Science and Christian Theology Mutually Inform One Another

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Popular consciousness in the West has affirmed over and over again, like the beating of a drum, that natural science and theology are in bitter conflict. Recently, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne made this claim in a predictable piece, claiming that the two are incompatible and are at war with one another. In recent years, scientific materialists—at full throttle—have pushed forward the notion that natural science is a beacon of light and that the latter—religion—is at best an archaic fairy tale that offers nothing more than false hope, and is at worst a collective madness which stagnates human progress and reason, causing the majority of wars and irreparable psychological damage to human beings. The truth is that explicitly atheistic regimes have been the cause of much more bloodshed than all religious wars combined; only seven percent of all wars have been explicitly religious (i.e., 123 of the 1,763 violent conflicts over 3,500 years).

This sort of superficial analysis reminds me of the book, Contact, written by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, which was adapted into a motion picture in 1997. Sagan perpetuated this myth that theology and natural science were engaged in an ongoing struggle. The movie features Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster, who I presume was to some degree the female embodiment of Sagan himself), an astronomer who is obsessed with bringing the SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) program to its fruition, and her love interest Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey), a theologian who argues that science and technology have failed to provide any remedy to humanity’s existential angst.

In a scene relevant to our discussion, Arroway conjectures that science has demonstrated God’s nonexistence since science operates by proving things and no such proof exists for God. Joss retorts by asking Arroway to prove her love for her deceased father. The point made by Joss is well put, i.e., if he meant that science cannot account for the subjective experience of love. Empirical observation of the causal connections between emotional states and the neurochemical and physiological events within the brain and other parts of the human body would just provide one level of analysis (i.e., a physical explanation) and not the substance or object of one’s love; love involves an act of the will and intellect which is irreducible to the material.

Having recently watched Contact again after a number of years, I’ve pondered how I would tackle Arroway’s assertion. To my dismay, many individuals across differing Christian denominations have received impoverished and misguided responses to legitimate questions. The relationship between the sciences and theology is a fundamental obstacle for many inquisitive minds (at least on the surface). On the other hand, it has also distressed me to witness the lackadaisical approach of many believers when it comes to the articulation and understanding of arguments and reasons that support the Christian faith. Indeed, Christianity is undergoing an intellectual crisis; philosophical and theological illiteracy is pervasive in our culture. The average believer would be surprised to learn that there are a number of cogent reasons to accept the existence of God (including the Christian conception of God). It would also astonish lay Christians to learn that science and theology are not in conflict but mutually inform one another. I have sought to demonstrate the plausibility of these two propositions in my book: On the Origin of Consciousness.

 

A Historical Consideration
An early historical example of how theology and science can be integrated is found in the work of the sixth-century Christian philosopher John Philoponus. A thinker who remains obscure outside of academic circles and who specialized in ancient Greek philosophy, Philoponus was known for both his polemical and non-polemical commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Following this unique approach he wrote a substantial amount of material combatting Aristotle’s notion of the eternality of the world. Philoponus’s belief that God created the universe out of noth­ing played a significant role in questioning the reigning philosophy of his time. Many Christians and Jews were embarrassed by the doctrine of cre­ation ex nihilo and were divided over whether God created from pre-existing matter through reorganizing it or created matter itself from nothing. The reason for this embarrassment was precisely because of the natural philo­sophical consensus that pointed toward an eternal past. As philosopher and renowned Philoponus commentator Richard Sorabji notes: “Up to AD 529, Christians were on the defensive. They argued that a beginning of the uni­verse was not impossible. In 529, Philoponus swung round into the attack. He argued that a beginning of the universe was actually mandatory, and mandatory of the pagans’ own principles.”

Instrumental to Philoponus’s approach was a separation between Creator and creation. This belief al­lowed him to argue not only that the past was finite, but also that the sun was made of fire, which he acknowledged as a terrestrial substance as opposed to a celestial substance. Thus, Philoponus established that heavenly bodies are not divine and are subject to decomposition, thereby collapsing a central Aristotelian doctrine in the face of a Christian doctrine. Philoponus’s Christian worldview permitted him to also create a coher­ent system of thought where he could provide argumentation and evidence to support his belief system—one that was fruitful to scientific discovery. Historians of science have noted that Philoponus’s rigor was beneficial to the future direction of cosmology.

Philoponus proposed a syllogistic argument for the existence of God:

  1. Whatever comes to be has a cause of its coming to be.
  2. The universe came to be.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its coming to be.

Thus, Philoponus’s under­standing of reality, which was heavily influenced and guided by his Chris­tian faith, brought about several fruits that are relevant to this very day. His theological and philosophical reasoning has been confirmed by modern empirical science, which affirms that the universe is not eternal. This affirmation is made through two lines of reasoning: the standard big bang model which argues for the expansion of the universe and the second law of thermodynamics. Remarkably, both of these can be traced in Philoponus’s thought. Even though the evidence provided by the empirical sciences is typically provisional and can indeed change in the future, we have good rea­sons to believe in the beginning of the universe as established by modern scientific data. Philoponus, in the sixth century, exemplifies the strong conso­nance between science and theology in the Early Middle Ages. Philoponus’s argument for the finitude of the past has come to be known as The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Today, its foremost defender is philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig.

The Interaction between Science and Theology
The assumptions regarding the intelligibility and rationality of reality came to shape much of the empiricism in science, as well as the use of math­ematics to describe natural processes. Indeed, theological insights and understanding inspired developments in modern scientific thought. This is especially true of great scientific minds such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, and Nicolas Copernicus, who pos­ited that the structure of physical reality was knowable. These explicitly theological ideas—according to which there is intelligibility and comprehen­sibility in reality because of God’s role as Creator—inspired scientists to adopt a type of reverse engineering mode of thinking (whereby humans could possibly even modify and perfect creation) in order to understand how things were created (this was precisely the mode of thinking practiced by Isaac Newton). This would help us to perceive how the universe func­tioned. The point here is that, from the early modern period until the early twentieth century, scientists were explicitly aided by theological thoughts and notions to discern the existence and operation of nature. The inescap­able conclusion here is that modern science was born out of a Christian world­view: these theological notions set a framework for scientific research and discovery. Throughout history theological thought and science have gone hand in hand more often than not.

Due to the collapse of the verification principle, the field of natural science and theology has had a burgeoning discourse with the potential for valuable new discoveries and insights. Despite popular caricatures that the two great fields are at odds with one another, they have had much to say to one another in mutual cooperation throughout history (as demonstrated with Philoponus’s insights and arguments). Such cooperation continues to this very day. Ever since the 1960s, a number of peer-reviewed journals devoted to this dialogue have sprung into existence. They include CTNS: Theology and Science Journal, The European Journal of Science and Theology, Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion, and the latest addition: Philosophy, Theology and the Sciences. Indeed, the field is growing and gaining interest from scholars of a variety of disciplines.

There have also been a series of typologies outlining the relationship between science and theology offered by scientists and theologians such as Ian Barbour, Ted Peters, Willem Drees, John Haught, and Robert John Russell. Of these, the most promising method is Russell’s Creative Mutual Interaction (CMI). What is novel and promising about this method is that not only do scientific research programs influence theological research programs, but theological research programs, in turn, influence scientific research programs. Russell uses a theology of nature for his CMI. In my book, I have transposed this and utilized instead a natural theology for my CMI method. Natural theology functions as a rational endeavor to adduce God’s existence and purpose in nature through understanding the natural world (through using philosophical tools and the best scientific evidence available, sans the aid of biblical revelation). By contrast, a theology of nature like Russell’s begins through the Christian tradition via religious experience, and historical and biblical revelation. Furthermore, a theology of nature suggests that certain Christian doctrines may require revision in light of modern scientific findings. Both approaches have their fruits and purposes.

Intelligibility, Science, and God
One intriguing argument emanating from the 1970s, is found in the work of philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan: Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. It lends support to the fact that Christian thought was a vital component for the emergence of modern scientific thought (as was argued above). He demonstrates God’s existence based on intelligibility. I will relate it also to a scientific argument. Lonergan’s own argument is stated as such:

If the real is completely intelligible, then complete intelligibility exists. If complete intelligibility exists, the idea of being exists. If the idea of being exists, then God exists. Therefore, the real is completely intelligible, God exists.

It is worth pointing out that finite intelligibility is grounded upon complete intelligibility. The fact that we are able to formulate general laws of science, use mathematics and logic, possess the ability to communicate, and discern truth in its different manifestations is a reflection of an unbounded intelligibility—the sort of thing we should expect if there is any correspondence between reality and our minds.

Philosopher and theologian Jay Richards and astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez have developed an argument based in science which is highly relevant to Lonergan’s argument for God and intelligibility. It provides the scientific basis for Lonergan’s onto-epistemic argument. In their book The Privileged Planet, Gonzalez and Richards lay out a scientific argument with deep metaphysical implications. They provide a host of different lines of evidence to suggest that the earth occupies a special place in the cosmos. Their argument goes against the popular notion held by many scientists and popularized by Carl Sagan. Sagan argued that the Earth had no special or privileged place in the cosmos and that it was merely an insignificant cosmic accident, which he dubbed a “pale blue dot.” His book and the saying were inspired by a famous photograph taken of Earth on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe, which depicts Earth as a tiny speck in the vastness of space and bands of sunlight. This is strongly connected to the misnamed Copernican Principle, which Gon­zalez and Richards refute as well. Gonzalez and Richards argue that there is a deep correlation between habitability and scientific observability. The fact that we exist on a particularly special type of planet (i.e., Earth), is also related to the fact that we are in such a place, with a purpose, to observe the universe and discover, measure, and understand much of the cosmos. They provide examples of the correlation between habitability and measurability. Richards and Gonzalez illustrate, in a scientific manner, the very intelligibility which Lonergan describes as being intrinsic to a reality grounded upon the ultimate source of all intelligibility.

Thus, we have examined various lines of reasoning which demonstrate that neither science nor reason are in conflict with theology. God’s existence is supported by logic and scientific argumentation. In fact, the real culprit for the dissonance between science and religion is found in the atheological worldview of metaphysical naturalism; metaphysical naturalism is the belief that nature is all there is and that no supernatural beings such as God exist. It is a philosophical prejudice that has little grounding in actual science and is increasingly challenged on both philosophical and scientific grounds. A believer in a Creator God should not find this surprising but it is comforting to know that contemporary scientists are increasingly recognizing the debt modern science owes to theology.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Scott Ventureyra

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Scott Ventureyra earned a doctorate in theology from Carleton University/Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada in 2017. He has published in academic journals such as Science et Esprit, The American Journal of Biblical Theology, Studies in Religion and Maritain Studies (the journal of the Canadian Jacques Maritain Association). He has also written for magazines such as Crisis and Convivium and newspapers such as The National Post, City Light News, The Ottawa Citizen and The Times Colonist. He is the author of On the Origin of Consciousness: An Exploration through the Lens of the Christian Conception of God and Creation published by Wipf and Stock (November 2018). His website is: www.scottventureyra.com.

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