Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Let's ask the Catholic about science

Roman Catholic theologian John Haught, Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, was interviewed by journalist Steve Paulson in the Salon article "The atheist delusion," on December 19, 2007. Though Haught is a follower of the late Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, deeply influenced by Paul Tillich, and, subsequently, a classic liberal when it comes to, say, the historicity of the physical resurrection, I found many of his comments quite helpful. Therefore, in the spirit of previous copyright infringements, I intend to copy from it liberally. Bold questions are Paulson.

On the Relationship Between Science and Religion

John Haught is quite plain that he finds Steven Jay Gould's idea of a "non-overlapping magisteria"--that science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the universe, while religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value--too simplistic. Gould, he says "defines religion as simply concerning values and meaning. He implicitly denies that religion can put us in touch with truth." Paulson adds that the entire split "seems too easy, a politically expedient ploy to pacify both scientists and mainstream Christians."

By truth, are you talking about reality?

Yes, I'm talking about what is real, or what has being. The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There's going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language -- in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.

We can't get our minds around this transcendent reality because we're limited by our language and our brains?

We have to refer to it in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor. But I still think we have the obligation today of asking how our new scientific understanding of the world fits into that religious discourse. I don't accept Gould's complete separation of science and faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding. We have every right to ask what God is doing by making this universe in such a slow way, by allowing life to come about in the evolutionary manner in which Darwinian biology has very richly set forth. So science cannot be divorced from faith. However, I think most people do resort to this non-overlapping magisteria as the default position. It's an easy approach. It allows you to put all your ducks in a row. But it avoids the really interesting and perhaps dangerous issue of how to think about God after Darwin.

In my view, after Darwin, after Einstein--just as after Galileo and Copernicus--we can't have the same theological ideas about God as we did before. My view is that theology, instead of ignoring or closing its eyes to [Darwin's thought], should look it squarely in the face. It has everything to gain and nothing to lose by doing so. In my view, Darwin's thought is a gift to theology because it goads modern theologians to clarify their thinking [and, says Paulson, reject "outdated arguments about God as an intrusive designer."]

[Richard] Dawkins argues that a lot of claims made on behalf of God -- about how God created the world and interacts with people -- are ultimately questions about nature. Unless you say God has nothing to do with nature, those become scientific questions.

Well, I approach these issues by making a case for what I call "layered explanation." For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it's boiling, one answer is to say it's boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that's a very good answer. But you could also say it's boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it's boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science.

Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn't contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They're just different levels of understanding. Suppose you asked me, why am I thinking right now? I could say, my neurons are firing, the synapses are connecting, the lobes of my brain are activated. And you could spend your whole career, as neuroscientists do, unfolding that level of understanding. But I could also say I'm thinking because I have a desire to know. I want to figure things out. That's an explanation that can't be mapped onto the first because a dimension of subjectivity enters in here. You cannot find it by the objectifying method of neuroscience.

So science as it's now practiced has nothing to say about subjective experience, about what happens in our minds?

I think science, especially neuroscience, does a very good job of saying what has to be working cerebrally and in our nervous systems in order for consciousness to be present. And it can also do a very good job of pointing out what has broken down physically and chemically if my brain is failing to function -- for example, in Alzheimer's. But it doesn't have the complete explanation. Many cognitive scientists and brain scientists are saying the same thing. They're almost in despair at times about whether we'll ever be able to jump from the third-person discourse of science to the first-person discourse of subjective consciousness.

Let me try to pin you down a little more. You're saying the scientific method has only so much explanatory power. At least right now, it has very little to say about subjective experience. That still leaves open the question, is the mind more than the brain? Or does consciousness always have some physical correlate?

Don't get me wrong. I want to push physical explanations as far as possible. I'm a man who loves science. I'm in awe of science. I don't ever want theology to put restraints upon science. I believe every thought we have has a physical correlate. But at the same time, I believe there's something about mind that does transcend, while at the same time fully dwelling incarnately in the physical universe. I see that as a microcosmic example of what's going on in the universe as a whole. So I want a worldview that's wide enough to ask the question, why does the universe not stand still? Once radiation came about early in the universe, why didn't the universe say, "Well, we're just fine here. This is a pretty good universe." Instead, there's a restlessness, a tendency of the cosmos to go beyond itself.

We experience this in ourselves. We're just as much a part of the universe as rivers and rocks are. Therefore, we should use what's going on in our own experience as a key to what's happening in the cosmos as a whole. I call this a "wider empiricism." Most modern science has acted as though subjectivity and consciousness are not part of the natural world. It doesn't reflect adequately on why subjectivity enters the universe at all. Why does the universe transcend itself from purely material to living and then to conscious phenomena? Teilhard himself said that what science left out was nature's most important development--human phenomena.

Earlier, you said cosmic purpose is a question that lies outside of science. But it sounds like you're bringing it into science. If you want to look for purpose -- whether it's in evolution or the larger universe -- you'll find it in this inexorable drive toward greater complexity.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it's something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that's a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite. And what is the purpose? The purpose seems to be, from the very beginning, the intensification of consciousness. If you understand purpose as actualizing something that's unquestionably good, then consciousness certainly fits. It's cynical of scientists to say, off-handedly, there's obviously no purpose in the universe. If purpose means realizing a value, consciousness is a value that none of us can deny.

Haught on ID

Ironically, ID advocates share with their ideological enemies, the evolutionary materalists, the assumption that science itself can provide uultimate explanations. Advocates of intelligent design are really proposing a kind of watered-down version of natural theology. That's the attempt to explain what's going on in nature's order and design by appealing to a nonnatural source. So it's not science. It's not a valid scientific alternative to Darwinian ideas. It's also extremely poor theology. What intelligent design tries to do--and the great theologians have always resisted this idea--is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

This becomes the "God of the gaps." When you can't explain something by science, you say God did it.

Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian, said that kind of thinking was the foundation of modern atheism. Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

Haught on the Creedal Commitment of Science

[In response to naturalism's demand for proof of the existence of God:] The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It's a deep faith commitment because there's no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It's a creed. The idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There's no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don't want to go that far. So there's a self-contradiction there.

Haught on the Confession that Ultimate Reality is Personal

God (ultimate reality) is personal, meaning he is intelligent and capable of love and making promises. Theologically speaking, personality is a symbol, like everything else in religion. Like all symbols, "personality" doesn't adequately capture the full depth of ultimate reality. But the conviction of the Abrahamic religions is that if ultimate reality were not at least personal--at least capable of everything that humans are capable of--then we could not surrender ourselves fully to it. It would be an "it" rather than a "thou" and therefore would not reach us in the depth of our being. It's when you come to the belief in a personal God that the question of science and religion becomes most acute.

Einstein is certainly relevant in this context. He called himself a "deeply religious nonbeliever." He talked about having genuine religious feelings when he marveled at the inherent order and harmony in the universe. But he thought the idea of a personal God was preposterous. He couldn't believe in a God who interfered with natural events or intervened in the lives of people.

Let's look at why Einstein found that idea of God objectionable. Einstein was a man who thought the laws of physics have to be completely inviolable. Nature is a closed continuum of deterministic causes and effects, and if anything interrupted that, it would violate the fundamental scientific worldview that he had. So the idea of a responsive God--a God who answers prayers--would have to violate the laws of physics, the laws of nature. This is why Einstein said the problem of science and religion is caused by the belief in a personal God. But it's not inevitable that a responsive God violates the laws of physics and chemistry. I don't think God does violate those laws.

I would think the biggest challenge that evolutionary theory poses to most religions is the sense that there's no inherent meaning in the world. If you look at the process of natural selection -- this apparently random series of genetic mutations -- it would seem that there's no place for ultimate purpose. Human beings may just be an evolutionary accident.

Yes, in the new scientific understanding of the universe, there are no sharp breaks between lifeless matter and life, between life and mind. It seems to many people that the new evolutionary picture places everything in the context of a meaningless smudge of stuff, of atoms reshuffling themselves over the course of time. The traditional view was that nature emanates from on high, so that when you get down to matter, you have the least important level. Above that there's life and mind and God. But in the new cosmography, it seems that mindless matter dominates the whole picture. And many scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, have said evolution has destroyed the notion of purpose. So one thing I do in my theology is to say that's not necessarily true.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Tweaking methodological naturalism

C Michael Patton on Parchment and Pen has an excellent post going about faith and science, and more particularly on methodological naturalism, which Patton defines as "a method of 'doing' science that does not assume the presence of supernatural phenomenon." Patton goes on to outline how the assumpution of methodological naturalism does not make an atheist of every scientist. Rather, it means that science as a discipline must frame its subject of study, and that the most helpful way of doing so is to bracket the supernatural. Science must, by definition, choose its instruments with a view toward that which is examined--in this case, the material world. Patton provides the example of a doctor who is asked to diagnose a man suffering from chest pain. "The doctor," he writes

does not attribute this chest pain to demon possession even though his worldview may allow for such. He or she must proceed by attempting to understand the ailment naturalistically. This does not mean the doctor does not believe in demon possession, it means that he is under obligation by his field of study to try to understand the problem without regards to the supernatural.

Patton goes on to link methodological naturalism with the historical/critical hermeneutic, which is a connection worth exploring.

In addition, comments to Pattons blog post also prove developmentally interesting. Beginning with a bit of trivia, they point out that the term "methodological naturalism" was coined by evangelical philosopher Paul DeVries at Wheaton College. They are quick to point out that methodological naturalism doesn't have to bracket God, but, instead, presupposes his general providence. As one commentator says, "God’s general providence indeed results in a creation that is extraordinarily consistent (i.e., God is not capricious) and this enables science to work." This is an important clarification because a purely philosophical naturalism has no way of explaining why the material world is subject to discovery. As Einstin said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."

Dennis Overbye in his article "Laws of Nature, Source Unknown" in the December 18, 2007, edition of the New York Times explores this very thing. Overbye cites the negative reaction Arizona State University cosmologist Paul Davies received when, in a NYT op-ed, he said that the scientific method presumes faith in an orderly universe. Overbye notes that "there is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with the universe and its laws. Which 'came' first--the laws or the universe?" In a tradition goes back to Augustine, the orderly lawfulness of the universe was attributed to the general providence of God. But according to Davis, "God got killed off [in the seventeenth century], and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties." Scientists have since kneeled at many fonts looking to justify their faith. Some have become platonists and hurled the laws of the universe into the higher realm of the forms, meaning pure mathematics. Some, responding to the deep randomness of the quantum universe, state the the laws are deep generalities, which will continue to evolve. And some believe that the laws have emerged naturally from primordial chaos in which millions of universes are born and die unknown to each other, each with its own set of physical laws. But, as Overbye says, "The law of no law . . . is still a law." So, in the end scientists are the ones who are "playing their cards as if they can win, as if the universe is indeed comprehensible."

Another qualifier to methodological naturalism is its tendency toward reductionism, limiting the boundary of what is real to the measurable dimensions of res extensa and res cogitans. Dave Sims is the one who makes this comment, and it is so good that I'm just going to reproduce it:

If one assumes reality is reducible to material and efficient causes, it will be impossible to have a discussion about whole or purposeful substances with a scientist, at least where one assumes that the authority of science, so defined, is conterminous with theology. Any kind of detente with MN results in a very one-sided conversation where science always has the upper hand, and the sorts of theology that can engage the conversation are a very truncated group from the beginning. . . . The Christian community needs to be willing to re-examine the metaphysics of Bacon, Descartes, Gallileo, and others who left us with a rationalist/dualist science, and see if we can’t reform Aristotelian science without lopping Aristotle/Thomas’s heads off by ruling out formal and final causes by fiat. Until we can do that, any talk about integration and cooperation with Baconian science (MN) is doomed both philosophically and politically.

Sims puts a qualifier on scientific claims to dictate the borders of what is true. What is true, he says, encompasses a wider field that straightforward methodological naturalism allows. Science needs to adjust its assumptions: enlarging its epitstemological possibilities without distorting what already exists. "There are plenty of alternate metaphysical approaches," writes Sims.

Husserl, Whitehead, Bergson, and even Heidegger in his essay The Question Concerning Technology give good examples of how to approach a critique of Cartesian/Baconian science philosohopically. Hans Jonas’s Phenomenon of Life should also be looked at carefully as a template of how to construct a robust critique of contemporary science.

As Vance, another commentator writes, "much of the problem lies in the fact that we have adopted the Modernistic conclusion that science is the search for the ultimate answers, rather than viewing science for the limited scope in inquiry that it is: the search for the best existing natural answers." Vance goes to on to say that "Science should be viewed as just one source of information in our search for ultimate truth. And while [Christians] believe that this larger search should include the supernatural, we should not force this area of inquiry into 'the study of how the natural works naturally,' which is science."

I can see the point that Sims and Vance are making, but they should also ask whether their own (easy) critique of science in general and methodological naturalism in particular doesn't hide the secret desire to re-enchant the universe. "Priests," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight."

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The universe in twain

It is my opinion that fundamentalists (and I’m using this term to mean conservative Christians in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the fathers and mothers of today’s North American evangelical movement), in the face of science’s Newtonian triumphalism and the liberalizing effect of compromises made by academics on the continent and in the more prestigious seminaries of the U.S., intellectually hobbled themselves and their children. By furiously barricading every door and window to dialogue with science, and by shutting themselves away from methodologies that too closely approached the method of Bacon and Galileo, they severed the cord of authority which secured them a voice in the public square. In time, they became a cultural museum.

Their children, the evangelicals, have tried desperately to return from the desert monasteries. And they succeeded in many cases—some may even say far too well where Smith’s free market and its corresponding political process are concerned. Ideologically, however, they have never known what to do with science. The result is a hundred years of catching up to do before conservative protestants in the West, at least (and perhaps their missiologically born descendents in the Southern Hemisphere), can credibly and intelligibly speak to the Western world.

This is evidentially real to me as I clumsily begin trying to live in a world where the Bible and science exist. It is a bifurcated world where the split is sometimes visible sometimes not; a double world in which truth goes by many names by no fault of its own. If I hold a mirror to my face you will see two of me, but not because there are two.

Attempts are being made to bridge the chasm. Postmodernity may even have succeeded in places. But the grammatical universes are still so far apart that, even where they reach a sympathetic parallel, one wonders whether these two seekers will ever touch. Christians are dogmatically right to courageously call out to the perplexed, “Fear not, we are one.” But the above-mentioned are a hundred years or more away from saying how.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Karl Jaspers on creation

Reading through a collection of essays by the mid-twentieth-century existential philosopher Karl Jaspers, I happened upon one entitled, "The Creation of the World." And though Jaspers was not a Christian, and certainly not a biblical theologian or historian, there is a great deal to be admired in it.

Like his contemporary, Martin Heidegger, Jaspers affirms that human knowledge can be nothing but subjective. "The world in its entirety cannot become an object," because we aren't outside of it, but in it. "Fundamental, objectless cognition not only transcends all definite knowledge but defies knowledge." And because we arrive fully submerged in its current and remain so, objective knowledge is ontologically beyond us--even where mathematics is concerned: "Wherever deductions exceed the realm of possible experience and the results will not be subject to experience, either, we are about to delude ourselves. Constructions of mathematical possibilities are as speculative and deceptive as the old, conceptual ones of metaphysics, and equally tempting." But here is where Jasper's discussion of creation gets interesting.

Real knowledge, that is objective knowledge, of what exactly we mean by the word "creation" is impossible to us, he says. If we cannot achieve objectivity about the world we live in, how then can we expect to swallow the origin of this world? So, then, creation "is unimaginable, not to be visualized by any analogy in the world. It is not even a temporal process any more, since time itself has only been created along with everything else. The creation of the world is exempted from temporality, which is part of the world."

And what if we could swallow it? Then, he says, we would cease to be human beings, for "we would no longer be living in the possibilities of our situation; we would command a view of it, would have control over it, and would thus have terminated it. Everything would be manifest. Knowing our beginnings, we would be at the end of our humanity." In fully grasping it, we would step outside of creation into--what? And even if we could fully grasp it, would we grasp an answer to how we come to think and to know? Scientific knowledge--that is an arrived knowledge of the world through testable method--doesn't tell us that.

At this, Jaspers zeroes in on freedom, because freedom is the human way of being in the world. Human beings are fundamentally "en route to realization." We are explorers, forever pushing at the boundaries and possibilites built--thank God--into the very framework of our limited ontologies. "In the awareness of our freedom, which is incomprehensible in terms of the world, we transcend the incomplete world we can know." That is humanity. "As animated bodies we are part of Creation, but our freedom comes directly from God. Thus, while being in the world, we are also from elsewhere. We find ourselves in the world, and yet we are not of this world alone." That is humanity. "We live in time--that is to say, we are never finished; we are only searching and striving. We never know what eternity is, nor what is eternal in us and in our doings, but it comes to be present in ciphers, in parables, in reflections--for example, in the cipher of the idea of Creation." Yes, that is it exactly.

Creation is both beyond us and alien to us, and yet for us, for it insures our very being toward the future. Theologically, we read that creation insures our very being toward God's eschatological culmination of all things.

The idea of God's creation of the world will be a symbol, then, not a matter of knowledge. It is in the abyss revealed by the idea of Creation that we, along with all our mundane knowledge and activities, are engulfed and sheltered at the same time. . . . The idea of Creation stirs us by the very fact that it does not permit us to know. It points to depths in which, at the same time, it hides our origin. [And so] in all our human possibilities it remains essential to illuminate, not to conceal, the mystery that a world exists, and that we are in it. [And] if we are in the world from elsewhere, our mission in the world transcends the world.

So, finally, Jaspers leaves this challenge to those who would disagree with him. "Thinking through it," he says, "will serve to illuminate the absence of knowledge from it." And so he writes:

The symbol [creation] serves to support and to reassure us by the very fact of consciously uttering paradoxes. We say, "God created time"--but the word "created" describes a temporal process, contradicting the meaning of the sentence. We say, "God made the world out of nothing"--and we operate with the word "nothing" as if it were something, again contradicting the meaning of the sentence. What is conceived in the symbolic idea of Creation is not a process we might observe, not even as a figment of our imagination. What it means cannot be adequately meant by us, for it transcends our faculties of imagining and thinking. . . . Its unveiling would either be the delusion of a pseudo-knowledge, causing us to neglect what we can do, or it would be truth--and then it would mean our transformation into other beings that we humans are.

In the reorganization of my own understanding of creation and in the beginnings of an exploration of the disparate worlds of religion and science, I find Jaspers' ideas penetrating and reasonable. And though I am not yet sure what to do with the book of Genesis, nor how the fact of its deeply theological and symbolic nature overturns (or, what is more likely, deepens and expands) safe hermeneutical categories of genre, I believe it is not altogether stupid to propose a hypothesis.

It is my feeling that placing the cosmogenic sections in the early chapters of Genesis more firmly into their Ancient Near Eastern setting will reveal them to be not a "scientific" explanation, but a thorough going theological critique of the cosmogenic cosmologies and mythologies of the nations by firm assertion of the first commandment, and by critique I mean the simultaneously dual nature of judgment, which is to damn and to save.