Hieronder volgt de integrale tekst van de lezing zoals ik die heb uitgesproken tijdens het symposium No Faith in Science dat plaatsvond op 10 november 2011 in de Rode Hoed te Amsterdam.
Aanvulling, 11/11/2011: In onderstaande respons reageer ik op het onderzoek dat ForumC heeft gedaan naar de rol van religieus geloof bij hoogleraren in Nederland. Het complete rapport (in 10 minuten te lezen) is hier in PDF te downloaden.
Response at symposium No Faith In Science, Amsterdam, 10 November 2011.
Taede A. Smedes
Let me start by quoting the British philosopher and literary critic Terry Eagleton, who wrote that “Science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are” (Reason, Faith, and Revolution, 10). Referring to Thomas Aquinas, Eagleton believes that religion has no place in science. “For Thomas Aquinas … God the Creator is not a hypothesis about how the world originated. It does not compete, say, with the theory that the universe resulted from a random fluctuation in a quantum vacuum. In fact, Aquinas was quite ready to entertain the possibility that the world had no origin at all.” (Ibid., 6). In other words, according to Eagleton (who knows his theology well!), Aquinas not only believed that religion and science are different discourses, he also seemed to have entertained the belief that in scientific disputes, science has the last word. So, if according to Aristotelian natural philosophy the world is infinite and eternal, so be it. That does not conflict with the idea of God as Creator, since God the Creator is not a hypothesis about how the world originated.
But if it is not a hypothesis, then what does it mean to talk about God as Creator? Again, I quote Eagleton:
God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Creation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects. God and the universe do not make two. (Ibid., 7-8)
The conclusion of Aquinas and Eagleton is: no faith in science. Do not mix the two discourses of science and religion, or you get into big problems, or as Eagleton calls them, category mistakes. One of those category mistakes is the idea that God is a scientific hypothesis that explains certain things in the world. Both fundamentalist believers and atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens commit this category mistake, thus poisoning the well of a potentially fruitful and productive dialogue about science and religion.
That religion has no place in the natural sciences is confirmed by the outcome of the survey conducted by ForumC. In general, the outcome of the survey is that university professors do not see how religion can play a role in science. That, of course, is the positive assessment. A more negative reading of the conclusions is that academics are downright hostile when it comes to religion. I don’t believe that this is really the case. I think the reason why professors have responded the way they have, has to do with the way the research was set up and the questions were formulated. Let me explain this.
In the report it is stated that the Dutch survey was constructed in such a way that all of the questions could be answered within ten minutes. The problem with this is that the survey becomes an open invitation for a lot of gut-level answers that entail a lot of stereotypes. Psychological research has shown that if people have very little time and moreover have to operate under a lot of stress, they tend to fall back on stereotypical thinking. This is also the case in religious discourse. Cognitive scientist Justin Barrett has conducted research in which first of all people had to read a story and then were asked questions about it. God was a part of the story. It turns out that if people are given very little time, they tend to talk about God in very anthropomorphic ways, including ideas that if God pays attention to one part of the world, he cannot simultaneously pay attention to other parts of the world. However, if people are given more time to reflect on their possible answers, it turns out that people start to think more “theologically correct”, i.e. the image of God becomes less anthropomorphic and more abstract and nuanced, and ideas like omnipotence and omniscience come into play. I thus fear that in the case of the ForumC survey, a lot of answers are on the level of gut-level responses in which stereotypical views of religion and of God are prominent.
The bias because of the gut-level answers is made worse by the highly vague use of the term “theism” which plays a crucial role in the survey. Theism in the survey is defined as: “there is a God that is personally involved in the life of every single human being”. Actually the Dutch formulation “zich bezighouden met” could also be read more negatively as: meddles with, interferes with, controls, steers, etc.
Academic theologians and philosophers of religion nowadays try to avoid the term “theism” because it has become such a slippery concept, prone to misconception. Philosophically speaking the term “theism” emerged from the discourse of Enlightenment philosophers who sought to translate or reconstruct the vague discourse of religious believers into a theoretical, philosophical system. In other words, philosophically speaking “theism” denotes a philosophical system and should not be equated with the faith of religious believers. Religious believers are nottheists.
However, and here things become complex, in the US, “theism” is used, often by evangelicals or fundamentalists, to denote the belief in the one personal, omnipotent and omniscient God of Christianity, who created the world and acts in the world, for example through miracles (i.e. temporarily suspending or even violating the laws of nature). So, in contrast to the more European-philosophical use of the term “theism”, the more American use of the term refers both to a system of belief and to the actual religious belief of the believers. To complicate things more, due to the growing influence of American-style religiosity upon European culture, the term “theism” nowadays is often used to refer to the personal belief in an acting and intervening God.
In other words, for many people, the term “theism” is associated with creationism or intelligent design, designating a supernatural but highly anthropomorphic deity that interferes occasionally in earthly affairs. It is quite obvious that many scientists and university professors will have a problem with such a view of God. And given the fact that many academics probably answered the survey hastily, and possibly falling back to gut-level answers, it is not surprising that many professors tended to answer that there is a tension or even outright conflict between theism and science – since when they read the term “theism”, they immediately thought about creationist and ID-like, highly anthropomorphic constructs of God. Moreover, when they read questions referring to theistic presuppositions, theistic arguments and even theistic hypotheses, they read these as referring to ID-like modes of thought. Allowing “theistic hypotheses” in science to them entails a scenario of acknowledging that creationism and ID actually are scientific schools of thought, which would entail complete anarchy.
In other words, by focusing on theism instead of a more general (but also more vague) term like “religion”, the survey actually messed things up. And thus I was not really surprised about the discrepancy between the high percentage of professors who have argued that they do not take “theistic colleagues” seriously on the one hand, and on the other hand the fact that hardly any religious scientist actually has felt this pressure. The answer to the seeming discrepancy is that most religious scientists are not theists or creationists or ID-proponents, but merely religious believers with often a very vague sense of what they actually believe. Many religious academics thus really are a-theists: they reject the anthropomorphic and interventionist god-image advanced nowadays by so many evangelical or fundamentalist groups under the heading of “theism”.
To summarize this point, I believe that the seeming hostility of Dutch academics that emerges from this survey is not directed to religious belief in general, but because of how the survey is structured (inviting gut-response answers) and because of the vague use of a crucial term like “theism”, the hostility is actually directed against a specific, evangelical-fundamentalist form of religiosity. In other words, I have serious doubts that the survey represents the reality it purports to describe.
But these critical remarks aside, I believe the survey shows once again that in our culture reflection on the relation between science and religion is necessary to expel the misunderstandings about science and religion, that according to the survey seem to be omnipresent even among such intellectuals as academic professors. The major misunderstanding is that science and religion have roughly the same goal, i.e. to give an explanation of what there is, or that they are trying to answer the same questions. To really see in what way science and religion are different discourses entails a study of both discourses in depth. It entails looking into the details of theological discourse, i.e. the use of concepts like creation or providence. And it entails looking at how science works, what scientists actually do and how they know what they know. This is not meant to say that there is no connection between religion and science whatsoever, but that if there is a connection – historical or systematic – it is much more subtle and supple than is pictured in the stereotypes that roam around in our contemporary culture.
In addition to the need for reflection and dialogue, there are also two more possibilities to start with. First, reflection and dialogue is possible on the implications of science. What can scientists properly claim to know, and when does science become a metaphysical discourse or even a pseudo-religion? Consider Dick Swaab’s claim that “we are our brains”. Is this a scientific claim or a metaphysical claim based on a specific interpretation of scientific data? E.g. Swaab’s claim presupposes a materialist worldview. Is such a worldview actually entailed by the scientific data? I think not, and many nuanced philosophers actually disagree with Swaab, but because a controversial opinion is of much more interest to the media than a nuanced and well-argued opinion, they are hardly heard.
A secondpossibility for reflection on the relation between science and religion is about the question whether the natural sciences are the only valuable ways of knowing. I take this as a question directed towards religious believers. For me, it’s a theological issue. Is an aesthetic appreciation of the world really less important than a scientific explanation of how everything hangs together? Obviously not, but then why do religious people often respond so violently when theologians argue that the Bible is a book full of myths, and that religious language is metaphorical, and that religious imagery is mostly imagination and fantasy? Because in our scientistic culture other forms of knowing are often implicitly downplayed by scientific forms of knowing. Why is this so? And what can we do about it? Thus the limits of science, and an investigation into the role and function of religious language and religious forms of knowing, for me are two topics worth exploring in a dialogue between science and religion.
What would such a reflection or dialogue eventually amount to? Traditionally, the view has been that science and religion should reach some sort of consensus or unification. However, in the philosophy of religion, the idea of consensus has nowadays been replaced by the notion of hermeneutics and perspectivity, i.e. the idea that humans always talk from a specific perspective and thus, in order to understand each other, need to interpret what the other is saying. What I have in mind for a dialogue between science and religion comes close to what American philosopher Richard Rorty calls edifying discourse.
In his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty attacks among other things the idea that one can give an entirely neutral, perspectiveless description of things. Instead, he argues, we always talk about the things in our world from a particular perspective. Science has a specific perspective on the world, a way of studying and dealing with the world. But from a religious perspective, the world lights up in a completely different way. Rorty’s idea of edifying discourse wants to take perspectivity seriously. It consists in “the hermeneutic activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture or historical period, or between our own discipline and another discipline which seems to pursue incommensurable aims in an incommensurable vocabulary.”In other words, instead of ignoring one another (as would happen in relativism), different perspectives try to communicate with each other, to learn about each other, even if they have no common ground.
A dialogue between science and religion thus will be an encounter with otherness for both perspectives, not in order to get rid of the otherness, but in leaving the integrity of the other fully intact. However, such an encounter with otherness can be very helpful, because it leads to reflection on the presuppositions of one’s own perspective. As such, it could result in an alteration or even transformation of one’s own perspective. In other words, edifying discourse “is supposed to be abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings.” In those cases where perspectives seem incommensurable, without any common ground,
all we can do is to show how the other side looks from our own point of view. That is, all we can do is be hermeneutic about the opposition – trying to show how the odd or paradoxical or offensive things they say hang together with the rest of what they want to say, and how what they say looks when put in our own alternative idiom.
The encounter with something other may lead to a transformation of one’s own perspective. Such transformation is not forced from the outside. Science should thus not try to force its way into religious discourse, and religious believers should acknowledge that there is no room for faith in science. The integrity of both perspectives should be left untouched. If one perspective changes – if e.g. a religious believer starts seeing how evolution explains things much better than a literal reading of the Bible, or when other scientists acknowledge that Dick Swaab’s view on human beings hinges on a materialist metaphysics that not necessarily follows from science itself – such a change is part of the internal dynamics of one’s own perspective in the openness towards the other. Edifying discourse thus is not about unifying two different perspectives. It consists merely in a modest attitude of listening to what the other has to say. And by so doing, one learns about the other and in the process gains more self-knowledge of one’s own perspective.
Pursuing edifying discourse is, I believe, the way to go.