Science; the horse to theology’s cart of progress

Progress.  The word implies a goal, teleology, or purpose.  Some, such as Alfred North Whitehead, preferred to think about process.  And while my views differ significantly from Whitehead, I agree that process might be the better term for the improvement, over time, of our understanding of the world around us.  Purpose implies a purposer, which is what theology is all about.  Science does not carry this assumption with it into the lab (nor does it discount its possibility).

There are a multiple processes we use in our lives, and they have led to increased and subtle understanding of ourselves and of the universe that surrounds us.  But not all processes are equal, playing different parts in our lives.

Our thinking is complex, largely hidden from our conscious awareness, and often incoherent.  It is often attracted to processes which have lesser pragmatic efficacy, but which nonetheless have psychological gravitation.

The scientific method is a late addition to our intellectual toolbox.  It starts with observation, but it’s life-blood is experimentation.  It seeks to eliminate bias–to lesser and greater degrees depending upon how an experiment is structured–and thus to attempt objectivity.  I prefer the term ‘intersubjectivity,’ at the risk of encroaching on some possibly semantic hair-splitting.

Theology is the study of god(s).  More generally, it is the study of the divine, the supernatural, etc.  It is an attempt to apply logical and rational thinking to the propositions of revelational thinking which is largely primitive and based open pattern-recognition gone-awry.  It, strictly, is not science.

Now, this is not to say that theology is completely separate from science.  It is not not even a different epistemological realm of science, despite what Stephen Jay Gould thought (I am not a fan of NOMA).  We live in the same universe, under the same laws, whether we are doing theology or science.   And some theologians use science in addition to their logical approach to religious or spiritual insights.

The question is which one is pulling the other along or whether they take turns doing the work.

Well, that may depend on your point of view.  If you are working with the Templeton Foundation, for example, you may see some give and take going both ways.  Such people tend to see that science and religion influence one-another, and an attempt to not only bridge these processes but to find ways that they intersect is a good thing.

In a larger cultural sense this is true, but perhaps only to the limited extent that they both exist simultaneously and people carry both of them in the same minds and thus they communicate.  There is certainly a sense where the ideas of religion influence how scientists think as well as the discoveries of science influencing theology (unless, of course, you are these guys).  And as time marches on, the cultural influence will continue, most undoubtedly.

But there is a difference between science and religion in another sense; one that transcends mere cohabitation.  While the language, stories, and flavor of religion has helped carve much of our culture, and thus those that live in it, our pragmatic understanding has been dominantly influenced by science rather than theology.  There is a difference between the methodologies of science and religion which results in a dramatic personality difference between them.  Neither one is misidentified as the other, except in very superficial ways.

Charlatans and shysters from various theological backgrounds have been trying to sell snake oil, utopias, and personal redemption of various kinds to people for ages.  From new age self-help, evolving messages of redemption from Christian evangelicals, and religions created by science fiction writers, there are multiple ways that theology has tried to advertise itself as a product that will help you either in this world or the next.  But it is rather interesting that with the advent of the scientific method theology has been hanging off the coattails of science, feeding off the droppings left behind in almost unnoticeably slow changes to their beliefs and attitudes.

With new age philosophies and religions loving every moment of quantum mechanics (all while getting it wrong), Christianity getting slowly more and more progressive, and with the invention of religions that even try to call themselves something that sounds scientific, it is clear that the primitive human mind is trying to adapt the “metaphysical need” (as Nietszsche called it) to the realities of scientific processes.

Just imagine what a progressive theologian of several centuries ago would say to Rick Warren now.  Imagine what a pre-Christian pagan would say to Deepak Chopra.  Imagine how Scientology would be greeted by L. Ron Hubbard ten years before he thought of the idea.  The progress of theology has made much of it more modern, tolerant, and informed (even if it only sounds this way), but this was not because of their own efforts.

All good intelligent and open-minded people of today taking the progress of the times into their lives and incorporating them into their modern theologies is quantifiable improvement on society and their religion.  The problem is that it is the wrong kind of improvement because it overlooks a more robust update to the theological software (theology 2.0 anyone?) of many religious traditions.

It has been said that Christianity (for example) has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity by other cultural forces.  And with it came a new theology that was able to incorporate what science has brought to us via the blood and sweat of those that the once-great Catholic Church once considered heretical.  And now the Church accepts evolution, heliocentricism, and perhaps eventually female church leaders as other denominations of Christianity have.

But this is not progressive revelation, it is a reluctant acceptance of overwhelming facts, cultural pressure, and economic interest.  These are means to adjust theology to survive in the real world, based upon facts and theories from another method which theology does not fully understand or accept.  And even when it does understand this method, it does not employ it to the points of their theology because they believe that the two are different realms.  This is not theology growing up, it is theology listening to its better educated, more worldly, and successful little brother named science.

And while there are certainly exceptions, theology of most faiths has neither grown up to understand nor to use the methodologies that science employs.  Rather, it accepts the conclusions of those methodologies after they become overwhelmingly true–or at least overwhelmingly accepted among people that either are adherents or potential tithers.

Much of the world’s religious communities have learned to recognize the power of science, but has not quite recognized the methods that science uses as applicable to the theology they continue to adjust.  Theology does not discuss things that science cannot deal with because theology makes claims about the world, even if indirectly.  If the supernatural influences the real world, then the effects should be open to empirical study at very least.

The proclamations of theology are subject to the same scrutiny as stars, brains, or particles.  And while facts about the physical world don’t directly lead to ideas about morality, meaning, or beauty, they certainly can tell us a lot about how these things are increasingly becoming part of science’s domain.

The hard problem of consciousness, the question of what really caused the universe to exist (if such a question is meaningful), and the nature of the quantum world are still beyond our reach scientifically, but theology provides no methodology for answering these questions which is better than science.  Theology provides some answers, sure, but what reason do we have to accept them?

Science is tugging theologians along the path of history and theology is redefining itself based upon what is sees science doing.  Theology dons the apparel of the strange places that science ventures, but in a sense this garb is little more than a souvenir which will make it look stylish and trendy.  Those who follow in religion’s wake in these trends will think they are modern but they miss that they are only following fashion.  Theology wears scientific-colored robes in order to maintain its own goal which is more about maintaining itself rather than pulling the cart of culture along.

Thus, by re-writing theology in order to put science in a reverential but secondary place behind these divine speculationss, one is surely putting their cart before the horse.

11 thoughts on “Science; the horse to theology’s cart of progress

  1. “Theology does not discuss things that science cannot deal with because theology makes claims about the world, even if indirectly. If the supernatural influences the real world, then the effects should be open to empirical study at very least.”

    Agreed, and well said. But even accepting that, there’s a big difference between science and theology in the accepted role of interpretation within each discipline. A scientific observer is not supposed to interpret the facts under scrutiny. A theologian is expected to, and in fact the upshot of the interpretation is usually a given from the outset.

    So you present a scientist and a theologian with a collection of facts. The scientist will note what theories are and are not consistent with the facts, ideally without bias. The theologian will note whether the facts are consistent with his or her particular theory, and if they’re not, will adjust and interpret until they are. (I assume that the theologian we’re talking about is strongly committed to a particular idea, or set of ideas, about the divine.) They might adjust on this or that point, but the overarching assertions about the world will be the same ones they went in with.

    So… is your point that they should stop doing this? That by holding more loosely to their theories, and relying more heavily on empirical observation and study, they can become more active contributors to the progress of the human world (whatever that means)?

    Also, I am intrigued by this sentence, but I don’t know what it means: “And while facts about the physical world don’t directly lead to ideas about morality, meaning, or beauty, they certainly can tell us a lot about how these things are increasingly becoming part of science’s domain.”

  2. So tell me sir, what scientific discoveries led pre-enlightenment theologians to consider divorce justified, the worship of saints superstitious, and that people should have their own personal relationship with God and be able to read the Bible in the vulgar tongues?

    And while your at it explain why from a moral standpoint many atheists where on the side of slave-owners and eugenicists? In fact the latter were almost uniquely “progress” minded atheist types.

    One reason for the decrease in the number of people favorable to abortion has been the new technologies that allow us to see developing fetuses in 3-D. Would that not indicate science can sometimes help bring people around to a more traditional theology-based perspective?

    Can you name a single scientific discovery that changed theology qua theology in a significant way? Not cosmological or biological doctrine but theology proper, the study of moral sentiments and the aims and will of God.

    I don’t think you know what theology is sir.

  3. InternetPriest:

    The simple fact is that one can come to such conclusions as the justification of divorce without the scientific enterprise. I never denied that, nor do I think that I was claiming that theology was always harmful, only that much of it is based upon primitive thinking justified by logical analysis without appeal to empirical methodology in most cases.

    There have been, and probably always will be, atheists who support all sorts of horrible things. But they don’t believe those things because of their lack of belief in god. It is impossible to draw a logical connection between that lack of belief in any gods and any other belief. I’m curious who your examples of “progress” minded atheists are who supported slavery and eugenics, but it really doesn’t mater because it misses the point which I just elucidated above.

    The relationship between 3-D imaging with fetuses is no more to the point that we are emotionally effected by what we see. They look like little people, but what do the facts actually say about their sentience, consciousness, etc? And that 3-D imaging is TECHNOLOGY, not the scientific method. What you seem to be saying is that one technological result of this empirical method–science–has caused a shift in opinions about a topic that theologians sometimes discuss. So?

    So, the question of the origin of the universe is not theology? Because, sir, it was at some point. If that has changed, then perhaps it is more evidence that as science figures stuff out, “sophisticated” theologians repeal another part of theology. That was my point. That is; as science expands its understanding, what is considered theology, by people like you, gets smaller and smaller until it only talks about the vague, meaningless, squishy questions such as the aims and will of a god; a god who also creeps into the corner as our understanding takes away all that previous theologians thought god was.

    I may not know what theology is, but only because theologians keep retreating into the corners because they keep getting smacked down by scientific progress. Like I said in the post, travel back in time to talk with theologians and tell me if what you call theology now includes everything that they included. They included cosmology in theology before, some still do, and so your exclusion of it only demonstrates my point.

    Further, moral sentiments is a field that science is dealing with. It is only a matter of time before people like you declare that morality is no longer a field for theology. But not until science gets a better picture of that too, and then theologians will put it right next to biology and cosmology as a field for science.

    That was the point, sir.

  4. So you did not answer my challenges but continued to display ignorance of what theology is and made further claims that are unsupportable? Sheesh that’s all you atheists do.

    You wrote: Charlatans and shysters from various theological backgrounds have been trying to sell snake oil, utopias, and personal redemption of various kinds to people for ages.

    Now were snake oil salesman more like bogus scientists or bogus theologians and if not snake salesman what about their modern counterparts the herbal-cure crowd, the pushers of hormesis and so on? Are not charlatans more associated with science than religion? And what about the Marxist utopians where they more likely to be atheists than religious?

    I am not saying those terms can never be applied to theologians, bad apples exist everywhere, but you made two serious errors there: You confused theology with evangelism and then used the bad apples of evangelism to libel theology. Shame on you. Again you don’t know what theology is.

    As for progress-minded atheists approving of horrors I cite Margaret Sanger and Leon Trotsky. And you cannot claim that their lack of belief was not somewhat causal in their support of eugenics and mass executions. For one thing if we are just a molecule heap we are less dignified and sterilizing and mass murdering us is ok. Have you not read either of these people’s works?

    You seem surprised that the origin of the universe is not a theological question anymore (ignorance again) but it never really has been. The question of HOW is a scientific one WHY is theological and these have always been different questions save for science’s claim that there is no answer to ‘why’ other than various arguments from probability, anthropic principles and so on.

    Finally you claim science is making inroads on morality. Really? Where? There is some talk of kin selection this, altrusim gene that but no progress at all. Going back to abortion (for which your previous answer was glib hair-splitting), Carl Sagan wrote in the Dragons of Eden that abortion was ok until the third trimester because the fetus wasn’t conscious yet. Well we now have numerous examples of babies being born halfway through the second trimester that survive into a healthy childhood (thanks to science). On the other hand there are some cognitive psychologists who claim pre-lingual babies are not really conscious. By your reasoning if the psychologists are right its ok to kill babies before they learn to speak.

    I am sure you will do your best again to dispute and avoid all of my claims with your speciousness but I hope you realize your initial claim that science has somehow been dragging theology along is as ridiculous as it is wrong. Check out a book called the Evolution of God (written by an agnostic) or spend 5 minutes reading about the Reformation (you could argue the increase in education thanks to the printing press spurred the reformation but thats TECHNOLOGY not science) and then finally think about your own question regarding the pre-christian pagan Deepak Chopra.

    p.s. You wrote that all theologians get quantum mechanics wrong. I don’t know what kind of scientist you are but Casey Blood author of The Way From Science to The Soul has a PhD in quantum physics I would assume he knows more about it than you.

  5. The alt-med crowd try and associate themselves with science but are not. They are frauds who want to sound like science because they know that science lends credibility. Some genuinely believe they are doing something scientific, others think “western science” is the problem. Meh.

    Tell me how atheism can be logically traced to any belief at all. I don’t mean trivial things such as “atheists believe it is possible to lack belief in any gods” because that would be a tautology. I mean, show how the position of atheism can lead to a belief like genocide. Once again, it does not matter whether Sanger and Trotsky held daily demonstrations in support of genocide or anything else; their being an atheist is not sufficient cause to reach those conclusions. Their atheism certainly was also not necessary for such conclusions. You cannot get, logically, from atheism to other beliefs because the lack of belief in any gods cannot imply anything else, necessarily.

    If the origin of the universe has never been a theological question, then why did the Summa Theologica include it? Was Aquinas not a theologian writing about theology? Was he only dealing with the why and not the what? Really? You are correct, the what is a scientific question. But at one time (and for many still today), theologians thought it was a question for revelation and religious studies. It was discussed and commented on by theologians in more than just the why.

    In terms of morality and science, I can point out one scientist and writer off the top of my head; Marc D. Hauser from Harvard University. His book _Moral Minds_ is an exploration of the scientific research being done in how our brains work to think morally. He is certainly not the only person in this field, but he is among the more prominent. I will also mention Peter Singer, who I tend to disagree with but who discusses similar topics.

    Concerning the question about abortion, it is certainly a messy moral issue. I don’t think it will be settled here. I know atheists who are pro-choice and pro-life.

    I have not been convinced of anything by you. I am familiar with Wright’s book, although I have not read it. I have read some reviews from various people, and I am likely to find it tiring. perhaps I’ll get a chance to read it at some point. But I am struggling financially right now and purchasing books may not be wise.

    I’ve read about the reformation. I’ve read a fair amount about the history of Christianity, as it was part of my studies way back in my college days. I suggest you go back and read some old theologians and be reminded that they did in fact talk about subjects that science has since dominated, kicking theology out in the process. Science is not pulling theology around, it is pulling culture around the way theology used to, causing theology to change. It’s an indirect process of causation.

    I never claimed I was an expert on quantum physics, only that people who wrote What the Bleep Do We Know? and other such projects, some of which are theologians of a different type than Aquinas, for sure, don’t know quantum physics.

    This is tiresome. It is like discussion evolution with a young-Earth creationist.

  6. Yes it is tiresome , admit it, you are wrong. The following two propositions are not the same.

    1. Theology is nonsense

    2. Science has driven/dragged/pushed theology forward

    I am not quarreling with you about 1. It would be pointless for me to do so with someone so blinded by sin.

    You however made the second claim in the title to your piece which you have now walked away from. So I think even you must agree you were wrong.

    Also your point about the alt-med crowd was exactly my point, some of the fiery evangelists try to associate themselves with theologians that does not make them legitimate.

    Atheism may not be “logically traceable” to many other beliefs but as a practical matter it has led to all manner of horrors.

    Are you claiming it is impossible that when people are diminished as a part of creation and nobody believes anyone is watching or judging that this cannot lead to some of the events history has witnessed?

    Thomas was a philosopher and a theologian that’s why he included such topics. I would also add that the philosophical aspects of creation (e.g. ex nihlo cosmology) were what Thomas discussed not so the physical aspects. If you don’t believe me find a a passage Summa that disagrees with modern science.

    Hauser et al do not say anything about objective ethics. They merely theorize as to why humans have these moral dispositions not whether they are good or bad and Hauser’s work in particular is speculative, disorganized and weak. Good to know you disagree with Pete Singer however seeing as you are polyamorous I’m surprised you don’t like his defenses of bestiality.

    You still have not told us what kind of scientist you are. Your recent entry about breaking up with your girlfriend and now being reduced to shamefully soliciting for money on the internet makes me think you are not a scientist or even a professional.

    I hope you turn your life over to God soon. Your recent entries indicate you are clearly on the wrong path. I’ll pray for you.

  7. Oh, I am so torn on whether to respond here. I guess I’ve made my choice though.

    InternetPriest: You are making both your intellect and your faith look bad. You are using indignation, egregious generalization, and ad hominem attacks — do you really think this is the way to get people to listen to you?

    I’m only going to respond to one claim you’ve made, twice now: in your second post – “For one thing if we are just a molecule heap we are less dignified and sterilizing and mass murdering us is ok”; in your third – “Are you claiming it is impossible that when people are diminished as a part of creation and nobody believes anyone is watching or judging that this cannot lead to some of the events history has witnessed?”

    Undoubtedly there are people who have a callous disregard for human life, and many of them are atheists, and many of them use their belief platform to excuse their cruelty. Many of them have also been fervently religious, and used their religious beliefs to excuse their cruelty. If you stack up “cruel, diabolical atheists” on one side and “cruel, diabolical theists” on the other, I’m not sure which carcass-heap would be taller… I also think that’s a really stupid way of determining which belief position is more valid.

    Your phrase “if we are just a molecule heap we are less dignified” suggests that you haven’t read or listened to some of the best atheist minds of today. My reading is not extensive, but I can name you two off the top of my head (Dawkins and Hofstadter) who express a profound respect for the human organism, its history, its mysteries, and its potential. May I suggest that, if you want to have fruitful debates on these topics, you go to the best opposing voices instead of the worst?

    Before you respond with a knee-jerk attack on me and all the things you imagine I believe and ally myself with, please take a moment to consider whether there might be a better way to communicate, one that makes you seem less hostile and defensive.

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