Thursday, February 2, 2012

Religion is not just about meaning, though science may be about causes

One way of reconciling science and religion is to seem them as describing different aspects of reality.  Then, should we not know the difference between physical and spiritual things, we can still make distinctions. The differences can be described, even if they only concern 'perspective', rather than what exists.

John Polkinghorne, a physicist turn theologian, gives a talk in which he says:
Science and religion look at different domains of encounter with reality. Sciences deals with an objective dimension, in which things can be manipulated and events repeated, thereby affording it access to the great weapon of experimental verifiability. 
The gift that religion has to offer to science is not to answer its questions – for we have every reason to expect that scientific questions will receive scientific answers – but to take science’s insights and set them within a broader and deeper context of intelligibility. 
The difference in domains means that science and religion ask different questions of reality: in the former case how things happen; in the latter whether there is meaning, purpose and value in what is happening – issues that science tends to rule out of its discourse. Science and religion, therefore, complement each other, rather than being rivals on the same turf. 
Alister McGrath, another theologian with some background in science, writes:

... science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean. 
If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning. Science helps us to appreciate the wonder of individual aspects of the universe; religion to see, however dimly, the "big picture" of which they are part.
This approach was also popularized by biologist Stephen Gould, who in 1997 advocated seeing science and religion as  ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA). Here science is concerned with ‘what is’, and religion is concerned with ‘what should be’ (morality, ethics, and metaphysics beyond observations).

These ideas are initially plausible, but all have a fatal defect: they relegate spiritual and religious processes to a ghetto where they can have no effects in nature!! If religion is only about meaning and not about causes, then (as it is not a cause) it can have no effects at all! Any spiritual God would be impotent. That is not what religious thinkers have in mind.

Scientists like Polkinghorne and McGrath prefer this view, as it keeps the 'causal closure of the universe', as I have discussed before. But if mental, spiritual and divine things are to have any practical reality, then they must be able to have effects. At least, they must be able to have effects on us, as otherwise we could never observe or talk about them because of their isolation from the physical. Quite unacceptable.

Better ideas are given by those with some actual experience of mental and spiritual processes! David Benner, for example, talks in a recent interview about those with spiritual experience:
The mystics offer us a number of valuable gifts that I think are tremendously important to contemporary Christians.  Among the most valuable of them is .... their understanding of the fact that all of life is returning to God.  Life, as they point out, is the continuous outflow of the very life of God - a flow that if we follow it, returns us to our Source, the Ground of our Being.  All human becoming involves, therefore, a fuller engagement with this outflowing life of God.
Here, we see our role as humans to engage with the life that comes from God: to receive, act on and return it in some way. That would be completely impossible of that life were only about meaning, and not about causes!

A similar view is presented by Vincent Torley when he discusses what consequences theism must have for the evolutionary process that has produced all the life on earth:
 ... we live in a cosmos which is made to be manipulated: it’s an inherently incomplete, open system, and the “gaps” are a vital part of Nature, just as the holes are a vital feature of Swiss cheese. I see no reason to believe in the existence of hidden, information-rich laws of the cosmos, especially when all the laws we know are low in information content; moreover, as Dr. Stephen Meyer has pointed out in his book, Signature in the Cell, all the scientific evidence we have points against the idea of “biochemical predestination”: simple chemicals do not naturally arrange themselves into complex information-bearing molecules such as DNA.
...  information can[not] just appear in the cosmos wherever God wants it to appear, without God having to perform any specific act that generates it. 
Here, we see one important role for the causal influence of the life that outflows from God. If God were only to relate to the physical world by 'giving it meaning', that would be too distant to be of any practical use. It certainly would not help during biological evolution, especially for most of its duration where there were not yet rational minds to even imagine that meaning.

In conclusion, we find that mental, spiritual and divine things can not be confined in their influences to be only effective among themselves. They must also have effects in the physical world. Theistic science is the attempt to frame theories which explain in more detail how this happens.

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