(Sort of) Abandoning Ian Barbour’s Scheme for Science and Religion Dialogue

Over the past few posts in this series, I’ve been discussing the way in which science and religion interact. In several posts, I spent a good deal of time attempting to debunk the idea that science and religion necessarily conflict. Last week, I tried to show how NOMA is invalid, in large part because science necessarily makes non-empirical claims, and religion frequently makes claims that are historical, and thus empirical. This week, I’d like to examine one of the more well known schemes for discussing Science-Religion Dialogue; the one offered by Ian Barbour.

Between 1989 and 1991 Barbour gave the somewhat famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland (Aberdeen those years). The lectures eventually became the book Religion in an Age of Science. In the book, Barbour outlines four models for science and religion interaction:

  1. Conflict: One which we have already addressed
  2. Independence: Which is best exemplified by NOMA
  3. Dialogue: Where one uses the other or vice versa, but they remain essentially within their own field
  4. Integration: Where there is a more complete intermingling, such as with Natural Theologies

While his scheme is helpful on a certain level, I’d like to suggest that his distinction between Dialogue and Integration is actually not that helpful. On the one hand both take science and religion very seriously and believe that both fields point to the truth. On the other hand, some of what Barbour classifies as integration is, at best, a superficial treatment of either science or religion.
In truth, I don’t find the distinction helpful, and suggest a different way of looking at the dialogue.

Let me just get something out there. I do not think it is genuinely possible to prove the existence of God through purely empirical means. There. I said it (and in bold letters no less). This is the problem I frequently have with natural theology, at least of the sort that purports to prove God’s existence. Here’s the problem with trying to prove God’s existence by an appeal only to science: what you prove exists is not God. If you can prove the existence of God in this way, then it leaves us with one of two possibilities. Either

The god proved is subject entirely to empirical methodology, and thus is not truly supernatural. If that is the case, then God is not over and above natural law, but subject to it. Further, it is difficult to reconcile the idea that “God is Spirit” as Jesus said with the idea of a God subject entirely to empirical observation.


The god who is proved is not a personal god, but rather an impersonal pantheistic god (that is a god who just is the universe as in Spinoza and Hegel) or a god who sets the universe in motion and does little else (the god of eighteenth and nineteenth century deism).

Now, let me be clear about something else. I do believe God truly exists, and I further believe that the existence of God can be proved, and even that empirical methodology may have something to do with this. But it can’t be through empiricism alone.

But, if we really think about it, what can be meaningfully said about the universe that can be said through empiricism alone? This brings me back to my objection to NOMA. Any time we are confronted with a question of existence, particularly future existence, we can only make claims about the existence or non-existence through extrapolating from our empirical observations. This objection to empiricism as a sole criteria for knowledge, first found in David Hume, is so old and frequent as to be trite, yet the fact that it is frequently ignored means I should bring it up again. Perhaps instead of driving a wedge between the two things, we should accept them for what they are: different pieces of the epistemological puzzle.

In Epistemology, that is the philosophical branch that deals with knowledge, there is a perennial problem of how we can claim anything counts as knowledge (a sort of developed skepticism). For a long time the standard working definition of knowledge was “justified true belief.” Then a series of “Gettier Problems” were introduced. These scenarios gave an account of a person who had a belief that was true and that he was justified in having, yet because the justification was actually mistaken, it didn’t seem like his belief should count as knowledge. There have been numerous attempts to answer the Gettier Dilemma, but they have usually relied upon something that can’t be described (there is some quality in addition to truth and justification about a belief that is needed, and we’ll just call it g, for Gettier, or something less imaginative like x, y or z).

I’m suggesting that one of the first steps out of this dilemma (that is to be able to claim knowledge) is to accept that knowledge does not come about through a single isolate process. Rather we come about our beliefs (and eventually knowledge) by rather complex methodologies that take from various processes. This is the same for the scientist as it is for the theologian. Once we accept that, then we can move on to find out what counts as the “right” sort of justification for something.

This brings us back to science and religion interaction. I don’t think the final distinction of Barbour’s (between “Dialogue” and “Integration”) is terribly useful because, on some level at least, we are all practicing some sort of integration, and on another we all resist it. Thus genuine meaningful interaction is not a choice between the two, but rather an expression of what level and how we integrate the two, as well as other ways of thinking, in an attempt to arrive at knowledge about the universe, and about God.

But what do you think? Is Barbour’s final division still useful in some ways? How?

  1 comment for “(Sort of) Abandoning Ian Barbour’s Scheme for Science and Religion Dialogue

  1. February 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Reblogged this on Unapologetics | aint nothing sacred and commented:
    Good stuff over here.

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