22 May 2009

Science, theology: no competition for truth?

Here's a tiny bit of payoff for the Book Benefactors who have helped me purchase books necessary for my studies. . .

As part of my on-going education in the field of philosophy of science, I attended two lectures yesterday--one in Italian, one in English--that reinforced a basic point of the discussion between scientists and believers:

The Christian debate is not with science or reason but with materialism; that is, our philosophical struggle is with the notion that the universe is simply material and that there is nothing about this material world that needs divinity, transcendence, ethical imperatives, or spiritual understanding.

The Christian faith is perfectly happy in the scientific world and the world of enlightening reason. The attempt by materialists to co-op reason for their exclusive use is illegitimate. There is a legitimate debate between science and theology as academic disciplines, but both use reason as an investigative tool.

Proper to their role as researchers into the material workings of the universe, scientists limit themselves to making claims that are demonstrable in the lab or with mathematics. When scientists overstep their proper roles and use their unique methods to make claims about the divine and how the divine interacts with the universe, they engage in pseudo-theology.

Proper to their roles as researchers into the spiritual workings of creation and God's Self-revelation, Catholic theologians limit themselves to making claims that are consistent with God's Self-revelation as understood and developed by the living Body of Christ, the Church. When Catholic theologians overstep their proper roles and use their unique methods to make claims about the how the material universe works, they engage in pseudo-science.

With reason as the common method between the two fields and each limiting themselves to the methods and conclusions proper to their goals, there is no reason why scientists and theologians have to be in competition.

That's the most common way of dividing up the work of science and theology.

A problem arises, however, when we think for a moment about this arrangement of exclusive spheres of investigation. Though it is certainly the case that scientists deal almost exclusively with the material fact and theologians with spiritual implications of faith, both scientists and theologians legitimately work outside their well-founded fields. Scientists often find themselves working with concepts and theories that go well beyond factual description (multi-dimensional universes). Theologians must admit that the spiritual implications of God's Self-revelation demand an adherence to a certain set of established material facts (laws of physics). Neither group deals only with the raw materials proper to their field. Scientists do more than measure. Theologians do more than pray.

Is there a way to understand the fundamental human need to explain the material universe and to make spiritual sense of it? What's common to both scientists and theologians is the pursuit of the truth, a consistent description of reality that accounts for all known phenomena and matches the really Real. Basic to this pursuit is the idea that though all facts are true but not all truths are factual. From the Catholic perspective there is no contradiction between the truths of faith and the truths of science because truth has a single source: God. From the scientific perspective this is controversial precisely because the notion of a transcendent Being called God is not verifiable (or falsifiable) as a fact of the material universe. Believers cannot fault scientists for asserting the non-existence of God given the limits of scientific inquiry. They are simply being consistent and honest investigators.

And yet, scientists frequently find themselves speculating on the existence of unobservable objects in order to make their theories about the material universe work, for example, quarks. Are quarks real? That is, do quarks really exist as a part of the material universe? Or, are they simply "theoretical objects" necessary to the consistency and intelligibility of a particular theory about how the universe operates?

Can we ask a similar question of theologians? Is God real? Or, is God a "theoretical object" necessary to the consistency and intelligibility of a particular theory about how human beings achieve and maintain spiritual/ethical enlightenment? The idea that theoretical objects are really real is called "realism." The idea that theoretical objects are simply postulated necessities in a theory is called "anti-realism." The most basic way of understanding this difference is to ask this question: is "reality" mind-independent or mind-dependent? This is a question about the degree to which the human mind's investigation into the real impinges on the real. Are we describing the world as it really is, or are we describing theories about how we see the world?*

Does it matter to scientists and theologians whether or not the objects of their respective investigations are real, i.e. really existing separate from theories about them? I believe that the answer to this question is: Yes, it matters a great deal!

And to expand on this answer I would propose that both scientists and theologians would benefit from a epistemological approach to truth called "critical realism."

And the rest is my license thesis. . .

*I should note here that anti-realists do not deny the existence of the material world. They do not argue that we are living in an illusion. They simply deny that the unobservable objects of our theories really exist. There are several versions of both realism and anti-realism, but my claim about anti-realism generally is a fair description.

5 comments:

  1. I am looking very much forward to reading it, if you decide to publish it on the Big Scary Internets :) (And my sister will probably have to smuggle it to me, unless you finish it before I enter...)

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  2. Thank you for the tradere of your contemplata.

    I think there is a dire need for an articulation such as this of philosophy as a bridge between science and theology, especially on the popular front.

    I have a couple of critical observations:

    "Basic to this pursuit is the idea that though all facts are true but not all truths are factual."

    As a (post-(?)) post-Modern, I am sure you would agree that all or most 'facts' are theory-laden. I guess I agree that not all truths are factual (if by factual you mean observable and measurable or inferred from the observable and measurable). As a realist, I think all truths are grounded in evidence (broadly construed), that different disciplines have different criteria of evidence, and that it is the job of philosophy to mediate between them.

    "From the Catholic perspective there is no contradiction between the truths of faith and the truths of science because truth has a single source: God."

    Obviously true, but to the non-theist scientist, it should be uncontroversial or meaningless -- to her there is still only a single source of truth: nature. What the Bible says should not be of interest, nor that Catholics say the Bible and nature have a common Source.

    "From the scientific perspective this is controversial precisely because the notion of a transcendent Being called God is not verifiable (or falsifiable) as a fact of the material universe. Believers cannot fault scientists for asserting the non-existence of God given the limits of scientific inquiry. They are simply being consistent and honest investigators."

    I think both believers and scientist can and should fault atheistic scientists who base their atheism on science, since they are drawing a philosophical conclusion from the reasonings of a different discipline. As you say, God's existence is not falsifiable as a fact of the physical universe. But there may or may not be philosophical evidence for (or against) such a Transcendent Being. Such atheistic scientists are guilty of the philosophical mistake of equating an absence of evidence as evidence of absence.

    By "critical realism" do you mean Lonergan? (Saints preserve us!)

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  3. Joe,

    Some truths--say, the truths we find in moral tales--are not facts, per se. So, for example, we might say that the truth found in the beginning of Genesis is that the universe is a creation not an chemical accident. Not that I think Genesis is a fable, of course!

    The critical realism I am talking about is the realism that most working scientists use. CR has many, many versions. I'm using John Polkinghorne, Anglican priest and physicist as my model.

    As I point out, atheistic scientists often make use of unobservable theoretical objects in their work. But they are generally unwilling to see God as one such UTO.

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  4. Yes, my own comments would revolve around what was addressed above by Joe: "From the scientific perspective this is controversial precisely because the notion of a transcendent Being called God is not verifiable (or falsifiable) as a fact of the material universe. Believers cannot fault scientists for asserting the non-existence of God given the limits of scientific inquiry."
    I find this problematic because it upholds two theses: first, that God does not enter into discussions about the material universe in any circle of inquiry, and second that scientific reasoning can justify eliminating the existence of God. The first seems to me problematic, as I would hold that the material universe has some ontological contingency which indicates its own dependence on a necessary being. In fact, I find that many scientists who call themselves "atheists" usually have some elements of deism in their thought, indicating to me that science might "presuppose" or at least allow the prior or led to the subsequent theory of the existence of God. This theory, though, would be philosophic, not part of natural science itself. But mathematics isn't part of natural science, so I don't see that as controversial by itself.
    As for the second, I see no real way, qua natural science, to either justify holding the existence of God as true, or the non-existence of God. It's the same as people who claim to derive new rules of logic or mathematics from quantum mechanics - it's just silly. Natural science is the "material cause" for information which is given an interpretation in places like philosophy and logic, but it doesn't itself have the tools to make the sorts of interpretations necessary in the latter two disciplines.

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  5. hubby and I saw a preview last night for Ben Stien's movie "Expelled" looked very very good.

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