… The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. … Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the
LORD. Ezekiel 1
Debates between scientists and religious folk irritate me when one or other side seems to misunderstand its own professional way-of-thinking – or at any rate for the purposes of the debate sticks with a way of thinking that was long ago abandoned as inadequate by their predecessors in science or religion. What’s more, each side – a most unhelpful way of speaking, incidentally – likes to set up straw men to represent their opponents, just for the fun of blowing them away. But this fun is not harmless, and it certainly doesn’t lead to enlightenment.
We live in a world which presents all living things with phenomena with which we have to deal. We humans deal with those phenomena at least partly consciously: we know what we want and we can work out ways of getting what we want, on the basis of some understanding of how the phenomena are caused and relate to each other. For hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its recognisable precursors operated in the world pretty successfully without making any attempt to systematise its understanding of the causes and relationships of the phenomena being experienced. Of course, this limited what could be achieved, but that didn’t seem to be a problem at the time; life was good enough as it was. As consciousness evolved however, humanity gained the ability to understand more about how the world worked and to formulate more distant objectives than had hitherto satisfied it. Western religion calls this the ‘Fall’ and regrets the need for artificial ways of dealing with the loss of contentment that it brought; science sees in this same development the earliest stirrings of a more scientific approach and rejoices in the dawning of a richer understanding of life. They both have a point.
The scientific approach was honed over the centuries into what we call scientific method – the process by which explanations for a particular phenomenon are formulated as hypotheses, which are then successively tested until we arrive at a theory that we haven’t found a way of disproving. These theories are practically certain explanations of the phenomena around us, and we rely on them both to predict future discoveries and events, and to guide our actions to get what we want. Among the hypotheses that have been formulated is the idea that a supernatural supreme being – ‘God’ – is directing the phenomena, but this is impossible to test, not least because, as Laplace famously told Napoleon, we can explain the phenomena around us without recourse to such a hypothesis; it may or may not be true, but we can’t know, and in any case for the purpose of explaining phenomena it doesn’t matter. Consequently, the idea that God exists is a hypothesis that cannot become a theory. It is not the kind of idea that classical scientific method can do much with.
But classical scientific method struggles with something else. Many hypotheses cannot be rigorously tested, maybe because the variables cannot be properly isolated, or because it is impossible to carry out the necessary experiments; meteorology and economics present familiar examples of these difficulties, as does astronomy. Untestable hypotheses cannot grow into theories. Yet we still want to have sufficient understanding of the phenomena for us to be able to use them for our own ends or manage their impact on us. So we formulate, not theories, but models. Scientific models are quite distinct from theories built upon hypotheses: we know we can’t say they are exhaustively accurate; we understand that they are tools for our thinking rather than exhaustive explanations of reality; we accept that for different purposes incompatible models may be needed. Theologians will no doubt find these limitations on scientific models somewhat familiar. After all, they have long acknowledged that the divine is finally beyond our understanding, and that while the language we use to speak of God may assist our thinking it cannot fully express the reality of divinity; they have also had to find ways of expressing the awkward insight that the one God of monotheism has to be spoken of as relating to us in apparently ill-assorted ways, as, for example, loving saviour, righteous judge and first cause.
Religious people, as distinct from theologians perhaps, will be quick to point out that they experience their God as a personal god not as an abstract model. Abstract models in meteorology or economics do not alter the very personal experience of being soaked in a downpour or losing your job. You would not make much of a meteorologist or economist if you forgot why your subject mattered to people. Nor would you make much of a theologian if you forgot that the point of religion is not so much to plumb and explain the deep mysteries of the universe as to enable and encourage people to live richly in their personal lives, to be, in the term used in the Beatitudes, makarios – blessed, happy. That is the great purpose of formulating and developing religious models. That ‘… and developing’ is important. Religious people seem to have a greater tendency than do scientists to feel unable to develop and finally let go of models that experience has shown to be less helpful than newer ones. It is a tendency born of fear; it lacks the boldness of, say, an Abraham or Ezekiel or Jesus or Paul – or indeed a Gautama, a Muhammad or a Gandhi.
This is not a call for religious people to be more sophisticated. On the contrary: religion, particularly Christianity, has got far too sophisticated over the centuries. It is a call rather to be less sophisticated, to accept our models and rituals and music and sacraments as what they are, and nothing more: means of helping ourselves and others to make the most of our human life, overcoming its inevitable setbacks and enjoying its richest potentialities. The fact that the resources – the support, the guidance, the understanding – that we need to be able to do this are unseen, unconstrained and finally incomprehensible to us does not make them any less real or valuable. When scientists remind us of all this, they are not combating religion; they are recalling it to its central essential purpose, and for that we should be grateful to them; it will help us take our religion seriously, but not too seriously.