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

| By David Wilkinson

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.


About the Author

David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is Principal at St. John’s College and a part-time professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham College. His background is research in theoretical astrophysics with an emphasis on star formation, chemical evolution of galaxies and terrestrial mass extinctions. He later earned his PhD in Systematic Theology and Christian Eschatology from Cambridge University. His present work focuses on the relationship between science and contemporary culture. His books include Christian Eschatology and the Physical Universe, God, the Universe and Everything, and God, Time and Stephen Hawking.