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Friday, December 5, 2008

Can Science Deal With God?

FROM ROBERT RUSSELL, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR THEOLOGY AND THE NATURAL SCIENCES AND A PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE AT THE GRADUATE THEOLOGICAL UNION : Yesterday, I watched the episode of the Closer to Truth series that asks whether science can deal with God, and it's a compelling journey into the hearts and minds of leading scientists whose discoveries about the universe fill us all with wonder and excitement. There is biologist Francis Collins, a devout believer in God, and also physicist Lawrence Krauss, who, though a nonbeliever, candidly reminds us that what science can tell us, though immense, is still in some very important ways intrinsically limited. After all, saying that science makes it possible to not believe in God, which is certainly true, is a far cry from saying that science makes belief in God impossible, which is patently false.
And then there's series host and creator Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a brain scientist, subtly and yet unmistakably welcoming us further and deeper into his personal and moving journey. In a gentle interplay between interviewing others and pondering in solitude, Kuhn's own personal journey was quietly ever there, yearning for truth, weighing arguments and evidence, and deciding at each crossroads which direction to take. And in what may be the most telling moment, Kuhn gives us a challenging insight into what he considers the real demarcation between science from religion: "Scientists, generally, know when their claims are extravagant; theologians, generally, do not." With this sentence, Kuhn has put his finger on a difference between science and religion which, if correct, is starkly more compelling than the reasoned similarities that scholars like Ian Barbour and Nancey Murphy have championed. His claim invites me to probe further with him and discover what might lie hidden within it.
At the outset, it would actually be easy to find counterexamples in which scientific claims, and frequently the scientists who make them, seem wildly incredible compared with religious ones. Consider fundamental particles that are nonseparable even at distances of light-years, or the superstring multiverse composed of 10500 universes; the claims that many physicists make today are almost incomprehensibly grander and more mind-boggling than those of their forebears like Maxwell or Newton. Theologians, on the other hand, in the apophatic traditions found in all world religions, stress the ineffability of the ultimate and the abject failure of human language to convey any positive truth about it—be it the schools of kalam in Islam, the Upanishad texts in Hinduism, the account of the ineffable name of God given to Moses, or the Buddha's description of nirvana only in terms of what it is not. Cyril of Jerusalem sums up this multivalent stream of mystical wisdom: Our best knowledge of God comes through confessing our ignorance and remaining in silence.
But counterexamples like these deflect us from what I see as the vital truth that Kuhn urges us to recognize: extravagant claims defending the absolutist truth of a particular religion and the worthlessness of all the others are the real danger, and not the intrinsic truths, such as compassion or humility, contained within the shared treasured wisdom of the world religions. Consider the millennia of destruction that have resulted from the overweening elevation of genuine revelation into ecclesiastical dogma held uncritically and univocally, as even a cursory recollection of the Spanish Inquisition or the 30 Years War in post-Reformation Europe reminds us all too well. It is essential to keep clearly separated the truths that religious experience seeks to convey from the idolatry that results when that truth is held up as literal and absolute. "The Church of God is always betrayed by the churches of God," theologian Paul Tillich once famously proclaimed.
And yet scientists, too, are vulnerable to a similar hubris. When science is valorized as the only route to truth and all other kinds of knowledge are discarded as worthless, when scientific discoveries alone are viewed as telling us all we can know about what is real and that God, not being a part of scientific epistemology, therefore doesn't exist, and when countries like Maoist China or Stalinist Russia build an entire culture on a scientific worldview that excludes all public religious voices, then scientism, not science, bears the stigma of blind extravagance.
So we come to the real question stimulated by Kuhn's provocative comment: Is the temptation to absolutize religion more powerful than it is to absolutize science? In my view, it probably is. Why is this so? That points us in the direction of a HUGE set of interconnected and complex issues, ones which are far too detailed and debatable for further inspection here. But regardless of this, the answer to the following question is certain: Ought we to resist such temptations regardless of whether dogma is disguised as religion or scientism as science? You bet. As Barbour wisely points out, both sides, when they make totalizing claims, need a strong dose of good, down-to-earth humility. Humility provides a space for both the wondrous discoveries of science and the numinous encounters with ultimacy in religious experience. It lets us be grasped by the infinite, while never mistaking ourselves and our opinions for the infinite. Humility is a practice by which both science and religion can point us to that ultimate mystery of existence, a bridge connecting people in both worlds in their common humanity and common quest for understanding. Let our extravagance be a banner celebrating that which genuinely deserves it: the joy and wisdom of knowing that together in modest, mutual, and creative interaction, we are truly coming "closer to truth."

Robert Russell appears with Lawrence Krauss, Francis Collins, Ian Barbour, Alan Leshner, Freeman Dyson, and Michio Kaku in "Can Science Deal With God?" the 13th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.


DuWayne said...

How strange. Dr. Russel would have us believe that he is no absolutist. But he thinks that virtues like humility and compassion should be the aim of everyone. An he is an absolutist in saying that absolutists are dead wrong for being absoolutists. His position is self refuting.