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Science And Religion: Gifford Lectures


WalkerW

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The recent Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh featured Peter Harrison, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. The lectures are excellent material on the history of science and religion, including the development of the concepts themselves as well as the misunderstandings surrounding them. The lecture summaries are as follows (click on the titles for the YouTube links; the final one is not up yet):

So familiar are the concepts ‘science’ and ‘religion’, and so central to Western culture have been the activities and achievements that are usually labelled ‘religious’ and ‘scientific’, that it is natural to assume that they have been enduring features of the cultural landscape of the West. However, this view is misleading. Only in the past few hundred years have religious beliefs and activities been bounded by a common notion ‘religion’ and set apart from the ‘non-religious’ or secular domains of human existence. The idea of natural sciences as discrete activities conducted in isolation from religious and moral concerns is even more recent, dating from the nineteenth century. Both categories, ‘religion’ and ‘science’, distort what they claim to represent.

In antiquity and for much of the Middle Ages the formal study of nature—natural philosophy—was, as the name implies, part of the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy itself, from its inception in ancient Greece, had been understood as a form of spiritual exercises. As a consequence, a primary goal of what we call science was, in this earlier period, moral and spiritual formation. These conceptions were to influence the identity of Western Christianity, which came to understand itself as ‘the true philosophy’. The study of nature in the Middle Ages was thus an important element of the religious life.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the contemplative approach to nature, along with the emphasis on religious and intellectual formation, was replaced by a more utilitarian project, and nature itself was stripped of much of its symbolic religious significance. This process of disenchantment was partly driven by religious factors. At the same time, related developments saw the transformation of both philosophy and religion. The former became less concerned with the pursuit of the philosophical life, while a new conception of religion emphasised explicit belief and observable religious practice, and distinguished various ‘religions’ according to these criteria.

One factor in the disenchantment of nature was the doctrine of the Fall, which had risen to prominence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On this view, because the world had fallen from its original integrity it could not be an impeccable source of theological or moral truths. The human mind, in its fallen condition, was also now thought to lack the capacity to discern the true natures of things. These ideas promoted the emergence of experimental science, which is premised on the assumption that knowledge of nature is difficult to acquire. The new emphasis on the obscurity of nature, the fallibility of knowledge, and the moral corruption of human agents also challenged a medieval synthesis which held that Christianity and classical philosophy had a common goal. The efforts of students of nature will henceforth be directed away from a self-mastery to a literal and progressive mastery of the physical world.

The Fall-Redemption narrative not only informed the goals and methods of the new sciences, but also placed the scientific revolution within the larger context of Christian history. The great efflorescence of scientific activity that characterised the seventeenth century was regarded variously as a prelude to the millennium, as one facet of a general reformation of religion and learning, or as a means of helping to restore to the human race a mastery of nature that had been lost as a consequence of the Fall. The idea of scientific progress thus initially derived its legitimacy from a providential understanding of history. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the emergence of a number of ‘scientific eschatologies’, which, in their secularised forms in the nineteenth century, were ironically to consign religion to a primitive stage of historical development. On this view of history, religion was destined to be displaced by science.

"Religion and the future of science"

The last few decades have witnessed a growing public disillusionment with a scientific enterprise that for much of the twentieth century had enjoyed unparalleled prestige. The narrative of progress without limit now also looks a little threadbare. This final lecture considers whether the new ‘flight from science’ represents a regrettable defection from reason and ‘Enlightenment values’, or whether it presents an opportunity to reconnect the study of nature with the kinds of moral and religious values that once played a prominent role in its genesis and development.

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Each of these could be a separate thread.

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Each of these could be a separate thread.

I agree. I have some material on the disenchantment of the world and the work some of us are doing to re-enchant it. I feel that the loss of enchantment is one of the greatest problems of our age.

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WalkerW:

Excellent. This is why I think that the LDS have the advantage. In that we willingly accept science and religion in the formation of our philosophy.

But why does the church seem to be moving so slow when it comes to embracing science?

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But why does the church seem to be moving so slow when it comes to embracing science?

I'm not sure if I agree or disagree with this. Could you clarify?

I will say, though, that I think we as members of the Church are sometimes infected with strains of fundamentalist Protestantism. I think this has happened for a number of reasons, mainly (1) early Mormon converts were Protestant and (2) the anti-Catholic view of the apostasy espoused in writings like Talmage's The Great Apostasy and Jesus the Christ. See this article for the latter.

I wish more embraced Elder Maxwell's approach.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5gAYdotUGU

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I agree that the LDS take is great in being able to accept science, though sometimes it takes a while to fully embrace it into the organization...

my question is once that science is accepted and perhaps changes a teaching or doctrine or history to now become "metaphorical" then what does that mean about the person who originally said it who was probably not speaking about it in a metaphorical sense.

there is probably more examples but 6000 year old earth, Global flood, American Indians Lamanite ancestory...

Because of science, and our willingness to accept science, we have turned some stories into metaphor or parable or changed altogether, but the originators of those idea did not mean it in that way. How do we explain away those original intentions?

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American Indians Lamanite ancestory

Sir, I must tell you, this isn't an outdated concept yet. Nor is the 6000 years... it takes a bit of explaining though ;-). Lots of people have opinions, and I woudn't presume to point one out right, because I don't know myself XD.

Eh, fickle me.

Best Wishes,

TAO

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Sir, I must tell you, this isn't an outdated concept yet. Nor is the 6000 years... it takes a bit of explaining though ;-). Lots of people have opinions, and I woudn't presume to point one out right, because I don't know myself XD.

I don't want to start discussion on those specific things here obviously, so I guess I'll keep my question general then...

If accepting a certain scientific finding means rejecting a past authoritative statement or changing it's meaning to metaphorical, then how do we explain away the fact that that the original authoritative statement (perhaps even in scripture) didn't mean it to be taken as metaphor or rejected?

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I don't want to start discussion on those specific things here obviously, so I guess I'll keep my question general then...

If accepting a certain scientific finding means rejecting a past authoritative statement or changing it's meaning to metaphorical, then how do we explain away the fact that that the original authoritative statement (perhaps even in scripture) didn't mean it to be taken as metaphor or rejected?

I think the best one you've got going for you is the Lamanite/American Indian connection. But that has largely been rejected in academic literature due to what the Book of Mormon actually says.

And I don't think it is necessary a distinction between literal history and mere metaphor. To do so would be anachronistic. Myth was often a combination of the two:

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I don't want to start discussion on those specific things here obviously, so I guess I'll keep my question general then...

If accepting a certain scientific finding means rejecting a past authoritative statement or changing it's meaning to metaphorical, then how do we explain away the fact that that the original authoritative statement (perhaps even in scripture) didn't mean it to be taken as metaphor or rejected?

You could just say they were wrong. For example, I don't believe that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. I don't believe the Garden of Eden actually existed in any substantial way.

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When will the last lecture be uploaded? I watched the first five and I am really eager to see the last one.

I'm afraid I don't know. I'm waiting as eagerly as you.

You might enjoy this interview with him. The Centre for Public Christianity has some excellent videos and interviews, including ones with Simon Conway Morris, Keith Ward, Alvin Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, etc.

The interview was actually how I came across him and his work. I've read numerous articles by him since then (I plan on picking up his book(s) in the near future).

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I don't want to start discussion on those specific things here obviously, so I guess I'll keep my question general then...

If accepting a certain scientific finding means rejecting a past authoritative statement or changing it's meaning to metaphorical, then how do we explain away the fact that that the original authoritative statement (perhaps even in scripture) didn't mean it to be taken as metaphor or rejected?

If you think of the prophets as infallible, then you'd have a problem if a scientific finding was in conflict with something they said. Fortunately, that is not a Mormon doctrine.

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I don't have a problem with one of God's creations adapting over time to the changes which God knew from the beginning were going to take place. You can call that mechanism evolution if that floats your boat. But then to make the leap from adaptation to accidental life from dust is way more than I can accept from science. So to me it is a boundary question. Just what is known and just what is theory. If we stick to observable knowledge and stay away from man's theories concerning those observations we do well. And it is my opinion that scripture and observable nature have no conflicts.

What some do is not include supernatural events when they view science. If indeed someone of faith refuses to accept supernatural events and embraces the limitations of science then they will encounter problems. I think that science has created a whole system of peer pressure that forces many to try and separate out their faith and science. I embrace both but make science subject to the historical will of God. So projections back in time with no direct observation is an opinion of man and as such is probably wrong.

There are many alternate theories that can explain many past events which would make scripture literal. But since these are not part of the naturalist path of a deterministic universe it is rejected by science.

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Franktalk:

Science is all about accurately describing the natural world/universe in non supernatural terms. IE. If I burn hydrogen in the presence of oxygen I full expect water to be produced. If a miniature flying pink elephant flies out. It was probably I who did something terribly wrong.

If I went before my colleges in chemistry, and told them that God did it. Well I'll just say it wouldn't be a fun experience.

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I'm afraid I don't know. I'm waiting as eagerly as you.

You might enjoy this interview with him. The Centre for Public Christianity has some excellent videos and interviews, including ones with Simon Conway Morris, Keith Ward, Alvin Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, etc.

The interview was actually how I came across him and his work. I've read numerous articles by him since then (I plan on picking up his book(s) in the near future).

I really like this Peter Harrison.

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I really like this Peter Harrison.

As do I. Here is a list of articles by him. I highly recommend "Was There a Scientific Revolution?" European Review 15 (2007) and "The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science," Science and Christian Belief 18 (2006).

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Franktalk:

Science is all about accurately describing the natural world/universe in non supernatural terms. IE. If I burn hydrogen in the presence of oxygen I full expect water to be produced. If a miniature flying pink elephant flies out. It was probably I who did something terribly wrong.

If I went before my colleges in chemistry, and told them that God did it. Well I'll just say it wouldn't be a fun experience.

When you take a direct observation and test the parts that cause a reaction or event we can describe the parts and predict what those parts may do in other environments. But there are areas of science that are based on indirect trace evidence, evidence that is woven into a story called a theory. And of course the tenets of science are still used as a boundary even though no direct observation gives us confidence that those boundaries are true. So your silly example does nothing to add to this discussion.

Now I happen to believe in supernatural events. I believe that a world wide flood happened and eight people came through it alive. I also believe that Moses parted a sea and the army of Pharaoh died. These supernatural events did not leave the normal type of trace evidence that one would expect from nature. So as one examines the trace evidence in a naturalistic light it will tell a story that does not the real past. The same can be said of evolution as well. So if I burned hydrogen and oxygen I would expect water to come out. But if a pink elephant came out I would think that God was sending me a message.

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Franktalk:

I'm fine with indirect natural evidence. But there still needs to be natural evidence. The supernatural is by definition is without natural evidence.

I'm fine with you believing anything you want. But your belief does not make it science, or even verifiable by science.

God would be telling you you did something wrong in the burning of that hydrogen. :)

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When you take a direct observation and test the parts that cause a reaction or event we can describe the parts and predict what those parts may do in other environments. But there are areas of science that are based on indirect trace evidence, evidence that is woven into a story called a theory. And of course the tenets of science are still used as a boundary even though no direct observation gives us confidence that those boundaries are true. So your silly example does nothing to add to this discussion.

Now I happen to believe in supernatural events. I believe that a world wide flood happened and eight people came through it alive. I also believe that Moses parted a sea and the army of Pharaoh died. These supernatural events did not leave the normal type of trace evidence that one would expect from nature. So as one examines the trace evidence in a naturalistic light it will tell a story that does not the real past. The same can be said of evolution as well. So if I burned hydrogen and oxygen I would expect water to come out. But if a pink elephant came out I would think that God was sending me a message.

If a pink elephant came out and there was no naturalistic explanation (eg, I was on acid), I'd be more likely to suspect Loki or another Trickster God rather than El or YHWH.

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If someone of science has the faith of nature then that is what they will see. If indeed God made the universe and the laws which run that universe then God can and does change things as the potter changes clay. I find it odd that many people feel that God is bound to the laws of nature. They even limit God to what nature does not describe. So each year as we understand more and more God is painted into a corner. And if that process proceeds to its conclusion then God disappears. It is the same as studying a painting. As we study each section we don't go back and declare that the painter can't make that stroke anymore. And if we study every stroke of the brush the painter is not diminished. The same is true of God. As we study each part of nature it does not change God at all and does not limit what He can do with His creation. Just because we live in an age in which God is unseen so we can live in faith is no reason to redefine God as subject to His creation. If you have no faith other than the laws of nature then of course nature is your God. You have given it veto power over everything else that could possibly exist.

It is easy to mock a silent God. We have no fear of something we think does not exist. But for me I do know that God does exist and at some future point will change His creation again. I fear the power of God and His ability to end my existence. But I also love God for His mercy and plan of salvation.

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