The world disclosed by the physical sciences can seem depressing. Modern physics, for example, has undermined the religious idea that the universe has a spiritual dimension.
For this show, as the title suggests, we're thinking about science, philosophy, and theology—and what their relationship to one another should be. Before the Scientific Revolution, the lines between these three domains were pretty blurry. But as scientists started to gather further evidence for the Copernican model of the cosmos, directly contradicting the religious doctrine that placed the Earth at the center of God’s universe, the divide between science and religion grew. More and more, mysteries that were formerly explained by appeal to a supernatural being were replaced with naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence.
There’s a saying: as science advances, religion retreats. These days, the boundary between science and religion is clear. They’re considered completely separate domains, even if philosophers sometimes think about both. Granted, there are exceptions, but for the most part religion, these days, is not in the business of making claims about the nature of the cosmos or the origins of life. In the 90s, Pope John Paul II even declared that evolution was a scientific fact Catholics should wholeheartedly embrace. I take that as a real mark of progress.
However, it’s progress like that which serves to underscore how bizarre the situation is here in the US, where many Christian fundamentalists say things like evolution is “just a theory” (you know, like gravity) on a par with their religious dogma, creationism, and that both ought to be taught, in science class no less!
While I’m not a believer myself and honestly don’t understand how any rational person could be, I don’t begrudge anyone their religious beliefs. If people find comfort in religion, if it gives their lives meaning, or helps them do genuine good in the world, then I’ve no problem with that. But when religion starts to stick its nose in places where it doesn’t belong, like trying to tell us something about the nature of the universe or demanding that its outmoded, unscientific views be given equal weight in education or public discourse, that’s when I think it’s blatantly overstepping its boundaries.
Are there any scientific questions that the religious perspective might provide some insight about? I’m skeptical. But some people seem to think that religion could shed some light on issues like human consciousness or free will. Maybe “religious consciousness” (indeed, if there is such a thing) could be studied scientifically, and that could be from a number of different disciplines—neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, or even philosophy—but what could theology possibly contribute to our understanding of consciousness?
As for free will, I grant that theology certainly appeals to that concept, especially in trying to deal with the problem of evil. But I don’t see how theology could help illuminate the concept. It just takes it as a given that we have free will, rather than treating it as an open question, which to me is much more interesting.
But here I think science is also prone to overstepping its boundaries. Some scientists, like neuroscientist Benjamin Libet or psychologist Daniel Wegner, to name two of the worst offenders, claim to have shown that we don’t have a “free” or “conscious” will. Having read their work, it seems like neither one of them has really given much thought to what these terms actually mean. They also seem oblivious to the 2,000+ years of nuanced philosophical thinking on the subject of free will and agency. For example, Libet completely fails to recognize the difference between simple concepts like an urge, a decision, or an intention. Yet that doesn’t stop him making sweeping philosophical claims based on empirical data that actually shows very little.
And that’s where philosophy comes in. It’s apparently our job to expose the flaws in the sloppy thinking of these scientists. Science might be able to show us that there’s something going on in our brains when we make a choice—but big deal! Who would even dispute that these days?? (Okay, maybe the creationists, but let’s ignore them.) The fact that there’s detectable brain activity milliseconds before we make “conscious decisions” about bodily movements that are normally habitual or automatic tells us nothing about free will. The sort of actions that we’re interested in when we wonder about free will are not finger movements with no practical purpose (other than following directions in a scientific experiment).
So, science can certainly be overly reductive and can present an impoverished view of the world. It doesn’t give us all the answers, but only a very naïve view of science would expect that. We can value and respect the scientific method, and still make room for art, literature, friendship, and all the other things that enrich the human experience. For many, religion (or spirituality) is also part of that story.
Science can also be conceptually or philosophically confused and jump to conclusions not warranted by the observed evidence. But neither theology nor religion is the antidote to that problem. Rather, what we need is conceptual clarity and rigorous thinking. And if scientists are ever less than perfect in that department, don’t worry. There’s always a philosopher who’s more than happy to point it out.