Saturday, March 29, 2008

Science and theology

It is sometimes said that when science and theology conflict, this is because we are dealing with bad science or bad theology or both bad science and bad theology. This may be in fact true of a number of apparent conflicts between science and theology.

But even if this is in fact true, one shouldn't elevate such an observation into a necessarily true principle. Here is one reason to think this. We learn from history that good science is often wrong. (Can one say the same about theology? That may depend on whether one restricts to the theology of a true religion, and on how speculative one allows theology to be and still count as "good".) Unless science and theology have completely logically disjoint subject matter, so that no proposition of science can possibly entail or be incompatible with a proposition of theology, it seems quite possible to have a case where a proposition p is such that (a) p is good science, (b) p is false, and (c) not-p is good theology.

Objection 1: Science and theology have completely logically disjoint subject matter, and hence it is impossible for a coherent proposition from one field to entail or be incompatible with a proposition from the other.

Response: This is false. For instance, Christian theology holds that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth does not contain the body of Jesus of Nazareth. This proposition and its negation are certainly the sorts of propositions with which historical sciences like archaeology deal. For another example, Jewish and Christian theology holds that the cosmos was created a finite amount of time ago. This theological proposition entails the claim that the cosmos has only finite age, a claim within the competency of cosmology (Aristotelian cosmology denied the claim; Big Bang cosmology affirmed the claim; some recent cosmologies deny the claim again).

Objection 2: Only true conclusions of science count as good science.

Response: This is implausible. Newtonian physics was good science par excellence, but false. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics were (are?) both good science, but we now know that they are not both true, since they conflict. But if this is true, then by the same token we should stipulate that only true conclusions of theology count as good theology, and then the claim that there can be no conflict between good science and good theology becomes tautologous. That said, it may be that some who make the no-conflict claim do mean it to be tautologous. Tautologies can still be useful at highlighting things—and, besides, one can't dispute them, which is certain a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Pruss,

My comment here is a bit divergent from the main point of your entry but it is relevant to one of the claims that you make. I'm a bit interested in your comments about Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics. You say that both of them cannot be true since they conflict with one another. Therefore, one of them must be false. Based on this comment, I take it that you don't find any of the recent attempts to reconcile these two theories to be successful (or even *potentially* successful). I would be delighted to see why you think that (if in fact you do think that). Furthermore, what are your thoughts on some of the more contemporary physical theories such as M-theory?


Alexander R Pruss said...

I know very little of this. I am guessing that the reconciliations aren't really reconciliations of the theories, but reconciliations of modifications of the theories. Am I right?

Nacisse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nacisse said...

what about objection 3 : only conclusions belived to be non-false count as good science.

that would make the truth of (b) entail that (a) is false. if something is belived to be false (Newtonian physics, say) then it can't be good science (except as a model of how science should be done methodologically, maybe) because it doesn't aim at truth anymore- since it is now admittedly false.

relativity theory and quantum mechanics are still good science so long as we don't know which one is false.

so if we belive our theology is right in saying something is false science can't disagree and still be aimed at truth (be good science).

Alexander R Pruss said...

If only science believed to be true is good science, it is still possible that p is good science and p is false. It's just that then p is not believed to be false.

Nacisse said...

but in the conflict between good science and good theology p would be believed to be false - for theological reasons.

Alexander R Pruss said...

True, but the principle is that there is no conflict, not that we think there is no conflict.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,

Just wanted to check: Is the theologically orthodox view simply that the universe has to be created, or that, in addition, it has to have a finite past?


Alexander R Pruss said...


I think in Christian (and I think Jewish and Islamic) orthodoxy, the universe has been created a finite amount of time ago. I don't have any definitive pronouncements to cite, but it seems to me to be a common core about the beliefs about creation of all the Church Fathers, even ones like St Augustine who were open to non-literal interpretations of Genesis.

It seems to me that if a doctrine is maintained even by Christian thinkers sympathetic to an intellectual climate which is tension with the doctrine, then there is good reason to think the doctrine to be a part of Christian orthodoxy. The doctrine of the finite age of creation was maintained even by Christian thinkers very sympathetic to Aristotle, despite Aristotle's rejection of the claim.

(This is a nice test. It also shows why the wrongness of abortion is a part of Christian doctrine, since it was maintained despite late-ensoulment philosophical views.)

Dan said...

Most of what were called the Islamic "philosophers" (al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, etc., with the exception of Al-Kindi) accepted Aristotle's proof of the eternity of the world, and consequently accepted an Neoplatonist eternal "emanation" view of creation. These Islamic philosophers were predominantly considered heretics by the orthodox theologians (most prominently, Al-Ghazali).

I'm not sure this has any implications for thinking about Christian orthodoxy.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not surprised.

What is amazing about this medieval tendency towards the heresy of world-eternalism is just how bad Aristotle's argument is. His main argument, as far as I can tell, is basically this:
1. Where there is nothing, there is no motion. (Premise)
2. Where there is no motion, there is no time. (Premise)
3. Suppose that before t0, there was nothing. (For reductio)
4. Then, before t0, there was no time. (By 1-3)
5. Where there is no time, there is no before and after. (Premise)
6. Therefore, (4) is absurd. (By (5)).

But this is a really bad argument because the defender of the beginning of the world should not assert (3). She should just say:
(3*) Not (before t0, there is something).

Maybe there is a subsidiary argument from the thesis that each member of a species comes from a parent of the same species. But it shouldn't be at all a difficulty for a theist to make an exception to that for a newly created member.

jprapp said...

Alexander - good questions.

I’m wondering whether Wilson gave up on conscilience when he posited two separate, non-overlapping magisteria, one for science, the other for religion?

My bias has long been that consilient conversations between the antagonists could explore their various and respective hierarchies of concepts and findings, without requiring agreements or stipulations across the board of normative practices and claims.

Hope eternal.

Curtis - I don’t agree with the proposition that relativity and QM cannot both be true since we don’t yet have a complete differential equation for global conditions, nor a Theory of Everything (TOE).

Like Weinberg points out, we don’t yet know whether a TOE (or a metaphysic) would yield any helpful integration of our sciences, since it may be so vague and general as to be only trivially (or vanishingly small) for any useful further discipline (something like, “things exist”).

The whole question whether QM requires interpretation (or, just the unitary equations) could rage even after the discovery of a TOE. Same with religion, see below.

I think Alexander has a pragmatic point for a possible integration between religion and science, along the lines of Popper’s simple observation that if any metaphysic really exists, then it’s proper formulation could never be falsified.

It’s possible that some future-day prodigy-like Aquinas will unify the realms of science and religion via proof. This chance can't be ruled out in advance.

Until then, the NAS has confined science to the search for natural causes of natural phenomena. Whether this is true, a truism, or a strategy to keep supernaturalism out of the ambit of proper science (principally in the creation/ID controversies), you decide.

But even if a future meta-physic obtains, and commands consensus across religions, it’s still possible that its formulation would remain so generalized and so vague as to be useless to integrate our disciplines.

Religion is more like dis-integrated superstrings: intractably dueling assertions in theology (e.g. Calvinism v. Arminianism, thousands of others), or something like the academic encyclopedism of Mircea Eliade as framing data-sets for further study by natural and social sciences. And if the language of any future metaphysic is like the language of superstrings (ala purely metric/mathematical, not prosaic), then the jurisdiction of theological (if not any sciences not proficient in the language) that relies on prose inquiry and expression, will likely always be marginalized and suspect. I think the emotional charge of this result would never stop prosaic story-tellers from arguing for their high importance. But, let’s see.

Popper once said to Wheeler that organic sciences (like biology)would probably over-determine our thinking on these metaphysical matters, with even physics (think: Wheeler’s great smokey dragon) heeling in tow. I think that was just fun posturing; and I doubt this will hold (since the quantum isn’t really sentient or conscious, and current concept hierarchies don't overlap); but, it’s fun to speculate.



Alexander R Pruss said...

Dumb question: What is consilience in this context?

jprapp said...

Not too complicated.

I considered conscilience in the context of a science-theology conversation to conform to Wilson’s original hope for the project of a sort of unity/merger of science-humanities methods and findings.

It wouldn’t mean that specialization ceased. Only that assumptions of natural and social orderliness and an Occam-like elegance of laws explaining order would obtain. I really think that Wilson held this as an aspiration more than a strict methodological goal. His hope was a heuristic.

Maybe ecological applications are as far as this could go?

I don’t think this presupposes intrinsic orderliness. Order must be argued, established, tested, demonstrated, not assumed. But, this hope gives a frame of reference for heuristic conversations while searches for a TOE or meta-physic goes on.

I wonder whether bench scientists are just too busy to care to join the fray, and whether theologians are too committed to dogma or to post-modern fancies to jump on a wagon hitched to modern mules.

A more generic intersection for consilient knowledge might be in our liminalia: starting with stuff like Kekule’s dream, and working to testable formulas. I hope I don’t get into too much trouble claiming that we all experience these sudden flashes of unbidden insight, wherein the world feels modestly coherent, and wherein a few generous inferences make bad theology and bad science (your terms) feel less prominent and aggravating. But, I don't blame scientists for staying away for fear of theolgists sneaking in vague poetic claims: as the recent Paul Davies flap shows.