On Science and Theology

“Our view of the natural world has changed out of all recognition from, say, 500 years ago. And insofar as theology has things to say about the natural world through its doctrine of creation, theology has had to take that change on board. On the other hand, science can say almost nothing of substance about the core issues in theology, because they concern a reality that is literally out of this world, by definition beyond the reach of science.”

As a physicist working in a theological environment, Mark Harris is interested in the complex ways that science and religion relate to each other. He runs the Science and Religion programme at the University of Edinburgh.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Mark Harris: My first degree and doctorate are in earth science, but I moved into physics in my postdoc years, and spent about a decade working in research on the physics of magnetism, based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford. During this time, I also experienced a calling to ordained ministry in the Church of England, and so studied theology as preparation. I think I was a rather arrogant physicist at this time: I expected theology to be easy in comparison with physics, and that I probably already knew much of what I needed. But much to my surprise (and ongoing delight), I discovered that theology is every bit as intellectually-challenging as physics. This convinced me to pursue an academic career in the interface between science and theology, and so while I’ve spent some of the intervening years in University chaplaincy and Cathedral ministry, I now try to bring it all together at Edinburgh by running the University’s science-and-religion programmes. In my research, I’m interested in the deep-level foundational questions underpinning the physical sciences, which is where philosophy and theology come in.

RB: What are the implications of scientific knowledge for theology?

MH: Many and few, at the same time. On the one hand, science is a game changer. Our view of the natural world has changed out of all recognition from, say, 500 years ago. And insofar as theology has things to say about the natural world through its doctrine of creation, theology has had to take that change on board. On the other hand, science can say almost nothing of substance about the core issues in theology, because they concern a reality that is literally out of this world, by definition beyond the reach of science. Still, this hasn’t stopped many people from maintaining that science disproves theological beliefs. What is most interesting about this debate – and most positive for theology – is that it has forced theologians to engage with the natural sciences both positively and critically. Culturally, theology is seen to be fighting a losing battle against science, but I see this as part of a wider fetishism of science in our society which is affecting all of the humanities subjects adversely to some extent. There’s every reason to hope that our view of science will mature in time, and that a more balanced view of its abilities will eventually prevail, alongside the other great truth-seeking disciplines, philosophy and religious thought.

RB: Has scientific knowledge become the absolute truth, to the extent that other ways of knowing and coming to the truth – for example, religious ways, but also the arts and humanities – find they now have to justify themselves?

MH: Of course not. Anyone who claims that scientific knowledge is the ‘absolute truth’ doesn’t know how science works. Sadly, even some professional scientists, who should know better, sometimes make this claim. It really is uncontroversial to say this, but the point needs to be brought home nonetheless, that all scientific theories, by their nature, are provisional, and are destined to be revised or rejected in time. Anyone who thinks that we’ve reached a settled view on any scientific issue just needs to look at the history of science to see how often the scientific consensus of the day has been completely over-turned by unexpected developments at some later date. I would say that this aspect of science is what sets it most apart from humanities subjects like theology, where we work with a body of tradition that’s relatively fixed in comparison. The sciences are constantly evolving in both their methods, content and outlook, while much of the task of theology is to re-interpret and re-appraise ancient wisdom.

RB: New scientific perspectives on complex systems, emergence and information have taken on wider philosophical and ‘religious’ implications – with phrases being used such as the ‘emergence of transcendence’ and ‘reinventing the sacred’. How, in your view, does complexity, which mainly deals with ‘matter’, fit in with the spiritual?

MH: This is a very trendy area in science-and-theology discussions right now, and is a good example of the ways in which scientific language can be helpful in trying to frame deep theological and religious mysteries. The language of quantum mechanics has proved its worth in the same way for decades, and it’s become very hackneyed to hear, for instance, how wave-particle duality in the quantum world is an analogy for the way that Christ is simultaneously human and divine. The point is that this is an analogy though: it isn’t necessarily telling us a new spiritual truth, but perhaps providing a new way of expressing it in human language. So the fact that the science moves towards new and counter-intuitive discoveries such as complexity and emergence in nature doesn’t mean that this tells us something new about spiritual realities. At best, the scientific ideas are simply giving us new metaphors for describing the indescribable.

RB: Following on from the previous question, there have been attempts in neuroscience to locate a “God gene” which have made claims that our brains are “hardwired” for religion—even the strange case of one neuroscientist who allegedly invented an electromagnetic “God helmet” that could produce a mystical experience in anyone who wore it. In your view, can spiritual experiences be reduced to material phenomena?

MH: Yes and no. The Christian doctrine of creation has, for two millennia, taught that humans are fully created beings, entirely at home in the natural world. So it should come as no surprise to religious believers if everything we are, and everything we experience, can be ‘reduced’ to natural phenomena and natural explanations, like any other part of creation. The science hasn’t told us anything new from that perspective. So, just because a person’s religious experience might be ‘explained’ in natural terms doesn’t thereby undermine the reality of that experience from a spiritual perspective. The fact that many religious believers are surprised by this point, and feel challenged by advances in the neuroscience tells us something important about the widespread belief in the immortality of our personal soul, and its detachability from our body. We inherited this view from the ancient Greeks via others like Descartes, but I think it’s high time to jettison it on both scientific and theological grounds.

RB: Discourses on the relationship between science and religion often result in polarized, volatile debate involving conflict and hostility. Do you think this conflict is a social construct and is meaningful dialogue possible?

MH: Yes, I certainly do believe that this conflict is a social construct! For sure, there are areas of conflict between some scientific ideas and some religious beliefs (e.g. the debate over origins between evolutionary biology and young-earth creationism). But the widespread assumption in our society that science and religion should inevitably and always conflict is a ‘social construct’, an idea that seems so obvious that a society will largely believe it without question, because that idea supports (or legitimates) another belief that’s become important to that society, which in this case is secularism. Secularism isn’t easily defined, but it seems to be a whole cluster of political, ethical and social beliefs which tend to prioritise scientific approaches over more ‘traditional’ sources of knowledge such religion. This is why the motif of conflict between science and religion has become a key part of the secular narrative of our times, because without that assumed conflict secularism would be almost devoid of content. So, despite some famous clashes (e.g. the trial of Galileo, or the Darwin debates), there’s no evidence that science and religion have always engaged in conflict and hostility in history, and there’s no evidence that this is always is the case now, but nevertheless it has become the default assumption because it’s seen to explain modern secular appraisals of the value of science, and the precarious place of religion in our society. Once the cultural implications of this point are appreciated, there’s plenty of scope for meaningful dialogue between science and religion.

RB: Is there a role for thought experiments in religion, as there is in science?

MH: Certainly. Religious scriptures are full of teaching material that makes use of imaginative devices to explore spiritual and ethical meaning. The book of Job is a good example which explores the questions that arise from innocent suffering, by means of a kind of thought experiment where a man (Job) is placed in a terrible situation, which is then debated by him and his friends. Other examples of religious thought experiments could be the parables of Jesus, where he derives some hard-hitting messages from imaginative narratives. Arguably, the apocalyptic literature of early Judaism and Christianity, which tells of heavenly journeys, revelations, and woeful predictions about the end of the world, also explores spiritual realities through fantastic and imaginative devices. While none of this material is the same as a scientific thought experiment, there are clearly parallels to be made.

RB: You are currently working on a book project on naturalism and the ways that debates on naturalism in geology provide a new way of looking at miracles. Can you say more about this project?

MH: The book is unusual in suggesting that geology might provide a way out of the cul-de-sac that theological thought on miracle has become stuck in. (Geology usually only appears in science-and-religion discussions when the creation vs. evolution debate is in view). It’s conventional in theological and philosophical discussions of miracle to assume that science can be adequately dealt with simply by invoking ‘the laws of nature’, such that a miracle transgresses these laws. The book demonstrates the shortcomings of this assumption, arguing that we need to address wider underpinning concepts in the philosophy of science, including naturalism, the uniformity of nature, and the unity of science. Remarkably, the latter two in particular are never raised in discussions of miracle, and yet debates in geology over the last 170 years have demonstrated how crucial they are for distinguishing scientific method from the miraculous. Hence, the overall purpose of my book is to search for a realistic account of the natural world as a venue for the miraculous, by using perspectives from the philosophy of science and debates in earth science. This will, I think, provide a new angle on the theology of miracle, making use of contemporary mainstream geological thinking on catastrophes and rare/unique events.

RB: How do you see the interaction between the physical sciences and religion progressing? And what is needed?

MH: ‘Progress’ is a difficult word in this context, because it suggests development towards an end goal, or improvement away from an initial position. From that point of view, I don’t believe that the interaction between the physical sciences and religious beliefs is ‘going anywhere’ in particular, but that’s partly because I don’t know where it might be aiming to go. As far as theology is concerned – and I mean theology as a discipline concerned with deep reflection on ultimate realities and our relationship with them – science is quite the newcomer. As humans we are still learning what science is and what it’s capable of. Theology is one of those disciplines that can help here. Theology is, by its very nature, a much more reflective and interpretative discipline than the sciences which, in contrast, are constantly in flux, and constantly evolving. So while some of my theology colleagues bemoan the fact that it always seems to be theology that accommodates advances in the sciences, and not the other way around, I suspect that this mode of operating will probably always be the dominant one. As I said, the physical sciences are still relatively new on the scale of human history though, and I sincerely hope that as our wisdom grows in how to use them and understand what they do, that we start to reflect more deeply on the foundational issues underpinning them, issues which are really the subject for philosophy and theology.

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One Response to “On Science and Theology”

  1. Stephen Nowlin
    May 21, 2020 at 6:09 pm #

    Perhaps someday theology will evolve and merge with the philosophy of science, adding to it the poetic and emotional dimensions humans crave in their relation to existence — something that science in the popular imagination presently lacks but that science is absolutely capable of providing. To do this though, theology (and more pointedly religion) must delete from its doctrines its core belief in the supernatural.

    In this respect, science does inherently say something insurmountable for theology. Science by definition assumes the truth of things will always be found through an exploration and understanding of nature. Nothing about the provisional principle of knowledge acquired by that exploration negates the premise that it is the only way to know truth. Science never concludes that the limit of knowledge has been reached and questions it cannot currently answer lie therefore in the domain of the supernatural. “Physics beyond our ability to understand” is an oxymoron, both in terms of what the word “physics” means and as an ultimate justification for god-of-the-gaps. Theology, just as it did with heliocentrism, must eventually adapt its understanding of spirituality to the non-supernatural, if it is to embrace science.

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