I notice over at Why Evolution is True that Jerry Coyne is once again taking Karl Giberson to task for a piece in the Huffington Post directed specifically against Jerry Coyne himself, and Jerry’s take on the relationship between science and faith, or science and religion. One almost unbelievable thing about Giberson’s response to arguments that Jerry has made about the relationship of science and religion is to criticise Jerry for mentioning Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. This book is often criticised for its poor scholarship. On that particular issue I have no opinion, not having read the book, largely because its scholarship has been so widely criticised. But to my knowledge nothing that Jerry Coyne has said about the relationship of science and religion depends on positions taken in White’s controversial book. As for its being the one of “the holy books of the New Atheists,” as Giberson says, that, surely, is simply a straw in the wind. I know of no new atheists who have made this a fundamental text for their polemic about contemporary religion, or regarding religious attempts to accommodate religious beliefs to the contemporary findings of science.
Nevertheless, I think Giberson and those who take the position that there should be a dialogue between science and religion need to look much more carefully at what they think such a dialogue would look like. What would it do? What would be its purpose? What could it possibly show? Let’s take it as read that the concept of God can be completely insulated from the implications of contemporary science, and its findings, just as William E. Carroll suggests in what must be one of the emptiest bits of philosophical theology around: “Creation, Cosmology and the Insights of Thomas Aquinas,” but once we do this the problem remains of determining how we can get science and religion into a conversation. The problem is, if we begin with a God outside the causal nexus of the natural world, how do we put him back into play so that human beings can be in a relationship with “him” that is not somehow causal — thus conflicting with our starting point?
The sum and substance of the argument is to take the scientific argument for the supernumerary nature of a creator God, and merely add a subtext to it. Here is the scientific argument as Carroll imagines it:
Nature is self-sufficient, not only with respect to the effects which it produces, but in that it somehow generates its very own existence. Thus, the traditional notion of God’s creative act disappears; it becomes a mere artefact from a less enlightened age.
To this, Carroll would say, we need to add Aquinas’ insight. The old cosmological argument, which argued back in time to a first cause, is not decisive. Aquinas himself thought it possible that the natural world might have existed eternally, and that God might have created such a world — although, as Carroll points out, faithful to the decision of the Lateran Council of 1215, Aquinas did “of course” believe that the universe had a temporal beginning.
Now, here is where God is detached from the self-sufficiency of the natural world, and yet made a presupposition of it. For, according to Aquinas, even if the world were eternal, for its existence we would still need a creative act. Indeed, that creative act must be continuous. It isn’t that God simply created the world way back when, and then sat back and allowed things simply to unfold according to the laws established at the moment of creation. God is, somehow, creativity itself, and is engaged in a continuous act of creation. Were God to stop creating at any moment, then everything would disappear immediately, as though it had never been.
Notice what this does. It takes the universe as it is — however it is — and argues that the first cause is still necessary for its continued existence, not a first cause in the order of time, but a first cause in the order of being. Now here, if anywhere, is where we must find a dialogue between science and religion, for if we cannot have one here, it is doubtful that it makes sense to have one elsewhere. For Carroll is very clear on this point. Speaking about Aquinas’ insight he says:
God’s creative power is exercised throughout the entire course of cosmic history, in whatever ways that history has unfolded. God creates a universe in which things have their own causal agency, their own true self-sufficiency—a nature that is susceptible to scientific analysis. No explanation of cosmological processes, nor biological change for that matter, regardless of how radically random or contingent such an explanation claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause. [my italics]
In other words, the natural world is self-explanatory. The laws of nature are sufficient to account for the behaviour of fundamental particles as well as the evolution of life. They have, as Carroll acknowledges, their own causal agency, and are susceptible to scientific analysis and discovery. The religious subtext is that, while this is true, the existence itself of the universe depends upon God’s causal agency (we’ll raise a question about this in a moment).
So, the question arises: Where in the context of this scientific analysis and discovery is there room for dialogue with religion? Let’s simply accept for the moment that the entire universe (even multiple universes, if some cosmological theories are right) exists because of an underlying creative act of a God. Let’s suppose — which I see no logical reason to accept — that this is a necessary implication of the existence of universes. Still, the question arises what possible relationship can reasonably be thought to obtain (we cannot talk about existence here, for the god in question would not exist in the same sense in which universes exist) between this creative principle or god, and the individual existents and events which presuppose this creative principle or god? Let’s, for the sake of brevity, call it the god-principle. Insofar as it underlies the things that exist as their sustaining “cause” or “ground” (what Paul Tillich called the “ground of being”) we may use with respect to it the honorific ‘god’, but there is no clear reason why this principle should not be some kind of Spinozistic pantheism. And, as with Spinoza’s god, the question must arise whether there is anything here that could get a religion going. For we are supposing that the universe as we know it is entirely naturalistic — as Carroll says, it is naturalistically self-sufficient. The only non-natural thing around would be this sustaining “cause,” although it is unclear what makes the relationship “causal,” for it is clearly not causal in the sense in which we speak of natural causation. It is not clear what kind of a “being” this would be, or whether it could be discerned other than as the last term in an argument. The only evident relationship, it seems, that a sustaining “cause” can have with the natural world is a sustaining one — whatever this relationship consists in. Its “purposes” — if there is any reason to think of it as having intentions or purposes – would be fully expressed in and through the natural world. Any other “communication” or relationship with the natural world would not only be an intrusion, there is no clear reason why this god-principle should be something that could “communicate” as one intellect to another, or what it would mean to suggest that it had.
So, the question still stands. What would a dialogue between science and faith look like? For the positive religions must be — this is assumed in everything that Carroll says about the natural world — the outworking of natural causation. The previous pope, Pope Wojtyła (aka John Paul II), held that, at some point the god-principle intruded into the natural world, and somehow “injected” a soul into one species of animal on earth, namely Homo sapiens, but what reason could he possibly give for supposing that this “event” took place, an event entirely independent of the self-sufficient causal sequence that included the evolution of that species? In his review of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing, Carroll chastises Krauss for misusing the authority of science:
In a culture heavily dominated by the authority of science, we need to be especially wary of scientists who use (or rather misuse) that authority to make claims which are well beyond their own disciplines.
The claim is that, not being a theologian, Krauss has no business making theological claims. But the problem here is quite simple. If, as Carroll says, the natural world is causally self-sufficient, so that it can be analysed, without remainder, in its own terms, Carroll must provide some reason why, even if there must be an underlying sustaining ground for the natural world, we should take seriously the claim that this sustaining ground is more than a logical requirement of the existence of the natural universe. And try as I might, I cannot see where he can find the wedge that will prise the god-principle out of that purely logical role, and provide an independent “being” which can communicate, care, intend or purpose anything.
In his HuffPo article, Karl Giberson, trying valiantly to hold Jerry Coyne’s feet to the fire, tells us that, while Aquinas shared the same limited understanding of his time regarding things like the age of the universe or the existence of the Garden of Eden, his central insight is still of vital importance. His point is the same as Carroll’s:
Aquinas’s central insight — the one that is appropriately defended as his enduring claim and not just something that everyone accepted in his time — is that the foundation of the Christian doctrine in creation is the belief that God created and upholds everything, including the laws of nature.
The first thing that needs to be noted here is that this is the wrong place to start. We cannot start with the “foundation of the Christian doctrine of creation.” We must start with the quite simple logical point that Aquinas thought he could establish, that the existence of contingent entities depended, not alone upon earlier states of the causal sequence of states, but upon some necessarily sustaining ground. Now the question is: Can we get from this point, where we are speaking of a god-principle of some kind, to the existence of the Christian God? And how do we get there? If the universe is, as Carroll says, a universe
in which things have their own causal agency, their own true self-sufficiency—a nature that is susceptible to scientific analysis,
a universe, moreover, in which, no matter how the history of the universe unfolds, the god-principle remains its sustaining ground, then how do we come to the point where we want to say that this god-principle attains the status of a God, a supernatural person with whom we may be in a relationship?
Do you see the problem? Of course, if we are permitted to add qualifications to that argument, by suggesting that at some point the sustaining ground became an intrusive presence in the universe, by creating souls which stand outside of the causal nexus of the natural world, or by performing deeds which are inexplicable in terms of the scientific analysis to which nature is susceptible, we might be able to add attributes to the sustaining ground which turn this sustaining ground into something else, an intellect with mind, intentionality, and comprehensive plans and purposes. But on what basis are these qualifications added? And in what sense can they be related to the scientific analysis that the natural universe is said to be susceptible to? Are they, like the supposed logical foundation of contingent existence, the sustaining ground itself, also demanded by some process of logic? If so, then this must be provided, and it is not clear that Carroll or Giberson — or, if it comes to that, Aquinas — has provided a justification for this move. The assumption that Aquinas makes that this is what all men call “God,” is not clearly justified. All that would be justified, if the argument is valid, is a conclusion to some sort of sustaining ground. Just because people have religious beliefs about a personal god who has relationships with people, and is working its purposes out for them, it does not follow that the metaphysically required ground (which we have allowed for the sake of argument only) is identical with that god, and certainly not with the particular god of a particular religion.
So, I come back to the original question. It seems quite clear that we could go along with Aquinas, and allow that there exists a necessary metaphysical ground for the existence of contingent things, but not be able to make any sense at all of the supposed existence of a personal god. And if, as Carroll claims, the things that exist “have their own causal agency, their own true self-sufficiency,” and that this is the case no matter how the history of the universe goes, does it make any obvious sense to speak of the ground upon which these things stand as a being with any kind of religious dimension or relevance? And would not any such religiously significant salience of the ground of being clash and conflict with the true self-sufficiency of the causal network of contingent things? And if it would, how can we get a dialogue between science and religion going?
Unfortunately, such dialog between science and religion will continue to be widely misconstrued as a “debate,” largely because Andrew Dickson White did such an effective job painting it with that brush.
But, as we have already seen, it is not obviously misconstrued, and certainly not on the basis of whatever Andrew Dickson White wrote, because it is one thing to be the sustaining ground for the existence of contingent things, and quite another thing to be more than this quite impersonal god-principle. For religion is not only about god-principles and sustaining grounds; religion is, in general, about supernatural intelligent agents who effectively intervene in the causal network of contingent beings by being in relationship with the only intelligent agents we think we know — namely us, of course; and this is a completely different relationship to that of a sustaining ground. Either the god-principle is simply the underlying, unknowable basis upon which the self-sufficient system of existing and causally interactive things somehow rest — and, on the face of it, there seems to be no reason why each successive state of the universe cannot rest, and depend for its existence, on the immediately preceding state of the universe — or the god-principle is more than this kind of logical prerequisite and gets involved in, and thereby alters, the causal network of which it is supposedly the ground. But how does this happen without conflict?
To bring this already overlong post to an end, we must wonder about Giberson’s conclusion. At the end of his HuffPo article, supporting the Vatican initiative creating “a new foundation to promote constructive dialog between science and faith,” — which Jerry Coyne has called “weaselly accommodationism” – Giberson says:
At a time when religiously motivated concerns make it almost impossible to discuss the warming of our planet, the curriculum in our schools and even the reproduction of our species, we should embrace efforts at dialog, not assault them.
The problem is that religion is the problem. If there were a solution in religion, we’d have found it long ago. The pretence that there can be a dialogue between science and religion is simply a way for religion to keep emphasising its priorities. It has been all along. But none of those priorities are consistent with what even Aquinas’ supposedly great insight has to say about the underlying reasons for the existence of the universe as we know it. If the underlying ground is more than a ground of being, and becomes an active agent in the universe, the universe ceases to be causally self-sufficient, which is the assumption underlying Aquinas’ insight, as both Carroll and Giberson say. And this, to bring this to an end, is precisely where the conflict between religion and science continues to lie. As Jerry Coyne says, if theologians are content with deism (a word which I deliberately avoided above), as many modern theologians seem to be, then there is no problem. But if they find the need to add irregularities, then there is, and, as Jerry says,
[u]nfortunately, Aquinas also accepted plenty of irregularities.
As do the theologians of any positive religious tradition, who must speak about the words and deeds of their god or gods. And that, of course, is where the conflicts between religion and science arise. They are ineliminable, and it is becoming a bit silly to suggest that they are not.