Sunday, 13 July 2014

Disability & The Injustice Facing over 1 Billion People

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Javed Abidi (Chair, Disabled People's International DPI), Sir Philip Craven MBE (President, International Paralympic Committee IPC) and Professor Hugh Herr (Head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT Media Lab and Founder of BiOM Inc). We discuss the human rights and social injustices faced by the those living with impairments and disabilities around the world, look at issues ranging from economics and politics to culture and sport and discuss opportunities for the future and whether technology could even end disability.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, July 2014

More than one billion people in the world today live with some form of disability; that’s one in seven of all of us. Almost everyone alive on the planet will, in his or her life- experience temporary or permanent disability of one form or another.

With that in mind consider that in our supposedly advanced society, people with disabilities are subject to economic and social inequalities, violations of dignity and in some cases denied their very autonomy. Whilst the levels of such basic rights violations may vary from place-to-place, the truth is that they occur everywhere from the richest countries in the world (where buildings and transport systems may not be designed with the disabled in mind) to the poorest (where people may be subject to violence, prejudice or imprisonment).

Before we progress however, it’s important to realise that the term disability is misleading. Human beings can become impaired through physical, mental or sensory limitations; but that does not become a disability until that impairment stops them from participating in community life. The term is also used (wrongly) as a broad catch-all for a diverse group of people, and used with the conviction by which we categorise gender. We say (usually) with some certainty that a given person is male or female. Unfortunately, we are also just as quick to categorise an individual as disabled or not. By doing this, we oversimplify and perhaps trivialise the fact that disability – rather than being something looked upon as a ‘condition’, is really a phenomenon that occurs at a complex intersection between our humanity, policy, society, culture and the environment. The complexity of the topic combined with significant political and social blindness towards it, has led to disability becoming one of the most significant un-addressed issues of modern time.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed on 10 December 1948 supposedly expressed the baseline level of rights to which all human beings are entitled. For many groups who were marginalised, even this was not enough to defend them. Specific conventions defending against discrimination on the basis of race, gender and youth were adopted in 1969, 1979 and 1989 respectively. It wasn’t until the 21st century however, in 2006, where the United Nations formally agreed on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with the aim “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

So what is the current state of the world faced by those living with impairments and disabilities?

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Javed Abidi (Chair, Disabled People's International DPI), Sir Philip Craven MBE (President, International Paralympic Committee IPC) and Professor Hugh Herr (Head of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT Media Lab and Founder of BiOM Inc). We discuss the human rights and social injustices faced by the those living with impairments and disabilities around the world, look at issues ranging from economics and politics to culture and sport and discuss opportunities for the future and whether technology could even end disability.

Javed Abidi is Chairperson of Disabled People’s International and Honorary Director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).

Javed was affected with spina bifida at birth and has been a wheelchair user since 15. After graduating summa cum laude from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, U.S.A, he came back to India to pursue a career in journalism. He made his foray into the Indian disability sector after a chance meeting with Smt. Sonia Gandhi. This led to his appointment as the Programme Officer in charge of the Disabled Persons Welfare Unit at the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. He served there for five years from 1992 to 1997.

In those five years, several pathbreaking initiatives were launched, the most noteworthy being the Lifeline Express Project and the Motorised Tri-wheeler Scheme. It was during this period only that work began specifically on cross-disability issues, particularly the drafting and passage of the Disability Act 1995.

In 1993, he founded the Disabled Rights Group (DRG). He was also instrumental in setting up of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) in 1996 and has been its Director since 1997. As an impassioned advocate for India’s disabled citizens, he has given voice to an “invisible minority”, one that has been denied to them by both political and social sectors for decades.

He has successfully led several path breaking advocacy initiatives in India. This includes filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India in 1997 regarding the non-implementation of The Disability Act. The case continued for over a year, at the end of which the Court directed the Union of India to undertake several measures, for example the appointment of the State Disability Commissioners, etc.

Abidi has also drafted the chapter on disability which has been reproduced as it is in the 11th Five Year Plan (2007 – 2012); catalysed 3% reservation for disabled people in Indian Administrative Services; ensured inclusion of disability as a category in Census 2001; facilitated the 2005 Inclusive Education Policy for Children and Youth with Disabilities to ensure education will be disabled friendly by 2020; played an active role in creating awareness and expediting the ratification process of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Other successful advocacy campaigns include ensuring the inclusion of disability in the Right to Education Act; revision of Guidelines for Indian Government Websites mandating WCAG 2.0 compliance; proper enumeration of people with disabilities in Census 2011; inclusion of people with disabilities and disability experts in the various Steering Committees formulating the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) to ensure that disability is looked at a cross-cutting issue and the creation of a separate Department of Disability Affairs

Has formed the one and only cross – disability network across India called National Disability Network (NDN) with a reach in 324 districts, He is an Ashoka fellow and has been awarded the IBN 7 Bajaj Allianz Super Idols – Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sir Philip Craven has been passionate about sport all his life. He was born in Bolton in the north of England, and educated at the University of Manchester where he graduated with honors in 1972.

Sir Philip is an accomplished five-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball (1972 to 1988) and swimming (1972). He won gold medals in the Gold Cup - World Championships, European Championships, Commonwealth Games, and the European Champions Cup.

His many astounding contributions to Paralympic sport led to his election as President of the International Paralympic Committee in 2001. Following this he was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee in 2003 and a board member of the London 2012 Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. He was President of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation from 1998 to 2002.

Away from the basketball court, Sir Philip was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to Paralympic Sport in 2005, awarded a Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Nottingham University 
in 2007. In 1991 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for services to wheelchair basketball.

He is a keen amateur de vin and has been awarded the highly prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Croix de Bourgogne (2007). Sir Philip and his wife, Lady Craven, enjoy gardening, sports, and travel.

Hugh Herr directs the Biomechatronics group at The MIT Media Lab, and is the founder of BiOM, which markets the BiOM as the first in a series of products that will emulate or even augment physiological function through electromechanical replacement.

His research program seeks to advance technologies that promise to accelerate the merging of body and machine, including device architectures that resemble the body’s musculoskeletal design, actuator technologies that behave like muscle, and control methodologies that exploit principles of biological movement. His methods encompass a diverse set of scientific and technological disciplines, from the science of biomechanics and biological movement control to the design of biomedical devices for the treatment of human physical disability.

His research accomplishments in science and technology have already made a significant impact on physically challenged people. The Transfemoral Quasipassive Knee Prosthesis has been commercialized by Össur Inc., and is now benefiting amputees throughout the world. In 2006, he founded the company iWalk Inc. to commercialize the Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis and other bionic leg devices. Professor Herr’s work impacts a number of academic communities. He has given numerous invited and plenary lectures at international conferences and colloquia, including the IVth World Congress of Biomechanics, the International Conference on Advanced Prosthetics, the National Assembly of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, World Economic Forum, Google Zeitgeist, Digital Life Design, and the TEDMED Conference. He is Associate Editor for the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, and has served as a reviewer for the Journal of Experimental Biology, the International Journal of Robotics Research, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. He has been invited to participate in joint funding proposals from other universities and corporations, and has served on research review panels including the National Institute of Health, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2007, He was presented with the 13th Annual Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment.

His work has been featured by various national and international media, including Scientific American Frontiers, Technology Review, National Geographic, the History Channel, and

Q: What does the term 'disability' really mean?

[Javed Abidi] Disability is an impairment, but an impairment is not necessarily a disability. The interaction of an impairment with the social barriers that surround you may or may not turn that impairment into a disability. For example; I am a wheelchair user, and If I see a building in front of me with three steps, I cannot get into it. If I cannot get into it, it's not because I'm on a wheelchair; it's because the building has 3 steps. If the same building had a ramp, my wheelchair would not be an impairment and I could easily get into the building.

[Sir Philip Craven] The word disability is the embodiment of pure negativity... and when it's used as a catch-all such as 'the disabled,' it's even worse. Everyone is an individual, and those individual personalities should shine through, not the labels.

Ask a person who's getting a bit older and may have a visual, hearing or mobility impairment if they're disabled? They'll throw that title off with vehemently! They view disability as being a community they don't belong to.

I'm Philip Craven, I'm me... the fact that I use a wheelchair is immaterial. I am what I am.
At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we were staying at the Westin. They had an 'adapted bathroom,' with a little sink that never emptied. I called one of the hotel team who pointed out the sink was on a siphon, and that siphon had to be half-filled with whatever you had spat-out into the sink before it emptied. I told the hotel it wasn't acceptable to have something this crude in a 5-star hotel, and the response was... "well, what do you expect... it's a disabled sink in a disabled bathroom..." This clearly illustrates the way people think- assuming we want something different- when we don't!

If you're told you're disabled long-enough you start to feel it. I sometimes get asked if things changed for me after my accident. They didn't because I damn-well made sure they didn't and fought against it... You have to throw off your impairments, and make sure that you have the confidence to decide your own destiny- rather than allowing others to decide it for you because you're disabled.

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Sometimes people view disability as something permanent when, in fact, our bodies are malleable with technology. One could be disabled for a portion of one's life, and then not be for another; the body is malleable and transformable with technology. Disability is not a fixed condition, it's fluid. This is good news- it means that we can ultimately eliminate disability.

When I was first sent to the rehabilitation centre after my legs were amputated, I was fitted with my first pair of artificial limbs. The rehab Doctor asked me what I wanted to do and I said that I wanted to return to mountain climbing, ride a bicycle and drive a car. He told me I could drive a car with hand controls, that I may be able ride a bicycle, but that I would never be able to return to mountain climbing. When I was going through this transformation from a 'normal' body to an 'unusual' body, society communicated to me that not only was I to be pitied... but the aids and prostheses that the medical establishment gave to me were to be accepted and that was that. That's an emotionally troubling and inaccurate message.

I've spent my career convincing people that they can flip this message and push the boundaries of technology and society.

Q: What is the true scale of discrimination faced by people living with impairments and disabilities?

[Javed Abidi] There is gross discrimination taking place, and to deny it would be like pulling wool over your own eyes. Historically, disabled people have been discriminated against across the world; not just in the Global South but also in the 'so called' developed world.. It was only in the late 1960's and 70's that a movement began in certain parts of the world. America and some of the Nordic countries gained an advantage over others. Even in a country like the UK, the first disability laws arrived only in 1995.

When we talk of disability, we are referring to over 1 billion people; 80% of whom are in the Global South, the poorer countries of the world. Here we are in the 21st century, and we have practically nothing in place for them to protect their rights when it comes to accessibility, education, social-living and more.

Historically, one of the biggest mistakes the world made was to look at disability as a pity or charity issue. If you go into the history of disability in the USA and Europe, and even today; money is collected in Churches for the welfare and wellbeing of people with disabilities. When you do that, you are automatically painting a picture of these 'poor, crippled, handicapped people... who are in need of your charity...' That should never have been the case. Disabled people never asked for anyone's charity, what they have asked- and are asking for more vociferously now- is a level playing field.

Let's look at the same question differently... If we go back to the 30's, 40's and 50's - if the world had looked at disability as a human rights and development issue and not a charity or a pity issue, we could have made sure that our transport systems and buildings were accessible by all. This would have ensured that disabled people were able to step out of their homes, to move around, to go to schools and colleges, attend universities, and go to jobs. Why was this so difficult to do? Disabled people are not asking for quotas, concessions or handouts- but simply the same opportunities as non-disabled people. Because of these historic mistakes, disabled people lost out on 40-50 years of global development in which most of the world's infrastructure of buildings, buses and trains, was developed. Disabled got left out of this 'progress' and a world emerged where- by default- disabled people are at a huge disadvantage. If people cannot get out of their homes, cannot get on transport, cannot get into an office building... If 90% of schools are inaccessible to disabled people... as they are in Asia.... then instead of levelling the playing field, it became very warped.

The majority of laws protecting the rights of the disabled came into effect from the 1990's and onward. The world is now slowly waking-up to realise that disability is a development and rights issue, and this is a paradigm shift.

The damage that has been done to the rights of disabled people is undeniable, and I feel that it could take 50-100 years to put that right.

[Sir Philip Craven] I personally don't encounter any discrimination that often, but I wouldn't go to places or meet with people again if they gave me that impression. That said, I'm sure that much discrimination exists.

The real way to change perceptions in society against these mythical 'groups' of people is through positive experiences, and not to just ram new laws down their throats. In some cases however these laws are necessary. Wider parking spaces for example, mean that people can get out of their chair into the front seat of their cars! Education is imperative in all formats to do this, as it allows people themselves to change their minds about others rather than being told they have to believe or act in a certain way.

Around 10 years ago in the USA, Paralympians were called 'super-crips' by some people in the communities they themselves were supposed to belong to; perhaps because people couldn't associate with them- but in truth, they are there to showcase what is possible when you really put your mind to it...

You only change perceptions by showing yourself as being what you are. People won't do it for you...

[Prof. Hugh Herr] There's rampant discrimination going on. Looking at my case, that of Oscar Pistorius and any other athlete that has unusual bodies you see this manifest. When you're an athlete with an unusual body (leg amputation, blindness and so on..) and you're not competitive against persons of normal physiology- you're called 'courageous.' It's not a word like 'talent,' courageous means you're performing because you try hard- it's cute, but it's not cutting-edge or state-of-the-art. There's been a few times in history where that person with an unusual body, as an athlete, starts being competitive with persons of normal physiology. The moment that happens- instantaneously- the attitude shifts from that person being courageous, to being a threat. That ultimately and typically leads to claims of that person not being a great athlete, but rather that technology is helping them cheat in some way.

Broadly across society, there is a discrimination around the perception that having an unusual mind or body is weakness- that you're weaker, that you're crippled. Technology is so important- it can change that social view to something far more positive wherein we will see a future world where that person with an unusual body or mind will be bionic. They're going to be powerful, attractive and won't be discriminated against. They will be equal members of a broader society

Q: What are your views on the perceptions of how disability occurs versus our views of the people themselves?

[Javed Abidi] Today, with our improved healthcare systems, people are living longer. It's no longer unusual for someone to get to 90 years of age in many countries of the world. As people age, they acquire disabilities. You don't acquire disability only out of tragedy... that's an ancient and stereotypical concept that has been woven into our history- that disability is something that befalls you when you do bad things. This is re-enforced in countries like India with social concepts such as karma, and the misinterpretation of concepts in most religions. Disability is a part of our life cycle. Each one of us will experience disability in our lifetime; not necessarily out of an accident or natural disaster, but even if you live in a very safe and healthy environment, and you're the richest person on earth who lives a responsible life and eats great food - you'll live longer - your body will age - and as your body ages, you acquire disabilities.

We need to shift our mindset, and the world needs to catch-up. The past cannot be wiped-away, but the future can be written. We have to make a pledge that no building in the world will ever be constructed without considering access. It doesn't cost a single penny extra, it's a design issue... The world, and our world leaders and opinion makers are yet to realise the full potential of universal design. We need to have a world with infrastructure, built environment and services that all of us whether old, young, tall, short, man, woman or otherwise can use with dignity and safety.

Q: To what extent is there political will to improve the situation faced by those living with disabilities?

[Javed Abidi] After all these years of making mistakes in the 30's, 40's, 50's, we have built a very unequal world that is meant only for the fittest. In India, until 10-15 years ago, we had a policy that said that any building up to 4 storeys did not need a lift. The working presumption was that the average Indian was healthy enough to be able to climb 3 or 4 storeys. A friend of mine who came to visit me a few years ago said that India was built for superman or superwoman because these idiots.. whoever came up with that stupid policy... thought they would never age. You have a lot of government colonies in India where you are allocated flats on 2nd, 3rd or 4th floor in the prime of your youth. You are- then- arrogant, but 20-30 years later you age. I have heard horror stories of people who are on the 3rd or 4th floor of buildings and who cannot even go down steps to the park because of mobility issues.

Finally, in the year 2007, the United Nations passed the Conventions on the Rights of People With Disabilities UN-CRPD. The United Nations had a convention on the rights of women, the rights of children and the rights of refugees, but even the United Nations- which is supposed to be the cradle of human rights- failed to look at the issue of disability with any seriousness until 2007. As we speak, around 140-150 countries have ratified it, and many have not. My concern is that while that convention has been drafted and passed, and while many have ratified it, there still isn't political will. I'm yet to see the issue of disability being taken up with the seriousness it deserves... the UN-CRPD has started a discourse, but progress is still very slow.

Unless there is political will, no change will happen. Most issues facing disabled people can be solved with the stroke of a pen, they don't even need resources. You need resources to correct the damage of the past, but I'm saying we should put that aside for the time being- all the buildings that are not accessible, let's put blinkers on- but why is it so difficult for any government to pass law that means that for the future - no public building will be constructed without accessibility. When you procure a new plane, a new bus or new transport system... why can it not be accessible.

The reason that politicians do not look at disability with the seriousness the issue deserves is because they don't see disabled people as a potential vote-bank. Historical failures mean that many disabled people are virtual prisoners inside their own homes. If you go to an average country in the Global South, you just don't see that many disabled people. If you go to a mall or station or cinema in India, Nepal, Pakistan or elsewhere- you hardly see any disabled people. Is it because they don't exist? are there less disabled people in the Global South than the USA? my contention is that there are more! Because the disabled are not able to step out of their homes, because they have not been able to access education they are unemployed, because they are unemployed they are not empowered. And that's 1:7 of all humanity that remains unseen, unheard and unaccounted.

[Sir Philip Craven] There's a lot more that needs to be done.

One year before the winter games in Vancouver, I met with the Governor General of Canada; the Queen's representative. I told her that when I travel around the world, I had used Canada as a country which- at that time- had made the most progress. I asserted they were about 30% there... She asked what I meant, and I explained it to her in very general terms and told her that the games could lift it to 70% but then she has the obligation to maintain it and create a legacy. All countries have done 30-40% of what needs to be done, maybe less- even zero in some countries. The west hasn't got all the answers however. If you give a different impression to government- who ultimately support the greatest change- and show them there is a positive way forward, rather than adopting the position of charitable beneficiaries- we can enable people to care and develop themselves.

In Britain, I was very pleased that what was the Disability Act now falls under the Equality Act. Some people may assert that not a lot has changed, but the change in terminology is very important. The United Nation Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability (2007) was similar. Countries had to first sign up to the principles and then ratify that convention. With our support, a world record 86 countries signed up to UN-CRPD on day 1! This wasn't just an IPC success, but all our members who in turn wrote to their members. A very senior UN individual told me in Sochi 2014 that they needed my help in convincing the USA to ratify the UN-CRPD and mentioned two other conventions they have not ratified. This goes to show that the most powerful country in the world decided not to ratify a detailed, well written and fundamentally important convention; meaning there is a lot of work that is yet to be done, and the USA is not alone in that regard.

There is only one paradise in this solar system, Earth. We have to give back and make this a home that works for all of us.

Q: What is the social, economic and cultural role of events such as the Paralympics?

[Sir Philip Craven] The Paralympics are a major sporting event, with great athletes who love competing in sport, enjoy the competition, and love winning (accepting that losing is just a step to learning how to win next time!). We have 4 key values: determination, courage, inspiration and equality. Athletes don't view themselves as courageous but other people do... and that's why we keep that one in there.

What's interesting is the effect that the Paralympics have on people- who could be sports fans or just people who want to come along and enjoy a major event, as they would a concert. At the Olympics and Paralympics, everyone had a great time and the positive experiences at the event and outside left a lasting experience. I was with the Chief Marketing Officer of a major worldwide company recently and he said that London 2012 changed his life... and that's the kind of effect that we want to have on people.

Paralympic athletes may not realise, but they are giving people something different to what they have seen for hundreds of years. They are changing perceptions and encouraging people to see that we all belong to one society.

Q: What is the role of the Paralympics when considering rehabilitation?

[Sir Philip Craven] Rehabilitation can be many things. Whether you lose mobility, become blind or otherwise gain impairment from a major accident, illness or congenital problems; you may be left thinking you have less than others, and question why 'it' happened to you. You may have had to go through painful operations, and so many other things which can challenge your outlook. After this? you need something that's fun again! Not everyone likes playing sport, but many people who don't enjoy sport have had a bad experience with it- a bad teacher, a bad coach, bullying or otherwise. Sport and physical activity, when taught properly, and when open to all to participation- can get the brain ticking.

Rehabilitation after a major injury, accident or illness is required; while physiotherapists and doctors may get you moving... it's up to you to rehabilitate yourself and get benefit out of it.

In 1966, I was lying in bed for 8 weeks, having broken my back. I got up into a wheelchair and went to the Gym. I was paralysed in the middle of my trunk and didn't have good sitting balance, never mind walking! In those days, the seating situation was that if you did not have good sitting balance- you would probably fall forwards out of your chair. They sat me in front of a mirror and told me to practice my balance by looking at myself. I didn't have a problem with myself after my accident, but if I did have and if I was depressed? the last thing I would have wanted to do is see myself in this new situation 8 weeks after I was running about. Just next to the mirror was a table-tennis table. In truth, this would give you subconscious ways of developing your balance whilst also having fun. that's just one example....

Two and a half years ago, I spent 3 weeks in a spinal unit in Southport where I had my initial treatment 47 years previously. I had broken my femur in Korea and don't feel the area where I broke my leg. I came back on 3 planes to the UK, and that's what they diagnosed that I'd done. General hospitals in Britain are useless at looking after paraplegics and tetraplegics from a bodily-functions perspective if they have to stay in hospital following a serious operation. My operation was wonderfully done by a surgeon, but I got out of that general hospital as fast as I possibly could- with blood still seeping from my wound- to the spinal unit. I spent 3 weeks in bed there, but made a few observations. Most of the people using wheelchairs had not been shown how to use them... there was also a purpose built swimming pool, but it was only accessible for patients between 7:30 and 8:30am because after that it was used by local schools. The money gained by this helped the trust to not make a loss! I asked more questions and found that where Sir Ludwig Guttman had brought sport and physical activity into rehabilitation for spinally injured persons in the 1940's and 50's, this was no longer done. It's a scandal, and we're now dealing with that through the Ministry of Health. There's no real re-integration into society for these people anymore, they are treated as a body that needs fixing rather than a person who needs to fix themselves.

18 months ago I was in Finland for a presentation. I had the chance to visit a spinal unit in Helsinki which seemed to be run in the way that most should be run in Britain. It had a man and woman, one of whom was a paraplegic and the other who was a tetraplegic. They were paid to work there to help get people moving; I was doing the same in France 40 years ago, working as a sports rehab trainer and playing for the local basketball team! The head physio was really humbled that we were so pleased with their facility, but told us they learned everything they know from the UK!

Q: Have the Paralympics empowered the development of technologies to assist those who are impaired or live with disabilities?

[Sir Philip Craven] If we look at mechanical and technological support for people who need to get about, there has certainly been a positive impact. If you look at the chairs that we had to play wheelchair basketball 40 years ago, they were a massive improvement on what was there previously, but they didn't move in the same way that today's chairs do. All the modern good-looking wheelchairs that people use in everyday life have been developed from wheelchair basketball. This didn't come from big companies, but from two sports people; Bud Rumple and Henk MaCkenzie. Bud Rumple developed the box frame that doesn't fold and has better cornering. MaCkenzie and Rumple both invented the chairs with camber on wheels, and a change to wheel placement to make the chair spin more easily. All of these innovations have come from sports within the Paralympic movement such as wheelchair tennis, rugby and more. People feel good about being in a chair that moves, rather than one which is designed for you to be pushed around in.

Companies are now making super lightweight incredible prosthetics too that are allowing people to not just compete, but also go about their day to day lives with greater ease. The Paralympics also encourages people to look into new ideas and move forward to execute those ideas.

Q: What are the key technologies that are transforming the lives of people with physical and mental impairments?

[Prof. Hugh Herr] One important set of technologies relate to the interface with the human nervous system. If you can get information in and out of the brain and nerve endings, that has very important implications for disability. You could- in principle- treat conditions ranging from severe depression to limb amputation and paralysis. Many other areas of science and engineering such as robotics are making profound changes too such as actuators that replicate muscle tissue.

Approximately half of the world's population have unusual bodies or mind. These disabilities exist because of insufficient technology, and cause a profound amount of human suffering. Using technology to eliminate disability is an enormous market with billions and billions of dollars of wealth to be created. These technologies will be drivers of the economy and will simultaneously mitigate human suffering. It's a wonderful opportunity.

Q: What are your views on the potential for human enhancement and augmentation through technology?

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Through the mission of ending disability, society will develop technology that will serve as the basis of extending beyond normal physiologies. The same interface into the brain that exists to treat severe depression, could also be used to enhance mood, concentration or cognitive performance. The same bionic ankle that allows me to walk could wrap-around a perfectly normal biological leg and augment it. There is a wealth of technological platforms that will affect all of humanity regardless of their physiologies or minds.

Humanity will be pushed in philosophical realms to grapple with the question of what it means to be human. If you replace all four limbs of a human being, are they still the same human? normal people would say yes they are. If you start truly augmenting the brain, are they still the same human? some people would argue yes and some no. It's a fertile ground for philosophical debate.

Q: What are the ethics and policy challenges of human augmentation?

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Like any new technological era, this raises ethical questions. There are ways of using technology appropriately and as-intended, and ways that are unintended and perhaps harmful. I think commensurate with the development of these technologies, that ultimately will be critical to ending disability, is the development of policy and law around augmentation technology. We need sophistication on technology and policy.

Technologists, scientists and all the stakeholders must be part of the committees that will look into these challenges. Often people that are not scientifically trained believe things are possible that are not, and believe things will be sooner than they will be. They may not even comprehend technologies that will be here in a decade or two, and the implications of those technologies. Scientists should be up front in that conversation.

We always need to choose policy that coaxes society in the direction of greater human diversity, and maintained individual freedoms. As an aside; we're not doing very well. We live in an information society and largely we don't own our own data- nor are we demanding it. We freely give away our own data. As citizens we need to be more careful as technology becomes more acute and pronounced.

There is a huge opportunity here. We can employ these new sciences and technologies to develop policy, law and culture where the individual is embraced and very powerful and has great freedom and authority. A society in which we have enhanced from our current state and widened human diversity. There's a real risk we could go in the opposite direction... for example; in the world in which we have the technology for parents to design their offspring, it would probably result in a massive mitigation of the diversity of our specie. Our culture's narrow viewpoint of what beauty and intelligence are would play into parental decisions on what their offspring should be. Another world that would enhance diversity would be to view the human body as malleable- as a blank sheet on which to create; somewhat like the genre of piercing or tattoos where the skin is a place of creation. Bionics enable you to do more than tattoo or pierce. If you want a third arm, you can have a third arm... What you are physically and cognitively could be flexible by your own design. That's an interesting world, a place where our notion of beauty could change. That's the future that I want, and the future we should drive toward.

Q: What would be your message to those living with disabilities?

[Javed Abidi] You have to live your life, and make it a full and wholesome life ...nobody is going to come and deliver it to you. It's a tough world for everyone, but a little tougher for us- with the additional difficulties we have. I myself am a person with disability, I am a wheelchair user. My condition- Spina Biffida- is congenital. I was only 'normal' for the first 8 years of my life. After my first surgery, I was left with a limp. I was on crutches till the age of 15, and since then I have been a wheelchair user- so I speak from experience. You have to fight, you don't have a choice. You have to go that extra mile to ensure you get that education and those skills. Nobody will give you a job out of charity or pity. It's an unequal world, to pretend otherwise would be foolish and you have to fight for your rights- you must demand them- and then go and get them.

[Sir Philip Craven] You have to be yourself and decide what you want to do with your life. If you have negative thoughts at the moment, you have to see what other people have done in your situation but realise it's you that will change your life with the support of others; not others that will change your life for you.

You have to get information in your mind about what's possible, but you need determination to go and get it, and if anyone stands in your way? fight them like mad!

Life's a fight, it's a struggle- and you have to take it to them. You are in a community with written and unwritten rules, but life is for freedom. You have to create your own freedom.

[Prof. Hugh Herr] Don't accept mediocrity. Don't accept what has already been accepted. We all have gifts to give.

I am a technologist, scientist and engineer - if that's what you inspires you, then jump in and start designing... there are so many initiatives and technologies that need to be developed. If you are policy or legally minded, there is a lot of work to be done there too.

Jump in the race to solve this massive human rights issue.


Think of the absurdity of a world where the colour of your skin would be considered an impairment, leaving you (in the eyes of wider society) disabled. Whilst the word disability was not specifically used, it was not that long ago in human memory where the colour of your skin, or your gender would- in very real terms- prevent you accessing the vast majority of opportunities in your community. It took a century of campaigning and advocacy in both cases to make the world realise the idiocy of such asinine views.

Think of a similar absurdity of a world where people are patronised for their life achievements in-spite of their skin colour or gender, "Oh..." they said, "isn't it brave how those [insert colour here] people are able to walk around society, even though they're [insert colour here]..." Most reasonable people would see these views as dehumanising and yet for the billion affected by impairments, such views are a day to day reality.

The human body is unimaginably complex. Each of us is the result of 3 billion base-pairs of genetic code that created a system of roughly 37 trillion cells, controlled by a brain with 1,000 more connections than the number of stars in the known galaxy. And there are over 7 billion of us roaming an environment which we have elementarily tailored to our fragile bodies. Whilst our cognitive apparatus is designed to categorise and segment; it is impossible to deny the inevitable diversity of mankind when confronted by the quantitative nature of ourselves. We are not a population of groups with set parameters, but a population of individuals exhibiting the beautiful gamut of biodiversity which our species is capable of.

The concept of disability is a word rooted in a society built on physical acumen, but in a world now powered by knowledge, the word is redundant. Professor Stephen Hawking's contributions to our understanding of the universe were not diminished by his physical impairments, they were wholly irrelevant to them. In his own words, he advised the world "Don't be disabled in spirit as well as physically..."

We need to move on from disability, and move to a world where we embrace the variety of our species and commit to ensuring that every individual is able to maximise their contribution to society regardless of their physical or mental ability, their social or economic background or any other determinant you care to use.

As philosopher Bahá'u'lláh once said, “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”

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Monday, 2 June 2014

Religion, Science and Society

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to four world experts on religion and science. Fr. José G. Funes (Director of the Vatican Observatory), Prof. Alister McGrath (Director, Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University), Dr. Deborah Haarsma (President of the BioLogos Foundation) and Prof. Justin Barrett (Director, Thrive Centre - Fuller's Graduate School of Psychology). We discuss the fundamental roles of religion and science in society together with their roles in shaping our history, and our future.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, June 2014

Since the dawn of modern humanity, our species has sought to reach out beyond the rational and empirical limits of observation. Some facet of our being impels us to seek ‘truth’ in the meaning and significance of our lives and wider existence.

It’s no coincidence therefore that the United States of America, arguably the most powerful nation on Earth, has adopted the maxim; “In God We Trust.” Americans are not alone…. More than 80 per cent the 7 billion adults and children alive today- some 5.8 billion people- consider themselves religiously affiliated. Of those remaining 1.2 billion people, many hold religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they don’t identify with a particular faith.

It would be easy to argue such beliefs as out-dated at a time where we have such deep understanding of science, but history shows a constant tension between scientific and theological thought. It is perhaps the greatest debate that humanity has ever created. In ‘ Reason Vs. Religion,’ Tom Laity notes that “superstitions and religious leaders, philosophers, sceptics, laypeople and scientists, throughout history and ancient history, have endlessly argued and discussed the existence or non-existence of God, gods and goddesses

Some, who believe that a true religion should be supported by science, believe the tension is real. Others believe that the tension is illusory and based upon a misunderstanding about the nature of both science and religion.” Writes A. A. Sappington.  He continues by identifying that “perceived tension between religion and science occurs not only in specific areas of conflict such as different claims about the age of the earth or the authenticity of relics; it also occurs perhaps more fundamentally in that the determinism and reductionism characteristics of science may seem to leave no room for the action of the divine, or even of free will. Psychology especially has threatened many people in that it has often seemed to make irrelevant such concepts as choice or moral responsibility” (The Religion/Science Conflict, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1991).

For every thinker believing in such tension, there have been equally significant peers who saw a balance. As Albert Einstein once commented, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind..” and as Pope John Paul II added, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes...”

In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to four world experts on religion and science. Fr. José G. Funes (Director of the Vatican Observatory), Prof. Alister McGrath (Director, Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University), Dr. Deborah Haarsma (President of the BioLogos Foundation) and Prof. Justin Barrett (Director, Thrive Centre - Fuller's Graduate School of Psychology). We discuss the fundamental roles of religion and science in society together with their roles in shaping our history, and our future.

Fr. José Funes, SJ was born in Cordoba, Argentina. He completed his masters' degree in astronomy (licenciado en astronomía) at the National University of Cordoba in 1985, writing on the computational analysis of the photometry of eclipsing binary stars. In the same year, Funes entered the Society of Jesus.

He obtained a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1990 at the Universidad del Salvador in San Miguel, Argentina. In the same university he attained the masters in philosophy (licenciado en filosofía) in 1996. In this master thesis he discussed cosmology as a science from the point of view of scientific realism. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1995 after completing the bachelor's degree in sacred theology (S.T.B.) at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 2000 he obtained his doctorate in astronomy at the University of Padua with the study of the kinematics of ionized gas in the inner regions of 25 disk galaxies.

He joined the Vatican Observatory Research Group as staff astronomer in March 2000 and was appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory in August 2006 by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.  Fr. Funes specializes in extragalactic astronomy. His field of research includes the kinematics and dynamics of disk galaxies, the star formation in the local universe, and the relationship between gravitational interaction and galactic activity.

Alister McGrath is the third holder of the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion at Oxford University, and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. McGrath sees the Idreos chair primarily in terms of public engagement with the great questions of science and faith, embedded in a tradition of outstanding teaching and research.

Alister Edgar McGrath was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was awarded an Open Scholarship to study Chemistry at Wadham College, Oxford University in 1971, where his tutors included JR Knowles. He gained First Class Honours in Chemistry in 1975, and pursued research in molecular biophysics in the laboratories of Professor Sir George Radda in Oxford’s Department of Biochemistry. He was awarded an EPA Cephalosporin Research Studentship at Linacre College, Oxford, from 1975-6, and a Senior Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, from 1976-8. He held a fellowship at the University of Utrecht, funded by the European Molecular Biology Organization, in 1976. While at Merton College, McGrath simultaneously continued his research in molecular biophysics, while studying for an Oxford undergraduate degree in theology. In 1978, he gained both his Oxford doctorate, and First Class Honours in Theology. He was awarded the Denyer and Johnson Prize by Oxford for the best performance in the Final Honour School examination. McGrath then took up the Naden Studentship in Divinity at St John’s College, Cambridge from 1978-80, while also studying for ministry in the Church of England at Westcott House, where his tutors included Rowan Williams, and his fellow-students John Polkinghorne. He married the psychologist Joanna Collicutt in July 1980, and was ordained deacon in the Church of England in September 1980. He served as curate at St Leonard’s church, Wollaton, Nottingham from 1980-3, and was priested at Southwell Minster in September 1981.

McGrath served as the first Director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics from 2004-6, subsequently becoming its President. During this time, he developed a close working relationship with the Oxford Faculty of Theology. He became a member of the Faculty in 1983, and was appointed University Research Lecturer in Theology in 1993. He taught frequently at Regent College Vancouver, and served as its Research Professor of Theology from 1993-7. In 1999, in recognition of his research, McGrath was elected to a personal chair of theology at Oxford University, with the title of “Professor of Historical Theology”. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (FRSA) in 2005 in recognition of his role as a public intellectual. From 2006, McGrath became Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and retained this role after moving to London in 2008 to take up a chair of theology at King’s College London. In 2009, McGrath also became Associate Priest in the Shill Valley & Broadshire benefice in the Diocese of Oxford, a group of village churches in the Cotswolds.

Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. She edited Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church (2012) with Rev. Scott Hoezee, an anthology of essays by Christian biologists, astronomers, mathematicians, and other scientists. She and Hoezee directed The Ministry Theorem, a project of Calvin Theological Seminary and the Calvin College Science Division to provide pastors and ministry leaders with resources for engaging science in the life of the church. She also contributed to the Faraday Institute's Test of Faith (2010) film and curriculum, and to Keith Miller's Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (2003).

Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied very large galaxies (at the centers of galaxy clusters), very young galaxies (undergoing rapid star formation in the early universe), and gravitational lenses (where space-time is curved by a massive object). Her work uses data from several major telescopes, including the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, the Southern Astrophysical Research optical and infrared telescope in Cerro Pachon, Chile, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit around the earth. Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Justin L. Barrett joined the Fuller School of Psychology in 2011 as Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. He came to Fuller from the University of Oxford, U.K., where he taught and served as senior researcher for Oxford’s Center for Anthropology and Mind. He has also taught at the University of Michigan and Calvin College, and served as co-area director for Young Life in Lawrence, Kansas.

Most of Dr. Barrett’s academic work has concerned cognitive scientific approaches to the study of religion; a new project in this area will be helping to extend cognitive science of religion to China, for which he won a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation (2011-2014). His current research interests include cognitive, evolutionary, and psychological approaches to the study of religion; cognitive approaches to the study of culture and archaeology generally; and religious and character development in children and adolescents. Barrett’s main focus at Fuller is to work with others to develop the Thrive Center into a world leader for positive youth development—cultivating spiritual, character, and virtue development and general flourishing in childhood and adolescence.

Barrett’s publications include Psychology of Religion (ed., 2010) and Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), along with the forthcoming book, Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology. His most recent book, released in the spring of 2012, is Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief. He has also published academic articles and book chapters across several disciplines.

Q: How did religion and science emerge in society?

[Prof Alister McGrath] Science and religion are two sides of the same coin; they both have to do with meaning. People have always wondered how we can make sense of the world and understand the deeper meaning of who we are and what we’re meant to be all about. I tend to see science and religion as distinct yet related; the problems arise when science begins to think it’s religion, and religion thinks it’s science.

Religious people may sometimes feel they are offering a scientific explanation for things, and I don’t believe that’s generally true. In recent times, some scientists have begun to argue that a scientific explanation of something is the ‘only’ answer.

What we need is a rich engagement of the world and life at many levels of meaning. Science and religion are two of those levels, but we need to realise they are working at very different levels.

There has always been conflict between science and religion, but it’s a complex picture. It’s not simply the fact that there has been conflict; but also the often overlooked fact that there has been synergy, resonance, tension..

[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] I’d like to first tell you a little about my own background to give some context for my answer. I am a religious person myself; I believe in the core tenets of the Christian faith, and am from the evangelical tradition in the United States. I am also a scientist and have a PhD in Astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For me, religion and science are embodied in who I am.

Historians of science like Peter Harrison have written on how the terms 'religion' and 'science' did not emerge until fairly recently. Before the nineteenth century, the activities we now call “science” were called natural philosophy, and typically seen as a natural part of one's religion and view of the world. In fact, “science” and “religion” were not independent entities but one whole.

Similarly, before the eighteenth century, people didn't look for some over-arching term to describe the different religions of the world. Lumping them all together often doesn't work as they each have a different relationship with science. A Hindu or Buddhist picture of science might differ significantly from the monotheistic faiths of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.

I prefer the term worldview rather than religion to encompass the different lenses and approaches through which people perceive the world, and how they answer those big questions like “does God exist?” “what is moral and right?” “what is the purpose of human existence?” The term worldview encompasses agnostic and atheistic views as well as the various world religions.

Now top scientists of the past and present have held many different worldviews. They agree on the importance of science and the scientific method, but for different reasons. For example, I am motivated to pursue science for reasons similar to Hoyle and Kepler, because I believe science is the study of God’s creation, the same God I have devoted my life to. But someone who doesn’t believe in God will be motivated by other things. Thus, scientists can agree on the practice of science while having different answers to the big questions and putting a different spin on scientific results.

Conflicts occur when people argue one worldview against another. They may be arguing Atheism versus Monotheism, then pull out science as a weapon saying, "science proves I'm right because of this or that..." In my view, science is rather more limited than this. Science has a lot of interesting resonances with the big questions, and can inform them, but I don’t believe it can answer them. When people claim science has solved these big questions, you end up with battles. I personally do not see a battle between science and Christianity. Many great scientists, like Galileo and Faraday, were Christians.

[Prof Justin Barrett] There are a number of different answers to this difficult question, and at this point we don’t have compelling evidence to support one over another. The lens of your own theoretical orientation, and what evidence you are prepared to count will also determine this.

Some people assert the fact that we see evidence of symbolic behaviour around 100,000 years ago; for example, the Blombos Caves in South Africa. Getting from symbolism to a belief in a higher power and the supernatural is a bit of a stretch.

Material evidence suggests that 100,000 years ago, homo sapiens were cognitively capable of the kind of thought that seems to be critical for religious thought. Whether or not they were engaged with it is something else. Fast forward to around 30-35,000 years ago, we began to see elaborate cave paintings and shamanistic depictions of humans and animals which many people assert are in-keeping with supernatural thinking. I’m sceptical…

If we go back to 25-50,000 years ago, we start to see very deliberate symbolic burials where people are being buried with goods and their bodies adorned. One could argue this suggests a belief in the afterlife…

Maybe we’re looking at the evidence wrong. Maybe we should be looking at when our ancestors seemed to have the right kind of conceptual capabilities that meant when operating under normal conditions as we understand them today, seemed to compel people towards religious thought. When do our ancestors begin to think in terms of intentionality? When did they begin to have some form of meta-representation to allow them to think about thoughts in a complex way? When did they begin to solve complex co-operative problems that meant they had to track other minds and so forth? Evidence of that kind of thought seems to be the necessary precondition for religious thought. If we see that kind of thinking combined with evidence of belief in the after-life and in the supernatural? Then we’re in the right area. For my money, we’re looking at this being during the dawn of behaviourally modern humans… and maybe this is as far back as 100,000 years, or even earlier.

Q: Is human theism inevitable?

[Prof Justin Barrett] In theological studies, theist means a high-God, one God that is in charge of everything. By this definition I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the claim that theism is inevitable.

If we define theism as the belief of at least one intentional supernatural agent, it seems that our minds do have this belief as a conceptual path of least resistance. Our minds are really open and receptive to that idea, and in the ordinary course of interacting with other humans and our world… that is perhaps where our minds go.

I’m part of a school of thought often unglamorously referred to as ‘by-product’. In essence this means that religious thought is an evolutionary by-product. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, important or true necessarily, but rather that it was not an adaptation that made us more suitable for our environment. We seem to have a constellation of other kinds of adaptations that solve other kinds of problems that conspire or collaborate toward religious belief and action. We know that humans are immensely social beings, and we spend a huge amount of time and conceptual resource thinking about who did what? and why? That ‘who’ is immensely important, we distinguish actions as having intent versus events. This may not be important for other species or our ancestors, but given the kind of social beings that we are – and our need to deal with other ‘minded’ beings, we have developed what can be described as a hypertrophic social intelligence and a tendency to think in terms of intention, desire, goal and purpose rather than simply mechanisms. That floods the way we interact with each other and the world. It’s very easy to see the utility of that kind of thinking.

We have experimental evidence to show that under certain conditions, humans very easily attribute beliefs, desires and purposes to natural events and non-living objects. When it comes to the natural world, there is good evidence that even in early childhood, we see design and purpose in how the natural world is structured. We make early conclusions about why animals behave as they do, why mountains are the way they are and more. We may even spontaneously generate these ideas and- of course- purposes then readily connect with the idea that ‘someone’ intended those purposes.

Q: Why does the core ideas of religion resonate across so many cultures?

[Prof Justin Barrett] We reason from our perceptions and intuitions to certain claims and beliefs. If our intuitions are largely shaped by the unconscious mental processes that make us see purpose, we will invariably look for design and contemplate who created everything… and then these intuitions will resonate across cultures.

The proposition that ‘someone’ accounts for the design that we perceive has an intuitive ring to it… it just makes sense and seems-right. It takes a little more conceptual work along with social pressure to override these intuitions. Research has shown that even trained scientists have tacit preferences thinking about the natural world in terms of design and purpose, and this has to be unlearned. They have to say ‘no, this is not how I do science… that purpose I see is not real… that mountain is not here for a reason.... that river is not here so that people can go fishing…’

When it comes to regarding someone(s) as being behind the events and design that we see in the world that we regard as meaningful and purposeful… the belief that something about us is separable from our bodies and may persist after death… all of those beliefs are rooted in natural intuitions that we all share regardless of cultural conditions.

At the cultural level, these intuitions either get rebuffed or cultivated, in the latter case the details get filled in!

Q: Are science and religion seeking to answer the same questions?

[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] In most senses, science and religion are answering different questions. In my own field of astronomy, we may ask “how does a galaxy change over time?” This is not a question that any religion has much to say about.

Most scientific questions are not about things that worldview, religion, or philosophy would address- and conversely, most questions about relationships, meaning, and purpose are not addressed by science. You could for example do an experiment on your friend to see how true a friend he is, but it wouldn't be very nice! Instead, we draw on other types of knowledge and ways of viewing the world which allow us to understand how we relate to one another and the supernatural.

John Polkinghorne is a physicist who became an Anglican priest and has written many volumes on the relationship between science and religion. He gives a lovely example which involves a tea kettle. If you ask the question “why the kettle is boiling?” one answer would be entirely scientific: “the water is undergoing a phase transition as heat from the burner is stored in the latent heat of water vapor” or you could say, "the water is boiling because I want a cup of tea." The two answers are not contradictory, but rather they are answering different questions about the same phenomena.

Many questions related to morality, ethics, love and so on, are questions that science simply isn't equipped to answer on its own. Science can provide some important context, but religious, historical, relational, legal, and other ways of knowing are needed.

Q: What is the relationship between science and theology?

[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] Firstly, it's important for us to understand what science and theology are. The definition of each is important to our understanding of the questions they raise.

Science seeks explanations that are based on natural causes, and at a natural level. Science makes progress by proposing new models of nature that are tested and can be used to make confirmable predictions. A good example is the big-bang model.

Theology is the critical understanding not just of the contents of faith, but also the human world and relationships as they are seen in the light of faith. It's about significance, and making sense of history, nature and more.

Between science and theology have existed many conflicts, Galileo being one of the most often quoted examples. Also, we are in a moment now where dialogue is possible. Pope John Paul II asked the Vatican Observatory in the 1980's to promote the dialogue between science and theology, and part of contribution of the Vatican astronomers has been to further the understanding of how our universe works.

Q: Are the key questions in science antagonists to religious belief?

[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] This idea of antagonism is long-standing. The first example most people cite is Galileo. In the early 1600s, Galileo found evidence that the Sun is at the centre of the solar-system and that the Earth goes around it. The Church pushed back, condemning Galileo’s views and banning his book. People give this is a prime example of conflict between science and Christianity.

But if you look at the details of this incident, you will see there were many other factors at play. Jesuit scholars in the Church initially supported Galileo, and the Pope who later condemned him started out as one of Galileo's colleagues. Galileo himself was known to have a rather arrogant personality. There was a lot of politics going on, both in the universities and the Church. So it wasn’t a simple case of religion opposed to science.

For most of the history of science, there have been relatively few instances of conflict between science and Christianity. In most times and most scientific areas, they have gotten along quite well. Several leading scientists today are Christians, including Francis Collins who directed the international Human Genome Project and now leads the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Q: Does the structure of our universe point towards the existence of a God?

[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] The big bang model is the best scientific model we currently have to explain the origin of the universe. Pay attention to the fact that I use the words 'origin of the universe' and not 'creation of the universe'. I believe in God, but in the word creation there is theological meaning. In the scientific context I prefer to say ‘origin of the universe’. From the perspective of science, the big bang is the best explanation we have until now.

From the perspective of theology, we have religious views on the beginning of the universe. We say there is a continuing process of creation as God sustains the universe with his will. From the big-bang model, what we can say that there was a beginning... and we have an age for the universe (around 14 billion years). This points towards a universe with a beginning. There would be no contradiction between science and theology therefore to argue that this does point towards the universe having been created.

[Prof Alister McGrath] What we see in the world around us does not prove there is a God, but is easily explained if there is a God. Religion has inferential structure that asks whether, in the light of the hypothesis that there is a God, the world around us makes more sense if that hypothesis is true? My personal view is yes! I would however, be very cautious about using language about proving God’s existence. It’s much more that belief gives us a big picture to look at things, and grasp their interconnectedness.

Q: How could we ever prove divine action?

[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] We have to distinguish different levels of reality. When we talk of the dialogue between science, philosophy and theology it's important to remember they have different languages, different methods, and goals. When we talk of divine causality, this exists at the level of philosophy and theology, not in science- which refers to the level of natural causes, but rather at the metaphysical level.

The universe came from something not from nothing. That is a logical point of view from the world of philosophy, and we (as people of faith) believe that it was God that created the universe.

[Prof Alister McGrath] One of the big debates in philosophy relates to whether natural phenomena exclude or include divine action in some way. If we look at a natural process such as rain falling, we can ask the question as to whether God uses natural processes in some way to engage in the world. Many religions believe that God uses secondary causality; processes within nature that God is able to work through.

I am not a big fan of the ‘God of the gap’ idea in this debate. It seems to me to be saying that God explains everything science cannot. That seems to locate God in areas of the world where science cannot currently offer an explanation. Science is always expanding its scope and so this always changes.

For me, God is about the bigger picture – about the fundamental question as to why we can explain anything at all!

Q: How does cognitive science deal with spiritual concepts such as mind-body, the soul and free will?

[Prof Justin Barrett] The cognitive science of religion operates at the level of understanding why people have the beliefs they do, not necessarily whether those beliefs are true or not. When it comes to understanding the relationship between mind and body for example, most folks working in the field take the view that the mind and body at a certain point are indistinguishable. The mind is some kind of way of describing the functional properties of a complex and embodied neurosystem.

Why, however, do the vast majority of people across culture regard the mind and body as distinguishable? There’s disagreement here, but some threads that are aligned. We have certain kinds of conceptual systems that naturally develop that deal with physical objects, like bodies. They generate intuitions, inferences and predictions about the behaviour of those bodies. We share this with other mammals (especially primates) and these conceptual systems develop very early in life… within the first few months of life, they may even be approaching adult levels of intuition and reasoning. We then have a difference conceptual system to think about minds that don’t seem to approach maturity until we’re about 5 or 6 years old, and is only in a few other existent species and therefore has a different evolutionary story. This conceptual system also has different inputs and outputs to the one we use to understand the physical world. These two systems developed largely independently of each other, operate independently of each other (our mind system has to be able to think about minds that are not bodily present, otherwise we would not be able to have this conversation!). So it looks like these two systems are distinguishable, and zippering the two together is actually quite an achievement – and it is tenuous. It’s very hard to think of minds as bodies, and only bodies. Maybe for that reason we are what Paul Bloom (Yale Psychologist) calls intuitive dualists. The dualistic position that minds and bodies are separable is the natural default position. The difficulty which monists (who think the mind and body are one) experience in maintaining their position is also evidence of this intuitive dualistic nature.

If someone proposes something like a mind, soul or spirit that can be extracted from the body, and which doesn’t stop functioning when it leaves the body? It is at best minimally counter-intuitive!

Freedom is another one of these things. We perceive ourselves as free-will agents and the idea that we are not is radically counter-intuitive. It doesn’t mean that we are free-will agents (although I think we are). Where cognitive science of religion gets into murky water is where there is a confusion between the study of the concepts and how they spread versus whether those concepts themselves are true. A lot of us working in the area are- unfortunately- not well versed in the philosophy of freedom, determinism, mind-body and so on. We sometimes therefore stumble into our philosophical colleagues back-yard uninvited and make assumptions about determinism and so on!

Morality and justice are also interesting. Rather than morality and justice emerging from proto-religious impulses, the two are mutually re-enforcing. There may have been other cognitive or emotive foundations that underlie our moral thinking, normative justice and ethical reasoning. A lot of us are fascinated by ‘moral foundations theory’ which identifies 5 or 6 different adaptive cognitive emotive complexes; moral intuitions…. One of these is harm/care, where we have an intuition that drives our caring for other people- particularly our offspring, and that harming our people is a bad thing. What needs to be worked out is the conditions under which this is violated… who counts as my group? What counts as harm? Fairness and reciprocity is another foundation. We all have intuition that we must reciprocate fairly in fields of life such as material exchange.

When it comes to enforcing our morality and punishing those who defect… and we do defect!... it’s really handy to have supernatural punishers or rewarders around. They’re more likely to catch cheaters and virtuous people privately and reward or punish them in ways that humans can’t pull-off! One of the more prominent adaptationist arguments is that once the cognitive ability exists to think about gods (in the broad supernatural sense as beings who can interact with this world in important ways), and if these gods are morally interested in the world, these beliefs would encourage pro-social behaviour and intra-group collaboration, and pays dividends for the group and the individuals within it. That gene-culture complex that gave rise to that kind of thought, therefore, has a significant advantage over ones that didn’t.

Q: Can science and religion co-exist?

[Prof Alister McGrath] Science and religion can be compatible, albeit they are different modes of thinking. There is an oft-quoted example of a kettle being plugged in and the process being described in scientific terms (the generation of heat), or in terms of wanting a cup of tea… both are true!

When I do science, I don’t invoke God to explain things. I can quite happily leave God out of the research, but can understand this in terms of my belief that God created the structure of the world and the framework that allows science to exist.

A scientific account of many of our areas of human experience such as love, beauty and so forth is not adequate to explain them. You might say that love is the result of certain hormones surging through our bodies, but our experience of it is far more complex.

For me as a human being, I am looking for a deep and rich understanding of the world. Science is part of that picture, I value it greatly, but it is not the whole picture. We need to bring science and religion together collaboratively so that we can see the big picture, and not just parts of it.

[Prof Justin Barrett] It’s too easy to give a broad answer to this. When you say science, which science are you talking about? Are you talking of the premise of science? Which theories? …or if you are talking of religious belief, which religion? Which practices?

On a broad level, do I think that modern epistemological science is an antagonist to religious and supernatural belief? ….no, I don’t. Historically it looks like modern science rose-up because of theological commitments, and folks like Newton and Bacon didn’t see a conflict, but it depends…. Certain religious commitments would be at odds with modern science. Certainly, insofar as how some religious communities make empirical claims about the world… they can be wrong, and science can say there’s a problem. Just to give you a simple example… If an ancient Greek religion claimed that climbing Mount Olympus would put you in front of humanoid beings of approximately ‘x’ size, and if an expedition to the top of the mountain proved this as false, well yeah… science has posed a problem there! That may sound like a trivial example, but religious communities regularly make claims about things such as human behaviour, thought, tendencies and so forth.

The human sciences are challenging or affirming these claims. The religious community does however, have the tendency to rebuff such challenges by saying, “well actually, those aren’t our central claims… our central claim is simply that there is a God or Gods!…” Many religions therefore who announce this as their central claim remain immune to scientific investigation. That doesn’t mean that scientific findings can’t weigh in on theological claims however…

The cognitive science of religion is an interest case study. Most of my colleagues are not religious people themselves, they are agnostic or atheist. Many of them do feel that their findings are a threat or challenge to religious belief. But on the other hand, many religious traditions (including Islam and Christianity) have long affirmed that humans have natural religious instincts or propensities. Cognitive science of religion could be seen as providing evidence in support of those claims.

Just coming up with a naturalistic explanation for cross-cultural recurrence of religious belief does not mean that religious beliefs aren’t true. The fact is that there may be a psychological explanation for why we do or believe the things we do. I believe there is someone with a mind on the other side of the phone line right now, I know there is a scientific story as to why I believe that, but once that scientific story is told, it doesn’t invalidate the truth of the belief; nor does it mean that it is true necessarily.

However, religious belief is incredibly common across culture. Even in parts of the world where you have high rates of atheism, people believe in religious entities and behaviours… they may not believe in God, but they will believe in ghosts… Britain is an interesting case study. As adherence to Church of England has declined, belief in ghosts and spirits has actually increased proportionately. The UK is remarkably less theistic than the United States, but is a lot more superstitious.

Branding is certainly an issue. If you look at the secularisation of Ireland, the priest abuse scandal in the Catholic Church caused a huge number of people to reject the Church itself as an institution. We are seeing the same in China. One of the really fascinating things there is that a huge number of people are atheist, but they are burning money, cars and houses to their ancestors.

Q: Do science and religion have a wider social function?

[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] Both science and religion are social communities, so they play an important social role in the same way as sports teams and musical groups. We are human, so we work together to share experiences and build culture.

One great aspect of science, on a social level, is that it spans the world. Scientists of all nationalities and cultures are studying the same universe and investigating the same physical laws, giving them a bond that transcends other divisions. Another social aspect of science is, of course, the incredible benefits it brings to society in medicine and technology.

Religion plays a major role in every human culture. Evolutionary psychologists like Justin Barrett and Robert McCauley have studied the emergence of religion in various cultures, and they say that everyone is religious. It is an innate instinct. Research has shown that everyone is looking for meaning and purpose. Most people find it in some form of religion or spirituality, although atheists find meaning in other ways.

The world's religions have also inspired people to devote their entire lives to caring for the sick, educating others, and lifting up the poor. In the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr and other civil rights leaders argued for racial justice from an explicitly Christian point of view. Christian faith continues to play a key role in the work of racial reconciliation - I've seen how the Christianity has brought together people of very different views, and allowed them to find common ground.

Q: What formed humanity’s need for purpose and directionality?

[Prof Alister McGrath] If you’re a religious person, as I am, you could argue that God may have made us with a kind of homing-instinct, meaning that faith is a way of finding our way home. You might also offer an evolutionary explanation… but whichever means you use, you find that there always seems to be this inherent sense that humans feel of something deeper beyond the empirical, something greater beyond the horizon that we can somehow reach out and grasp.

To be human is to appreciate that we need to transcend our limits and grasp something bigger than ourselves.

Q: How would religion and theology deal with breakthroughs such as the discovery of extraterrestrial life?

[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] There is a well-affirmed field of research called astrobiology in which the Vatican Observatory has engaged in different ways since 1995- where we organised the first summer school on this subject. Astrobiology requires one to be competent in different fields including astronomy, biology, geology and more- this is not easy. We are able to do research, but ultimately we cannot know the results. It may equally happen that we find life tomorrow, or it may never happen.... and that's just the very primitive forms of life....

I am not saying that there isn't intelligent life out there, but I do believe that it will be difficult to make communication. [joking] It's sometimes difficult enough to find intelligent life here on earth, never-mind the rest of the universe!

In the same way that there is science and science fiction, there is theology and theology fiction. Science deals with scientific facts and observations, and as we sit here now, we do not have any evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. If (and it's a big if) we discover life and more-so intelligent life, I do not believe it is conflicting with our view of creation. It is in accordance with our view of the universe that there will be other spiritual creatures out there.

From a cultural point of view, it would be similar to the experience that Europeans had when they met Native Americans for the first time. The debate which followed raised questions over the dignity and nature of human beings. If we ever do meet intelligent life from outside our planet, we could be faced with similar challenges.

The sort of questions that the search for extraterrestrial life poses are varied. What is life? how do you define life? what are the criteria to say what is life and what isn't? what is the meaning of a person? what does it mean to be a spiritual being? This research also helps us understand ourselves, life on our own planet, and where life could form elsewhere.

Q: What is the difference between information and meaning?

[Prof Alister McGrath] Information is an accumulation of observation. Meaning is the sense in which we notice patterns in that information, discerning something deeper that lies behind that information. Meaning allows us to make sense of information and understand the bigger picture of what lies beyond it.

One of my concerns is that we live in a culture that seems to be obsessed with information. One of the great things about science is how it takes things apart to see how they work. Religion however, puts things back together again so we can see what they mean.

Q: Has science impacted our understanding of God?

[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] I'm sure that we will have debates and conflicts between religion, theology and science in the future, as we have done through history. What is important is that we sort these conflicts with dialogue, and without human suffering.

Without perhaps realising, Galileo helped us to gain a better understanding of the reading of the Bible. From Galileo's experience, we learned that we cannot read the Bible literally, or as a book of science. If I am studying binary stars for example, I don't think it will have philosophical or theological impact. If I am studying those topics on the border such as astrobiology, the origins of the universe or string theory however... those issues should have a theological and scientific dialogue too.

The mission of the Vatican Observatory is to show, somehow, that the Catholic Church wishes to promote and communicate good science. Our aim is to show that it is possible to believe in God and also to be good scientist.

Pope Benedict XVI was giving an address in 2010 to students of Catholic schools. He told the young people that they should always keep in mind the big picture, and not to become narrow-minded.

Science gives us comprehension of the universe and our world, and as Pope Francis recently said, faith is not afraid of science, and the Church rejoices with scientific discoveries. The risk for scientists is that they may be left with a one-dimensional view of reality. We cannot reduce our comprehension of the world to science. We have so many dimensions to life, culture, literature, poetry, music and they each have truth and beauty.

We cannot reduce all human activities to scientific method, I fear we may then lose the inherent truth and beauty within them.

Q: Have we seen a decline in religion and a growth in science?

[Prof Alister McGrath] In the West, we’ve seen a rise in science and a decline in organised religion; albeit there is a lot bubbling under the surface, which we usually call spirituality. Science is now asking deep questions about the meaning of life which have typically been beyond the scope of that mode of thought and its methods; opening the door perhaps to religious thinking.

[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] I do not see the growth of science and the decline of religion as being related, although they are both happening at the same time.

Sometimes it is portrayed this way because of a line of reasoning called “the god of the gaps.” When science only explained some aspects of the world, people tended to point to the aspects that science could not explain and say “there’s a miracle.” This “god” of the gaps is there merely to explain what science cannot. We now understand more and more of the natural world so there are fewer gaps in our scientific knowledge. People sometimes describe in terms of science advancing while religion is being pushed aside. I don't see it that way. The God of the Christian Bible, and the divine aspect in most religions, is much more than simply a mechanism to explain what science cannot. Looking through the lens of my Christian worldview, I see the growth of scientific knowledge as giving us a better understanding of how God governs the universe, not pushing God aside. I believe that God created all things and continually sustains all things by his divine providence. The laws of physics would not continue to function if God weren't sustaining them! So, the advance of science is not a demotion of religion, but an expansion of understanding of God’s activity.

Other factors have played a role in the decline of religion in the west, such as the philosophy of the enlightenment. The world wars also had a huge impact on how people thought about religion and about God. Science was advancing at the same time, but it was part of a gamut of things occurring in the Western world during the decline of religion there.

If you look around the globe today, religion is actually skyrocketing. For example, in South Korea, Christianity and science are both growing at a huge pace..

At another level, it is true that science is now starting to answer questions which previously were the realm of philosophy and religion, questions like the beginning of the universe, the emergence of life from non-life, why particles have the masses they do, etc. The scientists have climbed the mountain of knowledge, only to discover that the theologians have been sitting at the top of the mountain this whole time!

I don't see this as being a convergence of science and religion, because they will be asking different questions of the same phenomenon. Astronomers are looking at the physical properties of the big bang: the expansion rate, temperatures, particles and so on. Scientists construct hypotheses, make predictions, and test them. What scientists discover will inform people’s religious views about the beginning of the universe, but won’t answer big questions like the purpose of the universe and why there is something rather than nothing.

Keep in mind that “converging” implies that the “science” and “religion” were separate or in conflict, but early in the history of science these were viewed as one whole.

Q: Why do we need something to believe in?

[Fr. José G. Funes, S.J.] Humans need to know the answers to the big questions about meaning, behind the universe, and behind the hundred billion galaxies that exist. We are struck with wonder as to why this beautiful universe exists, in which the human-being evolves. Why does this universe exist, rather than nothing? We also ask ourselves why we live in a universe with so much human suffering.

We need to ask ourselves the important questions of meaning. In our search for the answers to these questions, we may find the belief in God or- at least- we may try to find an answer. Even atheists or agnostics are searching for their answers to the same questions.

[Prof Alister McGrath] Even those who would describe themselves as agnostics actually do believe in something. All of us need to feel that there’s something that helps us to make sense of life, of who we are, and why we’re here. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not. This quest for meaning is very deep. It’s almost as if human beings are meaning-seeking animals, and we need something to give us orientation, purpose and direction.

[Dr. Deborah Haarsma] Earlier I mentioned research that shows humans all have an innate desire for religion. Now, you can spin this different ways. Some atheists say that everyone is born with the instinct for religion, but it's just a childish instinct and something that can be overcome with rational thought. But believers can see this completely differently. As a Christian, this need to believe makes perfect sense with my faith. The Bible teaches that God created humans to have an innate desire to know God, that it was his intention. As the Westminster Catechism states, "...the chief end of [humanity] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."

Q: What happens in a society where belief in God is lost?

[Prof Justin Barrett] The evidence is less than compelling that we’re seeing a general sustained trend away from a belief in God. We also have reason to believe that even if people are not believing in the God of- say- Christianity, they will entertain other supernatural beliefs. Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has commented that if people don’t believe in God, they will believe in anything… That is, people have natural religious impulses, and they will be exercised one way or another. If we look at the decline of state-organised religions in the USA and UK, something will fill that void…. And often these new beliefs are more idiosyncratic, less organised and more entrepreneurial.

The issue then arises as to whether society will be better without religious thought. The optimism around this is very peculiar. Many making the claim argue that religion is good at regulating society, helping to re-enforce if not dictate what is good or bad. They argue the state can step in and fill this role. However, this then begs the question as to who is good, who is bad and so forth. The evidence presented that Europe is doing swimmingly with secularism is really premature. A lot of us who study religion argue that Europe is still riding on the coat-tails of religious sentiments and morality. It will be a generation or two before we can tell if the pro-social moral sensibilities and compass will be sustained without the presence of traditional religions there. If you turn to China, you see clearly there is a moral vacuum and moral confusion because there isn’t that kind of organised religion… and this is changing… the Chinese are becoming wealthier, and Christianity together with other religions are growing. This goes against the secularisation theory that states that the more comfy and secure you are, the less religious you are.

Many philosophers argue that moral intuitions are not enough, and that you need some kind of reflective system to hold them together and encourage pro-social behaviour. Even ideas like universal human rights may not be able to be supported on non-religious grounds as it’s hard to distinguish humans from non-humans… We’re just a big swoosh of genetic stuff!


Whilst the debate over the role of science and religion may seem to exist in the meta-verse, outside the realms of our individual existence, it’s important to note that it is we- as individuals- who contribute to it. Our knowledge of the world (and attitudes to it) are informed from four sources: our senses, our powers of rational thought, the testimony of others, and our memory… The first obvious thing to note about all these sources is that they are fallible (Thomas Dixon, Science and Religion, 2008).

Dixon notes that, “debates about science and religion are, on the face of it, about the intellectual compatibility or incompatibility of some particular religious belief with some particular aspect of scientific knowledge…. Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily a dispute about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge…” This ‘authorisation’ component is critical. Our culture (including science and religion) is manifest from a long-process of collaboration and shared understanding, and this requires a ‘benchmark’ from which we develop our thinking. The political component is that which sets the baseline of ‘what’ is generally perceived to be the truth of a particular iteration of man. Through history, this has moved from a view of us being a part of nature, through to organised religious societies, onwards to societies driven by science and perhaps the cynics may argue we are now in one where the primary truth is money.

We may however, be missing something critical in this view. Albert Einstein once wrote that “…the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed… I do not believe that a moral philosophy can ever be founded on a scientific basis. You could not, for instance, teach men to face death tomorrow in defence of scientific truth. Science has no power of that type over the human spirit. The valuation of life and all its nobler expressions can only come out of the soul's yearning toward its own destiny.

As humanity has grown-up, so too have our world-views, and with that- our ability to understand them in context of ourselves has grown too. Science has come of age and now understands that rather than a single systematic set of natural laws, there are different concepts of order that exist in different states of existence, and across different branches of scientific investigation. Laws that appear to be true at a quantum-level, for example, are incompatible with our observations of the world at human-scale- albeit both views are empirically equally correct. This may seem like a logical paradox but to understand it simply requires a shift of perception to agree that theories are only relevant in the parameters set by the field (and scale) of their enquiry.

Perhaps we must realise that our understanding of the world is split not just into fields of enquiry, but also levels that are informed by our present experiences and shared history. We have the physical level- informed by the domains of science… we have the cultural level- informed by the domains of philosophy and we have an experiential level- informed by the domains of aesthetics (including religion and theology). I can physically explain the composition of two human beings, I can culturally explain why they may wish to be together, but only aesthetics can begin to touch on the beauty of the love they experience in their brief time together on this Earth. The science, the culture and the aesthetic aspects of their love are equally true- but can only exist in unison.

The universe existed long before our species emerged, and will continue long after we cease. For the brief time we are here (at the universal scale), we are perhaps the only form of life able to contemplate itself, it’s purpose in the universe, and the purpose of the universe itself. The truth is that whether you believe this is a bi-product of millions of years of cognitive evolution in a universe that spontaneously came to be… or through the intended creation of a supreme being, it is still a miracle.

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