Science and religion

Jack falls again into a discussion with Ivana Fokov, on the road to Calzadilla. The text gives a very truncated, rough, overview of the original discussion, but the topic is far larger in scope and therefore not enough space to include in the book itself. Yet this theme has been central in philosophy over the last few years. This is largely due to the rise of the theory of Scientism, a theme which is close to Ivana’s own views which were expressed in their earlier meeting. The discussion follows on from this earlier topic of ‘Nothing but Atoms’, where Jack conversed with both Vladimir and Ivana about the constraints of freedom. This debate has significant overlap with that discussion, and is therefore no less important.

The view starting out from Carrion de los Condes

The view of ‘Scientism’, (being the idea that there is no field of knowledge worthwhile outside of the Scientific Method) is one which is, unfortunately, all too pervasive. One of the key thinkers in this debate is Richard Dawkins, yet the ideas that are presented with this line of thinking are very much grounded in the debates of the latter half of the 19th Century. The debate has a counterpart in the 20th Century focus on Logical Postivism and Logical Functionalism. Their proposal was that the limits of our language should be rooted in what we can observe, as Wittgenstein puts it, the limits of the world are the limits of language.

However, other philosophers see this is patently absurd, and in the text Midgie again brings Jack back out of his philosophical doldrums to show that not only is there a plausible way out of this line of thinking, Scientism and its siblings is problematic as a way of understanding the world.

This chapter in the book, and the ensuing discussion are vitally important. This is an area where there is an impact between the philosophical theories and the inherent beliefs that are well established in the general intellectual milieu. An example: If you were to ask any school child in western societies, ‘Could a religious person, a priest for example, be a scientist?’, the answer is almost invariably ‘no’. Inherent within their belief system, is that Religion and Science are opposed. And yet this is not obvious, hence there is a dogmatism to this, a bias, a blind-spot in the way this view has crept into our default thinking.

Alongside this, they will also argue that religion has been superseded by Science. It is a tempting view, given how successful the scientific method has been for the last few hundred years. August Comte, argued in the first half of the 19th Century, that history has shown a development of thinking that can be outlined in three stages, theological, metaphysical followed by our own more advanced age, the scientific. However, the view that Science and Religion are opposed, is not a view which is in any way obvious. Then where are the routes of this idea that Science is naturally opposed to Religion?

Before we can look at this perhaps I might summarise here a more detailed layout of this general view of the relationship between Religion and Science:

So this I think is the usual picture many of us have, and it is surprising how all-pervasive this view is in the mind-set of writers:

  1. The Ancient Greeks were wonderful Scientists/Rationalists and then unfortunately…
  2. Christianity oppressed learning when it comes on the scene and takes power post 312AD.
  3. There is the so called ‘Dark Ages’ when no Science is being done at all
  4. The Medieval period: The Authoritative Church prevents Scientific Learning and the monks talk about nonsense such as how many angels can be fitted on the head of a needle and arguing that the world was flat.
  5. The Renaissance period: The Church oppresses those who contradict the Bible and burns people who oppose its outdated Science, like Giordano Bruno and persecutes and tortures Galileo. Galileo stands up against the Church’s oppression. The Catholic Church continues to believe in a geocentric universe and that the world is flat because of what it says in the Bible.
  6. The Enlightenment: Especially the French version, finally overcomes the Church and bases its superior morality and knowledge on Reason and Science.
  7. The final nail in the coffin (in the UK at least) is in 1860, where Thomas Huxley destroys Bishop William Wilberforce in a devastating attack at Oxford.

The above is a persistent and pervasive understanding of the relationship between the two.

The above schematic, however, is almost entirely false!

Galileo in opposition to the Church, by Cristiano Banti (and idea that had become prevalent by the time this was painted in 1857)

A more detailed discussion of why this is the case is set out in the Resources Section, however let us look at some key areas:

  1. The Ancient Greeks were of course great rationalists, but there was no distinction between science and religion effectively for Ancient Greeks, it can be argued equally that Newton had an issue distinguishing the two as well.
  2. Undoubtedly with the rise of Christianity after the conversion of Constantine, there was persecution of opposing ideas, however it was certainly not anti-science, it knew very well its value even at this early stage. It very much encouraged learning, some of it may have been wrong, but that wasn’t the fault of Christianity, that was just where the Science had arrived at.
  3. The Dark ages was certainly a hiatus in scientific advances, and certainly marked by wanton violence and the collapse of states, but there were pockets of research and development, particularly in the monasteries, one of the few centres of learning left in the West.
  4. James Hannam has done a wonderful job of exploding the myth, that little if any Science was occurring in Medieval times. The pioneering work of these scholars, their emphasis on learning, the translations of new texts that had come to light from the ancient world and from Arab thinkers via the engagement with the Arabic world was the foundation on which the new Science of the 17th century could build. The scholastic thinkers saw the hand of God ordering the universe in natural theology. This was the ‘two books’ approach, one book of natural and the other of the Bible.
  5. None of the scientists (many of which were churchmen in any case) were persecuted simply for their religious beliefs. It would be more honest to see the interaction of the church and new developments in science (again many of which the churchmen were very interested in rather than opposed to) as a genuine scientific debate between different theories. Galileo’s views were suppressed, for sure, but he has his own part to play in this, effectively publicly calling the Pope a simpleton. For his crimes? He was kept under house arrest, but in plush apartments in the Vatican (many today have suffered far worse under lockdown!).
  6. As above, the Enlightenment was not a clean break from the medieval discoveries in Science, it was a continuation of it.
  7. This debate in Oxford was not the debate it has often been made out to be, Samuel Wilberforce often depicted as a bigoted, blundering churchman, was one of the leading intellectuals of the Victorian Age – more in the notes under the Resources section.

The erroneous schematic as outlined above, can be traced back to a warring mind set established by two authors of the 19th Century, Andrew Dickson White, and William Draper:

Andrew Dickson White’s, A History of the Warfare between Science with Theology in  Christendom (1896) enforces a confrontation on the debate where none had hitherto existed. White declared that it was a mistake to think that the Religion and Science were enemies, but his book gave exactly the opposite impressions.

White argued that Galileo  had been tortured. And that Bruno was a martyr to his Scientific beliefs. Bruno in fact was killed because he argued that Christ had no human body and his death on his cross was an illusion. Galileo was never physically tortured. Galileo during his trial was housed in a three room suite and had his meals prepared by the chef of the Italian embassy.

White stated that the heroic Christopher Columbus enlightened the world in that it was round and not flat, but at least as far back as Aristotle – the world was known and thought to be round. (Also note that in 1988 a survey in Britain found that only a third of people knew that the earth goes round the sun once a year!).

William Draper’s book Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) was a vehement attack on the Roman Catholic church.

Draper  argued that natural science should be viewed as the liberator against religion, particular Roman Catholicism:

‘The History of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other’

The relationship between Religion and Science may currently be a troubled one, but this is a recent invention, and I hope to have shown by the above that generally, our understanding of it is at the very least skewed. They are not naturally at odds. John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke and Alistair McGrath have shown in recent years how these Science, Theology and Philosophy can be complementary. (Much of this depends on one’s view of the place of Faith and the Bible which is tackled by ‘The Little Priest’ in an earlier chapter of the book).

The approach to Calzadilla, after which Jack again meets Midgie to talk through the Science and Religion debate

And so this leaves Midgie, who Jack meets again later at Terradillos de los Templario, to explain an alternative view on the relationship between the Science and Religion debate, and relate it back to the Free-Will debate.

Religion cannot dismiss Science, yet Science in its turn is neutral. It does not lead someone to belief or unbelief, it is merely observation. Equally, for a true understanding of how God truly interacts with the universe, natural theology is a must, not an add on. Therefore Religion and Science are not sworn enemies, they can be complementary. Whether Science will lead to belief is still entirely up to you, the Design Argument and the Cosmological argument are well-known arguments in this field. Intelligent Design being a further advance on this, (though in some guises where it rejects evolutionary theory it has the hallmark of neither being by Design or Intelligent). However, in other guises, such as the ideas of the fine-tuning of the universe, or that a world with our physical laws and parameters where chaos and order interplay, there is a far more fruitful debate.


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