avowed atheist'. This fact is included in his Wikipedia entry. But why is it considered to be relevant to his science?
Regular readers of this blog may remember our post objecting to the idea that Dawkins' atheism has anything to do with science. We continue to object. Perhaps eccentricity is truly a requirement for explaining science to the public, but du Sautoy's atheism can't have been informed by his work in mathematics and his atheism can't inform his math, so why do we need to know? And why is this relevant to--or is it misleading--a 'public understanding of science'?
Perhaps the idea is that, as an atheist, the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science will object to creationism taught in the schools, surely a worthy cause (because creationism isn't any form of science). But it certainly isn't only atheists who object to creationism--anyone who thinks that explaining the origins of the diversity of life on Earth must be grounded in observation rather than undemonstrable faith will object, and this includes many believers, even those accepting the Bible as moral and essential truth, but told in allegory and metaphor.
The atheist/believer divide may be real, but it's social, cultural and political, not scientific. To be scientific, there must be experiments to prove that 'God' does not exist, whereas science is about things that do exist and can be analyzed as such. As a mathematician du Sautoy should know that conclusions follow from definitions, so how one defines 'God' must, for starters, be specified before one can be an 'atheist'. To show that some claim, such as a 6,000 year old Earth, is not consistent with the facts is a form of scientific statement. But that is about some particular story about God, not about God directly. Even further, the rules of mathematical deduction are assumed, and it has been shown that not even all mathematical truths can be proven to be true.
So, while a scientist may (as many or most do) believe that the empirical world is all there is, and may personally be an atheist (no matter how 'God' would be defined), that is a result of their personal experience and view, not their science itself. It is very misleading to think otherwise. To do his job, Marcus du Sautoy should perhaps ask how science could address such questions, if it can, and point out why current science is helpless to address the fundamental existence question as it has been posed. The fact that there is a long history of philosophers or even scientists (including Isaac Newton) who have tried to prove biblical truth through their idea of science doesn't change this. du Sautoy has many interesting things to say about mathematics, and his flamboyance may attract many readers to science and careers in science. But what he has to say about religion is not grounded in his scientific expertise, it's just his opinion.