The End of the Science v. Religion Debate

by Arvid Adell

Prologue: Galileo as Linguistic Analyst

In l632, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Pope. His crime? Corroborating and promulgating Copernicus’s scientific theory that our world is part of a sun-centered universe. His defense? The Church, he noted critically, provided both knowledge of how to move into heaven and how the heavens moved. Perhaps it should stick to the former and forget the latter.

How the Earth Was Made

I am watching the program “How the Earth Was Made” on the History Channel. The camera shows a huge explosion in our solar system which results in literally billions of specks of cosmic dust swirling in space. Eventually, the dust coalesces, forming the nascent planet we call Earth. After the world cools down considerably, a massive meteorite smashes into it, leaving behind piles of rocks, a few residing on the surface. According to the History Channel, this or something very similar is science’s official version of Earth’s beginning — a radical departure from the Biblical narrative upon which many of us were nurtured.

The voice-over cannot resist a rather cavalier reference to Bishop Ussher’s Chronology (circa 1600 CE) and to his calculations demonstrating that the world was made just a few thousand years past (4004 BCE). No, our scientific guide asserts, the beginning of the universe occurred billions of years ago.

How does our pedagogue know this? Well, he doesn’t. But he introduces us to two twenty-something Ph.D. candidates from Canadian doctoral programs whom we observe analyzing a few North American rocks. Their investigation reveals that these stones are somewhere (give or take a few thousand years) around four and one-half billion years old and must have been the remnants of the meteorite which so rudely imposed itself upon the infant planet Earth.

Case closed. Athens trumps Jerusalem. The empirical sciences rule the day. Science and reason offer us the truth about this natural world in which we live. Perhaps religion and faith have special insights about the next.

Paul Holmer and the “Early” Wittgenstein

Rewind back to the Fall of l968. Somehow, I discover that Paul Holmer, a distinguished Yale professor (as well as a friend of Pietisten) is teaching a graduate course in “Theology and the Scientific Study of Religion.” I leave Narraganset Bay, Rhode Island, before dawn and arrive at Dr. Holmer’s office an hour before his first class of the semester.

My knock on the door reveals a disheveled, sleepy-eyed scholar who most likely has spent the night engaged in academic matters. In spite of my intrusion at such an early hour, he graciously invites me to attend his class for which I will receive academic credit. When I tell him about my doctoral dissertation at Boston University, he asks about my thesis.

“Transcendence and Immanence in the Theology and Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead,” I say.

He laughs.

As the course progresses, I discover why.

Dr. Holmer is an advocate of “ordinary language,” not at all impressed with philosophers like Whitehead, nor theologians like Tillich who invented innovative vocabularies to somehow correct the misunderstanding of God which Biblical authors offered to us.

The text for the course was “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.” In the text, “early” Wittgenstein offers less than l00 pages of propositions resolving every problem in philosophy by showing that our understanding of the world depends upon a “picture theory of language”:

“The world consists of independent atomic facts—existing state of affairs—out of which larger facts are built.”

“Language consists of atomic, and then larger-scale propositions that correspond to these facts. ”

“Thought, expressed in language, ‘pictures these facts.’ ”

“What we cannot speak about (i.e. cannot picture), we must pass over in silence.”

Although these propositions may seem obtuse, there is a sense in which “every school-boy” can easily grasp their meaning. We experience the things of the world as atomic units (“look and see!”), and our simple ideas of these facts are expressed in our language as “pictures”—we can connect these ideas/words/pictures to form propositions. A proposition is a complex picture which shows us the world.

Wittgenstein demonstrated his picture theory by referencing St. Augustine: “When my elders named some object—I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. …Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I trained >>>

my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.”

A person sees an object. The “elders” point to it and call it a chair. They do this repeatedly and in reference to a number of objects which are not identical but close enough in appearance to have “family resemblance.” Now, whenever the word “chair” is spoken, a picture of the object appears in that person’s mind. Language “mirrors” the world.

What does this understanding of the role of language have to do with the religion/science debate? It renders it moot. Theology is not an attempt to mirror this world, nor present us with empirical facts which we can picture in language. As such, we must pass over them in silence. When one of the disputants is rendered speechless, no debate can ensue.

However, wrote Wittgenstein, even if religious experience is “non-sense,” this does not imply that it is not important. Religious experience is “mystical,” and even if we cannot speak about it, it plays a very significant role in human experience. Wittgenstein once remarked, “Is speech essential for religion? I can quite well imagine a religion in which there is no doctrine and hence nothing is said.”

Paul Holmer and the “Later” Wittgenstein

Upon completion of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein announced that he had solved (actually “dissolved”) all the problems which bedeviled philosophy, as well as theology, and he left England, returning to his family home in Vienna, Austria. However, upon more reflection, he came to see that his picture theory was not only problematic, but fatally flawed, so he returned to Cambridge to make amends by drastically revising his previous understanding of language. What eventuated was the replacement of his “picture theory” with the “game theory.”

What does a word “mean?” Whereas the earlier Wittgenstein answered that question by identifying its meaning with the object it depicted and stating that a word possessed one “ideal universal” denotation, he now realized that a word’s meaning is dependent upon its use in the project one is undertaking. Words are like “tools” to be used pragmatically and contextually. What is a person trying to accomplish? What game is she playing? There is no apriori, univocal meaning of a word. Its definition depends on its application to all kinds of everyday activities.

For example, consider the word green. What does it mean? Well, many different things. To an artist, it signifies a color. To a golfer, a desirable place to hit a shot. To a jilted lover, a sign of envy. Perhaps to a banker, money. To an ecologist, a vibrant, healthy environment. To a rookie, inexperience. Even to all of the above mentioned actors, the meaning of the word changes as he/she engages in different activities. Words are fluid.

This radically revised appreciation of language provides a basis for announcing that the science/religion acrimony should be behind us. Science plays its own game, has its own purposes, its own special methodology, its own criteria for verification or falsification and its own lexicon. Its teleos has nothing to do with the existence of a supernatural Creator, nor Sustainer of the cosmos.

On the other hand, religious language operates with different objectives and within a different context. Galileo was correct. The purpose of religious language is not to explain how the heavens move, but how to get into heaven, to experience and talk about the Gospel of Salvation now and in the future, to engage in the divine-human encounter. As such, it involves many kinds and uses of language: prayers, parables, confessions, creeds, sermons, commandments, and so on. We learn the meaning of such language by paying attention to usage — learning how to be contrite, forgiving, loving, humble, devotional and hopeful.

Dr. Holmer continually reminded us that there is a profound difference between language about religion (objective) and the language of religion (subjective). The former is open to persons with all kinds of interests and motives, even to the point of trying to discredit it. The latter is an “act of faith and available only to the faithful.” Faith involves “being faithful” in worship, practice, praying, devotional reading, etc. Religious language validates a kind of “informed fideism” to the dedicated believer. However, it is available only to those who pursue a spiritual transformation and it depends on participation in the religious forms of life.

If Wittgenstein’s “game theory” has any merit, who wins the religion/science debate? The answer is “no one” ( or perhaps “everyone”) because there is no debate. Scientific language is irrelevant to persons of faith seeking to understand and experience salvation and piety. Conversely, religious language has no significance for the scientist in the capacity of “scientist.”

Scientists may concur in their “Big Bang” explanation of the creation of our world, but they have absolutely nothing to say about whether God was involved. Devout Jewish, Christian, and Muslim practitioners may agree that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but they have no need, nor interest in seeking validation from a bunch of Canadian rocks.

Arvid Ardell is a retired Professor of Philosophy at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois.

See all articles by Arvid Adell