An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

Science and the Study of God

I was asked to write a review of Alan Padgett's Science and the Study of God last year. It was published in Themelios 30 (1) Autumn 2004: 75-6. My original review exceeded the word count and so I had to pare it down. I was much happier with the fuller review, so I thought I'd post it here.

Science and the Study of God: A Mutuality Model for Theology and Science

Alan G. Padgett

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003,

xiv + 218 pp., p/b., £15.99/ $22

Philosopher and theologian Alan Padgett is a Methodist working at a Lutheran Seminary, he is the author of the fascinating God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time which is the product of his PhD supervised by Richard Swinburne. Such an eclectic and ecumenical background stands him in good stead in tackling the interdisciplinary subject of the relationship of science and theology.

Science and the Study of God provides a significant contribution to the burgeoning science-theology debate. Padgett’s aim is to provide a model for the interaction of science and theology: a model which is characterised by collegiality or mutual respect; somewhere between Ian Barbour’s dialogue and full integration models. Padgett writes for ‘anyone who has done some hard thinking about religion and science and would like to reflect more fully on conceptual issues and theological problems that the current dialogue brings up’ (x). And he does so very well.

What is refreshing about Padgett’s approach is that he takes seriously the idea that theology can inform the physical sciences. This is in stark contrast to many of the science-religion heavyweights who maintain that there is a dialogue between science and theology and yet they only seem to allow for a one-way conversation. As Padgett puts it, ‘science, philosophy, and theology are colleagues. One partner should not dominate the others’ (p. 68).

I also appreciated Padgett’s discussion of worldviews. This is a crucial and yet neglected area of science theology integration. Padgett – rightly, in my opinion – sees the interaction between the two disciplines at the worldview level. Where I would part company with Padgett is that I think he doesn’t take the role of worldviews deep enough!

The first of nine chapters introduces the mutuality model, the second examines the philosophical background essential for it: that of realism: ‘the subjects studied in the special sciences exist independently of the investigator’s experience of them’ (p. 29). Padgett takes issue with the critical realism espoused by most in this field and describes his view of realism as dialectical. He sees dialectical realism as a corrective to the individualistic and synchronic view of epistemology that a critical realist view often entails; dialectical realism is among other things, communal and diachronic. He also makes a good case for realism in religion: this is the viewpoint of almost all believers and theology is the study of God. This realist view takes seriously the ‘need for theology and science to mutually inform and modify each other’ (p.45).

The third chapter examines the quest for the historical Jesus; this serves to illustrate the myth of the independence of religion and science: there is no neutral, value-free scientific approach to the historical Jesus. He examines two version of the neutrality myth: the ‘neutrality two-step’ and the ‘prejudice of perspective’.

I was a little surprised to see no mention of Roy Clouser’s Myth of Neutrality the standard text on the neutrality fallacy! Perhaps Padgett’s ecumenicalism doesn’t stretch as far as neocalvinism.

In chapter 4 ‘Science and worldviews’ he examines the so-called hard sciences; if the social sciences are not value-free what about natural science? He argues, along with most contemporary philosophers of science that ‘our paradigms influence our scientific practice (and thus the body of scientific knowledge)’ (p. 67). To do this he briefly traces the history of science from positivism to postmodernism and shows that ‘value commitments play a role in the criticism and growth of knowledge’ (p.68). Along with Popper, he agrees that there is no neutral observation and with Polanyi that scientific practice is guided by personal interests: ‘…science is guided by values, which cannot be justified by science itself’ (p. 68).

In chapter 5 he uses process theology and its desire to subordinate theology to a Whiteheadean philosophy as a foil to show that ‘theology must not lose itself to philosophy’ (p.104). For Padgett, ‘Christian theology is based on Christian revelation and Christian faith, it cannot be philosophy and should never pretend to be’ (p. 91). I felt that in this chapter Padgett came very close to the neutrality two-step he criticised earlier and I would have liked to have seen some discussion of how worldview affects philosophy and theology. Though I would wholeheartedly agree with his conclusion that ‘human reason must be cleaned and redeemed by faith for a meaningful knowledge to God to progress’ (p. 103).

The next chapter looks at the place of theology in the academy. He sees the goal of theology is to worship God. He then goes on to address the questions that this raises: including, how then can theology be an academic discipline and how then can it legitimate its truth-claims?

The issue of time and thermodynamics is then used as an example of how science and theology can be integrated (chapter 7). He concludes that they are mutually supportive: ‘Thermodynamics supports the Christian doctrine that time is linear, while Christian doctrine supports the dynamic, irreversible view of fundamental physics.’ (p. 135). In chapter 8 he uses an example form the social science – the incarnation – as an example in ‘theological method, with particular reference to formal logic’.

The final chapter summarises and there is a lengthy appendix that deals with the role of induction in a post-foundationalist world. There is a 15-page bibliography and a 9-page index.

In short: if you read one book on science and theology this year [2004] , make it this one!


Paul said...

Thanks for all this Steve!

Out of interest, how many times have you mentioned Clouser & Dooyeweerd in your published work?

Steve Bishop said...

.. as often as I can :)

Though the Clouser bit came out of the published review :(