Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Science and Religion – the View Both Ways

Denis Alexander

“This is a ‘both-and’ book. Those who prefer confrontational ‘either-or’ discourse should look elsewhere”. This is how I conclude the Introduction of my recently published CUP book Genes, Determinism and God.

The comment is leveled against those wishing to portray human personhood using either-or dichotomous language – such as nature/nurture or genes/environment – in the context of genetics. But the same point could equally be made about science/religion.

There is of course no such thing as ‘religion’; unified set of ideas with which science is ‘interacting’. And the discussion becomes even more confusing when commentators fail to distinguish between the Latin scientia, known as wissenschaft in German – referring to any systematic body of organized knowledge – and ‘science’ in English, which is generally taken to mean the natural sciences. In fact the word for ‘science’ in virtually every language of the world, except English, means scientia or wissenschaft.

In early modern Europe theology was deemed to be the ‘queen of the sciences’ [scientia] and modern science, as it emerged over the centuries, was shaped by theological convictions. The idea of God as creator of all that exists is central to the Abrahamic faiths, thereby providing a basis for the intelligibility and rationality of the world. As Isaac Newton expressed the point: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

One of the key founders of modern astronomy, the Lutheran Johannes Kepler, wrote that ‘I had the intention of becoming a theologian . . . but now I see how God is, by my endeavours, also glorified in astronomy, for “the heavens declare the glory of God”. Astronomers, wrote Kepler, are “the priests of God, called to interpret the Book of Nature.”

The idea of scientific laws was derived directly from theology, as is clear from the writings of René Descartes, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Just as there were moral laws, so by inference, these Christian natural philosophers maintained, there must be scientific laws waiting to be discovered.

The search for those laws, historians point out, was closely linked to the growth in the experimental method without which modern science would never have emerged. This point was made explicitly by Cotes in his preface to the second edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica: “Without all doubt this world…could arise from nothing but the perfectly free will of God….These (laws of nature) therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experiments.” Maybe obvious to us now after a few centuries of science – not so obvious to those imbued with the deductive approach characteristic of ancient Greek philosophy.

Today a theistic framework supports science by providing a strong underpinning for the value and importance of truth. Those who believe that the material world in which we find ourselves has a rationality and intelligibility which reflects the rational mind of a creator God, reproduced to a limited degree in human minds, have strong grounds for also believing that human enquiry can gain rational access to the properties of the world.

So theology has contributed to the emergence of modern science by initiating the voyage of discovery – the curiosity and motivation needed to explore God’s universe; by providing a foundation for the concept of scientific laws; by nurturing the experimental method; and by providing an-going basis and rationale for science as a truth-seeking enterprise.

In turn, what has science done for theology? Science has uncovered many astonishing and often unexpected properties of the universe that are certainly consistent with a God who has intentions and purposes for the universe in general and for humankind in particular. For example, the anthropic principle coheres well with the idea of a God who had us in mind in the creation of the universe. The evolution of living things is far from being a chance process, being tightly constrained by physical laws to operate under certain boundary conditions, natural selection tipping the scales towards necessity. The evolutionary emergence of human minds has enabled access to the properties of the universe, consistent with the belief that there is a Mind behind the universe. Human minds can only exist if there is the right kind of genome that operates within the right kind of environmental context to generate beings like us with large frontal lobes that render rational cogitation possible. Theology does not add to these obvious truths, but rather interprets them all within a wider metaphysical theistic matrix.

To return to Genes, Determinism and God, the minds that emerge from the evolutionary process are not just any old minds, but those that endow persons with their property of possessing free will, a human Darwinian trait as characteristic as the possession of two arms or two legs. If you don’t believe that, then read the book.

At a more mundane level, scientific discoveries have also contributed to theology by encouraging Biblical scholars to go back and take a second look at some texts to see whether traditional interpretations remain well-justified. For example, Augustine maintained that the world human population had descended from a single couple. At the beginning of the 5th century there was no reason to think otherwise. As it happens the early chapters of Genesis do not teach that, but instead portray a world ‘at the beginning’ in which there were many people and cities in existence. But it took science to make Biblical scholars take a second look at their texts – a science that shows on genetic grounds that the world human population has never been less than 9,000-12,000 re-productively active individuals.

It is good to look at science and religion both ways. The results are so much more interesting than boring ‘either-or’ confrontations.

About The Author

Denis Alexander

Dr Denis Alexander is Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is Emeritus Fellow. Genes, Determinism and Go...

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