Friday, December 24, 2010

Is Conflict Between Science and Religion Necessary?

A priest with a background in science and a doctorate in theology recently reviewed for Kyeongyang magazine the book, The Grand Design, co-authored by Stephen Hawking. Extensive coverage by the press has served to publicize the controversy surrounding the book and has sparked discussion among the general public.

For Hawking  the law of gravity is the sufficient reason for the existence  of the world; creation doesn't need God to enter the picture. This assertion caused quite a stir in the world of ideas, and in particular, the religious world. The reviewer feels that Hawking stepped outside the boundaries of science and is justly censured by many for doing so.

In college, the priest majored in mathematics and physics. While in graduate school, he  studied  theoretical physics (particle  physics) and had no problem with living in both worlds. There was never any conflict, he said.

Science is interested in the "how" of the natural world, and religion in the "why" of the world and how it relates to human life and its ultimate meaning. These two viewpoints are not in conflict; they are looking at reality from two different angles. When they encroach on the  other's domain, there can be conflict. He uses the words of Ian Barbour, an authority in this field, to show where the conflict comes from--usually when the scientist starts off with a materialistic view of life, and when the religious-minded takes the scriptures as literally true. Barbour: "Science seeks to explain objective, public, repeatable data. Religion asks questions about the existence of order and beauty in the world and the experience of the inner life."

The book, The Great Design, shows the two realms of thought in conflict by posing questions that elicit very different responses. Questions such as, "How are we to understand the world we are in? How does this world move? What is the essence of reality? Where has all this come from? Does this universe need a creator?  In the past, philosophy considered these questions, but it has proven not to be up to the job, and physics has taken its place.

He tells us an anecdote that comes from an academic meeting of scientists at the Vatican in 1981. The Pope, in his address to the participants, said, "Scientists are continually in search for the origins of the universe and are faced with unsolvable questions. Those of us who are religious are not looking for answers to these questions from science or astronomy; they are beyond physics."

"How things work together is the subject matter of science. Why we  exist is not a question scientists can answer. This is the area  of concern for philosophers and  theologians."

On his way out of the academic meeting, Hawking, who gave the first talk, said, "There was a possibility of their being no beginning or creating moments; the Pope did not understand,  and I was happy that was the case."

Our understanding of the truth changes with the flow of history and is seen more clearly with the advance of science and culture. The more we learn about other systems of truth and dimensions of reality--seeing what we did not see before--the more we understand our own area of truth.  This is why theologians, with patience and effort, should learn about the advances in science in order to deepen our understanding of humans, the world and God.


  1. In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same "eternal" event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the "seeing" which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from on comparative mysticism]

  2. In the past, philosophy considered these questions, but it has proven not to be up to the job, and physics has taken its place.

    I do not think it is so much that philosophy has "not been up to the job" but that, due to false philosophies such as Nominalism, it has been hijacked and forced to abdicate its mediating role. This leads to an empirical attitude where "if I don't see it, it didn't happen."

    In many ways physics and, as well, biology, also demonstrate a very specific metaphysical view, namely materialism, hiding as scientific principle.

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