Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Limits of Science

First Things, has an essay reviewing John Polkinhorne's new book Theology and the Context of Science. Here's an excerpt worth reading and pondering:

Polkinghorne takes the novel step of treating science and religion as an important type of contextual theology in its own right, recognizing that science, no less than other aspects of modern thought and culture, can suggest insights and provide information that are vital for theological reflection. “Theology conducted in the context of science must be prepared to be candid about the evidence for its beliefs,” he says forthrightly, but science does not dominate the conversation: There are clear limits to its authority and competence that both believers and unbelievers need to realize.

The overall message Polkinghorne brings is a crucial one: Science cannot provide its own metaphysical interpretation. As he says with typical precision, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” This is especially true in a post-Newtonian world characterized by greater epistemological humility. “The twentieth-century demise of mere mechanism,” he says, provides “a salutary reminder that there is nothing absolute or incorrigible about the context of science.” Some questions lie “outside the scientific domain,” and here “theology has a right to contribute to the subsequent metascientific discourse.” Anyone familiar with the writings of such preachers of scientific atheism as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Christopher Hitchins will immediately appreciate the very different world in which Polkinghorne dwells. “The tendency among atheist writers to identify reason exclusively with scientific modes of thought,” he notes pointedly, “is a disastrous diminishment of our human powers of truth-seeking inquiry.” (emphasis mine)
The laws of nature “underlie the form and possibility of all occurrence,” but science can treat them only “as given brute facts. These laws, in their economy and rational beauty, have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take.” The very possibility of science, in his view, “is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore.” In short, “the activity of science is recognized to be an aspect of the imago Dei.” (emphasis mine)

These remarks couldn't be more poignant. As I'm am currently working through some of the books by the 'new atheism,' I am struck how the arguments take the debate back and not forward. No doubt the new atheists are highly intelligent yet there is a crude sort of scientificism that has a sort of 'the only way of knowing things is by scientific proof' and 'all we need is rational thought'. This leaves all sorts of questioning begging and assertion without argumentation. As Doug Wilson remarked once, 'one wonders if they've heard of epistemology'.

Polkinghorne on the other hand is both a scientist and a theologian. He is a renowned expert in both, in a day and age where few are even experts in one field. His book seems like it might be worth reading. In fact, First Things says this about Polkinhorne's belief in the resurrection:
He understands that the Resurrection is “the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn,” and he does not turn away from embracing the risen Lord. It would be “a serious apologetic mistake,” he writes with typical British understatement, “if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s Resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.”

There is a field of Christian professionals who are experts in the fields of science and also unwavering in their Christian beliefs. The two fields are hardly at odds, as too many stuck in a strange aberration of Englightenment fundamentalism would have us believe.

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