With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, August 25, 2006

On Science and Religion

One of the fundamental myths preached by the positivists, and readily accepted without dispute by their heirs, is the myth that religion and science are in a constant struggle, one against the other, for our hearts and minds. The positivists understood science as the principle of rational progress and religion as the principle of irrational, dogmatic superstition: the two can never meet, they can never work together. To prove their point, positivists gave to us the example of Galileo, but the Galileo they show us is not the Galileo of history, but the manufactured Galileo of positivistic superstition, a Galileo martyred by religion instead of the Galileo rejected by the scientific establishment of his day.

Before I started my graduate studies in theology, I considered the possibility of studies in the history and philosophy of science. My love for the truth is one which searchers for it wherever it can be found, even in the sciences. I am fascinated by the history of their progress: it is a story which goes back to the dawn of time and continues to be written in our day. Sadly, those who study the sciences do not get told this story, and most are not given the philosophical tools to understand the implications of their endeavors. They are trained to be scientific technicians, nothing more, nothing less. They might be well trained in their little slice of the sciences, but they are not expected to see the big picture, and so they cannot offer us a proper model of the universe. Such a model, while it incorporates the sciences, is not exhausted by them. Most scientists seem to accept the myth given to them by the positivists without question, and if they preach any philosophy, it is the philosophy of scientism: the philosophy of scientific reductionism. They offer their technical achievements as what establishes the validity of their shared myth: they fail to remember that such practical validity can be found even with religion.

Without question, my studies have shown me that this “received truth” is overwhelmingly false. Not only do the sciences create their own brand of superstitious dogmatism, history shows us that it is usually one generation of scientists, with their rigid understanding of the universe, who contends with and opposes the next generation with their new, innovative, yet unproven hypotheses, not religion.

Galileo, that hero of scientific positivism, is actually a case which shows this point. Galileo’s theories, while supported by some of his peers, went against the accepted scientific views of his time! More importantly, he wanted people to believe him based upon his own personal authority! He proclaimed his vision of the universe as infallible: the sun is the center of the universe, and everything else revolves around it. If only he had understood what Nicholas of Cusa had written in the fifteenth century, his view of the universe would not have been so erroneous: “The world-machine,” Nicholas tells us, has “its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere…” Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance. Trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: The Arthur Banning Press, 1990), p. 117. Nicholas believed that the sun could relativisitically be said to be the center of the universe, but so could the earth, because the universe is infinite, and each point in the universe could be seen, relative to the rest, as the center. Nicholas predated Einstein by several centuries with this theory of relativity! (In an absolute sense, Nicholas believed the only real center lies with God). The Catholic Church did not condemn his view: rather, he was made a Cardinal and more than once, he was almost elected Pope.

Why was Nicholas acceptable to the Catholic Church and Galileo condemned? Was it to do with science? No, it was due to Galileo’s erroneous theological interpretation of his scientific ideas, and his unwillingness to consider the possibility that his scientific and theological interpretations were in error. If he had even accepted that one possibility and overcame his own personal hubris, he would have had far fewer enemies. It was not as a scientist, but as an amateur theologian, that Galileo made his greatest mistake. It was also as a theologian that he made enemies within the Church. He proclaimed the Bible was in error, and only his interpretation of the Bible was valid. Contrary to the positivistic myth of the opposition of religion to science, it must be remembered that Galileo had many supporters of his beliefs from within the leadership of the Catholic Church, just as a scientist, he was rejected by his peers. As a group, the scientists of his era continued to follow a Ptolemaic model of the universe. As it happens with many such scientific debates, both sides of the dispute held aspects of truth while proclaiming an incomplete, and thereby false, model of the universe

Today the heirs of Galileo’s accusers are found not only within the religious sphere, but within the scientific establishment as well. Unfounded, simplistic dogmatism reigns with practitioners of both now as it ever did.

What science offers is of tremendous practical benefit to society. What many of its students fail to offer is a reasoned analysis of the phenomena they study, because they have not been trained to do this. Scientist after scientist readily accepts the norm they have been given by the positivistic mythology, without realizing the problems inherent in this worldview. They have forgotten that it is the fundamental mystery behind the phenomena of the universe which should lead them in a non-dogmatic search for truth as the basis of their experiments. Perhaps the reason why so many scientists are not taught this is simple: once it is accepted that the universe and its contents remain to us primarily a universe of mystery, we enter into the religious sphere of meaning, and it is that sphere which their positivistic teachers want them to deny.



  • At 8/26/2006 9:11 AM, Blogger The Lesser Thomas said…

    To clarify "scientist," perhaps we shouldn't mean to involve anyone who "buys into" very sound theories,such as gravity, but, rather, separate those who follow what we might call "science as a religion." That is, I am a scientist by training, and many of the scientists who trained me do not buy into postivism or empiricism as a way of life, but as a way of investigating the world around them. It seems to me that the whole enterprise of science, in this sense, is not only legitimate, but also beautiful, as is the case with Nicholas or Thomas.

  • At 8/26/2006 10:00 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I am very favorable of science and do not think that science and religion should be or are in conflict with one another. "Truth does not contradict truth," as Pope John Paul II says.

    However, I am using the word scientist as a professional in the field of science, engaged in scientific research - just as a theologian, in the modern sense, is a professional in the field of theology. In this way, I am not addressing people who study either as amateurs.

    In the sciences, the scientist is trained to be hyper-specialized, so they can know their one subject real well. They are not given much training in taking their specialization into a broader field.

    To be trained as a scientist, therefore, is to be trained in how to experiment in a very specialized field, and to produce the results of that training. It used to be the case that one who specialized in biology would know the broad biological perspective and would be able to relate their findings with their peers, and point the connection of their own findings within the broad perspective of the sciences as a whole.

    The more works I have read from scientists, the surprising result is that this is not the case. They might know a few brief "ideas" from a cultural background of what they think the history of science is, but they will not know it any more than a non-scientist, unless they specifically have taken that into their own personal studies. That is to me a great shame -- a scientist should not only be capable of specialized study, but also they should know the broad perspective that science can offer and also the limitations of that perspective.

    However, I have not said all scientists neglect this -- it is the way most are now trained, and so science has become fundamentally a very technical training.

  • At 8/26/2006 11:08 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    I also want to add I am not addressing all science programs. I think Catholic scientists tend to understand the relationship between science and religion better, and also seek to put their scientific views into a larger perspective than their secularized counterparts.


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