Today we continue Ch. 4 with our 4th post on  interactions of science and religion. Previous posts on this chapter provided an overview and a description of the conflict and independence models. Today we look at the dialogue model.

Science and religion in DIALOGUE

The third interaction type that Barbour posits for science and religion is dialogue where science and religion are constructive conversation partners in the areas mentioned above and to which they both claim knowledge. This interaction type is not as common in the media although it is the one that most academics interested in pushing forward the scholarly field of science and religion are fond of. Related to evolution and creation, it can be observed in the writings of some evolutionary creationists or theistic evolutionists, though the previously described independence view is much more common.

Dialogue is something that most would say 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, words like collaborative and inter-disciplinary or more recently, multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary, abound in research grants, especially those that are large and far-reaching. Shoot, a key aspect of the core curriculum at my first institution was the sequence of courses formerly known as “Dialogue.”[1]

While “dialogue” is an esteemed goal, conversational ambition easily erodes, often leading to angry comments on the internet or the reduction of nuanced ideas to snazzy sound bytes on shows like the one Jon Stewart famously destroyed during an interview on it.[2] Dialogue degradation is not uncommon in discussions of science and religion either. Thus, though dialogue in science and religion sounds really great, it is not easy to put into practice because it at minimum requires mutual respect between scientists and theologians and at maximum requires academic training for conversation participants in science and religion and there are very few that are adequately versed in both. When dialogue does occur, it is usually based on the identification of methodological similarities or philosophy in the disciplines (driven by philosophy of science), a shared importance of and use of familiar analogies and models, or the use of common concepts. Dialogue leads to a synthesis or theology of nature that has received a fair amount of attention by scientist-theologians but is not nearly as prominent in popular writing. One of them, John Polkinghorne, summarizes dialogue well when he says:

“Dialogue recognizes that science and religion have things to say to each other. My own characterization of that mutual conversation would be that religion must listen to what science has to tell it about the nature and history of the physical world, and that religion can offer science a deeper and more comprehensive account of reality within which the latter’s search for understanding can find an intellectually comfortable home.”[3]

Like with independence, promotion of the dialogue model is not limited to religious believers. NASA astronomer Robert Jastrow, though an agnostic hinted at the importance of dialogue (and annoyed many of his scientist colleagues) with this famous quote:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”[4]

Dialogue proponents say that both science and religion believe the claims that they make about the world and our interactions with it correspond to reality. However, neither scientist nor theologian is so confident to believe their words provide an exact replica of the natural world or God. Whether it be limits in human intellect, difficulty in subject matter (best illustrated in attempts to describe an infinite God with human language, especially one as ridiculous as English), instrument liabilities, problems or questions that are not amenable to empirical investigation, etc., all collectively enable at best an approximation of reality.

Another example of a similarity between science and religion is their shared dependence on and limitation by language, which necessitates the need to construct models to convey the reality they investigate. Similarly, metaphors, analogies, and symbols are useful to both scientist and theologian, and not just those who want to sell more than 15 copies of their books. It is impossible to create an exact picture of what atomic particles look like since we cannot visualize them so models are constructed that take account of available data to infer atomic structure. It is perhaps not surprising then that models improve over time as more and more data is collected. Analogies and metaphors are also used in science, especially in the classroom as they enable students to connect the often-confusing and detailed findings of science with prior or commonsense knowledge. Personally, I use analogies frequently in my teaching, and because I don’t eat breakfast and am hungry during my lectures they often involve food.[5]

Analogies and metaphors are quite useful in theological discourse too. To refer to God the Father does not actually mean that God is our father, but to say that God possesses qualities like a father and to acknowledge Jesus’s referral to God as father. Similarly, to say God is love does not mean God = love,[6] but instead that love is one of God’s attributes. Symbols are important to science but even more so to theology. In his remarkable systematic theology, God: The World’s Future, Ted Peters says, ”Christian theology is the explication of the basic symbols found in scripture…”[7] Later in the same book, Peters writes, “To have faith in the God of the future is to reorient one’s life around the symbols associated with Jesus Christ.”[8] Amen, dude, amen.

Dialogue can also occur at the “boundary points” of the two disciplines. For instance, the assumptions scientists make about the world (it is orderly, it can be investigated, etc.) arose out of the belief in the world being a Creation made by a Creator. The dependence of science’s birth on theology is no longer appreciated; indeed some scientists and philosophers of science even attempt to disprove this by reinterpreting history or claiming that science does not require these “external” foundations and can justify itself. One could say that science, now in its teenage years, is rebelling from its philosophical and theological parents. But I won’t it.[9] Other examples of “boundary points” are is the big questions or interdisciplinary topics mentioned in the previous section (human origins, ethics, solutions to climate change, or personalized medicine).

There are several conceptual parallels between science and religion specifically related to creation and evolution: complexity and self-organization, the concept of information, and a hierarchy of levels.[10] An example of the latter can be seen in the discipline of biochemistry, my area of expertise. Metabolic reaction that enable us to extract energy from the food we eat and convert it into a form that enables cells in our body to grow require biochemical machines known as enzymes. Thus, to be a biological life form (let’s call this level 4) we are dependent on enzymes, which function at the biochemical or lower level (level 3). But enzymes are themselves constrained by chemistry (level 2). No enzyme can bypass electrostatic interactions no matter how great it is,[11] interactions that arise out of the four fundamental forces of physics (level 1). Lower levels constrain and cause “up”, while higher levels coordinate and “cause” down.

These concepts can be useful in explaining what both science and religion tell us about nature. For those that promote the conflict or independence model of science and religion, there will likely be an instinctive and immediate cringing upon hearing some of them. Stop using the word information! And stop talking about higher levels as if they can act causally. Science doesn’t say that, you’re interjecting religion and purpose into science! Reductionism is required for science and there’s only one “real” level (physics). Or conversely, from the religious side of the fence, matter can’t self-organize! God is the organizer and Creator. There’s no way the first life form could have “materialized” out of thin air. And there’s equally no way that the universe goes through cycles of expansion and contraction. There was a time zero when God spoke the world into existence!

Dialogue is difficult. Is it worth it?

[to be completed on Friday]

[1] It’s now been changed to “Cornerstone.” Liberal arts do this every few years to make our work more difficult. And to teach the students better, of course.

[2] Here’s the link if you haven’t seen it before. It is absolutely hilarious.

[3] John Polkinghorne, Scientists as Theologians (SPCK, 1996), pp. 5-6.

[4] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (Norton, 1978), p. 116.

[5] I am quite proud of my use of McDonald’s and Burger King as correlates for repressible and inducible operons, respectively. The Big Mac also makes a great model for a bacterial cell wall. Ask your local scientist to explain these quite amazing models.

[6] Or God ≡ love for the Math major.

[7] Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 2nd, ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 34. Italics are my emphasis.

[8] Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 2nd, ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 81.

[9] Will the prodigal son return?

[10] When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (HarperOne, 2000).

[11] See Alsin, your and my favorite protein.