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religion vs. science, round #237?

There's an interesting opinion piece over at the Guardian:

The Vatican may be cosying up to science but it will never go all the way, by Riazat Butt

Essentially Ms. Butt looks at recent signs that the RCC may be easing up on science. She points out that the Vatican is cosponsoring some kind of astronomical project and is sponsoring an AIDS project, for instance. She ends, however, with a note of skepticism:

Whatever outsiders might think, the Vatican's scientific activities are pretty radical by its own standards, but it isn't about to stop promoting belief in a creator or espousing certain values on life issues. But are these non-negotiables too great an impediment for it to be a true scientific innovator?

Honestly, I was with her right up until the end. What raises my hackles is this assumption that the RCC should "be a true scientific innovator." There are two ways this could be taken. First, you could note that the RCC is engaging in scientific research through its partnership with the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana. Maybe Ms. Butt is asking, can the RCC be genuinely scientific, a full partnership in scientific research? But that assumes the RCC is just one thing. There is a lot of difference between (say) the Church's position on what St. Thomas said on some theological issue and what a philosophy professor - even a priest - would teach at a Catholic college. I can imagine scientists within the church acting the same way. Can the RCC qua the RCC be a true scientific innovator? Perhaps not, but that doesn't mean groups of Catholics qua Catholics can't make genuine scientific contributions.

That's the generous interpretation, I think. I rather suspect Ms. Butt is trying to bring out the old science vs. religion canard. Because obviously every institution should want to be scientific innovators and if they're not, they're somehow deficient, right?

Don't get me wrong. Science is a great thing. As I blogged earlier this week I am fully an evolutionist (to give one example), and I actually think there is something truly beautiful about the knowledge of the way the world works. Remember, I was a sciences undergrad major and I am all too familiar with what I called the aesthetic of numbers: the beauty of seeing how the world could work. And I obviously love technology.

But I also am not convinced that the physicalist's worldview is the only legitimate one. Religion at its best is not fact-free but neither is it defined by facts. In fact, it is defined (if it can be defined) by the simple realization that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This doesn't mean there are certain questions the different religions can answer and certain questions that science can answer. That begs the question of whether "questions" are all there are. I'm not convinced that's fair.

Which is all to the good, really. If I could answer all the questions - if I could even lay out the questions that would completely explain the world - that's not the kind of world I want to believe in. Maybe I'm wrong and maybe science is all there is. The world would still be pretty glorious then! But I prefer to assume there's even more to experience than that.

Full disclosure: while I study at a Jesuit school, go to Catholic mass as often as Protestant services, and study (medieval) Catholic philosophers, I'm still not a Catholic. And there are good reasons. Theologically I agree with maybe 90% of church teaching, but on the social and political issues I have major issues. So I'm not in the Church's corner though in some ways I am sympathetic.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 24th, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC)
What I wonder is: why is generalized "belief in a creator" automatically incompatible with Show media Loading...
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Religion and science occupy two rather different portions of the human awareness, and I don't think that atheism is a prerequisite for being a scientist.
Feb. 24th, 2011 02:00 pm (UTC)
Damn. That was supposed to say "science" in sparkly text.
Feb. 24th, 2011 07:03 pm (UTC)
I quite agree. The article had not only a rather twisted view of the RCC but of what science was - that it had to be amoral and pragmatic. I know many scientists who post-Alamo do have a feeling that they can't just be pragmatic.

The great irony is that the RCC, at least some branches, has tended to be very pro-human knowledge. When you think God is Truth, science becomes not just a way to better manage the world but a way to know God better as well. I know the Jesuits I work with study Darwin and Einstein outside their curriculum more than I have seen in any learning environment I've been in - including a math degree.
Feb. 24th, 2011 04:52 pm (UTC)
Honestly, why would anyone *expect* the Vatican to "be a true scientific innovator"? That's NOT the Vatican's job.

Would someone take a look at some scientific institution and ask whether they would "be a true asset to human spirituality"?

The statement is silly and disingenuous, and to my mind slightly derisive. Whatever my own personal opinion of the past and current policies of the Vatican, I think that sort of statement is unfair.
Feb. 24th, 2011 07:03 pm (UTC)

Yes, that's it exactly.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )



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