Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: Part 3

Bookmark and Share

May 19, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Robert C. Bishop. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >


Share your thoughts

Have a comment or question for the author? We'd love to hear from you.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 1   1
Alan Fox - #61436

May 19th 2011

I don’t know if Robert Bishop has read this thread at Jerry Coyne’s blog?



Roger A. Sawtelle - #61441

May 19th 2011

It appears to me that the problem with scientism is not based on disagreement, but on world view.  Dawkins and company advocate a monistic world view, Reality is only physical, made up of metter and energy.  This obviously precludes the existence of God.

The traditional western world view is dualistic, generally characterized by mind/body dualism.  Dualism, whether mind/body or natural/supernatural is getting harder and harder to justify, and so is Monism.  A third possiblity is needed.

Integration makes sense to a monist, because there is only one basis for reality.  Reconciliation does does not make much sense for a dualist either, because something must be one or the other, Black or White.  Again a third option is needed.  

It eppears to me that this issue indicates that the problem is much deeper than a disagreement oever how nature works.  This is a disagreement over the character of reality and life itself and the two traditional answers, Monism (either physical or non-physical) and Dualism do not work.  Thus the only way to resolve the issue is to create a new answer to the question, What is reality? 


Alan Fox - #61450

May 19th 2011

Why not just peaceful coexistence, Roger? 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61458

May 19th 2011

Alan,

I have no problem per se with peaceful coexistence.  However living a slogan is not easy as the Soviets and the US found.  

Also we all need to go beyond coexistence to work on the problems that confront the world as a whole. 


Steve Ruble - #61537

May 22nd 2011

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.

What you’re missing, I suspect, is that Coyne and many others (including myself) see the purpose of science as integration, period. Science is, at the highest level, the attempt to integrate all empirical observations into the smallest possible number of consistent theories which explain past observations and predict future observations. The smallest possible number of consistent theories may turn out to be very large indeed (given the many different domains in which empirical observations can occur) but when two theories cannot be integrated along their points of contact, that’s taken as a sign that one or both of the theories is in some way flawed, and scientists begin to investigate what changes need to be made to permit an integration.


This is certainly observable at one contact point between religion and science: theories about the origins of life on Earth. Religions - or large bodies of religious people - have held certain theories for millenia, and after the advent of science, scientists attempted to integrate those theories into the general body of scientific knowledge, as well as checking those theories against the available evidence. As you probably know, those theories have failed, and have been (we might say) dis-integrated. Now, some religious groups (e.g., BioLogos) are attempting to reconcile their doctrines with science… but the days when science - or scientists - thought it was necessary to reconcile their theories with religious doctrines are over.

DanB - #61730

May 27th 2011

Where is the point of contact with regard to “

theories about the origins
of life on Earth”?

While I have seen ideas on how life first originated I have never seen a scientist actually give a real theory - ie something based on actual evidence and that is testable.  As far as I know, science doesn’t know how life first originated, where it originated (some ideas are it started elsewhere and was carried here by meteorites, or what mechanisms brought it about. 

I am therefore confused at what the contact point between science and religion is on this.  Maybe you can clarify what you meant.


sinz54 - #62642

June 15th 2011

“...the days when science - or scientists - thought it was necessary to reconcile their theories with religious doctrines are over.”

Why is that, I wonder?

Some scientists, like Ken Miller, are still devoting considerable thought to that issue.  And why not?  One’s philosophy of life is rarely arrived at empirically.  So you come to science with certain beliefs you may have had all your life, and then you wonder about those beliefs in light of scientific knowledge you learn.

Is it simply that a far greater percentage of scientists today are unbelievers, compared with any past century?

I happen to believe that’s the case—atheism is far more prevalent among scientists (particularly cosmologists and biologists) than in any past century.

Which came first in that case—the atheism or the scientist’s work—would be worth analyzing.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61541

May 22nd 2011

Steve,

It seems to me that your basic statement is false, that Christianity had false assumptions that science has found to be false.  It seems to me that you are talking primarily about the understanding that the earth is the center of the universe.

This was the understanding of everyone, including what we would now call scientists.  Science changed concerning this issue and so did the understanding of everyone.  In fact there was no way of really knowing that the earth moved around the sun until the invention of the telescope and subsequent observations.     

No one is saying as far as I know that science should not try to “integrate all empirical observations into the smallest number of consistent theories.”  In fact I have been critical of Darwinian evolution because it clearly fails to do this very thing.  However I do think the problem is that some scientists claim that life is without meaning which cannot be empirically verified.

Many aspects of reality cannot be empirically verified, which means that they are not within the sphere on science.  This does not mean that they they do not exist or can be ignored.  We live by what we know, but also by what we think is good and right, which until science can empirically verify is based on faith.      


mmccants - #61774

May 28th 2011

“the Spiritual, which deals with purpose and meaning”

Why do you get to define your terms in this way?

Define “purpose”.  How does one observe “purpose”?  How does one infer “purpose”?  Why is such a thing called “spiritual”?  Define “spiritual”.

“Purpose and Meaning are the most difficult area of reality to define.”

Ok then.  Define “purpose”.  Define “meaning”.  How you you observe “meaning”?  How do you infer “meaning”?

“Purpose and meaning are next to impossible to empirically verify.”  Well, remove “empirically” and define “verify”.  Why should I accept any “meaning” that you propose?  Is your reality the same or different from my reality when it comes to “meaning”?

“but without them nothing exists”

That seems like a very strange requirement for reality to me.  Why should I accept your assertion?

“They are the subject of the arts, literature”

They are the subject of discussion in the arts and literature.  So that makes them a part of the “reality” of ideas or concepts.  Why do you claim they are “spiritual”?

“philosophy”

Yet again simply a discussion of human concepts.

“and theology”

Yes, the concept of a “god” is yet another human concept.  So what?  Concepts are in the human brain and there is not necessarily any way to “verify” such a concept.  We can only compare experience and decide whether or not there is any evidence that such a concept actually exists in “reality”.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61788

May 29th 2011

mccants wrote:

We can only compare experience and decide whether or not there is any evidence that such a concept actually exists in “reality”.

Again, what is your definition of reality?
<!—/uploads/static-content/comment_flag.png—>


mmccants - #61851

May 31st 2011

You wrote above:

“Dawkins and company advocate a monistic world view, Reality is only physical, made up of matter and energy.”

and:

“This is a disagreement over the character of reality and life itself
and the two traditional answers, Monism and Dualism do not work.”

You are entitled to your opinion.  I do not agree with your opinion.

“Purpose and meaning are next to impossible to empirically verify, but without them nothing exists.”

Such a strange statement.


mmccants - #61567

May 23rd 2011

“The examples of conversations I’ve cited were science promoters rather than science stoppers.”

I think they were simply failures as science stoppers.  Science marches on in spite of religion.

“Many aspects of reality cannot be empirically verified”

You need a better definition of “reality”.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61701

May 27th 2011

mccants wrote:

You need a better definition of “reality”.

What is your definition of  “reality?”
<!—/uploads/static-content/comment_flag.png—>


mmccants - #61723

May 27th 2011

“All of these folks seem to be too scared”

What a silly thing to say.

“there will be tensions between fields of knowledge”

“Religion” is not a “field of knowledge”.

“He tries to understand my view that God is at work through natural processes”

There is no empirical evidence of that assertion.  So it is ignored.

“The historical proof that science and Christianity aren’t fundamentally
incompatible is the Scientific Revolution itself. Its architects were
both methodologically and theologically serious”

That’s not “proof”, so your assertion is ignored.

Coyne’s opinion: “Like Laplace, I reject a god because it’s unnecessary in scientific explanations, and because there’s no evidence for a god.”

“What is your definition of  “reality?””

Name an “aspect of reality” that cannot be “empirically verified”.  And define “empirically verified”.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61741

May 27th 2011

mccants,

There are three aspects of of reality, the Physical, which deals with the physical world, the Intellectual, which deals with ideas, and the Spiritual, which deals with purpose and meaning. 

Now the physical sciences deal with the physical world, and here is where empirical verification is most evident, however there are still questions like: Can multiverses ever be verified and if not can we say they exist?  What about “dark matter and energy” which make up an estimated 96% of the mass of the universe, but have yet to been observed?  Will the graviton ever be verified?  Higgs Boson?

Ideas exist in the physical sciences as hypotheses, theories, and laws.  Ideas can be verified or rejected.  However most ideas exist outside the physical sciences, in the life sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, philosophy, and theology.  Most ideas are not empirically verified, but they are basic to life and reality as we understand it.  This of course is what we are discussing, ideas.

Purpose and Meaning are the most difficult area of reality to define, because it is the most basic.  Purpose and meaning are next to impossible to empirically verify, but without them nothing exists.  They are the subject of the arts, literature, philosophy, and theology.   

There you have it.  Which aspects of reality do not exist in your opinion?      


mmccants - #61775

May 28th 2011

My reply to 61741 showed up as 61774 above.


BobRN - #62458

June 11th 2011

“Coyne’s opinion: ‘Like Laplace, I reject a god because it’s unnecessary in scientific explanations, and because there’s no evidence for god.’”
br>
First of all, we don’t know yet whether or not God is necessary, even from a scientific perspective, so Coyne jumps the gun here.  There are plenty of things science has not yet been able to explain.  Science doesn’t jump to the conclusion that, “Because we can’t explain it, it must be God.”  That is, of course, the god-of-the-gaps error and unfitting for serious science or faith.  But, Coyne commits the opposite error of claiming as fact that science does (or will) have an explanation for everything.  We don’t know that yet by an stretch of the imagination.  Miraculous healings, demonic possessions and exorcisms, spiritual ecstasies, visions, bilocations, etc…  aren’t explained by science.  Even the first question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” hasn’t been answered by science.  Perhaps they will be, but we don’t yet know that.  So, it doesn’t make any more sense for Coyne to reject God because God is unnecessary than it is for a believer to accept God because he or she can’t find a scientific answer for the origin of life on Earth.   
br>
There is plenty of evidence for God.  I think if atheists were honest, they would say that they first rejected God, then rejected the evidence for God.  I’ve not heard yet a rational argument against the existence of God.

Page 1 of 1   1