In previous articles, we explored the conflict and independence models. Both take the view that science and theology need to be sharply distinguished, either such that they make incompatible claims about the same dimensions of life, or compatible claims about different ones. A third view, articulated by Ian Barbour, the founder of Science and Religion studies, is the dialogue model. Dialogue theorists see science and theology as involved in distinct, yet complimentary, investigations. Each has something of value to say to the other. Instead of taking particular theories in science or theology as the starting point, however, dialogue theorists look at the general approach of each and try to see what they have in common, and what keeps them distinct.
In order to draw out the implications of this view, Ian Barbour raises the issue of “limit questions.” A limit question is one “raised by the scientific enterprise as a whole but not answered by the methods of science.” One type of limit question involves the intelligibility of nature—the belief, implicit in scientific inquiry, that nature is so-constituted that we can understand it. The success of science strongly suggests that nature is indeed intelligible, at least in the respects relevant to physics. When Stephen Hawking writes about black holes or time dilation, for instance, he takes it for granted that these phenomena both can be, and are, well understood by people with the right knowledge and training. If someone were to challenge him on this, he might respond that it’s simply self-evident that nature is intelligible because we do in fact understand it. He might be right to do so, but this does not answer the limit question, which is about the contingent nature of that intelligibility. After all, it didn’t have to be that way. It’s easy to think of a possible world where the relevant laws of physics or chemistry are so complex or obscure that beings such as ourselves could never really understand them, and where physics, as we have it now, wouldn’t be possible. Why do we live in this world, where it is, and not another world, where it isn’t? Why should nature be comprehensible to us at all?
A scientist who really thought that the phenomena they were studying could never be understood would face something of a morale problem.
Of course, some philosophers think that it really isn’t. According to anti-realist philosophers like David Hume or Michel Foucault, science, while undeniably useful for controlling the world around us and for serving up technological goodies, doesn’t really understand nature on its own terms. In their view, nature preserves its secrets. It’s not that our science is inadequate somehow but will eventually get to where it’s going, but that the impossibility of separating the subject from the object, the knower from the known, precludes the possibility of certain kinds of knowledge. There is no “view from nowhere,” on this theory, only views from particular standpoints, and those views are bound to be conditioned by the circumstances in which they arise. We never speak simply about the world, but about our being in the world, on this view. Anti-realism has a real attraction for some atheist philosophers, because if nature is not intelligible then its intelligibility does not require explanation.
It is one thing, however, to take the success of science for granted, and another thing to become motivated to do scientific research in the first place. A scientist who really thought that the phenomena they were studying could never be understood would face something of a morale problem. The quest for discovery is premised on the possibility of… well… discovery, of finding out the truth about something. If that is not possible, if we’re locked within a hall of mirrors constituted by our own minds and our embeddedness in an incomprehensible nature, then that isn’t very encouraging for scientific inquiry. Indeed, it encourages a certain attitude toward science which is very pervasive in our time. Scientific inquiry began as a quest for truth, to really understand nature, but today is largely understood as a quest for technological control. Even the most zealous advocates of science typically appeal to the technological benefits, not to the desire to understand for its own sake, when justifying the scientific enterprise. Pure, basic research tends to fall by the way, as grant-making agencies increasingly ask, not “What will we understand?” but “What will we get?” The reason—as Paul Forman pointed out in his paper, “The Primacy of Science in Modernity, Technology in Postmodernity, and Ideology in the History of Technology,” (the subject of a previous article)—is that truth really isn’t on the table anymore, under conditions of postmodernity. That’s how we know we’re living in a postmodern culture. Under conditions of modernity, the quest for knowledge was primarily a quest for truth. Under conditions of postmodernity, it’s primarily a quest for technological control.
If we think ourselves back into an earlier condition, however—that of premodernity, where the success of science was not taken for granted, but had to be established—then we aren’t able to appeal to that success in order to justify the scientific enterprise. Why did Europeans believe that they could understand nature? After all, science didn’t have to arise in Europe. If you looked at the world in the fifteenth century, and had to guess where groundbreaking discoveries would occur, you might have guessed in the Islamic World, or in India or China, which all have ancient and profound traditions of thought, and were much more wealthy and stable than Europe. So, why in that one, particular place? The answer, according to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and to the scholar, physicist, and priest Stanley Jaki, is that European intellectuals assumed the intelligibility of nature. They believed, not that it was self-existent and eternal, as the Greeks had, or that it was intrinsically sacred, as the pantheistic philosophies of India held, but that it was a finite product of infinite intelligence, that of God; an intelligence reflected, in some small capacity, in human reason. Christian theology, drawing on certain passages from Genesis, held that human beings were “made in the image of God,” and hence in some sense like God.
Under conditions of modernity, the quest for knowledge was primarily a quest for truth. Under conditions of postmodernity, it’s primarily a quest for technological control.
This “likeness” has received several prominent interpretations, but two are especially relevant here. One is the view that human beings are "like” God in the sense that they can participate in the divine reason. According to the medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, there is an intellectus adaequatio ad rem, an “adequation of the intellect to reality,” which allows human beings to reason about nature and to understand it. God wanted people to be able to understand the world they lived in, and so created them such that they could understand it, according to Aquinas. Thus, when we our reason, we are fulfilling some deep inner drive that we have to realize the “image of God” within us. A person who thinks that the use of their intellect is in some sense an expression of what is best in them has a powerful motivation for doing so. Perhaps the motivation for using our reason doesn’t seem especially problematic or obscure for us philosophy buffs, but for most human beings, most of the time, reason is for navigating practical, day-to-day problems; how to get ahead in one’s career, how to find the right romantic partner, and so on. Just sitting back and thinking for the pleasure of it is really a very odd activity, and not many people do it, even today, when the culture we live in praises thoughtfulness and creativity. One can only imagine what things would have been like in Aquinas’s time.
Another sense in which human beings have been thought, by Christian theology, to have a likeness to God is in the exercise of dominion, or mastery, over nature. Again there are certain passages in Genesis and the Psalms that represent God as conferring this mastery on human beings. The omnipotence of God is thought to be reflected in the more limited potency of human beings. In that case, it is not only good to think, but good to think about how to control nature. Again this might seem like a perfectly obvious notion, but it really hasn’t been in the past. There have been occasional eccentrics and inventors in practically all societies, of course, but science is really not about individual people pursuing their own projects. It is an institutionalized, collaborative, long-term effort, and it has to be based on the conviction that it is both possible and good to understand the world around us. The ancient Greeks devoted a great deal of attention to intellectual questions, but their thought tended toward understanding abstract concepts, such as mathematics and ethics, rather than on understanding the natural world. The ancient Hindus, too, were very interested in intellectual questions, but tended to think of them in terms of the individual’s personal quest for delivery from suffering and finitude. In Confucian philosophy, the central question has been how to order family relations, and by extension the rest of society, so that justice and virtue can prevail. A mechanical understanding of nature is only one of many possible goals for intellectual activity, and it hasn’t been at all obvious to most people throughout history who have thought about it, that this was the best course to pursue. Indeed, this approach has plenty of critics today, especially in environmentalist, pantheistic, and “new age” circles, where the feeling is that nature is an organism to be revered, not a mechanism to be exploited. According to one theory of our current ecological crisis, it is a consequence of this particular inheritance from Christian theology—an obsession with mechanism and with mastery, rather than integration and reverence.
If, then, human beings could understand nature, and should understand it, and should use that understanding to exercise mastery over it, as seems to have been implied by certain strands of premodern Christian theology, the origins of science in Europe rather than in other parts of the world, where people were in some respects better situated to pursue it, becomes more readily comprehensible. Today, the justification for the intelligibility of nature is not usually given in these terms. The success of science itself is thought to sufficiently underwrite this claim. It still calls out for explanation, though—at least for people who think that science really does discover the truth—why nature should be intelligible in the respects relevant to the truth-finding character of science.
I don’t want to imply that science can only have arisen in this particular context, or that other, non-Christian societies did not have practices that we would recognize as scientific in at least some ways. There may be one destination, but many possible paths by which it can be reached. Then again, there may also simply be different destinations. At any rate, from the observation that modern science was reached in a particular way in the past, it does not follow that it cannot have been reached in any other way. Nor do I want to imply that it was Christian theology, and that alone, or necessarily even primarily, that was responsible. The issue is very complex and has been the subject of extended scholarly investigation over the last century. What has become reasonably clear, however, is that Christian theology did inform the early development of science, in the distinctively modern, Western sense of the word, in important ways. Finally, it has to be pointed out that other societies had practices, and systems of belief, that were scientific in the sense of understanding and controlling nature. It is not the case that people lived in complete ignorance of the world around them before the development of modern, European science. The Polynesian Islanders, for instance, undertook amazing feats of navigation. They developed astronomical and oceanographic records that allowed them to accurately locate islands hundreds of miles away, and to settle in locations as far apart as Madagascar, Eastern Island, and possibly even South America. Certainly other societies have made impressive discoveries as well, before modern times or any meaningful contact with Europeans.
The idea, rather, has been to explore one possible means of dialogue between science and theology. Is nature intelligible? According to some strands of naturalistic philosophy, those championed by Hume, Foucault, and other philosophers of subjectivity, the answer is “no.” Science might be successful in some respects, on that view, but insomuch as it aims to discover truth, it is not successful—or, perhaps, is just insufficiently candid about its own motives. According to another strand of naturalistic philosophy—that which takes the success of science as its starting point, and therefore has a tendency to treat science as a sort of “unmoved mover,” or “unexplained explainer,” that which inquires but is not inquired about—the intelligibility of nature does not have to be explained, but can simply be taken for granted.
The answer then becomes neither “yes” nor “no,” but “wrong question!” Science is thought to answer, or at any rate to provide the point of departure for, all the questions that are meaningful to ask, or possible to get answers to. And, according to some strands of premodern (and current!) Christian theology, the answer is “yes”—nature is intelligible, because it is a product of intelligence, one sufficiently like our own to make its exploration legitimate and worthwhile. As we have seen, this point of view is not without relevance to scientific inquiry. It encouraged the pioneers of science to make it successful, at a time when that success could not be taken for granted, because it had not yet been established. And it continues to offer encouragement to theistic scientists and philosophers looking for resources with which to combat postmodern skepticism, and who are not content to take the intelligibility of nature for granted, and yet leave it unexplained.
But this is only one instance of a limiting question—one that emerges as a result of scientific inquiry, but which that inquiry does not resolve. These and other limiting questions provide the dialogue model with its typical point of departure, according to Ian Barbour. The idea is not so much for science to change theology, or for theology to change science, but rather to see what each, considered on its own terms, might have to say about questions which arise because of the other. Perhaps in future articles, there will be additional opportunities to explore examples of constructive and mutually enriching dialogue.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.