Rationality in science and theology

Rationality in science and theology

Author: Roger Trigg. University of Warwick (United Kingdom)
Published in: Scripta Theologica, 30, pp. 253-259.
Date of publication: 1998

Is there any rational connection between science and theology? Theology used to be understood as the queen of the sciences. With the awakening of positivist attacks on the meaning of religious language and the positivist conviction that science is the model of all rationality, the claims of theology have been muted. Many theologians and believers have accepted with relief the olive branch offered by some scientists who suggest that every discipline is about completely different aspects of life. The committee of the American National Academy of Sciences stated in 1981: "religion and science exist separately and belong to mutually exclusive realms of human thought, and their presentation in the same context leads to confusion in both scientific theories and religious beliefs". Such a statement undoubtedly draws a divide between theologians and those who see religion as the enemy of a scientific worldview. It was also motivated, no doubt, by creationists who, for political reasons, tried in the United States to disguise controversial doctrines as science.

It is easy to cede the realm of facts to the scientist and to argue that religion is concerned only with values. Many contemporary theologians are willing to portray religion as a symbolic business that somehow expresses profound truths about the human condition. Another attitude that also places religion and science in watertight compartments comes from the perspectives of the late Witgenstein. Each is a distinct "way of life", with its own presuppositions and practices, relative to its own specific social context. Partly as a consequence of this, and of the work of historians and philosophers of science such as T. S. Kuhn, sociologists at knowledge have been willing to see them as separate social practices, each amenable to sociological explanation.

The more religion and Philosophy are placed in separate compartments, the more the rational subsistence of each is questioned. Reason has always claimed objectivity and universality. It has not been the instrument of local practices. Both science and theology are impoverished if they lose sight of these demands that must be accepted by everyone, wherever they are. Their perception of truth has apparently broken down. An easy answer to this is that each is concerned with a different subject of truth and that theological truth is somehow in another category than that of the scientist. If this does not undermine both disciplines it may be because there is an underlying budget that science is concerned with what is real and theology's task is entirely different, perhaps at best to correct or control our responses to what is real.

However, science itself cannot be assessed as it is, particularly if one is concerned with the physical sciences in general and physics in particular. All science itself needs a philosophical basis. Even the budget that there is a reality to be investigated is clearly philosophical. After all, science may be in the business of construction rather than finding, of image-making rather than understanding the nature of things. If there is such a thing as reality, science also assumes that there is only one world to investigate and that the laws of physics apply in all its parts. The whole of science works on the assumption that results can be reproduced, that what works in Washington works in Moscow. More profoundly, it assumes that its results can be generalised so that the laws apparently in force in our particular part of the universe also apply elsewhere. Apparently, we can go from the known to the unknown, from what we have experienced to what exceeds experience. Not only is the world, as investigated by science, assumed to be ordered and structured. It is assumed that this is typical of the entire universe, even when it lies beyond our reach. The very applicability of mathematics to the physical world illustrates how there seems to be an underlying rationale. There seems to be an order to things, an order that can be understood by the human mind. Of course, if we could not understand the underlying Structures , even if it were there, science itself would be impossible.

Science is deeply in need of philosophical underpinning. * (1) . We cannot simply do science without worrying about source the philosophical presuppositions that must be accepted for it. Pragmatists, who wish to start from where we are, have yet to explain why we are in our present state of scientific knowledge and why it is to be considered reliable. The rationality exemplified by the scientific method itself seems to rest on a more basic metaphysical rationality than sample the inherent order of things. What, then, of the rationality appropriate to theology? Should it be forced to imitate the physical sciences in its methods, on the grounds that they offer the best example of rationality? Should we instead expect theology to adopt its own models of rationality, appropriate to discipline? There is, in that case, the question of why we should speak of science and theology as both rational, and what would warrant the use of the word in the various contexts. Of course, many who should support the meaningfulness of theology are still influenced by the idea that somehow scientific rationality possesses the exclusivity of the rational. That is perhaps one reason why many are eager to see religious faith as offering an alternative to the exercise of reason rather than an exemplification of it.

But if the rationality of science as a human discipline is drawn from the underlying rational structure of the physical world, the rationality of theology can perhaps also be drawn from the intrinsic rationality of its own object. Just as science seems to have been made possible by the ordered character of a world that exists independently of it, so the power of theology, if it has any, may lie in the nature of the reality with which it deals. This means supposing that theology is itself involved with reality, and a reality that is certainly not reducible to what physics, biology and the other sciences study. Of course, this is highly suspect if religion is concerned only with the human interpretation of the world, and not with a spiritual and transcendent realm.

Theology must decide what its object is research. If it is anthropocentric, it will deal with human interpretations, loaded with human values and purposes. Such a theology would be open to the accusation of being a contradiction in terms. If theology has nothing to do with God, it has probably defined itself as non-existent. One could still argue that it consists in talking about God but reinterpreting what is meant. What all this means sample is that there are philosophical presuppositions in theology as much as in any natural science. Theology cannot avoid questions about what is meant by the word "God" and about the metaphysical status of the reality it sets out to describe. An anti-metaphysical theology appears as a curious hybrid. Whatever its merits or demerits, it is not philosophically neutral, any more than any traditional theology based on an Aristotelian conception of God. Once anti-realism affects theology, its entire object of study changes. For example, it will no longer understand itself as dealing with a transcendent God, who exists independently of man's conceptions.

In fact, science and theology are separated precisely because of philosophical presuppositions. Similarly, a strong metaphysical realism insisting on the possibility of the existence of a transcendent God, linked to the objective reality of the physical universe, would raise the question of the relationship between the two. In that case, both disciplines would have to be seen as founded on the way things are. Instead of referring only to their own sphere of interest, it will be important that each does not contradict the other if by definition both refer to the nature of things. Of course, each could support the other. For example, the problem of the order and regularity of the world could be explained by resource to the mind of the Creator. The rational structure of the world may well depend on the reason of God. The fact that this cannot be explained otherwise, if true, could easily provide the necessary perspective for a natural theology, which moves from the way the world is to the existence of God. All these suggestions may be controversial, but science and theology are impoverished if they are locked in watertight compartments and refuse to acknowledge each other's existence. This process becomes inseparable from the progressive weakening of rationality itself. We can no longer rely on the power of reason to provide a justification for our practices, be they religious or scientific.

At the end of this process, science has to treat the physical world as pure fact and expect theology to have nothing to say about its mode of being. Once metaphysical doctrines about God have been discarded, there is nothing left for religion to offer science. Instead, it will look to its own resources, as Dan Dennet does when he advocates taking Darwinism as core topic for all understanding. Dennet states: "one of Darwin's most fundamental contributions has been to show us a new way in which questions of 'why' make sense". Dennett dismisses traditional religion and asks: "if God is not a person, a rational agent, an Intelligent Artificer, what sense could be made of the most profound 'why' question? * (2) . One answer could be that God is, of course, all these things and that theology is endangered by forgetting him. Otherwise, it must cede the world of facts to science and retreat into the world of human aspirations. But the idea of God as Creator is fundamental to monotheism, and a refusal to accept that theology can offer any subject explanation of the existence and nature of the physical world means giving up the idea of creation, even in its most attenuated or symbolic modality . If God is somehow manager of the existence of everything, and there can be an explanation of why something exists and not nothingness, theology has something to say to science. If this were a bad conception of God, and, for example, the idea of a supernatural cause were to be dismissed, not only would theology have nothing to say to science, but its role would be unknown. It would remain an empty symbol that has undoubtedly influenced some forms of human life, but ultimately says nothing about the real world.

These are essentially metaphysical issues, and therefore properly philosophical. Science, too, will often access a metaphysical written request without justifying it. For example, in its methodology it will tend to eliminate the supernatural or the paranormal. If it accepts too readily the phantasms and explanations of this subject it is effectively giving up. The progress of science has always depended on a reluctance to accept its own limits. This is an effective attitude, but it should not become a metaphysical principle, as it so often does. Science will not find what it does not look for, but it does not follow that all forms of causality must be natural. This is a basic metaphysical budget in need of philosophical justification. In the end, what is judged rationally credible must relate to questions about what exists. Rationality and reality are closely related concepts. It is not rational to believe in what we know is not real. On the other hand, we should not necessarily expect reality to conform to our preconceptions about rationality, especially if they are the product of the scientific method.

These points can be illustrated by reasoning about the idea of God as Creator. This may seem a difficult notion for science and is easy to dismiss as unscientific. Certainly, the idea of making God the "scientific" cause of the beginning of the universe may seem like an invocation of the so-called "God of the holes". We are invoking God, it might seem, because we cannot at the moment find any other explanation. Certainly, the idea of theology making the most of the difficulties found in science would seem a risky and unstable strategy. What if it turns out that science ends up giving an account of the origin of things to the complete satisfaction of scientists? Should theologians say that this cannot happen or that such an explanation would be poor by its very nature? The dispute between theologians and physicists over the role of a quantum vacuum may seem somewhat incongruous, just as the idea of God as a cause, in any recognisable scientific sense, raises more questions than it answers. Could God be one cause among many (albeit one operating at a crucial moment) rather than the cause of everything? Is the latter not altogether different from anything that can be dealt with scientifically? But if one argues that there are simply different kinds of explanations, once again religion and science are separated into different compartments so that neither can learn from the other. These problems are essentially issues of our rational understanding of reality, and go to the heart of the nature of both religion and science, hence the possible relationship between the two.

The concept of cause may be richer than modern scientific understanding allows. Science has always been more concerned with mechanisms than with purposes. It will necessarily see coincidences where theology may see divine interventions. No doubt this is at the very root of the idea that religion is about values. The problem, however, is that purposes and values are not necessarily of human origin. The assumption that they must be is eminently atheistic. It may be that the attribution of purpose to the processes of reality is itself a rational recognition of the way things are. This, of course, is often vehemently denied. Richard Dawkins bluntly says: "Scientific convictions rest on evidence, and they get results. Myths and beliefs do not. Later he refuses to accept the relevance of questions of "why" as well as "how". He complains of the "tacit but never justified inference that since science is incapable of answering 'why' questions, there must be another discipline capable of solving them". And he suggests that this implication is "quite illogical" * (3) .

While it is correct to point out that not all questions need have an answer, it by no means follows that because science cannot answer a question there is no answer. Dawkins is clearly defining what counts as evidence and what counts as "getting results" in such a way that only science can rely on evidence and get results. But this means falling back on the narrow scientistic idea of rationality, which appeals more to a prejudice about the power of science than to any facts about the nature of reality. His position is that "the universe we observe has precisely those properties we would expect if there were no design, no finality, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference". Controversial as this cold view may be, it at least affirms something about the nature of reality, about how the universe actually behaves. Dawkins is not talking about our subjective reactions to the world or about the way things are conceived according to one subject of life or another. His claim is about the character of the world, and it is such that, if true, it would nullify any possibility of theological knowledge. In the end, questions about the rationality of theology necessarily refer to questions of what there is, and these questions fall partly within the domain of science. On the other hand, if theology is right, science itself can be given a rational foundation. It seems that neither can ignore the other in its search for a secure philosophical basis.



  1. Roger TRIGG, Rationality and Science: Can Science Explain Everything?, Basil Blackwell, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass. 1993.
  2. Daniel DENNETT, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Penguin Books, New York 1995, p. 25.
  3. Richard DAWKINS, River out of Eden. A Darwinian View of Life, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1995, pp. 33 and 97.