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The Cambridge Companion to Science and ReligionReview - The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion
by Peter Harrison
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Patrick Giddy
Nov 1st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 44)

Albert Camus in his philosophical novel, The Plague, describes a certain Fr Paneloux, S.J., who argues for the incompatibility of science (in particular medical science) and religious faith. He has an axe to grind. And we have come to expect, in this over-heated area of public interest, a similar polarization, an oppositional attitude, whether on the side of religion (the "Creationists") or otherwise (the "New Atheists").  None of that is evident in this erudite and rich collection of 14 essays. (A very nuanced favourable "pro-attitude" to religion is evident -- and can perhaps be somewhat balanced -- if one thinks that "taking sides" is of the essence here -- by The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. M. Martin, 2007.)

So Bill Stoeger, S.J., ("God, physics and the Big Bang") trained in philosophical theology, writes of the compatibility of the Big Bang theory with the idea of creation, as found in the medieval Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers, Maimonides, Aquinas, Ibn Sin (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Physics and cosmology, he says, model the structure and dynamism of nature, and how any system evolves. "But they cannot tell us ultimately why the whole system exists or why it is endowed with the particular order it manifests." (p.180) Neither, he adds, can philosophy and theology, ultimately: but these latter can propose accounts which are less inadequate than their competitors. In the writers he is drawing on an idea of creation is proposed which is complementary to scientific explanation; the primary cause, God, "does not act in place of or in parallel to any other cause", he argues: indeed we are not talking at all of a temporal event but of "a relationship of ultimate dependence". The created universe is a participation in the activity "of the pure, self-subsisting being, activity, and creativity of the creator" (p.182). So it is not to be thought of "as controlling nature or the universe, or intervening in its dynamisms."

Maybe so, but another contributor, Michael Ruse ("Atheism, naturalism and science: three in one?"), points out that this is precisely how God is thought of, by those scientists reflecting on religion (but who perhaps don't have Stoeger's philosophical training).  Ruse's topic is the methodological naturalism assumed in scientific inquiry: no appeal to supernatural entities as explanatory. (Ruse gives a useful and succinct account of Plantinga's objections to methodological naturalism, and a brief but convincing rejoinder to these objections.) So far as concerns religious faith there is no necessary conflict here. The move from this to metaphysical naturalism, however, would do so -- and this move, notes Ruse, has more to do with sociological factors than philosophical: at least for former British public schoolboys, "having had one headmaster in this life, they would prefer not to have another in the next" (p. 236)!

The social context features prominently in the account given by R. Numbers ("Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design") of the progress of the creationist and the intelligent design proponents in the USA. Debates have social contexts: this is something not to be forgotten in this area. It is of interest to note, for example, the membership of the committee of the most prominent body of contemporary advocates of the incompatibility thesis, from the religious side, the Creation Research Society (CRS): six Baptists, six Missouri Lutherans, two Seventh Day Adventists, one each of Reformed Presbyterian, Christian Reformed Church, Methodist, Church of the Brethren (p.134). This Christian "think-tank" has exported its ideas to the Muslim world (Science Research Foundation, Turkey) as well as the Jewish (Torah Science Foundation). John McCain (Baptist) and Sarah Palin (Pentecostal) are sympathetic to the Intelligent Design approach of the CRS; not so Obama (United Church) or Joe Biden (Catholic). John Hedley Brooke's ("Science and secularization") broader account of this social context, in particular of the phenomenon of secularization, is essential reading in order to "place" the whole debate, and it ends with a discussion of Charles Taylor's tome, A Secular Age (2005).

In his typology of responses to science's impact on how we think of religion, Stenmark ("Ways of relating science and religion") points to the way of relating these not as alternative sets of beliefs but as different social practices, with different internal goods. In his contribution John Haught ("Science, God and cosmic purpose") judges the influence of evolutionary theory on the debate is to undermine the idea of a hierarchy of levels of being in the world, from lifeless atoms through living organisms to self-conscious human and angelic beings.  There is a hierarchy of mattering here too, he points out, giving an intuition of how fragile human existence is linked to divine permanence (p.265). Now however the inanimate level -- the "cold" universe -- is seen as key to all being, resulting in the attitude of "cosmic pessimism". Haught's suggestion is the more recent paradigm in terms of "informational patterns" suggest sharp hierarchical discontinuities in nature, not dissimilar to those characteristic of pre-evolutionary thinking. Haught calls on Michael Polanyi in support of this idea, and concludes that the emergence of mind is incorrectly thought of as a fluke (although random processes are the driving mechanisms): the universe's fine tuning indicates a real built-in probability of mind's emergence.

This brings me to a key implication inherent in the book, which I can raise in the context of the inclusion of a chapter on "Psychology and theology" (Fraser Watts). The oversight of this link in much science and religion debate makes one wonder how Thomas Aquinas' remark could have been so overlooked, namely that mistakes about "man" are always at the same time mistakes about God. The answer is not hard to find: it lies in the demise -- for various reasons -- of philosophical psychology as a central topic. The contributors to the debate do not have to be trained in philosophy, or at least to make any explicit reference to philosophy -- this is revealing in itself of the point I am making. Stoeger is one notable exception.

This point is reinforced by John Evans' ("Science, bioethics and religion") analysis of the direction that bioethics has taken in the dominant debate, framed by the "thin" ("human rights") approach of the so-called Georgetown mantra: consent (autonomy), beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice.  In contrast a "thick" approach would raise the question about what ends or goals we should uphold as a society (p.211). The former "principilism" approach marginalized any theological input, deliberately so, in order that committees could process ethical questions in a procedural way.  Clearly any ethical judgment on the deliberate production of embryos for use in research would have to draw on a hierarchy of values -- and credit Is due to President's Council on Bioethics for raising these kinds of issues (even if the constitution of the Committee -- it included many theologically minded academics -- had more to do with the appeasement of Bush's political constituency than with a desire to introduce good philosophical argument). (See their Human Dignity and Bioethics Washington, D.C. 2008, freely downloadable from the web.) The point is that there is clear evidence of a retreat in ethics from metaphysics. But the alternative to metaphysics is science on the one hand and common sense on the other: neither can be expected to do this job properly.

  The more one reads of these essays, the more the question is raised of the exact nature of the discipline or discourse appropriate to the area of science and religion. Philosophical, of course -- but this is in a broad sense, and the engagement with the social practices of both the sciences and theology is central, an acquaintance both with what theologians and articulate believers are concerned with, and with the findings of the various sciences and a sense of the integrity of these.

I hope I have sung the praises of these well-researched essays, which give any interested scholar not answers but essential contextual information to make their own participation that much more well informed. I have left out mentioning most of Part One of the book, entitled "Historical Interactions", because I feel one does better reading first the actual issues raised in the debate (Parts Two and Three), before situating them historically. In this regard I particularly appreciated John Henry's refutation of the received wisdom that the rise of modern science met with fierce opposition from religious bodies ("Religion and the scientific revolution"). I hope the book gets widely circulated. Apart from Simon Conway Morris' chapter ("Evolution and the inevitability of intelligent life") no specialized scientific knowledge is required to profit from the reading.


© 2011 Patrick Giddy



Patrick Giddy, School of Philosophy and Ethics, UKZN, writes about himself: "I teach philosophy at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. My areas of research include neo-Aristotelianism, in both its Alisdair MacIntyre and Bernard Lonergan guises, and philosophy of religion. Some recent publications have to do with development ethics, character, and professionalism."


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