Scientific research, and the popular notions that come out of it, are not always as objective as they seem. Ideas like the theory of natural selection have been twisted to fit certain agendas, and research itself may be backed by particular interests. Even in a perfect world, some types of science are almost impossible to do completely impartially. Using wisdom and ideas from religion to bridge this knowledge gap is a potentially productive approach that we often overlook. What truths does religion offer that science cannot?
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Tim Maness and Rev. Dr. Kara Slade discuss when science and religion work in conjunction to create truth – and the times when they don’t.
Timothy Maness is a doctoral student at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and he has been interested in questions of science and religion since childhood. He grew up certain both that he wanted to become a scientist and that nothing in his Christian upbringing conflicted with that desire. Eventually, Tim received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago. While at university, however, he became fascinated with the formal study of religion, which offered opportunities to pursue some of the questions that had always inspired him. Today, Tim is a full-time scholar of religion and science. His dissertation research discusses the way concepts of time affect Western religious traditions’ ideas about human freedom, and examines the implications of the special theory of relativity for those traditions’ views of time. He has also written and spoken about religion and science studies as a dialogue between different approaches to knowledge—one that might offer helpful lessons at a time of public debate about the very meaning of “facts” and “truth.” Outside of the academy, Tim has taught high school physics, worked at science museums, and helped to edit the Papers of George Washington. He lives with his wife in Princeton, New Jersey.Read Transcript
Hi! My name is Tim Maness, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at Boston University. In my research, I’m exploring how science and religion approach the nature of time. I’ve found that studying time leads you to think about the differences between considering something “from the outside” and considering something from a first-person point of view: what we sometimes call “objectivity” and “subjectivity.”
So, in our culture, we often treat “objectivity” as the gold standard, and “subjectivity” as this subpar thing that we sometimes have to settle for. That’s even more true when we think about doing science. The whole purpose of the scientific method, to hear some people talk, is to get away from the mistakes that our individual, subjective judgment leads us to make and to get closer to the objective truth, which by definition has nothing to do with what goes on inside individuals’ heads. Physics, the science that I’ve studied the most, treats things objectively by describing them only in terms of measurable mathematical quantities. For example, if I wanted to describe a table as a physicist, I’d give you its dimensions in centimeters, its mass in kilograms, and so on. The table would BE what I could measure. I wouldn’t bother to mention who built it, or the purpose for which it was built. When you try to describe time only by its measurable characteristics this way, you end up talking about time as though it were more or less another dimension in space, like length or width. By this standard, we have said pretty much all there is to say about the time of an event if we assign it a spot on a timeline, like noon on May 1, 1990.
On the other hand, when people over the past couple of hundred years have talked about religion, we have usually put most of our emphasis on the subjective rather than the “objective” side, and not without good reasons. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, a religious experience is by its nature one that we can’t really capture in words. Trying to describe something that you don’t really have words for is hard, for the same reason that it’s hard to tell someone else about a dream you had: while you may be able to set out in a dispassionate way the images you saw or the words you heard, it’s impossible to get across to another person the strange and powerful meaning that those words or images had in the context of your dream: the emotional details that gave the dream its character. If you can’t pass an idea on clearly from your mind to other people’s minds, then you can’t really treat that idea in anything but a subjective way. Of course, I don’t mean to say that religion is all about private, subjective experiences that we can’t talk about effectively. I just mean that, in religious contexts, we have no choice but to think in subjective terms as well as objective ones if we want to address everything that’s going on.
Now, objective thinking is extremely important. We learn an awful lot about the universe by finding ways to reduce big, complicated, messy phenomena to relatively simple mathematical terms. To a greater and greater extent, we can also use this knowledge to predict the way things will behave under particular circumstances, and that has all kinds of practical benefits, like helping us to cure diseases or build useful machines. Also it is indeed very important both for individuals and for societies to recognize and look past our own particular prejudices, and to be able to come to an agreement with others about what is real. Objectivity is a good and necessary thing, and I don’t for one minute mean to disparage it.
Still, I think that, if we try to live by objectivity alone, we end up missing things that we can’t do without. Let’s take time as an example again. As I said earlier, when we treat time in purely objective, mathematical terms, what we get is just a list of events ordered from earlier to later, with every moment in time like every other one. The crucial thing that’s missing from that view of time is any sense of now, of a unique moment in which we can act, unlike all the past moments that we can remember or the future ones we can try to imagine. There’s no way to translate that vital distinction into mathematics. And we need both points of view, the objective and the subjective, in order to live our lives in time, just as we need two eyes to see depth. I need the objective view of time, that numbered list of events on a timeline, to say that I’m meeting my friend for lunch at noon, and I also need the subjective view, so that I can know when noon is now, the time for me to get up and go.
So, that’s one of the roles that my religion plays in my life: to show me that I need the subjective as well as the objective, the personal as well as the purely rational, action as well as contemplation. If in my life I can integrate that subjective call to action, to know who I am and to be who I ought to be, with the powerful objective tools of science, then that will be something like success.
My current research, including my dissertation in theology and ethics, is concerned with the interactions of theology and science, especially around evolution. Often when people think about science and theology, they think in terms of generating a seamless and coherent account of all knowledge. But these conversations are not only about knowledge, but about morality. Think of how many times you’ve seen popular accounts of evolution that try explain social phenomenon with evolutionary theory. You see this kind of thing in evolutionary psychology, for example, in attempts to explain why humans are the way they are. And oftentimes these explanations confuse what is with what should be, or what was meant to be. There is a long history of using evolutionary arguments to explain why some people end up with a lot, and why other people end up with very little – why the people at the top of the economic ladder deserve to be there. Popular accounts of evolution often deploy the notion of scientific objectivity in an attempt to explain truths that biology cannot, in fact, explain – things that have more to do with politics than with science.
But the cure for this problem has nothing to do with re-asserting the reading of the creation narratives that is often dubbed ‘creationism’ in contemporary American debates. In teaching seminary students how to think about evolutionary theory, I often use the example of Ohm’s Law from introductory physics. It is uncontroversially true that voltage in an electric circuit is proportional to current and resistance: V=IR. Likewise, it is uncontroversially true that evolutionary theory has something to say about how species develop and differentiate themselves from each other, even if the exact mechanism of that differentiation is still contested. But that biological truth should have as little hold on the moral imagination as Ohm’s Law does. Electricity is everywhere, but no one believes that Ohm’s law explains the poverty of Haiti or the pitfalls of marriage. Popular accounts of evolutionary biology, however, have been far less circumspect in the limits of its explanatory power.
I do not mean to suggest that scientific inquiry and the scientific method cannot be a vital part of the intellectual life. But I do hope to suggest that there may be more of a collision than a conversation between science and theology in the moral register. I do hope to suggest that science people and theologians alike remember that science has given us the atomic bomb as well as the James Webb telescope. It has given us the eugenics movement as well as cures for diseases. It has been death-dealing as well as life-giving. And it’s up to all of us to be honest about that.