dinsdag 20 augustus 2013

Science and religion: harmony, no conflict

Today at the Abraham Kuyper Center Summer Seminar on Science and the Big Questions I engaged in a debate with Patricia Churchland and Bradley Monton on the relationship between science and religion. An extended version of my opening statement follows.

Are science and religion in conflict? No, I don’t think they are. First, there are no scientific results that conflict with the belief that God exists and created the world. The same applies to all other core beliefs of, for example, Christianity. And here we are of course not talking about questions that are not essential to Christianity, such as the age of the earth, or whether it moves. Second, it can be shown that the neurosciences leave sufficient room for a substantive notion of free will, and do not entail that a conscious mind without a material base is metaphysically impossible.

But what about belief in miracles? Isn’t the greatest miracle of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, in conflict with science? No, even this is not the case. After all, it is reasonable to suppose that God, if God exists, can intervene in creation. And for this God does not have to break any natural laws. For, the laws of nature describe how the cosmos behaves as long as God does not intervene. These laws are therefore compatible with a divine intervention in the universe.

Further, that God does not play a role in physics is precisely what a theist should expect. After all, physics is about the universe’s immanent functioning and not about its transcendent creator. So, the natural laws do not refer to God, as for example Thomas Aquinas already knew in the 13th century.

One might object that science and religion are still in conflict because it is irrational to believe claims about the nature of reality that are not the result of scientific research. The underlying presumption is apparently that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge of reality. But this scientistic assumption is self-refuting. For it is itself not a result of scientific research. Hence, someone who accepts it immediately obtains a very good reason to reject it.

Moreover, many of the greatest scientists of all time saw no conflict whatsoever between science and their belief in God. Examples include Kepler, Leibniz, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Planck and Heisenberg. The list of religious scientists is long, very long. Indeed, the metaphor of a conflict between science and religion is a late modern myth, carefully cultivated by those who want to promote the suggestion that belief in God is irrational.

In fact, there is even a deep harmony between science and belief in God. For example, many rational arguments for the existence of a personal creator are partially based on premises that are actually derived from science. We may think here of the existence of universal and stable laws of nature, the insight that the cosmos had an absolute beginning, the remarkable elegance and effectiveness of mathematics as a language to describe the universe, and the striking fine-tuning of the cosmos. Besides, many arguments for God’s existence deploy modern developments in logic and mereology. So, when it comes to rational arguments for the existence of God, science is a friend and not an adversary. Thanks to modern science, the rational case for the existence of God is now stronger than ever.

Aside from this, belief in God constitutes an excellent ground for the belief that the cosmos has a rational order that can successfully be investigated and known by us. The universe is intelligible. And this conviction is simply crucial for the practice of science. After all, there is no point in doing science if we do not believe in the reliability of human rational capacities. Therefore, the success of science in exploring nature fits quite well within a theistic worldview.

From a historical viewpoint, the advent of modern science in the West can even be attributed to belief in God to a very significant extent. As said, theists have an excellent reason to think that the universe is governed by fixed laws that can be understood by our human cognitive faculties. Theistic scientists actively began investigating nature empirically in the 16th century in order to better understand God’s creation, and to praise God in that way. Besides, in imitation of Francis Bacon, many of them wanted to get a better grip on nature in order to relieve human suffering. Belief in God can thus be an effective source of inspiration to passionately get involved in scientific research.

That the safety of the library had to be left behind to conduct concrete observations in nature was a given for many of them. After all, if God created the universe contingently by free will, then God could have created an entirely different universe, so that we cannot discover the natural laws with reason alone. And it was precisely this type of empirical research that truly brought about the scientific revolution.

Perhaps one will object that, surely, we cannot maintain that the theory of evolution by natural selection is in harmony with theism? Well, this too is based on a misunderstanding. First, evolution is compatible with theism. After all, God can be understood as being the originating cause of the natural process of evolution itself. God is the creator of an evolving cosmos.

Second, we observe purposiveness everywhere in nature. Often this can be explained by mental causation of a conscious intentional actor. But how are we to explain the occurrences of goal directedness when there appears to be no such actor, as in the case of an ant at work, a flower in bloom or a growing tree? Here, the theory of evolution jumps to our aid. After all, this theory explains such forms of purposiveness purely mechanically, without the need to invoke all kinds of supposed mysterious powers, vitalistic forces or essentialistic forms. And this is good news for theism. After all, without the theory of evolution, references to such powers, forces or forms may well return in human speak about nature. Nature would again be sacralized, which detracts us from God’s holiness. So, the theory of evolution fits well with theism, precisely because it prevents an anti-theistic deification of nature. Hence, an attack on the theory of evolution is actually an attack on theism itself.

So, the late modern myth that science and religion are opposed to each other detracts us from their real relationship. A deep understanding of science and religion is vital to see their close connection, to see how both can be intimately reconciled in truth.

It is therefore quite promising to notice that the dialogue between science and religion has expanded greatly in recent decades. There are nowadays many academic institutions and journals that explicitly deal with the interaction between both, and do so in a productive and well-informed way. The dialogue between science and religion will continue to flourish in the upcoming years, and I personally expect that it will only become more relevant. This is a dialogue to which I warmly invite everyone.

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