Faith and science 3: Theology and science in conversation







We have seen that since its origins in the early modern period (in the seventeenth century) a distinctive “scientific” approach to the world has emerged and gone through a series of transformations. The basic scientific worldview makes a number of basic assumptions about the structure and nature of reality that have been well supported by the success the scientific method has enjoyed. Among the most important and most basic of these assumptions are:

  • The behaviour of the world we observe is uniform and predictable – what happens here and now is the same, fundamentally, as what happens in every place and at every time. Without this assumption the experimental method is impossible since new experiments would not be relevant to laws governing past events in different places.
  • The predictability of the world is of a kind expressible in mathematical laws that state that given a set of conditions the next event is calculable with exactitude – the world is mathematical in its basic structures. Again, the experimental method is impossible without this assumption since it would be unclear whether new results did or did not conform to the laws used to explain or describe past results.
  • Causation operates from the past to the future. To know what is going to happen it is necessary only to know about things that have already happened. This, too, is a necessary condition of the experimental method since if some of the causes of events were not captured in the description of a particular event then it would be impossible to know whether past descriptions or explanations had been discredited by a new result.

It is important to grasp that these basic assumptions are not obvious (they would not have been accepted by pre-modern people) and are not in principle provable, although we have good reason to accept them given the successes they have enabled. A reality in which none of them hold is imaginable and would still be compatible with what we know about the reality we actually inhabit. Indeed I would argue that they are all subject to some degree of qualification in light of the contemporary scientific story about the nature and history of our universe. (For more see part 1 of this series)

We have also seen that over the last 150 years there has been a distinct shift in the basic picture of the nature of the universe held by “science”. Before the middle of the nineteenth century a “Newtonian” view held sway. This asserted that the basic framework (space and time) and constituents (matter) of the universe were essentially fixed and unchanging. The events that occur are reducible to movements of matter through absolute (“real”) space over periods of absolute time. Time and space were the same for all matter and matter itself was not subject to change, only to movement. This enabled the thought that everything that was going to happen was in principle predictable given sufficiently detailed and accurate knowledge about the past and the present, an idea particularly associated with the eminent French mathematician, scientist and politician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).

With the development of geology and Darwinian evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century there emerged an awareness of “historical” or developmental processes in the physical structure and the biological population of the natural order. With the linked development of cosmology (the science of the Universe at the largest scale) and particle physics (the science of the smallest scale structures of reality) this awareness has been extended to the fundamental constitution of all reality. The observable universe has a beginning, now fairly accurately dated, and a history. Even the most basic particles did not exist at that beginning and the history shows the emergence of more and more complex structures, each successive level having its own sets of behaviours governed by new laws which must be deployed to describe and explain what happens.

Even space and time themselves are emergent properties of this process of development and it is now a point of debate in cosmology whether events do, in fact, flow straightforwardly in time or whether, now time is regarded as one dimension of the unified “space-time” of General Relativity, we should conceive of time as a dimension along which movement is, in principle, possible in the other direction (a theory called the “block universe”).


The tendency to see reality as structured into “layers” with more complex entities emerging over time and having their own law-governed behaviours not straightforwardly reducible to those of simpler levels introduces the possibility of “top-down causation” in which events describable using the categories of the lower levels cannot be fully explained without recourse to those at the higher levels. One example might be the complex chemical reactions that take place within a living organism. These can be described using only the tools of chemistry but this would not explain how they come about, since without the complex structures of the organism they would never occur, since the precursor chemicals have had to be created within the organism and brought together under the correct conditions. The extremely complex chemical structure of the DNA of a plant or animal can be described using chemical formulae but would never come into being without the long and complex chain of events that produces this particular living thing. (For more see part 2 of this series)

So what does theology have to say about all this and what difference does any of it make to theology? This has been an area given great attention by theologians over the last few decades and increasingly so over the last decade. There is a huge amount of material and a wide variety of positions. I would like to single out a few that seem particularly important and fruitful and which are common among many of those writing in the field.


Firstly Christian theology must always insist on the importance of purpose, goal and the future in thinking about the base structure of reality. It has been an important insight for and from the scientific approach to reality that much of what happens is explicable and much that is going to happen if predictable from the past. Many events are fully determined by their preconditions. However it is fundamental to the way Christians conceive the relationship between God and the created order that there was a purpose in God’s creation and that God is still working that purpose out. Christians can differ about the precise nature of that purpose (or purposes) and about the ways in which God works to bring it (or them) about but I would argue one cannot be a Christian and deny the meaningfulness of Creation to God or that he is striving to realise the purpose or purposes he has for it. A full explanation of reality will have a purpose-related (teleological) dimension.


Secondly theology will be interested in and should be open to the shift away from a fully deterministic picture of the Universe. This has two key elements. In the first place there has been the recognition and acceptance of what I referred to above as “top down causality”, that is to say the emergence of genuinely novel and irreducible causal laws when structures at higher levels of complexity emerge (which we now know to be a historical process in time). Full explanations of events become more complex (have more kinds of cause at work) as we move forward and this is not, as far as we can see, fully reducible to explanations at the lower level.

Secondly there are two forms of radical unpredictability now recognised in the structures of reality. At the level of quantum mechanics (the tiniest particles and smallest units of energy) there appears to be no way of specifying what particular events will take place. There is statistical predictability such that one can say what the probabilities of particular outcomes are over large sets of events and this good statistical predictability gives rise to regularity and predictability at the scale of objects we can interact with in our everyday lives but at the base level there is extreme and irreducible unpredictability. On the other hand at the level of the largest and most complex systems (like the planetary weather system) chaos theory has demonstrated that very small differences in the starting conditions can lead to very large differences in outcomes (the famous “butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil causing a storm in China”). In these highly complex systems radical unpredictability (at the level of detail) is caused by these chaotic effects (although again statistical methods allow a good level of prediction at the level of the system, as in weather forecasting).


This openness of the future and amenability of outcomes being affected “top down” by causal mechanisms acting at higher levels of organisation or structure are both welcome to theology and in part at least explain, I think, the increased interest of theologians in scientific matters more recently and the greater willingness of scientists with faith to engage actively with theological questions.


So theology wants to assert the importance of teleological (purpose-related) explanations and welcomes the loosening of the grip of reductionist (everything is explicable in terms of physics) and determinist (everything can in principle be predicted) ideas within the scientific world-view.


There is a third vital dimension to the interaction between theology and science in the contemporary world. There is, I think, a shift in the way the act of creation is thought about. 150 years ago it would have been quite natural to think of God’s creative act as something that happened in the past and is now finished with any further involvement of God with Creation as something fundamentally discontinuous with and different from it. This idea is very difficult to maintain in face of a picture of the Universe in which fundamental change has been a constant reality. Creation now tends to be thought of as an unfinished and ongoing project in which God’s final purpose requires further changes to the structures of reality (even if these are thought of as only at the highest levels of complexity).


All these points of intersection will be further explored as this series goes on to look at two areas of particular interest to Christian theology:first the nature of consciousness and its relation to Christian ideas about the nature of human being; and second the final destination and fate of the universe, the end of all things, how it’s all going to turn out.


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