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Lecture 1: Introduction
Restatement of the Debate
Why study the relationship between religion and science?
Because "Science & Religion" debates continue to make the news, and
are likely to remain with us into the foreseeable future. Recently
(2000) the Kansas Board of Education voted to add some caveats to
biology textbooks concerning "the theory of evolution". By the furor
raised in the press, one would have thought that "fundamentalists" had
camped out in the state capital and taken hostages. Any possibility of
reasoned debate on the meaning of scientific theories was lost in that
first fusillade. See debate.)
That year I attended a conference of earth scientists (e.g. no
biologists or any scientific discipline with vested interests in
evolution were present) which convened a special session to debate the
political ramifications of the Kansas decision. The first speaker, by
way of introduction to the Kansas board, showed a popular internet
graphic of a business man with his head up his rear, to the great
delight of the audience. The conclusion of most of the speakers was
that this scientific heresy must be stopped through political action.
Never in any of the discussions were the characteristics of "true"
science--objectivity, hypothesis testing, empirical generalizations,
emotional aloofness--practised, but incessantly the assertion was made
that evolution was, in contrast to any other view, "true" science.
The irony was lost on most of the attendees, made even worse by their
suppression of dissenting voices during the question and answer
period. Clearly, our society, yes even our intelligentsia, have not
resolved the tension between science and religion.
A second reason to study the relationship between science and religion
is demonstrated in the above example, because the position taken by
the majority of America's scientific and media elite appears to be
opposed to religious belief. Surveys confirm this anecdotal evidence,
showing that roughly 30% of the American population in both 1917 and
1961 believe both in the efficacy of prayer and life after death,
suggesting that 70% share an Enlightenment skepticism of religious
"miracles". More interesting is that the percentage of professional
scientists who hold to these miracles is nearly identical with the
general population showing little change throughout most of the 20th
century. However, among members of the National Academy of Science, an
exclusive club with membership requiring a vote of the body, skeptics
dominate with only 7% acknowleging belief in these miracles.
With this sort of scientific consensus for conflict, it came as shock
to me to discover that this perception arose in the 20th century
alone, and has little historical antecedents. Indeed, the story of
Galileo's religious persecution, repeated in almost every introductory
Astronomy textbook today, is largely an anachronistic myth, a history
forced through the filter of 20th century proponents of conflict.
From John Hedley Brook, a science historian's perspective, the origin
of the "conflict" myth began with Draper's 1874 diatribe against
Catholicism "History of the Conflict Between Religion and
Science", and further developed with White's 1896 defence of
Cornell University's charter "A History of the Warfare of Science
with Theology". Since it meshed perfectly with the beliefs of the
scientific elite, it spread rapidly into all fields of science and
finds modern expression in popular books such as Richard Dawkins' "The
Blind Watchmaker". Therefore one of the goals of this course is to
review the historical documents that have led to the technological
miracles of the 20th century, attempting to recover the historically
rich interaction of science and faith.
A third reason for studying the subject is progress. Science is already
pushing the limits of what used to be called religion. For example, NASA is reeling
from the consequences of the end of the Cold War, when its main justification
was public display of the superiority of capitalism. The past 10 years
have seen NASA attempt to "redefine" itself, abandonning the NASA "worm
logo" and reusing the "meatball" logo etc. In the past 5 years it has
capitalized on the purported evidence of life on Mars found embedded in
a meteorite recovered from the ice of Antarctica, and has decided that
its new justification for spending taxpayer's money is "a search for origins".
It's a marvel of spin-doctoring to see how all the existing disciplines can
be fit within this new theme, as well as the creation of a whole new
completely speculative discipline, "Astrobiology", but the statement
that gave me pause was from a brochure that said NASA's goal was to
answer the questions "How did we get here? Where are we going?". After
a long pause, I concluded that NASA's main competition would
no longer be russian communism, but
organized religion, and that the relationship between science
and religion would clearly become more important in the future.
Even more significantly, science was headed for the same sort of
problems that have plagued religion for centuries, so unless we
learn from our past mistakes, we may never make progress in these
Let me give an example of how progress is impeded. Biologists
who are exploring some of the questions raised by "intelligent
design" theory, are usually publishing their papers anonymously
for fear that their work will be percieved as politically incorrect
and negatively affect their career (see the Dembski website).
Likewise important sociological
papers are published anonymously on the web because they fear
repercussions from a feminist lobby. Whether academics want to admit
it or not, it has been known since Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions" that paradigm shifts in a scientific
field are difficult and contentious. Although Kuhn was not sure if
progress was even a correct concept to apply to these shifts, nonetheless
appreciation of the paradigm shift is necessary to affect change, which
historically has always been associated with
philosophy and religion. Without understanding the history of this
conflict, we are doomed to
repeat the religious defense of the status quo to the detriment
of the field.
A final reason for studying the subject is personal. College was a time
when many people, including myself, went through a crisis of
faith. Somewhere in those early years of adulthood, we enter with
naive idealism and exit with cynical skepticism. As someone once said
of politics, "Anyone who does not vote Democrat as a youth lacks a heart,
but anyone who does not vote Republican as an adult lacks a brain."
This descent into cynicism was not just my
experience, but an oft-reported experience of many academics, as
illustrated by the preface to Ronald Number's book "The
Creationists", or even Charles Darwin's biography.
There are many obstacles to faith, more than I can address, but I do not
believe science is one of them. Unfortunately there have been many
polemical assaults on faith by scientists lacking either rational or
empirical rigor. This course is designed to examine some of these
common arguments and place them in the context of the
metaphysical/epistemological trinity I sketched earlier, which may
permit a colorful escape from the black-and-white battle.
The Debate Undefined
In nearly all books I've read by scientists and philosophers of
science, the problem is first defined, and then a preliminary
hypothesis is formed, and then data is taken. Philosophers, of
course, dispense with the data, relying instead on aesthetically
pleasing argument, but in every case the first step is a
definition. So in our case, we would define "religion", "science" and
possibly "philosophy" and then debate their proper
interaction. Despite this precedent, the historian John Hedley Brook
argues that it is entirely too premature to begin the process in this
fashion. Rather, he suggests, we should read the historical debates
with unbiassed glasses, and let the historical events define the
terms. That is, the word "science" carries with it a lot of historical
baggage, changing its meaning over the centuries, so that a modern
definition is anachronistic and misleading if applied to even the 19th
century, much less the 15th.
For example, Draper and White both used a late 19th century
interpretation of science to declare that Galileo was doing science
while his accusers were doing religion. When the texts are examined,
one could argue persuasively that both of them thought they were doing
science, and that both of them thought it was also religion. That is,
from at least the time of the medieval synthesis until nearly the 20th
century, theologians never drew great distinctions between their
"science" and their "theology", because they believed it was the same
process of drawing conclusions from either the book of nature or the
book of God. Finally, as Brook is at pains to show, the separation
between science and religion is a moving target over the past 500
years. He uses as an example Burnet's 1684 book on "science"
criticizing Augustine for confusing the two, yet clearly presenting
what today would be called a religious view. The lesson is clear, we
too will be seen as parochial and dated if we think our particular
separatrix between science and religion is timeless truth.
If history weren't such an important aspect of religion, I would treat
this difficulty of notational ambiguity as a problem peculiar to
academic historians, and argue that our goals are a modern philosophy
and a modern science, not an ancient one. Unfortunately, the
revelation that defines Christianity was written not in modern words,
but in ancient languages with a long and rich tradition of
interpretation. Thus any attempt to discuss the interaction of science
with religion must address the ambiguities and shifting meanings of
the terms. In theology, the science of unwrapping language from its
baggage is called hermeneutics, and occupies a very important role in
seminary. We don't have the luxury to wallow in the nuances of Greek
tenses and Hebrew cases, so we employ a few simplifications with
somewhat thin justification.
As Wittgenstein pointed out, when he founded the field of analytic
philosophy, words do sit all alone on the page, but like to congregate
with other like-minded words. A collection of clubby words form what
he called a "language game", and to a large extant, define each
other. That is, without necessarily knowing the meaning of a
particular term, we can read the language game it appears in and form
an educated guess on its meaning which solidifies with continued
usage. It is not a very sharp definition, and indeed can have very
fuzzy boundaries as it overlaps similar words, but in practice, it is
the only way any of us form definitions of words. This then becomes
Brook's goal, to allow the language game of a particular period in
history to define its own terms.
Well, if we can't define the terms very well, aren't we incapable of
making progress in understanding the debate? Not necessarily, for the
same reasons that we might enjoy watching a hockey game without
knowing the rules of hockey. Very quickly we realize that all the blue
shirts are on my side and that control of the puck is important. After
some time we even know that getting the puck into the net is the main
goal of the players. With this rudimentary knowlege, we might go years
without knowing the rules about blue lines and face-offs, yet still
enjoy rooting for "my team". In the same way, we can understand much
of the religion and science debate in broad brush without delving too
deeply into the details.
For a beginning point, though far from ideal, let us allow the practitioner
to tell us when he or she is doing science. If she says that making russian
cabbage soup is a science, then so be it. We must be more discriminating about religion,
however, since self-reporting is not nearly so accurate. Let us say that
whatever a practitioner holds absolute, whether it be death, taxes or
the laws of nature, that is a god-candidate for their religion, and we can sort out later,
perhaps by close observation, which absolutes are more absolute than others.
Now that we have a limping definition, let us see how other science historians
have defined the field.
The Debate Observed
Barbour / McGrath's definitions
Following Barbour's pioneering work 40 years ago, McGrath lists several
models of how science and religion might interact. It isn't often that
I get to use my 6th grade new math, so let me illustrate these models
with Venn diagrams.
This view, as expressed my a majority of scientists and National Academy
members, views science as the best means to truth, and that religion
will ultimately be completely explainable by science. Whenever there
is a conflict, say, over whether the Earth rotates or is stationary,
the Church is always found wrong, and Science is always vindicated.
History shows a relentless conquering of religious prejudice by the
army of objective science.
Prior to the Enlightenment, the view was held by most Western scholars
that Theology was the Queen of the Sciences. In this view, science is
a subset of theology, and consists of studying the Book of Nature,
which is a preface, as it were, to the Book of God. As Stanley Jaki,
a contemporary Catholic philosopher entitled his book, Christ is "The
Savior of Science", for without Christianity, the rise of western
would have died in the same fashion as Greek, Roman or Chinese science.
This is a view promulgated by Immanuel Kant, after seeing the
culture wars of the Enlightenment. He proposed that the subject of
science were the phenomena, what could be measured: height, weight,
color, taste; whereas
the subject of religion were the noumena, what only existed only
in the thought: beauty, truth, holiness. This is commonly stated as
religion deals with trancendent truths, but science deals with
changeable particulars. Thus there could be no
conflict between the two disciplines, rightly understood.
It's hard to characterize this view because it incorporates
everything above. It would suggest that there are areas of science
and religion that do not overlap, but also regions where they do.
In these intersecting places, neither science nor religion have the
final word, but must interact and learn from the other. No solution
is proposed as how to mitigate this conflict, but at least it is a
noble goal that does not dismiss either perspective out-of-hand.
This was Barbour's contribution to the debate, which he thought
would merge the two disciplines together without either being a
winner, but a new discipline would result. The idea is interesting,
but such utopian projects may have a hard time avoiding decay
into one of the four views
While a mathematician may feel confident that they have exhausted
all possibilities with Venn diagrams, a historian doesn't always
agree that the topic is understood properly at all. Brook feels that
the error in the Barbour analysis is that the Venn diagram has a circles
labelled science and religion. But what if science can't be defined into
a circle at
all? We've had these debates all through the years, "is economics a
science?", "is parapsychology a science?" or even "is history a science?".
If I were a sociologist, I might ask a different question from "what is
the relationship between science and religion?", and ask "How do science
and religion function in society?" Brook argues that religion has
provided 5 ingredients to science, which are completely missed by the
earlier analysis: presuppositions (see Jaki), sanctions, motivation,
regulation, and selection.
Even were I to adopt a more sociological approach, it
would not solve all the conflicts, for we are part of society, and therefore
cannot remove ourselves from the analysis. As we define the problem, we
define ourselves, making our solutions just as subjective as those we
criticize. This conundrum of self-referentiality we address at the end
of the course where it impinges on physics.
So Brook makes the point, that we will never be able to even
define the problem objectively. The best we can accomplish as a
historian is to let the problem define itself for its participants,
which we observe as audience, as it were, to an unfolding drama.
Ian Barbour was not content to take such a passive role, perhaps because
of his desire to do both physics and theology in the modern era. A popular
approach in Barbour's formative years, was Hegel's "dialectic", taking a
controversial thesis-antithesis and attempting a synthesis. Recognizing
that syntheses themselves could become controversial, Hegel argued that
this procedure could be repeated as often as necessary, which makes
the process of continual synthesis (or meta-logic) more important than the elements
of the synthesis. This focus on the "process" rather than the elements,
draws support from biology and evolutionary theories that likewise see the
same process occurring in vastly different arenas. "Nothing is changeless
but change itself."
I see some serious problems, however, with dialectic applied to religion,
not least is that religion is about absolutes, and all Hegel or Barbour
has managed to do is redefine "process" as the Absolute, which at other times
in history, has been called "pantheism". (You really have to read Jaki's essays
to capture the frustration of deja vu all over again.) Let me try to
One way to define those indefinables (God, Beauty, Truth, etc.) is drawn from
psychology, where we use an operational definition. "If it looks like a duck,
and sounds like a duck, and flys like a duck...then I'll call it a duck."
So operationally God is the transcendent, the being we can't explain, manipulate
or change. In the same way, the presuppositions of our logic, the foundations
of our science that we can't explain, manipulate or change become, in a very
small way, our god. If Barbour has made the process immutable, has defined
his god. Think of Aristotle's "first mover" definition of god, and you have
captured the thought.
This happens all the time in real life, not just in philosophy class. Every
three-year old goes through a phase of life when he asks "Why, Mommy?" Every
attempted answer is met with the same question until in frustration mommy says "Because
I said so!" Fiat declaration of power. The being or rule or law we invoke to
terminate debate is in essence, our final authority, our first mover, our god.
So you see the problem, if we think we have solved the religion and science
controversy by defining a meta-logic of synthesis, we have only relabelled the players
without really resolving the conflict. To be honest, Denial works much
better and has more advocates. The problem with Absolutes is precisely that
we are unable to relativize them out of existence without creating new Absolutes
in their place.
This brings us to Jaki's assertion that modern science would be nowhere without
Absolutes; and in particular, Christian Absolutes. That is, science requires
some belief in the ordering of nature, a belief in physical laws before it even
makes sense to search for physical laws. Think about it a minute, a science that
can put a man on the moon is still unable to solve the problem of marital conflict
which has tripled today to an over 50% divorce rate. Which problem is more important
to solve? So why has science not solved it? Perhaps because human behavior doesn't
have recognizable laws the way physics does. Well if Hindu or Egyptian
philosophy regards nature as a woman with human characteristics, why would they waste
their time looking for laws of nature? That's Jaki's point.
Another way of stating Jaki's assertion, is that the self-referential problem we
encounter in Science can only be broken if we recognize that there is an Absolute
separate from our perceptions. That is, only if "something out there" has real existence
is there a chance for "objectivity" in science, a view almost all scientists tacitly
hold without any analysis so that philosopher's have called it "naive realism".
That external influence, for Jaki, is best described by Christianity, and indeed,
is the reason that modern science really began to flourish in the Renaissance. In Jaki's
mind, the current conflict and conundrums of modern science are in a large part,
self-imposed difficulties arising from the secular desire to replace Chrisitianity
with another Absolute.
How then should we proceed? I hope that this discussion of Absolutes will enable
us to see a way around the difficulties placed in the progress of modern science. Once
we see that an absolute is necessary to both begin and terminate science, we can
move on to a fruitful discussion of the proper absolutes for today, or a historical
survey of absolutes in use by the giants of science. Going back to the triangle again,
the proper orientation of that triangle, determines how we resolve disputes. That is,
a debate between science and religion can be mediated by philosophy,
between science and philosophy mediated by religion, or religion and philosophy
mediated by science.
Putting this into practice, we can look at a historical or modern dispute, and listen
to what both are calling their "science" or "truth" or "facts". Then we try to ascertain
the belief structure that produces their facts, the Absolutes they claim in support
of their position. If it is a modern dispute, we can then draw analogies from historical
disputes with similar Absolutist positions, with the optimistic goal of moving the
discussion to its historical conclusion. Where no historical antecedents exist, we
may with less confidence, extrapolate from analogous historical disputes. As an example,
the debate over cloning might find an analogous dispute in the Mosaic prohibitions
concerning genetic breeding. In any event, the discussion is moved from an impasse
to a discussion of historical antecedents. (If this sounds a lot like religious
debates, you are absolutely right!) One has only to look at the wars of religion to
recognize that this approach is no panacea, but at least we have many centuries of
Last modified, January 11, 2002, RbS