Making room for faith in science?

Book review: Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science by Michael Ruse

Price: US$18.57; NZ$79.97
Hardcover: 264 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (March 8, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521755948
ISBN-13: 978-0521755948

Unfortunately this book does not discuss the real spiritual feelings involved in the scientific endeavour. That would have been closer to my interests.  However it does argue there is a place in science for people of faith. This is of less interest to me but this subject clearly has an audience.

Perhaps the publishers should have reversed the title and subtitle of this book.

Many might find Ruse’s conclusion there is “room for faith” trivial. After all, we know scientists who also have a religious commitment. That is just an empirical fact.

On the surface one might see this as involving cognitive dissonance. But that is also not surprising. We humans have a great ability to compartmentalise different ways of thinking within the same brain, and to justify that. I have known scientists who are atheists, agnostics, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. But I have also known scientists who believed in astrology or were strongly superstitious in other ways. Hell, I even knew one scientist who belonged to the NZ ACT Party!

But Ruse is not talking about this. He argues that it is possible to be both a Christian and a scientist without any mental compartmentalisation. That one does not exclude the other from philosophical and epistemological points of view.

His foundation for this conclusion is a philosophical analysis of the history of science, of modern science and of possible alternatives to modern science. After a similar analysis for mainstream Christian theology he confidently declares there is room for faith.

History of science

I am pleased that although Ruse really wishes to analyse modern science he does give a history going back to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. It’s still only a history of western science but much better than many theists making this argument allow. They often describe science as originating within Christianity and therefore restrict their histories to last 400 years.

Although this history is necessarily brief his portrayal of the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries as involving the breakaway of science from philosophy and religion is useful. He ties this up with a move in philosophical attitude from a mental portrayal of what reality should be to an acceptance of what we discover reality is. Once we saw reality as ordered or non-magical gods had to be kept at a distance otherwise miracles got in the way. The act of claiming a “God-given” order to the universe meant God got “pushed out of the equation.”

Two other books I have recently reviewed make similar arguments. They were Alan Chalmers’ The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone and Massimo Pigluicci’s Nonsense on Stilts.

Organism and machine metaphors

Ruse uses a metaphor approach. He explains that our understanding is invariably helped, tied up with, metaphor. We are continually trying to picture a counter-intuitive reality using familiar concepts and objects. Hence metaphors.

He describes science as evolving from an organism metaphor of the ancient Greeks. Objects had a purpose, an internal vital force. They saw the world as an organism.  Advancement of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth century brought a machine metaphor which Ruse sees as still applying today.  “We have left the self-regenerating world, where everything is referred to ends, and we are now in a world of particles – atoms, corpuscles – endlessly moving in space – mindlessly, as one might say.”

Ruse distinguishes two forms of the machine metaphor – the machine as an artefact (mechanism 1) and as a process (mechanism 2).

Frankly I felt he overdid the metaphor approach and at times it was confusing. It may initially bring clarity but becomes rather forced and, I think, leads to him drawing some false conclusions.

Ruse explains that, although it might describe his philosophy, he is unhappy about the term “materialism.” He points out the discovery of electromagnetic forces “showed the idea of a world of simple masses, atoms, is no longer tenable. Whatever may be the basic stuff of existence, forces in some sense must be included. For this reason, a lot of people (myself included) hesitate to speak of themselves as materialists, if this means some sort of Cartesian res extensa is the substance of reality.” So he is using the machine metaphor in its place. Unfortunately this reinforces an impression of mechanical materialism inappropriate for modern science.

It’s true that “materialism” is a much-misused and misinterpreted word. But surely this should encourage explanation, development of its meaning as an appropriate philosophical approach in modern science. Not its avoidance. I wish he had taken the bull by the horns. If Ruse had done this I feel he would have made an important contribution as this description is sadly lacking in popular philosophical accounts. Using a machine metaphor conveys a concept of mechanical materialism typical of the 18th and 19th centuries which is not appropriate today. This needs to be updated to produce a materialist philosophical description compatible with modern scientific understanding. His reasons for avoidance of the word probably are reasons he should not have avoided it.

But maybe this requires a philosopher more familiar with modern physics and understanding of matter.

Unasked, Unsolved questions.

Ruse tries to find questions that are beyond the scope of science. He needs these if he is to make room for faith. He produces four questions:

1. Origins. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why this?  “I will simply say that I do not think that is tackled by science all.”

He then gets into an ongoing chain of causation and an uncaused being. You can see where that goes. But just because we cannot currently combine relativity theory and quantum mechanics, cannot go back to the time zero of the “big bang” and beyond says nothing about future possibilities. I think he is wrong to rule this out of science – and in fact cosmologists do research such things. They don’t rule it out.

Incidentally, I found his tendency to rest arguments on personal uncertainty or wishes frustrating. He often makes comments like “But I am not sure that it is our question at the moment.” I wanted more.

2: Morality. Yes, that old argument.

“Machines can be used for good or ill, but they are not themselves moral objects. . . . . . we should not expect something based on the machine metaphor to be a source of moral judgements”. See the problem of taking metaphors too literally? While most people agree science cannot make moral decisions Ruse’s argument is just not satisfactory.

While claiming morals as “another set of questions that science does not even set out to answer” he does properly qualify this. “The claim is certainly not that science, even discounting the matter of technology made earlier, can say nothing about morality. I happen to believe that it can say a great deal about what we do and think and in particular why we think some things are moral and some things are not.”

3: Minds. Consciousness

Again he takes his own metaphor too literally.

“Machines cannot think. Hence any science that is a machine metaphor based is bound to fail the attempt to explain consciousness – thinking, self awareness, what Steven Pinker (1997) calls ‘sentience.’” Machine metaphors are just far too crude to apply to consciousness. This is just naïve mechanical materialism.

Again many, if not most, scientists in this field will disagree. However, he does accept this partially by referring to the work of  Paul and Pat Churchland and quoting, if arbitrarily, Daniel Dennett.

4: Purpose – what is the point of it all.

Here the machine metaphor is a problem for Ruse as it implies purpose. Machines are designed and built for a purpose after all.  He accepts there is no place for ends in science and moves from the machine as an artifact to a mechanism metaphor. “Not what the part is for, but how does the part work.” And he quotes Dijksterhuis: “The mechanism of the world picture led with irresistible consistency to the conception of God as a retired engineer, and from this to His complete elimination was only a step.”

However, he still wants to legitimise the ancient need to see purpose in everything so he must list this as a question science cannot answer. Of course many would say that it is a meaningless question.

The philosophy of “faith”

Covering what Ruse seems to define as the “spiritual” side the book has a chapter “God” and attempts a philosophical analysis of Christianity. I found this hard to follow, not the least because of extensive quoting from the bible and theologians. The theological style of argument is not known for clarity. Often, I suspect, purposely so.

However, Ruse has had to be selective in considering a place for “faith” in science. In broad terms there is only one modern science but there are many modern religions, “faiths.” Ruse chooses to restrict his analysis to Christianity. And then only “mainstream Christianity” – whatever that means. He excludes the creationists, the intelligent designers, etc. But he still includes design.

I don’t think the groups he has excluded are as minor as he suggests. For example, even in New Zealand surveys show that something like 40% of Christians do not accept evolutionary science. So, if Ruse can find a place for “faith” his conclusions only apply to part of Christianity. And not necessarily the major or most politically important part. After all, it is these unconsidered “faiths” which on the one hand are most hostile towards science. On the other hand they work hard to impose their own ”supernatural” philosophy on to science. And their theological influence does extend into mainstream Christianity.

And, of course, his conclusions will anyway be used to bolster all those weird and wonderful Christian sects who he has purposely not included in the consideration.

Room for “faith”?

Ruse’s claim there is a place for faith rests on his argument there are questions science cannot answer – or even investigate. However, typical of this argument is that it awards a magisterium to religion by default. It does nothing to show a case for any special role of religion in such questions.

This is Ruse’s problem. He argues clearly, if not always convincingly, for exclusion of his four questions from science. But I could not find any argument for including these same questions in the province of “faith” or mainstream Christianity. No evidence “faith” could provide answers, or even investigate. It is an argument by default, not merit.

Morality is a clear example of the argument by default. Moral decisions are something that we all have to make. Science may help with information but in the end the decisions about right and wrong are ours. Religion has played a role in recommending and codifying such decision but it doesn’t have any special power in making such decisions. It cannot define what is right and wrong any better than your neighbour. And that historical role has declined as more secular institutions and arrangements have displaced religion.


I enjoyed and found useful the first part of this book. We need more popular writing on the history of science and scientific philosophy. However, while I can understand Ruse’s unwillingness to come to grips with philosophical materialism the alternative, his use of metaphor, was confusing at times. More importantly in places he falls into the trap of taking his metaphors too literally and, I believe, using them to uncritically ring-fence areas of reality from scientific investigation.

That and the restrictive definition of “spirituality” or “faith” he chose for consideration do weaken his argument. I was not convinced the “room for faith in the age of science” is anything more than the usual compartmentalisation of ideas and beliefs which all humans indulge in.

However, the relationship between science and religion, and the question of compatibility, is a hot topic. I am sure the theologically minded will welcome the book – and will use it in their debates and sermons.


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30 responses to “Making room for faith in science?

  1. Hell, I even knew one scientist who belonged to the NZ ACT Party!

    Why specifically, do you have a problem with that?


  2. I’d be much more surprised to find a scientist in the Green party. They tend towards the luddite in my experience.


  3. I’d be much more surprised to find a scientist in the Green party

    Totally agree


  4. Fred, did my little joke touch a nerve with you?

    Pleased to see you read my reviews.


  5. “…he still wants to legitimise the ancient need to see purpose in everything so he must list this as a question science cannot answer. Of course many would say that it is a meaningless question.”

    …because only ancient people had a ‘need’ to see purpose!? And those that don’t believe in a purpose would say it’s a meaningless question, wouldn’t they?

    I don’t see any evidence that you’re taking his points seriously enough to do more than offer easy dismissals like these?


  6. Dale, I did read the book and wrote a five page review. Pretty serious consideration. Even if my review doesn’t accord with your own biases.

    Let’s be clear, Ruse is not arguing for purpose, quite the opposite. He had to work hard to get around his machine metaphor on that one.

    But while scientific epistemology effectively rules out purpose – doesn’t ask that question – Ruse use quotes from theologians to argue that mainline Christians do argue for purpose. He doesn’t agree with them, and typically these quotes suffer from bring theological and therefore confused. But he allows their claim.

    But because the claim is not really supported , in the same as the other three claims are not supported, I can’t accept his conclusion.

    He is allowing Christian claims purely on assertion, not proof. Whereas he uses a criteria of evidence to rule that the four questions cannot be answered by science. It’s the old argument by default.

    So of course I am not convinced.

    I assure you my review is considered and honest.


  7. It’s really not about you or Ruse accepting the claims. It’s about Ruse being able to (gasp) see his opponents in their best light, rather than the easy dismissalism in language such as this: “…these quotes suffer from b[e]ing theological and therefore confused.”

    Ruse seems to simply be saying that physical science cannot rule ‘for’ or ‘against’ metaphysical questions. Metaphysical questions are valid, and are only accepted or rejected on metaphysical/philosophical ground, rather than on (strictly) scientific ones. The age of the physical universe (for example) has no bearing whatsoever on the metaphysical notion of a First Cause. Ruse seems to be committing atheist heresy in understanding this?


  8. I am picking that you haven’t read this book, Dale. But you seem to be very confident about what Ruse really meant.

    I guess this arrogance comes from long practice in telling those silly enough to listen exactly what your god thinks.

    My comments on theological quotes are honest and based on my own experience. I am becoming more and more convinced that theological training is aimed at opportunistically using logic to distort reality. Hence the bafflegab and time wasting jelly wrestling.

    I can understand you don’t agree but that is my honest opinion.

    Now I am quite happy to see that people of all sorts of ideologies have no trouble doing science. We all have the ability to compartmentalize our thinking. You are no doubt aware of this in yourself with your religious activities where a sermon will be completely different to a theological discussion. Yet I imagine you don’t think you are telling lies when you give a sermon.

    I don’t see any need to somehow make the personal ideological beliefs of an individual compatible with their professional activities.

    Faith just isn’t the same as science and we don’t have to pretend it is.

    And I think those scientists I have known who adhered to a faith would not like to impose a faith approach on their science.


  9. who the heck is saying we should pretend that faith and science are the same thing? what does that have to do with the point I was making about the conversational/intellectual maturity of seeing the strengths in the views of one’s opponent (or at least refusing the easy temptation to paint them with the worst brush possible)?


  10. I am a bit of a mug in seeing the best in people – or at least I have beencriticized for that.

    But I am also a realist. And it’s hard to ignore the bafflegab that I seem to be exposed to.

    Just being honest


  11. Well let me return the honesty – I’ve never seen you attempt to see the best in any theologian or still less in any theological argument. Which is my point about Ruse – he is able to do that – even if he still disagrees. A sign of clear thinking to me.


  12. I strongly suspect Ruse is after a Templeton. Anyway, he does seems to the worst in some people – quite irrationally I think.

    I can admire a person personal qualities. But theology and the accompanying dishonesty is not something to admire. That’s my honest view.


  13. “theology and the accompanying dishonesty” – even if an honest view, it betrays your lack of ability to see the best in theologians – for you it’s very simple: theology = dishonesty. How boring (and telling) when your opponents are so clearly in the wrong and you are so clearly in the right?


  14. A quick note to say that professor of religion (and devout Christian) Peter Lineham comes to mind as a NZ example of a brilliant soul who is able to see the best in atheists – certainly this was reflected in his presentations I’ve seen. A true scholar.


  15. …and I must be honest and say that professor Lineham puts me to shame when it comes to being charitable to atheists – I find it much easier to appreciate the reasoned Ruse than the reactionary Richard. (last comment for me tonight – bed time)


  16. Give up Dale. I have my beliefs, you have yours. Demonise me all you like but that won’t change my views.

    Now, evidence, facts, that might work!

    Pity, theologians don’t really deal in such commodities do they?


  17. are you faulting theologians for not being scientists, Ken? That seems a little strange? And I’ve not ‘demonised’ you – we were having a conversation? wow you really don’t want to patiently discuss this point about seeing good in your opponents!?


  18. Not at all Dale.

    But I have written what I thought was a thoughtful review of an interesting book related to a topical subject. I get ACT members upset about one little joke and you upset about what is an essentially throw away comment.

    No evidence you or the others have any thoughts on the subject, book or my review. Just myopic knee jerk reactions.

    Now, Dale, that is hardly seeing the best, is it? And don’t forget this goes with your assertions that I have no basis for my morality. Which sort of rules you out of the group of people I might see as reasonable – in a very personal way.

    So get over it. I have my opinions on theology – partly at the moment enhanced by having to read through a stupid interview with Polkinghorne. Bloody rubbish!

    No I don’t want that sort of rubbish intruding into science – and I don’t think humanity will allow that. We have too much to lose.

    But I have absolutely no trouble working alongside scientists who are also theologians, religious, not religious, astrologers or members of the ACT Party. My experience is that we can see the best in each other and respect each other despite such differences.

    Providing those ideas are not imposed on their science – or on me personally.


  19. You’re taking all kinds of diversions from my point? Nobody is saying anything about imposing anything on anything or anyone.


  20. Hi Ken, thought I’d introduce myself and clear one thing up. Just for the record, although I don’t think you were referring to me above, I’m not an ACT member. In fact I find their current brand of conservative politics a tad unpleasant. It would seem to me they have betrayed their libertarian roots and sold their souls in order to cosy up to the Nats. If they ever do actively court the christian right as some have threatened then they will lose any last shred of credibility they had in my opinion.
    I was originally trained in science (microbiology in my case) but I have since moved to IT. My political leanings are very much left of centre, and my religious leanings are pretty non-existent. I tell myself and others I’m an atheist, but if I were to be true to my scientific background I guess I ought to classify myself as an agnostic in the sense that one can’t categorically disprove the existence of divine beings with our current technology. I do however find it extremely unlikely that such beings exist. So nice to meet you, have enjoyed the small amount of your blog I’ve read so far 🙂


  21. Hi Lats. Thanks for introducing yourself and I look forward to more comments/interaction from you.

    My impression is that the Christian right and ACT have linked up to some extent – at least on the ETS and climate science issues.

    On this agnostic question. I personally don’t like that word because it implies one can never know – against knowledge. A position I don’t adhere to.

    But I can appreciate that one can be agnostic, for the time being, about any issue. I think this is the way the Dawkins has actually used the word.


  22. Ken
    You are completely wrong on ACT and the Christian right. There is no connection between the two.

    There are against the ETS, quite rightly in my view, because it serves no practical purpose.


  23. Dale, I am sorry if I appear a tiny bit abrupt at the moment. I am not going to draw back from my criticisms of theology and theological methods but I apologise for my current intolerance.

    It’s true my fuse is rather short at the moment and I was very tempted to throw the book (“Einstein’s God”) with Tippett’s interview of Polkinghorne across the room. It was rubbish. My partner is currently undergoing chemotherapy. It’s not nice, it goes on for months and there are all sorts of stresses on her and the family as a result.

    I suspect I have upset a few people on the internet recently with my directness. It’s just that I am in no mood for circular discussion and avoidance of issues. Obviously the theological debating style is setting me off.

    It might be better if I treat more debates less seriously.


  24. Fred, are you a member of ACT, in its leading council, or otherwise privy to information? It’s just that you are so definite.

    I am going on things like links between ACT (advertising of meetings, speakers, etc) and conservative Christians like Ian Wishart, MandM, etc. Also their links with the local right wing think tank and its overseas equivalents (eg. Heartland Institute). Also the promotion of material from local and overseas denier groups.

    They are certainly in each others pockets.


  25. I went to an ACT meeting recently, I am not a member

    I used to vote Green. I must have been mad


  26. Fred:

    Here is your evidence: “I went to an ACT meeting recently, I am not a member”

    Here is your conclusions: “You are completely wrong on ACT and the Christian right. There is no connection between the two.”

    Notice the problem?

    Or is this the relevant bit “I used to vote Green. I must have been mad”? Perhaps you still are?


  27. ACT, in my opinion, are in a difficult position. They need to do something to differentiate themselves from National, and really only have two options. They could embrace their libertarian roots and become not only economically but also socially liberal. I think there is room in NZ for a true libertarian party, one which focusses on personal freedoms. ACT pretend to do this, but their current core membership seems to be quite socially conservative, so I think their more likely strategy, but a poorer one in my opinion, will be to focus more on this social conservatism. This will inevitably bring them closer to the likes of United Future and their christian coalition friends. I’m not sure this will buy them more votes.
    Oh and I’ve voted Green in the past too, but my partner is a genetic research scientist, and I have little sympathy for the Greens views on scientific advancement in this area. Sorry to hijack your science blog and turn it into a political debate Ken.


  28. Ken,
    I want to thank you for apologising for what you called intolerance. As I said, Peter Lineham puts me to shame when it comes to seeing the best in his opponents (without pretending they are not opponents, I might add). A few of my recent posts have been particularly other-than-good-finding (to coin the awkward phrase) in atheists – esp. Dawkins. So I am certainly not as exemplary as I’d like to be at seeing the best in those I disagree with.

    One day we really should share a table over coffee – I always find face-to-face exchanges more enjoyable, though still robust. Tone of voice and facial expression provide relational context for statements, etc.

    I’m very sorry to hear of your partner’s condition – and whilst I’d obviously want to thank God for the wisdom/skills/technology/science which she is able to benefit from, we can both agree that it is a good thing to be in the good hands of those physicians caring for her.

    Take care,



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