Conflict in science and theology: an analysis and critique, part I

When I first came to college I was sure I wanted to be a theoretical physicist. I took the most advanced introductory classes in mechanics and electromagnetism along with multivariable calculus, linear algebra and differential equations and was on my way to classical and quantum mechanics when I realized that I was more interested in the 'big' questions traditionally addressed by philosophy and theology: why is the world the way it is, what makes science possible, what is the place of human beings in the Universe? I decided to major in religion, but my interest in science did not abate, and I continued to explore my interests in neuroscience, computer science and philosophy of mind. The goal that drove my investigations was to achieve an integration of the best science and the best theology in an intellectually rigorous yet spiritually satisfying worldview. That goal still animates me, as it does some of the greatest scientists alive today (not coincidentally also those who have actually wrestled with philosophy and theology instead of just dismissing them as 'metaphysical hand-waving').

That commitment implies eschewing simplistic construals of the interaction of science and theology. Both are hugely complex social and intellectual phenomena with a rich and varied history of conflict, tension, cooperation and mutual support. This much is well established by historical investigation. The steady retreat of theology before the relentless advance of materialistic science is a myth, part of the story that early modern philosophes told in order to advance their socio-political agendas. It is easy to understand from a psychological point of view why adherents of a particular worldview would like to claim the prestige of being 'scientific', given science's enormous instrumental success and its connotations of being objective, universal and (relatively) certain knowledge. But despite atheist materialism's rhetoric the truth is that this materialism did not gain any further legitimacy due to the advance of science than it already had, and too many failed metaphysics (such as Comte's 'religion of humanity', eugenics, Marxism, etc.) have claimed the title of 'scientific' for that boast to be taken seriously, at least without a lot of detailed historical and philosophical argumentation.

But this commitment also implies eschewing the simplistic, evasive and/or triumphalist rhetoric of some believers. History shows that while conflict between science and religion was not inevitable, nevertheless it did break out on occasion. Whenever believers of any traditional affiliation make empirical claims (for example, by predicting the exact date when Christ will return to Earth or arguing that the Universe is only 6,000 years old) they expose themselves to the possibility of being proven wrong. The advance of empirical science CAN make certain worldviews seem increasingly implausible. It's no wonder that ancient Greek religion, for example, with its insistence that the gods lived on Mount Olympus is no longer a live option, because anyone can go up to the summit and see that there is no temple, no dwelling place of the immortals (arguably this is not an instance of empirical science per se rendering such beliefs implausible, because it is simply a matter of observation; this only shows how difficult it is to demarcate science from other human intellectual activity, as we will see).

Nevertheless, in this brief essay I want to argue that there is no genuine conflict whatsoever between empirical science and a properly nuanced Christian theism, where by genuine conflict I mean a tension that makes adherence to both at the same time rationally impermissible or even suspect. On the contrary, I find a very fruitful and satisfying consilience between them and both contribute immensely to my overall worldview. To accomplish this I will examine the different levels of interaction at which conflict is alleged to arise and show that in each case the conflict is either 1) real but not very momentous, 2) real but based on a conflict at a metaphysical rather than scientific level or 3) illusory, the product of misleading rhetoric from one side or the other.

There are two main levels at which science and theology can come into conflict: the level of content and the level of method. We'll examine each in turn, focusing on content issues in this post.

It seems pretty clear that particular facts or theories of science can directly conflict with particular religious beliefs about the world. For example, our best science shows the age of the Universe to vastly exceed 6,000 years. For anyone who believes, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible, that the Universe is 6,000 years old, there is a direct conflict between their religious beliefs and our best science. What should be noted here is that this kind of conflict, while real, is of little significance for most believers, because a belief about the exact age of the Earth is peripheral in their web of belief, not central. There are few sophisticated believers who will say that, if the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, our faith is in vain. The same arguably goes for a great many other particular empirical facts, like the historicity of Adam and Eve, the exact mechanism of cloud formation or the shape of the Earth. What we often find in these cases of direct empirical conflict is that Christians (and Israelites or other peoples before them) have unconsciously assimilated the understanding of their immediate cultural environment to their theology. So if the author of Genesis 1 understood the heavens to be a literally solid 'vault', with holes in it to let light through being the sun, moon and stars (as Baruch Halpern argues), that was just the cultural framework from which he gave expression to his belief that God was the creator and orderer of all things, just as Christians today can express the same beliefs in the context of modern cosmology.

The upshot is that central theological affirmations, such as belief in God as creator of heaven and earth, have a very tenuous connection to specific empirical facts: it is very hard to specify which exact set of empirical facts would be compatible or incompatible with that affirmation. For example, some Christians think the multiverse hypothesis is clearly inconsistent with divine creation (see William Dembski, The End of Christianity, pp.32-33), while others think it provides a remarkable illustration and confirmation of divine plenitude and generosity (see Nancey Murphy and Robin Collins). It is not at all clear that the doctrine of human beings made in the image of God demands a particular metaphysical conception of human nature (such as dualism). But in this Christian theology does not differ from any other metaphysic, including physicalism, which has a notorious problem with defining what it means by 'the physical' in giving particular content to its worldview and how it relates to current or future science (known as Hempel's dilemma). Problems like these have led many philosophers to propose that the facts of empirical science underdetermine the range of metaphysical views compatible with it. As Eric Reitan puts it,

"The deeper question [in the science-religion discussion] is whether scientific discovery speaks to a particular metaphysics--whether what we now know about the empirical world tells us that a naturalistic/materialistic metaphysics is the most plausible one. Here, the historical fact that naturalism has emerged alongside science is insufficient. The methodolical naturalism of science--the focus on looking for naturalistic explanations for empirical phenomena--might slide readily into a metaphysical naturalism, but the explanation would be psychological rather than logical."

To illustrate the complex interplay between empirical science and metaphysics, consider another, more serious case of conflict between science and theology: the alleged impossibility of divine action (or even mind-body interaction in the case of substance dualism) due to its conflict with our understanding of the laws of nature. The claim is not just that divine action would be unusual in the context of our perception of the regularity of nature; it is that we have knowledge of certain universal laws that absolutely define the range of possible behavior of matter, and exclude the deliberate action of a divine agent. One formulation of this claim involves the principle of conservation of energy. If energy cannot be created or destroyed, how can God act in the physical world without violating this law in such a way that we could detect it empirically? The problem, however, is that a universal interpretation of the law of conservation of energy goes well beyond what empirical science tells us. COE is an example of a symmetry or invariance principle that places constraints on acceptable physical theories. The great theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner argued that "the spatiotemporal invariance principles play the role of a prerequisite for the very possibility of discovering the laws of nature." However, as Brading and Castellani point out, "Wigner's starting point...does not imply exact symmetries — all that is needed epistemologically is that the global symmetries hold approximately, for suitable spatiotemporal regions, such that there is sufficient stability and regularity in the events for the laws of nature to be discovered." Similarly, Robert Bishop argues that the causal closure of the physical-which states roughly that physical events have their chances of occurence fixed by purely physical causes-is at best a typicality condition of modern physics, which tells us what happens in the absence of any non-physical influences.

Thus a Christian can perfectly well affirm the regularity of nature as described by science which accounts for its spectacular instrumental success (and which is also affirmed on theological grounds, as in Matt 5:45: "For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.") without thereby being committed to an understanding the laws of nature that excludes the possibility of miracles. One intruiging possibility for conceiving of miracles in the context of modern science arises by analogy with the relation between Newtonian and relativistic mechanics. Just as the former holds approximately in a certain range of conditions (namely where objects are neither very massive or moving very fast), so we can understand the laws of nature that we have so far discovered as holding approximately, to the best of our knowledge, in a certain range of conditions, while the true order of the world, which is divine, includes those laws as a subset of the more comprehensive order God has established to accomplish His will.

Of course some believers will insist that a larger set of empirical facts is necessary for the plausibility of Christian belief, perhaps including the historicity of Adam, the fall of Jericho and others. For those believers, the undermining of those facts by historical investigation will cause cognitive dissonance and strain their plausibility structures. But it is worth pointing out that these problems are a result, not strictly of empirical scientific investigation into the structure of the world (except in a few cases like the age of the Earth), but of application of more general investigative principles. It is considerations like these that Philip Kitcher has in mind when he argues that the conflict between science and religion arises not primarily due to difficulties in one isolated area of investigation, but as a result of investigations in a wide range of fields, including natural science, biblical studies, comparative religion, etc. (see his essay 'The Many-Sided Conflict Between Science and Religion' in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, pp. 266-282, and his recent book Living With Darwin; for a critical review of the latter, see here) This is not so much a conflict between theology and empirical science as a (potential) conflict between a Christian worldview and the totality of evidence from human experience. Of course, the latter is the BIG question on which the rationality of Christian belief hinges. But a simple appeal to natural science is not enough to substantiate Kitcher's challenge. What's more, as long as the set of empirical facts necessary for the plausibility of Christian belief is controversial even among Christians themselves, it is hard to see how one can argue that theology and science are incompatible at the level of content. The central points of empirical contention, such as the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, are the same as they always have been. Modern science did nothing to change the terms of that debate, unless to contribute dubious hallucination hypotheses for the use of hyper-critical bible scholars.


Unknown said…
I look forward to part 2!

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