A new book on science and religion

March 3, 2015 • 10:00 am

I’ve just finished reading the recently-published collection of short essays edited by Gregg Caruso, Science and Religion: 5 Questions. Caruso posed the same five questions to 33 theologians, scientists, philosophers, and others who have worked on or written about the relationship of science and religion. Here are the five questions:

  1. What initially drew you to theorizing about science and religion?
  2. Do you think science and religion are compatible when it comes to understanding cosmology (the origin of the universe), biology (the origin of life and of the human species), ethics, and/or the human mind (minds, brains, souls, and free will)?
  3. Some theorists maintain that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria—i.e., that science and religion each have legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap. Do you agree? [JAC: This of course is Steve Gould’s famous NOMA solution to the science-religion “conflict,” though others like Whitehead had proposed it earlier.]
  4. What do you consider to be your own most important contribution(s) to theorizing about science and religion?
  5. What are the most important open questions, problems or challenges confronting the relationship between science and religion, and what are the prospects for progress?

When this book appeared after I’d already finished The Albatross, I was a bit upset, as I thought it would have been a good resource to inform my arguments about the incompatibility of science and religion. It turned out, though, that I’d already read most of the contributors’ thoughts on this, and so I didn’t learn much that was new. But for those of you who haven’t spent several years reading deeply about science and religion, the book is a valuable resource to begin investigating this very live controversy.

Here are some of the contributors: Susan Blackmore, Sean Carroll, Rabbi David Wolpe (misspelled “Wople” in both the contents and chapter heading), Victor Stenger, Peter van Inwagen, Michael Shermer, Alex Rosenberg, William Dembski, William Lane Craig, Daniel Dennett, John Haught, Rebecca Goldstein, James Randi, John Searle, Mary Midgeley, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Ruse, and John Polkinghorne. You can see that there’s a good mix of philosphers, scientists, and theologians.

As I said, if you’ve read these people’s works you won’t be very surprised at their answers. What did surprise me, however, were two things. First, the relative lengths of the contributions of theologians versus everybody else. Theologians like Polkinghorne, Haught, and van Inwagen would often write ten pages of answers, dilating at length on their views about theology and science (especially the former), while the contributions of scientists and philosophers seemed on average shorter (I haven’t done the statistics). The philosopher of mind John Searle, for instance, wrote only a page and a half, answering each question in three to seven lines. In other words, the theologians were more full of hot air.

Second, the answer to question number 3—whether science and religion occupy distinct magisteria—was almost uniformly “no.” In other words, nobody is buying Gould’s hypothesis. While some of the answers are qualified, I can’t name anyone offhand who agreed with Gould’s thesis. (I myself have rejected it in two longer pieces—here and here—though I don’t have a piece in this volume.)

And the reason is heartening, at least to me. One of the main theses in The Albatross is that the incompatibility of science and religion rests on their competition to understand the universe, and on the inability of religion’s methodology to achieve any understanding. That thesis, in turn, depends on the supposition that religion makes truth claims, and is not just about sociality, morality, or nebulous and indescribable Grounds of Being. Now anyone with the slightest acquaintance of religion as it’s practiced by most believers knows that this is true—religions do make truth claims, often many of them. Christianity, for example, is grounded on the claims that Jesus was the son of God (or was part of God), came to Earth, and was crucified and resurrected for our sins. Those are claims about the existence of God, of a historical Jesus and what happened to him, and about our existence beyond death.

Any honest theologian knows that. Even though he or she might reject the very notion of religious truth claims, they surely know that most believers’ faith indeed rests on such claims. If people knew for sure that Jesus was a pure fiction, and didn’t get crucified and wasn’t resurrected, how many people would be Christians?

Many theologians answer “no” to question 3 precisely because they realize that Gould’s claim of nonoverlap—part of which said that science embraced questions about the natural world, and religion only about meaning and morals—wasn’t true. Religion, they say, does make claims about the natural world (let’s not quibble about “supernatural” versus “natural” here; we can simply say that both science and the Abrahamic religions make claims about about reality—about what exists).

Here, for example, is part of theologian Peter van Inwagen’s answer to that question about NOMA:

. . . I don’t think that, taken as a whole, the “non-overlapping magisteria” view is acceptable. My reason for saying this is not profound; it consists simply of a recognition of the fact that most religions—mine included—incorporate doctrines that pertain to matters other than morals and the way we should live our lives and the meaning of those lives. Here is one example that I have already touched on: if the steady-state cosmology had turned out to be strongly supported by the cosmological evidence, that support would have raised an important obstacle to my belief in the Christian doctrine of creation.

So there you have it: religious claims are subject to adjudication by evidence. Presumably van Inwagen sees a steady-state Universe as refuting the idea that God created the universe, so it had a beginning. But I think he’s misunderstanding the steady-state universe here, since, as far as I know, that obsolete theory proposed that the universe did have a beginning, and is still expanding, but that new matter comes into being as the universe expands, so it always looks the same everywhere. [Correction: See note below when I vetted this to our Official Website physicist.]

Regardless, why doesn’t the doctrine of evolution “raise an important obstacle” to van Inwagen’s belief in creation? I suspect he’d answer that God created through the process of evolution.  Well, why couldn’t God make a steady-state universe, then? After all, even the steady-state universe, I think,  is supposed to have had a beginning. But at any rate, the near-unanimity of theologians who reject NOMA in this book do so on the grounds that religion does indeed make claims about reality.



Update: I’ve asked the Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll about the nature of the steady-state universe, and van Ingwagen’s theological take on it, and he’s responded as follows:

I’m not an expert on different varieties of steady-state universes. Certainly the traditional understanding is that they don’t have a beginning — that overall they look the same at every moment in time (thus the name). But I can’t promise that someone hasn’t attached the name “steady-state” to some unusual model with a beginning. (Steady state is very different from “inflationary,” which is a type of universe that often does have a beginning.)

Also, I see no problem whatsoever for a clever Christian theologian to reconcile a beginningless universe with traditional theology. (“You didn’t think we meant that God created the universe with some literal first moment of time, did you? How charmingly non-sophisticated you are!”)



55 thoughts on “A new book on science and religion

  1. I’m glad to hear theologians are finally coming around on Gould’s bizarre NOMA claim.

    I think the steady state theory, as usually proposed, did not postulate a beginning for the universe. This was one of its alleged advantages over the Big Bang, back when the discussion was purely philosophical.

    1. This is my understanding as well. The whole point of Steady State was that just as there is no privileged reference frame in space, neither should there be any privileged moment in time. That postulate excludes the possibility of a moment when time began.

    2. See the note I added (“UPDATE” at end of post) from Sean Carroll. He agrees that a steady-state universe doesn’t have a beginning, but also says that it isn’t an inflationary universe, either. Other sources on the web say that the steady-state universe was posited to be expanding. So unless inflation is different from expansion (which is entirely possible given my ignorance), I’m still a bit confused.

      1. And Sean has enlightened me again:

        An eternal universe can definitely be expanding. Indeed, in the classic steady-state model, the size of the universe grows exponentially with time (size = e^t). Note that this expands forever, but never hits zero in the past.

        Oy, I don’t know from physics!

        1. There are other eternally expanding models as well, such as Turok and Steinhardt’s oscillating ekpyrotic model in which the rate of expansion fluctuates cyclically, but is always positive (i.e. always expanding).

          1. I thought their model begins with our 3-brane universe expanding until it reaches a critical point, at which point it begins contracting, until our 3-brane universe collides, in a higher dimensional space, with another 3-brane, creating what both universes see as a big bang, Then the two universes begin repelling one another and the whole process begins again. I don’t see how this, or any cyclical model, can be eternally expanding. It’s surely a series of expansions and contractions.

            1. If you take “universe” to mean the entire system of parallel 3-branes oscillating in four dimensions, then sure, that system expands and contracts along the fourth dimension as the branes move apart and back together again.

              But the branes themselves — i.e. the visible universe we inhabit and its invisible twin — do not contract; they continue to expand under the influence of dark energy even as they move closer together. That’s the whole point of this model: that inflation and dark energy are the same thing, expanding and flattening the universe before it explodes in a hot Big Bang triggered by the collision.

  2. I also read this recently. William Lane Craig comes off very poorly. Usually he sticks to saying unsupportable things about cosmology and mathematics. In his response he also says unsupportable things about biology.
    William Dembski is in there as well, and reveals that he is an Old Earth Creationist.

    1. Dembski doesn’t talk about his theory that ‘the fall’ propagated backwards in time, creating and old-seeming universe out of an originally young one, does he? I always thought that was one of his more laugh out loud ideas. Yeah it just another form of last-thursdayism, but if that’s in there, I may have to read it just for the amusement value.

  3. I thought the steady state universe was eternal and the ‘matter-creation’ areas were used to deal with the fact that, in an eternal, static universe, minute gravitational perturbations would nudge the universe into either expanding or contracting. AFAIK it was a way of ‘saving the appearances’ and explaining away the evidence of an expanding universe. Might be wrong though.

    1. Maybe that there was a beginning to our local corner of the universe. That somewhere between a group of separating galaxies new matter was generated that eventually coalesced into our galaxy.

        1. I think the idea of bubble universes(in the specific ‘bubbly’ sense, as opposed to generic parallel universes) was suggested by the mathematics of inflationary theory, which was itself invented/discovered(?) in the early 80s. Having said that, there is, admittedly, a slight chance that Sean Carroll might know more about this than I do.

    2. …and it explained the(assumed) homogeneity of the universe both in time and space, Hoyle, Bondi, et al were really wedded to the idea of an eternal universe.

  4. The observation that theologians respond with excessively lengthy answers is, of course, true. When you have nothing to say of substance, you still might feel a “win” is possible by obtuse wind-baggery. There are a lot of people who think that turgid and time-consuming prose indicates wisdom or insight. The opposite is generally true.

      1. Maybe there’s a mathematical inverse law that relates the number of words a writer uses in expressing ideas to the number of actual ideas they have to express…

        1. I hope it turns out not to be an inverse law. That would mean I am largely full of shit because I usually use way to many words. I’ve no doubt there are some people who would not be surprised to have that confirmed, but I’m holding out hope for myself!

        2. The best physics comes from simplification.

          “Very often a simplified model throws more light on the real workings of nature than any number of ab initio calculations of individual situations, which even where correct often contain so much detail as to conceal rather than reveal reality. It can be a disadvantage rather than an advantage to be able to compute or to measure too accurately, since often what one measures or computes is irrelevant in terms of mechanism. After all, the perfect computation simply reproduces Nature, does not explain her.” P. W. Anderson, Nobel Lecture, 1977

    1. I second or third that idea as well. Not only is the shorter speech usually the correct one, it is also the smarter one. The Gettysburg Address comes to mind.

    2. When people go on for ages I usually suspect the person they’re trying most to convince is themselves. They know they’re wrong deep down, but haven’t got to a place where they can admit it.

    3. John Searle’s brevity speaks well for him, then. Although brief in his reply to the questions, he has written a lot of books. I recently read his 1992 The Rediscovery of the Mind, and I want to read more. Searle wrote that consciousness is a biological feature of brains, “as much a part of the natural biological order as any other biological features such as photosynthesis, digestion, or mitosis.” This idea is helping me think about the free will discussions on this website.

      Searle talks about the scientific world view as having some features that are “no longer optional for reasonably well-educated citizens of the present era” incluing the evolutionary theory of biology. Again, from this 1992 book: “our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously. When we encounter people who claim to believe such things,…at bottom we remain convinced that either they have not heard the news or they are in the grip of faith. We remain convinced that somehow they must separate their minds into separate compartments to believe such things.”

    4. If you can’t explain something in a few sentences, you don’t understand it. If you choose not to explain something in a few sentences, you don’t want other people to understand it.

  5. I know it is hopelessly widespread usage and likely to never change, but this . . .

    “What initially drew you to theorizing about science and religion?

    . . . should realy be this . . .

    “What initially drew you to hypothesizing about science and religion?

    Would have been expecially nice in this case.

    1. Agree entirely.

      Over the years I’ve tried to become more careful in avoiding the use of “theory” and instead saying “hypothesis” (or assertion, claim etc) when that’s what I mean.

    2. or …

      “What initially drew you to wanting the universe to match your internal theory of your mind?”

      or …

      “Why do you plagiarize all of your beliefs with solipsism and anthropomorphism?”

  6. I think there should be plenty of accommodationists who are basically in the NOMA camp. Or is that idea totally passé’?

  7. the answer to question number 3—whether science and religion occupy distinct magisteria—was almost uniformly “no.”

    This is not surprising to me. AIUI, ever since it came out, it’s been the sort of idea academics ‘love to hate.’ But its also (IMO) a very good classroom discussion point for philosophy, etc., as discussing why its wrong can be informative for students.

    My own attempts at the answers:

    1. Philosophy 101 classes at a low level. I didn’t really get into it until I became aware of creationism’s attempts to undermine science education.

    2. This is a poor question. Different sects and religions make different claims about both facts (the way the world is) and methods (how we should go about understanding the world). Some make claims counter to science. Some do not. Most religions are probably nominally incompatible in that they accept revelation/human insight as a form of evidence rather than as science sees it, as one of many hypothesis-generating engines at best. But I would be cagey about even claiming that “religion” accepts revelation as evidence because I’m sure there are exceptions to even that rule.

    3. No. Once you accept the notion of Gods revealing truths to humans in general, there is no reason to assert or claim that Gods would never reveal facts about the world to humans.

    4. None.

    5. Most important problem areas are social policy decisions, i.e. what role religious rules should play in government’s funcitions. I see the prospect of progress as actually fairly good, with the western governments getting more secular over time. It is sometimes hard to see that progress while we are ‘in the trenches,’ but the general ‘arc of history’ seems to be leaning in the direction of religion being a personal thing you use to guide your own life, with less tolerance or acceptance of the idea that religion is a club the government ough to use to coerce others into behavior some theocratic leaders deem godly.

  8. A steady state universe makes any First Cause argument moot (it’s ‘turtles all the way down’), and can only be salvaged theologically by way of the ‘god’s outside of time’ argument ala Augustine (who thought material history irrelevant to spiritual history). (However that argument has problems that reduce it to incoherence on analysis.)

    There’s no doubt that theological explanations of reality are slipping farther and farther away from the phenomena they’re supposed to explain. Eventually it all comes down to ‘believe, well, just because.’

    NOMA was a peace offering, but apparently theologians recognized it as a poison pill, since it limits their authority. Equally apparent is that they are losing that authority anyway.

    1. Besides, the widespread assumption that the big-bang requires a finite universe with a beginning is incorrect. Steady-state theorists needn’t have been so worried about the implications of big-bang theory – there’s no reason to believe that our universe is the only one(and there’s good reasons to think it isn’t). I can’t remember who pointed it out but making the assumption that the big bang can only happen once is an unjustified addition to the theory.
      Most of the theologians who draw grand conclusions from BBT about the finitude of the universe, and its resultant need for a creator(William Lane Craig I’m looking at you), are at least 35 years behind modern cosmology.

      1. The idea that the BB was the ‘beginning of space and time’ is still very entrenched into our assumptions and so I still hear it said by science spokespersons who should know better.
        Funny how the currently popular view is sort of like the old steady state cosmology – it is now neo steady state cosmology, with lots of big bangs in an expanding multiverse.

  9. As for NOMA, well, BBC Radio 4, programme schedulers certainly believe in it. The Infinite Monkey Cage’ series has now ended, to be replaced by the religious prog. ‘Beyond Belief’, more an exclamation than a programme title.

    I hope you realize, Jerry, that while you’re having a laugh on ‘TIMC’ in a month’s time, we Brits have to listen to BB, theology-babble from the urbane British tradition with its built-in plausible deniability. Latest quote: ‘Purgatory is where acute suffering and exquisite hope meet’. You’re never quite sure whether they are being literal or metaphorical.

    My brother and I always expect the presenter, Ernie Rea, at any minute to exclaim, “Yes, but this is all made-up bo**o*ks, isn’t it?” He never says it.

    Have a thought for us Brits, taking one for the team.

    Allele akhbar. x

    1. Beyond Belief is incredibly boring. They even had an episode on New Atheism and it managed to bore me to tears.
      On the other hand the BBC gives us the often brilliant Big Questions which, at its best, is the most interesting debate programme on telly. It’s also part of the BBC’s mandated ‘religious programming'(ignore the irony of the phrase) so it frequently touches on the subjects that appear on WEIT, and it regularly gets on heavyweight thinkers like Dawkins, Stephen Law, Maajid Nawaz, David Aaronovitch, Douglas Murray, etc..

      1. I wouldn’t quite describe Beyond Belief as boring, more like a drive-by motorway crash scene: something awful is happening, you feel guilty for paying attention and it just slows you and everyone else down. x

      1. See my 12.00 p.m. comment, Jerry. 4.30 p.m. slot on Mondays: what else is a man to do when cooking the family meal? (And that bit is serious!). x

        1. Podcasts, whale music, Yoko Ono solo albums, recordings of Ed Milliband saying the phrase ‘lollipop ladies’ over and over again; anything but Beyond Belief. It’s like someone slowly threading a sponge between your ears.

  10. I really think that question #2 and #5 should be enough and the others are just added. Number 2 gets to the heart of the thing and phrased as it is “biology (origin of life of the human species”) kind of answers the question for them. We really don’t want to know your thoughts on biology in general but really – the human biology. That monkey to human business is a real problem.

    Question 5 is how well do you see into the future. Progress on the confrontation will see change as religion dies. It will happen but how long?

  11. Some theorists maintain that science and religion occupy non-overlapping magisteria—i.e., that science and religion each have legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap. Do you agree?

    Yes, I do. The empty set shares no elements with any other set, and the intersection of the empty set with any other set is the empty set. In other words, science teaches us how the heavens go, while religion teaches us a load of bull crap.

  12. Note that one need not adopt steady-state to have the universe (as opposed to the local hubble volume) be eternal. If one uses the etymologically sloppy version of “universe”, then so what? There’s a beginning (sort of) but there’s no indication that the event is special, never mind supernatural.

  13. I have always thought that the old chestnut: “The bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go”–was an early form of NOMA. Wikipedia says that this quote is attributed to Caesar Cardinal Baronius by Galileo himself, although Galileo is sometimes given credit for it.

    1. Of course the bible doesn’t actually tell us how to go to heaven. It may claim to, but that’s an important difference.

      There may be other ways of knowing, but they seem to be ways of gaining the stuff you know that ain’t so.

  14. Is there some special reason for calling van Inwagen a “theologian” rather than a “philosopher”? He has a PhD in philosophy and is employed in a philosophy department. And his Wikipedia entry labels him as a philosopher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_van_Inwagen

    I mean the question seriously, though probably not much rides on it. Looking at the Wiki, maybe there is a case to be made for counting him as a theologian. But I hadn’t ever seen him referred to that way.

    He is certainly a Christian and cares about philosophy of religion. But his most interesting and important work is in the metaphysics of ordinary objects and in the metaphysics of free will. Both of which are pretty standard fare in mainstream philosophical research today.

  15. I always felt like NOMA diminished both science and religion in a way that isn’t for one person to say – I mean, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, of course, but NOMA is an opinion that ignores significant numbers of thinkers on both sides. To the extent NOMA is intended as a unified theory or reconciliation, what’s being unified or reconciled if not the traditions, leading ideas or consensus in each domain?

    Not only does science have tons to say about morality, a hypothetical scientific morality would deliver on the promises it makes in exchange for the voluntary restriction of human activity, and do so without resorting to fear, guilt or shame – on which score religion has failed miserably.

    And the primary truth claims of religion – that there is an intelligence which created the universe and remains actively involved in its workings and is deeply interested in human affairs down to the individual person, and that there are human faculties which exist outside of our biology – are ideas to which science can be and is applied every day. Deny believers those two propositions, and I’m not sure what is left of religion. Except fiction, just words and stories with no more authority than Aesop’s Fables or Gilligan’s Island.

    So I’m not surprised the NOMA question got a unanimous “no.” But I kind of wish the editor had included a person or two who could answer “yes” – if only to see what kind of uninformed clown show the rest of their answers would be.

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