One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part 2

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January 22, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Loren Wilkinson. 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.

One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part 2

A Response to Denis Alexander, Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald

In the first part of this series I suggested that Coyne and MacDonald were probably justified in their criticisms of Denis Alexander’s Homo divinus model (which posits that Adam and Eve were historical figures chosen out of a population of Neolithic farmers somewhere in the Middle East to be the bearers of divine image). At the same time, the scorn with which they treat Alexander’s whole attempt to find a model which integrates Biblical with scientific data is unfortunate, and betrays a false understanding of the relationship between Christianity and science—that they are intrinsically in a state of conflict.

Much of their scorn is directed at Alexander’s use of language like “model” and “data set” to refer not only to scientific, but to Biblical, material. Their position about the “data” quality of any Biblical material is clear. Although Coyne acknowledges that probably not all religious people are insane, he says plainly that “I think religion itself is nuts.” MacDonald is a bit more nuanced, but equally dismissive. He begins by attacking the ideal of the integration of science and Christianity which motivates Alexander’s article (and The Biologos Foundation). “Integration” of science with religion is impossible because “to integrate” means “to unify,” and it implies that the things being integrated are the same sorts of things. But science and religion are, they insist, completely different things. The main difference, says MacDonald, is that whereas a statement of science can be either true or false, and carries with it a protocol for determining which, there is no such program of verification or falsification in religion: religious claims are only made true or false, says MacDonald, by means of authority, and he proceeds to criticize one clear example of religious authority, the Roman Catholic magisterium.

Because religious claims are based either on belief or authority, and not on real “data,” as in genuine science, both Coyne and MacDonald reject Alexander’s use of language of “models” or “data sets.” Says MacDonald, “The only work these terms are doing is to mislead us. Instead of grand unifying theory, we have grand unifying pretence.” Coyne calls all theological models “made-up stuff”, and says that “they’re just stories, fictions concocted to save an untenable mythology.” MacDonald sums up the attitude by saying that when Alexander tries to speak of Biblical truths as though they were in some way parallel to scientific truths he is not really saying anything at all but “merely making marks on paper.”

Such language reflects and reinforces the old “warfare” image of the relationship between Christianity and science. And perhaps that image would be appropriate if in fact science did deal only with the world of uninterpreted facts, and Christianity only with leaps of faith, dogmatic pronouncements, and endlessly flexible interpretations. Then the scientist and the Christian would live in separate worlds indeed, and there would be no possibility of “integration”. However, Coyne and MacDonald (along with Christians equally dismissive of science) have to deal with two awkward and intertwined facts (“a data set”). On the one hand, a very great many Christians (like Alexander himself) are good scientists. On the other hand, the statements of all scientists (including those, like Coyne, who make their public statements within the faith position of a-theism), stand, without acknowledging it, on a great mountain of belief, authority, and passion, the very things which they decry in religion.

They write in fact out of a positivist paradigm which flourished briefly about a hundred years ago. It has its roots in the 19th century French thinker August Comte, who argued that humanity moved through a childish religious phase, into an adolescent metaphysical phase, and finally emerged, in full maturity into the light of positive knowledge, in which only empirically verifiable scientific statements would count as true. This confident defense of only “positive” knowledge was picked up by a group of scientists and philosophers near the turn of the century, “the Vienna Circle” who argued (briefly) that everything outside of scientifically verifiable statements (including ethical and historical statements) was either tautology disguised as truth (“all bachelors are unmarried”), statements of emotion (“murder is wrong” was really, “murder, yuck!”), or strictly speaking meaningless: “marks on paper”, to use MacDonald’s dismissive phrase about Alexander.

The positivist program in philosophy withered quickly when it became obvious that most of what is important to us lies outside the realm of strict empirical verifiability (all of history, all ethical systems, all language of trust and love)—including, of course, the passionate positivist belief that only empirical data is a source of knowledge, a belief which cannot be empirically verified. Positivism was the high tide of modernity, the idea that with the proper method one could eliminate all uncertainty and surround ourselves with infallible machines for living and thinking. (Positivism infected some Christian theology as well, through the attempt to establish for the Bible, and perhaps for odd hybrids like “Creation Science”, a “scientific” certainty which was never available in genuine science either.)

Denis Alexander comes close to denying the deep similarity between science and theology in a statement which both Coyne and MacDonald rightly single out for criticism. In his first paragraph he writes, in answer to his own question, “How should we go about the task of relating theological truths to current scientific theories?” by answering that “Theological truths revealed in scripture are eternal infallible truths, valid for the whole of humanity for all time, although human interpretations of Scripture are not infallible and may change with time over issues that are not central to the gospel.”

The problem with this statement is that Alexander is comparing and contrasting the wrong things. “Data” (whether written texts or things in nature) are one sort of thing. Genesis one and (for example) geological strata are things to be known or “read”, but “interpretations” -- whether in theology or science -- are just that. The “data” (whether we are speaking of the natural world, or of Biblical texts) are the thing being known, and they could—through faith—perhaps be described as eternal and infallible. (Before Edwin Hubble and the evidence of an expanding universe, the prevailing steady-state cosmology, championed by astronomers like Fred Hoyle, maintained, through faith, that the universe was eternal; but such a belief is hard to find in astronomers today.) Any “facts” (galaxies, molecules, texts) may be called “infallible” in that they are always resolutely what they are, and in their own way declare it. But what things are and mean is mysterious and elusive, always escaping our grasp to describe them with infallible certainty. However infallible and eternal we consider the truths of the universe—or of Scripture—to be, we can only grasp them tentatively and personally, and interpret them through some simplification. We live in an endlessly “dappled world” (to borrow the title of an important work in the philosophy of science by Nancy Cartwright, which she in turn borrows from the profound Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins). Both science and theology are interpretations of texts, and neither can confidently be elevated as “eternal infallible truths.” The “texts” themselves have a more exalted status.

Science and theology are parallel human activities: what they seek to know can never be known or described apart from very human passions, beliefs, and communities. No one has argued this more persuasively than the scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi in his great work Personal Knowledge. Polanyi points out (among countless other examples) that Copernicus chose the sun as the center of the planetary system not because of hard evidence, but because of a combined discomfort with the increasingly complex conceptual machinery--wheels within wheels--needed to explain the motion of the planets. A highly personal passion for simplicity motivated him to put the sun at the center. There was no hard evidence of the Copernican theory for over two centuries. But the evidence has certainly tended to confirm his hunch.

Polanyi’s work is a good antidote to the kind of positivist poison which seems to still be influencing Coyne and MacDonald: the idea that science is about fact and Christianity about belief. As Polanyi points out, Anselm’s dictum (“I believe in order to understand”) is as essential for scientific knowledge as for theological.

It is a good antidote also for an even more corrosive poison that is eating at contemporary culture; that is the extreme reaction against the positivist mistake which argues (in the words of post-modernist philosophy Richard Rorty) that natural science is “just another kind of creative writing”. Some “post-modernists” go to the opposite extreme and argue (self-contradictorily) that there are no facts, no truths, but only personal stories and prejudices, imposed on the gullible by those with sufficient power. Thus all the great meta-narratives, the various stories we might tell to “integrate” our experience (science, capitalism, Marxism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) are equally suspicious, equally to be resisted.

Against this backdrop of complete relativism, the evangelistic atheism of Jerry Coyne and the moral arguments of Eric MacDonald seem almost quaintly old-fashioned. Which is why all of us (Alexander, Coyne, MacDonald, The Biologos Foundation) who are convinced that there is a real universe out there, with real meaning which can be known by passionate, believing, thinking humans, need to unite and stop fighting with each other. But we need to unite around a richer, more humble view of knowledge which allows us to investigate the mysterious, but truth-bearing world in confidence both that there is something (indeed, an infinite amount) to be known, and that our knowledge of it (both “theological” and “scientific”) is always tentative, human, and revisable by continual probing into the mysteries of creation and human history.

Such a program of exploration would be uncomfortable for most of us; it would require Christian believers like myself to acknowledge that the truths at the center of our faith are still being clarified, that the eternal truths about Creator, Creation, and “the Kingdom of God” will never receive their final, definitive formulation. But it would also require folks like Coyne and MacDonald to recognize that the facts of history and human experience, both of which give strong evidence of the reality of a personal and self-revealing God, form “data sets” worthy of being spoken of in the language of science—which should nevertheless always be the humble language of faith seeking understanding.

And what sets of data we have to consider! We each live in a passionate island of human consciousness where we analyze, describe, compare, discard, wonder, celebrate, and worship, yet each island is connected to the bedrock of Adam, of humanity (that’s why speculation about how to integrate all our knowledge about “Adam” is so important). We have to begin with the astonishing fact of this unfolding universe which (in faith) we believe to be either the work of a personal creator or (equally on faith) believe to be a cosmic accident creating itself. We have also to deal with the equally astonishing data set about “Adam”, this dusty earthling who, however and whenever it happened, has become capable of speaking to and hiding from his Creator, capable both of degrading the earth of his origin, or of lifting it, in the articulate worship which is both art and science, back to its Creator. We encounter the astonishing story of history, particularly the strange story of a people -- the Jews -- who kept Torah -- the word of God -- intact through centuries, until that crater in human history left by the death and resurrection of Jesus among those people—a data-set hard to get round, whose significance for the human story has been described by calling him “the second Adam.”

This is one world in which we live: an elusive, tantalizing, terrifying and beautiful world of facts, always humanly, humbly grasped. I honor Denis Alexander’s “white paper” working at bringing some parts of that world together (though I disagree with his main conclusion), as I honor Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald in their criticism of it. But I beg them (and all of us) to move away from the language of scorn and derision and at least grant the possibility that the worlds of science and the worlds of religion are ultimately one world, not two.


Dr. Loren WIlkinson has for 30 years been professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary studies at Regent College, a graduate school of Christian Studies affiliated with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His academic background is in philosophy, literature and theology, with graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins, Trinity International University, and Syracuse University. He has published and taught widely on the Biblical foundations for the care of creation.

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Alan Fox - #49275

January 27th 2011

The issue is whether there are domains of knowledge closed to science that are accessible through other means.  I would argue that, for any reasonable definition of “knowledge”, the answer is “no”.

Indeed. Presumably Tulse’s claim can be refuted by an example of knowledge that is invisible to scientific scrutiny and yet can be demonstrated. I have mentioned reality versus imagination before. Any real object or event is so if, however indirectly, it could be subject to scientific scrutiny. Anything else (or nothing else, depending on your point of view) is in the domain of imagination.


Mike Gene - #49299

January 27th 2011

Let the semantic games begin!

Nope.  It’s called critical thinking.

In Tudor England, the monarchy of the day and being burned to death was an option for dissenters. In a free and open society, we can form our own opinions. Mass communication and sharing of information does allow the forming of more informed opinion. Ultimately it is a test of how free your society is as to how freely you can express your own opinion.

Yes, I am in favor of free and open societies.  But that doesn’t answer my questions.


Alan Fox - #49335

January 27th 2011

But that doesn’t answer my questions.

I was responding to your:

For example, how does one justify a belief and who gets to decide if it is justified?

by pointing out that in a free and open society you can decide for yourself what you believe. You can also decide what other opinions, advice, evidence to use to inform your decisions. I also think Queen Elizabeth I’s declaration is a beautiful sentiment. I guess you will find whether your beliefs are justified at the day of judgement.


Gregory - #49729

January 31st 2011

This must be an especially perplexing problem for non-theists because there were 3 that responded back2back after my suggestion of ‘reflexive’ science & knowledge as alternatives to the ‘positive’ science & knowledge currently practiced in Natural-Physical Sciences (NPS). By raising the reflexive flag, it highlights the contributions & importance of Human-Social Sciences (HPS) as examples of non-/supra-naturalistic knowledge.

First, I must know something @ who I am dialoguing with; who are the communication partners here at BioLogos. The Christian is strangely at a kind of disadvantage here to the ‘undeclared,’ the atheist or sechumanist. BioLogos aims at believers.

By speaking this way to start, I humanize you. Sure, you don’t need me to humanize you & owe me no thanks for it! You already are human. The language of addressing your CHARACTER confirms this. You are nature+, which means personal character too. Now what is ‘reflexive science’?

Yes, Burawoy uses this distinction: Brit-USAmerican president of int’l sociological assoc. ‘til 2014. The well goes much deeper, through Touraine, Bourdieu, & also Gouldner to 1970. Take it back further to Husserl & Weber. (German, French, British, American)


Gregory - #49730

January 31st 2011

“the point is that not all knowledge is objective” – sy

Yes, you are right, though there are still many objectivists today. What ‘reflexive science’ & ‘reflexive knowledge’ do is move beyond the Cartesian cut; they overcome object/subject dichotomy. Yet there are some people nevertheless confused @ their humanity; it has been dehumanized by ‘late modern’ scientism & they’ve fallen away into constant doubt/uncertainty.

When I asked Greg Myers if he used his ‘free will’ to write his BioLogos message, he could only answer “I’m not sure.” This is of course as absurd as what Martin defended a few months back, i.e. he was more sure of Adam’s ‘real, historical’ existence than of his own. These are both caught on the horns of a philosophical problem that has already been solved; but they don’t know it!

Martin discounts reflexivity to ‘know himself’ that God has given him, while G. Myers calls into question ‘reality’ itself, perhaps b/c his ‘anthropology’ appears baffling & ultimately dispiriting.

Once ‘reflexive science’ is contrasted with ‘positive science’ a liberating sigh of relief is possible by scientists who do not copy the Comtean+ positivistic model of science.


Gregory - #49731

January 31st 2011

Tulse asked: “a) how this approach is relevant outside of sociology, & b) how they are relevant to the broader issue of the relationship between science and religion?”

Reflexive science & knowledge are relevant to *all* HSSs. That accounts for a larger number of scholars at most major N.A. universities than NPSs.

There is a period of rapid change in higher ed.; tension is brought on by human rights talk, gender & cog. studies, ecology (e.g. anthropogenesis), etc. These require more reflexivity than objectivity; one cannot reach a peace agreement ‘scientifically.’ One needs their heart in it.

No, I do not define knowledge as ‘justified true belief,’ nor do most philosophers outside the western ‘analytic’ tradition, e.g. ‘continental’ tradition. This is a key problem: regular people on the street don’t use such a ‘specialized’ def’n of knowledge. Yet most have faith in both natural *&* spiritual.

Refexivity means that I must take into account my relationship with whatever topic or problem is in question…before I attempt an ‘objective’ analysis. That means, we can ‘situate’ ourselves & our knowledges. This improves communication btw people, who now have some author info up-front.


Gregory - #49733

January 31st 2011

USAmerican-PoS may be somewhat resistant to or partly immune to ‘reflexive science,’ but the ‘data/facts’ of the above figures & schools remains. The linguistic turn, hermeneutics, phenomenology, critical realism; run through 20c. movements & schools. Etc. But one doesn’t have to know intellectual history to realize the power of a ‘paradigm’ (floabw) or today’s giant ideology in N. America – ‘scientism’ – as it holds over peoples minds/hearts in society. Soviets learned this better than probably any ‘nation’ that has ever existed on Earth.

Reflexivity is happening now, as you sit at your computer, think/type, I-net connect. *All* people are ‘reflexive’, incl. the usually <10% of a population that are ‘scientists.’ I am a scientist. Yet you are just as capable of being ‘reflexive’ as I am because we are both people. That makes us ‘equal’ in terms of assessing this ‘type’ of knowledge. Surely you can tell me a story @ something I don’t already know @ the world?

“It is my conviction that intentional phenomenology has for the first time made spirit as spirit the field of systematic scientific experience, thus effecting a total transformation of the task of knowledge.” - Husserl


Gregory - #49734

January 31st 2011

correction: better to say “in terms of being able to participate in” rather than “in terms of assessing”


Gregory - #49735

January 31st 2011

Reflexivity is one of the things holding us back from having a better understanding of each other & learning @ each others’ positions & experiences. The echoes of our personalities resonate alongside of & together with the things we post. Can some people really not identify soul-less philosophies when they hear them?

There cannot be a ‘characterless’ blog post. You are a person with character. (But don’t ask NPSs to speak @ ‘persons’.) This is not ‘simply natural’, it is nature+.

For a person to come to BioLogos to say negative things @ faith, God, religion or theology is to mistake where they are visiting. The ‘meaning’ of theology & religion speaks more @ the ‘character’ than @ the ‘nature’ of humanity. That is why the golden ratio looks to reflexive & positive, science, philosophy & religion, incl. nature, society, culture, ethics, etc. on the list.

Let me ask you this, atheists/sechumanists: does the name ‘Eden’ hold any ‘substantial’ meaning to you? If not, do you think it might be worth considering the ‘reflexive’ or ‘intuitive’ knowledge that we are spiritually created in ‘the image of God’?

“A person is a person because they recognize others as persons.” – D. Tutu


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