1. conversation between two or more persons.
2. the conversation between characters in a novel, drama, etc.
3. an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.
4. a literary work in the form of a conversation: a dialogue of plato.
Over the last week we’ve been exploring the Barbour 4 model typology for the interaction of science and religion. We have been using creation and evolution as our example, but conversation in other areas in science and religion can also be described using these models. Last Thursday we looked at conflict and on Saturday we looked at independence. Today we turn to dialogue.
Dialogue is something that everyone would say that they want. People want leaders who will “cross the aisle”, have deep respect for those that respect others, and raise their children to look out for the needs and concerns of those that are less fortunate, needs and concerns that are usually observed and appreciated only through dialogue with others. Colleges that are attractive promote diversity, multiculturalism, and a broad and varied education, and speak about subjecting student to others’ viewpoints; meanwhile, employers in turn hire people because they have this experience and are then likely to work well in a diverse and team-based environment. If you’re a scholar, buzzwords like collaborative and inter-disciplinary or more recently, multi-disciplinary, abound in research grants, especially those that are large and far-reaching. Shoot, to keep it close to home, a key aspect of our core curriculum at North Park is the sequence of courses known as ‘Dialogue’.
In science and religion, it is no different. Dialogue is the term to use to show that not only are you respectful of others in different disciplines with different ways of knowing, you’re even willing to engage in a conversation with them! The Templeton bashing that has been going on recently (see last week’s Links Roundup if you’re interested) is marked in part by scientists saying that a sure-fire way to get money from Templeton is to, wink wink, just say that science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive and promote dialogue on a problem that lies at the interface of these two disciplines (even if you don’t believe this). (There’s also much concern that Templeton funding is then driving the results of the research but that’s for another blog post.) Equally as interesting, even those who believe that science and religion are at conflict with one another, and thus anti-dialogue, will often say or write that they want more dialogue. Why? What can possibly be gained?
Well, it turns out that what many really want is to be heard (I know, shock of all shocks). They want the chance to support their position. From Jerry Coyne being annoyed that prominent science organizations say that science and religion are compatible and that atheist scientists should have a chance for rebuttal (they should) to Creationists who want to rewrite laws or the Intelligent Design folk who trumpet “teach the controversy”, the desire for dialogue, as it’s commonly pursued, really is instead a desire to be heard. More to the point it’s a desire to show that your position is better than the other one. A desire that is fueled greatly by the gift and curse that is the Internet.
Look at the definitions of dialogue above. Does the dialogue I’m describing really fit any of those? I don’t think so and would instead call it dueling monologues, with the call for dialogue really meaning a call for equal airtime. And when equal time is not granted, voices just get louder. From blog posts and horrible comment sections to political or news shows (like the one Jon Stewart famously destroyed during an interview on it), this is the dialogue that we see and are immersed in. People shouting to be heard and also shouting so that their target, the “enemy”, cannot be heard. And while we may be quick to blame the media and current cultural climate, we still tune in to MSNBC or FoxNews (well, some do). Others get a kick out of watching shows that have people talking/yelling back and forth at each other in a rapid-fire form of dialogue (PTI is on as I’m writing this). And don’t get me started on reality shows and that level of conversation/dialogue.
All of that being said, can dialogue actually work?
It just might be a little different than what we would expect. First, it’s not going to occur in the media any time soon. It’s selecting for short attention spans and juicy quotes, none of which really promotes dialogue. Furthermore, anyone who screams and yells about wanting dialogue (see those above) is likely a person who really doesn’t want it. It’s akin to someone saying that they are trying to be transparent when we all know that you either are or aren’t. And those that are don’t need to say it.
While there are signs of life coming from newer technology (video blogs like blogging heads and others) and scholars that are committed to dialogue, that isn’t what sells at a popular level right now. Can it change? I think so and maybe it’s not as bad currently as I think. But it will take time. Second, universities and colleges are going to need to be more willing to promote dialogue between departments when the norm is to have faculty that are passionately focused on putting a comma and a clause at the end of the sentence in their specific niche. (With luck, maybe you can even start a new sentence!) Third, dialogue needs to occur internally (i.e. in your head and in my head). And this last point is what I think of primarily when I think of dialogue in science and religion. It’s certainly what is driving me. How can I possibly be a part of a dueling monologue when I don’t even know which side (in that particular debate), if there even are sides, I’m on? Maybe I need to be more decisive. Maybe I’m living in lala land. Or maybe I’m in the perfect position to facilitate discussion.
In the subject of creation and evolution, what does dialogue look like? In all areas of science and religion, dialogue is usually based on methodological similarities, the importance of and use of familiar analogies, or the use of common concepts. Proponents of dialogue like myself espouse critical realism as a philosophy of both science and theology and feel that in both, critical realism is the best explanation of how they “work.” As far as conceptual parallels, Barbour mentions in When Science Meets Religion complexity and self-organization, the concept of information, and a hierarchy of levels. Each of these concepts can be useful in explaining what both science and religion tell us about nature. Are they perfect? No? For those that are for the conflict model of science and religion, there will likely be an instinctive and immediate cringing upon hearing these concepts. Science doesn’t say that, you’re interjecting religion and purpose into science! There’s only one “real” level (physics), complexity doesn’t “need” a God hypothesis, etc. Or conversely, from the religious side of the fence, matter can’t self-organize! God is the organizer.
So why do I believe the glass to be half-full when it comes to “real” dialogue? Because people are getting sick of the black and white over-simplification of life. Because people want to live lives that are coherent and are again appreciating the importance of the subjective, even though it’s not easily amenable to science. Because people are longing for social unity and are attempting to overcome barriers of all types (intellectual included) to do good. And just maybe because Barbour started the field of science and religion and made it ever more possible to be an intellectually fulfilled scientific theist. Journals like Theology and Science and Zygon have been created, centers have been formed, and books are being written that are beginning to introduce science and religion to a popular audience. Religious and non-religious scientists alike are also feeling empowered enough to share their thoughts on these matters, even if it’s largely observed as the dialogue mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Could the glass really really be half-empty and I’m just deluding myself? Sure, even if I don’t think so. But for me personally I’m only going to find out if I engage in dialogue. Even if at this point that dialogue is primarily internal.