Moving Science away from materialism


“I’m only interested in the facts.” That’s the sort of thing you expect a scientist to say. Theologians are supposed to be interested in the logical assertions about divinity which based on an idea or a text, but scientists stick to the facts. The observations. The concrete part of reality. No cloud cuckoo land for them.

Except, that’s not true anymore. Or it hasn’t been at least since the beginning of the 20th century. Science in the 18th and 19th century was based on materialism. And Werner Heisenberg, he of the Uncertainty principle, believed that was a good way to demarcate the shift from one scientific world view to another, was to use the dominate scientific metaphor for matter as boundaries. Science in the 20th century moved from materialism to a quantum field metaphor.

Why the shift and how deeply has the new metaphor penetrated our common thinking? Mark Vernon deals with that question in an essay in the Guardian:

“Of materialism, [Heisenberg] wrote:

“[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world.”

Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: “The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology.”

That’s provocative rhetoric. Science an act of faith? Science a belief system? But then how else to explain the grip of the mechanistic, physicalist, purposeless cosmology? As Heisenberg explained, physicists among themselves have long stopped thinking of atoms as things. They exist as potentialities or possibilities, not objects or facts. And yet, materialism persists.”

That many outside the “academy” are still caught up in 19th century paradigms isn’t just the case in Science of course. In theology and biblical studies, people are still using the atomized bible of the Princeton Method to prove logical assertions about divinity. Even though we know that an atomized reading the Bible is just wrong. The fundamental unit of the bible seems to be the story, not the verse.

It’s striking to me how many of the major culture war battlefields of our present day are ultimately based on the perceived conflict between Science and Religion. The irony though is that most of the conflict seems to be based on using an older interpretation of Science (materialism) or Theology (Biblical atomism) and not on the current broadly accepted scholarly paradigms.

Perhaps one of the first steps in moving people back from the battle lines would be to help spread the meme that Science is no longer based in materialism. (And that Theology is not done by proof-texting too, but I think we can start with Science first.)

Any ideas how to do that? Other than blogging about it of course… Heh.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Perhaps we could start by repeating, at every opportunity, that science and religion share two foundational values:

    1. Scientists (profess to) believe in facing the facts, whatever they turn out to be. Religious believers profess to trust in God, but as the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor points out, that requires “an openness to truth, whatever truth may turn out to be.”

    In religious terms, we could phrase this as a corollary to the First Commandment: Face the facts; do your best to live in the reality that the Creator wrought, not in a pseudo-reality that you or I might conjure in our imaginations.

    In the language of scientists, the same sentiment is expressed as: Observation trumps theory. (Yes, I know, instrument limitations, measurement error, etc. ….)

    2. Both science and religion are keenly aware of human weakness — neither places an inordinate amount of faith in human beings.

  2. Bill Ghrist says

    Yes, scientists believe in facing facts and religious belief requires an openness to truth, but let us not forget that scientists think of facts and truth as pretty much the same thing, but religious truth is best expressed in metaphor and story. Metaphors and stories can be profoundly true even though not factually true. As Marcus Borg says, “metaphor is not less than fact, but more.” I think the perceived conflict between Science and Religion owes much to scientists who claim that only objective facts can be true and religious people who think that all religious truth can be stated as objective facts.

  3. Bill Ghrist, my problem is with those religious people who insist that metaphor must be accepted as equal to fact. Metaphor’s only proper role is as servant of fact; it’s legitimate only insofar as it serviceably models the underlying factual reality. Of course, fact can be complex, sophisticated, many-layered, and beyond our powers of observation, but that doesn’t warrant our treating metaphor as a substitute for it.

  4. Paul Martin says

    Recently I have become aware of another difference between science and religion. Science frequently leaves me with a sense of awe and wonder, something I almost never get from religion any more. (Well, sometimes from the music, sometimes from the liturgy, almost never from the sermon.)

    I am not learned enough to set this in any historical context, but I wonder if we have tried to ape a misunderstood “scientific approach” to the way we approach our faith. You have all heard the people who explain patiently how atonement works (step 1, step 2, etc.) as a mechanistic statement of fact rather than as an imperfect understanding of a mystery. I don’t think we are quite that bad in the Episcopal Church, but I wonder if we have bought into that approach to some extent. Most scientists are smart enough to be frank about how much they don’t understand, how each answer raises two more questions. If we brought that kind of humility to our theology, we might get some of the wonder back.

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