The famed scientist Ian Barbour once observed that when religion first met modern science in the seventeenth century, the encounter was a friendly one. "By the eighteenth century many scientists believe in a God who had designed the universe, but they no longer believe in a personal God actively involved in the world and human life. By the nineteenth century," Barbour concluded, "...scientists were hostile to religion."
And the crux of that hostility is rooted in what can be called a "reductive naturalism."
"Naturalism" is the idea that nature is "all that is." "Reductive" naturalism is the value which states that all that can be known within nature is that which can be empirically verified.
This is key.
So a reductive naturalism contends that what is real is only that which can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled or touched; then verified, meaning able to be replicated in a test-tube. Knowledge is "reduced" to this level of knowing. If it cannot be examined in a tangible, scientific manner, it is not simply unknowable - it is meaningless.
This naturalism holds that life is accidental. There is nothing beyond ourselves that will ever bring order, reason or explanation. We must restrict what can be known to that which is immediately before us; to what is "given" or "factual."
This means (again) what can be empirically, or scientifically, demonstrated.
As astronomer Carl Sagan argued in his final work, the goal is to rid ourselves of a "demon-haunted" world, meaning anything that would challenge the rule of science and technology as the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality, for there is no other truth or reality to embrace.
So much for God.
But not so fast…
There is now a battle raging over the scientific method itself, particularly between those engaged in cosmology and those pursuing the study of fundamental physics.
Quick primer: cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole (e.g., the Big Bang). Fundamental physics is the study of reality's bedrock entities and their interactions (e.g., the interaction of matter, energy, space and time).
Here's the battle: some scientists want to argue that if a theory is coherent, it does not need to be tested experimentally to be valid. In other words, scientific "knowledge" does not need to be empirical.
The reason some are arguing for this reformulation is because things such as "string theory" and the idea of a "multiverse" turn old understandings of what constitutes "physical reality" on their head.
(Don't worry if you don't know what either of those ideas entail – hang with the big picture of empiricism for a moment.)
These new theories are raising questions about the very rules of science when applied to the universe as a whole.
Because both the string theory and the multiverse posit entities that may very well be unobservable or beyond our "horizon." In other words, while they may be true, their very nature means that they can never be subject to empirical verification.
It's being called "post-empirical" science. So you have philosophers of physics such as Richard David arguing that in spite of the fact that there is no "evidence" for string theory, it still should be considered the most likely candidate for future research and consideration.
As David contends, "No one has found a good alternative to string theory."
Going further, Sean Carroll – recognized as a highly respected and philosophically astute physicist – notes that "Whether or not we can observe [extra dimensions or other universes] directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets."
As an NPR report on the matter concluded, "Even if a theory predicts entities that can't be directly observed, if there are indirect consequences of their existence we can confirm, then those theories (and those entities) must be included in our considerations."
And this was the prime argument brought by theists against the Enlightenment project that sought to bracket off any consideration of God.
Sweet irony that it is science itself that is bringing the consideration of God back into play – and making it intellectually sound.
It reminds me of those wonderful words penned by Robert Jastrow, who for 20 years was the Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as he reflected on the pursuit of ultimate truth:
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."
No wonder that post-empirical science is being called "science's most dangerous idea."
It may just lead to God.
James Emery White
Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners?
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Adam Frank, "The Most Dangerous Ideas In Science," National Public Radio, January 27, 2015, read online.
Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers.