How do we know what we know? The question that untangles Magisteria’s science and religion Ted Lefroy The Skeptic

‘Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion’ is a thoroughly engaging and detailed account of the backstories to the big debates between science and religion over the past five hundred years. Through new material and detailed social context, it vividly brings to life the trial of Galileo, the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the Scopes monkey trial. The big drawback is that it presents a view of science from the outside looking in, and while it identifies the issue at the centre of these debates – who has authority to say how the world is? – it plays down the different rules of evidence and standards of proof within science and religion and the fact that revelation has trumped empiricism for most of this relationship.

The author Nicholas Spencer is a senior fellow at the think tank Theos, part of The British and Foreign Bible Society and he is most at home exploring the foundational role that religious orders from Baghdad to Rome, Paris and Oxford played in the birth of science by fostering learning and inquiry into the nature of the universe. The book’s purpose, made clear in the introduction and dedication, is to support the complexity theory of the relationship between science and religion, championed by historian John Brooke, and portray the conflict theory widely accepted outside academia as myth.

At the heart of the question of authority is the different epistemologies of science and religion, the different ways they believe we can know about the world. Science holds that we can only know about the world through observation and experience, phenomena that impinge upon our five senses. If we can’t see, hear, feel, smell or taste some thing or phenomenon, directly or through telescopes, microscopes, Large Hadron Colliders and all the other instruments that extend the reach of our senses, then science can say no more than evidence of its existence is beyond its reach.

Religion on the other hand, and this history deals primarily with the three Abrahamic religions, accepts that we can also know about the world through means other than our five senses, through revelation, inspiration, dreams and visions from beyond the human realm.

In recognition of these different epistemologies, palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a resolution by describing science and religion as ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’ The term magisteria was borrowed from the encyclical Humani generis in which Pope Pius XII argued that evolution, existentialism, historicism and other “…false opinions…” originated from the “…reprehensible desire of novelty…” and threatened to undermine the foundations of Catholic Doctrine by neglecting the magisterium, the authority of the Pope and bishops.

Gould’s well-intentioned intervention was bound to fail, however, as science and religion will continue to overlap wherever there are competing explanations for the same phenomenon, such as the movement of the planets that saw Galileo forced to kneel before the inquisition as a heretic and recant.

That religion played a role in the birth of science by fostering education and research has been long argued by historians of science. But as science gained increasing independence and respectability, its explanations for natural phenomena began to encroach into the domain of religion.

To view the relationship from the point of view of science, consider the two domains as concentric circles. Science is the smaller inner circle, originating as a dot around the time of Aristotle and gradually expanding as more phenomena that previously relied on supernatural explanations are demonstrated to have natural origins. Encompassing science is the much larger circle of religious belief and the supernatural, and beyond that, the uncontained territory of the unknowable.

Sitting at the frontier between science and religion is a double wall, a waiting room containing the untested hypotheses, assumptions, conjecture and speculation that are part of scientific practice. This intermediate zone is where the contest of ideas is most active. Until empirically tested, concepts in this territory lack authority but are vital to the scientific process. Such as Einstein’s 1915 prediction of the existence of gravitational waves, not empirically confirmed until 2015, or the existence of Higgs boson, predicted in 1964 but not experimentally confirmed until 2012.

By describing their territories as ‘…indistinct, sprawling, untidy and endlessly and fascinatingly entangled…’ Spencer over complicates the relationship. Seen from within the domain of science, the boundary between the two is a lively frontier of imagination, uncertainty and the novelty so disdained by Pius XII, their relationship more like that of parent and child than benevolent midwife; originally nurturing, then intolerant, finally accommodating.

In the case of the Catholic Church, that accommodation only formally occurred in the last century, the treatment of two its own illustrating this shift. Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was executed for supporting heliocentrism in 1600. Three hundred and thirty three years later, Belgian priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaître was photographed with Albert Einstein and feted on a lecture tour of America after Edwin Hubble confirmed his Big Bang theory.

Labelling the history of science and religion complex glosses over the fact that, for most of its existence science was overruled whenever it challenged received wisdom. The confusion and untidiness Spencer portrays is due to a misrepresentation of the scientific process and the reluctance of religious organisations to formally accept empirical evidence where it is in conflict with their authority. In the case of heliocentrism, formal acceptance took three hundred and fifty nine years. For evolution by natural selection, unconditional acceptance took one hundred and fifty five years. In the case of the Big Bang, acceptance took just eighty three years and in doing so pushed back the role of a creator by some fourteen billion years.

While this book provides a highly readable account of the origins of Western science, of more interest to science and greater value to society would be an exploration of the relationship between science and animism. Of the one hundred billion people estimated to have ever lived since the appearance of modern humans, more than half existed over two thousand years ago. The vast majority of those lived for thousands of generations without undermining the basis of their existence to the extent we are today, informed by a worldview that grants personhood to the animate and inanimate alike.

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Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, by Nicholas Spencer, paints a history of entwined attempts to understand, glossing over religion’s response to conflicting ideas
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