Thursday, April 7, 2016

Pericope of the Week: Barbour's Issues in Science and Religion

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ian G. Barbour's ground-breaking Issues in Science and Religion (Harper and Row). When I first read it in college in the early 1980s, it was a Godsend, since it opened for me a new way of positively relating commonly-held conclusions in the natural sciences to my own developing theological understanding of the Christian faith. Since then I have regularly made use of it in courses I teach on theology and the sciences. Not only does the book present a clear and systematic overview of the development of scientific knowledge and the philosophy of science (through the early 1960s), it provides penetrating analysis of various theological and philosophical positions one could hold in relation to those scientific developments. Barbour's own defense of what he called "critical realism" has continued to shape my own approach toward relating the sciences and theology.

For Barbour, who earned both a Ph.D. in physics (U. of Chicago) and a B.Div. in theology (Yale), scientific theories do not provide a photographic representation of the world ("classical realism"), nor are they merely calculative devices ("instrumentalism") or purely mental representations of reality ("idealism"). Instead, they provide partial, abstract but referential knowledge of aspects of the world, knowledge which is always subject to revision. Moreover, scientific theories involve human creativity and imagination (not just "facts," detached objectivity, and "pure reasoning"), and they are expressed through the use of metaphors (open-ended analogies) and models (systematically-developed metaphors). 
In these ways and others, science is similar to theology.

Ian Barbour (1923-2013)
Barbour also emphasized the hermeneutical and social-historical character of the actual "doing" of science. Data is always "theory-laden" and guided by (often unquestioned) metaphysical presuppositions about "nature." Scientific rationality is never purely "objective" but always "inter-subjective," temporal, historical, social, and communal.  Nevertheless, according to Barbour's version of "critical realism," the key criterion for a valid scientific theory is its agreement with actual data from nature. In other words, "truth is out there," in need of discovery, analysis, and explanation. While the internal coherence of a scientific theory is also important, a valid theory must correspond to reality, and it must prove itself useful in leading to new knowledge, e.g., more exact explanations of physical data.

According to Barbour:
Critical realism acknowledges the indirectness of reference and the realistic intent of language as used in the scientific community. It can point to both the extraordinary abstract character of theoretical physics and the necessity of experimental observation which distinguishes it from pure mathematics. It recognizes that no theory is an exact description of the world, and that the world is such as to bear interpretation in some ways and not in others. It affirms the role of mental construction and imaginative activity in the formation of theories, and it asserts that some constructs agree with observations better than others only because events have an objective pattern. (172) 
Theology, too, should operate from within the perspective of "critical realism." Theologians also need to recognize the limits of human knowing and the challenges in interpreting that which they study, e.g., biblical texts, human experience, religious traditions and practices, etc. Important here is recognizing the hermeneutical, historical, and sociological nature of theological understanding--and the important role that myths, analogies, metaphors, and models play in theological understanding of the world. Here, too, theology is similar to methods in the sciences. Both sets of disciplines organize their experiences and observations through these linguistic devices.

To be sure, Barbour also acknowledged important differences between the sciences and theology. For example, the latter speaks about claims to divine revelation, is more explicitly "self-involved" and existentially-committed, and is more attuned to non-cognitive goals, such as the fostering of religious faith, worship, obedience, service to others, etc. But despite these important differences, the contrasts between theology and the sciences are not as absolute as many think, both fifty years ago and still today.

We have argued that science, on the one hand, is a more human enterprise than is usually assumed, and that there is a "spectrum" of degrees and types of personal involvement in various fields of inquiry. Religion, for its part, presupposes cognitive assertions which are subject to critical evaluation. Such evaluation does not yield conclusions with the reliability of scientific results, to be sure, but we have argued that some of the same criteria are applicable; one's beliefs must be as coherent, comprehensive, and adequate to experience as alternative world-views. Reason is fulfilled, not abrogated, by revelation; reflective inquiry can coexist with religious commitment. Furthermore, we have defended the legitimacy of the wider search for coherence and synthesis which leads to a concern for metaphysics; the compartmentalization of thought thwarts the quest for unity. The critical realist cannot remain content with a plurality of unrelated languages; but at the same time he will recognize the limitations of all human concepts and the dangers of grandiose claims on behalf of any neat metaphysical system. The theologian, in turn, should be unwilling to settle for a solution that makes the gospel immune from attack at the cost of isolating it from contemporary intellectual life, or of destroying bridges of communication between theology and "secular culture." (268-269)

1 comment:

  1. Similar methods claimed by Elert in his Ethos. But you knew that already! Good article and thanks for your public witness on this site.