The Dialogue — Where It Stands Today and Why It Matters

The Dialogue — Where It Stands Today and Why It Matters

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 Part I

Science and religion are two major long-term themes of human thought-indeed two dominating aspects of human culture, each making major contributions to how we live and think. At issue here is the way we understand ultimate reality and humanity: the very nature of existence. This plays a crucial role in how we see ourselves and how we see the meaning in our lives. Because of this, their interaction is of considerable importance for the way we live and behave, which to a large extent flows from our world-view.

Science and religion have in the past been taken by many to be in deadly conflict, and indeed many have talked of the battle between science and religion. This was, however, by no means a universal position. There is now an increasing recognition of mutuality, with a growing science and religion dialogue taking place, and numerous books appearing on the topic.

This debate recognizes that major areas of concern of science and religion are separate, and in the main no conflict arises between them: science dealing with ‘how’ and religion with ‘why’; science with what is, and religion with what ought to be.  Indeed this view has been formalised by Stephen J. Gould into the idea of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or NOMA with each ruling its separate domain and not even a possibility of conflict. The Bible is not a science textbook telling you about thermodynamics or the periodic table of the elements. Chemistry books do not tell you the meaning of life. You need to go to the appropriate sources for each class of questions.

However, this argument is not sustainable – it is mainly but not always true. There are indeed some areas of common concern and potential conflict. Thus there is a vibrant debate now that aims to clarify this. Some claim there is indeed still a real conflict, with science dominant; others that there is a possibility of peaceful coexistence; and still others that some kind of integration is possible to give a unified world-view that accommodates both, without diluting either. The latter is my own position, as it is of many others, and is reflected in a vibrant and growing literature.

The science and religion dialogue can provide essential benefits both ways-from religion to science, and from science to religion, provided we reinforce the open-minded, non-fundamentalist tendencies on both sides. Indeed the dialogue can be a counter to both religious fundamentalism and scientific fundamentalism, where fundamentalism is defined as those tendencies that claim total access to truth but in fact are proclaiming a partial truth to be the whole truth

The key need is to see what each of these areas, that is, science and religion, can contribute: what is its proper domain of application in human life and understanding, and what lies outside that domain in each case. This discussion also clarifies where tensions remain, those areas where both still make claims and hence there are serious issues to be faced.

The issues

I will talk about this in terms of three major interrelated aspects first in terms of practical issues where the discussion makes a real world difference; theoretical issues that have to do with how we understand, how we make and test theories; and philosophical issues, what we learn from this debate about how things are. These aspects are related by and based in certain foundational understandings, which deal with underlying value systems and overall approaches taken and they are all made concrete in relation to specific issues, where they become real.

These specific issues fall under a number of categories from practical to essential to critical. A practical issue for religion, that is making a real world difference, is the tension experienced by some religious believers caused by the unprecedented increase in our understanding of how the world works given us by modern science. This undermines the faith of many believers and in fact in Europe has led them to leave the church. This is clearly a practical issue for the church. A primary importance of the science and religion dialogue is that it faces this issue and examines to what degree this loss of faith is inevitable if one takes both science and religion seriously. This dialogue can help in developing mature religious understandings that will be robust in the face of modern scientific discoveries: indeed, this is a core project of the science and religion debate. Obviously, this is of real world significance to the religious community.

The universe

First I would like to discuss some issues that I call non-essential issues such as the question of origins of the universe and of life. The mechanism of the evolution of the universe and the large-scale structures in it, that is, cosmology and the physical big bang are now well understood by scientists. The universe started in a smooth hot state with only elementary particles in equilibrium. This hot gas expanded very rapidly and cooled, and with this cooling structures such as galaxies and stars formed spontaneously through the action of gravity. This is the subject of physical cosmology, which is my technical area of work.

The issue where people have seen a relation with religious issues is in the question: was there a start to the universe or not? Is it eternal? Would it be bad for religion if there were no beginning to the universe? It used to be believed by some that if you could prove the universe had a beginning, this would vindicate biblical claims and so would be good for religion. On the other hand, if you could prove that the universe did not have a beginning, as with Fred Hoyle’s theory of the steady-state universe, this would undermine a religious worldview.

However, even in the time of St Augustine it was known that this was a faulty analysis, for the crucial existential issue is not dependent on whether the universe had a beginning in time. This issue does not really make a difference to issues of fundamental causation. It only deals with mechanisms. The fundamental question is why the physical universe has the form it does-why the laws of physics have the specific nature they have, and why the expanding universe has the specific characteristics it has. So whether the universe had a start or not, it is this that remains a fundamental metaphysical question. Why does the universe have this particular form, when it could in principle have had so many other forms?

Some would claim this an issue of the beginning of the universe is an essential one. However, I would claim for most of those in the debate that it is non-essential. God could have created the universe in many different ways, with or without a starting event, and the way she chose to create it is a matter of scientific interest but has no real theological substance. That is simply a question of what mode God chose to use to bring the universe into existence and maintain it in being; the creative power of God remains, whatever the physical vehicle chosen.


The second and much more controversial non-essential issue is that of the origin of life, the mechanism of evolution of animals and humans. A huge amount has been written about what is claimed to be the upsetting of the religious view by Darwinian evolutionary theory. With the modern view of evolution, what you have is an understanding of the incredible self-structuring propensity of nature, which enables the Darwinian evolutionary process to shape animals to function well in their environment. This process has the capacity to create complex organization with a purposeful character by the process of random changes over a long time period leading to animals better adapted to their particular environment. This is a very powerful mechanism that leads to greater and greater complexity, including consciousness, because the ability to think enhances survival capacity.

Now some have seen this as a threat to religion, many have not. From my viewpoint, there is no clash with religion here. The point is the following. In particular, it is based in the way electro-magnetism and quantum theory work. These underlie chemistry, chemistry underlies biochemistry, biochemistry underlies the way that cells function and life comes into being. So in essence it is the laws of physics that allow the spontaneous self-structuring to take place, and then Darwinian evolution leads to apparent design. So from this viewpoint, if you look at the causal chain, it is the nature of physics, which is at issue here. Physics allows the process to take place. And if you have physics as you see it in the universe around us, then the process of the evolution of life becomes almost inevitable. From the viewpoint of theology, it makes no fundamental difference to the issue of design whether God chooses to design individual animals. The new picture would be God designing the laws of physics and designing them in a truly remarkable way that allows creation of life to take place. From a fundamental causation viewpoint, whichever method God chose is equally good.  In fact, it is more wondrous to design the laws of physics so that they have this inevitable consequence. It is truly remarkable feat. I do not see any deep theological issue there either. If God chose to create complex beings including human beings through a process of designing the laws of physics, which lead to that consequence, that is a wonderful way of doing it. There is nothing wrong with that from a theological perspective..

Part II

The nature of existence

However, there are still some deep underlying issues where potential or real conflict can arise. The first of these significant issues is the foundations of existence, the metaphysics and the ontology of cosmology. This is the issue of design and creation returning at a higher level. What underlies existence and its nature? What underlies its relation both to space-time, to matter, and to the laws of physics themselves? Why is there an ordered universe? Why any laws of physics at all? And why are there these particular laws of physics?

One particular important issue arising here is the anthropic question. The way life evolves depends on the universe. We can consider universes with all sorts of properties: bigger or smaller; hotter or colder; expanding faster or slower; with different laws of physics, different kinds of particles, different masses for particles; maybe with different laws of physics altogether. As a cosmologist, one imagines all these different universes and considers what they would be like. In most of them there would be no life at all.

What is clear is that life, as we know it, would not be possible if there were very small changes to either physics or the expanding universe that we see around us. There are many aspects of physics, which, if they were different, would prevent any life at all existing. There are all sorts of subtleties if the whole thing is to work, allowing complexity to emerge: for instance, the difference in mass between the proton and the neutron has to lie in a very narrow range, and the ratio of the electro-magnetic to the gravitational force has to be very finely tuned. If you tinker with physics, you may not get any element heavier than hydrogen; or maybe if the initial conditions of the universe are wrong it doesn’t last long enough, or it’s always too hot, or it expands so rapidly that no stars form at all. So there are all sorts of things that can go wrong if you are the creator trying to create a universe in which life exists. We are now realizing that the universe is a very extraordinary place, in the sense that it is fine tuned so that life will exist. Because of its specific nature, our existence is more or less inevitable: since its start, it was always waiting for us to come into being (as well as other intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe).

A lot of books have been written on this, for instance Just Six Numbers and Our Cosmic Habitat by my friend and colleague Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal. In particular, it has recently been established that the universe is not at present slowing down as we would have expected, but rather is accelerating. It is expanding faster and faster due to a cosmic force known as the ‘cosmological constant’ or ‘quintessence’: various names are used for it. We do not know why this force is there, but we do know that if it were substantially bigger than it is, there would be no galaxies at all, no planets, no life at all. The question is why it has the value it has, when fundamental physics suggests it should have been much larger than it in fact is, with no structure at all forming in the universe and hence no life.

So why does the universe allow life to exist? Some scientists do not see this as a valid issue, but in my view it is a very serious question. There are three main ways of trying to explain it.

The first is pure chance, things just happen to be that way with no further metaphysical implications. This is a logically tenable position, if you like to live with extremely thin philosophies. But it has no explanatory power; it doesn’t get you anywhere. So it is not an argument that is popular in many scientific or philosophical circles.

The second option is the designer or purpose argument: that the way the universe functions reveals intention, the work of some kind of transcendent power or force. Life exists because this fine-tuning intentionally took place. In simple terms, God designed the universe and the laws of physics operational in it in such a way that it was inevitable that life would come in to being.  Physics has this extraordinary ability to underlie the spontaneous development of complexity because that was intended to be the case. This is the theistic view.

The third option is the idea of a multiverse, supported amongst others by Professor Martin Rees, who has studied and written about the problem of fine-tuning in the books I mentioned. He and others propose that this is not the only universe, but that there are millions and millions or even an infinite number of other universes, all with differing properties. Or perhaps there is just one huge universe with many, many different expanding regions like the expanding universe region we can see around us, but each with different physical constants, different rates of expansion, and so on. This enables physicists to start doing what they like, talking about statistics of universes.

If you play the game right, you can say that in this context life is highly probable. In most of these universes life will not occur because conditions will be wrong. But in a few of them it will just happen to work out alright. So although there is an incredibly small probability of a universe existing that will allow life, if there exist enough universes with all sorts of properties occurring, it becomes essentially inevitable that somewhere the right mix of circumstances will occur. There are all these zillions of universes, so in some of them surely life will come into being.

The problem with this explanation is that none of these other universes or expanding universe domains can be observed. They are beyond the part of the universe that we can see, so whatever is said about them can never be proven wrong. In many cases, there is no causal connection with them whatever, so there is not even the faintest possibility of checking their existence or their properties. That makes this a metaphysical rather than a scientific proposal.

The distinguishing feature of science is that you can test its proposals, but there is no way of testing this hypothesis. Martin Gardner writes in his book
What is key in looking at science and religion and how they relate is the appropriate nature of epistemology, that is, the theory of knowledge in this broad-ranging context. What kinds of evidence should we include in our considerations? Science takes repeatable, strictly controlled experiments into account while religion takes into account the daily religious experience of believers. In other words, in each domain different kinds of data are taken into account. How do we test these for validity? How do we relate them to the testing of the nature of reality in broad inclusive explanatory schemes?

So we need to look at the data of the nature of knowledge but there is also the question of the nature of existence, the nature of ontology: what kinds of existence should we assign to entities in the world? Is there only a material physical world, or are other worlds, for instance a Platonic world of mathematics, that we also have to take into account? One has to meditate on existence, the possible kinds of existence. And I claim that from a scientific viewpoint one requires more than just the world of particles and physics.

But the key thing is the relation of epistemology to ontology. How does one relate one’s knowledge to existence? This is one of the key issues at stake. Most of the errors humanity has made over the centuries, from logical positivism on the one hand to extreme relativism on the other, have arisen because we continually confuse epistemology with ontology. Humans continually believe that what they know is what exists. And that is just another example of human hubris.

Our understanding of complex issues derives from making and testing models and theories. Indeed all our understanding is necessarily represented this way. Our brain works by making models of things, testing them, and discarding the models if they don’t work. One of the key points is not to confuse models with reality. Any model is a  partial representation of reality. Many scientists at the present time seem to confuse their models of reality with reality. Religious believers may do the same. There is a lot one can learn by looking at the relation between image and reality. The images we have of reality are mediated by the sensory apparatus and detectors available to us, and each image will be but a partial representation of reality. The data available through each channel is strongly influenced by detection and selection effects.

Furthermore, each of these theories has a limit. Each has a domain of applicability and do not apply outside of their a domain. If you want to understand a theory you must understand its range and applicability. You only understand it if you know its limits of applicability.

Science can help see the multiple ways that a single reality can be represented and understood, and perhaps this is one of the things that non-scientists don’t know so much about. In mathematics, many mathematical concepts can be represented in many different ways. In physics too there are many different representations of the same physical laws. For example, in quantum theory there is a famous equivalence between the Schrodinger theory and the Heisenberg theory, which is not at all obvious initially. These theories can look completely different but are representing the same reality.  So science is a very interesting way of seeing in multiple ways how a single reality can be represented and understood.

This I would see as a force for progress in inter-religious dialogue because of course the same kind