Friday, May 24, 2019

The Limits of Science and Religion (Some Jottings)

As much as I like to see them collaborating on key issues, I also admit that both science and religion have limits and cannot answer all questions.

As for science, it’s not clear to me that it can answer moral questions. As I’ve written in Mere Science and Christian Faith (page 141):

Science can inform, but not dictate ethics. 
We need to look to neuroscience to tell us whether, for example, the prefrontal cortex or the amygdala is "lighting up" and that can indicate whether emotions or rationality are in play as we make a decision. But that cannot, by itself, determine what decision to make.

Science is also always embedded in some metaphysics. The brilliant 20th century British astronomer Fred Hoyle was clear to state that he resisted big bang cosmology because it didn't fit with his materialistic metaphysics. And in general, the sciences do not have the capacity—without the help of philosophical reflection—to make statements about meaning and reality. Science studies the natural world and its relations. 

As the world-class physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne commented, this is why science is so powerful.
John Polkinghorne

Science’s success has been purchased by the modesty of its explanatory ambition. It does not attempt to ask and answer every question that one might legitimately raise. Instead, it confines itself to investigating natural processes, attending to the question of how things happen. Other questions, such as those relating to meaning and purpose, are deliberately bracketed out. This scientific stance is taken simply as a methodological strategy with no implication that those other questions, of what one might call a “why” kind, are not fully meaningful and necessary to ask if complete understanding is to be attained.
Similarly, religious insights have their limits (which, I would distinguish, from God's insights, which are infinite). For one thing, every religious tradition assumes some scientific picture of the world and of the nature of reality. As the theologian Harold Nebelsick noted, "to ignore the discussion of today’s science is simply to discuss our faith in terms that are related to the science of the by-gone era.” We should read Genesis 1-3 as a description of God's creation, not as a scientific text. How would early readers grasp the subtleties of big bang cosmology and quantum physics embedded in the creation of the universe?

I'm not sure if this solves every conflict that looms between science and religion, but it could help.

I'll close this image: I love my cats, but when I sit down to read, I don't think they get what I'm doing (partly because they like to jump up and block the book from my sight).
Likewise, these's a great deal that lies beyond my reach intellectually. But I have faith in the God whose insights are way beyond my (or anyone else's) human understanding. 
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Peril of Making History Too Neat

Magdalene College, where Lewis taught at Cambridge
In writing my book on science and religion in America, I've discovered again the necessity of making historical divisions (such as America between pre- and post-Darwin). This fact led me to offer a brief reflection on the perils of periodization.

My periodization in this book—sometimes as simple as divisions by decades—is admittedly overly neat transition. I do not subscribe to some Hegelian Zeitgeist, which would render this project an attempt to discern a particular “spirit” in each age, voila!out comes the right intellectual history. Still, the historical periods I propose are not entirely arbitrary, and many (pre- and post-Darwin) are standard designations. Nevertheless, I have to admit I use them lightly, with the purpose of creating a positive theoria, which at its root means a way "to see"... more clearly, I hope.

In his 1954 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University
C. S. Lewis summarized expertly the perils of making history too neat. He begins by citing G. M. Trevelyan,
As a great Cambridge historian has said, “Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussions, but very often leading historical thoughts astray.” The actual temporal process, as we meet it in our lives (and we meet it, in a strict sense, nowhere else) has no divisions, except perhaps those “blessed barriers between day and day,” our sleeps. Change is never complete, and change never ceases. Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again…. And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for. A seamless, formless continuity-in-mutability is the mode of our life. But unhappily we cannot as historians dispense with periods. (They Asked For a Paper [Geoffrey Bles, 1962], 10-11, citing Tevelyan, English Social History [1944], 92.)
And Lewis adds a few sentences later, “There is nothing in history that quite corresponds to a coastline or a watershed in geography.” 

Ah, if history were just more clear! And though I'm not an historian—and the book I'm writing about science and religion in America is not, strictly speaking, a book of history—in creating this historical sketch, I have to make divisions as useful heuristic devices.

To step back for a moment, Why do we love to make things neat and tidy, whether it's our lives, our schedules, or the writing of 
history? Hebrews 4:13 says "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight," which means, among other things, that God certainly has all reality in view and, as far as I can tell, doesn't really need historical periods to make sense of reality. And so often we'd like to pretend we're like God by showing how well we comprehend the sequence of events. That's human, to be sure, but perhaps also often a flawed project.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

"The force of our religious intuitions, and of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction"

I'm close to finishing up the manuscript for a book on science and religion in America. At the end, I step back and offer some final reflections. Here's an excerpt of the current version.

If history is a guide, America will continue to blend various forms of belief with unbelief,
rationality and emotion. In that mix, it seems that we as Americans love both religion and science, or what the scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead named 
“The force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction." A. N. Whitehead on religion and science
The curiously American ingredient in this conversation is our dogged insistence on freedom. This often turbulent mix represents a fundamental component to American life, in which we negotiate science and religion’s relationship. Along these lines, historian James Gilbert offered this insight, 
"One of the most creative impulses of American culture is the continuing presence of religion at the heart of scientific civilization." James Gilbert

And what we do in this country resonates throughout the world. We are, to be sure, a remarkably religious people with indicators of religiosity much higher than should be the case for an industrialized nation.This is of course part of what it means to be human. Homo sapiens are Homo religioso—a fact undergirded by contemporary scientific studies

Or as philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) once quipped, 
“Man does not live by machine alone.” Lewis Mumford
I’ve learned that our work in relating these two poles, represented conveniently by “religion” and “science”—the rational, taxonomizing, and analytic, alongside the emotional, blurring, and synthetic—represent a key part of what it means to be human, and not simply what it means to be American. 

As for those, like myself, who hold to a religious tradition—in my case, an orthodox Christianity—I want my faith to engage with mainstream science. And most Christians do not see a conflict. As Ecklund and Scheitle comment
“After five years of research, here is what we know: Religious Americans of all types are interested in and appreciate science.” Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle
For the sake of our souls individually and as a nation, we will be at our best when we learn to bring together science and religion into the integrated whole or at least into a d├ętente. It does not seem warranted to insist, along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, or Andrew Dickson White and William Draper before them, that these two must fight out to the death. I think that might be the death of our culture’s vitality. 

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Technology and Christian Mission: A Reflection on Ex Machina


Ava, the AI humanoid robot
The past few days my science and religion class and I have been watching the 2014 film Ex Machina (starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac). It’s a good rule of thumb that, when topics make their way to film, they’ve become part of our culture’s collective unconscious. I’m reminded of how profound it is, not only for forecasting technology’s arc, but for how we see ourselves. Most pointedly, if the tone of film is our guide, technology, in the character of an Artificial Intelligence humanoid robot that can pass the Turing Test, Ava, brings marked fear.

Why do we fear technology—its presence in our lives and what skulks on the horizon?

Consider the title of the film. Ex Machina. It plays on the old Greek tragedy’s phrase, deus ex machina or “god of the machine.” Apparently, the Greek dramatist Aeschylus coined the term to describe when a machine was operated that lowered actors playing gods onto stage. This could either a crane (a mechane in Greek) from above, or it was a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor. Today we use deus ex machina more broadly to denote an unrealistically resolved plot.

But here, in Ex Machina,the direction is reversed—the plot isn’t wound back into a cosmic harmony, but descends into anarchy. It is not a comedy—where the initial values of the film’s world are restored—but a tragedy, where (spoiler alert) an anonymous AI robot releases herself into the world with the hint of ensuring chaos. The “god” of the machine—Nathan, the creator of Ava—is destroyed.

Partly this is the fear of Big Data—that Nathan, head of internet search firm Blue Book (read: Google), has taken the mass of data collected through our computers, our iPads, our phones, etc. to create an AI brain. All that information is scary (as I read in a recent review of Ex Machina by Popular Mechanics on the "weaponization of data.")

But what if we learned not just to fear technology, or to weaponize it, but harness it for good and for Christian mission?

I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to paraphrase Jesus’s view of the Sabbath: 

“Technology was made for us, not us for technology.” My contemporary adaptation of Jesus's words in Mark 2:27
In the history of the Christian church, we’ve pioneered the technology of the codex (or the book) instead of the scroll to hold our sacred documents. Try finding John 3:16 on an unwieldy scroll versus a nicely bound book. And Paul used the technology of Roman roads to carry the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Moreover—for just one more example—Martin Luther employed the printing press and translation of the Bible into vernacular German to bring the Word back into the hands of the people.

If it sounds like I’m saying that spreading the Gospel through the YouVersion app is part of the mission of the church, and that AI and CRISPR Cas9 gene editing can be used for the good that God has for us, then I’m making my point.

If you also hear me expressing concern that we do very poorly when we’re left to our own devices (as it were), and without prayer, repentance, humility, obedience to Scripture and community discernment, we fail, then this post has been successful.

Do I know exactly what this use of technology for the mission of the church will look like in the coming decades? Absolutely not. As Yogi Berra once opined, 
“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi Berra
Except, of course, we as God’s people can predict that God will take care of us and that we have the power of the Spirit and the grace of our Savior, even when we make errors in judgment. 

That’s one prediction I’m willing to make.