Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On the Theology of Science

My education has been almost purely technical since I began as an undergrad in Physics. Studying a Science, Engineering, or the like is quite intensive, and thus leaves little (if any) room for studying non-technical subjects. Even a tech school has general education requirements; I had 21 credits of humanities and social sciences, but there were not too many choices, and thus I took courses like "The Philosophy of Physics" and "Sociology of the Sciences". These brief introductory statements are meant to be an apology to all of the non-technical types who have a much better education in the field than I.

I read a book last year called "The new physics and a new theology" by Fr. Michael Heller, a priest and physicist who works at the Vatican Observatory. In it, he lays out a brief history of science and scientific thought, especially from the view of natural philosophy, and the history of relations between theologians and scientists up to today. In it he makes many good and interesting points, of which I will not discuss here. He ultimately proposes that a new branch of Theology be developed, which he terms the Theology of Science, to complement scientific inquiry and the philosophy of science.

I have had some time to reflect on such things recently, and, as such, will attempt to expound on this idea. Science asks the question: what is the universe like, and what rational laws with predictive power can we develop to help explain and understand what we observe in the universe? The philosophy of science, however, addresses a different area of thought, asking what methods are valid for scientific inquiry, how can we evaluate scientific claims, and what sort of Truths can we derive from these claims, that is scientific epistemology.

Theology asks further questions, and the theology of science would ask questions like: why does the universe seem to obey rational, mathematically elegant laws? What makes the form of Creation we have observed "good"? What does Creation, and the (scientific) knowledge we gain from observing it, tell us about the Creator? Save the last question I mentioned, the others are still a bit specific rather than general, and fail to capture or define the full scope of the field, but they at least form a starting point to attempt to interact with it.

Attempts to do this have, for the most part, fallen short of actually establishing a field, and I think I agree with Fr. Heller that attempting to stick these ideas into existing theological structures could be doomed to fail, or at the very least will likely prove inadequate in the long run. The problem, he says, is partly language: scientists and theologians surely do not speak the same language. This is made somewhat clear when considering attempts at discussing a theology of creation have been made. As a scientist reading Cardinal Schonborn's book Chance or Purpose? and other things he has written, he misunderstands some scientific statements, and perhaps more fundamentally, he seems to mis-represent (unintentionally, of course) the way that scientists actually think about science. This, says Fr. Heller, is attributable to the middle ages and the age of Aquinas. At the time, Aristotle was all the rage, especially among a certain class of the elites: enough so that some bishops evened banned the reading and teaching of Aristotle. Although the nascent "scientists" of the day were indeed attracted to this philosophy, it did not take too long for them to realize that to make real scientific inquiry would require Platonic (or indeed Archimedean) thought. In the mean time, however Thomas Aquinas "baptized" Aristotle and Theologians have been hooked since, thinking they were now on the same page as the scientists. In fact, Fr. Heller even postulates that your average Thomist today would still think his theological approach was "scientific" and similar to a scientist's approach to his craft.

Now, I don't pretend here to have actually defined the field of Theology of Science, but merely start to reflect on what it might contain, and of what use it might be. I, for one, am most interested in the last of the questions I have posed, namely, what we can learn about the creator by studying His creation. This will be left for another day.

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