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Science and Religion at the CrossroadsReview - Science and Religion at the Crossroads
by Frank Parkinson
Imprint Academic, 2009
Review by Byron Clugston
Aug 10th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 32)

This book is a collection of short papers organized around a common thesis which Parkinson defends passionately. Accordingly, in this review, I shall discuss Parkinson's thesis directly through examination of themes, rather than isolate individual essays or points for their own sake.

The thesis of the book is a response to the suggestion contained in the title: at present both science and religion are in a kind of crisis, the best resolution of which requires a kind of synergy of their insights in order to overcome some of their common blind spots. Parkinson traces this crisis to two scientific discoveries: (1) Darwinian evolutionary theory and (2) the Big Bang theory. He insists that science and religion are not opposed enterprises by rather need to understood as symbiotic -- they therefore need to be understood as working together to provide coherent and plausible answers to issues surrounding these two theories. The two general questions addressed by the discoveries mentioned are, respectively, (1) "Where did we come from?" and (2) "Where did the universe come from?"

Parkinson's "symbiosis thesis" is interesting and clearly controversial; an elaboration and defense of it in the grand terms that Parkinson sets out is an ambitious undertaking, especially within the short compass of 162 pages. Whilst Parkinson recognizes the limitations of his defense of this thesis, the decision to publish this book evinces a blind spot to the fact that a more systematic elaboration and defense of a more modest set of claims would have left yet-to-be-compelled readers with something more concrete and identifiable to ponder.

As a whole, the book contains an impressive and useful wealth of scholarly material that is, unfortunately, counterbalanced by an overly speculative tone. And whilst progress of any kind -- be it in science or elsewhere -- requires creative speculation, an excess of speculation leaves those without similar convictions at a loss to comprehend the conclusions reached. On this point, although Parkinson aims admirably to reconceive some of the aims of scientific and religious thinking his declaration to forge a "symbiotic" relationship comes off as ill-conceived.

For one, although the old opposition of faith and reason is a central, dialectical feature of any system that depends on law-like statements -- one needs at least ad hoc faith in the posits grounding the model employed in thinking in certain ways -- the mark of a specifically scientific method is its non-dogmatic, experimental attitude and willingness to revise any claim whatsoever, though "not all at once" (to cite Wilfrid Sellars). It is this character of scientific method -- its lack of preciousness regarding its posits -- that distinguishes it from fundamentally faith- or conviction-based modes of inquiry.

Unfortunately, Parkinson's purportedly "symbiotic" conception of science and religion turns out to depend on a conviction that the so-called Big Bang theory provides justification for belief in a theological creation story. In a few short pages (specifically, Part 2 of the book), Parkinson attempts to undermine major theoretical models of the physical development of the universe in favor of a revived creation myth. This is unconvincing for the following reasons:

(1) It is by no means clear that Parkinson's speculation provides a better explanation of the facts than the theories he attacks. The conclusions are metaphysical and dogmatic.

(2) There is no reason to think that the model of the Big Bang beginning of the universe, understood by Parkinson as a kind of explosion of energy, provides support for a "creation myth". Why would a theological creation myth be supported by this picture, rather than a picture of the universe as simply coming into being all at once as a static, bounded, finite Newtonian spatio-temporal container? Or, secondly, as contracting into existence out of an infinitely large (rather than, initially, infinitely small) God?

Such counterexamples are not considered and, it is worth pointing out, provide no less support than the original. This shows that Parkinson is simply convinced of a creation myth, despite the book's announced task of undermining the traditional mythologies of Judeo-Christian religion (amongst others) in favor of a revisionary, symbiotic relationship with current science. Furthermore, the spurious nature of the two further alternatives, just noted, available to theological creation myth-makers highlights the fact that the answer sought is not specifically scientific at all, but rather metaphysical. This brings me to the main point which I should like to make.

The solution to the problem presupposed by the book itself assumes many controversial points regarding the metaphysics that science and religion as such are committed to. There is a wealth of examples in the book upon which I would like to comment, since many of Parkinson's diagnoses of problems with science come across as simply dogmatic to the point of obfuscation of the deep issues involved. However, I shall limit myself to what I take to be the most objectionable and presumptuous of his claims.

The claim for symbiosis is immediately undermined by the fact that the antinomy generated by the metaphysical demand to know things which cannot be known (space beyond space, number beyond number -- the spurious understanding of "infinite") -- an antinomy that led the Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant to deem theology as a realm of rational faith rather than knowledge -- is produced in Parkinson's layman's version of physical theory, where the dilemma is simply decided in favor of faith in (rather than proof of) a supersensible realm as a precursor to three-dimensional physical space.

Parkinson explicitly chides contemporary physics for resting content with the hypothesis that the universe began with "quantum fluctuation"; he characterizes this as an "erudite pseudo explanation" and his alternative suggestion that a creative power "initiated the process" is claimed to be "commonsense" (p. 70). Firstly, why should "commonsense" be seen as veracious? Secondly, this well-worn, anthropomorphic, metaphysically dogmatic conclusion is embarrassing and does Parkinson's position no favors -- especially given the announced aim to achieve a balanced relationship between science and religion. What is worse, given Parkinson's advocation of a form of pantheism -- for which he coins one of the book's many unnecessary neologisms: "entheism" (the topic of Part 4) -- it is left unexplained how the universe itself, qua God-matter, could be created if the creator is part of the supposed substance created. Moreover, this attempt to answer a scientific question metaphysically simply opens the possibility of an infinite explanatory regress and demonstrates the falsity of Parkinson's claim for symbiosis.

In his objection to physical theory, Parkinson first assumes that science is committed to a specific form of metaphysics and then offers his own alternate metaphysics based simply on personal conviction. Given that there is no pre-given metaphysics of science and given that there is no single framework in terms of which the sum total of scientific "facts" are articulated, Parkinson is arguing against a controversial view of the scientific enterprise. His conclusions are therefore uncompelling for two reasons: (1) his alternative is formulated in opposition to a by no means universal conception of science (not quite a Straw Man, but close) and (2) his alternative is itself no less metaphysically contentious than the target against which it is defined.

Now, before going any further, I would like to say that Parkinson's challenge to scientism, in its guise as a naive metaphysics that simply takes for granted the "absolute reality" of the current picture of the universe offered by the best science available, is virtuous. What is problematic however is the assumption that science as such is committed to this specifically metaphysical view. A quick glance at recent trends in the philosophy of science against unwarranted metaphysical conclusions reached by both those inside and outside the circles of actual scientific practice makes it clear that there are good reasons to object to an essential metaphysics of science. And although Parkinson at several points recognizes that the truly scientific spirit is agnostic rather than atheistic about "God-questions" he fails to see that the point is far broader.

If there is anything one can coherently label "the scientific spirit" it is doubtless one embodied by the experimental practitioner who is open to speculation of the kind needed for theory formation as well as the rigor imposed by experimental testing. Counterpart to this stance is the recognition that theory formation is not a smooth process of sketch-and-compare; each step along the way requires mediation of theoretical principles by data, just as much as the particular character of processing of the data is determined by theoretical assumptions.

Metaphysical questions are by nature a priori and thereby not empirically defeasible. So, since he deems it a topic for mystical insight, the "God question" Parkinson articulates is still beyond the scope of science, so understood. And while Parkinson is well within his rights to advocate some new approach to persistent problems -- as deeply experimental and pragmatic, how can the scientific spirit resist new proposals? -- such a novel attempt does well to be aware of prejudices that it brings to the table. On that count, Parkinson seems to carry some baggage. For not only does he assume that science is committed to some particular brand of metaphysics, he also assumes that the new religion with which it is to be coupled must be a variety of mysticism. This claim is not defended adequately. Moreover, whilst it is healthy to re-evaluate common labels and to be aware of what one means by certain terms, there is a perfectly coherent sense of an experimental, scientific spirit in practice (not mere theory) and such an orientation is not by default tied to any specific metaphysical dogmatism. In this further sense, Parkinson's proposed symbiosis fails.

As an alternative way of overcoming dogmatic conceptions of science and religion one can look to current critical work on the concept of "naturalism" in science and philosophy. Very generally, work in this area is a fertile breeding ground for novel conceptions of the relationship between different "models" of reality of the kind that Parkinson takes science and religion to be. For those interested in Parkinson's topic, work in this area is a good place to look for a better treatment of the issues.

In conclusion it is worth saying that the book, even if flawed, is timely. A lot of media attention has been drawn by the New Atheist backlash against the religious fundamentalism that has surged in recent times, particularly in response to world events of the past 10 years or so; so apart from the timelessness of Parkinson's general topic, there is an acute relevance to the particular issues with which he engages.

Unfortunately, for reasons noted, it seems that Parkinson himself falls afoul of many of the traditional dogmatisms of his chosen field. Despite his attempt to be revolutionary his aim is compromised by the paradox generated by his concomitant wish to preserve Christian dogma in a modified form. Having said that, the book reads comfortably and its intended audience of an educated public could benefit from reading it -- even if the result were a strengthening of resistance against such speculative metaphysics. In harmony with the possibility of such a reaction, the book contains a wealth of scholarly references which the interested reader could follow up themselves. The book might thereby serve as a useful starting point for someone interested in the curious terrain Parkinson traverses.


© 2010 Byron Clugston


Byron Clugston, Graduate Student, Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney


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