What Does It Mean to Say That Science & Religion Conflict?

What Does It Mean to Say That Science & Religion Conflict?
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Are science and religion in conflict? If popular discussions are any guide, the answer must be yes. From the debate over the compatibility of evolution and Christianity to the ongoing disputes between religious apologists and the “new atheists,” conflict between science and religion seems like an inescapable fact of modern life.

But what does it mean to say that science and religion “conflict”? This was the topic of a lecture last March at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. by Stephen M. Barr, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware. A practicing scientist and a practicing Catholic, Barr not only believes that science and religion are compatible but is a living testament to it. Two years ago, he founded the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS), an international lay organization intended to “foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason.” (Full disclosure: the author, though not a scientist, is a “scholar associate” of SCS.)

In his lecture, Barr distinguished between three types of conflict.

One might mean that as a matter of historical fact, religious traditions and institutions have been hostile to science and so have done their best to halt its progress. The cliché here is Galileo, whose spirit of free thinking was stifled by an allegedly repressive and antiscientific Catholic Church.

But the existence of SCS is a contemporary example of a historical truth inconvenient for this narrative: The practice of science and the practice of religion have often gone hand in hand, despite complex and sometimes antagonistic interactions. As Barr pointed out, many of modernity’s great scientists, from Copernicus, Newton, Secchi, and Galileo himself to Georges Lemaître and Bernard Bolzano, were practicing Christians or even men of the cloth. The Galileo affair — itself more complicated than popular accounts would suggest — is more exceptional than normal. No surprise that most historians of science today reject this “conflict thesis.”

One might mean instead that particular scientific claims (say, that the physical universe began with an initial Big Bang 13.8 billion year ago and has evolved according to the laws of relativistic physics) conflict with particular religious ones (say, that the world was created by a loving God who sustains and guides it). 

Barr’s writings particularly focus on such alleged conflicts. Here, Barr says, the atheist often assumes a Newtonian universe in which blind forces and corpuscles interact in a predetermined fashion. Such a universe may or may not leave much room for human or divine purposes, minds, and wills. But this is not the universe described by contemporary science, which rejects classical mechanism and determinism. Barr believes that a universe governed by the principles of quantum and relativistic physics or superstring theory is, if anything, more hospitable to human minds, souls — and God. 

Yet, purported scientific or historical conflicts quickly revert to philosophical or theological ones — the third type of conflict. For to suppose that there is a conflict (or harmony) between scientific and religious claims is to presuppose a particular, philosophical account of what those claims amount to. So it was fitting that this type of conflict was the main focus of Barr’s lecture. His reflections offer a good starting point for clarifying both the relationship between science and religion and what the debate between atheists and theists is — and is not — really about. 

Natural vs. Supernatural Causes
Does science give us a picture of reality, as so-called scientific realists maintain? Or does science simply give us models useful for making empirical predictions, as anti-realists counter? If the latter, scientific claims are neither true nor false, but only more or less useful or “empirically adequate.” In that case, it’s hard to see how they could conflict with religious truths one way or the other. They would truly be “non-overlapping magisteria.”

Or, we could accept the view that natural science does try to tell us what reality is like. What, then, are we to make of those revealed truths that appear inconsistent with its findings? 

There’s a medieval principle that says that because the truth is univocal — meaning there are not two types of truth — the truths of natural reason (including natural science) must be compatible with those of revelation. Thus, apparent conflicts must in principle be resolvable through philosophical reflection, even if that means interpreting particular passages of scripture allegorically. Thomas Aquinas believed that such apparent conflicts were divine gifts, spurring us to seek the truth and thereby cultivate the essentially human habits of mind necessary to do so. The late Pope John Paul II echoed this idea when he wrote that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Here we are clearly in philosophical or even theological, rather than scientific territory. So Barr is right to say that contemporary scientific atheists, although they appeal to science, are in fact making philosophical arguments, even if only implicitly (and often badly).

Here’s a popular one: Because we now have a scientific explanation of some natural phenomenon, we no longer “need” a theological explanation of it. For instance, because evolutionary biology explains how the human animal came about by appeal to natural, mechanistic causes, we may dispense with the theological doctrine of creation. (Religious fundamentalists merely invert this scheme, resisting such scientific explanations as if they were direct threats to their religious convictions.)

As Barr pointed out in his lecture, however, this conflates the natural and supernatural, assuming the two explanations are in competition. But the classical religious view was never that religious truths hold only in those gaps that natural reason has yet to close. On the contrary, biblical traditions sharply distinguish between the natural and the divine, seeing the former as distinct from — because created by — the latter.

As Barr observed, the Old Testament is at pains to differentiate the one true God from the many divine beings that populate the pagan universe. These latter are often identified with natural phenomena: the sun, the moon, the sea, etc. Whereas the pagan gods blend the natural and supernatural, the God of Abraham is the transcendent cause of nature. As Barr aptly put it, with the Old Testament, nature is “no longer the abode of gods, but the creation of God.” From the monotheistic traditions, then, we get the notion that nature has its own integrity precisely because it is created, not divine, sustained in its existence by a Lawgiver, who imbues it with an intelligibility that we can discern through our own powers of reason. Not only is this idea not incompatible with science, it is, arguably, a prerequisite for it.

Barr’s argument may be extended. The ancient Greeks also articulated a natural order distinct from the divine. Thus the pre-Socratic natural philosophers differentiated their pursuit, “physics” — literally physio-logia, the study of nature — from poiesis and mythos. The tragedies and epic poems of ancient Greece depict a world inhabited by capricious and sometimes vengeful deities, of whom mortals are the playthings. By contrast, the first natural philosophers, whom Aristotle called “physicists,” took nature to be a cosmos, a harmonious whole, whose intrinsic order could be grasped by human reason. Plato and Aristotle inherited and transformed this tradition, which is recapitulated in a theological key by the monotheistic traditions of the Middle Ages.

Consider the doctrine of creation. This involves a claim about a supernatural cause — or “primary” cause — namely, the transcendent ground of all that exists. By contrast, natural science, even in its search for origins, seeks causes within nature, i.e., natural or “secondary” causes. (Barr calls them “vertical” versus “horizontal” causes.) The classical view of religious thinkers like Thomas Aquinas is that God typically works through such natural causes to achieve his ends. Miraculous events are, by definition, exceptions to this otherwise natural order of things. Creation is what brings about and sustains that order.

Barr offers a helpful example: In “Hamlet,” the eponymous prince accidentally murders Polonius. Hamlet is thus the cause of Polonius’s death, at least within the narrative of the play. As the author, however, Shakespeare is also the cause of Polonius’s death, albeit in a different sense. Shakespeare could have chosen to achieve his end — Polonius’s death — in some other way, say, by having Horatio do the deed. To stretch Barr’s analogy, a miraculous event would be Shakespeare walking out on stage himself to intervene in the production of the play.

By analogy, it is perfectly consistent to maintain that God, author of the world, chooses to act by way of evolutionary or other natural causes in order to achieve his ends, at least most of the time. The truths of revelation, including scripture, concern the former — the supernatural relation between God and creation — whereas science uncovers the latter, natural relations between created things.

What There Is
Those who believe that religion and science are incompatible typically mean that religion is not compatible with a particular interpretation of natural science according to which all that exists is what is revealed through scientific theory. But this is a theory of philosophy — metaphysics — not natural science.

Moreover, such “metaphysical naturalism” must be distinguished from methodological naturalism, the far more widely accepted view that natural science should make appeals only to natural causes. Barr rightly observes that scientific atheists often unwittingly assume not just metaphysical naturalism but an even more controversial philosophical position: reductive materialism, which says all that exists is or is reducible to the material constituents postulated by our most fundamental physical theories. 

As Barr points out, this implies not only that God does not exist — because God is not material — but that you do not exist. For you are not a material constituent postulated by any of our most fundamental physical theories; at best, you are an aggregate of those constituents, arranged in a particular way. Not just you, but tables, chairs, countries, countrymen, symphonies, jokes, legal contracts, moral judgments, and acts of courage or cowardice — all of these must be fully explicable in terms of those more fundamental, material constituents. 

In fact, more problematic for the materialist than the non-existence of persons is the existence of mathematics. Why? Although a committed materialist might be perfectly willing to accept that you do not really exist, he will have a harder time accepting that numbers do not exist. The trouble is that numbers — along with other mathematical entities such as classes, sets, and functions — are indispensable for modern science. And yet — here’s the rub — these “abstract objects” are not material. Thus, one cannot take science as the only sure guide to reality and at the same time discount disbelief in all immaterial realities. 

This stubborn fact has led some philosophers, such as W.V.O. Quine, to argue that naturalism must countenance the existence of abstract objects, or at least those required by modern natural science. The argument goes like this: If we are committed to believing in those (and only those) entities posited by our best scientific theories, and if mathematical objects are among those entities, then we must accept the existence of mathematical objects.

What follows is a type of metaphysical naturalism — or “physicalism” — that is neither materialist nor entirely reductive. Though it is significantly more sophisticated than the vulgar scientific atheism that Barr rightly lambastes, it also brings his overarching point about naturalism and supernaturalism into even sharper relief. 

Note that Quine’s “indispensability argument,” as it came to be known, only holds if we accept his starting premise: that our beliefs about what exists stem from (and only from) our leading scientific theories. But why suppose this is true? That is, why should it be the case that ontology — what exists — is exhausted by what our latest scientific theories tell us? 

Quine himself was hardly dogmatic on this point. After all, this was a philosopher who argued that “physical objects” are irreducible to empirical experience and therefore “comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer.” Of course, he did not mean that science and Homeric religion are indistinguishable. (“Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise.”) His point, rather, was that scientific claims are not fully reducible to empirical observation; like religion, science requires the belief in things that exceed what we can know through brute sensory experience. “In point of epistemological,” not metaphysical, “footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind.” 

So why go with physical objects and not Homer’s gods? Because the latter are nowhere to be found in our leading scientific theories. We need electrons to explain empirical phenomena; we don’t need gods. This is a pragmatic argument, albeit one with strong metaphysical implications. But, unlike today’s new atheism, it does not presuppose an implausibly crude empiricism or materialism.

And yet, it will not convince the religious believer; nor should it. Why not? The believer must first be convinced of the premise that all that exists is what our latest scientific theories tell us about. But that’s just another way of saying that the believer must first be convinced not to believe. Pragmatism will hardly do the trick; from the believer’s point of view, pragmatism militates in favor of religious belief.

We thus come to a disagreement about what it is we disagree about. For the scientific atheist, the disagreement is over which and how many items exist in the world — a scientific question. For the theist, the disagreement is over what — and why — the world is in the first place. And that’s a philosophical or theological question.

Arguments such as Quine’s can only convince the believer of something she already knows, or should have learned from St. Thomas: Natural explanations, though valid, are only possible because we and nature have been created by a God who transcends both. Put differently, God is not one being among many, so we should not look for him among the entities postulated by our latest and best scientific theories. On the contrary, God is the supernatural and sustaining cause of all that exists — including that reality which is partly revealed by natural science.

M. Anthony Mills is a scholar associate of the Society of Catholic Scientists and editor of RealClearPolicy.

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