Friday, April 04, 2008

oh no - not theology of science

The question about the purpose and meaning of life used to be a part of natural philosophy (or science - before it was called "science") a few hundred years back. One of the important steps after the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment was the separation of the purpose question from the explanation of the physical universe. This has served us well. Science can figure out the workings of the universe - but how one ascribes meaning to particular findings, is independent of science. For example, the notion of evolution of species is a scientific fact. What meaning one derives from it, is independent of the scientific idea. The same can be said for Big Bang cosmology, principles of thermodynamics, findings about planetary atmospheres, etc.

It appears that Michael Heller, who was recently awarded the Templeton prize, wants to bring purpose and meaning back into science (or at least very close to science). Here is what he has to say about science & religion (from Science):
Q: You talk about a theology of science. Can there be such a thing?
I don't think it exists. But I hope it could be created. If you are investigating the world using the standard scientific method, there are some aspects of the world that are automatically switched off. A theology of science would accept that the limits of rationality do not coincide with the limits of the scientific method, … allowing for questions such as the ultimate cause of the universe. does this mean? I'm not clear about it but I hope this not meant to muddle the distinction between science & religion. Perhaps he is talking about a specific religious interpretation of scientific findings - which is fine, as long as religious beliefs do not feature in the process of science. However, I would be seriously concerned about the slippery slope here.

Q: You say science is the discovery of the mind of God. Can a complete scientific understanding of the universe supplant the idea of God?
I don't think so. I believe God is immanent, and so every law of physics is a manifestation of God. But God is also transcendent and extends beyond the universe. I don't think one day we could solve an equation that will prove that God exists.

Q: You suggest that God may be too complex for humans to understand. Why should that be?
Our brains evolved over millions of years through our interaction with the environment. Evolution required us to develop certain mental faculties to survive. We are fortunate that we somehow developed the surplus brainpower to understand things like quantum mechanics, but I doubt whether that is still enough to comprehend the full nature of reality. there is no problem here. These are his interpretations, and others may agree or disagree with him. But, I'm very skeptical of the theology of science bit.


Don said...

I think that lots of people interpret science through their religious views, and some people interpret religion through their scientific views. But this isn't what "theology of science" implies-- like you said, it seems to echo ideas from natural theology.

I'm leaning towards a fully pessimistic attitude towards Michael Heller. When a Templeton winner talks about investigating "the ultimate cause of the universe" it's almost like he's posing a leading question.

Salman Hameed said...

yes...its a very slippery slope. But indeed, this really fits into the Templeton Foundation's central theme. Oh well...

JR said...

Salman, nice job.

I agree with your introductory context (no wonder I’m saying, “nice job,” eh?).

And I agree with your truth-sniffing of his muddling the distinctions between science and religion (I’d say he is - since that what the Templeton Foundation is for).

I disagree with you and wonder if you dropped the ball or maybe gave Heller a free hall-pass in your conclusion - when you say there is no conflict.

Maybe you’re right.

But, I’d ask him another battery of questions about the complexity theory and God-is-beyond our puny brains stuff.

One perennial landmark of theological reasoning across traditions is to posit “God” for whatever we cannot understand. Even if this turns out to be true, say because some future day prodigy Aquinas or polymath genius Ibn-Rushd serves up some fancy formal proofs, then we are still left asking the question of “how much” (of God, or TOE) we can know rather than positing an absolute bar.

So where the “science” part of Heller’s hope for a theology of science breaks down is in the question whether the “I-don’t-know” program becomes so resistant to falsification that it’s an epistemological excuse for importing theological content into the “science.”

I’d say keep your critical thinking cap on. And watch the slippery slope. Or, you may end up someday muttering – “epper si muove” – under your breath. It’s a matter of the use or abuse of the casuistry, really.



Salman Hameed said...


I completely agree on keeping the critical thinking cap on. But what I was referring to was his statement that perhaps human mind will never be able to "comprehend the full nature of reality" - now whether you add God after that or not is a matter of faith (from both sides). There can be a tenuous agreement over here. However,this "theology of science" business may bring in God as a consequence of that statement, and this is where the slippery slope comes in. So its completely reasonable to be worried about Heller's approach...and more likely than not, this program may end up in the direction of "fine-tuning" arguments and we'll be back to where we started.


Anonymous said...

First of all, it would have been great if you, as well as all those commenting, had actually taken the time to do the research to understand what Heller is talking about, instead of pulling unsupported quotations from an interview and regurgitating platitudes like some armchair intellectuals. There's more talking than listening going on from what appears to be a presumed moral high ground derived from a daft popular conception of science.

To start, I recommend Heller's "Creative Tension" to better understand more clearly what his position is with respect to science and religion. I won't explain in exhaustive detail exactly what Heller writes, but allow me to correct or underscore a few important points which seem to have been missed.

First, I'm not sure what all of you seem to be afraid of, but Heller's major point w.r.t. rationality is that the limits of rationality do not coincide with what we call the physical sciences. Strictly speaking, a science is any endeavor in pursuit of knowledge. It is a human activity (and frankly I find the sophistic and absolutist "worship" of "Science" rather nauseating). Those who equate science with rationality are called positivists, and the Vienna circle from the early 20th century was certainly of that ilk. Fortunately, Godel demolished that myth, but oddly enough, the spirit of positivism still finds its oblivious or stubborn adherents.

Second, Heller explicitly cautions against naively identifying scientific theories with religious doctrine because scientific theories are volatile, and what often occurs is that many will often accept an interpretation as absolute fact. When this occurs, any hole found in the scientific theory is immediately perceived as a hole in doctrine. Instead, Heller encourages theologians to remain informed about scientific developments to inform their own science, and simultaneously encourages scientists to remain mindful about passing theological and philosophical statements as scientific fact or even theory. It is crystal clear that Heller is strongly critical of blurring the line between science and religion, and in fact, attributes the imaginary conflict between them as a symptom of just that kind of blurring. This does not mean that a scientist cannot ask theological questions or make theological statements, or that a theologian cannot ask scientific questions or make scientific statements. Certainly not. Heller himself is physicist, theologian, philosopher and cosmologist. His point is simple, and that is that we remain mindful about what kinds of questions or statements we are making. To ask about ultimate causes is a perfectly valid question. But as he says, the question is no longer scientific (in the physical sense), but rather philosophical or theological. The accusations being hurled unjustifiably at Heller are of the same order as those that were hurled against Lemaitre when he proposed the Big Bang theory during a period in history when most held to the idea that the universe is infinite with no beginning in time.

And third, the theology of science that Heller talks about is, crudely, an explicit study of the "meaning" of science within the fabric of theology. One ought to remember that the physical universe is a subcomponent of the universe that is under theological consideration. For a better understanding, see "Creative Tension." I do not yet have a well-formed opinion about the value or uniqueness of the proposal in relation to the long history of philosophy and theology, but I assure you, it is a far cry from what the gasping and suspicious voices in the blog post and its comments worry so much about.

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