On philosophy of science and religion

One reason I have for being suspicious of current evolutionary theory is a generic one. The theory was conceived and pursued with materialist assumptions. If those assumptions are wrong, then it’s inconceivable that the details of the theory would remain unchanged. No outsider could say where such changes were needed – it’s a job for the specialists in each field. It’s like the conversion of an unbeliever to Christianity: the change is bound to affect beliefs and practices in relation to work, to relationships and to use of resources. If not, nothing really happened. Assumptions, in other words, always affect outcomes.

I’ve been trying to get my head round the philosophy behind theistic evolution, courtesy of an overview of “critical realism” by R J Russell sent to me by Gregory (many thanks!). Not being a philosopher, even the terminology is challenging to me. But a few observations seem particularly relevant to Christians interested in science.

Without describing in detail “critical realism” (coined by process philosopher Ian Barbour), one can say it is essentially monistic (though not reductionist), in the sense that science and religion are seen as part of one spectrum. The paradigm it has come to represent is “religious naturalism,” which gives a fair idea of its viewpoint.

Since the 1960s, Russell tells us, it has become the consensus view in theology and science. That rather raises the question of who is within this consensus. The biological consensus, as I have suggested, is biased towards materialism, leading to the well-known suggestions that maybe the truth is being crowded out by the pressure of the majority.

Theology and Science is a much smaller – a very much smaller – field. Its principal practitioners come from a range of Christian denominations and none, and cover positions including panentheism, panexperientialism (process philosophy), open theism, feminist theology and other streams not necessarily arising from Christianity. In other words its general ethos appears to be philosophically theistic rather than confessionally Christian. Even when Christ is presented as central, he appears to be more the Christ of the philosophers than the Christ of the Bible. That may well also be true in academic theology generally, but it is of significance in determining the kind of presuppositions it accepts and in the conclusions it draws.

So Russell states that:

Most writers in theology and science seek to avoid two extreme positions: monism in the form of either reductive materialism or absolute idealism, and dualism in the form of vitalism (life is a separate, nonmaterial entity, principle or agency) or Cartesianism (mind and body are independent realities).

Why? What constitutes “extremes” is a matter of opinion. Cartesian dualism, for example, has a respectable pedigree and is espoused in the field by Sir John Eccles, as Aristotelian dualism is held by Richard Swinburne. So one could say that the consensus in this small field is because critical realism happens to appeal to most of those within it. As to the conclusions, the range of theoretical models including variations of emergence, panexperientialism and dipolar monism, reveal further choices rather than clearer discoveries. I can pick one and argue for it on BioLogos,  but why would that make it right, and why would it matter?

One aspect of the monistic spectrum of science and religion is that knowledge is seen as a hierarchy from the most basic (physics), rising progressively through the increasingly complex sciences of chemistry and biology to the human sciences and finally to theology – which one could therefore, perhaps, see as the queen of sciences. So:

Peacocke tends to place theology at the top of the hierarchy. As the all-inclusive study of God, humanity and the world it cannot be isolated from, but instead it should seek to integrate, all that we know from the rest of hierarchy.

But that encouragingly religious idea is not the whole argument:

Moreover, by putting theology at the top, it will be maximally constrained by the rest of human knowledge. Moreover, by placing theology at the top of the hierarchy, it is maximally constrained by, and responsible to, the discoveries and conclusions of the other disciplines.

Or, as Russell writes:

Science informs philosophy – philosophy informs theology.

Now in a sense that’s obviously true. Theology as the highest human activity must stand on the shoulders of the lower. But when I was a doctor, there used to be a similar hierarchy in terminal care. This was represented as a pyramid, with pain control at its base, essentials like nutrition upon that, psychosocial well-being upon that, and spiritual well-being at the apex. Its utility was obvious – you don’t tell a dehydrated patient screaming in pain that God loves them and wants them to repent. But my own experience told me that, sometimes, God would turn the pyramid upside down and bring direct spiritual peace and insight to someone in whom every other support had broken down.

The Christian Scriptures (up for discussion at the top of the monistic hierarchy, once informed by science and philosophy) actually teach a clear dualism between God and creation, even though that creation is his work. This is presented in all kinds of ways – spirit and flesh, heaven and the world, revelation and human wisdom, man made from dust but breathed into by God, and so on. One can see this as a top-down hierarchy meeting the bottom-up one somewhere in the middle – most manifestly in the incarnation, but also in the God-given nature of Scripture, and lower down the scale in the human sciences when mind is taken to be more than an emergent property of matter.

In the field of science and theology, and therefore in the understanding of theistic evolution, a failure to take into account that top-down, revelatory, aspect is always going to place one, finally, at the mercy of any materialistic suppositions in the lower levels of the hierarchy. Theology should be informing philosophy and science too, and God’s revelation should be the principal contributor to theology, if it is not going to be merely the wisdom of this world, hollow and deceptive philosophy.

Unless, of course, one makes the choice to follow the academic consensus and build ones tower up to heaven from earth.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to On philosophy of science and religion

  1. Gregory says:

    Hi Jon,

    Back from a presentation in another city on science, philosophy and religion, evolution, creation and ID+, etc.

    First, you are welcome for Russell’s paper! Glad to hear it stimulated some thoughts and to read this post grappling with it.

    A short note of correction that it was not Ian Barbour (process philosopher, S&R scholar, etc.) who coined the term ‘critical realism,’ but rather (apparently) Roy Wood Sellars in 1915 (key: evolutionary naturalism, materialism, humanism). The biggest figure today in CR, however, is perhaps Roy Bhaskar, son of Indian-British theosophists. CR has been applied by Barbour to ‘science and religion’ discourse, likewise by Peacocke, Polkinghorne, McGrath, N.T. Wright and others. It is not like philosophy is dead for those ‘in the know’ on the topic (i.e. very few at BioLogos, other than David Opderbeck).

    From N.T. Wright:
    “I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”).”

    Wrt what you’ve called “the field of science and theology,” not sure if this qualifies as a ‘discipline’ formally or if it is rather an aspiration toward being officially ‘included’ in academia. There are several, even many institutes, think tanks, etc. dedicated specifically to ‘science and theology,’ like Russell’s CTNS, Faraday Institute, etc. Unfortunately, often they focus particularly on ‘natural’ sciences, (willfully or mistakingly) forgetting the other sciences that constitute legitimate realms of discourse/discovery/reality in the Academy. My own preference is to speak of ‘science, philosophy and religion/theology/worldview’ as you’ve likewise alluded to in this thread, but breaking the monopoly of ‘natural’ sciences by additionally acknowledging ‘social’ &/or ‘human’ sciences.

    You wrote: “my own experience told me that, sometimes, God would turn the pyramid upside down and bring direct spiritual peace and insight to someone in whom every other support had broken down.”

    I’d be interested to hear more about this ‘upside down’ turning pyramid action, wherein sometimes bottom-up explanations are not enough, while at other times top-down explanations or suggestions are preferred, and vice versa. One of the best attempts I’ve seen to wrestle with top-down vs./and bottom-up wrt ‘hierarchy’ is the Dutch Christian legal philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. He is respected at Calvin and Redeemer Colleges especially.

    This would seem to offer a welcome complement to the CR via Russell that you’ve cited above and also help put into context the (reason for the) effort BioLogos is making and the pressures placed upon them to move their Templeton funded project forward, if not only for USAmerican evangelicals, then for others too. Sometimes it seems that ID people and TE/EC people don’t realise that they have significantly different (and perhaps even complementary!) missions. They choose instead to participate in a competition for attention that really doesn’t need to happen, if they would recognise the bigger picture.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    Hope the time away went well.

    I’m just toying with this bi-directional approach as yet, and yet it seems necessary if one accepts in any sense that God truly acts within the creation of which he is not a part. I’ll have to see if I can find anything useful by Dooyeweerd.

    I realised in dialogue with Ted David that I ctually has read most of the Russell paper he recommended, and in that paper the fact that his ideas seem very much in tune with his Calvinist/Lutheran denominational doctrine suggests that the bottom-up CR approach isn’t always practised rigorously (in other words, the ideas he likes are in accord with teaching derived from Scripture, which is the opposite to ones science moulding ones interpretation of the Bible).

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