Saturday, December 17, 2011

Science and Theology (1)

         We live in but one world.  Science and theology are united in that they both seek to understand that one world and to explain it.  They do so according to their own respective method (or methods) of knowing.  In that sense, both science and theology are a hermeneutic, or a way of interpreting, the world around us.  Because we have but one world to interpret, and not a scientific universe along side a theological universe, only one full and correct answer exists for any well-formed question relating to it.  A well-formed question is one that seeks, and helps to make possible, an answer that is both full (that is, comprehensive) and true (that is, accurate). The answer to a well-conceived question, whatever that answer might be, is correct because it comports fully with reality.  Answers that do not comport fully with reality are at least partly inadequate, if not flatly wrong.  An ill-formed question is one that makes comprehensive and accurate answers not only more difficult to find than they need to be, but might actually make them impossible, as do modern scientific questions, which seek only the material causes to physical phenomena.   But as Aristotle observed long ago, the one who would succeed in any intellectual pursuit must ask the right preliminary questions.  Questions arising from metaphysical materialism are “the right preliminary questions” only if matter is all that is, or only if matter is all that matters, two propositions that cannot be demonstrated, indeed that are patently false.
         The instances where scientists and theologians agree in their description of that one reality which we all inhabit are many and varied.  But they are not my concern.  Rather, I intend to focus attention on those places (they too are numerous) where scientists and theologians diverge.  I do so in order to offer some guidance on adjudicating between the respective truth claims of science and theology and in order to reduce the scope of their future disagreement, as well as its attendant animosity.  In the process, I intend to direct my criticisms primarily toward the scientists rather than the theologians.  I do so precisely because I am not a scientist.  That is, if scientists are to be undeceived about their own shortcomings or blindspots it probably will be because someone who did not share those blindspots was able to point them out.  That is my intention:  I want to suggest to the scientists that, at least to some outsiders, they sometimes appear narrowly informed, unteachable, and as dogmatic as any ecclesiastical or political inquisition could ever hope to be.  I leave it to others to identify for the theologians just what the theologians cannot see and where they fail.  Because I do not wish to hold the reader in suspense, much less to be vague or disingenuous, I tell you now that I think much of the adjustment and retrenchment in the sometimes heated dialogue between scientists and theologians needs to be done by the scientists, and that much of the error and unteachability in this dialogue seems to circle around the laboratory and not the seminary.  The burden of this essay, therefore, is to explain why I think as I do.  I offer but four observations, observations that are, at the same time, both caveats and pleas.
         First, the history of both science and theology as intellectual disciplines tends to make me significantly more skeptical about the allegedly secure answers offered by the scientists than I am about those offered by the theologians.  That is, science seems a far more fickle pursuit than theology, especially when viewed over time.  While Christian orthodoxy seems to have remained stable over two millennia, and while the constant refinement of Christian tenets in the crucible of hard reality seems not to have required any fundamental reorientation in orthodoxy,1 the record of science is far different.  The constant testing of fundamental scientific beliefs has yielded a long series of significant reorientations, some so far reaching as to topple many, sometimes most, of the supporting pillars of any and every previous (and ardently held) scientific world view.  The post-Einsteinian world view is beginning to succeed the Einsteinian, which succeeded the Newtonian, which succeeded the Copernican, which succeeded the Ptolemaic, which succeeded I know not what.  What shall succeed the post-Einsteinian (and what shall succeed that) we can only guess.  If the history of science is a guide to its future, we can be confident something shall and that, whatever it is, it shall depart quite noticeably from its antecedents both near and far.  As Austin Farrer once wryly observed, cosmological theories have a short life nowadays.
         But not so the Apostles’ Creed, which, though it has grown over time, has never required anything resembling a fundamental overhaul, much less several.  Liberal theologians of every age (aided by the not inconsiderable efforts of non-Christian thinkers of all sorts) have tried to argue differently and have tried to put orthodoxy under siege.  But their dissenting and often idiosyncratic schools of thought themselves have proved transitory and have passed into deserved obscurity.  But not the creed.  In other words, theological orthodoxy, unlike its several scientific counterparts, has undergone centuries of analysis and assault and survived largely and widely intact.  Christian orthodoxy has successfully sustained meticulous scrutiny by both its friends and its enemies and yet has shown itself, and continues to show itself, sufficient to many of the most brilliant minds in history, even over a period of centuries, a claim no scientific explanation of reality can yet make.  The scientists in every age, I imagine, suppose they can escape, indeed suppose they have escaped, the fate of their predecessors.  They fancy they shall avoid being greatly transcended, though none has yet managed the trick.  The face of scientific orthodoxy seems to have a nose of wax. 
         The transitoriness of scientific speculation and the uniformity and staying power of theological orthodoxy often get hidden behind both the wide diversity of theological beliefs prevalent at any one moment in time, on the one hand, and the absence of many public indications of division within the scientific community, on the other.  Widespread theological disagreement seems obvious to the man on the street, who sees the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, and the Roman Catholic church all standing tall and serene on their respective street corners, their spires rising toward the heavens.  What the man on the street does not see is the underlying unity of the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Catholics (to name but a few).  He does not readily recognize their common belief in -- and devotion to -- the same God, the same Christ, the same creed, the same salvation.  Nor does the man on the street see the various schools of thought in science, which normally do not erect edifices of difference on tree-shaded side streets in every city and village in the free world.  He does not see hundreds, indeed thousands, of buildings (or television programs, for that matter), dedicated to Newtonian or Ptolemaic theories, standing next to the edifices of post-Einsteinianism.  Unlike their ecclesiastical counterparts, those Newtonian and Ptolemaic buildings were rarely ever built, and are not now being built, because the scientific world views they represent have been so fully overthrown that they are consigned almost entirely to the dustbin of history.  This is not to say that no valuable or enduring elements from within these systems have survived the collapse of the system from which they emerged; it does mean that those systems have been greatly and widely transcended. 
         Here is my point:  While a cross section of views at any one moment yields more agreement among the scientists of that age than among the theologians, a cross section taken over time yields the opposite result, and that result, I argue, is more significant because it reveals both the fundamental staying power of the theological interpretation of the world and the (to date) transitory nature of scientific speculation.  Science does not speak with one voice, especially over time.  That fact not withstanding, science still seems to me far less likely to take any cues2 from theology about in which direction to proceed than theology is to take advice from science, which might help explain the transitoriness of the one and the stability of the other.  So also might the fact that, unlike nature, God wills to be understood and actively reveals Himself to us. 
         We apparently are not near the end of scientific intellection, though we are closer now than when Aristotle or Galileo walked among us.  We do not know where the next grand turning in the road of scientific learning will lead us, or when it will come, any more than did Ptolemy, Newton, or Einstein.  We ought, as a result, to be far more hesitant than we have been to identify scientific results as final.  If you contend that scientists do not treat scientific results as final, I simply point to the theory of evolution, which gets treated almost universally not as theory but as established and unassailable fact requiring, at most, not proof, only further nuance.  The epigraph by Richard Dawkins, which heads this essay, is a telling case in point, and can be multiplied many thousands of times, both in print and in the classroom.  It seems to me, Dawkins’ arrogance aside, that we ought to be far more wary of Darwin and his hide-bound modern disciples than we now are, because even though those followers of Darwin now admit that Darwin was not entirely right, they too often refuse to admit that Darwin’s religious critics are not entirely wrong.  Or, to make the point from a different science, one of the positive effects of quantum theory on the dialogue between theology and science seems to be the increasing awareness we gain from it that virtually no physical or geometrical picture of scientific phenomena is wholly accurate, even though such notions or paradigms were (and still are) widely and enthusiastically set forth, whether as models or as heuristic devices.  We need to be more measured in the confidence we place in the scientist and in our estimate of what exactly the scientist has actually accomplished. 

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