Thursday, October 13, 2011

Overcoming the Conflict between Science and Religion


Dear Parish Faithful Friends in Christ,

Yesterday evening, we were treated to a very stimulating lecture/power point presentation by Dr. Dan Buxhoeveden from the University of South Carolina. This event was well-attended, for there were over forty participants, and with only a few guests, this means that our parish was well-represented for a weeknight event. I hope that everyone found it as enjoyable as I did. Though the title of the lecture was “Science and Christianity in Dialogue,” Dr. Buxhoeveden expanded his presentation so that it included a quick overview of how science and religion have related – or have uneasily related – over the centuries; together with what I thought was an insightful critique of what he termed “scientific imperialism.” In his estimation this is the position that science can essentially explain all of reality, and ultimately make pronouncements on the existence or non-existence of God. This unwarranted venture into the realms of philosophy and metaphysics only results in the false religion of scientism. Elsewhere, he has written that this scientism is “a vacuum cleaner that desires to swallow all knowledge into the confines of its bag of dust.” I thought that the lecture effectively undermined such claims, while remaining respectful and appreciative for what science has contributed over the centuries to our understanding of the natural world on both the macro- and micro-cosmic levels of reality. In other words, science can explain a great deal about reality, but cannot claim a competency to explain all of Reality. The sum total of scientific truths do not equal the Truth. If I recall correctly, I believe that Dr. Buxhoeveden asked the question: How can science explain everything when we do not know what this Everything is?

I especially appreciated how he questioned the claims of science to a form of pure objectivity. There still remains at least a popular notion that it is science alone that can offer to us an “objective” description of reality, free of any prejudice or preconceived notions. We now know that this is impossible to achieve, for there is always a subjective position from which any discipline begins. To quote from his article “Limitations of Human Knowledge and Its Consequences,” Dr. Buxhoeveden poses this dilemma for such claims to absolute objectivity:

There is the problem of whether we can ever attain ‘non-local’ objectivity since what we are describing is the brain studying the brain, nature studying nature, the same studying the same. Within the model of the matrix, objectivity is only objective within the system. What is meant by empirical knowledge within the matrix really refers to the shared sense experiences of things out there by virtue of the design of a common nervous system. Were it constructed differently, the things perceived ‘out there’ (and the interpretation of them) would be different as well. If we had ways to perceive Z and W rather than A and M, our information and therefore definition of ‘Reality’ would be fundamentally altered. The first implication is that it serves to demonstrate our captivity, not our freedom. It highlights our limitations, not our universality. At best it says we are capable of knowing the matrix of materiality as it is given to us to know.

It is doubtful that Western science was ever designed to go beyond the matrix. It was created within the matrix and for the matrix, and there it remains and so long as it does so, there can never be an essential conflict with Christianity.

If I understood what he was saying, another fallacy of so-called pure objectivity would mean that there is nothing more to discover, or that all scientific discoveries to date have reached a level of perfection. Yet, as Dr. Buxhoeveden pointed out, scientific “facts” are actually correctible, contingent and historical.

Needless to say, Dr. Buxhoeveden did not present this critique from a fundamentalist or obscurantist position. This was not an impassioned polemic “against” science, but the voice of reason from a professor with impressive credentials within the scientific community (he has a Phd in biological anthropology and specializes in the evolution of the human brain). This was not a “cultural warrior” flailing away with the cudgel of religion, but a scientist manifesting a certain humility before the mystery of existence. Realizing the necessity of dialogue between the disciplines of science and theology, Dr. Buxhoeveden has a particular interest in how Orthodox theology is potentially open to any and all scientific truths that expand our understanding of the reality of the natural world in which we live. And theology has nothing to fear in the process. Within a holistic Orthodox understanding of reality, the created world can lead us to the uncreated Creator. We are, after all, logical beings because God created human beings in and through the Logos. We therefore have an open-ended capacity to continually discover the truths of the natural world that yield themselves to honest and humble probing. This, in turn, leads us to a sense of wonder, and insight shared by the earliest Greek philosophers. Dr. Buxhoeveden presented numerous quotations from Orthodox theologians, elders and writers that clearly demonstrate this. In his view, Orthodoxy is more than well-equipped to assimilate, incorporate, and interpret the world of scientific discovery within an all-embracing worldview that embraced the Uncreated and the created. This can be very exciting on both the intellectual and spiritual levels our common God-given human existence.

In a more speculative portion of his talk, he spoke of some new insights or ideas into “left brain” and “right brain” ways of cognition and the perception of reality. This was done based upon a new book by an Oxford scholar entitled, if I recall correctly, The Master and His Emissary.
Over-simplifying, this new book raises the point – supposedly marshalling an incredible amount of data in the process - that the preponderance of “left brain” thinking is responsible for a very “western” approach to reality that is overly rationalistic at the expense of empathetic and intuitive ways of perception. In other words, there are other ways of experiencing the reality of the world around than the scientific western model, successful though it has been in the realm of discovery and technology. I could sense that this intrigued many of us who were there for the talk yesterday evening – (am I “left-brain” or “right brain?”) - but, to use the cliché, this probably raised many more questions than it provided answers.

To just touch on another theme that Dr. Buxhoeveden raised in an interesting manner: what kind of conclusions can science come to when considering such phenomena as love and creativity? At what point are we merely extracting information about something, while losing sight of its meaning and purpose? Here is an example of what we heard, though drawn from the article referred to above:

True facts can become distortions when they are not assimilated in a greater context. It is analogous to someone who sees a painting as a material object within the confines of chemistry and physics while remaining oblivious to art, and therefore claims that the painting is the chemistry. How do you argue against such a stance when all the physical evidence supports the chemical model? You attain the eye of an artist. If we existed in a world where no one had the eye of an artist then the scientific analysis of a Van Gogh painting would be the hard and indisputable interpretation. Similarly, we are told in the New Testament that the pure in heart shall see God. In Orthodox Christianity one is told to purify the heart, to acquire illumination, to see God through the eye of the heart, so as to allow the Holy Spirit to enter into us. Without this the spirit of God, like the painting is not perceived correctly.

What the paint and canvas is to art, the matrix is to life. It is the medium of expression in which we live and breathe and have our being. The tension and the challenge has always been how to understand it, how to place it within the context of ultimate things, and how to situate all forms of knowledge, awareness, and experience, that humans derive from within it.

Of course, this analogy can be applied to the “God question.” Do we want to see only the parts or the whole?

Dr. Buxhoeveden was not in the least bit defensive of religion or God. He was not speaking from the position of an embattled believer that was frightened by the encroachments of science upon religion. He was not advocating the digging in and entrenchment of religious belief against the powerful assaults of an enemy whose victory seems inevitable. For science and religion are not enemies. This is an artificial conflict that can be overcome precisely through open and honest dialogue:

This dialogue of science and religion requires that we keep open channels of discovery and questioning that are not normally part of any single discipline. It is a challenge to all parties and because of that offers an opportunity for breakthroughs and understandings that cannot be had by remaining in our sand boxes.

It was encouraging to see many in the parish – and some of my students from the university! – make the effort and come out for the type of discussion that stimulates our thinking beyond the immediate problems and cares of everyday existence. Thank God for that!

As a special note, for articles and video talks by Dr Buxhoeveden and others on Science and Christianity, please visit the special page on our parish website, which has numerous links for further study on this stimulating topic.

Fr Steven

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