Previous . Next

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 new fields.

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.

(Medieval) Synthesis
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 above.

Brook's dilemma

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.

Barbour's process

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 explain myself.

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.

Jaki's assertion

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 which exists 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.

Color Vision

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 practice.

Last modified, January 11, 2002, RbS