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Different Sciences - Different Relationships

The relations between different sciences and any one religion - even any one branch of any religion - will be different at any given time, and will alter through history. That a given science can dramatically alter its character is shown by the sense some physicists had in the 1870s that the subject was coming to an end - the young Max Planck was advised against doing physics on the grounds that everything to be discovered would shortly have been discovered. (See the rediscovery of the observer to discover how wrong this view turned out to be.) Fifty years later (partly because Planck ignored the advice) the subject underwent such changes that there was a golden age of conceptual advance.

Clearly the self-image of a scientific community will have enormous effect on its attitude to theological claims which seem to relate to its subject area. Take neurobiology. The sense evinced by such scientists as Francis Crick that it will be possible at some stage to describe all human activities in neurophysiological terms is testimony to a science whose experimental techniques are rapidly expanding its data-base (especially through PET and MRI scanning). Similarly in evolutionary biology the effect of Darwinism, coupled first with Mendelian genetics and then with molecular biology,See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp141-48has led to a science which is still expanding under the influence of a great unifying set of ideas - much as physics did in the two hundred years after Newton.

These successes have led some neurobiologists and neo-Darwinists to a sense that religion is in retreat, and may indeed lose any claim to truth. So E.O.Wilson has written:

...we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences...sociobiology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the human brain.Wilson, EO, On Human Nature (London: Penguin, 1995edn) p192

See can reductionism rule out the truth of religion?

Contemporary cosmological physics seems to be in a rather different place - very conscious of limits both to its experimental and its theoretical purchase on the ultimate questions which it tends to raise. The most ingenious quantum-cosmological speculations (see Stephen Hawking and the growth of quantum cosmology), going far beyond what could ever be tested experimentally, cannot answer the metaphysical question as to whether the universe had an underlying cause - why, in other words, there is something and not nothing. But the fundamental structure of the universe has led some physicists like Paul Davies to express themselves in quasi-religious terms, as here:

I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call that deeper level “God” is a matter of taste and definition.’Davies, Paul, The Mind of God (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993) p16. For an analysis of Hawking and Davies see van Huyssteen, JW, Duet or Duel? Theology and Science in a Postmodern Culture (London: SCM Press,...

So John Brooke’s conclusion is of the first importance:

There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts. Not only has the problematic interface between them shifted over time, but there is also a high degree of artificiality in abstracting from the science and religion of earlier centuries to see how they were related.Brooke, John, Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p321. On the significance of this pluriform relationship between sciences and religion see van Huyssteen, 1998

See also A ‘special relationship’?

Or click on the metaphor of the maps to see further reflections on this theme.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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