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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