Science, Philosophy, and Theology

06 June 2013

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. 

 

 

Comments (19)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

some of us *may* be doing a

some of us *may* be doing a philosophy talk tailgate party to listen live to this one. I think we *may* be meeting near Andy Goldsworthy's Stone River sculpture near the Cantor. byoc (coffee)

Bill's picture

Bill

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Laura says "While I?m not a

Laura says "While I?m not a believer myself and honestly don?t understand how any rational person could be..."
I consider my own case. I was a believer and came to be an atheist through reflection on the evidence. At least, I like to think so. Was I irrational and gradually became more rational as doubts arose, finally becoming fully rational when I ceased to believe? Current philosophical literature on the epistemology of testimony and social epistemology leads me to think believers in any stock of propositions should be given more thought.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

To say that religion

To say that religion "oversteps" its boundaries is to imply that the scientific study of the nature of the universe is more profound than a phenomenological-theological study of what it means to be a person in relation with others. But which is more profound is not clear. This is why I consider both science and theology important.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Kevin, I'm all in favor of

Kevin, I'm all in favor of phenomenology, but I see that as part of philosophy, not theology. I don't see what adding God to the explanatory picture tells us about experience.
Bill, you're right to point out that belief in God is epistemically in the same position as many of our other beliefs that we acquire from the testimony of others. But I also think there are other epistemic problems with belief in God that go beyond the problem of testimony.
Laura, what a concept! A PT tailgate party. Feel free to call in and join the conversation...

Bill's picture

Bill

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Let's not forget that

Let's not forget that philosophers too are often conceptually or philosophically confused or so say many philosophers of other philosophers and even of the their own past thinking.

Bill's picture

Bill

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I would like to emphasize a

I would like to emphasize a question of my earlier post: "Was I irrational and gradually became more rational as doubts arose, finally becoming fully rational when I ceased to believe? "

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Laura, I'm not proposing

Laura, I'm not proposing adding a God-concept to phenomenology. We already inherit a multitude of God-concepts from history. Then how I choose to relate--postively or negatively--to each of those concepts is phenomenological-theological.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Bill, it's true that

Bill, it's true that philosophers can be conceptually confused, but usually in much more sophisticated ways! We'd expect even an undergraduate to be able to make such basic distinctions like that between an urge and a decision. A professional philosopher who tried to publish a paper that conflated those concepts would be laughed at, but in neuroscience Libet is frequently lauded as having proven we don't have free will. I find that somewhat outrageous.
As for whether you were rational before you became an atheist or are fully rational now, we're all rational in some ways and irrational in others. I would not want to generalize, nor do I mean to say that someone who believes in God is completely irrational. But if you go through a *process* of examining the possible evidence for the existence of a supernatural being who created the universe, knows everything, is all powerful etc. etc. and you also spend some time thinking about whether such a concept is internally coherent, the only rational conclusion to such a process is that there is no reason for believing in God. People who believe don't do so because they have any evidence.
Kevin, I don't know what you mean by "phenomenological-theological" then. What's wrong with just "phenomenology"?

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Phenomenology has to do with

Phenomenology has to do with our experiences in the world, and we experience remnants of historic theologies. Patriarchy is one example. Opposing patriarchy is then a theological-political move. Attempting to simply ignore the theological forces that have supported patriarchy would itself be a creatio ex nihilo move and inherently theological.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Science is theory, religion

Science is theory, religion is faith, philosophy is truth, and truth simply is.
To unite science with truth, remove the flaw of measure.
To unite religion with truth, unite God and One.
To unite philosophy with truth, simply equate.
Truth is self-evident, indivisible, and equitably just One.
Just One,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 7, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Alan Cutler, in The Seashell

Alan Cutler, in The Seashell on the Mountaintop, remarks, "Religion is supposed to guide one's life, to lead to charity, temperance and love in this world and salvation in the next." If we set aside the afterlife as having no necessary connection with religion, theology seems to become much like philosophy, and that is both good and bad.
I have issues with every organized religion. My issue with the Judaism is that it is based too much on logic but deficient in the emotional dimension. (Indeed, atrocious unintended consequences proved that the logic, though it must have seemed so impeccable that it was thought divinely inspired, was proven unsound).
In contrast, the theology of Christianity is totally illogical but can be satisfying emotionally as long as one ignores the illogic.
Perhaps this brings us back to the dictum of Pascal: "Thought makes the whole dignity of man; therefore endeavor to think well -- that is the only morality." Thinking well seems to require reason, emotion and acceptance of universal principles.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, June 8, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

GOD AND SCIENCE

GOD AND SCIENCE
God is not ?something outside the universe,? God is a consciousness outside one?s own. Why do you all need an explanation for consciousness? Because science is a ?religion? to you: because it ?explains? things in the material realm, you ?believe? or you ?pray? that it explains everything in the consciousness realm ? and religion and theology are part of the consciousness realm: not reachable by scientific methods. So what?s the big problem with that? Skip the science, think rationally about why people invent a consciousness outside their own. Now you are a philosopher.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, June 8, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Near the begining of the show

Near the begining of the show, right before the first break, someone mentioned a book by (I think) Buratt titled (I think) "Metaphysics and Science (or perhaps it was Philosophy)". I searched for this author and title and found nothing, so I must have it wrong. Does anyone recall?

Devon's picture

Devon

Saturday, June 8, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I beleve it was Edwin Burtt,

I beleve it was Edwin Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I would like to hear you and

I would like to hear you and your guests reflect on the writing of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He has really inspired my theology as an early pioneer of reconciling Christian faith with emerging scientific reality. For example, if Genisis is a metaphor, no first parents, no garden of Eden. What is the meaning of Original Sin. What is the reality of God's plan for the universe is so immeasurably large and old, at least in human terms. Fr. de Chardin has a compelling explanation to my mind. Please share your thoughts.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, June 13, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Come Together

Come Together
"I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together"
Truth cannot be attained in the man made uncertain measures of division, but rather in the indivisible, self-evident unity or Oneness of absolute infinite All.
Be true, Be One, just be,
=

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Friday, June 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Kevin- I have tried to

Hi Kevin- I have tried to show, above, that there is no conflict between science and God. And, you speak of "my theology": I take "my theology" to mean "my beliefs about God and spiritual matters." Kevin, you believe what you believe for your own reasons; "belief" is holding in your mind matters that are either independent from scientific evidence, or don't require scientific proof. If your "theology" requires that God created the earth on one specific week, go ahead and believe it; you need to believe it if the rest of your theology flows from or otherwise depends on that idea. Why worry about scientists who have a different belief from yours who say otherwise? It is their "belief," as I pointed out above, that 1. everything needs an explanation, and 2. science is the only explainer (both no more or less "beliefs" than yours, and no more "wrong" or "right" than yours). Let's take your example of Original Sin. What do you think the idea means? What do you think should be the objective in giving the idea credence and power? If these ends require a physical Genesis (and maybe they don't), then how is it constituted? When you have constructed your mental picture of the required physical Genesis, that is Genesis enough for you and your (good) theology (since I am confident the object of your theology is "good"). This is belief; if someone convinces you otherwise, then your belief might be changed -- no problem -- but I don't think once you have thought through the process I outlined and understood your own motivations clearly, you will worry about criticisms that posit beliefs that won't get you to your thought-through theology. It is time for you to stop worrying about your theology, and to just live it; time to stop "becoming" and start "being." The best way to deal with hard decisions, is just to go ahead and decide one way, and see how it works and how it feels, and if it doesn't work well or feel good, decide another way to go.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, July 8, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

So, why SHOULD Science,

So, why SHOULD Science, Philosophy and Theology have a relationship to one another? Do they support each other, and, if so, how? If someone can give a succinct and well-reasoned answer, in twenty-five words or less, I'm all ears. Choose your words thoughtfully.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, July 21, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Arvo's mention of Pascal

Arvo's mention of Pascal reminded me of the famous wager, which went something like this: Humanity's best option would be to believe in God. If he exists, then there is an assurance of reward for those who adhere. If it is all a lie, then there was nothing to lose in the first place. I know more than two people who have taken the wager. I suspect there are many others who also know more than two such gamblers. Personally, I have seen benefits from science; philosophy and theology. This must be significant. Otherwise, one or more of those disciplines(?) would have evaporated by now, and this post would be moot. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

 
 
 

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