On Science and Religion

Over the next week or so I have to write a short essay for our parish newsletter on the topic “Science and Religion.” I’m going to do the work online here “in public” as it were and see if the comment process can get me a better essay. Anyhow … to start the dread bullet list, i.e., ideas and brainstorming about things I might discuss.

  • It might be interesting to mention the two tensions that have historically, especially in the West, influenced some of the reflections of the religious though on science. St. Augustine, as noted by Mr Polanyi, had an overall negative effect on science. Mr Polanyi notes that this was because of some statements by St. Augustine that science should restrict itself to those studies which bring us closer to God. Yet, St. Augustine writes as well in his Confessions that the Nature itself worships the Creator though our understanding of its workings, intricacies, and beauty. It may be that the former statement took a wrong turn because the latter sentiment was forgotten or misplaced.
  • Three major revolutions have marked our deepest physical understanding of how to view the underlying nature of the material world. Sometime between the Galilean/Copernican era and Newton’s Principia, the older notion of a geometrical order to the universe was dominant. At that time it was the Pythagorean philosophy of science dominated by geometrical concepts. This was replaced by a algebraic interaction view, with Newton and later Gauss making that explicit with the development of calculus. In the early part of the 20th century this too was replaced in turn by the idea that symmetries (gauge theories) shape the structure of physical interactions and relations. Patristic theology arose in the context of a Pythagorean view of nature. Did and does that theology depend at all on our conception of the underlying structure of nature? How might it have to adapt and change as our notions of the universe change?
  • Physical theories of the Universe give us a notion of the large scale structure of space-time, especially dynamical aspects for how to make sense of it. Mathemeticians have solved the Poincare conjecture giving us a classification of all the possible ways in which our three (apparent) spatial dimensions might be constructed. Additionally quantum mechanics yields notions of free-will or indeterminacy at the atomic level. Yet theological discussions, as far as I’m aware, haven’t really confronted the implications of a God existing out of time and what that means with respect to a quantum mechanical relativistic space-time.
  • Eugene Wigner penned a paper on the unreasonable nature of the success of mathematics in describing the universe. It isn’t just that we can use math to describe things we already know, it’s that math so used is unreasonably successful. The mathematical ansatze (guesses) that Newton used to describe planetary motion can without change work in regimes many orders of magnitude in precision and scale afield from the scale of the data supporting them. Mr Wigner did not connect the unreasonable success of mathematics to theology, Scripture, or God. However, that connection is an easy one to make, Genesis 1 with its ontological ordering of nature suggests that nature itself is comprehensible by the mind of man. That nature is unreasonably well described by mathematics, which in turn is an essential part of the mind of man, might suggest that this is not unintentional.

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2 comments

  1. Brandon says:

    It might be worthwhile to keep in mind that both ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are slippery terms (the latter somewhat more than the former), so it’s always important to ask ourselves at any given moment what it is that we mean — e.g., in the latter, are we thinking of theology, or philosophy as influenced by theology, or hermeneutics, or practical things like liturgy or ascetic discipline, since we can sometimes end up shifting from one to the other in the course of a single discussion; and in the former, are we thinking of bodies of derived conclusions and confirmed theories, the processes by which they are derived, and in either case how far are we extending the term (all the way out through the social sciences, or just the sciences clustered around physics, chemistry, and biology)? It’s the sort of thing we all know to be careful about, but it’s also the sort of thing that trips everyone up at least sometimes.