Join us April 17-19 for the BioLogos national conference, Faith & Science 2024, as we explore God’s Word and God’s World together!

William T. Cavanaugh
 on October 14, 2017

Science and Theology: Questioning the “Two-State Solution”

Theology needs science, but science needs theology; there can be no two-state solution.


In August of 2013, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker published “an impassioned plea” for the employment of scientists in the humanities. The piece in the online version of The New Republic is dated August 6, which, coincidentally, is the date the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, obliterating tens of thousands of women, men, and children in an instant. In Pinker’s telling, “the mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war… It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern,” including the humanities. Matters of the human spirit—traditionally the province of philosophy, theology, literature, history, political theory—need to be given over to scientific investigation. What Pinker calls “scientism” is the dual conviction that the world is intelligible and the acquisition of knowledge requires hard, empirical investigation. Pinker sets scientism in opposition to to “faith, revelation, dogma, authority” and so on, which only impede knowledge. True knowledge “requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value,” all of which are “factually mistaken” about the origins of life, humans, and societies. The only true “worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science,” which means that all human endeavors need to be subjected to scientific investigation. Political debates, for example, can be resolved by appeals to the new sciences of the human brain, which show what are the evolutionary advantages of certain forms of human group behavior. Similar empirical investigation and data sets can be used to resolve debates in history and philosophy over human nature.

There is not much that is terribly new here; this sort of triumphalism is common in popular views of science. But Pinker’s piece elicited a vigorous response from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. The response generated a lot of comment, in part because the exchange marked out two positions on the relationship of science to the humanities that were clear: Pinker sought to demolish the boundaries between science and the humanities, and Wieseltier offered what he called a “two-state solution” with clear boundaries between the two kinds of disciplines. People lined up on either Pinker’s or Wieseltier’s side. I found myself dissatisfied with both. Indeed, while I am in basic sympathy with Wieseltier’s rejoinder, I think that, from a theological point of view, the two-state solution does not ultimately work if one assumes that there is one God and one creation.

Since Pinker scores points for science by disparaging “religious” belief, Wieseltier begins the substance of his rebuttal there: “Religious people, or many of them, are not idiots.” Most religious people understand how to interpret ancient texts in such a way that they do not conflict with empirical truths about the world; most faiths know how to take the progress of science into account. The twin ideas that the world is intelligible and that knowledge is hard-won are hardly the exclusive property of science, but are shared by all the humanities. Pinker’s problem is his reductionism; he reduces all intelligibility to scientific intelligibility, and all reason to scientific reason. But there are other kinds of intelligibility and reason, such as those that are embedded in humanistic traditions of enquiry. A tradition, Wieseltier points out, is not enslavement to past, outmoded forms of thinking, but is rather “a process that creates productivity through receptivity.” Tradition is “the choice that we make to preserve and to love old things because we have discovered in them resources for contemporary sustenance and up-to-the-minute illumination.”

So far, we have seen how Wieseltier stresses the similarities between the humanities and science. Wieseltier, however, wants especially to stress the differences, which justify his “two-state solution” and the borders that solution entails. Religious faith, according to Wieseltier, is not simply a set of empirical propositions; it has to do with the meaning of creation, with value, not just fact. This observation applies to the humanities in general: Data can answer the “what” questions, but not the “why” questions. Judgments of value will be modified and refined by the data; Wieseltier is not opposed to the judicious use of scientific investigation in the traditional sphere of the humanities. In this sense he allows that the borders between science and humanities are porous. Borders nevertheless remain necessary. Wieseltier is opposed to the kind of imperialism in which only scientific investigation is thought to deliver real knowledge. He defends “the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding.” In doing so, he defends distinctions between internal movements of the human spirit, such as meanings and intentions, and externalities that are reducible to data. Scientific explanation of a painting—the chemical composition of the pigments, for example, or an explanation of the optics behind how the eye sees the painting—might be interesting on one level, but “such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.” Borders are necessary to resist the “totalizing mentality” of scientism, which seeks to reduce everything to an underlying sameness that can only distort the richness and plurality of lived existence.

There is something incomplete about this two-state solution, however, something that becomes apparent if we look at another critique of Pinker’s work. Swedish theologian Arne Rasmusson has looked at Pinker’s work and that of another popularizer of science, George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley (Rasmusson, “Science as Salvation,” Modern Theology, April 2012). Both Pinker and Lakoff argue that politics should be put on a more scientific basis. But Pinker and Lakoff use the data from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to come to opposite conclusions about what type of politics science demands: Pinker’s politics are conservative, Lakoff’s are liberal, by current American standards. Unlike in Wieseltier’s example of the painting, the problem is not just that science is delivering irrelevant or trivial data in a humanistic field. The problem is that the interpretation of the data is being surreptitiously driven by non-scientific criteria borrowed from the humanities, that is, the differing political convictions—dare I say “faiths”—of Pinker and Lakoff. For Pinker himself, that is, scientific data is being fitted into a broader narrative supplied by his non-scientific political theory. Wieseltier himself hints that the humanities do not merely remain autonomous from science but, at least sometimes, provide the dominant discourse for situating scientific knowledge. Wieseltier opens his response to Pinker this way: “The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question…It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy since its beginnings has been receptive to science.” Philosophy here is not merely separate from science but has a regulative position with regard to science.

A glance at theologian John de Gruchy’s recent book Led into Mystery can help to take these suggestions further and shed more light on why the two-state solution is problematic. The book is an extended meditation on science and theology whose point of departure is the tragic death of de Gruchy’s son Steve. De Gruchy, it seems to me, does not settle for a recognition of the autonomy of science in the realm of fact, while leaving theology only to provide the values that help to make sense of the facts. It might be possible to read the book in this way simply because de Gruchy asks open questions rather than simply making dogmatic statements, and he is always careful to recognize the tremendous advances of scientists, the importance of their work, and the openness to an open-ended mystery which many working scientists display. When de Gruchy challenges the notion that “empirical research is the only way of knowing the truth,” (145) this could be a prelude for offering another, separate way of knowing the truth. Nevertheless, in the end, de Gruchy agrees with Sara Maitland that there is “something absent” from the stories told by scientism about the world “which makes them not merely unsatisfactory but actually untrue” (111). If this is the case, then it has profoundly unsettling effects on the two-state solution.

I take the thesis of de Gruchy’s book as a sentence that appears on page 44: “We need to be reminded that only those who are willing to face reality will discern mystery, and only those who are open to mystery will discover reality.” If this is true, it has quite radical consequences, because it implies that reality is not simply lying there waiting to be discovered by empirical methods. De Gruchy uses “mystery” to mean a sense that there is something that transcends empirical reality. Science, then, does not reveal reality, to which mystery is then superadded. Mystery is indeed, de Gruchy says, “beneath the real”—that is, something that transcends empirical reality—but he seems to indicate that reality without this transcendence is not reality at all. Science without transcendence does not reveal reality; it is not merely incomplete but untrue.

This is a much more radical claim than the claim that science errs when it crosses borders into theological or philosophical territory, or pretends to explain all, rather than part, of reality. There is a deeper critique here that begins by questioning what exactly counts as science and what does not. What is science is not self-evident, nor is the boundary between hard science and soft science. “Science” itself is not just a neutral descriptor of a set of principles and procedures, but an ideologically-loaded term that, as John Gray says, sustains hope of progress and silences heretics by separating and privileging certain kinds of knowledge above all others. The term “science” as used by Pinker and others replaces more traditional theological soteriologies, offering salvation to those who bow to its authority. What counts as science and what does not is itself a political act; the mutation of the discipline of politics into “political science” is a move based on non-empirical criteria. At an even deeper level, we can raise questions about what emerges as fact from what is thought of as science. Can there be a pure nature that is delivered prior to any metaphysical presuppositions, or is the very idea of a pure nature itself a metaphysical presupposition?

De Gruchy’s response seems to be implied in his anthropology. He breaks down the dualism between science and metaphysics, or reality and mystery, by breaking down the dualism between the body and soul or mind, the physical and the spiritual, in the human person. Here he is on solid biblical ground, as he deftly argues that humans are a psychosomatic unity in both the Old and New Testament views. The mystery of being human, then, is not something that is added on top of our physical nature, but something that is carried in our neurons and our genes. But lest this be misunderstood as a reduction of God to something generated by our human nature, de Gruchy skillfully shows how our humanity itself is not immanent but is emerging in the historical action of the Holy Spirit (172). In other words, not only is God not merely an effect of certain evolutionary processes internal to the brain, but our very humanity is not an intrinsic quality of human beings lying there to be discovered. Humanity is not so much a push from within as a pull from without. Our natures are being brought to what they truly are by the action of God who is both wholly other to us and also therefore interior intimo meo—closer to me than I am to myself—as Augustine says. And that pull from God is based in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the eschatological hope that derives from it.

As French theologian Henri de Lubac writes, “It is not the supernatural which is explained by nature…: it is, on the contrary, nature which is explained in the eyes of faith by the supernatural, as required for it…It is the supernatural which, so to say, must summon up nature before nature can be in a position to receive it” (Mystery of the Supernatural, 95-6). The idea of creation means that all that is is suspended over the abyss of nothingness by the gift of God. The gift of grace is not something added to nature, but is the very creation of nature. The gift is not once given, but is constantly given anew, moving toward the fulfillment of creation in the eschaton. A purely immanent materialism, therefore, is not a true appreciation of the material but an evacuation from matter of the only thing that truly makes it matter, which is its link to something beyond itself. Scientific reductionism, in other words, is in reality the denigration of the material by cutting it off from the source of its materiality. To understand what a thing is, it is not sufficient to treat a thing as if it were a given; it is, rather, a gift, something that constantly receives its being from outside itself. In this sense, all material things are “ecstatic,” that is, they are not self-sufficient but constantly receive being, and therefore meaning, from a transcendent source beyond themselves. To grasp a thing, therefore, means to grasp more than the thing, but to situate it within the larger telos or end of all creation, which has been sent forth from God and is returning to God. Matter only matters, in other words, when it is related to a transcendent cause larger than itself.

The problem with scientism, therefore, is not that it overvalues the material; it in fact undervalues the material by refusing to see that all material is caught up in a movement that is more than itself. Theology needs science, but science needs theology; there can be no two-state solution. The resurrection of Jesus reveals that the transcendent is the destiny and therefore the true nature of empirical, material reality.