Science and Theology 1 – Science as Context (RJS)

Science and Theology 1 – Science as Context (RJS) December 13, 2011

Over the course of the next month or so I am going to look at three recent books by The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne. The first, Theology in the Context of Science, I will begin today. The other two,  Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, will follow.

Dr. John Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, an expert and creative theoretical physicist involved in the discovery of quarks. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University before he resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith. I’ve read and commented on a couple of his books – Quarks, Chaos & Christianity and Belief in God in an Age of Science – in previous posts (you can find a list of posts in the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar.)

The question asked in Theology in the Context of Science is straightforward.

Can science and the study of science and religion provide a context for theology?

We’ve entered an age where greater awareness of the world, understanding of history, and sensitivity to power structures and cultural influences has led to contextual theologies. There are streams of thought referred to as liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, South-East Asian theology, African theology, and more. At their worst these various perspectives distort the orthodox Christian faith, throwing the Bible under the bus for the sake of a cultural correctness and situation. At their very best these various perspectives enhance our understanding of the depth and richness of the orthodox Christian faith and of the power of God’s work in his creation.

Dr. Polkinghorne suggests that science is another context for theology that can enhance and inform our Christian faith.

I believe, therefore, that the field of science and religion should be treated as another form of contextual theology, rather than its role being seen simply as that of providing useful information which can be referred to as seems necessary – usually rather briefly and often as part of an apologetic exercise. The dialog between science and religion can rightly seek to contribute to creative theological thinking itself, in complementary relationship with other forms of contextual theology. (p. xii)

Do you think science should provide a context for theology?

The first, and perhaps the most important point is that all theology is contextual theology. There is no such thing as objective, detached, theology.

All theology is done in a context. The accounts that the theologians give us are not utterances delivered from some lofty detachment, independent of culture – views from nowhere, as it were – but they are all views from somewhere, offering finite and particular human perspectives into the infinite reality of God. Each such perspective not only offers an opportunity for insight, but is also open to the danger of imposing limitation and distortion. Specificity of context will make some aspects of the divine will and nature more readily accessible to theological recognition and understanding, while at the same time hiding others from easy view. (p. 1)

Context is not a new problem or complication for theology. All theology has been contextual from the beginning of God’s interaction in relationship with his people. Paul wrote from his context, the early church fathers wrote from their context, … as did Augustine, Thomas, the reformers, and as do the liberation theologians of today. Sometimes the context is incidental to the theological perspective, but at times it is deeply entwined. Augustine was heavily influenced, Dr. Polkinghorne suggests, by the neo-platonism of his day. This formed his theology while not completely determining it. We better understand Augustine if we understand his context.

Dr. Polkinghorne’s proposition (or my paraphrase of it) is that in our day and age science forms an important context for theology. Science is not the religion of the 21st century – but a theology that ignores, or even worse denies, the revelations of modern science will fall short in its attempt to understand and explore the nature of God.

Since God is the ground of all that is, every kind of human rational investigation of reality must have something to contribute to theological thinking, as the latter pursues its goal of an adequate understanding of the created world, understood in the light of the belief that the mind and purposes of the Creator lie behind cosmic order and history. Every mode of rational exploration of reality will have an offering to make. (p. 9)

Science as a context for theology. Dr. Polkinghorne interacts, sometimes critically, with the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German Lutheran theologian,  as he begins the discussion of science as a context for theology. He also interacts to a lesser extent with Thomas Torrance. There are four important points about the context of science that can be summarized from this discussion.

1. There is no separation of endeavor – science to the material world and religion to the moral sphere. Theology doesn’t dictate what science must conclude. Scientifically posable questions will have scientifically stateable answers, but not all significant questions are scientific questions. Even in the nature of time and the nature of casuality there are issues that transcend the scientific – a topic Dr. Polkinghorne will return to in a later chapter.

2. Science pursues the mind of the creator. Science is, in pure form undistorted by ideology, an effort to understand and explain the nature of the world around us. It has empirical and theoretical facets – but the purpose of both the theoretical and the empirical is to understand what actually is, that is reality. For a Christian science endeavors to understand the nature of God’s creation. There is no agenda beyond this. The activity of science is, Dr. Polkinghorne suggests, “an aspect of the imago dei.” It is a human encounter with the mind of the creator.

3. Science is provisional. All good scientist know and understand this. There must be a realization that different aspects of scientific understanding are provisional. The models of deterministic mechanics following Newton may have played a role in the growth of deism and atheism – as well as in the idea of design in natural theology.

The twentieth-century demise of mere mechanism gives us a salutary reminder that there is nothing absolute or incorrigible about the context of science. It necessarily shares in the provisionality that must to a degree characterise all human knowledge. Recognition of this fact should make us appropriately cautious, but it should not be allowed to induce rational paralysis. At any given time, human beings have to make the best use of the sources of insight that are at their disposal. (p. 13 emphasis mine)

Attaching metaphysical meaning to some scientific concept, be it deterministic mechanics in the nineteenth century or the openness of quantum theory in the twenty-first, must be an loose position. We are seeking to understand the work of the creator – but there is no guarantee that we have reached that understanding yet.

4. Beware of misunderstandings. It is also clear that much theological interaction with science has relied too heavily on conceptual misunderstandings and seeming verbal parallels. Pannenberg – especially in his discussion of the importance of inertia, fields, and contingency – can be faulted for both an inadequate understanding of some of the concepts he used, and a failure to appreciate the provisionality of some of the concepts.

Thomas Torrance had a better understanding of the science – but he relied rather heavily on experts, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and even Albert Einstein, who in the words of Dr. Polkinghorne “represent the final flowering of classical physics.” As surprising as it may seem to some to see Einstein so classified, his life-long opposition to quantum theory and his quest for some added piece that would restore objective causality to the quantum description of the world was anchored in his classical view.

Concluding remarks. This has been a rather academic start to the discussion of theology in the context of science. The chapters that follow will deal with somewhat more concrete topics: The nature of human knowledge and communication; the concepts of time and space; the nature and value of persons (evolution comes in to this one);  providence, and relationality; motivated belief for the Christian faith; and eschatology – the purpose and end of it all.

In what way can and should science form a context for our theology?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • It seems to me, metaphysical and epistemic presuppositions necessarily precede and influence empirical claims. What science does, as Thomas Kuhn argued, is to advance anomalies that challenge both our presuppositions and scientific theories.

    So, can science form a context for our theology?

    Only after it has been given value by preceding metaphysical claims. For example: thinking that scientific knowledge is *valuable* at all will be dependent on prior, philosophical, non-empirical beliefs.

    But once given value (and power), science rightly begins to speak about the God who made the universe and may tweak the details of our beliefs about God. At that point, theology and science might advance together (which one has power when they come to disagreements becomes the interesting question).

    But it seems to me in this chicken and the egg question, one’s philosophy must come first.

  • RJS


    I think that one’s “philosophy” is a malleable and changing object. It can’t come first as a foundation …

    While Thomas Kuhn had/has important insights, some of his emphasese are overstatements – especially on the nature of paradigm changes. Science looks for coherent whole – but it is empirical in a way that “pure” mathematics and philosophy are.

    Polkinghorne has read and interacted with both the theologians and the philosophers.

  • RJS,

    I absolutely believe science should be A context for our theology if not THE context for our theology. I think it should form this context in all ways, but with the caveat that just because science has been successful in one area doesn’t necessarily it will have the same success as it moves towards another area. So it is always A context but not always THE context, I would say.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#2) you said: I think that one’s “philosophy” is a malleable and changing object. It can’t come first as a foundation …

    I respond: No, I think this is completely wrong. Stating this is itself a rather rigid form of “first philosophy” that serves as a foundation. (Foundationalism, an epistemological theory that doesn’t work at least in its hard form, is a different matter…)

    I appreciate Polkinghorne, but I think this sort of “contextual theology” project is terribly mistaken. As Christians, we ought to begin and end with the revelation of the Triune God in Christ. That is a first Truth, a first Principle, and a first Philosophy. It is the deposit of faith which we simply receive. Everything else, including a philosophy of science, must follow from that.

    I understand the fear: similar rhetoric is used by Young Earth and strong ID folks. Yes, it is, and they are not entirely wrong about that. Where they go wrong is in a number of mistaken assumptions and understandings of what the deposit of faith is and implies, most of which are tied to modern positivistic philosophies.

  • dopderbeck,

    Would you say there is no context then?

  • Dan Arnold


    What do you think of John Walton’s distinction between methodological natutralism and metaphysical naturalism? From my perspective, it’s a very helpful way to understand the nature of scientific enquiry vs. Our philosophical underpinnings. But can someone rationally hold to one without the other? Does this distinction force the separation of endeavor denied by Polkinghorn?

  • dopderbeck

    Justin (#5) — no, I didn’t say that. The modern scientific world is a context for our description of the deposit of faith. In fact, part of the deposit of faith is the a priori belief that God’s creation exhibits reason and intelligibility. This is one absolutely crucial reason why philosophy and theology, and specifically Christian theology, must come first: “science” as a method of investigating an intelligible universe is utterly incoherent without some prior principle of intelligibility. Why should we assume that the universe is intelligible? Without a prior philosophical justification, this is just asserted as brute fact.

    Now, if, as part of the deposit of faith, we affirm faith in “creation,” that is, in a universe given as gift by the God of truth and wisdom and reason, then we must be careful to describe the truth of the deposit of faith in ways that account for the knowledge human beings have been able to acquire about creation.

    So if, for example, scientific methods reliably establish a long history of biological evolution (as they do), then this must help shed light on how we describe doctrines such as, for example, creation and Fall. We can offer a richer description, but the revealed doctrines are not eviscerated by contextualization, as they might be if “context” precedes theology.

  • dopderbeck

    Justin — also, see my post up today on “nominalism”. The context there is different, but the ideas are directly relevant.

  • “Science is not the religion of the 21st century – but a theology that ignores, or even worse denies, the revelations of modern science will fall short in its attempt to understand and explore the nature of God.”

    Absolutely. I’ve been meaning to tackle on my blog what insights we can gain from God from what we know about evolution, particularly his patience. While science ascribes no moral value to the changes that take place, God obviously set in motion this process that took billions of years so he could place his image in humanity. That’s a lot of waiting. And it says a lot about his love that he was willing to wait so long for us to arrive, I think. And I think it further reveals a lot about the seemingly evolving view of him that we see through the Old Testament, the conversations the text has with itself about topics like genocide, worship, theodicy and the like.

    In short, I think our view of God would be a lot different from how he is usually presented in Sunday school if we truly looked at his nature based on what he has revealed through scientific study. Just my 2 cents. Thanks for this great post!

  • RJS,

    I’m not sure I would go so far as saying science is a full blown context for theology. But, I would agree there ought to be more interaction between science and theology than is often allowed. Many scientists and scientifically minded lay people seem to dig in their heals against even the possibility of the supernatural as a means to better understanding the universe. I wonder if that’s, at least in part, due to a certain reluctance on the part of the Church to become more scientifically informed. And I wonder if our reluctance is due to our failure to see what science has to offer in terms of our understanding of God and His work.

  • RJS (2). You said, “I think that one’s “philosophy” is a malleable and changing object. It can’t come first as a foundation.”

    This is a good place to sit for a moment.

    It seems to me, your claim is itself philosophical. In answering the question of philosophy and its place, you go to the philosophical. Even if one grants the claim that philosophy is malleable and changing, it in no one disproves the idea that the philosophical/presuppositional still come first.

    Just because something is malleable does not mean it is not primary.

    Consider a few questions that must be answered first in one’s metaphysical claims about science, God, and the nature of reality if the discussion is to get off the ground at all: “What is the value of scientific knowledge?” “Why think there is an external world?” “Why believe that our mental experiences relate to something that is real?”

    These are philosophical questions which will deeply affect the conversation at hand. They cannot be answered by science for scientific data is itself affected by their answers. As such presuppositions/paradigm/philosophy create the foundation for the value of *any* possible scientific claim.

    For example, you say later, “Science looks for a coherent whole.” This is case and point. This is a philosophical claim, but certainly you could be convinced otherwise, and if you were the philosophical would again emerge as primary.

    This is not to demean science at all. It is simply to suggest that in asking the question: “Can science form a context for our theology?” It seems to me, the answer is only after some other questions have been answered.

    Love your review of Polkinghorn btw.

  • dopderbeck –

    Why should we assume that the universe is intelligible? Without a prior philosophical justification, this is just asserted as brute fact.

    How about accepting it on pragmatic grounds? Because assuming the converse leads to automatic futility?

  • dopderbeck

    Ray (#11) — go to hear from you!

    Well, “pragmatic grounds” is a prior philosophical justification. The next step would be to justify why pragmatism is a coherent philosophy — not an argument I have time for now. But the point stands: some philosophy or another has to come first, or there is no possibility of doing “science.”

  • John W Frye

    RJS, I, too, like dopderbeck’s comment #4. Not trained in either science or philosophy, it would seem that the opening words of Genesis underscore David’s comment, e.g., “In the beginning God…” We have a deposit of revealed data with the priority being God, then his creation, the realm in which science operates. With David’s caveats regarding YEC and ID, I think that science is a rich and vast field to mine for theological contributions without any fear that science will somehow negate our Christian faith. All truth is God’s truth.

  • Dopderbeck (13) Yup.

  • RJS

    Jeff and dopderbeck,

    Philosophy, like mathematics, can be nothing but a brain game. Right (or internally self consistent) … but irrelevant.

    Reality comes first … philosophy, mathematics, and science are useful tools for the understanding of reality. You can say that it is a philosophical statement that there is a reality (pragmatism), but I would say that we can only begin to make philosophical statements (even the brain game kind) because there is a reality.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck (back up at #4),

    I don’t think Polkinghorne is “terribly mistaken”, but I do think it is right to question the appropriateness of contextual theology in the first place.

  • RJS (16) Certainly the question “Is the future going to be like the past,” upon which all science is based, is not a scientifically answerable question.

    I would suggest there are a large number of such questions, especially when it comes to which knowledge is most valuable, that empirical experience cannot answer or gives no opinion about. For example: “which one ought I to trust more, my eyesight or the voices in my head?” Science actually has no opinion about such matters because science cannot establish the idea of “trustworthiness” (or goodness, value, etc).

    Or perhaps we could ask: “what does science say about the role of science in human knowledge?” Or “what way can and should science form a context for our theology” (the question at hand)? Well science has no opinion. But such questions are the starting point for knowledge of ourselves and all reality. They are, in fact, philosophical.

    Call philosophy a brain game all you wish, but cutting away its impact is like sawing off the limb of tree upon which you are sitting.

    Much love all.

  • RJS

    But Jeff, even asking the question “is the future going to be like the past?” misunderstands science. Time isn’t an absolute. The laws are absolute – and strictly empirical (subject to correction by observation).

    This is getting a bit far afield …

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#16) — yowza. Well I guess all us philosophers and theologians should head out to the woodshead for a whippin’ by you scientist-types.

    I’m sorry, but a comment like that is incoherent. To say “Reality comes first” is to make a philosophical argument!! What is “Reality?” How do we know what “Reality” is? And why does it come “first?” What, for that matter, is “first”? All of these are philosophical questions, and you are begging all of them. Or rather, you’re merely asserting a philosophical system without argument.

    Sorry for being blunt, you really need to do much better than this.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#19) to talk about “laws” being “absolute” and “strictly empirical” is to make philosophical assertions!! How do you know there are “laws?” What are “laws” in any event? You cannot get away from philosophy! Logical positivism is a philosophy, and it is a failed philosophy, but it is what you’re exhibiting here.

  • RJS

    By the way – I think there will be a fundamental break between present and future … not for scientific or philosophical reasons, but for biblical and theological reasons, the vision of a world to come. New heavens and new earth has to represent a fundamental break.

  • RJS


    In that case everything is philosophy and that philosophy comes first is merely a truism of no importance.

  • RJS

    And of course my degree is doctor of philosophy.

  • RJS


    No, I don’t think that philosopher or theologian types need to be taken anywhere, least of all to the woodshed. I don’t think you actually understand what I am trying to say – and that is most likely my fault.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#23) — Nonsense. It is not just a tautology, because there are various branches of philosophy that are relevant — e.g., metaphysics.

    But in fact I would say “everything is theology.” If we believe God is the creator of everything than we can say absolutely nothing without theology. Even the exercise of “reason” that gets you to some notion like scientific “laws” assumes some theology, even if it is an a-theology.

    C’mon, you’ve been at this long enough, and you should know better than to drop rotten eggs like this.

  • Amos Paul

    Came here to say that if science is context for theology, philosophy is still the only possible context for science.

    Jeff and dopderbeck beat me to it.

    But in any case, I’ll go ahead and push the connection. Theology is *in part* philosophy. Indeed, the part that is philosophy is the part that contributes to philosophy’s foundation for science. That is, the objectivity and reliability of reality, the possibility of absolutes, meaning, etc.

    So, in sense, I claim that *theology* is context for science… and that science is context for theology. Dialectically. Yet I think theology/philosophy is still the first rational context.

    However, RJS, you argue that our experience of reality pre-supposes *any* philosophy. I assent to this in part… but deny that science is experience. Science is not experience but a rationally constructed method of interpreting and utilizing reality. Thing is, the formation of that method is a philosophical pursuit that, for Christians, is also a theological pursuit.

    In contrast to pure experience of reality, G.K. Chesterton once stated in his ‘orthdoxy’ that it seemed to him far more fantastical to believe in abstract universal laws governing all that is than it is to believe in faeries. The point? That the scientific is a construct that takes real, intellectual work to form and utilize.

  • RJS


    First – I do agree that theology comes first, for the reason you give.

    Second, and this is a serious question that perhaps will change my perspective, how does philosophy assume an independent or controlling identity?

    If one of your cells mutates into a cancerous state and spreads you will die … no change in philosophical perspective will modify this. No change in philosophical framework will change the freezing point of water or the connection between brain cells and thoughts (even though we don’t understand this yet).

    So … our scientific discussion of this underlying reality is of necessity provisional, and philosophy is important (it wasn’t tongue in cheek to note that we have Ph.D. degrees). But it isn’t, or doesn’t seem to me, an open field … there are constraints and these constraints are not “science”, but reality. I also don’t mean to say that all knowledge and knowing is “scientific” (i.e. constrained to material reality). Metaphysics is outside of this “scientific” realm, and I don’t deny it’s importance.

  • DRT

    I know RJS does not need my weight thrown in on this, but this exact conversation has been bothering me all day as I have tried to work my way through the dop thread going on.

    My statement is that there is, indeed, a reality out there. And yes, theology is the first truth.

    I believe that the philosophical arguments are quite missing the mark since the confound truth with theory. The irony of that is that that is exactly the argument that they make with science. But the philosophy, as represented as dopderbeck, imo, is fatally flawed. It is instantiating the philosophical models with reality, which is never correct. If theology is indeed the first priority, and the basis of theology is the existence of god, and pretty much all religion knows that god is not knowable in his entirety, then it must be posited that the ideas describing reality must only be models approaching, at best, the true reality.

    In other words, god is, everything else makes gestures toward what is and offeres models for what is.

    I will continue later,….have to run to a meeting…..

  • DRT


    they confound truth

    and clearly the philosophy is represented by Dopderbeck, not as him, though that is an amusing thought.

  • RJS and Dopderbeck.

    Good conversation. I suppose to summarize and conclude all I am really arguing is that an epistemology and metaphysic are required for empirical observations to have context, shape and value. The question “what is empirical knowledge and what is its value, precedes the discussion of what empirical observation shows us.

    If the question at hand is: “In what way can and should science form a context for our theology?” The answer in my mind is the philosophical and theological claims always precede or are assumed by empirical data. As Kuhn writes, “When paradigms change [i.e. philosophies/theory/etc], the world itself changes with them … during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before.”

    Much love all

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “to talk about “laws” being “absolute” and “strictly empirical” is to make philosophical assertions!!”

    I think this isway overstazted. RJS is suggestign baby steps. If you put your hand on a hot stove once and get burned–that’s reality, not any form of a philosophical assertion. If you do it again, you can draw the conclusion that you will burn your hand every time you touch that hot stove.

    And you can make predictions and then test them against your concept of reality.

    Yopu can expand it to jumping off cliffs. You fall down every time. Science–not any form of philosophy–will tell you that you will accelerate at 9.8 m/sec. squared until you reach terminal velocity.

    I think rjs’s claim is very modest and philosophy’s claims to understanding of reality are vastly overstated.

    That said, if science does not form a context for theology then that theology is doomed to be irrelevant.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#28) — when you are making those measurements, you are assuming that you are measuring something real, and something with some kind of law-like regularity. That assumption — an entirely appropriate and valid assumption — comes from philosophy, not from the measurements themselves.

    I agree that the scientific method provides real knowledge that progresses. A “critical realism,” which I think is really Polikinghorne’s approach, is one good way to frame this. I’m now more into a more holistic phenomenological approach that encompasses a critical realism about the particulars of the material world. But yes, science measures phenomena that instantiate order and regularity, or in classical terms, “reason.” Yet the belief that this is so comes from some other prior commitment — whether it be Christian theology, pragmatism, or something else.

  • dopderbeck

    UC (#32) — but only philosophy can establish that the measurement you mention refers to a “real” world that is regular, persistent, etc.

  • It’s pretty clear from the dopderbeck-RJS exchange here how difficulties can arise in discussions like these when one participant comes at it as a philosopher and one comes at it as a practicing scientist. (I know you’re both more than those particualr descriptors but they are your primary ways of viewing the problem).

    As a scientist, I struggle mightily in these types of conversations, especially when philosophers tell me that, “no, philosophy comes first!” It’s hard for me not to say, “well of course it does, that’s your discipline!” or, “historically, yes, you’re right!” Because, on a day to day routine in the lab, philosophy just doesn’t come up. Yes, the first principles that were instrumental for modern science taking off are recognized (although mostly by Christian scientists), but then they’re ignored or perhaps better stated taking for granted of.

    This of course does not mean that we’re saying philosophy does not matter, it’s just not the way we scientists think to first frame the discussion. Should we? Perhaps. But it requires us to get out of our pragmatic scientific mindset.

    Anyway, just sharing my thoughts as I’ve wrestled through these conversations before (and this one now). I’m glad you mentioned positivism dopderbeck, because I (and perhaps RJS) can slide towards that pole without knowing it from time to time even though I would never accept that I was a positivist!

  • RJS


    I am certainly not arguing for positivism … if wikipedia defines it correctly. I would not reject metaphysics, or purpose or values … or say that all worthwhile knowledge comes from sensory information and its logical and mathematical treatment. Understanding the human form and expression of knowledge is important – even essential.

    But I do think that there is basically one science about one real world … water will freeze in everyone’s lab in the same way and it doesn’t matter if you are Tibetan or South African, male or female. One’s philosophy can’t change this.

  • That’s the point, RJS. We’re absolutely not positivists but we/I hold scientific knowledge higher than other knowledge. We would never go as far as the positivists did but by default we/I can trend in that direction though.


  • RJS


    It depends what you mean by higher and by knowledge.

    The ancient near eastern observers saw the sun and thought that it rose and set around a stationary earth. We talk about the earth revolving on its axis and making a yearly trek around the sun. Whatever we think about it, however we interpret the observations … there is an underlying reality that doesn’t change. The sun and the earth do what they do. The sun and earth didn’t change because people’s ideas about their motion changed.

    We can be very wrong about things and our interpretations trash… but I certainly don’t think that changes the underlying reality and I do think there is an underlying reality.

    This is a philosophy … but it isn’t arbitrary, and it certainly has not been shown to fail.

    But one of the things Polkinghorne is clear about is the need for some humility and appreciation for the provisional nature of our understanding.

  • Sure, it’s provisional, but isn’t empirical data “stronger” than other data? How can we not hold to this as scientists? There’s a tension here and it’s a big one.

    Or, we can say that the empirical or scientific data is for certain “questions” and other data is for different “questions”, like is common for science and religion accommodationists. But that doesn’t jive for me either.

  • RJS

    What do you mean by other data? (I am not quite sure where you would go with this.)

  • Well, I guess we could use a different word, so let’s call it “rationale or reasons” for believing something. It can’t be tested empirically, so perhaps data is a bad word.

    For example, what is the basis of someone’s morals? Whatever it is, that person has reasons for why they believe what they do. Sam Harris et al say that they can determine this basis by performing scientific experiments. Just about everyone else on the planet does not, but they still have a basis or reason for believing what they do. I myself tend to look at those reasons as “data” and compare data sets in my own thinking and judgment. But I’m pretty sure others wouldn’t consider this as “data” and would say I abused a scientific term in my previous reply. Its use was quick and rapid-fire so I’ll retract it!

    Muddled even more?

  • AHH

    Leaving the philosophy debate for a moment (I’d recognize “critical realism” as a backdrop for all this), I think there is a need to clarify what is meant by “a context for theology”. I can see 3 options:

    1) The context in which we do our theology is necessarily that of 2011, in which science tells us much about our world. We need to be in dialogue with that knowledge, just as with all other aspects of our context. That would seem to be uncontroversial.

    2) Contextual theology in the sense of privileging the scientific perspective and using it as a lens through which all theology is developed and critiqued. Similar to “feminist theology” or “liberation theology”, etc. This seems dangerously close to making science the foundation of theology, which does not seem wise.

    3) What I think Polkinghorne is actually advocating, which is to take science as A context for theology, but not to privilege it exclusively above other contextual thinking. So see what insights such a viewpoint can offer to our overall theology, while recognizing that theological thinking coming from non-scientific contexts can also bring things of value to the table. Much like one can take insights from liberation theology without making it THE lens for all of theology.

  • AHH,

    Very well stated. Polkinghorne would say that for theology to be relevant in the 21st century, it needs to engage heavily with science. He’s not one to truly integrate science and theology, like others in the field have (exemplified by Teilhard de Chardin, Hefner, and to an extent, Peacocke), so he wouldn’t say that all theological principles would have a scientific basis. But he would say that science informs theology. Very much so.

    So Polkinghorne would say no to exclusivity, but YES to privileged.

  • RJS

    Justin and AHH,

    He would also say that insights gained from scientific manners of thinking can provide insight into theology – without of course being the basis of theology. This will come out a bit more in the next post. (Ah, that is AHH’s third point – and it is really the main point.)

  • RJS


    This conversation started from my response to Jeff’s first comment – and that may have derailed things a bit.

    In a manner this connects with dopderbeck’s post just before this one. To take concepts like good or love or beauty or honor or right and constrain their investigation to scientific means and questions (material mechanical, even quantum mechanical, or societal causation) is to denude these terms, or more accurately the concepts behind them, of any real meaning. They become perceptions or manifestations … not real in and of themselves. We can rationalize but not explain these ideas through science. I’ve argued this in other posts – and some, of course, disagree.

    There is “data” – rationale, reasons – for viewing good and love in a particular way. And, I think, there is an reality behind them. Theology and philosophy do more for us here than science. (So I think at least.)

    But I react when people say “philosophy first” because there is a reality that constrains. This is where my rather concrete examples in the previous posts come in. Philosophers can deny this or explore alternatives not constrained – but this is the same kind of “brain game” that mathematicians play when exploring non-physical solutions to differential equations.

  • dopderbeck

    AHH (#42) — well put. Yes, of course, all theology is “contextual” in the sense that theology is a human enterprise done in particular times and places. And I think it’s properly part of the “mission” of the theologian to speak in terms that are intelligible to his / her time and place. Further, theology is always “faith seeking understanding,” so the wisdom and knowledge of the time and place the theologian finds him or herself in must comprise part of the palette for the theologian’s speech.

    But I want to say this: the science of my times doesn’t change the deposit of faith that compels my theology. Nevertheless, my understanding of that deposit develops, grows and becomes enriched by the science of my times. (A seminal text here: Cardinal Newman, The Development of Doctrine).

    RJS — you seem to be reacting against some sort of philosophical arguments that seem to deny what you’re defining as the “reality that constrains.” I’m not sure where that’s coming from. And I’m still not sure you realize what a metaphysically loaded statement “reality that constrains” is.

    If anyone wants to argue that “science” — defined as the modern empirical method — can finally define “reality” or its “constraints,” that is a point at which I would have to part ways and assert that these are fundamentally philosophical and theological questions that cannot be determined by empiricism.

    Justin, you asked: “but isn’t empirical data “stronger” than other data?” — and my answer to that is NO. At least, my answer is NO if you really mean that as a blanket statement for every possible question we might care about. God, after all, is not an “empirical” reality. Empiricism surely is the most appropriate tool when we’re trying to learn about, say, the composition of a microbe’s DNA. But there are many more non-empirical questions. Even within “science” this is so — theoretical physics and cosmology are significantly based on mathematical “models,” not “empirical” observations.

  • RJS


    Of course I realize it.

    And I am reacting against a very real (moderately small) contingent who would deny, for example, that water freezes at the same temperature in a lab in Africa and the US, because the cultural perspective and minds of the observers are different … extreme forms of antirealism. So Jeff’s chicken and egg comment in his first post is apt.

    Is antirealism in every form as equally “right” as every form of realism? If philosophy comes first the answer has to be yes because if philosophy comes first it has no constraint.

  • RJS (47).

    It seems to me, you can make such a claim because you value consistency, or you hold to logical laws. I would suggest that if the consistent antirealist experienced 10 times the pleasure of a realist, the vast majority of humanity would become antirealists. It seems to me that it is because the converse is true that realism strikes us as obvious, and the consequences of rejecting realism steep.

    Question for RJS here: If I assume at the outset (philosophy) that all that exists is matter in motion, it seems to me there is no argument that will convince me otherwise. My assumed philosophy has vast explanatory power.

    Where do you go in your responses to those who hold such a view?

    (Much love – Thank you for your time on my responses!)

  • (45) RJS – BTW this isn’t a derail. In mind this is the absolute center of the question between theology and the natural sciences.

  • RJS

    If I assume at the outset that all that exists is matter in motion and require material physical proof to be convinced otherwise no argument will succeed. Certainly this philosophy has great explanatory power. And I am not arguing for scientism, or that this approach must be (or even is) right.

    On the other hand if I assume at the outset that matter in motion need not obey the “law” of gravity and I develop a self-consistent antirealism (a philosophy that may give great happiness) and then jump off the empire state building I will still die (probably convinced I was wrong at the last second).

    Empiricism is not the only thing, but it is a constraint on what is possible…

  • dopderbeck

    RJS, you said: Is antirealism in every form as equally “right” as every form of realism? If philosophy comes first the answer has to be yes because if philosophy comes first it has no constraint.

    I respond: why would it have “no constraint?” Every philosophy has its own constraints. I judge extreme anti-realism to be inadequate for many reasons, primarily because of my philosophical and theological commitments as a Christian.

    It seems what you’re struggling with is that no philosophical system can “prove” another philosophical system to be wrong. Well, yeah. At the end of the day, there is no “absolute proof” that some form of realism is right and anti-realism is wrong. Descartes tried to find that kind of proof, and it just doesn’t exist, certainly not through empiricism.

    But this doesn’t mean there’s no way to weigh competing philosophical systems. Which makes the most sense of our experience (including empirical observations)? Which is most coherent? Which leads to outcomes that resonate with some inherent sense of beauty or goodness? As human beings, this kind of sifting is the best we can do through the use of our reason. It’s also why reason alone is inadequate — every effort to know is always faith seeking understanding.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS, you said: If I assume at the outset that all that exists is matter in motion and require material physical proof to be convinced otherwise no argument will succeed. Certainly this philosophy has great explanatory power

    I respond: standing alone, it has almost no explanatory power. It doesn’t explain where matter and motion come from, nor does it explain phenomena that are very important to us — including our ability to “reason” to explanations! If matter in motion is all there is, then there is no such thing as “reason,” and therefore there are no “explanations” for anything.

    You said: Empiricism is not the only thing, but it is a constraint on what is possible…

    I respond: Not by a long shot! Do you seriously want to argue that the only things that are “possible” are things that human beings are capable of observing and quantifying? Even (and particularly) from a naturalistic perspective, that is facially absurd. Human sense perception didn’t evolve for omniscience, it evolved for pragmatic survival.

    Consider string theory for a moment. If it is true that there is a multiverse, there are other universes that human beings cannot observe. We could perhaps know of their existence because a mathematical model requires them, but we could never visit them or observe them.

    And from a theological perspective, since God by definition is not observable, there is a great deal to reality that is not knowable through empirical observation.

  • RJS (50) I think this post gives validity to my point. The philosophy comes first and then is refined.

    Dopderbeck (52). You’re getting feisty. So – I think a consistent materialist can certainly say there are explanations for things even if there is no “Reason” up in the ethereal realm – ya?


  • RJS

    “Do you seriously want to argue that the only things that are “possible” are things that human beings are capable of observing and quantifying?”

    Of course not … and that is not what “constraint” means. Constraint does not mean that only this is possible. It means that anything not consistent with this is not possible.

    Of course we must take great care in expressing with humility what the constraints really are. A “constraint” that an electron is either here or there because it is a particle like a baseball and a baseball is either here or there makes many wrong assumptions. This “here and there”ness of an electron is at the core of quantum behavior and would have been dismissed with a laugh in the 19th century. Einstein and some of the others struggled with it throughout life.

    But it would also be wrong to say that because an electron can be both here and there … we should not assume that a baseball hit off a bat will follow a predictable trajectory. As though anything now goes.

  • dopderbeck,

    Enjoying the conversation immensely, per usual.

    Your #51 comment said this:

    “As human beings, this kind of sifting is the best we can do through the use of our reason.”

    That’s exactly why I would say empirical data is stronger. We still sift, sure, but though a sieve with much bigger pores. I’m not saying the only way to sift is through empirical data because science has only taken us so far. But, when I’m making a decision, or thinking about a problem, I’m looking for empirical data if it’s there. Those scientists that you mention in comment #46 would love to have data for their models and when they do get data, they refine or reconstruct as needed.


  • RJS

    You’ve probably heard the news reports of the “possibility” that neutrinos have been clocked at faster than the speed of light.

    Most physicists are skeptical of this … but no good physicist will say “nothing can move faster than the speed of light, therefore this is wrong.” They will say that they need more evidence to be convinced, and it doesn’t seem likely, and if this is right many other things will have to be revisited and rethought.

    There is a provisionalness, a constraint, but not a limit. Many things are possibly that we cannot detect – and we can make no claim about what must be in that realm.

  • RJS

    Jeff (#53),

    As I can be feisty as well, I would still object to “first” – but the chicken and egg comment is right, arguing which is first is not the point. We need and use both (all?) – in refinement, and philosophy is a key player whether admitted or not.

  • Empirical data is meaningless unless it is interpreted, that is, viewed through an interpretive grid that places a datum in relation to a larger picture about the nature of reality. That larger picture is a philosophy. IOW, empirical data is incoherent apart from a philosophical viewpoint. It is not even information because, without a philosophical viewpoint, we do not know how a particular datum relates to anything else. Without a philosophical foundation, we have no understanding of whatever data we are looking at.

    I have been becoming more aware that a lot of people are unaware of their own philosophical assumptions, even to the point of denying they have any philosophical assumptions, as they pursue their endeavors.

  • dopderbeck

    Jeff (#53) — fesity? Moi? 😉

    Ok let me slice the salami a little here: “descriptions” are not the same thing as “explanations.” “Explanations” invoke reasons and purposes. For consistent materialists, there cannot be reasons or purposes. There is only the brute fact of matter and motion.

  • Jeff (58),

    The average on the Molecular final I gave on Monday was an 80% after the curve. Is this meaningless without a philosophical viewpoint?

    Your position is accurate for the scientific enterprise as a whole, but you’re misusing it when you apply it to individual data.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#54) said: It means that anything not consistent with this is not possible.

    I respond: but again, do you really want to make the very strong claim that anything not consistent with human sense impressions is “not possible”? Our sensors have limits — both our natural sensors (eyes, ears, etc) and mechanical extensions thereof (telescopes, microscopes, etc). The readings our sensors give us are not omniscient or infallible. Moreover, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggests that our observations can never be comprehensively accurate. Further, the “possibility” of a future state of events based on a present state of events depends on a number of beliefs about the arrow of time, which cannot be absolutely proven. (How do we know that time will always flow from present causes to future event? You can’t observe the future. It’s an assumption we just have to make.)

    And so, even with a solid series of observed correlations, you can’t usually say that a contrary event is “not possible” without qualification. What you can say is that some things are “not possible” insofar as we know. Caveat: a very limited set of things may be “not possible” because they would violate the law against non-contradiction. But I think this set mostly consists of symbolic representations with their own internal logic. I’m not sure it applies to causes and effects in the physical universe.

  • dopderbeck

    Justin (#60) — yes, that figure of 80% after the curve is meaningless without a philosophical viewpoint. In itself, it’s just a number. Is that a “good” grade, or a “bad” one, or an “ok” one? As a “grade,” what does it signify about the person who earned it, their status in the class, in the school, in society? Why was the curve shaped as it was — who made the choices, and based on what values, concerning what the final distribution should look like? Why weren’t all the exams normed to a range of 95-100%? And so on.

  • Wow, dopderbeck, how do you ever get your grades in to the registrar on time? What with all that flailing and philosophizing about? 🙂

    It means they missed 20% of the possible points.

    I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

  • dopderbeck

    Justin, you said “after the curve.” If all you’re saying is that the median score was 80 out of 100 on an absolute scale — again, that’s just a number. What does it mean? Is that an A? Is it a D?

    I have to calculate my grades for first-year law students on a curve. There can only be so many A’s and so many C’s or below, and about 40% of the class has to fall in the B range. There also have to be some D’s or F’s.

    I frankly don’t like this curve. As a philosophical matter, I don’t like being required to award some number of D’s and F’s. But at some point the Faculty and Administration made some value judgments about what graduating from our law school with a certain GPA should mean to potential employers, as well as about the ethics of keeping people on as students whose bad grades suggest they might never pass the Bar Exam.

    So the fact that someone scores an “80” or a “40” out of 100 on my final exam is in itself meaningless. What matters is where those numbers fall in relation to the rest of the class with respect to the value-laden curve.

    Nevertheless, I’ve never been late with my grades!

  • Ahh, those Pirates…

  • DRT

    How many of you have resisted the urge to pen a lawyer joke during these discussions? I was barely able….

  • As one’s philosophy develops over time, it become the lens one views things through. It does not require active philosophizing anew over every bit of data one comes across — the philosophical assumptions are already in place, and one bit of data is related to another on the basis of those assumptions. One’s philosophy is not something one looks at but something one looks through. A person does not have to think about their philosophy in order to look through it anymore than a fish has to think about water in order to swim through it. I think this is, in large part, why many people, including those in the field of science, seem to not have any clue about the philosophy through which they are attempting to view the world.

  • dopderbeck

    Pirates Basketball, 8-1, baby!

  • RJS

    Phoenix 8-0!

  • This is some good food for thought for me, especially seeing that I’m deeply interested in better understanding the relationship between science and faith….I need to check out some of his books.