Building Bridges and Burning Down Myths

Richardson and Wildman - Religion and Science History Method DialogueIn their highly stimulating and engrossing book, W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman’s (eds.) Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue (1996), offer an interdisciplinary approach to “building bridges” between religion and science. The various sections of the book correspond to three major kinds of inquiry: historical studies, methodological analyses, and substantive dialogue. Each section provides essays written by many notable scholars, including John Hedley Brooke, Claude Welch, Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, among others.

Beginning in Part 1 with essays on the history of the relationship between religion and science, John Hedley Brooke’s “Science and Theology in the Enlightenment” challenges the assumptions that theology was rebuffed by the emerging epistemology and method of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, in many ways theology remained resilient, particularly in the form of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802). Brooke writes, “whether one referred to the exquisite, microscopic structures in living organisms that had so captivated Robert Boyle, the marvellous migratory instincts of birds that so impressed John Ray, or the elegant laws of nature that governed the Newtonian universe, there was a profound sense in which the sciences could reinforce arguments for design, thereby proving their utility against skeptical and atheistic philosophies that were commonly seen as subversive of a stable society.”

But in “meeting their rationalist critics on their own ground,” Brooke observes, “Christian apologists were almost unwittingly sacrificing what was distinctive in their understanding of God.” As Blaise Pascal warned, “those who sought God apart from Christ, who went no further than nature, would fall into atheism or deism.” Brooke cites Michael J. Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987) in support of his claim that “a Christian apologia reduced to the argument from design was easy prey to the alternative metaphysics of Lucretius: was not the appearance of design surely illusory, reflecting the simple fact that defective combinations of matter had not survived?” “Atheism takes its meaning from the particular form of theism it rejects. So to understand the origins of modern atheism it is no good looking at the history of atheism.” Rather, “it is essential to examine the history of theism.” Arguments for a personal God based on impersonal forces of nature became one of the chief reasons for the rise of modern atheism. The take away from Brooke’s essay is that “if the bridged built by physico-theologians eventually collapsed, it was not simply that they were undermined by science. It was rather that a greater burden had been placed on the sciences than they could support.”

In the following essay, “Dispelling Some Myths about the Split Between Theology and Science in the Nineteenth Century,” Claude Welch begins by recalling the popular “warfare” model between science and religion, exemplified by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Both authors, Welch claims, were partly responding to Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which included the “error” of “supposing that the Pope ought to reconcile himself ‘with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization.'” And in both authors, “biblical criticism gets more attention than does evolutionary theory.” For instance, in his concluding chapter of Volume II of his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, White extols higher criticism as opening “treasures of thought which have been inaccessible to theologians for two thousand years,” and has led to “the conceptions of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all.” According to Welch, White’s comments are “remarkably similar to what many liberal theologians were saying in response to evolutionary theory and to biblical criticism.”

But recent work has demolished the metaphor of warfare as an historical interpretation. If we want real instances of warfare, Welch argues, we need only to observe “Comte’s positivism, or of the emergence of a radical materialistic monism particularly in Germany in the 1850s” found in such writers as Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899), Jacob Moleschott (1822-1893), and Karl Vogt (1817-1895). “These latter three,” writes Welch, “seized upon Darwin to further an anti-Christian agenda they had already developed.” This antagonism is expressed even more fully in the writings of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), “who undertook in the 1860s to convert Germany to Darwinism”; in his hands “Darwinism could become a symbol of antireligion for reasons that had little to do with evolution.”

What was happening in the nineteenth century was the theological accommodation (read: capitulation) to new “scientific” conceptions, particularly in geology and biology. This accommodation took the form of “mediating” theologies, which entailed a spirit of liberal open-mindedness, of tolerance and humility, of devotion to “truth” wherever it might be found. It was also the abandonment of cherished religious notions. Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre (1821) argued that the “doctrine of creation has no particular interest in a point of origination,” that “the idea of the Fall has no reference to an event in early history.” What is more, the popular “preoccupation with an afterlife was countered by the emergence of ‘secular societies,'” greatly weakening the idea of Hell and Damnation and Providence.

Thus the foundations had already been set for the reception of Draper and White. “The work of Draper and White…caught the popular mind of the late nineteenth century, not because of the intrinsic soundness of their arguments, but because of the real growing secularization of the European (and American) mind in the nineteenth century…never mind whether religion and science were really in conflict; they were increasingly thought to be in conflict.”

Wesley J. Wildman’s essay, “The Quest for Harmony: An Interpretation of Contemporary Theology and Science,” sees the interaction between science and religion within modernity as exhibiting an awkward tension that is indicative of a deeper cultural crisis, one evolving out of a failure of human beings to converge and unify the spiritual, ethical, intellectual, and social aspects of their being. “A promising starting point,” he says, “is the awareness that the root cause of the problematic character of modern Western culture is a profound confusion, a schizophrenic uncertainty, about how to be in the world.”

The interaction between science and religion is an informative example. The popular narrative, a tale told and retold both in schools and the media, recounts how

Christian theologians have duped the West to protect their own sacred narratives: first, theology insisted that certain things were true of the world; next, science discovered that these beliefs were false; and then, theology resisted this new [or “true”] knowledge, until finally it was forced to give up its false claims about the world, one by one.

This is a popular story. But it also happens to be completely “dissociated from reality.” And yet like most stories and legends, “the symbolic value of the story is the reason it was and is so infamous, rather than its fidelity to facts.”

The last essay in Part 1 comes from Holmes Rolston III, “Science, Religion, and the Future,” who argues that both science and theology are indispensable human institutions: that is, they need each other. While “science seeks to understand the world,”  it needs religion to keep it humane, it “pushes science toward questions of ultimacy, as well as value, and it can keep science from being blinkered, or…religion can keep science deep.”

According to Rolston, recent developments in the sciences offers hope of a more congenial relation with religion. Astrophysics and nuclear physics, for example, are describing a universe “fine-tuned” for stars, planets, life, and mind; evolutionary and molecular biology shows increasing signs of tremendous order in the organization of life: “that order represents something more than physics and chemistry; it is superimposed information.”

For all the advances in our scientific age, problems remain as acute as ever. To solve problems of justice—of overpopulation, overconsumption, and underdistribution—science is necessary; “but science is not sufficient without conscience that shapes and uses to which science is put.” “Science and religion,” Rolston argues, “must face together the impending disaster of today’s trends projected cumulatively into tomorrow: population explosion, dwindling food supply, climate change, soil erosion and drought, deforestation, desertification, declining reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources, toxic wastes, the growing gap between concentrated wealth and increasing poverty, and the militarism, nationalism, and industrialism that seek to keep the systems of exploitation in place.”

This dialogue between religion and science is exemplified in Part 3 of this book, where six case studies seek to demonstrate constructive interactions between science and theology. Noteworthy features of these studies are their wide range of diverse approaches to theological, philosophical, and methodological issues, incorporating what was discussed in earlier chapters. The studies include such topics as “cosmology and creation,” “Chaos theory and divine action,” “quantum complementarity and Christology,” “information theory and revelation,” “molecular biology and human freedom,” and “social genetics and religious ethics.” Written by astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory William R. Stoeger, professor of theology and science Robert John Russell, scientist at the Standford Linear Accelerator Karl Young, professor of mathematical physics John Polkinghorne, professor of philosophy Edward MacKinnon, professor of philosophy of education James E. Loder and associate professor of physics W. Jim Neidhardt, professor of historical and systematic theology Christopher B. Kaiser, Head of Mathmatics John C. Puddefoot, theologian and biochemist Arthuer Peacocke, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology R. David Cole, assistant professor of philosophical theology W. Mark Richardson, professor of anthropology William Irons, and professor of systematic theology Philip Hefner, Part 3 explores the complex interface between science and religion in today’s world.

Part 2 of the book brings us into questions of shared methodologies between theology and science. Constructed as two round discussions involving four perspectives, this set of chapters include arguments from Nicholas Wolterstorff, Nancey Murphy, Mary Gerhart and Allan Melvin Russell, and Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp. Our main concern here is the essay by reformed epistemologist Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theology and Science: Listening to Each other.”

Wolterstorff introduces his essay by noting that the most powerful and profound interpretation of modernity is that of German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920). According to Weber, the essence of modernity lies in the emergence of differentiated action spheres in the domain of society and differentiated value spheres in the domain of culture, and then the spread of rationalization within these spheres. “The characteristically modern person is the one who discards both tradition and affect as determiners of action, and instead engages in rational calculation of means and rational appraisal of values before acting.”

How did the modern person come about? He emerged when the world was treated as disenchanted. “Once upon a time,” writes Wolterstorff, “in the days of primitive religion, humanity lived in an ‘enchanted garden’—a magical garden.” No longer. Modern man has “left the magic garden.” A necessary condition of modern man, says Weber, is disenchantment. “This grand sweep, from the enchanted gardens of primitive religion, to the progressively disenchanting world religions, to the disenchanted world of our differentiated modernized societies and cultures, represents the disappearance of religion from the human scene.” Religion, therefore, and according to Weber, is civilization’s irrational remnant from a primitive past.

Wolterstorff argues that Weber reflects “the Enlightenment understanding of science and its relation to religion—an understanding which has come crashing down in the last quarter century.” Enlightenment thinkers perpetuated convictions first set out in the Middle Ages, where scientific knowledge must begin from “what is evident, either to oneself or to someone else, and then proceed to construct deductive arguments.” Science, in other words, is the conclusions of demonstrative arguments.

Thus “before entering the halls of science, we are to shed all our particularities—our particular social locations, our particular genders, our particular religions, our particular races, our particular nationalities—and enter those halls with just our humanity.” This is the foundationalist picture of science. In his Reason within the Bounds of Religion (1976, 1999), Wolterstorff sums up foundationalism in three principles:

(1) A person is warranted in accepting a theory at a certain time if and only if he is then warranted in believing that that theory belongs to genuine science (scientia).
(2) A theory belongs to genuine science if and only if it is justified by some foundational proposition and some human being could know with certitude that it is thus justified.
(3) A proposition is foundational if and only if it is true and some human being could know noninferentially and with certitude that it is true.

Foundationalism presupposes that there are some certitudes which form a foundation upon which a (scientific) theory can be built using methods of inference (demonstration) which are most certainly reliable. According to this view foundational certitudes can be known noninferentially (not inferred from other propositions). That is, these are things that can be known for certain without knowledge of this certainty being derived from something else. That is, the certainty of these things is self-evident.

Foundationalism holds that scientific theory is deducible from the foundation. Deductivism, however, has virtually collapsed because many theories that seemingly warrant acceptance are not deducible from any foundation. Given the untenability of deductivism, some foundationalists have resorted to probabilism. But probabilism assumes an uniformity of nature. The conclusion is only justified if nature is uniform. But it is impossible to say with any certainty that nature is uniform. One might argue that it is probably uniform, but then we are now using an inductive argument to justify the very principle which we need in order to justify an inductive argument. That is, we still lack a justification for induction. Which theory than belongs to genuine science? There are many acceptable theories, but few of them are provable with respect to foundationalism and none of them are probable with respect to foundation. In fact, Wolterstorff argues, there are no foundational propositions, that is, no propositions that we can know noninferentially and with certitude to be true.

Foundationalism has indeed failed, and has “all but disappeared from that part of the academy which is acquainted with developments in philosophy of science.” How are we then to view  science as nonfoundationalist in character?

When it comes to devising and weighing theories in science, Wolterstorff recommends a triple distinction between data, theory, and control beliefs. Data and theory are understood to be self-explanatory. Control beliefs, on the other hand, requires further explanation. “When engaging in science,” Wolterstorff explains, “we operate with certain convictions as to the sorts of theories that we will find acceptable. Control beliefs are of many different sorts. Sometimes they take the form of methodological convictions…sometimes they take the form of ontological convictions.” In other words, control beliefs are those beliefs which the scholar uses in weighing a theory and assessing whether it constitutes an acceptable sort of theory on the matter under consideration. Control beliefs will cause us to reject some theories because they are inconsistent with those beliefs. They will also lead us to devise theories, since we desire to have theories that are consistent with our control beliefs.

In cases of perceived conflict between data, theory, and control beliefs, the conflict is eliminated through a process of “equilibrium,” which is achieved by making revisions in one of the three—if not all of the three. “Most of the deep conflicts between science and religion,” writes Wolterstorff, “occur at the control-belief level.”

Wolterstorff concludes by emphasizing three important points. First, “the Christian faith is such and the theoretical disciplines are such that we must expect conflict—disequilibrium—to emerge repeatedly.”  This is because Christianity and Western theorizing constantly “overlap in their concerns.” The idea that religion and science operate in separate spheres is “just one proposal, and an extremely radical one at that, for the recovery of equilibrium.”

This ongoing struggle may require revisions either to Christian belief (which has been the case) or in how we understand science (which has been the case). The tendency to affirm scientific authority over religious authority in cases of conflict ignores the implicit—and indeed sometimes explicit—control beliefs within scientific theorizing.

And finally, the results of theorizing, and most unambiguously in the social sciences and humanities, are often militated against Christian conviction. But according to Wolterstorff, “theorizing in general is far indeed from being a religiously neutral endeavor.” We cannot leave our particular social locations, our particular genders, our particular religions, our particular races, or our particular nationalities, in the “narthex as we enter the halls of science.” Rather, with different particularities, we shall have to engage in the dialogue of theorizing, aiming for equilibrium as an outcome.


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