Monday, 28 September 2009

Is Science an enemy or friend of Theology?


  • What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?¹

The above quotation from physicist Stephen Hawking presupposes a relationship between science and theology. The question 'why' is not a question that can be easily addressed within the constraints of empirical study. Teleological speculation seems to be the task of the philosopher or theologian and it could be posited that the reputed historic conflict between the two domains centres around the 'whys' and 'hows' and who has rights over which.

Some scientists e.g. Monod and Dawkins, do not accept the need for the question 'why', but it is true to say that the question 'how' cannot be addressed in its entirety without its extruding into the realm of the ontological - the metaphysical questions surrounding the idea of existence or being. And these questions seemingly fall outside the field of known scientific method. This particular line of discussion has been rather surprisingly reintroduced in recent years i.e. "re-asking the God question within the orbit of scientific discussion about the natural world".²

In this essay I intend to highlight the principles of verification and falsification, and discuss the ramifications when applied to theological concepts, in particular how too rigid an application could jeopardise the basic tenets of Christianity.

How Science 'Works'

Without getting myself embroiled in the many and varied aspects of scientific study, I will give a brief (layperson's) overview of scientific method and what I feel the concerns are of any scientist in examining the material world. First of all, I would like to make it clear that I am differentiating between science as a method and science as a worldview. Science, to my mind, is not supposed to be an end in itself, but a means to an end - a method. When science, however, exceeds the boundaries defined by the word 'method' and starts to make religious and philosophical pronouncements, it then becomes more than just empirical study, it becomes a worldview and therefore has entered a different realm. This is one of the major problems confronting modern day scientist/theologians - where exactly does science end and theology begin? Or should the relationship be delineated differently? I discuss the problem below.

Science, in its broadest sense, is concerned with the field of knowledge that deals with observed facts and how they are related together. It is, by definition, a finite and human occupation and therefore limited in its possibilities. Scientists can be concerned with fields as diverse as the origins of the universe or the structure of molecules in the cells of plants and animals. Others investigate human behaviour or try to solve complicated mathematical problems. Whatever the field of study, it is all to do with the material world in which we live. In this world, as defined by science, words such as 'meaning' 'purpose' 'why' cannot exist, for they cannot be described by science and cannot be scientifically proved.

  • Scientists use systematic methods of study to make observations and collect facts. They then work to develop theories that help them order or unify related facts. Scientific theories consist of general principles or laws that attempt to explain how and why something happens or happened. Science advances as scientists accumulate more detailed facts and gain a better understanding of these fundamental principles and laws.³
One answer to the question as to what the scientific approach to study should be, is that first you formulate a hypothesis, then you devise a means for testing it and then you carry it out. A hypothesis is nothing more or less than a presupposition as a basis for working. So when the experiments are being carried out, always at the back of the mind is some particular idea that is intended to be confirmed or rejected on the basis of the research. In this sense the scientist can only hold his current theory tentatively, because there is always the possibility that someone will come up with a better and more satisfactory one. The interpretative framework that the researcher adopts presupposes the methods and it is very unlikely that observations can be made entirely objectively. Therefore a theory that has been developed has to undergo rigorous scrutiny, testing and re-testing before it can be accepted as a scientific fact. And even then as new evidence emerges, old facts can become replaced by new facts and the process starts again. In this way scientific knowledge is never static, it is always growing.

Ideally, good scientific method objectively subjects a hypothesis to rigorous examination using the whole gamut of tools available in order to prove or disprove a theory. Some or all of the following are accepted methods and can be used in conjunction with each other: observing nature, classifying data (statistics), using logic to draw conclusions, conducting experiments, composing mathematical formulae. These are done as a way of structuring and understanding information about the physical world around us.

During this century, influences (sometimes from outside both fields) have caused both disciplines to reassess their approaches to study and, in particular, theology has had to re-examine its modus operandi in order to maintain the equilibrium. The 'Vienna Circle' in the early part of the 20th century put forward views on "a formal theory of knowledge" which they felt would have a profound effect on both science and theology. The foundational tenet of this philosophy was the Verification Principle and from this grew 'logical positivism' or 'logical empiricism'. Statements were distinguished as either being analytic or synthetic. Analytic statements are truth statements that do not need empirically verifying and can be categorised as either definition statements (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4) or logic statements (e.g. A person cannot be in two places at once). Synthetic statements are statements that lie outside the above two categories and open themselves up to verification only by empirical means. As Murray clarifies:

  • According to the logical positivists' characteristic 'verificationist' principle of meaning, the class of meaningful propositions consists of analytic propositions, which are true by definition, and synthetic propositions which can be verified in a similarly empirical manner as was presumed to be the case with scientific propositions.⁴
And A. J. Ayer sums up:

  • A simple way to formulate it would be to say that a sentence has literal meaning if and only if the proposition it expressed was either analytic or empirically verifiable.⁵
It was the logician and sociologist Karl Popper who insisted that the way of approach in science should be one of falsification. He maintained that it was impossible to empirically verify scientific laws beyond a shadow of a doubt, but one instance of falsification can refute the validity of a scientific argument, making it possible to distinguish those laws which can be falsified and those which cannot.

  • Rather than moving inductively from observations to generalisations, the suggested way of proceeding is by deducing predictions from the available theories and then testing for them with a view to the possible refutation of the theory in question. For Popper it is this falsificationist manner of proceeding which serves to demarcate science from non-science.6
In the latter part of the twentieth century one of the most influential scholars in the field of scientific method was Thomas Kuhn who called into question the basic presuppositions for scientific study. While Popper and the logical positivists had put forward procedures for working within the existing framework, either that of truths that can be proved or conjectures that can be refuted, Kuhn introduced a revolutionary concept which challenged the preconceived notion that progress in science was made by careful and steady testing of hypotheses, with acceptance or rejection taking place as theories were rigorously put through the traditional scientific process. He introduced the possibility of framework redefinement, or as Murray explains:

  • Kuhn's central thesis is that scientific 'progress' over the long term shows more a pattern of occasional dramatic and total transformations in our understanding of the world (what he refers to as 'paradigm' shifts) than it does one of steady development within an enduring framework of understanding.7
So an existing paradigm 'works' until the anomalies accumulate to the point of causing a 'revolution' (as Kuhn calls it) and then the old paradigm is abandoned for one that comports with the data more effectively.

The understanding of the world, then, has undergone such extreme changes as to warrant the introduction of new worldviews and there is not necessarily (according to Kuhn) prior indication of this. The leap has been total and unexpected. It is probably not unreasonable to say that this state of affairs has ramifications for the whole of society, not just those who are engaged in science or theology. The movement from one paradigm to another does not necessarily invalidate the first one, so therefore there are going to be adherents in both worlds. And if, as Kuhn maintained, that there is the possibility of the two worlds being engaged in competition with no direct communication between them, it is likely that there will be plenty of resistance between the groups concerned. The supreme example of a paradigm shift8 came with the introduction of the theory of evolution, which was embraced and developed by Darwin in the seminal work The Origin of Species in 1859. This, in subsequent years, has had a profound effect on, not just the scientific and theological world, but on the whole of society. The growing acceptance of evolution has resulted in many rejecting God as creator and this has posed a multitude of problems for theologians not the least being the ignominious prospect of becoming surplus to requirements. This challenge to theology is being addressed in various ways as I will endeavour to show.

The dangers of Scientism as a Worldview

This is by way of being a parenthesis, but I consider it important to address the issue of scientism, which to some is the only acceptable framework in which to look at the world.

Since the Enlightenment the emphasis on the rational approach to everything has of course affected the approach to theology. The idea that 'knowledge is power' became the watchword and epistemology became the epistemology of science; and it is true that many scientific advances were made, especially in the physical sciences e.g. Galileo, Newton. If, as the Enlightenment philosophers believed, all people are born with the capacity to reason, then with the help of education, they can be trained to do the right thing in any given situation. Unlike animals who can only use instinct.

To be reasoned and rational in ones approach to life is usually commended in this day and age. It signifies objectivity and this conjures up positive impressions of non-bias, altruism and tolerance. However, it can lead to hubris of immense proportions. Reason becomes the ultimate authority and the frame of reference for determining anything. By definition then, it can only be entirely subjective.

Scientism is the logical end result of a rationalist worldview. It is science becoming a religion, because it precludes there being a reference point outside the finite and denies a place to abstract concepts which we as humans 'know' within ourselves - personality, love, hope, meaning, purpose; also conversely, hate, despair, meaningless, purposelessness. The most famous modern day proponent of such a view was Carl Sagan, who explained our human traits as 'minor accidents' which came about because of our long evolutionary history. And if human beings are only here anyway as a result of 'biological accidents', then it would be reasonable to assume that moral claims upon us cannot be sustained beyond the experience of the individual. In a sense this is like shooting oneself in the foot because if the principle of causality is no longer an issue for science then it is also no longer an issue for life. D. N. Menton in an article about Sagan defines Scientism as:

  • …the belief that the assumptions, methods and even the speculations of science are equally appropriate, if not essential, for the proper understanding of all knowledge including religion. Scientism explicitly denies both the special revelation of truth and the existence of a sovereign, supernatural and eternal being.9
Reaction to Scientific Rationalism

At the other end of the scale are those who ignore both science and theology and indulge in a kind of religious mysticism. Today, New Age philosophies are gaining ground at a tremendous rate. The desire for spiritual enlightenment and the rejection of many of the values of western culture, especially materialism, have led some people to seek an alternative lifestyle that is based on transformation of the inner self without reference to any outside influence. It can be posited then that the point of reference is one's own ego.

Within the Christian Church this reaction has manifested itself in a kind of existentialism. This can be seen in the growth of 'charismatic' churches that in practice arrange their theology around their religious experience, with little allusion to the historic view of scripture or church tradition. This modern day gnosticism is dangerous insofar that, taken to its logical conclusion, it means that any moral responsibility cannot be based on a unified corporate identity, but only on the whim of the individual i.e. if it feels good then it must be right.

The Relationship between Science and Theology

It is true to say that theology is a discipline that endeavours to express the content of a religious faith as a cohesive set of propositions. In other words it attempts to interpret the basic elements of belief that are explicitly or implicitly embodied in faith, and to do this employs a methodology appropriate to the study. As theology ultimately is concerned with God, it can be said that any description of him or discussion about him will be woefully inadequate. The verbalisation of faith at first was steeped in mythology, and as it was impossible to continue to use concrete language to describe theological images, a conceptual language developed. In the Judeo-Christian tradition God is often described using negative terminology (invisible, incorporeal). So that this didn't become counter-productive and reduce theology to sheer agnosticism, indirect and figurative ways of speaking about God are introduced (analogy, symbolism, metaphor) in order that the language of theology retain some of the imagery from the pre-theological stage of belief and not become purely conceptual. In other words the language of theology is a language that relates what we know to what we say in a metaphysical and esoteric way.

For the last century science and religion have been seen to be poles apart with little if no meeting point. The advances in science and technology have been phenomenal. At one time theology was seen as the highest discipline and was at its most potent during the middle ages. The notion that theology was the framework for all other disciplines was largely undisputed. It was during the time of the ancient Greeks that the word 'theology' was coined by the philosophers who considered a rational reflection on God, the world and human life. They contrasted the rational theological approach to the concept of God with the mythological stories about the gods that were promulgated from amongst the poets of the day. This approach had many adherents during the Middle Ages, the most notable being Thomas Aquinas. Conversely, revelation as the source of theological truth has also had strong appeal, not just in the Christian tradition, but also in Judaism, Islam and several of the eastern traditions. As an encyclopaedia puts it:

  • These religions are traced back to founders who offered some new and striking insights into the questions of God and human destiny. Subsequent generations of theologians reflected on the content of these illuminations, drew their implications, applied their insights in new situations, and tested and criticised the interpretations that had been previously offered.10
Both theology and science are grounded in, and affected by, history. The bible is proclaimed to be God's word grounded in a historical framework, and it is unique in its claims. The way that we in the west, in particular, have built our society, is very much based on Christian principles. Scientific discoveries, also, have affected the way we think and govern our lives. A problem occurs when these two pursuits are thrown into conflict over discoveries made that call into question our basic understanding of the nature of reality e.g. evolution.

It is understandable then that historically science and theology have been seen to be in conflict at various times. In recent years much work has been done by scientists and theologians to try to initiate debate between the two disciplines, for it has been posited that they do not have to be mutually exclusive. As I have stated, science (and in this I am specifically talking about natural science) has made huge advances over recent years and this has led to a necessarily radical rethink in the theological domain, if for no other reason than the pressures that wide acceptance of the evolutionary theory has put upon it. The question has to be asked, does evolution necessarily mean that the biblical story of creation has no truth in it, and if so what are the consequences for belief in the atonement - Jesus' incarnation, death and resurrection?

These are problematical questions and in order for there to be debate and eventually some sort of cohesion between the two 'paradigms', there has to be a point of reference that is acceptable to both. I have used the evolution theory as an example because it seems to me that it is pivotal in the debate between theology and science. If Kuhn's hypothesis is correct, it would have to be accepted that there can be no meeting of the two views (evolution and creation), because the framework for each has been posited to be essentially different and therefore potentially in conflict. Which field of study gives the best explanation of the present situation, taking into account the knowledge that has been accumulated empirically as well as acknowledging that some things can not be verified empirically, e.g. the existence of God, or the instance of a point in history when sin entered the world? The main problem with the verificationist agenda is that there has to come a point when a determined number of particular instances are formulated into a general law, otherwise there would be no universal schema at all. Murray states:

  • Even were it possible to extend the range of observations to include all actual cases of the relevant kind, this would still be insufficient for universal propositions, the scope of which extends to embrace not only the actual but also the hypothetical and hence as yet unobservable.11
When this is applied to theology, the problems are manifold, as the methodology is going to fail under close scrutiny from the outset. For instance, if as I have stated, the purpose of theology is to endeavour to express the content of a religious faith in a cohesive set of propositions, then already the methodology is inadequate, as the concept of religious faith is by definition nebulous and does not appear to be open to empirical verification. On the other hand, Popper's falsification hypothesis applied to theology seems initially to be a brighter prospect. The possibility of being able to prove something not true is more scientifically satisfying and has a sense of finality about it which precludes subsequent argument. However, it might be pertinent to note here that in applying that principle to something like determining the existence of a Supreme Being, it becomes open to brutal questioning regarding how much evidence is needed in order to rule out the possibility of his/her/its existence, e.g. for some, the evidence of evil and suffering in the world is more than enough to falsify the existence of God as they see him portrayed in the Christian bible. But for others who look at it differently, this is not a theologically satisfactory reason e.g. for them human sinfulness would be considered an acceptable rationale and therefore the existence of God is not necessarily in doubt on that basis.

Fraser Watts in Science Meets Faith sees that the perceived conflict can be divided up into three elements - substantive (e.g. how the world came into being), philosophical (the basis of truth) and historical (it has always been that way), and he argues that there is no continuing need to see them in that light. He claims that:

  • …there is no necessary conflict over substantive matters, once you understand the different questions that science and religion are answering; they are giving different answers to different questions, rather than different and conflicting answers to the same questions. …. that both science and religion are rational in their somewhat different ways, and that there can be mutual respect between them. …..that the idea that science and religion have always been in conflict is an invention of the late nineteenth century, and that the truth about their historical relationship is much more complex.12
So Watts' thesis is that science and religion are not mutually exclusive, but are to be regarded as considering different aspects of the known and unknown world. This seems to imply that science and religion dwell in different realms. I am not sure whether this view can be intellectually sustained if the questions that are posed in the scientific world can only be addressed adequately within a theological framework. This brings me back to the evolution issue. The question 'why' in relation to the existence of the cosmos leads very naturally to an answer beginning with the word 'because'. And it is the 'because' that has not been satisfactorily explained. Answers like 'Because it is here' or 'Because we exist' are not answers that explain purpose, orderedness, reason, faith.

Recent discussions have centred around refuting atheistic evolution and espousing theistic evolution as a viable alternative which has a more holistic approach to explaining probabilities. In fact it is replacing one set of probabilities with another, but they are to many, both theologically and philosophically more satisfying. The world evolved and is evolving, but it is not by chance or even necessity but determined by a transcendent God who has a teleological disposition. So it would appear that there is design and purpose to the universe, but it is up to us to find out what it is, if indeed it is possible. This, I believe, is where there will need to be more clarity, because although this view is becoming more popular (and not just among scholars), when it comes down to discussing what the purpose is, the opinions run the gamut from those who espouse Christian theism to those who have a kind of agnostic deism.

Friend or Foe?

By accommodating the theory of evolution within its bailiwick, theology has had to make concessions. The biblical account of creation has been re-interpreted so that it doesn't preclude the possibility that life has evolved after an initial act of creation. So, this means that theology has made a paradigm shift of its own to a certain extent. This is not necessarily a bad thing for either Christianity or Theism generally, but there are those who find that there are more questions raised than answered. Re-interpreting the bible because of changing worldviews13 will render a lot of it meaningless in literal terms. This will have significant impact on what exactly is the true nature of Christianity. As I have mentioned above, the question of the 'fall of man' as an historical event is linked inextricably with the incarnation, atonement and resurrection and these doctrines have been central to the Christian faith for two thousand years. If Jesus didn't come to redeem sinful human beings in his death and resurrection as the bible states, there has to have been some other reason? John Polkinghorne proposes:

  • Christians believe that God has shared our lot by living a truly human life in Jesus Christ. This is a tremendous and exciting claim. It means that God has acted to make himself known to us in the plainest possible terms, namely through a human life and a human death. ….If this understanding of Jesus is true, then in that lonely figure hanging on the cross, we see God himself accepting suffering, and opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the world.14
This of course is relevant, but it would appear to be insufficient. If this is the reason and the only reason, then the other claims of the bible are called into question. But this is only part truth according to the biblical text. My question is, where does one draw the line when it comes to biblical claims? We have no evidence one way or the other, but our Christian understanding has to be based on something. If non-specific theism can be accommodated within science by the positing the logical hypothesis that there is a Supreme Being who instigated all of this, then that will go a long way to answering teleological and ontological questions. However, this does not necessarily leave a place for biblical Christianity in the scheme of things, because based on John Polkinghorne's thesis, many of the definite claims of the bible do not fit in with the current thinking. For those who choose to adhere to the Christian faith as being the best way for them, it prompts the question 'to what end?' The bible states that choices made in this world will affect one's destiny in the next world. This is not now generally accepted. The belief in a literal hell is an outmoded concept which is a hangover from the dark ages. The belief in a literal heaven though is more acceptable and eminently more comfortable.15 The bible talks at great length about both heaven and hell. On what basis is one rejected and the other accepted, as empirical evidence for the existence of either is missing? They can neither be verified or falsified.

These are some of the questions that the theistic evolutionists fail to address and I believe in doing so they discredit the specifically Christian aspect of theology, which is to the detriment of theological discourse.


In accepting, with alacrity, the evolutionary model some Christian theologians seem to have had to make concessions in order that there will be any discourse with scientists at all. If these concessions were based on undisputed facts, then there would be value to it and it would, in all likelihood, enhance the basis of belief. But as I have already discussed, the problems contiguous with the principles of verification and falsification apply to both the theological and the scientific world, but more so to the theological. There has to be an element of faith in order to proceed in both domains. However, if all that theologians are doing is removing one set of propositions and replacing them with another, it seems to be rather illogical.

As science has always had to shift its foundations as new discoveries are made, it will continue to do so. But the theories that are posited should be accepted or rejected by theologians on the basis of something more than just probabilities, as in the case of evolution. In that respect, then, one could say that science is an enemy to theology. However, it is my hypothesis that theology can be a friend to science, but only if theology stays true to its rationale and science understands that some things cannot be explained, except by the presence of faith.

1. S. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, (London: Bantam, 1988) p. 192-3

2. T. Peters, "Theology and Natural Science", The Modern Theologians, ed. D. Ford, second ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) p. 649

3. The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia, CDROM, "Science", (Chicago: World Book Inc. 1997)

4. P. D. Murray, "Truth and Reason in Science and Theology: Points of Tension, Correlation and Compatibility" in C. Southgate et al, God, Humanity and the Cosmos - a textbook on science and religion (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999) p. 51

5. A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1946) p. 7

6. Murray, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, p. 66

7. Ibid, p. 72

8. cf D. G. Burke, "Evolution and Creation", Science Meets Faith, ed. F. Watts (London: SPCK, 1998) p. 43. Burke posits a paradigm as a new mind set or world view. He maintains Evolution is best described this way rather than it being a theory. It is very tempting though to ask the question, how many people need to believe a theory before it becomes a worldview?

9. D. N. Menton, Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism, (Missouri Association for Creation Inc.: 1997) Taken from Webpage

10. Infopedia, Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia CDROM, "Theology", (Funk and Wagnalls, 1995)

11. Murray, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, p. 66

12. F. Watts, "Introduction", Science Meets Faith, ed. F. Watts (London: SPCK, 1998) p. 2

13. Evolution (even if it is a worldview) is still a theory which has yet to be proved (as, of course, is creation). One of the most fundamental aspects of evolution is speciation. How a species originates is critical to the hypothesis, but although there have been instances cited of new species being formed, they are very few and highly ambiguous; also there is no evidence of transitions.

14. J. Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, (London: Triangle/SPCK, 1994) pp. 48-49

15. John Polkinghorne speculates on this possibility in "How Will it End", Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, pp. 90-96

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