The immaterial sciences

Posted on November 19, 2011 by


Way back when, it was the case that brilliant academics studied philosophy, one branch of which was metaphysics. That meant that theologists, astronomers, biologists, mathematicians, and physicists were once in the same camp. There was no harsh line drawn between science and religion.

This, unfortunately, has changed. Science now often pits itself directly against religion, as if the two were at odds with each other, rather than parts of our search to understand Creation.

Msgr. Pope described how the separation of science and religion can become problematic:

We have had numerous discussions here on the blog on the interrelationship of faith and the physical sciences. We live in a time of reductionist thinking wherein many reduce reality to the physically measurable. Theology and other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, even history according to some, cannot be a part of what we know. Some go even further to deny absolutely the existence of anything beyond matter. Here are things emblematic of our times: reductionist, materialist, and a kind of idolatry of the merely physical sciences.

Indeed the very word “science” has come to mean for many, merely the physical sciences. But, traditionally, theology and philosophy were (and still are, according to many) considered to be sciences. They are sciences for they follow a method, or methods, they include peer review and are subjected to the laboratory of human experience and tested by time. Of their nature they do not usually include physical measurements, for they engage what is largely beyond the physically measurable. But until recently they were included among the sciences and had a pride of place in university settings.

And while many derisively dismiss philosophy and theology as sciences, the fact is they they do deal with what we all experience on a daily basis. For there are many non material things that humans beings actually and really experience that require study and explanation, synthesis, and discernment.

Yes, our society is certainly moving in the direction of materialism, something that Chesterton described thusly:

For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies.

But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel. The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.

As someone who worked in the scientific field for a number of years, I found that scientists don’t all fit the general anti-religious mode that has been popularized by people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. My impression was the exact opposite: that scientists are much more inclined to seriously consider theological ideas than the general public, even if they are less inclined to self-identify as Christians. It is simply that they avoid debating religion with non-scientists, as they are then put on the spot and pressured to abandon reason for faith, rather than allowed to have the two comfortably coexist and meld naturally in their minds, as was the norm for scientists throughout history.

As Elaine Ecklund found, (as described in a Washington Post article about her book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think):

Rather than offering another polemic, she builds on a detailed survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities — the most comprehensive such study to date. These surveys and 275 lengthy follow-up interviews reveal that scientists often practice a closeted faith. They worry how their peers would react to learning about their religious views.

Fully half of these top scientists are religious. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves “spiritual.” One describes this spiritual atheism as being rooted in “wonder about the complexity and the majesty of existence,” a sentiment many nonscientists — religious or not — would recognize. By not engaging with religion more fully and publicly, “the academy is really doing itself a big disservice,” worries one scientist. As shown by conflicts over everything from evolution to stem cells to climate policy, breakdowns in communication between scientists and religious communities cause real problems, especially for scientists trying to educate increasingly religious college students.

Religious groups — creationist movements in particular — are not without blame here. Creationist attacks on evolution “have polarized the public opinion such that you’re either religious or you’re a scientist!” a devout physicist complains. Indeed, the National Science Board recently spiked a report on American knowledge about evolution, claiming that it was too difficult to tell the difference between religious objections to evolution and questions raised about the state of the science.

Perhaps something is being lost in translation, but I simply cannot understand how non-scientists refuse to acknowledge that a scientist’s fascination with the dynamics and evidences of Creation do not separate him from his God, but rather lead him to faith. To be honest, my impression is that the virulent debates over evolution have less to do with biology or faith, than with political posturing and cultural warcraft.

If I have to listen to one more person, who doesn’t believe Jesus really meant it when he said, “This is my body which is given for you,” lecture me on Biblical literalism, I think I shall scream.

Posted in: Religion