What Science Really Says about Religion

In the March 25 issue of The Weekly Standard, the lead article entitled "The Heretic" deals with philosopher Thomas Nagel, who has abandoned his long-held perspective on philosophy and religion. This has caused consternation and alarm among contemporary philosophy professors, the great majority of whom are strongly committed to an atheistic world-view.  A recurring assertion by members of that profession is that they are being very scientific, because science disproves religion. 


The question arises, "Where did the idea come from that science disproves religion?"  It didn't come from within science; rather, it's the province of non-scientists making statements about science.  To understand its origins, the foremost thing to note is that academic philosophers are by and large a group with limited understanding of science -- having passed their science requirement in college, most haven't gone deeper to investigate real science and discover the limits of science.  Their familiar claim that science supports atheism result from their misunderstanding of science.

Here is my scientific perspective about what happened over the past century:

As the 19th century was coming to a close, classical physics was in very good shape (Newtonian mechanics plus Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism). There was a strong belief in determinism, the notion that absolutely everything behaved over time according to the exact laws of physics. Quantum Mechanics and the uncertainty principle were still decades in the future.

Accompanying that belief in determinism in nature, the philosophers wanted their system of thought to be deterministic too, with every valid philosophical statement following logically from a previous one, all the way back to some "mathematical proof" at the basic level.  Bertrand Russell advocated that way of thinking. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the system of "logical positivism" gained dominance among philosophical schools.

Of course in all of this, theology and religion were summarily brushed aside by these exalted schools of philosophy, which felt there was no place for God in their perfect structure of reason alone.

This edifice started to crumble in the latter 1920s, when Quantum Mechanics introduced the uncertainty principle. That did away with the perfect determinism of classical physics by which the state of any system was supposed to necessarily follow from the previous condition.

Separately about that time, General Relativity and astronomical observations were showing that the universe was vastly bigger than anybody had ever imagined; and that there were other galaxies, perhaps a lot of them. The age of the universe was revised to over a billion years, and subsequently pushed further back.

Shortly behind that series of upsets to official established thinking, in 1931 the logician Kurt Gödel stated a principle about the consistency of logical systems of thought. The essence of Gödel's theorem says that, in any system of thought that is consistent, there are going to be statements that in fact are true, and you can know they are true, but you cannot prove they are true.  Otherwise, showed Gödel, the system will turn out to be inconsistent and contradictory with itself.  It took several decades to sink in, but that was the end of logical positivism.

A huge assembly of 19th & 20th century deterministic philosophy (heavily atheistic, such as Freud's theories of how man invented religion) bit the dust because of Gödel's theorem.  To read further on that important transition, I particularly recommend the book "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith" by Stephen M. Barr; his chapters 20-23 explain the significance of modern physics for philosophy.

By mid-20th century (1956), the philosopher Bernard Lonergan, S.J., wrote "Insight: an Inquiry into Human Understanding."  Lonergan took as his cornerstone the plain reality of common sense, and added science to that (especially the principles of modern physics), constructing a logically consistent way of thinking and knowing.  Human knowledge and thinking are more than just detached abstract discussion of things "out there."  Lonergan underlined the difference between subjectivity and objectivity as he wrote: "I am not this typewriter."  He went on to explore the importance of distinguishing self from other, where both are involved in the act of understanding.  It is impossible to completely separate the objective from the subjective.

Unfortunately, a lot of people "didn't get the memo" about this realistic science-based approach. The most outspoken cluster of contemporary philosophers today (names such as Daniel Dennett and Ricahrd Dawkins come to mind) apparently haven't paid attention to Lonergan.  Included in their strident atheistic position is the belief that we're all just a bunch of molecules, and hence the entire history of mankind must be just evolution by random chance.  That position is incoherent, meaning that it conflicts with itself.  Specifically, it uses the properties of the human mind to deny the existence of the human mind.  Several books by John F. Haught explain this in more detail  (viz., "Is Nature Enough?" "God and the New Atheists")

Consequently it came as a great shock to that group of philosophers that their colleague Thomas Nagel deserted them; when The Weekly Standard titled the article "The Heretic," that was to draw attention to the conflict within that community.   Nagel essentially re-discovered the importance of common sense, the basis of Lonergan's philosophy.

Meanwhile, most physicists are completely oblivious to this entire discussion, focusing on hard reality instead of esoteric philosophical theories.  They begin with common sense and go from there, just as Lonergan did.  They know the limits of real science, and don't try to stretch it too far.

Science itself emphatically does not disprove religion; the notion that they're in conflict belongs to professors in the humanities who passed only a minimum science requirement decades ago.  Among physicists, some would say that that science and religion don't overlap at all, but many others find a pathway of compatibility between the two. 

There is a lively dialog going on, but the current philosophy establishment is missing it.  Hence the dismay about Thomas Nagel's heresy.

Thomas P. Sheahen holds B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He is Director of the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science & Technology, based in St. Louis.

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