Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 2000
Volume 12, Number 1

Ward Addresses Science and Religion Issue

Russell R. Reno
Associate Professor of Theology

On April 3, 2000, Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church at Oxford University, lectured at Creighton University on "Belief in God in a Scientific Age." Over the last decade, Ward has turned to modern science for theological reflection, and his lecture distilled the results. These results promise to repair the modern breach between science and religion. By Ward’s account, modern scientists, especially modern physicists, have come to recognize the "theistic potential" of their study of the natural world. Something like the classical view of creation and Creator is now reemerging in the attempts of scientists to speak about the origin of things. For Ward, five trends support this remarkable turn.

First, the motives for scientific inquiry are many. Technical problems fascinate. The technological imperatives of our complex and now silicon dominated society present unending challenges. In addition to these driving forces, scientists are also motivated by awe. The most influential minds are impressed by the beauty of reality. They want to understand the fundamental principles of the natural world because that world is so remarkable, and because such understanding brings joy. For Ward, this sentiment is a properly religious reaction. To think the cosmos remarkable and eminently worthy of the devotion of life-long study is really very close to regarding creation as a gift.

The second trend has to do with the methods of science. For all their practical results, scientists undertake a long and difficult process of training that abstracts them from "common sense." For example, we are all taught that the earth revolves around the sun. If we take an introductory course in physics, we might even be asked to solve a differential equation that will tell us the speed of the earth’s travel at any given point in the elliptical orbit. This very basic lesson testifies to two features of modern science. Its methods of analysis are extraordinarily powerful, and precisely because powerful, carry us far from simple observation. After all, as we look out the window or walk in the woods, nothing we see or experience could possibly suggest the results of a simple calculation concerning planetary orbit. Modern physics extends far beyond the Newtonian world of our freshman courses in physics. Quantum mechanics is a highly developed and profoundly abstract body of theory, quite removed from ordinary experience. For just this reason, observes Ward, scientific training disciplines us to acknowledge that the best answers to fundamental questions are often extraordinary and unexpected. Who would have thought that space and time are functions of energy? In much the same way, religion extends beyond the ordinary. For theology, the best answers to our questions are supernatural.

Scientists do not just think abstractly, they think mathematically, and in so doing, contribute to Ward's third trend that joins science with religion. In ancient Athens, Plato and his followers commended geometry as the beginning of the philosophical life. Plato recognized that a triangle is an odd object. We can draw a triangle, but it will be imperfect. A line will be less than perfectly straight. The sum of the interior angles will be slightly more or less than 180 degrees. In that sense, the triangle exists as an ideal form. It can be reflected upon; indeed, a body of definition and theorems can be developed, even though no perfect triangles actually exist. For Plato, this is an asset, not a liability, for it trains the mind to seek the perfection of ideas that transcend the imperfections of the actual world. Modern physics employs mathematical concepts far more sophisticated and far more ideal than geometry. Indeed, mathematicians are consistently surprised when the systems they invent purely for their own sakes are conscripted for use by physicists. However, in so doing, modern physics does not flee the actual world as Platonism can tempt us. It uses mathematical abstraction to seek the ideal in the actual. As physics disciplines us to look for the ideal in the real, modern physics parallels theology.

The fourth trend in science follows the collapse of the mechanistic view of the universe that dominated most of the modern period. In the mechanistic universe, all phenomena are locked into a closed system of cause and effect. One billiard ball hits another, and then another, and so on, generating the complex systems of motion and change that make up the natural world. In such a system, nothing "new" can happen. Every effect can be reduced to prevenient cause; every cause yields its consequent effect. This view necessarily excludes divine agency. Modern science still seeks to discern the laws of nature, but the twentieth century has witnessed developments in physics that radically revise the mechanistic model of just how those laws operate. Quantum mechanics interprets subatomic reality in terms of an energy function rather than the interaction of causes and effects. The fundamental dimensions of reality do not act like billiard balls!

The upshot is a personalistic interpretation of the cosmos. Mechanical causality bears no analogy to an act of the will. However, an energy function does allow such analogies. For example, if we have to choose between saying that subatomic particles necessarily behave in a certain way because of they are "caused" to do so, and saying that they have a "habit" of doing so, then modern physics encourages the latter and not the former. In no sense does this make sub-atomic phenomena personal. To speak of "habits" in this realm is to speak metaphorically. Nonetheless, the fact that modern physics allow such metaphors clearly diminishes the centuries long antagonism between scientific pictures of the cosmos and religious views.

The fifth trend that Ward identifies follows closely upon the fourth. As causality has rotated out of the center of scientific explanation, scientific explanation has settled on many forms of influence as the glue that holds the world together. For example, in evolutionary science, environmental conditions do not cause development. One cannot, for example, identify a cause of species extinction, or a cause of the emergence of new species, such that a single factor or set of factors provides a sufficient explanation. Instead, environmental conditions influence development, and those conditions, in concert with the fecundity of genetic flux, produces change in organic life. As Ward reports, many theologians and philosophers of science think of this influence in terms of the effect of the whole upon some part. With this model of whole-part influence, an account of the God-world relationship can be articulated that acknowledges the intrinsic dynamism and principles of natural life while, at the same time, allowing for divine influence. One need not exclude God from the world in order to protect the integrity of naturalistic explanation. Divine influence need not contradict the "laws of nature."

No doubt the five trends that Ward identifies offer promising points of convergence between science and religion. However, not all of the trends show the same promise. Scientific habits of mind - the love of natural beauty, the abstractive move, the use of mathematical objects - are more fruitful than the particular opportunities made possible by twentieth century developments such as quantum mechanics. After all, modern science is an oddly stable and unstable form of human inquiry. Its methods and habits have proven remarkably valuable and durable, its results solid and useful. However, the most ambitious theoretical models of modern science, indispensable for its work, turn out to be vulnerable to improvement, and those improvements are often revolutionary rather than incremental. A physicist educated in 1900 would require massive retraining in order to function in 2000, and the most difficult dimension of that retraining would not be technical or mathematical. The most basic theories of physics have been transformed in the twentieth century, and that basic shift marks the most fundamental of changes. We may well live through another transformation, just as dramatic and just as disorienting. Therefore, theologians should beware. Quantum mechanics is presently a favorite among theologians such as Ward. However, Newtonian mechanics was a great favorite among eighteenth century apologists. Whole-part influence offers a very different model of causality, but the next century may look back with amusement. The Divine Therapist who influences the development of the cosmos may seem as implausible as the Divine Watchmaker who sets the mechanistic universe in motion.

Scientists are aware of the vulnerability of their own best theories. They do not have a false modesty, as if, somehow, modern science is not really effective, not actually valuable as an explanation of the natural world. Instead, they have a proper modesty. They teach, they do research, they interpret results, all with the confidence that modern scientific theory yields genuine knowledge. Yet, they also undertake their work knowing that their most cherished theories may be superseded, and that their favorite models and illustrations may be overturned by even more fruitful and effective modes of explanation. Indeed, the most accomplished scientists attract the brightest students, and thus they train the very minds that will, without doubt, lead the revolutions of the future.

In so doing, the natural sciences demonstrate commitments that most closely parallel religion. That a Nobel prize winning physicist should care so much about the truth that he would devote a great deal of his time to training a young man who might very well turn his cutting edge theoretical innovation into yet another entry in the history of science textbooks is remarkable testimony. This selflessness is no doubt corrupted by the vast sums of money that now course through scientific inquiry. Stock options may do to the integrity of modern science what the Inquisition never could. Nonetheless, the integrity of scientific inquiry remains a striking witness to the triumph of the spiritual. Its submission to and service of truth, its joy in discovery, its efforts to resist the corruptions of pride, vanity and greed, offer a positive and challenging ideal for intellectual life. That ideal may produce theories at odds with (or congenial to) classical Christian theology. However, as a discipline of mind and soul, it will not produce persons at odds with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.