Science, Religion, and Changing Conceptions of Nature: An Interview with John Hedley Brooke

Recently, the Science and Religion program here at the School of Divinity hosted a three-day lecture series entitled “Galileo, Darwin, Einstein: Science, Religion and the Changing Conceptions of Nature” and delivered by renowned philosopher of science, Professor John Hedley Brooke. A leading figure in the Science and Religion arena, Professor Brooke brought his considerable knowledge and insight to bear on many of the key issues, controversies, and common misunderstandings in the history of Science and Religion. First focusing on Galileo and the common myths associated with Galileo’s complicated relationship to religion, Professor Brooke demonstrated that Galileo’s work was often constructively incorporated by theologians as they formed a new conception of nature as a mechanism. In discussing Darwin and his theory of natural selection, Professor Brooke highlighted common misunderstandings about Darwin’s scientific work and its relationship to Darwin’s own faith as well as to the wider religious culture. And finally, in celebrating the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity, Professor Brooke gave a fascinating and nuanced perspective on Einstein’s approach to metaphysics, religion, and the basic structure of reality. Not only did the lectures probe the many misunderstandings about the oversimplified “conflict” between science and religion, but Professor Brooke was able to demonstrate the complex ways in which religious thinkers and scientists have constructively informed each other’s work.

I had the opportunity to speak further with Professor Brooke about his work, and in particular about his thoughts regarding the wider Science and Religion field. What follows is an extended selection of that interview.

For those outside of the Science and Religion discussion who assume that the two fields are inherently at odds with each other, how would you best encapsulate an alternative way to approach the relationship?

JHB: “Because my background is in the history and philosophy of science, I’m very keen to look at the way in which scientific ideas and religious beliefs have come into contact in the past. What one discovers is an enormous variety of ways in which scientists have held religious beliefs. One looks at the reception of new scientific ideas and discovers that representatives of the churches were sometimes hostile, and sometimes perfectly accommodating. In other words, when we think of science and religion as inexorably or inextricably at war with each other, we’re basing that on a highly selective set of examples from past history. There have been periods, in the 18th century in England for example, where discoveries in science were actually seen as supporting a theological enterprise or the defense of the Christian tradition. We sometimes find that tricky these days, because in a very secular society it does sound paradoxical that science should be, as it were, “on the side of the angels” – but in fact it was. One of the reasons why the Darwinian impact was so great is that many people had come to assume that through studying the natural sciences, one was studying something that was spiritually edifying – that from the study of nature, you could actually draw moral and religious lessons. And so we have that tradition, often called “natural theology”, where you could establish the attributes of God independently of revelation. Now, of course, that’s philosophically controversial, and there were very sophisticated critiques of that enterprise. But this would just be my way of saying we mustn’t allow streamlined master narratives of the past to delude us into thinking that that’s the whole story.”

Speaking of the way that theologians have sometimes appropriated scientific discoveries into their theology, what are your thoughts on how that should be done? What happens when theology that has been based on a faulty understanding of nature becomes outmoded?

JHB: “It’s a very interesting question. I’m immediately reminded of that great Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell. His strong line on this was that science does change far more quickly than theology can change, and if you base your theology on some recent insight in science and then that science changes and produces an entirely different understanding of the world, you’ve tied your theology to something ephemeral. You’ve built an edifice on shifting stand, and that’s actually a very dangerous thing. I’ve sometimes said that the church has got into more trouble by accepting the latest science than by resisting it!

A fascinating example is when the Big Bang theory first really developed into a “fully expanding universe” Big Bang model. The then-pope hailed this as vindication of a Christian doctrine of Creation and indirectly, behind the scenes, he was reproached for that. One of the earliest proponents of what became caricatured as the “Big Bang” theory was Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian Catholic priest; he was advocating the Big Bang theory at a time when the steady-state model was much more in evidence. Fred Hoyle, a great advocate of the steady-state model for a long time, used to attack the Big Bang proponents for being theologically motivated; being a Catholic priest as Lemaitre was, that came as a rather stinging critique that his science was not actually neutral. Lemaitre in particular got worried when the pope appropriated the Big Bang; he thought it would actually damage the reputation of those like himself. So there are dangers in trying to bring the theology and the science too close. Interestingly, it’s a danger that Augustine spotted centuries and centuries ago; if you rely on secular knowledge as the basis for your exegesis of Scripture, you can be left high and dry when that knowledge changes.”

It seems that many of the controversies in the Science and Religion conversation have less to do with the actual science involved and more to do with the presuppositions that we bring to the table, the preconceptions about reality, the boundaries or lack thereof of science itself. Recognizing this, where do we go from there?

JHB: “It’s very difficult, isn’t it? If you are convinced that you are bringing the right metaphysics and methodological principles to bear on the issues, you’re not going to be easily persuaded that an alternative offers something. I do think that at the presuppositional level, we have to be very careful to tease out what those presuppositions are so that we can then ask questions about what makes one set of presuppositions more plausible, and what it is about them that actually produces advocates. Because it’s a very prevalent part of modern scientific culture to adopt the principle of methodological naturalism. In fact, it’s been a critical presupposition of science for a very, very long time. And then, if you migrate from the methodology to the ontological statement that nature is all there is, then I think the issue is often, why do we make that jump? It’s because the methodology has been so fertile. If the methodology had been ambiguous in terms of its results, then I think there would be room to explore alternatives. But it really is endemic in scientific culture. If you tried to bring supernature into some kind of scientific paper, you’d just get laughed at.

The really interesting thing is that the idea that it is legitimate to give an account of natural phenomena simply in terms of natural causes is part and parcel of the Christian tradition. It’s not that there is a straightforward dichotomy between naturalism and supernaturalism. Naturalism is embedded within Christianity, certainly, at the methodological level. It’s perfectly legitimate theologically to give an explanation in terms of what we call “natural causes.” Where the crunch come is where one finds claims in Scripture, for example, for events which seem to violate that natural order and then you have to decide whether this is a symbol for some genuine supernatural intervention. But I think the really crucial point is that the cultural shift comes (certainly in the Anglophonic world), in the second half of the 19th century, when naturalism – from having had a theological foundation – is set up on its own feet, with its own kind of self-referential metaphysical justification, and that one simply then excludes the tradition of metaphysics.”

Are there any particular methods, projects, or issues in Science and Religion that you find to be particularly unhelpful?

JHB: “I suppose one area that I’m always a bit suspicious of are those who complain as a sort of knee-jerk reaction that scientists and their technological work are “playing God.” It does seem to me that we are at the beginning of a new era in biotechnology where we’re not simply modifying or promising to enhance existing organisms, including ourselves. There is a new language of creation in the context of biosynthesis, in that for the first time we may be able to create new species. Of course the word “create” is replete with problems and issues. But the thought that we can (or will be able to quite soon) simply synthesize new species is pretty terrifying, for all kinds of ecological and damaging reasons -as well as simply life-enhancing reasons. That again is an area where I think more work needs to be done. What I would plead for would be critical scholarly analysis of these problems; let us bring the best critical scholarship to bear on issues that are topical.

Also, much of the literature in science and religion, for obvious reasons, has been based on European and American experience. Because of the very close links between Christian theology and science in the 16th and 17th centuries, this means that we have a much clearer understanding now of how Christianity interacted with the sciences, both in a positive and negative way. But we are far less well-informed about Islam and science. There’s not a huge amount of work being done on Judaism, either. There is some excellent work being done, but it’s not nearly as comprehensive as one would like to see. It would be good to have as much reputable scholarship as we can get our hands on regarding the kind of science that has been done in other cultures. It’s a critical issue simply because we glibly talk about science and religion, but the meaning of those two words is very different in different cultures. The very fact that religion and science are both theoretical constructs is important; there isn’t a kind of natural type we’re talking about here. We need to know how these words are used. Words do change their meanings, and they have different meanings in different cultural contexts. There is nuance in all this; that’s why I find this domain so interesting. Once you get into the history, the nuances actually dispel so much of popular perception.”

The relationship between science and religion seems often to be one of science leading our theology, so that theology and Biblical interpretation have necessarily evolved and grown to accommodate current scientific research (evolution, geology, archaeology, neurosciences). Are there any ways in which you see a potential for theology to influence the way one approaches science?

 JHB: “What I find really interesting is that recent scholarship on natural theology has pulled in two different directions. One has been to narrow it down, the other has been to expand it – in both cases to try to make it viable. The narrowing down comes when you say that the natural theology project is only going to work if you’re already inside a Christian theological framework. We’re talking about a natural theology that is going to work as along as it’s properly contextualized. That’s a kind of narrowing down, because it doesn’t allow for what natural theology traditionally did, which is try to set up some common intellectual ground between people of different faiths, different views of revelation. This was what people hoped to establish on the basis of reason alone. It may be philosophically correct to say that the argument only works if you’ve already lodged it within a theological metaphysic, but it doesn’t enable natural theology to do the work that it historically did. Now the broadening of it, to go to the other extreme, is to say “let us look at the way natural theology was constructed in as many different religious traditions as we can find”. Then we are in a much better position to actually articulate what its prospects might be, what the commonalities and what the contrasts are. I think there is interesting work being done now between comparative natural theologies. There is a great contrast in the way the concept of natural theology is even approached.”

One thought on “Science, Religion, and Changing Conceptions of Nature: An Interview with John Hedley Brooke

  1. When the experimental sciences demonstrate that the elements and natural factors cannot exert any independent influence and do not possess any creativity; when all of our experiences, our sensory feelings, and our rational deductions point to the conclusion that nothing occurs in nature without a reason and cause and that all phenomena are based on an established system and specific laws, when all of this is the case, it is surprising that some people turn their backs on scientific principles, primary deductions and propositions based on reflection, and deny the existence of the Creator.

    Now, too, in the age of science and technology, when man has found his way into space, a considerable number of scientists have a religious outlook as part of the intellectual system; they have come to believe in the existence of a creator, a source for all beings, not only by means of the heart and the conscience, but also through deduction and logic.

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