A Reconcilable Conflict

A Reconcilable Conflict

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By: Benjamin Mora

A comment on “An Irreconcilable Conflict” (Winter 2012)

A viewpoint concocted and popularized by secular thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century was that science and religion are in inevitable conflict with one another; that there exists a sort of “warfare” between the two, in the words of Andrew D. White, 1986. Although this idea of warfare between science and religion remains widespread and popular, recent writings from historians and philosophers of science on the subject have undermined this concept of inevitable conflict. Far from an irreconcilable conflict between the two, over the last fifty years, there has existed a flourishing dialogue and alliance between science and religion. Since the 1960’s, science and religion has been studied as an academic discipline. In 1966, the first specialist journal was founded in Chicago, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. In the same year, the textbook Issues in Science and Religion by the British physicist and theologian Ian Barbour was published. Since then, numerous societies have arisen to promote this dialogue, including the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology, the Science and Religion Forum, the Berkeley Center for Theology and Natural Science, and so on. There are even established academic posts devoted specifically to the study of science and religion at both Oxford and Cambridge.

The thriving conversation over recent years between science and religion in academic journals and institutions should suggest to us that not all scientists who are religious are not genuine scientists, or have not sat down to think hard about the compatibility between the two. Indeed, there are top-ranking, practicing scientists who actively promote and discuss the interaction and synergy between their religious beliefs and science, including Francis Collins, noted for his leadership of the Human Genome Project; John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist and theologian at Cambridge; and John Lennox, professor of mathematics and science and religion at Oxford, just to name but a few. Surely these individuals, and scientists of a similar mindset, have thought very carefully about the relationship between science and religion, and failed to arrive at the conclusion of irreconcilable conflict and warfare. To underscore how science and religion can possibly harmoniously coexist, it would be worthwhile to briefly discuss the limits of science, potential models for integration between science and theology, and lastly, some philosophy of science.

Ever since the dawning of the scientific revolution, there have been scientists who have believed that science is the only paradigm of truth and rationality, and that if something does not line up with currently established scientific beliefs, if it is not within the domain of entities appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational. This method of thinking has been termed scientism, according to which, everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion. What is striking though is that the proposition that: some proposition or theory is true and rational to believe if and only if it is a scientific proposition or theory, is itself not a proposition of science, but a second-order proposition of philosophy about science, and is thus a self-refuting and nonsensical statement. One must realize that a self-refuting proposition (e.g. there are no truths) is not such that it happens to be false but could have been true, but rather is necessarily false, and it is impossible for it to be true. Furthermore, it can be easy to overlook the fact that science itself presupposes a number of non-scientific, substantive philosophical theses, which must be assumed if science is ever even to begin in the first place.

The conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions they rest on. Some of the philosophical presuppositions of science include: the existence of a theory-independent, external world; the orderly nature of the external world; the knowability of the external world; the existence of truth; the laws of logic; the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment; the adequacy of language to describe the world; the existence of values used in science (e.g. testing theories fairly and reporting results honestly); the uniformity of nature and induction; and the existence of numbers. Much more can be said here, but the point is there are legitimate domains of knowledge that must exist outside and independent of science. Without providing any reasons for thinking so, it can at least be said that it is possible that one such domain of knowledge that exists outside of science includes theology. But how exactly could science and religion understand and relate to one another?

A number of possible models exist for integrating science and theology: 1) they focus on two distinct, non-overlapping areas of investigation; 2) they involve two different, complementary approaches to and descriptions of the same reality from different perspectives; 3) science can fill out details in theology or help to apply theological principles and vice versa; 4) theology provides the metaphysical and epistemological foundation for science by justifying or, at least, helping to justify the necessary presuppositions of science; 5) science provides the boundaries within which theology must work; and 6) science and theology involve descriptions that can directly interact with each other in mutually reinforcing or competing ways. Evaluation of these models cannot here be discussed, but they are simply mentioned to highlight the numerous possibilities for interaction and discussion.

Lastly, it would be important to say a word about science, methodology and the supernatural. The goal of natural science is to explain contingent natural phenomena strictly in terms of other contingent natural phenomena. Scientific explanations should refer only to natural objects and events and not to the personal choices and actions of human and divine agents. In science, we should adopt methodological naturalism, according to which answers to questions are sought within nature, within the contingent created order. Philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, is the philosophical doctrine that the natural world is all there is and that God, angels and the like do not exist. Science presupposes methodological naturalism but not philosophical naturalism, and the two should not be confused. In the case of miracles, if one has good, rational reasons to believe that God(s) exist outside of the natural world, there is no reason why presuppositions of philosophical naturalism should exclude the possibility of supernatural intervention into the natural order.

The flourishing dialogue between science and religion in recent years is testimony to the fact that, far from being irreconcilably conflicted, these two domains of human knowledge can fruitfully interact. Let us not stifle free inquiry and thoughtful exploration, but encourage it.

Collins, Francis S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief. Simon and Schuster, 2007.
Dixon, Thomas. Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Kurtz, Paul, Barry Karr and Ranjit Sandhu. Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2003.
Lennox, John C. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? England: Lion, 2009.
Medawar, P B. The Limits of Science. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Moreland, J P and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.
Polkinghorne, John. Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. Yale University Press, 2011.