Theology and Science

Theology and Science

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Theology and science

The serious discipline of theology offers reason-based interpretations of scriptural worldviews. Whereas religious practitioners are generally content with the experiential, ethical, and community aspects of religion, inspired by trust in religious institutions and faith in some aspect of the Divine, academics and theoreticians strive to put the faith in a rational framework. This has been the case in all sophisticated religious traditions where philosophical thinkers influence the general public no less than pujaris , rabbis, bishops and popes do in their performing capacities. These writings add important dimensions to religions.

In the context of reason-based debates as to the nature and validity of religious doctrines, there have been serious disagreements among theologians within and among the religions of the world. Thus, for example, debates have arisen as to the nature and significance of the trinity and Unitarianism, of advaita and dvaita , of the high road or the low road in Buddha’s teachings, etc. In the matter of theology, the goal of some thinkers has been to show that on ultimate analysis there is really no fundamental difference between science and faith. In his book God, Chance, and Necessity , Keith Ward argues that religious faith is not incompatible with the scientific outlook. Others have made the case that since science also rests on faith, it really cannot criticize religions. This is a fair contention as long as one distinguishes the nuances of the word faith in the two different contexts.

As I noted in an earlier essay, theologians of all religious persuasions present their respective frameworks as being in harmony with reason and rationality. Scores of books have been written on Modern Physics and Vedanta : the one by Swami Jitatmananda with that title being the most recent one on the topic. Stephen M. Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith does this for the Judeo-Christian tradition. This book elaborates on the thesis that practically every theory of twentieth century physics confirms rather than contradicts “Judeo-Christian claims about God and the universe.” B. Alan Wallace has written on A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind.

We may note in passing that now and again, aside from weighty intellectual disputes, there have also been belligerent confrontations between people subscribing to differing theological views. Often, in the context of physical encounters, the pugilists are not quite clear about, or even aware of, what the precise theological tenets are on which their leaders differ so passionately and instigate their followers to take up arms.

Mysticism and quantum physics

Mysticism is an important dimension of religion which has been linked to modern science in recent decades. When, in the early phase of quantum mechanics (1920s) Heisenberg formulated his celebrated principle restricting the possibility of obtaining simultaneously precise information as to the position and momentum of an electron, two things of enormous import resulted. One was the declaration by some philosophers and critics of science that physicists had finally conceded that scientific knowledge is after all limited. The other was to see in the Heisenberg principle a vindication of mysticism. The discovery that any effort to measure a quantum system will automatically interfere with its state implies that it is impossible to separate out a so-called objective world from the subjective, the observed from the observer. This has been interpreted as the modern version of the vision of ancient mystics.

As a good example of this school of writing, consider Fritjof Capra’s bestseller The Tao of Physics . The book presents in an interesting way some striking parallels between modern science and Eastern mysticism. The eminent physicist John Wheeler had said that the old word observer must be replaced by the word participator in the context of Heinsenberg’s inseparable interaction between measuring device and thing measured. Wheeler added, “In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe.” This inspired Capra to write: “The idea of ‘participation instead of observation’ has been formulated by modern physics only recently, but it is an idea which is well known to any student of mysticism. Mystical knowledge can never be obtained just by observation, but only by full participation with one’s own full being.” A good deal of the framework of fundamental physics is presented in Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters in picturesque and imaginative ways, with frequent recalling of Buddhist metaphysics. There are interesting insights in Hindu-Buddhist notions of non-reality, which correspond to the substratum of the physical world, as conceived by 20 th century quantum physics. All of this led Zukav to the conclusion that: “The Wuli Masters know that physicists are doing more than ‘discovering the endless diversity in nature.’ They are dancing with Kali, the Divine Mother of Hindu mythology.”

The discussions in such works are thought-provoking, the analogies are insightful, and the quotes appropriately persuasive. But the thesis that “the two foundations of 20th century physics – quantum theory and relativity theory – both force us to see the world very much the way a Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist sees it,” may be debatable, if not simplistic: Most practicing Hindus and Buddhists may not even know what this writer is talking about. In Science and Mysticism : A Comparative Study of Western Natural Science, Theravada Buddhism, and Advaita Vedanta, Richard H. Jones also provides a scholarly analysis of the thesis that modern science corroborates some of the findings of ancient Eastern mystics. He tries to show how one may reconcile, if not identify, the tenets of mysticism and modern science, maintaining that there is value in both; indeed, that both are necessary for a fuller appreciation and understanding of physical reality.

Some would contend that notwithstanding the cuteness of the analogies, such views of modern science and ancient thought often result from a fascination for the metaphysical, an eagerness to bridge a gap, and a longing for harmony between the old and the new. Ancient mystical visions and convictions are far more permanent than scientific theories, and the upholders of such theses will have to re-formulate their analogies if and when newer theories emerge to replace relativity and quantum mechanics: not altogether impossible.

The ivory tower obsession to formulate the religious framework in purely intellectual terms is not a pan-human concern. It results from extolling the scientific mode as the only instru­ment of Truth, and this arises from science’s exploitable results.

In this context, Alexis Comfort’s Reality and Empathy: Physics, Mind, and Science in the 21st Century may be mentioned as a profound and erudite contribution to the enterprise of seeking science in ancient wisdom. Comfort’s book is a fruitful effort to bring some order into the chaos of conflicting perceptions that the human brain is capable of. It also enriches the worldview of modern science in important ways. It tackles the age-old problem of the nature and inseparability of the knower and the known from a sophisticated understanding of recent physics and psychology.

What is interesting in all this is that whereas 19th century science looked upon mysticism as exotic Eastern mumble-jumble, now the standard model (the very basis of current fundamental physics) is being interpreted in terms of esoteric aphorisms in Sanskrit and Pali. Some authors have broadened the vision even more, extending it to all cultures. At least one physicist (Frank J. Tipler) assures his readers that his own theory of immortality, which he contends is based on the solid findings of current physics, is also “quite consistent with the afterlife expected in most African societies.”