Friday, 18 January 2013

Science and religion: a set-theoretic view


The question of how science and religion relate is a staple of this blog, yet in spite of numerous posts1 on this topic already, I feel the need to revisit it again (and probably not for the last time either). What I would like to give some thought to here, are different beliefs (or at least assumptions) about how God and the universe relate2 and the consequences they have on how science and religion are viewed.

For a change, let me start with what I believe myself and then proceed to contrast it with alternatives. To my mind, God infinitely exceeds the universe and is present everywhere and always - as St. Augustine puts it, God is “more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.” (Confessions 3, 6). He has both created and sustains the universe, but does so in a way that is intelligible (and therefore also repeatable - the expectation of different outcomes when doing the same thing being one of the definitions of insanity, as Albert Einstein puts it). My position is therefore panentheistic (as opposed to pantheistic - God being equal to the universe - or deist, believing in a distant, separate God) and one that is fundamentally rational as opposed to fideist (a point also emphatically underlined by Benedict XVI during a general audience in November ’12). Here the universe, created “in and by” God,3 is both other than God and very much part of God and the top left quadrant of the diagram above is an attempt to depict it in terms of sets: the universe is represented by a circle, situated in an infinitely extending plane - God.

In this worldview, science is profoundly good not only because of the improvements to life that it can yield, but also because it tells me about how the universe that God created operates. It tells me about God in a way that is like learning about a mime artist by viewing their performance - the information is not immediate, but nonetheless leads to insights about the actor. Another source of understanding God comes to me from theology, which seeks to understand what God has revealed about himself through his relationship with the people of Israel, through his Son, Jesus and through his presence among his followers since then and into the present. These two sources of information about God are in perfect complementarity and equally fill me with wonder and admiration.

Yet science and religion (theology) are not the same - the former has methods finely tuned to bringing the laws of the universe to light and spans the sensible (empirical), while the latter has a span that exceeds that of science, by addressing the extra-empirical aspects of the universe (the whys and ought(’nt)s) as well as events and entities exclusive to its scope. This is not to place one above the other, but simply to put them in relationship as far as their scopes are concerned (bottom left quadrant of the above diagram).

In summary, my understanding of science and religion is that they jointly yield an understanding both of the world I live in and its source and purpose that I believe in. As John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

As for alternative views, a positioning of the world as separate from God and outside God, as shown on the right side of the above diagram, is also widespread among religious believers. Here God’s involvement in creation is only an initial impulse and setup, followed by a subsequent separation and distance. The scope of what science and religion have to talk about has no overlap.

My impression here is that this separation also extends into other spheres, beyond just the relationship between God and the universe. At times I come across (repulsive) statements that, e.g., imply that ethical behavior is “owned” by those who hold religious beliefs or that the same applies to truth or beauty.4 In my set theory of the God-universe relationship, all that is good, true and beautiful in the universe, and is accessible without faith, is mine and I just feel like I am being given more or being helped more to live it from my additional, extra-empirical sources.

I have a feeling that this (right) picture also applies to atheist believers, with the circle representing God removed. Here all that is believed to exist is the universe, which is being understood by scientific means and religion is a separate activity that has no corresponding object.

Finally, I suspect that those atheists, who don't acknowledge that their position is a belief, operate on a worldview like mine (i.e., on the left above), but with the labels swapped. Claims about God are treated like claims about an entity enclosed in the universe and therefore fully subject to the methods of science. Religion too is an activity that can be fully reduced to scientific scrutiny just like any other human activity. If this is correct, then I can understand why atheists who fall in this category find religious belief as lacking in credibility, to the point of being hostile to it.

If any of you, my readers, identify with one of the positions other than mine, I would very much appreciate it if you let me know if I misunderstood something about it. And even if you agree with me, I'd be keen to hear from you :).

1 With previous looks at the science of creation from nothing, a mystical view of creation, the role of belief in science (also here), the dialogue between Chief Rabi Sacks and Prof. Dawkins, the ambiguous relationship between theory and evidence, the constraints of empiricism, the “God of gaps” caricature, atheism as a creed, the evidential equivalence of atheism and religious belief, Martini and Eco’s dialogue on ethics and a call for recognizing rationality in (some of) religion and science alike - to mention just a few :).
2 Many thanks to NP and AG with whom I have spoken about some aspects of this picture by email and over on Facebook over the last weeks. Their insights triggered a lot of interesting and valuable discussion.
3 “The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the “image of the invisible God,” is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the “image of God” and called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §299)
4 My friend, SC, told me of a particularly saddening and vile case of her parish priest telling her (at the age of 7) that she wasn’t even human, because she didn’t believe in God. This has nothing to do with Christianity as I understand it, as I hear it taught by the current and previous popes or presented in the Catechism. Instead, it is its perversion.