The kind of science that rejects God amounts to a dogmatic creed that contradicts true scientific principles
A number of people harbour the mistaken notion that our scientific world view has, once for all, made religion out of date. One reason for this belief is the claim, put forward by some scientists, that all reality is ultimately material. If that were the case, there would be no place for God, a spiritual soul, immortality, afterlife or whatever. The materialist trend of thought started centuries ago. One of its components, known as positivism, was formulated persuasively by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1795-1857).
Comte maintained that human beings pass through three stages of understanding: the theological one (in which God features), the philosophical one (when we still talk of Absolutes like Truth) and the positive one (when we only consider the facts as we see them).
“In the positive phase the mind has given up the useless search for Absolute notions, for the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their factual laws . . . . Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts (see: The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, translated by H.MARTINEAU, London 1852, vol I, p. 2.
Another element is known as materialism, that is: the tenet that everything in the universe, including intelligence, `spirit’ or whatever, can be reduced to physical and chemical processes. One of its pioneers was Ludwig Büchner who declared that nothing exists outside matter.
“Science gradually establishes the fact that macrocosmic and microcosmic existence obeys, in its origin, life and decay, mechanical laws inherent in the things themselves, discarding every kind of supernaturalism and idealism in the explanation of events.
See: L.BÜCHNER, Force and Matter, London 1855. Other classical works were: E.HAECKEL, The Riddle of the Universe, London 1899; H.FEIGL, The “Mental” and the “Physical”, New York 1967; J.J.C.SMART, Philosophy and Scientific Realism, New York 1963.
Now it is quite natural for scientists to proceed within their scientific studies as if only matter existed; it is quite another to maintain that matter is the only reality. The next steps then follow logically. A spiritual dimension to one’s life is denied. Human intelligence and freedom are reduced to blind forces. The whole universe is explained in terms of chance and materialistic evolution. With this, we are told, the problem of the universe has been solved.
“It would be brash, indeed, to claim complete understanding of the extraordinarily intricate process, but it does seem that the problem is now essentially solved and that the mechanism of adaptation is known. It turns out to be basically materialistic.” G.G.SIMPSON, The Meaning of Evolution, Yale Univ. 1950, p. 230. “This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet.” R.DAWKINS, The Blind Watchmaker, Harmondsworth 1991, p. xiii. What are we to make of such claims?
Avoiding the trap of dogmatism
Science advances theories which are `models of the world’ seen from a particular point of view. Science cannot supply an over-arching system of meaning. The materialist theory too is no more than a theory. From being a mere hypothesis, materialism has recently become for some scientists a dogma, a truth accepted as true beyond proof. But as the zoologist Alister Hardy reminds us, such a dogma contradicts the essence of science.
“Science by its very nature cannot be dogmatic; its views are always changing as new discoveries by observation or experiment are continually made. There is today almost no scientific theory which was held when, say, the Industrial Revolution began about 1760. Most often today’s theories flatly contradict those of 1760; many contradict those of 1900. In cosmology, in quantum mechanics, in genetics, in the social sciences, who now holds the beliefs that seemed firm sixty years ago?” A.HARDY, Science, Religion and World Unity, Oxford 1979, p.8; his examples are quoted from J.BRONOWSKI, Science and Human Values, New York 1964.>
Science formulates theories which by their very nature are temporary and relative. The historian of science, James Burke, points out the boundaries that limit any scientific view.
“In spite of its claims, science offers no method or universal explanation of reality adequate for all time. The fact that over time science has provided a more complex picture of nature is not in itself final proof that we live by the best, most accurate model so far.” “Scientific knowledge is the artifact of the mental structure of a particular time, and its tool.” J.BURKE, The Day the Universe Changed, London 1985, p. 337.
Scientists are quite correct when they affirm that their scientific research as such does not prove or disprove religious beliefs. Religion lies outside the purview of science. But scientists who claim that science proves God does not exist or that religious realities are false, contradict the openness to truth and the limited scope which are principles of scientific study itself.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of religion