Commentary

Science, religion, and the human future.

Western civilization would not be Western civilization were it not for biblical religion, which reveres and trusts in the one God, Who has made known what He wants of human beings through what is called His revelation--that is, through Scripture. Western civilization would not be Western civilization were it not also for science, which extols and trusts in human reason to disclose the workings of nature and to use the knowledge gained to improve human life. These twin sources of Western civilization--religion and science (or, before science, philosophy), divine revelation and human reason--are, to say the least, not easily harmonized. One might even say that Western civilization would not be Western civilization without the continuing dialectical tension between the claims and demands of biblical religion and the cultivation of autonomous human reason.

In the United States today, the age-old tension between science and scriptural religion is intensifying. Recent debates over stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution are but small skirmishes in a larger contest of worldviews, a contest heating up especially because of the triumphant emergence of the new sciences of genetics, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology. As the findings of these biological sciences are elevated into scientistic challenges to traditional understandings of human nature and man's standing in the universe, religious teachings are increasingly under attack and suspicion. Biblical religion finds itself intellectually on the defensive, in the face of assaults from an aggressive scientific and intellectual elite eager to embarrass it. (1)

Make no mistake: the stakes in this contest are high. At issue are the moral and spiritual health of our nation, the continued vitality of science, and our own human self-understanding as human beings and as children of the West.

In this essay, I will examine the challenge of the scientific worldview and consider whether biblical religion can meet that challenge. Before proceeding, however, I need to enter a few preliminary stipulations about the terms "religion" and "science," each of which is complicated and ambiguous.

The world knows innumerable religions, and even the so-called great religions, East and West, differ profoundly in their conceptions of divinity, nature, man, reason, morals, spirituality, and the purpose of it all. Nor is it correct to characterize our subject as a contest between faith and reason. Religions are about much more than faith, and many of the teachings of biblical religion are neither irrational nor unreasonable. It is true that Christianity emphasizes the supreme importance of belief and the affirmation of doctrine and creed as compared with matters of practice, ritual, and lawful observance. But Enlightenment rationalism, for its part, has welcomed this dichotomy, which serves the purpose of an attack on religion as "irrational."

"Science," too, is supremely ambiguous, referring (in its modern meanings) both to a methodical art for gaining knowledge and to the accumulated knowledge itself. Both need to be distinguished from a strictly scientific outlook on life and the world, which in its full form has been called "scientism," a quasi-religious faith in the sufficiency of modern science to give a complete account of our world, human life included. One need not be scientistic to practice science, and most scientists are not. Indeed, many a scientist is also a self-identified member of one or another religious community, though part of what is at issue here is whether any easy-going compatibility of, for example, Darwinism during the week and Judaism or Christianity on the Sabbath is rationally defensible and free of contradiction.

In what follows, I will use "religion" to refer to both Judaism and Christianity, overlooking for the most part all of the important differences between them (and within each). By "science" I will mean modern Western science, the globally successful effort to understand how things work--of which mathematical physics is the jewel and foundation--based on a method of discovery uniquely invented for this purpose, and ultimately imbued with a philanthropic aspiration to use that knowledge for the relief of man's estate and the betterment of human life.

Finally, a word about my approach. The relation between religion and science is, of course, neither a scientific nor a religious question. Insofar as it is a genuine question, it is a philosophical one, both the subject and object of a quest for wisdom. My philosophical approach carries its own hazards of distortion, since it risks treating science and (especially) the various religions from the outside, and not in the way they understand themselves; accordingly, thoughtful believing Jews and Christians and knowledgeable scientists may well not recognize themselves in my account. Nevertheless, looking in the mirror that I am providing should, I hope, stimulate salutary self-reflection.

Although any religion as a human (and more-than-human) institution comprises much more than the knowledge or truths it propounds, the primary point of contact and contest between science and religion happens to be about truth. Hence the central question is this: how do matters stand between the truths discovered by science and the truths revealed by biblical religion, between the truths that can send a man to the moon and the truth spoken in the Torah or the truth that shall make you free?

My answer is divided into three parts: first, some remarks about scientific knowledge and truth in general, and its implications for religious teachings; second, remarks about knowledge of man and his place in the whole; and third, remarks about knowledge of how human beings ought to live.

II

What kind of knowledge is science, and how is it related to the truths promulgated by biblical religion? Are these, as the late Stephen Jay Gould argued, "non-overlapping magisteria," each with its own canons of evidence and legitimate claims, but--despite apparent contradictions between them--perfectly compatible domains, neither one capable of refuting or replacing the other? Or should we rather insist that there cannot be contradictory "truths" about the one world? For either the world is eternal or it came into being; if it came into being, either it was created by God or it was not; if there is divinity, either there is one God or many gods; either man is the one god-like creature (in the "image of God") or he is not; either his soul is immortal or it is not; either he has free will or he does not; either God has made known to man what He requires of him or He has not. It is, I trust, not just the residual scientist in me that insists that there cannot be more than one truth about the one world, even if we human beings can never know it to the bottom.

This premise of a single, universal truth is indeed one of the starting points of modern science, and it is science's reliance on methodical reason to discover such truth that makes possible its transnational and trans-religious appeal.

If Buddhists or Muslims or Christians want to describe the relation of pressure to volume in a gas at constant temperature or the motion of falling bodies, they will necessarily embrace the equations that are Boyle's law or the law of universal gravitation. Indeed, the quest for indubitable knowledge, universally accessible and rationally expressible, was the radical new goal of modern science, rebelling against a 2,000-year history of intellectual controversy and disagreement on nearly all matters hitherto discussed by scholars. As Descartes put it, "There is nothing imaginable so strange or so little credible that it has not been maintained by one philosopher or other."

By the stringent standard of indubitability, a critique similar to Descartes' could be applied now as well as then to some of the central teachings of the world's great religions. Anyone can doubt or deny creation or immortality or the resurrection of the dead without self-contradiction; but no one can deny that the square built on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares built on the other two sides. In order to gain knowledge as indubitable as mathematics, the founders of modern science had to re-conceive nature in objectified (mathematical) terms and to change the questions being asked: no longer the big questions regarding the nature of things, pursued by rare wisdom-seekers, but quantifiable problems regarding an objectified nature, soluble by ordinary mathematical problem-solvers. If the history of modern science could be viewed not retrospectively from the present, but prospectively from its origins in the early 17th century, we would be absolutely astonished at what science has been able to learn about the workings of nature, objectively reconceived.

Nevertheless, despite its universality, its quest for certainty, its reliance on reason purified from all distortions of sensation and prejudice by the use of mathematical method, and the reproducibility of its findings, science does not--and cannot--provide us with absolute knowledge. The reasons are not only methodological but also substantive, and not merely substantive but also intrinsic and permanent.

The substantive limits of science follow from certain fundamental aspects of scientific knowledge and from science's assumptions about what sorts of things are scientifically knowable. They stem from science's own self-proclaimed conceptual limitations--limitations to which neither religious nor philosophical thought is subject. This is not because, science being rational, it is incapable of dealing with the passionate or sub-rational or spiritual or supernatural aspects of being. It is, on the contrary, because the rationality of science is but a partial and highly specialized rationality, concocted for the purpose of gaining only that kind of knowledge for which it was devised, and applied to only those aspects of the world that can be captured by such rationalized notions. The peculiar reason of science is not the natural reason of everyday life captured in ordinary speech, and it is also not the reason of philosophy or religious thought, both of which are tied to--even as they seek to take us beyond--the world as we experience it. …

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