Reconciling Science and Religion
The ages-long conflict between science and religion needs to come to an end. It can and will, if each discipline will acknowledge the natural limits of their legitimacy.
Resolved: That Science and Religion have butted heads long enough.
The vision of this fruitless antagonism continuing to the end of time is too depressing. I won't use my space and your time here to recount the many truly horrid and cruel – and truly stupid, to speak plainly – historical battles between religion and science. They are well known to all of us. (I speak of the Western tradition, and of the western monotheistic religions of the past two thousand years, chiefly Christianity.)
Some day we'll understand what it is in man's mind that permits him to close it off to anything beyond that which he has been indoctrinated in. A fair analogy is a computer with a certain installed operating system. Try to feed it a file that doesn't match its operating system and it's rejected out of hand. Doesn't matter how much of truth, value, or importance the file contains. The computer isn't interested, won't even look at it. Indeed, it can't look at it, it's incapable of understanding this bit of information that falls outside its system. This behavior describes well the traditional response of societies and other cultural groupings when confronted with alternatives that don't fit in with their "operating system". And nowhere has this been more true than in the case of the three authoritarian and doctrinaire religions that arose in the eastern Mediterranean and Arabia: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But what of Science? Has it not been equally doctrinaire? Has it not also drawn an opaque curtain around itself, refusing to consider ideas that fall outside its own operating system, or that seem not to fit with accepted dogma? Yes, the answer is clearly that science has often been guilty of closed-mindedness. The development of the "scientific method", by which scientists attempt to assure that their investigations are unbiased and may be freely critiqued, confirmed, corrected, or refuted by other investigators, was a gradual affair. Science through the 19th century was dominated by authority figures whose mere opinion counted for more than any amount of investigative work by their lessers, and who could dismiss conflicting ideas with a wave of their hand. It was not until well into the 20th century that the ideals of the scientific method began to be approximated.
It's important to understand that the scientific method goes against basic human instincts. Its reason for being is in fact to overcome those instincts. It aims to be objective, where humans are not. It denies the authority of any individual, replacing that with the lesser "authority" of facts and findings – lesser because no facts or findings are considered final, only more or less probable approximations to truth, to be further refined by other researchers. The scientific method demands that I as an investigator be objective in my research and my presentation of findings, and that I offer these for others to dispute. It suggests that I should be (ideally) disinterested when I offer hypotheses or theories to explain my findings. If my own experimental results or critique by others show my theory to be wrong, that's an important result for science, to which I have contributed and for which I should be glad. Now, that would be a very un-human reaction to one's own failed theory or experiment, and it's a rare scientist – if any – who can attain that degree of objectivity. The human emotions that identify our selves with our work and with our ideas, and that seek recognition and elevated personal position, are as prevalent among scientists as among any other group of persons. A scientist celebrated for developing some theory usually identifies personally with the theory, to the point of wanting it to be true, an unscientific intrusion of personal desire that we make allowance for because the scientist is human. And as great scientists are celebrated for their contributions, later failure of their theories would bring them back to the common horde, might brand them as failures, though their work contributed valuably to the scientific dialectic. But the beauty of the scientific method is that it allows for human lack of objectivity by a peer review system that serves the same function as the checks-and-balance system of separation of powers in a government. One scientist's lack of objectivity is balanced by review of the work by the body of scientists who, even if they do not manage total objectivity, at any rate represent the breadth of available informed judgement.
So while science has experienced many moments of collective blinding, when a majority of scientists were unable to accept what they should have been able to see, such moments represent failure by scientists to uphold science's standards of objectivity and free thought and inquiry. It is not failure of science, but human failure to embrace the true principles of science, that have brought on occasional bias and philosophical petrification in the history of science. In contrast, philosophical ossification in religion has been intentionally imposed from on high, from deities and their earthly representatives; absolutism has been at the very core of western religions. Now neither of these two contrasting traditions is likely to go away any time soon. The need of much of humanity for religion has been demonstrated again and again; recently, for example, by the inability of the Soviet state, after 70 years of suppression of religion, to make much of a dent in its popularity. In some parts of the world the hold of authoritarian religion over the minds of the citizenry appears to be strengthening rather than weakening. Similarly, the unfettered quest for truth in nature is historically unstoppable. Dedication to free thought and inquiry has blossomed in the west over the past couple of hundred years. It has the overwhelming support of western educational establishments and western governments, and in most western democracies, of the people.
How, then, to reconcile these two seemingly opposed sources of knowledge: divinely based authority and revealed truth, with free thought and inquiry? The answer lies in the proper occupation of each of these seemingly irreconcilable modes of thought. The proper purview of science (and I mean here the "natural sciences", such as biology, physics, chemistry, and the like; not the social studies that have adopted the word "science", such as "political science" etc) is the measurable world. That is, science deals with explication of physical entities and processes. It is mechanistic in that it attempts to understand the mechanisms of the natural world. This is the realm of science.
It may seem odd, then, that conflicts should arise between the results of scientific investigation and religious doctrine. Surely, things that are measurable permit objective determination. And here we come to the crux of the problem: That the authoritarian religions have not limited themselves to prescribing for the soul. In addition to their natural sphere of influence – the spiritual and moral – they have over the millennia developed dogma in every conceivable area of human experience, including, unfortunately, the workings of the natural world. It's largely in this latter area that religious conflicts with science have occurred. Of course it was not surprising that the religious authorities in the ancient and medieval world, who were often their societies' sole intellectual guides, included in their religious dogma ancillary "revealed truths" about God's creation, such as its planetary organization and the history of life on Earth. They could not have imagined that there was any danger of such things ever being actually measurable by man. Their teachings about nature were certainly part of the "mysteries" of life, seemingly safe from objective counterargument. What is perhaps surprising – at any rate disappointing – is that some of these religious bodies, now hoary with centuries or millennia of calcified age, still insist on these teachings that deny the plain evidence delivered to our instruments by creation itself.
There would be little need to concern ourselves with what religious authorities believe and teach about science, were it not that even in this 21st century hundreds of millions of people prefer to take their natural science instruction from religious authorities, rather than from scientists. As a result, some findings of science refuse to be computed by the "operating system" which runs their mind. To the degree that their OS has been programmed by religious authorities, they may be unable to fit conflicting information into their system.
Let me offer the example of a prominent creationist who successfully reconciled his firm belief in divine creation with an equally unshakeable commitment to free scientific inquiry of the natural world:
The young Charles Darwin, holder of a degree in theology from Cambridge University, was on course for a career in the clergy when he was surprised to receive an invitation to serve as a ship's naturalist in a Royal Navy survey ship bound on a five-year circumnavigation of the Earth. Though not formally trained in the natural sciences, he had been recommended by professors at Cambridge on the basis of his keen interest and skill as an amateur botanist and geologist. Darwin had, at the time, taken no great interest in the then-fashionable and radical ideas about evolution of life, made topical by the French biologist Lamarck, though his grandfather Erasmus Darwin had become notorious as a passionate supporter of evolutionary theory.
Back in England at the end of the journey, Darwin realized, against his own instinct, that only the new theory of gradual evolution of life forms could account for the variation in the biological and fossil material he had collected. He then proceeded, partly on the basis of his studies of variation in the famous finch species on the Galapagos Islands, to make his own contribution to evolutionary theory: his theory of "natural selection" based on individual genetic variation and its effect on survivability in nature, which at once demystified the mechanism of evolution and put it on the road to rapid acceptance by scientists.
The key point for our purpose, however, is Darwin's attitude toward his discoveries and its relation to his religious views. His conclusion that life had evolved gradually in no way diminished his view of God as creator. On the contrary; he revelled in what he saw as his new God-given understanding of God's creative scheme. The discovery that God, who undoubtedly had breathed life into the earliest life form, had designed a flow of life that was a continuing creation, adapting and improving over time, Darwin found overwhelming. Man was surely the peak of God's creation, and God had waited thousands of years before permitting man to discover how marvelous that creation was. The creation allegory of the garden of Eden that God had given man at his earliest stage of understanding was all that man was capable of grasping at that time, much as we tell children tales about storks and babies. Darwin felt that God must have rejoiced that his greatest creation was now finally ready to understand the full depth and glory of that creation, and Darwin was humbled at being chosen to be part of that revelation. Of course he was aghast at the reaction of the Christian churches to this revelation. Rather than celebrating this happy union of new scientific discovery with deepened understanding of the divine plan, they defensively proclaimed science an enemy, and raised the Eden allegory from spiritual lesson to physical, historical, scientific fact. And, as we know, many of them are still driving down this blind alley, though they're more often getting stuck in the mud.
So, for the reconciliation of religion and science we will find no more useful paradigm than that which inspired the creationist/evolutionist Charles Darwin nearly 180 years ago: Natural religion and natural science do not naturally overlap, and they have no natural points of conflict. The conflicts have occurred where the disciplines have expanded their activity beyond their proper realms. To resolve such conflicts we need to understand, as Darwin did, that the findings of science will not conflict with true religion when both disciplines stick to their field of inquiry. But can we find natural boundaries between these disciplines? Don't the experiences from earlier times teach us that the dividing line between mystery and the knowable is a moving target?
Yes, and yes. We can locate a natural boundary, and yes, it is a moving target. That's the nature of the beast, because the realm of religion is mystery and the unknowable. And the store of human scientific knowledge will never move from more knowledge to less, but always from less to more. That is, the realm of mystery is a shrinking field, and religion must realize this and must adapt. Failure to do so in the past has been one of western religions' great errors.
Thus a new paradigm is needed for religion, similar to the following:
"Our functional field is the spiritual, i.e., the realm of mystery where divine revelation is our chief guide. We recognize that this realm is becoming more finely focused as God permits mankind to discover more of the divine laws that regulate our physical being. We commit to accepting the revelations that God thus gives us through man's scientific investigations, which will serve to focus our service away from irrelevancies and on to man's relations to the divine, a realm not amenable to our scientific inquiry."
And science must likewise commit to keep its pronouncements within the bounds of the knowable. By and large, science has done so, but must take greater care to avoid the implication of atheism as a scientific result, a mistake that will reignite conflict with religion. As written here before, no result in the long history of science has thrown any light on the existence of divinity, or on the underlying origin and motivation of creation, whether of life or of the cosmos. This is likely to continue to be so, and it will be helpful if scientists will acknowledge that no result of science has added an iota of doubt about the core of religious belief in the divine. (The undoubted correlation of career scientists with non-religious views is an artifact, both choices being parallel results of a free-thinking mind; viewing scientists' largely agnostic/atheistic views as results of their scientific understanding is a common misconception.)
What's the chance of religions and the science establishment making such a cooperative effort to sail their way out of the storms of past controversies, into calmer future waters? Not great, based on their past questionable navigational seamanship. But a science/religion conference that were to arrive at understandings such as the above would be a dream.
Who knows, one day it may be more than a dream.