5 Questions … and Some Answers (RJS)

5 Questions … and Some Answers (RJS) November 20, 2014

QI picked up an interesting and somewhat unusual new book recently, Science and Religion: 5 Questions. The editor, Gregg D. Caruso, posed five questions on science and religion to thirty three different authors and scholars covering a broad range of viewpoints. Respondents include Daniel C. Dennett, Michael Shermer, William Dembski, John Polkinghorne, and Rabbi David Wolpe and many more.

The five questions:

1. What initially drew you to theorizing about science and religion?

2. Do you think science and religion are compatible when is comes to understanding cosmology (the origin of the universe), biology (the origin of life and the human species), ethics, and/or the human mind (minds, brains, souls, and free will)?

3. Some theorists maintain that science and religion occupy nonoverlapping magisteria – i.e., that science and religion each have a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap. Do you agree?

4. What do you consider to be your most important contribution(s) to theorizing about science and religion?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, or challenges confronting the relationship between science and religion, and what are the prospects for progress?

These questions introduce the speakers (especially 1 and 4), and touch on the major issues of origins (2). Given my current interest in Stephen Jay Gould’s proposed NOMA as sketched in his book Rocks of Ages, the third questions in particularly interesting. Many of the respondents don’t seem to have actually taken the time to understand his proposal.  The final two questions are open ended and provide for interesting individual responses.

From time to time I will dip into this book and consider come of the various responses offered.

Charles Townes. One of the interviews is with a man who isn’t a household name, but perhaps should be. Charles Townes shared the Nobel Prize in 1964 for “for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle” (Nobel Prize page).  I heard him speak earlier this year at a symposium in memory of his former student, James P. Gordon, who was first author on the paper with Townes and reporting the success of the maser in 1955. Charles Townes is still impressive at 99 years of age. For those who might not know, maser stands for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. The more familiar laser operates on the same principle at shorter wavelengths (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Oh yeah, and he is a life-long Christian, a member of the United Church of Christ.

Townes answers to the questions are short. He theorizes about science and religion because both are important. The drive for understanding  in science is matched by a drive for understanding in religion. Religion focus on questions involving purpose and meaning. Like many other scientists he see no conflict between science and Christian faith.

I do believe in both a creation and a continuous effect on this universe and our lives, that God has a continuous influence – certainly his laws guide how the universe was built. But the Bible’s description of creation occurring over a week’s time is just an analogy, as I see it.  (p. 236-237)

He also sees the universe as intelligently designed, not in the sense that attempts to counter evolution, but in the sense that the universe is a special place and that there is a purpose and a plan. He doesn’t think NOMA makes sense, and although he doesn’t  elaborate in his response to the question. In his conclusion he notes that “Science attempts to understand how things work. Religion attempts to understand why they are the was they are. They kind of fit together, but they are not the same thing.” (p. 238)

Immediately before the interview with Townes (the order in the book is alphabetical) Caruso includes an interview with Michael Tooley.

Michael Tooley’s story is a bit different. Like many of the other contributors Tooley is a philosopher.  He is a professor at the University of Colorado. In response to the first question:

When I entered university, I was a Christian, and had no doubts at all about my religious beliefs. But then I had never really had any serious or critical thoughts about any of my beliefs, religious or otherwise! In my first year at university, however, I had a conversation with a good friend, whose intelligence I very much respected, who suggested that I read Bertrand Russell’s book Marriage and Morals. As I did so, I realized for the first time that one could ask whether one has good reasons for accepting the beliefs that one does. I then thought about my own religious beliefs, and I concluded that I didn’t have good reasons for thinking that they were true: they were simply beliefs that I had absorbed from my family, and from the church that I had joined as a boy. (p. 223)

This is a common experience – and one that is compounded by the various sociological factors at work as people grow and learn. I hit a wall at one point where the same question – is there a good reason for accepting the religious beliefs I hold? – was a serious one. While Tooley decided no, I came to a rather different answer. But the question and the apparent conflict between science (including social science) and Christian faith has driven my interest in digging deeper into the questions and reasons.  This is a question that needs to be taken seriously.

What about NOMA? Like many of the contributors to the book, Tooley finds the NOMA hypothesis to be lacking. Gould’s argument for the lack of overlap rests in defining religion as restricted to questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. However Tooley notes:

Isn’t this to define “religion” in a way that reduces religion to ethics and that leaves out most of the elements that religious believers view as absolutely crucial to the religions they accept? It seems to me, then, that Gould’s idea is quite unsound. (p. 232)

I don’t think Gould’s NOMA reduces religions to ethics, but it does reduce it to meaning or purpose and ethics. Meaning is an element that I see as far more crucial than ethics. Nonetheless, it is this reduction in the scope of religion that leads me to find NOMA less than satisfactory even if helpful in some regards.

But apparently Tooley includes philosophy under the umbrella of science (a grouping with which I would differ).  Even if religion is reduced to ethics he sees a problem with non-overlapping magisteria.

First, ethics if part of philosophy, and has been since philosophy began with Socrates, so there would be overlap, and very likely conflict there. Secondly, what grounds could there be for assigning any authority to ‘religious’ views, thus understood? For what method, distinct from those of philosophy, could then serve to justify ethical claims? (p. 232)

Perhaps more to the point – philosophy, when it serves to justify ethical claims, is “religion” as defined by Gould. It is not science and not subject to the kinds of laws, empirical observations, and mathematical theorizing, that govern scientific thinking.  Tooley’s argument here falls short. Although it is the reduction in the scope of science rather than religion that causes his discontent.

What answer or advice would you give to someone asking the question Tooley faced: is there a good reason for accepting the religious beliefs I hold?

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

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