Are there limits to science?

“Are there limits to science?” – this was the title of the recent Science and Religion Forum 2016 conference, where diverse subjects around naturalism, and the limitations of science (and religion) were aired by some of the leading experts in the area. As the Conference Secretary, I was asked to deliver some closing reflections. Here is what I said –

I want to say a special thanks to all the speakers – as can happen with these kinds of conferences organised around a central question, sometimes a diversity of answers leads to an emergent consensus, and I think that’s definitely happened here.

“Are there limits to science?” Yes and no. That seems to be the gist of what I’ve gleaned from this conference, with a particular weight falling on the yes, there are limits. Continue reading

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Review of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity

J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

I have lived and taught with this book for a year now, using it extensively in our new MSc programme in Science and Religion.  I can honestly say that it is a superbly useful resource at this level, alongside other similar titles: the even more voluminous Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2008, ed. Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson) and the much more compact (but no less insightful) Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (2010, ed. Peter Harrison).  These three titles cover much of the same material, at a similar depth, and even making use of some of the same authors. At first sight then, there is relatively little to distinguish these three titles, but it is important to note my earlier caveat ‘at this level’. Like the other two books, the Blackwell Companion is heavyweight and scholarly, which means that readers new to science and religion dipping into the book may struggle to find a quick answer to old chestnuts like ‘Has science disproved religion?’, or ‘What does Richard Dawkins think about this?’  On the other hand, those more familiar with the controverted and contorted academic dialogue between science and religion will find that the Blackwell Companion provides new opinions and fresh approaches.

The most obvious point that distinguishes the Blackwell Companion from its older siblings is that it concerns the dialogue between science and Christianity, instead of the more usual generic ‘religion’.  This already illustrates how times have changed in recent years, since scholars have become sensitive to the fact that the ‘science and religion’ dialogue in the past has almost always tacitly meant ‘science and Christianity’, and that when other religions are brought to bear openly, the questions and answers change considerably.  It is not only that different conceptions of God are at stake across the world religions, but different conceptions of reality too.  Hence, the fact that the Blackwell Companion self-consciously focusses on Christianity means that it is able to engage in greater depth with specific issues.  This is an important point, since, as the editors note (p.xix), now that the science-religion field is maturing into the second generation of scholars, it is time for a more ‘fine-grained analysis of the issues’.  Added to which, the scientific fields involved in some of these areas (e.g. cosmology, and the cognitive sciences) are moving very rapidly at present, and an up-to-date and fine-grained approach is by far the most appropriate.  Accordingly, rather than containing mostly single articles on important topics like Big Bang cosmology and fine-tuning, or theology and Darwinism, the Blackwell Companion stands out by presenting a number of different views on each.  Thus, Part IV contains five articles on modern cosmology and physics, while Part V contains seven articles on evolution (including two that argue the case for and against Intelligent Design).  While there is inevitable overlap in content in some of these articles, one gets much more of a sense of the breadth of opinions at play than in the usual handbook approach, where crucial topics are often covered by one general-purpose article.

In addition to its fine-grained approach in crucial areas, the Blackwell Companion has also tried to broaden the boundaries of the traditional science-religion field.  In a still male-dominated field (p.xix), it is very welcome to see a number of chapters on feminist angles, and on the role of women in science.  ‘Science’ is also broadened beyond the natural sciences, so that human sciences (principally psychology, sociology, and economics) are included.  Finally, I was delighted by Part XI, which devotes chapters to six of the most important contributors to dialogue between science and Christianity from the last fifty years (Teilhard, T. F. Torrance, Peacocke, Barbour, Pannenberg, Polkinghorne).  Not just ‘key issues’, these chapters give one the chance to begin to get inside the minds (and different approaches) of ‘key thinkers’.

But for all its strengths, there are inevitably some areas of weakness in a volume like this, which seeks to cover an immense sweep of thought and practice.  ‘Practice’ is at least as important to Christianity as is thought, but apart from the section on bioethics (Part VII) – and a very rich article on transcendence by Alexei Nesteruk – Christianity comes across in this book largely as an intellectual exercise.  Of course, to some extent this reflects the scope of the scholarly field at present, which is far more interested in investigating religion in its encounter with science as a cerebral, rather than a spiritual and practical, discipline.  And the editors, relying on the traditional ‘philosophical and historical approach to the topic’ of science and religion (p.xix), have by and large not challenged this paradigm.  So we find little evidence in the Blackwell Companion, for instance, of the many and varied explorations in the visual and literary arts of the encounter between Christianity and science/modernity.  More noticeably though, the focus on philosophy and history has meant that Christianity in its explicitly confessional dimension has suffered disproportionately in this volume.  Christian Scripture (and especially Genesis) is mentioned here and there, but is rarely engaged with at any length, despite its significance in the history (past and present) of science and Christianity.  And while Part X is devoted to ‘Theology’ (with a short section on the Trinity by Polkinghorne in a longer chapter, and a very helpful chapter on miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus, by Padgett), it is not until we come to chapters on specific individuals – particularly Teilhard, Torrance, and Pannenberg – that we find extensive confessional discussion of important Christian doctrines, where the roles of Christ, and of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, feature intensively.

Partly, these reservations illustrate the point that, while this second-generation field is actively focussing on specifics raised by the previous generation, the boundaries of the field are still wide open – still ‘up for grabs’ to a large degree – and very much dependent on the particular mediating discourses brought to bear to allow science to converse with religion.  The first generation has been very much caught up with history and philosophy, but there is every reason to suppose that other solutions will bear fruit in time. As I said at the outset, this Blackwell Companion has proved itself to be an indispensable companion to me as I try to set out the current shape of the field for the third generation, but I cannot help but wonder how different such a volume will look in their time.

This review was published in Modern Believing 55 (2014) 78-81.

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