December 31, 2005

Science and Religion

The discussion on the Dover opinion lead me on a search for credible modern thinking on the interaction between science and religion. This morning I read Science and Theology by John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and ordained Anglican priest. The book is a short but very thoughtful survey of the topic and I recommend it.

Polkinghorne traces the history of overly simplistic theologians such as William Paley who have inferred the existence of God from gaps in understanding of the natural world (i.e., espousing a 'watch implies a watchmaker' as evidence of divine creation, as if to say "God" is needed whenever we don't understand how the universe works - this is a common line of thinking which I find sloppy and grating in today's world, and I believe it abuses and damages religion).

He also points out sloppy thinkers in science who confuse their physical knowledge with metaphysical conclusions in almost exactly the same way (I'm in total agreement here; for example, I have always found Richard Dawkins' popular writing on evolution overreaching and grating in its metaphysical conclusions on the absence of divine purpose just because we do understand how the world works; this is a confusion that abuses and damages science).

Yet as Polkinghorne moves beyond the clash between the extreme viewpoints in religion and science, he also acknowledges the tension between the most reasonable viewpoints. This is what I enjoyed most about his book: Polkinghorne stares the very real boundary between science and religion in the face, honestly and unflinchingly.

I was impressed that Polkinghorne avoids the intellectual laziness and simplemindedness of philosophers who build logically convenient models of science and religion that do not actually reflect the experiences of real scientists and religious thinkers. It is too easy to define "science" and "religion" in a way that avoids any interaction between the two, but which also gets lost in meaningless relativism.

Polkinghorne acknowledges that both science and religion are in pursuit of truth and an authentic understanding of the universe and humandkind within it. He proposes some ways of thinking about the interaction between science and religion, but he has no ultimate answers; he is at his best where he cautions against common traps in thinking about the area.

A couple memorable quotes remind us of the need for humility in science:

"One could not predict beforehand that science would be possible" - Polkinghorne likes to remind us that the comprehensibility of the universe is a remarkable fact, especially when you contemplate that this is not just an accident of the human mind but also a surprising property of the universe itself.

"The contemporary biological scene is reminiscent of the state of physics in the post-Newtonian generation of the mid-eighteenth century.... Both sets of adherents then went on to declare that their new discoveries supplied the basis for understanding nearly everything (de la Mettrie and his book, Man the Machine, Crick and Dawkins and molecular reductionism). Physics has discovered that the world is more subtle, supple, and interesting than its eighteenth-century practitioners had supposed it to be. It is not difficult to believe that biology will make a similar discovery in due time."

Another link. I just discovered this recent talk by George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, which I thought was a nice dose of reality and moderation in the ID debate. "It seems to me," Coyne explains, "that the Intelligent Design Movement, a largely American phenomenon, diminishes God, makes him a designer rather than a lover."

Posted by David at December 31, 2005 11:41 AM
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how does science still pose a threat to religion in the modern world

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