Disciplining the Transdisciplinary: The Religion-Science Revolution and Five Minds for the Future

Disciplining the Transdisciplinary: The Religion-Science Revolution and Five Minds for the Future

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In the public mind, religion/science is generally believed to be an “interdisciplinary field.”  If one is to understand and evaluate this claim, it’s necessary to think carefully about disciplines:  What makes a discipline?   What is does “interdisciplinary” or “multi-disciplinary” entail?  What makes an inquiry trans-disciplinary?  And into which category does “religion-science” best belong?

One frequently hears, “Women (or, alternatively:  Men) … you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.”  The thesis for the following pages is similar:  “Disciplines … you can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.”  The existence of two or more disciplines already raises the need to transcend disciplinary thinking and to draw connections.  Yet the demands for excellence that disciplinary thinking entails can never be left behind.

What Robert Frost wrote about fences applies also to disciplines:

SOMETHING there is that doesn’t love a wall,  
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,  
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;  
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.[…]

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;  
And on a day we meet to walk the line  
And set the wall between us once again.  
We keep the wall between us as we go. […]

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know  
What I was walling in or walling out,  
And to whom I was like to give offence.  
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,  
That wants it down […]

[…] I see him there,  
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top  
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.  
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.  
He will not go behind his father’s saying,  
And he likes having thought of it so well  
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Something in humans also seeks to transcend the “limitations” that disciplines impose.  We are intuitive beings; our minds and hearts race beyond any specific set of givens; we resist categorizations as much as we rely upon them.

Nor is our resistance completely unfounded.  Indeed, we face here an urgent social and intellectual problem:  a slavish adherence to specialized disciplinary thinking threatens to drain the lifeblood from the human intellectual quest. Too often we dissect the heart out of the phenomena being examined until no life is left.  One sees this tendency when scientific analyses remain blind to the ethical dimension — blind to the impact of scientific knowledge on the human quality of life, blind to the effect of technologies on the viability of the terrestrial ecosystem as a whole.  It’s typical of the blindness that disciplinary thinking can engender to survey the trees and lose sight of the forest in the process.

In no area is the risk greater than in the study of religion.  If you dissect and lay out the pieces of religion with the objective eye of an anatomist, you may obtain knowledge of its structure and its functions.  But then you show forth the depth and beauty of religion about as effectively as the entomologist who tacks up a dead butterfly in his display case.  Do we not also need to allow religion to flap its wings and move freely in its natural habitat?  Not that seeking to understand religious phenomena is misguided; still, always our goal must be (as Karl Marx insisted) not merely to understand.  Religion has a life that needs to be felt, experienced, and lived in order to be comprehended.  It is no more accessible to purely dispassionate reason than the heart of an intimate relationship is to the surgeon’s scalpel.

How then are we to study religion, especially in science-religion dialogue, without in the process losing what we’re seeking to find?  “Holistically,” one is often told, and “in light of the unity of knowledge.”  In the end, surely this is right.  But the answer is not so simple; holism brings dangers and weaknesses of its own.  For example, my email inbox is regularly filled by proposals send to me by hopeful individuals who are certain that they alone have synthesized science and religion.  I recently received a book entitled Intelligent Design:  Message from the Designers, the content of which, one reads, was communicated to the author by extraterrestrials.  Other would-be authors tell me that quantum fluctuations or chaos theory are the key to understanding ultimate truth, and still others believe that they alone have discovered something in human consciousness that will unify all human experience.  What all of these prophets share in common — and what we must overcome — is the belief that one’s own private insights are sufficient for establishing the truth.  No, proposals and hypotheses are just that; they are suggestions for making progress toward an effective synthesis.  Our proposals are no better than the feedback we can obtain for testing them.  Hence in these pages I will focus on disciplining the science-religion debate.

Establishing a New Partnership

Two of the major movements today that clearly transcend disciplinary thinking are the religion-science dialogue and the transdisciplinarity movement.  In this section I seek to uncover some of the deep similarities between these two important movements, in order to show why it is natural that they should be paired.  To wed transdisciplinarity and the religion-science dialogue in this way is a potentially revolutionary move, with important implications for education, for research, and for politics.

The “Charter of Transdisciplinarity” presents a clarion call:  “[O]nly a form of intelligence capable of grasping the cosmic dimension of the present conflicts is able to confront the complexity of our world and the present challenge of the spiritual and material self-destruction of the human species…”1  The topic of science and religion raises the challenge of thinking in a new way.  Because religion generally seeks a unifying perspective, it confronts one with the quest for “the unity of knowledge.”  But because knowledge concerns a multi-leveled, multi-valent reality, what we seek can only be a dialectical unity, a unity-in-difference.  Thus Article 2 of the Charter insists, “The recognition of the existence of different levels of reality governed by different types of logic is inherent in the transdisciplinary attitude.  Any attempt to reduce reality to a single level governed by a single form of logic does not lie within the scope of transdisciplinarity.”  Each level of reality requires its own distinct type of explanation.

There are four signs of true transdisciplinarity:  “[1] Transdisciplinarity complements disciplinary approaches.  [2] It occasions the emergence of new data and new interactions from out of the encounter between disciplines.  [3] It offers us a new vision of nature and reality.  [4] Transdisciplinarity does not strive for mastery of several disciplines but aims to open all disciplines to that which they share and to that which lies beyond them” (Charter, Article 3).  This type of inquiry is not merely interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, that is, it does not merely add disciplinary perspectives together or study some new, third area within the framework of existing disciplines along.  

Specifying exactly what is the alternative turns out, however, to be a rather complex undertaking.  Basarab Nicolescu give perhaps the best clue:  “As the prefix ‘trans’ indicates, transdisciplinarity concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond all discipline.  Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the unity of knowledge.”2  Such an inquiry is essentially an open-ended pursuit, one that challenges all firm walls and boundary-drawing.  It therefore finds itself confronted with the limits of knowledge, and indeed eventually begins to push up against the limits of what can be said. 

How does one contrast disciplinary knowledge and transdisciplinary knowledge?  These two types of knowledge are complementary, not antagonistic.   Transdisciplinary knowledge is not anti-scientific; it cannot be opposed to disciplinary knowledge but must grow out of it in an organic fashion.  As we will see, this fact suggests that one cannot do truly transdisciplinary work if one has not mastered the relevant disciplines.  Transdisciplinarity is neither a “gleeful holism” nor a cheap, “anything goes” philosophy.  It lives from the rigor of dialectic, the rigor of the logic of inclusion. 

This brief summary can only hint at the content of an international movement with more than three decades of history, centuries of pre-history, and hundreds of detailed publications and conferences to its credit.  Still, even these few paragraphs are enough to suggest that transdisciplinary  thinking is highly relevant to the exploding field of religion and science.  Science-religion studies, I suggest, are inherently transdisciplinary.

Despite these close connections — or, better, because of them — we must also ask the uncomfortable questions:  Are there any dangers associated with transdisciplinarity?  Are there any weaknesses in the science-religion field that might be exacerbated by transdisciplinary perspectives?  The fact that I must now raise a series of cautions and concerns does not imply that the entire perspective is problematic — far from it!  Rather, I use transdisciplinarity as a lens to shed light on weaknesses manifest in contemporary religion-science work.  Some of these weaknesses are so urgent that they must be addressed as immediately and strongly as possible.

The Challenges of Exploding Popularity

My worry concerns nothing less than the very future of the field of religion and science.  To put it bluntly:  our field stands at a major crossroads.  The public interest in science-religion connections is increasing, and the urgency of this work is greater than ever.  The field may succeed at mastering the challenges before which it stands today, or it may fail in this task.

Until about 15 years ago, religion/science was something like a “mom and pop shop.”  Widely ignored by most academics and by the broader public, it involved only a small number of full-time participants.  In this last few years, however, this “mom and pop shop” has grown far beyond the few hard-working figures who founded the field.  Today there is worldwide interest in what the discussion has to offer; business is increasing and expanding beyond the wildest imagination of religion-science scholars (say) twenty years ago.  Internationally, people are recognizing that this field speaks to the central crisis of our age, that the complementarity of science and religion is essential if humanity is to solve the problems that stand before it — roblems such as the environmental crisis, religiously motivated warfare, and the bioethical issues that are dividing people and nations.

Suddenly the mom and pop shop has the opportunity to become a major multinational business.  It is taking root in vastly different cultures and religions, opening thousands of subsidiaries, and beginning to influence world leaders in science, religion, and politics.  Will it grow in stature and maturity to match its new position of worldwide importance?  Or will the possibility of integrating the best of human science with the best of human religious thought fall instead into trivia, distraction, and contradiction?  Will inferior work and small-mindedness cause this dialogue to elicit no more than a “ho hum” response from intellectuals and opinion leaders around the world?  Will it sell its soul for power and money, succumbing to a sort of “MacDonaldization” of the field?  Or will it speak with power and with depth to the deepest crises of our day?

There is no question about the need for this sort of work.  But need is unfortunately not a sufficient condition for success.  It is crucial that the science-religion discussion not fail, yet it’s fully possible that it will fail.  What are the attitudes and skills that the leaders of this field need in order to succeed?  What is the mindset that we need – or better:  what are the mindsets that we need?

Religion-science scholarship, like all kinds of transdisciplinary thought, will fail, if it fails, because it allows itself to fall into cheap syntheses, letting just anything count as success.  It will fail, if it fails, because it ceases to retain traction with the results of scholarship in other areas, sliding lightly over the surface of the disciplines, blissfully unaware of the complexities that they offer.

Traction is crucial.  A few days ago I watched the Indianapolis 500, amazed, like so many others, to see race cars navigating four 90-degree corners at upwards of 220 miles per hour.  Somehow those four small tires could get enough “grip” on the pavement to carry the cars and their drivers through the perilous corners.  On a few occasions, however, the traction was not sufficient, and the cars broke into wild skids, slamming into the concrete retaining walls with horrific effects.  Similarly, the science-religion dialogue must find a way to retain traction with the fields that it encompasses:  the relevant natural sciences; the social sciences; theology and religious studies across the world religions; and philosophy, which provides the conceptual sophistication necessary to make sure the links are real and not illusory.

Yet here is the tragedy:  only a small fraction of the publications that appear under the rubric “science and religion” show any real traction with even one of these areas, much less two or three of them.  It is all too easy to make global statements about connections across the disciplines.  And it is even more exhilarating to speak of a “new synthesis” that transcends disciplinary connections altogether.  Howard Gardner, in the work to which I next turn, distinguishes between lumpers and splitters.  For “lumpers,” everything connects to everything else and all is one, whereas “splitters” engage in an unending process of division that threatens to keep them from ever asserting anything or getting anywhere.  Will it turn out that ours is a field of lumpers?

Let’s be honest:  large audiences around the world clamor for bold assertions about the unity of science and religion, and the desire to meet this demand often lifts speakers beyond the careful constraints of good scholarship.  The media is similar.  Just think of the unrivaled international success enjoyed by the recent film, What the bleep do we know?  A hit for many months across the United States, it enjoyed similar responses in Europe, in Turkey, in India, and elsewhere.  The film offers a brilliant example of what I will call the fallacy of science-to-religion free association.  Almost imperceptibly, it moves from plausible presentations of contemporary physics, through increasingly controversial interpretations of quantum phenomena, to virtual nonsense colorfully asserted by people with no standing whatsoever within the sciences.  Viewers, seduced by the gradual progression, in the end find themselves nodding to the words of a passionate mystic who affirms that the real message of science is, “We all create our own reality.”  Indeed, critics have pointed out, the film’s content is apparently based on the work of a medium who “channels” the words of the spirit Ramtha.3  Still, the utterly arbitrary claims of What the bleep are only the most painful examples of a tendency that runs through much of our field.

Five Minds for the Future

In an important new book, Howard Gardner identifies five “minds” that will be crucial for coping successfully with the future.  The ever-changing ecological, political, and cultural landscape will pose a new set of opportunities and dangers.  These, Gardner claims, are “the kinds of minds that people will need if they — if we — are to thrive in the world during the eras to come.”4  As it turns out, Gardner’s five minds also speak powerfully to the dilemma we have been exploring.  I present each of Gardner’s five minds, followed by its definition:

First, the disciplined mind:  “Employing the ways of thinking associated with major scholarly disciplines (history, math, science, art, etc.) and major professions (law, medicine, management, finance, etc., as well as crafts and trades); capable of applying oneself diligently, improving steadily, and continuing beyond formal education.”5  Gardner recognizes that each discipline represents a set of distinctive habits of mind, strengths, and skills.  These do not come easily; it generally takes at least a decade of sustained training in a specialization to develop a disciplined mind, as well as ongoing practice once that period has passed— something like two hours a day.  In support of this claim Gardner quotes Artur Rubinstein’s famous comment, “When I don’t practice for a day, I know.  When I don’t practice for two days, the orchestra knows it.  And when I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.”6  So disciplinary excellence is a life-long project.  Without this excellence, we have no chance of solving complex problems such as global warming.

Gardner’s foil for the disciplined mind is “the Undisciplined Mind,” the mind that does not see the importance of specialization or developing systemic knowledge of a particular discipline.  Undisciplined minds have only a shallow understanding of a field, and are prone to make mistakes in judgement and analysis.  They may have mastered a series of facts, but have not gained mastery over a way of thinking.  We will return to the question of how this danger is relevant to the religion-science field.

Second, the synthesizing mind:  “Selecting crucial information from the copious amounts available; arraying that information in ways that make sense to self and to others.”7  The synthesizing mind is able to fit pieces together into a coherent whole.  As Vartan Gregorian once quipped, “Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.”8  The specific crisis of our age is the great flood of information, spawned by specialization and retained with the help of humanity’s newest helper, the computer.  Only powerfully synthetic concepts and perspectives can keep decision-makers and scientists from getting lost in the maze of data.  We need something like the “pruning algorithms” that computer scientists employ to shave down the complexity and make it manageable.  There is no algorithm for synthesis, but there are approaches that make it more likely that one will achieve it.9  Note, by the way, that religion is among the most synthetic perspectives of all.  It operates at the level of the meaning of existence as a whole, affirming (what it takes to be) the highest values or the most ultimate reality.  Religious thought invariably draws on the synthesizing mind.

Third, the creating mind:  “Going beyond existing knowledge and syntheses to pose new questions, offer new solutions, fashion works that stretch existing genres or configure new ones; creation builds on one or more established disciplines and requires an informed ‘field’ to make judgments of quality and acceptability.”10  Thinking “outside the box” involves risk, the continuing pursuit of novel ways of seeing and thinking.  The creative mind is not a given and can’t be achieved by any formulas; Gardner rightly calls it “the occasional emergent.”11  It is more frequent in those who remain continually dissatisfied with existing answers, who seek for different ways to put the pieces together:

The creator stands out in terms of temperament, personality, and stance.  She is perennially dissatisfied with current work, current standards, current questions, current answers.  She strikes out in unfamiliar directions and enjoys — or at least accepts — being different from the pack….  She is tough skinned and robust….  And even when an achievement has been endorsed by the field, the prototypical creator rarely rests on her laurels; instead, she proceeds along a new, untested path, fully ready to risk failure time and again in return for the opportunity to make another, different mark.12

One would expect that constructive proposals for linking science and religion would involve creative syntheses of this sort, yet great moments of creativity in our field are relatively rare.  Gardner identifies one reason: “informed challenges to orthodoxy” require “at least partial mastery of disciplined and synthesizing thinking.”13

Fourth, the respectful mind:  “Responding sympathetically and constructively to differences among individuals and among groups; seeking to understand and work with those who are different; extending beyond mere tolerance and political correctness.”14  This fourth mind balances out the irreverent and “outside the box” thinking of the preceding one.  Interestingly, it brings with it increased tolerance for positions different from one’s own:

We homo sapiens must somehow learn how to inhabit neighboring places — and the same planet — without hating one another, without lusting to injure or kill one another, without acting on xenophobic inclinations even if our own group might emerge triumphant in the short run….  Rather than ignoring differences, being inflamed by them, or seeking to annihilate them through love or hate, I call on human beings to accept the differences, learn to live with them, and value those who belong to other cohorts.15

But respect is not only about tolerance; it is also a “political-religious stance” that emphasizes the tenets of pacifism and reconciliation.  Progress in all spheres requires respect for the great achievements of the past, the awareness that we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”  In the science-religion sphere this is expressed in particular as humility before the great wisdom traditions of the past.

And finally, the ethical mind:  “Abstracting crucial features of one’s role at work and one’s role as a citizen and acting consistently with those conceptualizations; striving toward good work and good citizenship.”16  The ethical person asks what are her obligations; she seeks to formulate the deeper values that should guide one in a given situation.  This it to take the long-term perspective, or what others have called “the fourth-generation rule”:  act not only for the good of your children and grandchildren, but for those who will be living long after your grandchildren have died.  It involves “adopting the role of the trustee, who assumes stewardship of a domain and is willing to speak out even at personal cost.”17  This is language familiar to the Abrahamic traditions (and elsewhere!); one thinks of the “stewards of creation” idea in the Jewish and Christian texts, and of the notion of the “vice-regent” in Islam.

If there were time, it would be fascinating to explore the opposites of each of these minds.  There are two different ways this can be done.  For each of the minds, in its positive sense, there is a reductio ad absurdum — the mindset that results when it is taken to an absurd level or degree.  Thus the reductio ad absurdum of disciplined mind is narrow-mindedness, of the synthesizing mind is drawing superficial connections that erase real differences, of the creating mind is what I call the “California creative” (“whatever feels good,” without standards or discipline), of the respectful mind is fawning or blind respect, and of the ethical mind is an attitude that is moralistic, judgmental, self-righteous, or litigious.   One can also identify “pseudoforms” of each of the five minds.  Thus pseudoforms of the disciplined mind include “asserting of mastery without a decade or so of practice; following rigidly the letter of procedures without a sense of the purposes and boundaries of the discipline and the areas where thinking needs to be flexible the conventional wisdom is inappropriate; faking one’s preparation or performance.”18

It is a rich and productive exercise to apply these five minds to the emerging religion-science discussion; readers can immediately recognize applications of their own.  Indeed, one might even argue that top religion-science scholars tend to be naturally gifted at as many as four of the five minds.  Their field demands that they be creative.  Recall that the creating mind “goes beyond existing knowledge and syntheses to pose new questions, offer new solutions, … [to] stretch existing genres [and to] configure new ones.”  They must be synthesizers.  Again, recall that the synthesizing mind “selects crucial information from the copious amounts available [and] arrays that information in ways that make sense to self and to others.”  We are respectful to the extent that we honor the wisdom traditions and draw continually from them.  And we known as ethical to the extent that we bring religiously-based values to bear on the dilemmas raised by contemporary science and technology.  Four out of five is not a bad track record.

Transdisciplinarity without Discipline

Honesty, however, compels us to look at what, it would seem, we’re not so good at — the fifth area.  Our field is by nature transdisciplinary, but what of discipline

Recall that the disciplined mind dedicates at least ten years of his or her life to specializing in a particular discipline or sub-discipline and to mastering it — its modes of analysis, its ways of thinking, and its associated fields.  Disciplined minds draw on a knowledge base that is deep and wide, and they are skilled at extrapolating from it to new problems within their fields.  These skills arise because they have dedicated themselves to a particular body of knowledge and way of thinking, and then have developed mastery of that field over an extended period of time.  This achievement does not come easy:

Disciplines represent a radically different phenomenon.  A discipline constitutes a distinctive way of thinking about the world.  Scientists observe the world; come up with tentative classifications, concepts and theories; design experiments in order to test these tentative theories; revise the theories in light of the findings; and then return, newly informed, to make further observations, redo classifications, and devise experiments.19

The hallmark of disciplined thinking is persistence and dedication.  It has at least four essential requirements20:

  1. Identify truly important topics or concepts within a discipline.  This involves both content and method; it also includes the ability to prioritize information and to recognize  more and less foundational knowledge.
  2. Spend a significant amount of time on this topic.  Mastery correlates with the amount of time spent working in a field.  There are no shortcuts or easy fixes; for example, nothing substitutes for the years of working problem sets or writing essays.
  3. Approach the topic in a number of ways.  Mastering multiple perspectives and theories is crucial.  Think, for example, of the interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Religion-science folk frequently assert that quantum physics is an important opening to religion.  Yet even scholars are often familiar only with a single theory of quantum phenomena, say that of Bohr or the Copenhagen interpretation.  One’s work is serious only if one can list all the major interpretations in physics today (including decoherence theories), argue for a given interpretation, and then make application to religion.
  4. Set up opportunities to perform and test your understandings under a variety of conditions.  Here the message is clear:  test, test, test!  Seek critical feedback at every juncture.  Try to falsify your own proposals.  When William Phillips’ group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) achieved the results in “laser cooling” for which he won the Nobel Prize (cooling and trapping atoms with laser light), they took their data to the two major research groups with which they were competing, presented all the results, and asked for the most thoroughgoing criticism they could get.  Only when their leading competitors were unable to discover any errors did they proceed to publish their results — for which Phillips was later awarded the Nobel.  How often do religion-science scholars seek scrutiny of their proposals with this sort of intensity?

Indeed, Gardner has harsh words for those who seek to take shortcuts:

The absence of disciplinary thinking matters.  Shorn of these sophisticated ways of thinking, individuals remain essentially unschooled — no different, indeed, from uneducated individuals — in how they think of the physical world, the biological world, the world of human beings, the world of imaginative creations, the world of commerce.  They have not benefited [sic] from the genuine progress achieved by learned individuals in the past few thousand years.21

These are harsh words.  But they are well worth considering.  Think again of the What the bleep example.  We fault some religious dogmatists for uncritical thinking.  But do we not fall equally into our own fads?  Only disciplinary expertise can equip scholars in this field and allow them to competently make and evaluate claims concerning religion-science relations.  There is also a political dimension:  without such expertise, undisciplined minds are prone to being overly swayed by the opinions of others:

In the absence of these forms of thinking [viz., disciplined analysis], undisciplined individuals may not even be able to ascertain which persons or ideas are reliable guides, informants, opinion leaders.  And so they become easy game for charlatans and demagogues.22

What does Transdisciplinarity have to Teach Religion/Science?

I derive four lessons from the progression of the argument to this point:

(1) Religion/science is not merely placing two disciplines side by side and noting that they can coexist.  It requires “thirdness,” the creation of new integrative connections that don’t already exist within either discipline on its own.  Creative synthesis involves much more than creating a sort of translation manual that maps terms from one discourse onto terms from another. 

We need to move beyond simple Bridge-Building.   Too often one hears arguments such as:

  • “Quantum mechanics manifests complementarity between wave and particle.  Therefore, it makes sense to speak of Jesus Christ as both God and man.”
  • “The natural world reveals emergent process, the emergence of new out of old.  Therefore God should be seen as an unending process.”
  • “In the equations of quantum field theory, an individual particle is the product of forces extending over the field.  Therefore, the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination is supported by science.”

These three religious statements may in fact be justified.  But they are not justified merely by citing an analogy with some area of science.  Hard conceptual work has to be done to move from the level of scientific statements to the level of genuinely religious statements.  There are no shortcuts here; we must construct the conceptual framework that makes these sorts of connections plausible.

(2) Transdisciplinarity is hard work.  It requires real listening, an intense engagement with results and ways of thinking foreign to one’s own; a high tolerance for ambiguity; the formulation of risky hypotheses; and — hardest of all — the drive to find ways to test one’s own proposals.  Under the banner of postmodernity our age has gleefully abandoned Karl Popper’s call for “falsifiability.”  But one would wish for rather more dedication to the project of subjecting one’s pet theories to serious testing.  Real conceptual integration is not to be confused with gleeful holism.  If scientific results and methods exercise no control on results on our field, we should rename the field.23

(3) Religious concerns are not merely pleasant coloring around the margins of scientific truth.  If there is to be science-religion interaction, religion must be asked, indeed required, to make its contribution as well — as in the demanding methodology of “creative mutual interaction” developed by Robert J. Russell.24 

The structure of conferences provides one of the clearest tests of whether religious thought is being allowed to play a real role or is being marginalized.  The most painful example I have yet experienced occurred a few years back at a highly-publicized religion-science conference at a big-name U.S. university.  Although it was billed as a science-religion conference, the “round table” on religion and science was saved for the very end of the conference.  As the scientists one by one overextended their time, the conference organizer kept coming to the round table participants and telling them to shorten their talks:  from 40 minutes each, down to 30, to 20, to 10.  As the last morning dawned, the scientific speakers began to pack their bags and slide inconspicuously out the side doors of the conference hall.  In the end, the 40-minute “religious perspectives” became 3-minute thesis statements, spoken to a mostly empty room.  As I recall, the organizers dubbed the conference a “profitable dialogue between science and religion.”

But, lest one rush to ascribe the blame to scientists, recall the treatment of science within conferences run by religious scholars.  Here the organizers often enlist a few carefully chosen scientists, often long retired, from among the ranks of their own religious tradition.  The scientists’ warmly received keynote talks proclaim how easily the various sciences can be unified with the religion in question.  With large smiles the theologians then proceed to spell out the full doctrinal implications of this good news.  Here, too, the participants can then proclaim that they have successfully synthesized their particular religious tradition with contemporary science.

(4) Finally, religion/science does not mean the transcending of all reference groups.  Proposals in our field require critical feedback from scientists, philosophers, theologians, and scholars of religion – as well as from scholars who themselves specialize in drawing connections across these fields.  With this we reach the central thesis of this paper — the call to discipline transdisciplinarity.  As C. S. Peirce recognized, there is no discipline without a relevant community of experts.  Or, in Gardner’s words, “In the rush toward interdisciplinary [or, for that matter, transdisciplinary] gold, one runs a risk of integrations that are premature, and, indeed, undisciplined.”25

Here is the difference between a serious scholar in science and religion and a charlatan:  the charlatan sends a copy of his book to everyone who will listen (and a number who won’t), wanting to enlighten them with the wonderful truth he has achieved.  The scholar sends his or her proposals to leading experts and asks them to criticize them as soundly and powerfully as they are able.  When Stuart Kauffman completed his new book on emergence recently and sent me a copy to evaluate, I noticed that he was also seeking criticisms from a leading cosmologist, a leading philosopher of biology, a leading cognitive scientist, and several physicists in areas outside of his own area of specialization.  The sign of a really great scholar in our field is not that she can think thoughts no one has thought before, but that she is brilliant enough to incorporate devastating criticisms of her earlier proposals and to make out of her first draft a profoundly improved second draft.


The concern that has motivated these pages is the future of the field of religion and science.  My contention has been that our field stands at a major crossroads.  The public interest in our work is increasing, and the urgency of the topic is greater than ever.  And yet we face great challenges. 

How do we respond?  We do our work with the same passion and drive with which we have always done it.  Indeed, I suggest, we have to do it better:

  • with a keen awareness of the ethical dimensions of the topics we work on;
  • with a deep respect for the religious and wisdom traditions of the world;
  • with continuing creativity in the search for connections that go beyond the science-religion discussion as it has been carried out so far;
  • with a drive for new syntheses that are brave, novel, and profound — syntheses that are not merely interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary, but truly transdisciplinary; and, finally,
  • with a disciplined mind — not less knowledgeable in the various fields in which we work, not less expert than the experts in each field, but with an uncompromising drive to excellence

We will not make a permanent mark on the world unless we show a profound understanding of the science with which we engage— that is, the data, the theories, and the ways of thinking of each scientific discipline — and of the religions we discuss — their histories, their beliefs, their practices — and of the conceptual ground on which they meet.  Only then can we rise to the level of “transdisciplinarity and the unity of knowledge.”  Only then will we be able to plumb the depths of the science-religion dialogue … and perhaps to move beyond that dialogue as the world has known it so far.



1.  The Charter of Transdisciplinarity is available on the website of the International Center for Transdisciplinary Studies and Research, http://nicol.club.fr/ciret/english/charten.htm (verified May 20, 2007).

2. See Basarab Nicolescu, “The Transdisciplinary Evolution of the University: Condition for Sustainable Development,” available online at http://nicol.club.fr/ciret/bulletin/b12/b12c8.htm.  In the same article Prof. Nicolescu puts the point powerfully: “Disciplinary research concerns, at most, one and the same level of Reality; moreover, in most cases, it only concerns fragments of one level of Reality. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity concerns the dynamics engendered by the action of several levels of Reality at once.  The discovery of these dynamics necessarily passes through disciplinary knowledge.  While not a new discipline or a new superdiscipline, transdisciplinarity is nourished by disciplinary research; in turn, disciplinary research is clarified by transdisciplinary knowledge in a new, fertile way. In this sense, disciplinary and transdisciplinary research are not antagonistic but complementary.”

3. See the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Bleep_Do_We_Know!%3F, verified July 12, 2007.      

4. Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 1.

5. Gardner, chap. 2; quote p. 154.

6. Gardner, 43.

7. Gardner, chap. 3; quote p. 155.

8. Gardner, 45.

9. After outlining the various modes of synthesis, Gardner gives four discrete steps for achieving it; it requires “a goal — a statement or conception of what the synthesizer is trying to achieve” (51); “a starting point — an idea, image, or, indeed, any previous work on which to build” (51); the “selection of strategy, method, and approach” (51); and finally “Drafts and feedback” (52).

10. Gardner, chap. 4; quote p. 156.

11. Gardner, 80.  Where real creative advances occur, they generally involve the intersection of three factors:  “the individual who has mastered some discipline or domain of practice and is steadily issuing variations in that domain” (80); “the cultural domain in which an individual is working, with its models, prescriptions, and proscriptions” (80), and “the social field — those individuals and institutions that provide access to relevant educational experiences as well as opportunities to perform” (81).

12. Gardner,  83.

13. Ibid.

14. Gardner, chap. 5; quote p. 157.

15. Gardner,  106-07.

16. Gardner, chap. 6; quote p. 158.

17. ibid.

18. Gardner, 154; pseudoforms of the other minds are given on 155-8.

19. Gardner, 27.

20. The requirements, but not the accompanying interpretations, are derived from Gardner, 32-34.

21. Gardner, 36.

22. Gardner, 32.

23. For examples of rigorous and meticulous scholarship at the boundaries of science and religion, I recommend the publications of the French physicist and philosopher Bernard d’Espagnat or the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.

24. See the various articles in Ted Peters and Nathan Hallanger, eds., God’s Action in Nature’s World: Essays in Honour of Robert John Russell (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006).

25. Gardner, 71.