This post originally began as a response to Andrew Sibley but the issues here may resonate with others wanting to reconcile science and religion, coming at it mainly from the religious side. My concern here, as an interested bystander, is that apologetics tends to be much too apologetic. Christianity, in particular, has a much stronger hand to play with regard to the support of science.
I am intrigued by the caution, if not squeamishness, that ID supporters – especially Christian ones – express towards the pursuit of theodicy. Since these reservations come from people on both sides of the Atlantic, they do not seem to be exclusively tied to the particular legal issues surrounding the separation of church and state in the US Constitution.
Maybe these reservations concern the idea that the Bible might be understood literally yet fallibly, as the theodicists seemed to do. They read the Bible as we would a scientific treatise, namely, as some admixture of socio-historic construction (of the theorist) and timeless reality (of the theorized). Certainly our Darwinist opponents read Origin of Species in that spirit. They venerate the text and its author but they do not deny its flaws. Instead they dedicate their lives to correcting its errors and offering a better version of the original vision. Thus, Darwin is read as literal, fallible and corrigible.
I believe that the original 17th century Scientific Revolutionaries, including the theodicists, read the Bible exactly in this way – and would have been surprised, if not appalled, to learn that it opened the door to intense religious scepticism and even atheism over the next two centuries. After all, the likes of Newton believed that the Bible was indeed inspired by God but equally that it is an alloy text. It demands that we distinguish the divine inspiration from the inevitable noise introduced by the people originally entrusted with capturing that inspiration. To engage in this separation of wheat from chaff is to attempt to get closer to God. Of course, one might get the task horribly wrong, which might even result in eternal damnation. Nevertheless, we – as those created in the image and likeness of God – are called to engage in this risky business.
But note: The relevant engagement is not prayer or special revelation – but science itself. Nature’s design is not a sign that God wants to communicate with us. It is a message that has been already sent to us, and our job is to decode it and offer a fitting response – which is to say, to make the world a better place, in keeping with the divine plan. At least, if one wishes to remain a Biblical literalist and be robustly committed to science, this is how one should think about the science-religion relationship. My view is that this is how the theodicists Leibniz and Malebranche, as well as Newton and many of his illustrious successors – Whewell, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin – thought about the matter.
This is not the familiar dodge of claiming that the Bible is ‘metaphorically’ or ‘ethically’ true. Such an attitude effectively denies the need to reconcile the Book of God and the Book of Nature: We can live in a world of multiple truths for multiple occasions. On this basis, there would never have been a Scientific Revolution, whose protagonists, after all, parted ways with the Pope because of Catholicism’s fundamental distrust of humanity’s Biblical entitlement to exercise its own creative reason to arrive at a unified understanding of reality. Perhaps the most artful expression of this point about Catholicism’s latent ‘bad faith’ is Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor’ episode in The Brothers Karamazov.
But what’s the specifically religious
payoff of this line of thought? I see two major ones, though both controversial.
First of all, it helps to explain how Christianity managed to surpass Islam as a scientific culture – especially if we think of science the modern self-critical sense that followed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Muhammad is usually presented as an illiterate vessel for the divine truth recorded in the Qur’an. His lack of personal authorship, and hence lack of personal responsibility, has made it very difficult to raise the fallibility of Islam’s sacred book without courting charges of blasphemy. (Consider the fate of Averroes.) To be sure, the Qur’an gives pride of place to humanity in nature and encourages the pursuit of knowledge. But it provides little if no scope for challenging specific claims made in the sacred book itself, since everything said there is presumed to be exactly as God wanted it to be said.
Put another way, Muhammad is not presented as a sufficiently independent thinker to have possibly resisted or misunderstood what God said to him. In contrast, from day one, there have been disputes about whether the Biblical authors got God right, which has had major consequences, not least for which books ought to be included in the Bible. I would trace Christianity’s historic openness to the questioning of even its most sacred texts to the strength of its Judaic heritage, as Jesus himself is portrayed as a precocious master of rabbinical criticism.
Second, and perhaps more provocatively, I believe that the style of ‘scientific theology’ exemplified by theodicy helps to serve Christianity’s proselytising mission – i.e. conversion of the unbelievers. I have spent a fair amount of time (including at the Dover trial) defending the idea that certain religious beliefs have outright facilitated – not impeded – scientific discovery. But I would also make the reverse case, namely, that as more of the natural world is illuminated by hypotheses concerning the designer, thus enabling us to get a more exact understanding of the design, the closer science comes to communion with God. Indeed, if design were as illusory or superficial as Darwinists maintain, then the concept of design should not be so illuminating — even for evolutionists who continue to operate with stealth notions of design in the guise of, say, ‘adaptation’ or ‘optimisation’.
Nobody denies the metaphorical, even poetic, appeal of conceiving of nature as an artefact. However, an explanation is required for why turning the poetry into prose works even better, though not infallibly. That we are created in the image and likeness of the creative deity is the most straightforward explanation on offer. Of course, that doesn’t ‘prove’ God’s existence but it does provide grounds for selling the Biblical deity on scientific grounds – indeed, as the Jesuits were doing in China at the same time they were holding Galileo’s feet to the fire in Rome.