Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: Part 3
As Coyne describes it (see Part 2), integration will not do as a way of harmonizing science and religion. Although integration seems to be the dominant model in science-religion discussions, this isn’t what we typically mean by reconciliation. In relational terms, reconciliation is something two conversation partners do attempting to come to a mutual understanding about some subject or problem they’re discussing. It takes sincere effort for me to listen to you, to come to understand your point of view, reflect on what that has to say to me and the way I see things, sort through my misunderstandings of your view, get clearer on my view and concerns, and so forth (and likewise for you to do so for me). Reconciliation is a much more demanding task than integration because it means an ongoing conversation between us and the unpredictability of how that ongoing conversation may affect each of us and our view of things.
This kind of reconciliation often isn’t done well. We see this in partners who let their own pride or needs get in the way of genuinely listening to and being affected by what the other is saying. In the science-religion discussions neither the creationist nor ID advocates, nor militant atheists like Dawkins do this very well. All of these folks seem to be too scared of what they might have to give up in terms of their own identities at least as much as their worries about what’s at stake for science or faith. However, the existence of several disingenuous conversation partners doesn’t prove that reconciliation is impossible. Rather, all it shows is that there are lots of people who are not up to the rigors of reconciliation and prefer to take easy or stubborn ways out.
Also just like there are tensions in relationships between people who are constantly growing in how to live with each other, there will be tensions between fields of knowledge that are growing in how to live with each other on their areas of overlap. Complete agreement is usually not the goal in reconciliation nor is it necessarily a realistic or healthy goal in a relationship (this is another way in which the integration model is deficient: It presupposes complete agreement among the two parties else the integration fails–think of a partially integrated circuit).
Imagine that Coyne and I engage in genuine conversation about science and Christianity. I try to understand more fully his view that there is no God at work in nature and that science has no need of countenancing a being who is neither necessary for scientific practices nor observable by scientific methods. He tries to understand my view that God is at work through natural processes so that everything that happens in nature is both fully natural and fully Divine (concurrence), and how that leaves everything in the theoretical and experimental practices of science unchanged from how we’ve conceived them since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution (in short, this is because the natural processes science studies are God’s typical mode of mediated action in creation). I get clearer on his worries about what he perceives as a threat to scientific explanations if there is a God who has the power to circumvent natural processes and their regularities. Coyne gets clearer on why the picture of concurrence doesn’t offer theological explanation as an alternative to science, but instead offers a theological interpretation of science.
In genuine dialogue where we are open to each other’s views and concerns, there is no way to predict the outcome of our conversations (the outcome is fully predictable if we both are determined to maintain our views no matter what). There is no guarantee that we will eventually come to agree on every point at issue. There is every likelihood, however, that we will both come away changed by genuinely listening to each other and seeking mutual understanding.
The historical proof that science and Christianity aren’t fundamentally incompatible is the Scientific Revolution itself. Its architects were both methodologically and theologically serious and were theistically rather than deistically inclined (deism in the European tradition arose in the 18th century). They saw no fundamental inconsistency between science (or reason) and a God who could intervene in the world if God so desired (e.g., Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton). Among their debates were three closely interlocking sets of questions: (1) In what way, if any, should the laws of nature be regarded as necessary? (2) What role does God play in ordaining laws and governing the world? (3) Is it possible for the laws of nature to be discovered otherwise than through observation and experiment? Since Descartes and others who formulated our modern notion of laws of nature grounded such laws in the idea of God as Divine Lawgiver, these three questions were naturally connected for them. Dialogue and critical reflection on these questions led to further refinements in our understanding of laws of nature as well as of God’s relationship to and activity in creation.
A more contemporary example can be found in 20th century debates about cosmology. In 1918, the astronomer William Duncan MacMillan was one of the first to introduce a steady-state model of the cosmos, where matter was continually being created and there was no temporal beginning to the universe. In the 1920s, Nobel laureate and physicist Robert Millikan followed suit. Their primary motivation for pursuing the steady-state model was to save the universe from the so-called heat death, where life would become impossible. As Christians, both MacMillan and Millikan believed one of God’s purposes in creation was for it to be populated with life.
On the other hand, mathematician and physicist Edmund Whittaker argued that Christianity was most consistent with a big-bang model of the cosmological history of the universe, where the universe had a sudden temporal beginning. In The Nature of the Universe, published in 1950, astronomer Fred Hoyle explicitly drew a connection between atheism and the steady-state model, on the one hand, and theism and the big-bang model on the other. Atheistic commitments were among the set of Hoyle’s reasons why the steady-state model was the best explanation of the cosmological history of the universe. Indeed, he feared that the big-bang model implied a “first miracle” requiring a creator (given the use some of his interlocutors made of big-bang cosmology, his fears were well founded).
The result of these conversations back and forth between science and religion–which did not take place in the professional journals–was not that religious faith settled the debate between these two models, nor that Christianity and cosmology should be separated from each other. Rather, these conversations clarified the extent to which many scientists saw religious reasons as playing a positive role in favor of adopting their preferred cosmological models as well as furthering serious reflection on the extent of God’s active role in the origin and history of the universe.
The examples of conversations I’ve cited were science promoters rather than science stoppers. The various interlocutors did not always see eye-to-eye on a number of details, but, then, they were not pursuing an “integration model.” The reconciliation they were experiencing looked much more like the kind we usually seek through conversation and relationship with all the deftness and foibles, joys and frustrations to which we are accustomed in such endeavors. Mutual understanding was fostered to some degree. As well, some of the interlocutors gained further insight and understanding into the nature of laws, the history of the cosmos and the relationship of God to the universe.
Reconciliation in human relationships involves both mutual understanding as well as achieving greater understanding about our point of mutual engagement and our related concerns. Integration suggests that once a harmonization has been achieved, it’s fixed for all time (after all, the integrated circuits in your computer aren’t constantly adjusting themselves). In contrast, relationships are ongoing conversations that never reach a fixed point. So again, integration fundamentally distorts the notion of a relationship between two people or two fields of knowledge. As long as Coyne and so many others continue to view the relationship between science and religion as a matter of integration rather than the reconciliation characteristic of actual relationships, acrimony will continue and we’ll miss out on the reconciliation science and faith already have in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20).
Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.