"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, November 27, 2006

Science and religion: the latest skirmishes

Last weekend, Dr. Scott Carson posted on the most recent updates from the battlefield. Usefully, he points us to a few solid refutations of Richard Dawkins' standard rants against religion. Their authors have it rather easy, I'm afraid. Just as Andrew Greeley is a presumptively celibate priest who appears to have had no unpublished sexual thoughts, so Dawkins and his ilk will publicly spew whatever they feel about the Great Enemy as if they were actually authorities on the subject. One can hardly avoid noticing that they've gotten almost hysterical of late, both causing and signifying a certain degradation of thought that can only work to the advantage of philosophically trained theists. Yet, and more generally, the skirmish that most interests me is not the clash of the biblical fundamentalists and the scientistic extremists; that is a tiresome sideshow for most philosophers. To me, the important debate is over how the relationship between natural science and religious belief should be conceived in the first place. I think Scott lowballs that one a bit too much.

Last summer I read two recently published books by theists on that relationship: The Language of God by Francis Collins, lead scientist of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical (not: fundamentalist) Christian; and Is Nature Enough? by John Haught, the Landegger Distinguished Research Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, who has made a long career of this very topic. While the two men obviously come from quite different intellectual backgrounds and thus bring somewhat different agendas to the table, they do have a few key points in common. While science by itself can present no evidence in favor of religious belief, and indeed does present evidence against certain particular religious beliefs, its methodology leaves untouched the basic human questions to which religions typically offer answers. So, while "creationism" is decidedly not science, the philosophical gates remain wide open for scientists to be theists. In that vein, Collins and Haught argue to the effect that, when nested within a non-fundamentalist religious worldview, strictly scientific discoveries can actually help to reveal the mind of God. All that is rather familiar and congenial to certain philosophically trained theists, a group within which Catholics form the largest subset. But for some reason, Scott won't even go that far.

He writes:

For someone who has a great deal of interest in science and a great deal of interest in religion, I have remarkably little interest in that domain of inquiry sometimes called "the intersection of science and religion". I myself do not see that they overlap all that much, except in the rather trivial sense that all knowledge, whether scientific or otherwise, is subsidiary to our knowledge of the good, which is God.

Now if that means that the respective methods by which science and religion can present truth are largely incommensurable, I cannot but agree. Ditto for Collins and Haught; indeed, that very incommensurability is essential to Haught's larger thesis. But the larger debate is not merely about epistemology. If classical theism is true, then the subject matter of natural science is what God has created, or at least that part of God's creation which we can observe. Hence, both natural and revealed theology can and should take account of what science tells us about the observable universe. That's exactly why Aristotle thought of "theology"—i.e., God-talk—as a branch of "metaphysics"—i.e., that kind of inquiry which comes "after" physics and to some extent relies on physics.

To be sure, philosophical and theological conclusions reached thereby must always be provisional, inasmuch as the theories of natural science itself are always open to revision. When theologians forget that, the result is often the sad but amusing spectacle of believers watering down their faith in light of scientific theories that have been superseded by the progress of science itself. The most egregious example of that is how theologians started working physical determinism into their thought as a premise precisely when quantum mechanics was relativizing, if not altogether discrediting, a determinism that Newtonian mechanics had made long fashionable among non-believers. But such errors needn't be made and are by no means always made. So the question what science can help us to know about the mind of God is at least worth exploration by theologians and theistic philosophers.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Common Doctor of the Church, thought the same and wrote accordingly. He wasn't always right, of course; science progresses, and so must philosophizing and theologizing that uses scientific ideas as subject matter. But even when we have to modify our thoughts, that's s no reason not to have developed them.
blog comments powered by Disqus