Custom Search



Book Review
Ian Johnston

Phil Dowe
Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking: the Interplay of Science, Reason, and Religion
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005
205 pp   ISBN 0-8028-1696-2


What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? For Tertullian, the feisty second-century church father, who is most famously associated with this question, the answer was simple enoughnothing whatsoever.  Philosophical and scientific speculations are irrelevant to Christian faith: I believe, he cried, because it is absurd.  Later thinkers, however, unwilling to hold to such a firm dichotomy, established a long tradition of exploring how we might reach some useful synthesis of reason, science, and religion or at least set down less rigid lines of demarcation, so that we could live peacefully in both cities.

Nowadays, of course, the debate is as alive as ever, but the often harsh arguments between hard-core scientific reductionists and zealous Biblical literalists are, as often as not, characterized by reflex responses more appropriate to a shouting match where fans of rival sports teams hurl insults back and forth than to debates with any intellectual substance or philosophical, scientific, or theological interest.

Phil Dowe's Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking: The Interplay of Science, Reason, and Religion is a very welcome and timely attempt to inject some perspective and a dash of analytical rigour into these modern arguments, an invitation to acquaint ourselves with some important chapters in the history of our attempts to sort out the demands of scripture and science in a reasonable manner, so that we might attend to or participate in contemporary debates with a more intelligent sense of how to cope with these issues.

Dowe, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Queensland and a practising Presbyterian, begins by setting out four ways in which we have traditionally dealt with religion and science, two based on conflict (naturalism and religious science) and two based on harmony (independence and interaction).  He then applies these criteria to various philosophical issues raised by religious and scientific explanations, particularly with reference to Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking.  Along the way, he explores a number of different matters, including the hermeneutics of science and religion, the relationship between knowledge and power in Descartes and Bacon, miracles, modern cosmological theories (the Big Bang), the anthrophic principle, and the effects of chance on a religious understanding of the world.

This sounds like a tall order, but Dowe's aim is relatively modest.  He wants us to understand that, if we are prepared to look into a few details of how we have dealt with these issues in the past, we will better understand where we are now.  At the very least, we will come to learn that the issues are more complex and much more interesting than the simple antagonisms of so many modern discussions.  While he's very clear from the beginning about where he stands (he believes religion and science can exist and have existed in a relationship of harmonious interdependence), he does not force that case upon us and is more interested in presenting various alternatives and encouraging us to understand their implications than in persuading us that any one view must be correct.

The great merit of this book is Dowe's ability to lead us through complicated issues in a clear, patient, and useful way. His prose is lucid and accessible, with many helpful examples and no complex terminology (although some may find the simple probability equations a bit puzzling at first).  Dowe has a real talent for exploring difficult scientific and philosophical matters (like chance in quantum theory) in a non-intimidating and illuminating style and for summarizing specialized discourse in a way readily comprehensible to the general reader.  His tone is unwaveringly polite and helpful and never dull.  Hence, this book is ideally suited to and strongly recommended for anyone with little scholarly background in philosophy or theology or science who is seeking an introduction or re-introduction to any number of important and intriguing polemical issues in the history and philosophy of science and religion.

Dowe's central theme is that a close historical look at philosophical and doctrinal claims reveals that in the past science and religion have often, even generally, enjoyed a fruitful interaction in the West.  The story of the creation of man and woman in God's image, for example, together with their duty to take dominion over the earth, has long provided a religious justification for and stimulus to rational enquiries about nature, just as scientific discoveries of complex designs in nature and mathematically precise natural laws have been (and still are) persuasive supports for religious belief.  Yes, there have been conflicts, but the important point is this harmonious interdependence.

Hence, the book invites to reconsider what we think we know about famous moments from our past.  For example, many of us may take the case of Galileo as a prime illustration of the conflict between religious doctrine and scientific enquiry.  Not so, Dowe points out, for the Catholic church had long worked out a tradition of accepting established scientific findings which went against a literal reading of scripture, so that Galileo was quite correct to argue that his new science was not a stance antagonistic to the faith, even after the Council of Trent.  And radical Protestantism was equally accepting of the new science, for, according to Calvin, the task of religion is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.  Similarly, the cases of Darwin and Hawking are not, as many suppose, examples of religion and science operating antagonisticallyquite the reverse.  There's no sense of special pleading in Dowe's review of these well-known stories.  He presents what he has to say calmly, with useful supporting evidence and clear analysis and commentary.  Even when he is outlining a scientific or religious position with which he disagrees, as in his discussions of antirealist accounts of science (Oisander) and religion (Wittgenstein), his first concern is to make sure we understand the claims being made, the reasons for them, and some of the more problematic consequences.

For all its considerable merits, this book will prompt a number of objections, for Dowe inevitably has to simplify or overlook complex theological and philosophical issues.  In addition, Dowe confines his understanding of conflict to the realm of philosophy, when the cases he examines became famous examples of antagonistic clashes largely for non-philosophical reasons.  It's unlikely that Galileo's or Darwin's theories would have become such famous moments of apparent conflict between religion and science but for the social-political climate of the day (and the effect of those upon established religious and political institutions).  Hence, Dowe's decision to confine his attention to philosophical conflict and eschew wider concerns will no doubt offend historians of science and frustrate those wondering why, if the conflict in these cases was more apparent than real, there was such a fuss about them at the time.

Suspicious minds may well raise some questions about a hidden agenda in the final paragraphs of Dowe's argument, where he affirms his loyalty to Hume, "if there is no evidence for the existence of God then it is not rational to believe in it" but, on the other hand, insists we need to attend to the anthropic argument from the fine tuning of the cosmos and "draw conclusions based on the evidence we have."  This being the case, "Provided there is no independent evidence for multiple worlds, we should infer the existence of a designer . . . [and] the designer revealed by science is perfectly compatible with the God revealed by the Bible." But are appeals to the practice of Inference to the Best Explanation sufficient to overcome the major logical deficiencies of a Design Argument (those pointed out by Hume and Kant, for example)?  Is that a reasonable procedure?  And even if the Anthropic Argument does demonstrate that atheism is incorrect (a very contentious claim), does that make it any more reasonable to believe in a triune deity rather than in any number of others?

However, in the closing paragraph, Dowe pulls back from any large conclusion: "I have argued that in Western history religious belief as given in the Judeo-Christian tradition is neither incompatible with nor a hindrance to science; there is no philosophical conflict between the two.  At the very least this is so in the cases of Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking."  So the reader is left at the end in some doubt as to just how far-reaching Dowe's final thoughts about religion and science now might be. 

For all such questions one might want to raise about the conclusion, however, this book is a valuable reminder that it is incorrect to think of science and religion as necessarily antagonistic or to look upon the history of science as a record of bitter conflicts with religion.  Of course, as Dowe points out, one can take up a religious or scientific position which makes conflict inevitable, but history, theology, and philosophy all reveal that such positions have had no monopoly on religious belief or scientific thinking.  There may be nothing very original about such a claim, but to remind us of that in a such a calm, lucid, and informative manner is a great service at a time when the disputes about teaching evolution in the schools and other issues involving religion and science tend to generate a great deal more heat than light.

[Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files

View Stats