Course Mechanics


The Senior Seminar was conceived as a "capstone" course that has 3 goals:
  1. To make connections between a particular major and other areas of inquiry, so that students become aware of the relationships between their discipline, other disciplines, and the General Education Curriculum as a whole.
  2. To relate the chosen major to particular faith issues, and to explore the Christian worldview within a particular discipline
  3. To discuss preparation for professional life, especially in the area of the major, and discuss the mission of Christians in the anticipated professional environment.
We address these goals in a slightly different way than has been done in the past. Previous approaches have had a "topical" view to the integration of faith with physics, making naturalism one topic. I have inverted the order, and made naturalism the theme, or more precisely, the foil, and subsumed topics under it. My reasoning is that 90% of all physicists and scientists you will meet will uncritically accept the tenets of naturalism, making it the most important hurdle in any attempt at integration. While I have had my ethics challenged (yes, even in physics!) it was naturalism that proved the most contentious issue in the last 3 universities I served in. So the 3 goals of the capstone course will be addressed, but through the lens of naturalism.

There will be some overlap in this course and others offered here at Wheaton College, which can't be avoided if we are to fulfill goal 1. This course will overlap the Philosophy department's "philosophy of science", and the History department's "history of science" courses, as well as our own Physics history courses. Like the gestalt theorists, however, I believe the total can be greater than the sum of its parts, and in this course, we include the Christianity as a neglected part of this total.

I am not a philosopher, and feel some trepidation covering this material just because it is so heavily philosophical. However, I have had some theology training, and hope that this will make up for the deficiencies. The goal of this course is (a) to show that Science, Philosophy and Christianity can have an equilibrium both historically and at the present, and (b) what form I take that equilibrium to be.

The Trinity Methodology

As I develop my views on that equilibrium, I will use triangles to illustrate my point. This is not just because I have a fixation on trinities, but because I find it to be a valuable tool in solving conflicts. In ancient Greece, some of the pre-socratic philosophers debated about whether diversity existed, or whether "everything was one". (Parmenides etc.) This emphasis on unity is one way to resolve conflict, but since it eliminates distinguishing elements, it is not a philosophy that contains science. As I will emphasize many times in this course, I am not interested in a philosophy or a religion and eliminates science. Thus unities become philosophical curiosities of little interest to me.

One can do a lot more science with dualities, or opposites. One can play 20 questions with yes/no binary questions and just about describe anything in the universe. Shades of gray are also allowed, though subject, of course, to controversy. This black and white world is vastly more interesting to study, and like b/w television, conveys all the essentials needed to appreciate the plot. But the one fly in the ointment is the problem of gray areas, which appears to be insoluble when one man's white becomes another's black.

Fortunately the human eye is graced with more than b/w rods, but with 3 flavors of cones: red, green and blue. With three receptors, suddenly all the millions of colors supported on your video board are possible to perceive. Color television, though hardly necessary to enjoy "I Love Lucy" shows, nonetheless swept over America and replaced all the b/w sets, demonstrating that people naturally prefer trinities to dualities. Why is that? Some would argue that it is more realistic, or even more emotional. I would argue that it permits the complexity and richness that is part of the human psyche; the nuances of a red apple, a deep blue ocean, a blushing bride, that are missing from the b/w presentation. In exactly the same way, trinities of thought give us negotiating room, nuances of meaning, paths around the logical pitfalls and irreconcilable differences that permit progress to be made.

If three is good, is four better? Perhaps its a matter of taste, but I for one cannot handle four and higher dimensional color plots--the ones that use 2-space for 2 quantities, and 2 or 3 colors for other quantities. I'm told that with practice even I could master this technique, but informal surveys indicate that I am not alone in my aversion to higher dimensions. Let's face it, our brains are optimized for three dimensions, and this is a problem even Einstein had to face in formulating his higher dimensional geometries. For this reason, I stop with trinities, and argue that this supplies more than enough wiggle room for our purposes.

(I cannot help but add that there are profound theological and mathematical reasons for preferring trinities. After all, other religions have posited dualities for their God, why does Christianity insist upon a Trinity? Likewise, vector calculus or physics is trivial in 2 and 4 dimensions, it is only in 3 dimensions that complexity arrives. There is more than accidental occurrence of trinities in many areas of sub-atomic physics, all suggesting that three is more than a practical limit, but a number of deep significance.)

The trinity upon which this course is based is found in the title. It is the trinity of Science, Philosophy, and Religion which I schematically indicate with a triangle labelled with the greek letters: sigma, phi, and theta. These are also the 3 ways in which knowledge or truth is obtained: experience, reason, and revelation. Whenever there are debates between two of these poles, say between reason and experience, there is always a (usually) hidden contribution from the third. I believe it is in recognizing this "third" contribution that we can resolve many of the intractable problems that plague our subject area. The goal of this course is to develop a sensitivity if not tools for our own investigation of science, philosophy and religion, that permit us to make progress, if not in society, at least in our own understanding.

Annotated Bibliography

Science & Religion: an Introduction Alister E. McGrath
This is written by a theologian who attempts to ameliorate the debate between science and religion. His is almost an abridged version of this course, highly summarized. Read this book to get an overall view of the battle, as well as a sympathetic view on religion.

Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives John Hedley Brooke
Written by a science historian, he delights in historical surprises, the complexities of real history that have become simplified cartoons repeated in countless texts. Especially valuable for the Galileo and Darwin periods.

God and the New Physics Paul Davies
Davies is a theoretical physicist, (which by the way, make the best lecturers and popularizers of physics) who is intrigued by all the philosophical conundrums that plague science. He has written over 10 books (about 6 a decade) on the subject of philosophical or religious implications of physics. Although hard-core scientists might dismiss him as a hoi polloi popularizer, his position reflects a strong desire to keep physics relevant with some sort of modified naive realism.

The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion and the Search for God Kitty Ferguson
Kitty Fergusen is a journalist whose reason for writing this book apparently was a physicist brother who lost his faith. She is in the hot pursuit of faith, and does a better job explaining some of the recent physics discoveries than the physicists themselves. In particular, I liked her explanation of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" better than his. For it is Hawking's sentence that became Fergusen's title.

Additional Resources

God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science Edited by David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers
These are very nice papers delivered at a "history of science" conference that brought diverse historians together to discuss some of the same issues covered by John Hedley Brooke. They predate Brooke, and can be thought of as an additional resource or amplification of the themes in Brooke's book.

God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion. Christopher Southgate and the Contributors
I didn't get too far with this book, partly because it is an anthology which shows uneven treatment. It appeared to be similar in scope to McGrath's book, but with a prediliction for Process Theology as pushed by Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne. Other than gray-haired academics, I haven't found too many people advocating it, and have a gut feeling that its a sterile approach.

Science & Theology: an Introduction John Polkinghorne
Polkinghorne, like Davies and Barbour, are all theoretical physicists who have taken up philosophy in their old age. Richard Feynman made a disparaging remark about this class of people, which I took personally, but seems to ring true. These are all very educated people who clearly have struggled with reconciling science and religion, but their solution of process theology leaves me cold, and feels a bit stale.

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism Phillip E. Johnson
Johnson is a lawyer teaching at UC Berkeley, who decided that the theory of evolution wouldn't stand up in a law court because of the way its supporters defend it. ("Everyone who is intelligent believes in Evolution, so it must be true".) By default, he has become a soft-spoken proponent of the view that the Emperor has no clothes. This book tries to take apart the scientific-philosophical consensus called "naturalism".

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes Stephen W. Hawking
This was Hawking's surprise best-seller, perhaps due to the television exposure he also recieved. It covers some of the intricacies of cosmology and black holes, for it was Hawking (as a student of Roger Penrose) who first applied black-hole theory to the Big Bang. In it, Hawking thinks he has solved the problem of the beginning of the universe by proposing that the primordial snake swallowed its tail. Hawking does his best to avoid saying that he is doing philosophy, but it is the Preface by Carl Sagan that gives away the game. Worth reading, but you may get more from Fergusen's book.

The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism Ronald L. Numbers
Numbers was raised "fundamentalist" (though given the recent media use of the word, we may have to find an alternative) but balked at the recent religious changes that required allegiance to "young earth" theories (Earth is less than 10,000 years old). He researched the emergence of this religious requirement, and writes a fascinating history of the subject, though unfortunately, losing most of his faith in the process. He remains, however, a historian sensitive to the intricacies of fundamentalist christianity.

Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues Ian G. Barbour, the first edition of this book had a slightly different title Religion in an Age of Science Ian G. Barbour
Ian Barbour is without a doubt the grandfather of all "Religion & Science" professors, having written exhaustive books on the subject 40 years ago before it became a popular subject. My difficulty with him, as with Polkinghorne, is that he adopts process theology (a la Whitehead, Bergson) as a pattern with which to reunite religion to physics. Unfortunately the paradigm he chose was founded on Evolutionary Theory, which in recent years has come under increasing criticism. So the sythesis he achieves appears to me to be very dated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that his approach is most popular with scientists above age 55, which I take to be evidence of sterility.

The Non-Local Universe: the new Physics and Matters of the Mind Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos
I bought the book, but haven't read it. I'm hoping it addresses the implications of non-locality of quantum mechanics for Einstein locality. Any reviewers out there?

Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science & Theology William A. Dembski
Dembski is a double PhD in Math and Philosophy, and has tried to put some of the well-known arguments for the existence of God on firm theoretical grounds. He devises a calculus for estimating the degree of randomness or the degree of orderliness of a process. Building on information theory (pioneered by Claude Shannon in the 1950's) he argues for the evidence of design in nature. That is, he agrees that evolution is apparent in nature, but that it could not have occurred by chance. As you might guess, its a controversial stand that has taken a large amount of criticism, but is building quiet support in academia around the US. This book is his magnum opus, and has some sections that are completely unreadable by non-math majors. Worth the read if you want to understand his position.

Quantum Mind: the edge between physics and psychology Arnold Mindell
I haven't read this either. It appears to be another pop-psychology book written by a psychologist who is grappling with the new physics. Any takers?

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Jonathon Wells
In the culture wars, there are only two sides, those who believe Evolution, and those who don't. Wells, like Johnson's book, shows why the defense of evolution has gaping holes that no amount of apoplexy can overcome. In particular, he takes 10 photographs that commonly appear in high school and college biology textbooks as evidence for evolution, and demonstrates why they are all defective, or even out-right hoaxes that only remain in print because of the lack of better replacements. It's a shocking expose, with uproariously funny accounts of scientific ego. Highly recommended.

Not by Chance!: Shattering the modern theory of evolution Lee Spetner
Spetner appears to be an engineer who wanted to quantify this fuzzy area of genetic evolution. He applies well-known and accepted methods of calculating the probabilities and rates of genetic mutation, and finds that the answers are many orders of magnitude off. That is, a mutation that should take 40,000 years to happen spontaneously occurs multiple times in 40 days. Although not in the "Intelligent Design" camp, Spetner is willing to argue against orthodoxy because of his strong Jewish faith, and apparently has a Jewish following. (As an aside, if two independent researchers come to the same conclusion, one might suspect that there some objectivity to their work.) With Spetner's knowlege of molecular genetics, he makes a nice counterpoint to Dembski. (His counterpart in the ID camp would be Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University.)

The Bible New International Version, 1990. An anthology of books written over the course of 1300 years, originally in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It's a world-wide best-seller. This english translation is about 15 years old, though beginning to show decay. Worth reading.

The Savior of Science Stanley Jaki
Jaki was a physicist who converted to philosophy at a very young age, and has taught philosophy of science at Seton Hall University until recently. As a Benedictine monk, he alone, among the many physicists I've read on this subject, has an appreciation for the Medieval synthesis and its importance for the debate today. For example, it was he who discovered that Newton's laws were formulated roughly 300 years earlier by a Medieval monk. He is a good antidote to modern religious antagonism, arguing that Christianity was a necessary ingredient in the formulation of modern science.

Means to Message: a treatise on truth Stanley Jaki
As any true philosopher would do, Jaki argues that even the mechanism of spoken and written language exhibits the reality of absolute truth. He may be a voice in the wilderness, but someone has to point out that modern philosophy espouses a form of solipsism, an inconsistency that is as shocking as the Emperor without clothes. Jaki is an accessible interpreter of modern Catholic thought, which apparently gets short shrift in American academe.

Hill Roberts Web Site: Lord I Believe
Long before there was a recognizable movement called "Intelligent Design" highly educated christians have been arguing these points, though perhaps with less rigor. Roberts has put together a series of powerpoint presentations, and hosted a web site that discusses these same issues. Curiously, like ID, he has encountered opposition both from the right and the left, from both politically correct liberals and fundamentalists. I admire men, like Abraham Lincoln, who do not seek security in the faceless anonymity of a crowd or a creed. Unlike the books, this is a web-accessible site, and worth surfing.

Robert Sheldon's Job Site: JOB Site
Well, actually, this is a shameless advertisement. My interest in science and religion never really disappeared in graduate school, but it was the book of Job that reinvigorated my interest. Somehow, in this most misunderstood book in the Bible, more physics is described than all other 65 books put together. That puzzle (and much misfortune) led me to analyze the book in great detail, which resulted in a new understanding of epistemology and the basis of this course.

William Dembski's ID Site: ID Coming Clean Dembski never really says what his demolition of Evolution is intended to accomplish, which has given his critics free reign to impugn his motives. In this web site, he tries to quiet all the speculation, without necessarily committing himself to one particular theory. You be the judge of whether he was successful.


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 Brooke, 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 Brooke 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 Brooke 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 Brooke'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.

Brooke'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. Brooke 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?" Brooke 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 Brooke 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, 2003, RbS