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The Borders of Science

Razor wire Where exactly will we find the boundaries of science that the ignorant hordes of religion are accused of invading?

This mythic image of a ‘war’ between science and religion has become so commonplace that it has become very easy to buy into it, especially in the context of evolution, which serves as the frontline of the alleged battle. This story does not, however, bear up under scrutiny. This does not mean that there isn’t a conflict – it’s abundantly clear that there is a political fight going on in the United States over the education system, for instance, and echoes of the same can be found in the Islamic world. But as Charles Taylor notes, the idealised view of “religion” versus “science” is an ideological construct that masks an intellectual struggle with complex agendas.

For a war between “science” and “religion” to be viable, there must be some common territory. If not, there can be wars within “science”, just as there are certainly conflicts within “religion”, but there cannot be a dispute between them. The question has to be: is there common ground between the two, and if there is, does it lie beyond Popper’s milestone, out in the vast untestable tracts of metaphysics? Because if this is the only place “science” and “religion” intersect, we had better learn to live with the problem, because we shall certainly never resolve metaphysical disputes to anyone’s satisfaction.

Let us drop the scare quotes for now and pretend that we know what the terms science and religion mean, at least in broad strokes. To some extent, this condemns ‘religion’ to end up meaning ‘Christianity or other religions that are similar to Christianity such as Islam’, which I feel is gross misunderstanding of the beliefs of the people on our planet, but alas this cannot be helped. It certainly seems that many of the vocal critics of religion focus their ire on Christians and just assume that all other religions are essentially the same under the hood, but as it happens many of the people who have actively explored the relationship between science and religion have made an explicit choice to treat ‘religion’ as meaning ‘faith tradition’ or ‘Christianity’, if only for practical reasons.

One such intrepid explorer – indeed, the person credited with founding ‘Science and Religion’ as an area of study – is Ian Barbour. In 1990, he proposed a fourfold typology as a means of sorting out the various ways people have related science and religion; although he has made some minor revisions, he had continued to use this system ever since. It is widely taught as a means of examining the issues in the interface between science and religion. The four boxes in his model are as follows.

Firstly, conflict, in which science and religion are seen as enemies. Barbour makes the point that both Creationists and atheistic scientists agree on this point, seeing it as impossible for a person to believe in both God and evolution. They only disagree about which to accept. Barbour notes that these two groups “get most attention from the media, since a conflict makes a more exciting new story than the distinctions made by persons between these two extremes who accept both evolution and some form of theism.” Richard Dawkins is a prominent example of someone espousing conflict.

Secondly, independence, in which science and religion are seen as strangers that can get along “as long as they keep a safe distance from each other”. This viewpoint denies the validity of any claimed conflict, since science and religion are claimed to refer to differing domains of life. This perspective corresponds to geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s remark that “science and religion deal with different aspects of existence. If one dares to overschematize for the sake of clarity, one may say that these are the aspect of fact and the aspect of meaning.” Barbour notes that separating the two fields into “separate watertight compartments” is a way to avoid conflict “but at the price of preventing constructive interaction.” Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent example of someone espousing independence.

Thirdly, dialogue, in which both similarities and differences are acknowledged, and conversation is facilitated between (say) theologians and scientists. Barbour suggests that dialogue can occur at the limits of science, when it faces a question that it cannot answer such as “Why is the universe orderly and intelligible?” It can also occur when ideas from science are used to influence theological interpretations of the relationship of God to the world. Unlike independence, dialogue doesn’t treat science and religion as forever cut off from one another, and unlike conflict, dialogue doesn’t recognise a fundamental incompatibility between the practice of science and religious faith. Barbour himself is an example of this approach.

Lastly, integration, which is a “more systematic and extensive kind of partnership between science and religion”, one that either argues for the reformulation of certain religious beliefs in the light of scientific discoveries (a theology of nature, rather than natural theology), or that tries to interpret scientific and religious thought within a common framework (such as process theology). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is sometimes given as an example of this approach, although Barbour admits to supporting integration as well as dialogue.

Another similar typology has been offered by Catholic theologian John F. Haught, one in which the four categories are whimsically given titles beginning with the same letter: conflict, contrast, contact and confirmation. Barbour recognises that the first two categories are the same in both systems (i.e. Haught’s ‘contrast’ is the same as Barbour’s ‘independence’), and suggests that Haught’s term ‘contact’ combines the themes of Barbour’s ‘dialogue’ and ‘integration’ into one heading – indeed, Barbour notes that “there is no sharp line” separating dialogue from integration, so Haught’s conflation in this regard is not unreasoanble. The final category, ‘confirmation’, refers to the validation of scientific thought by background assumptions that originated in theology (such as belief in the rationality and intelligibility of the world), and Barbour suggests that this is for him can be considered a form of dialogue.

What can be gained from Barbour’s discussions of Haught’s closely related typology is that the idea of four categories doesn’t quite stack up in either of the two models on offer. According to Barbour, ‘integration’ is not sharply delineated from ‘dialogue’, and Haught’s ‘confirmation’ also a form of dialogue – suggesting that both approaches collapse into just three categories – conflict, independence and dialogue (or conflict, contrast and contact). However, some further conceptual analysis may shed some light onto what it is exactly that either system is supposed to be reflecting.

The essence of the conflict position – whether espoused by a diehard atheist like Dawkins, or the Creationists he despises – is an absolute and objectivist attitude towards truth. There is one account of what is true, and hence once you are sure you have the correct account of the truth you can safely dismiss all other accounts as being in error. This can be contrasted against the independence and dialogue positions, both of which take a perspectival attitude towards truth. This is not to claim that the truth is inescapably relative or unobtainable, but rather to suggest that different perspectives can offer an important part of the true picture and, further, that absolute and objective truth cannot be achieved directly (except, for theists, by God). For independence, the truth is perspectival because science and religion make different claims; for dialogue, the truth is perspectival because science and religion approach the world from different (but potentially complementary) angles.

If independence and dialogue have this perspectival attitude towards truth in common, what distinguishes them? It is their differing attitude towards the domains or languages of science and religion. Independence entails disjunction, as both Barbour and Haught assert. On this account, science and religion are different fields, they use different languages, and they talk about different things, as in Gould’s proposal of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) whereby science is characterised as “our drive to understand the factual character of nature” and religion is characterised as “our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions”  – just as in Dobzhansky’s simplification of science and religion into aspects of “fact” and “meaning”.

Conversely, dialogue (and, by extension Barbour’s integration and Haught’s confirmation) entails intersection between science and religion; rather than treating the two as if they are partitioned into “watertight compartments”, they are allowed to interrelate. While a non-religious individual such as Gould can be content with carving up distinct territories for science and religion, people of faith such as both Barbour and Haught are generally less comfortable with this solution. This is a point H. Allen Orr astutely makes in his review of Gould’s NOMA proposal: “If your religion is dictated by science, the two are non-overlapping. But if your religion is independent of science, the two routinely tread on each other’s toes.” Indeed, Barbour makes it clear why he believes dialogue is preferable to independence:

We cannot remain content with science and religion as unrelated languages if they are languages about the same world. If we seek a coherent interpretation of all experience, we cannot avoid the search for a more unified worldview.

In other words, the attempt to compartmentalise science and religion has the undesired effect for many religiously minded people of demoting religion with respect to science – fact somehow outranks meaning, in so much as one wants to believe that both are talking about the same world. There is something of an echo of the desire for absolute truth that epitomizes the conflict positions in this approach: if religion has nothing to do with fact, doesn’t this come close to saying that religion isn’t true at all?

This conceptual analysis has an additional consequence: the distinction between disjunction and intersection can also be applied to the conflict camp. As Barbour and Haught have it, Creationists and their atheist opponents all fall into one box. This is a convenient grouping in so much as it shows up what Taylor calls the “strangely intra-mural quality” of the alleged war between science and religion, and certainly in so much as the atheist faction is conducting their own brand of theology (admittedly, atheology) the disagreements do have some common ground here. But at the same time, there is something deeply distinctive about what Creation Science or Intelligent Design proposes, in that it rests on a presumed intersection between science and religion – both must conform to a common truth – whereas naturalistic atheism rests on a disjunction – science is true, therefore religion is false.

If my conceptual analysis is accepted, then we are back to four categories in the relationship between religion and science – but they are not quite the same as those proposed by Barbour and Haught. There are two positions based on belief in absolute truth, the absolute disjunction of ‘conflict atheism’ and the absolute intersection of ‘conflict theism’. There are also two positions based on belief in indirect access to truth, the perspectival disjunction of Gould’s NOMA and its equivalents and the perspectival intersection of theology of nature and other forms of dialogue. But as Orr suggests, Gould’s position begins outside of religion, whereas Barbour, Haught and other advocates of dialogue begin in positions that begin inside of religion.

In this respect, you might expect an advocate of independence, like Gould, to have some sympathy for conflict atheism – but of course, Gould and Dawkins were bitter rivals (admittedly, mostly over scientific issues). Similarly, you might expect an advocate of dialogue to have some sympathy for conflict theism, since they share in common a relationship with religion. But the opposite is true – Barbour says that “creation science is a threat to both religious and scientific freedom”, while Haught calls it “a scandal” that there are Christians who accept a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden and “deplorable that there are still so many defenders of ID and creationism”. It seems that whichever camp you fall into, everyone else has it wrong.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? I’m going to take the least popular position and suggest that all four of these camps have an important piece of the puzzle. Both the perspectival positions have it right that absolute truth isn’t something we have access to as mere humans, but advocates of disjunction have to massively simplify what religion is allowed to mean in order to make their plan work, and this just isn’t acceptable to most people of faith. Conversely, in condemning their more literally-minded cousins, advocates of dialogue are trying to buy respectability for their theology at the risk of denying freedom of belief to those believers unable to make peace with evolution. But the reason these people are denying evolution has very little to do with science, and everything to do with the conflict atheists’ clumsy attempts at theology. Thus both the absolute camps are correctly calling on the faults of their vocal opponents, even though their own positions rest on sand.

Ultimately, if we take seriously the commitment to freedom of belief at the heart of contemporary conceptions of Human Rights, the challenge shouldn’t be to establish who is right and who is wrong – as ever was the case, everyone is right in some sense, and everyone is wrong in another sense. The challenge shouldn’t be to settle the argument – in so much as key parts of the dispute are far beyond Popper’s milestone (e.g. resolving existence claims for God), this simply isn’t an option. What we have to find is not the right answer, but a workable solution that allows everyone concerned to live together.

Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.


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“Why is the universe orderly and intelligible?”

... because if it were unordered or unintelligible, we could not be having this discussion. Therefore it must be. Thank you Reverend Bayes.

Not convinced this is a question that science cannot answer. Why do you feel it is?

This is Barbour's assertion, not mine (perhaps I should clear up the prose on this point in the manuscript). However, it smacks of metaphysics rather than physics and as such is not an empirical question.

*waves from between conferences*

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