Science and Religion – A Common Aim?

The claim of science is that the six human senses, extended through the use of technology, are capable of gathering and analyzing everything that needs to be known to understand reality. These six senses are touch, hearing, sight, smell, and taste, as well as the rational mind which “senses” the structures and laws that dictate all inter-relationships between the physical objects detected by the senses. But if this is the claim of science, it is not the aim of science. That aim has and continues to be to know reality in its depth and breadth so that humans – likewise studied in their depth and breadth, will know their place in that reality. Even the supposed pursuit of pure knowledge involves the constant adjustment of the investigator’s sense of his or her place in relation to the object being studied. Without accounting for that subjectivity, objectivity is impossible to obtain. Thus the continued pursuit of science is an expanding and more comprehensive understanding of reality in relation to which humans must find their place.

The claim of revealed religions is that God, or possibly a human so enlightened as to have a God-like knowledge of reality, has revealed to humans both ultimate reality and their place in relationship to it. Because ultimate reality transcends the human capacity to grasp it the aim of revealed religions, at their root, is to continually expand and deepen people’s understanding of reality and their place in it toward transcendent truth, which may be identified as God, or Brahman, or Dharma, or the Buddha nature.

One can see, then, that although the claims of science and religion are different their aims are quite similar – to continually draw humans into an understanding of reality that grows in the direction of that which transcends the human capacity to understand it. Both, in this sense, are anti-idolatrous – never allowing humans to claim that reality is a whole is within their grasp. Or to put it in Christian language, to believe that they are the Creator rather than just creatures.

Conflict and confusion have arisen not because of different aims, but rather because of exclusive claims. That is some scientists and some religious people have claimed that science or revelation respectively are the sole means by which humans move toward an understanding of ultimate reality. When someone like Stephen Hawking talks about seeking to know “the mind of God” there are religious leaders who scoff at the apparent arrogance. The believe that only God can reveal God’s mind, and that happens through prophets and/or scriptures. Similarly when religious people claim to know God’s will for humans in relation to reality through revelation some scientists dismiss a dependence on something other than science to know the truth as superstition or worse.

The question we must ask then, is whether either group can justify the exclusivity of its claims. It seems to me that in such claims on either side contradict a fundamental tenant of both science and religion, which is that complete knowledge of reality and the human place in it is impossible given human finitude At the moment physicists do not possess a unified theoretical framework that can explain their own data with regard to the nature of matter, and are forced to call both dark matter and dark energy “mysterious.” At the same time followers of revealed religion must confront the limits of revelation – not least the failure of any scripture to fully explain the evidence before our eyes concerning the formation of our physical earth and the history of its creatures.

This said I’m not sure that it is a solution to limit either scientific or religious claims to differing realms of human interest or endeavor. Religious claims about the place of humans in relation to reality are claims upon the scientist as well – challenging the claim of the human capacity to know reality with the charge of both hubris and willful ignorance. And the scientist rightly challenges the believer in revelation to demonstrate that what he or she knows by that means isn’t equally available through scientific investigation.

As that dialogue takes place it might be good to recognize in the meantime that science and religion do share a common aim, and that the pursuit of expanding human knowledge and appreciation of reality and the human place in it is a common concern.

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