It has become rather popular for theologians to talk about the ‘limits of science’. That, in itself is not objectionable – after all many scientists also talk about its limitations. The objectionable part is when theologians do this as a criticism of scientists. When they attribute a position to scientists, or at least some scientists, which they actually don’t have.
In other words when they are knocking down straw men.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, indulged in this form of straw-mannery in an interview about his recent book with The Guardian (see Cross purposes). As the article says:
He also tilts in the book at the pretensions of science, and by extension scientists such as Dawkins: “Science is a set of brilliantly successful methods producing brilliantly successful hypotheses about how things work. What it’s not is a picture of reality. It will give you a very significant purchase on reality. But it’s not an ethic, not a metaphysic. To treat it like that is a kind of idolatry.”
So science can’t give you ‘a picture of reality’ but can ‘give you a significant purchase on reality.’I guess he means that scientific knowledge is not an exact picture of reality. But who said it is?
Why criticise scientists for something they don’t do? Any working scientist will agree with this quote from Albert Einsten:
One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
We know scientific knowledge is only an imperfect reflection of reality. But I think most would agree that it is becoming more accurate with time as we interact with, and learn from, reality.
Similarly science is ‘not an ethic, not a metaphysic.’ Who said it is?
Many scientists, including Richard Dawkins, have pointed out that science cannot make value judgements (although scientific information may be useful in making those judgements).
Why commit straw-mannery?
So why this straw-mannery? A straw-mannery committed by many other theologians (and also by some commenters on this blog)?
It seems to me the answer is in what is not said. Considering that such arguments are most usually perpetrated by people promoting a theist position I think it’s logical to assume that the hidden message is ‘Science can’t do this but religion can!’ I think these statements attempt to convey the message that issues of true reality and ethics are the province of religion, and only religion.
But why indulge in straw-mannery to claim this role for religion? Why not give positive arguments for the position? Why expect to win support for this position by default – to rely on the implication that because science can’t do it therefore religion can?
Might I suggest that there are no positive arguments for a special role for religion in these areas. ‘Revelation’ and theological philosophising cannot produce an exact, complete and true description of reality – far from it. As Einstein points out – science, despite its imperfections, gives us the best picture here.
Nor can religion provide us with a completely reliable morality and ethics. Sure, in the past religion has played a role in codifying and teaching morality. But history surely shows that it has no special ability to determine morality. We all do our best in determining what is right or wrong. The only role that religion and ideologies seem to play here is in providing a framework to justify the personal decisions.
The point is on questions of ultimate reality and ethics – If science can’t do it there is no reason to believe that religion can. To claim that religion can is surely, to use the Archbishop’s words, ‘a kind of idolatry.’