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The Role of Model and Metaphor

One of Ian Barbour’s great contributions to the science-and-religion debate was to indicate as long ago as 1974 in Myths, Models and Paradigms how central to both scientific and religious frameworks is the role of models.Barbour, Ian, Myths, Models and Paradigms (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974) Chs.3 and 4, Religion and Science (London:SCM Press, 1998) Ch.5

Models in science

A model in science can be thought of as a means whereby the human imagination can engage with and depict the aspect of nature under investigation.

A good example is the one Barbour himself usesBarbour, 1974, 116- the picture of the atom developed by Niels Bohr. At a time at which atomic structure was proving very baffling Bohr produced a model in which the negatively-charged electrons orbited the positively-charged nucleus in a way which was like - and yet not like - the way the planets orbit the sun (see collapsing atoms). The model proved a fruitful heuristic device - that is to say, it promoted further exploration, and allowed various predictions to be made and tested. As a result of that work, earlier models - from Democritus to Rutherford - have long since been discarded. A refined form of the Bohr model is still a valid way of imagining the atom for certain restricted purposes. But a new structure of concepts and theories - based on The Schrödinger Wave Equation - overtook the Bohr model. This mathematical formulation, though much harder to picture, is now the basis on which predictions about the atom are made.

Models in theology

If we now consider as an example of a model in Christian theology one of Augustine’s ‘psychological’ models of the Trinity - the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit being seen as like - but yet not like - the relation between memory, understanding and will in the human mind - we can see all sorts of similarities with the part models play in science. The model emerged in a situation of difficulty and controversy - this time over how to imagine God. Augustine’s was one of a number of attempts to picture how God might be like - but yet not like - three co-equal entities in relationship. Again, it was a model which greatly stimulated theological debate and led ultimately to a new conceptual framework.

But these similarities between the use of models in science and in theology should not be allowed to disguise differences. Augustine’s model remains just one of a range of ways of stretching the imagination towards the mystery of the Trinity. No great advance has superseded it, yet it does not hold sway. More importantly, a whole range of earlier understandings of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit remains alive for the Christian community in the Scriptures. The whole spectrum of titles for Jesus remains just as important as it was before the work of the Fathers of the 4th and 5th Centuries.

One of T.S.Kuhn’s points is particularly relevant here - he notes that a science does not teach its students, to any great extent, the classic texts of the past, however seminal they might have been.Kuhn, Thomas S, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, revised edn with postscript, 1970) p165In a religious tradition old models and the metaphors that inform them remain part of the currency of the tradition. And whatever metaphors or narratives continue to inform the worship of a religious community will continue to influence its theology, in a way which has no parallel in science.

Both in science and religion human exploration requires both the imaginative and metaphorical on the one hand and the conceptual and systematic on the other. Models are what connects them. They are necessarily provisional and heuristic in character.

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

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