return to religion-online

A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch


Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: Dismantling the Tower of Babel


Now as they moved eastwards they found a plain in the land of Shinar where they settled. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire’ -- For stone they used bricks, and for mortar they used bitumen [slime] -- ‘Come,’ they said ‘let us build ourselves a town and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves.’
Genesis 11:2 -- 4 (Jerusalem Bible)

The radical split between knowledge and commitment that exists in our culture and our universities is not ultimately tenable. Differentiation has gone about as far as it can go. It is time for a new integration.
Robert N. Bellah (1970 p. 257)


The Israelites, according to the story in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, were well on the way to getting a mighty tower built. There seemed nothing too hard for them to do. The sorry end of the story is well known They no longer spoke one language and so could no longer understand one another. They stopped building the town which was called Babel and the great tower they had planned at its center.

In commenting on this story Koestler (1982 p. 685) suggests that the magnitude and complexity of the offending tower involved specialists of all sorts, each with a special terminology and set of beliefs. So it was quite impossible for the engineers to understand what the priests were talking about, for the brick makers to share the architects’ vision, for the philosophers to agree on the function of the tower and for the conservationists and poets to overcome their revulsion against such a monstrous desecration of the pastoral environment close to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The higher the tower grew the more violent became the disputes between the builders. Eventually all communication broke down. Whatever purpose they may have started with vanished into thin air.

Koestler suggests that the parable of the tower is like a sequel to the Fall. The latter represents the human moral predicament, the fate of the tower representing the human intellectual predicament. ‘We seem to be compelled to shape facts and data, as we know them,’ says Koestler, ‘into hard bricks, stick them together with the slime of our theories and beliefs. And thus we continue to carry bricks to Babel’ (p. 685).

Today we have a crisis of knowledge. It is not simply that knowledge doubles about every decade. We can cope with that because with the increase of knowledge we discover new general principles that tie together previously disconnected facts. The crisis of knowledge is not a crisis of quantity. It is a crisis of experts. The dominant model of knowledge today is that knowledge can be divided into compartments called disciplines such as physics, economics and so on. The idea of a discipline is that the information in it is relatively independent of that in other disciplines. The people who are trained in disciplines are called experts. The general idea has been that if society had well-trained experts in all the disciplines the experts would guide us to the truth and right action. It hasn’t worked out that way.

There are two reasons. On the one hand, knowledge cannot be subdivided into separate compartments without losing something essential -- the unity which no segment can grasp. The result is that not only do experts from different disciplines fail to understand one another, but the experts within disciplines also disagree. We build a tower of Babel when we suppose that knowledge is like a jigsaw puzzle. The bits and pieces are the bits of knowledge that the disciplines give us. When we try to fit them together they don’t fit. They don’t form a complete picture at all. That’s what happens when we opt for the substantialist (substance) prejudice in the field of knowledge. Knowledge is not a substance. It cannot be treated as such without great distortion. This is precisely the intellectual dilemma so powerfully symbolized in the parable of the tower.

There is a second reason for the failure of our knowledge to lead us into the truth and right action. It has to do with our moral predicament symbolized by the Fall and alluded to on page 154. The Enlightenment gave us knowledge with commitment to the false god of inevitable progress. It is easy with hindsight to understand why it drove a wedge between rational understanding and religion. The Christian religion of the eighteenth century contained a full wardrobe of questionable assertions about nature and history that could be either disproved or rendered improbable by Enlightenment rationalism. The Christian religion of the time put road blocks in all the wrong places. The Enlightenment view of man threw out the baby with the bath-water. Religion seemed to become peripheral or vestigial. With its demise came the break between knowledge and commitment to values other than those to do with self-centered progress. There was reason to become increasingly disillusioned with a world built on utilitarianism and science alone.

It is not really possible to separate the human intellectual predicament and the human moral predicament. The division of knowledge provides a fertile field for the seeds of hubris to germinate and grow. The physicist or the biologist is accountable to no-one other than the lords of their own subjects. Anyone who has lived in a university knows the political rivalries between disciplines. The head of a department who returns to his staff meeting with the news that he gave way to the department of general studies when needs of all departments were scrutinized will be regarded as having let the side down. The fragmentation of knowledge itself confounds our moral dilemma. It is probable that the tower of Babel housed a bunch of experts who not only couldn’t talk to one another. They grew to dislike each other as they indulged in self-glorification.

The fragmentation of knowledge has its far-reaching implications. It has produced destructive conflict between individuals, disciplines, ideologies and nations. It has helped to plunge the world into the global crisis of management in which we seem unable to utilize the world’s resources without massive environmental deterioration. As we attempt to save ourselves we are in danger of losing the world. The problems of global management are all connected. You can no longer do only one thing. Resource shortages, unemployment, inflation, environmental deterioration, population explosion and even crime are all interconnected. This network of problems won’t be solved by any one expert or any number of experts. It is one problem and has to be tackled as one. Experts can’t do that because they have tunnel vision. What is needed is a panoramic view.

Bernard Shaw said in The Doctor’s Dilemma: ‘the professions are a conspiracy against the laity’. He wasn’t referring only to the medical profession. There is a difference between an expert and a thinker. An expert confines his thinking within arbitrary boundaries. A thinker sets no boundaries to his thinking. That is why the philosopher Heidegger said ‘Science doesn’t think’. The expert doesn’t think across boundaries. Sometimes the expert tries to cross boundaries in what is called interdisciplinary studies. But this approach usually consists in allocating parts of a whole to what are considered to be appropriate experts. We end up where we began.

Experts provide us with a wealth of information. They load the table with countless pieces of the jig-saw puzzle. How to put them together when they don’t fit? That’s our problem. Hence T. S. Eliot’s questioning in Choruses from ‘The Rock’:

Where is the life we have lost in the living,
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge,
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Knowledge is lost in a sea of beliefs from a multitude of disciplines. The general purpose of the modern university is lost amid the incoherent variety of special purposes that have accumulated within it. The call of the postmodern worldview is for fewer beliefs and more belief.

‘There is only one subject-matter for education,’ said Whitehead (1949), and that is Life in all its manifestations. Instead of this single unity, we offer children -- Algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a Couple of Languages, never mastered; and lastly, most dreary of all, Literature. . . Can such a list be said to represent Life, as it is known in the midst of the living of it? The best that can be said of it is, that it is a rapid table of contents which a deity might run over in his mind while he was thinking of creating a world, and had not yet determined how to put it together. (p. 18)

We might indulge in some such fantasy ourselves. I am the last adult left on earth in charge of a huddle of children who will be the fathers and mothers of all mankind. All knowledge has disappeared along with all my contemporaries in the nuclear Armageddon. All books, all drugs, vehicles, factories, pots and pans and other relics of civilization have been destroyed or buried irretrievably under a thick layer of radioactive dust. I am the sole repository of the accumulated wisdom and experience of humanity from pre-Sumerian times to the holocaust. I feel the responsibility acutely as I reflect that whatever I fail to pass on to my little band of orphans will be lost for ever. Which should come first, Sophocles or safety matches? That is the central problem of education; not how we should teach but what we should teach. Will it be a list of disciplines or is there some way of making the subject matter life in all its manifestations? A modest approach to this problem is to consider some of the disciplines, how breaches between them frustrate purpose and how healing can be initiated.

Science and Religion

In the modern tower of Babel science and religion occupy two separate floors. They didn’t come into existence that way. Indeed they had a close relationship in the rebirth of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Copernicus, according to some sources, was an abbot. The great scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were in the main disciples of Luther, Zwingli or reformers in Great Britain. Newton, Harvey, Boyle and a dozen others were deeply religious men. Moreover, they did not keep their science and their religion in separate mental compartments. According to White (1968 p.101) natural theology was the motivational basis for late medieval and early modern science. He claims that every major scientist from about 1250 to about 1650, four hundred years during which the modern scientific movement was taking form, considered himself also a theologian. There were, besides men, a number of women scientists right into the fifteenth century. During that century, for example, Maria di Novella, at the age of twenty-five, became head of the department of mathematics in the University of Bologna. But for several centuries after the Reformation science was the province of men (Alic 1986).

The history of the rift between science and religion in the West from the mid-seventeenth century on is long and complex (White 1960, Barbour 1966). The gulf widened enormously with Enlightenment rationalism in the eighteenth century. Many of the claims of orthodox Christians about the universe and living organisms were shown to be false. Before Newton the planets were held in their elliptical paths by the hand of God. Newton found they were held in their orbits by gravitation. Until the middle of the nineteenth century each species was held to have been separately created by God over a few days. In 1859 Darwin tells us that species transformed one from another by evolutionary descent over millions of years.

God, as causal agency in the world, was pushed out of the universe depicted by science. Science had no need of an interventionist God. The interventionist God inevitably retreats before the advance of science. The gaps where God could be thought to act became narrower with each scientific advance. When science decided it had no need of God, theology decided it had no need of science. The partition of the fields between science and religion was complete.

After the triumphs of Darwinism in the nineteenth century, science and religion reached a gentleman’s agreement not to trespass on each other’s territory. Various efforts were made to define the territorial boundaries. A common one was to say science deals with what and religion deals with why. So to the question -- what is the nature of nature? -- religion has nothing to say. That was the realm of science. To the question -- what does nature tell us about God? -- the answer was nothing. The division between science and religion had gone about as far as it could go. Science and religion were seen as essentially contrasted activities. From the theological side the separation became quite explicit in neo-orthodoxy, particularly as exemplified by Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. For them science and religion are different domains and should never be mixed. Theology deals with a transcendent God who is radically unlike the world which science studies. God stands ‘before and above’ the world. This is classical theism sensu strictu. The domains of science and religion are different and so are their methodologies. Science advances by human discovery. Religion advances by revelation perceived as a direct intervention of God to provide information.

Besides the view of the relation of science and religion as contrasted activities (classical theism), Barbour (1966 p. 115) identifies two others. One is the view that attempts to derive theology from science; the other sees them as parallel activities. Examples which Barbour gives of deriving theology from science are the natural theology that argued for the existence of God from the design of nature and the creationists’ argument today for the existence of God from their misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics. I incline to classify these examples as misleading attempts to find parallels between science and theology since, in both cases, God is predicated on other grounds and science is brought in to support this claim. A clear-cut example of deriving theology from science is Burhoe’s (1973) interpretation of science from a Unitarian background. He identifies God with natural selection.

The view that sees science and religion as parallel activities is exemplified by the theologian Raven (1953a, 1953b), to whom I referred earlier; the mathematician Coulson, particularly in Science and Christian Belief (1955); and biochemist and theologian Peacocke (1979, 1984, 1986). The most consistent and impressive attempt to include science and religion within a unified view is process theology’, which has a long tradition (see Chapter 4) and which in modern times derives much of its inspiration from A. N. Whitehead.

Recognizing the futility of territorial boundaries between science and religion Whitehead (1942) said ‘it is fashionable to state that religion and science can never clash because they deal with different topics. I believe that this solution is entirely mistaken. In this world at least you cannot tear apart minds and bodies’ (p. 53). So important is the healing of the rift between science and religion that Whitehead (1933) said: ‘When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them’ (p. 224). As a result of artificial territorial claims of science and religion, both are impoverished. There are wider truths and broader perspectives to be explored in a postmodern worldview. That will require ‘a deeper religion and a more subtle science’ (Whitehead 1933 p. 229).

What could be the elements of a more subtle science and a deeper religion? I have already emphasized how science has tended to abstract from reality by dealing exclusively with external aspects of things and with external causes that push and pull. But in addition to external aspects there are inner aspects, and in addition to external causes there are internal causes. The more subtle science will be willing to take account, in Bohm’s language, not only of the explicate order but the implicate order of things. ‘Science’, said Whitehead (1966),

can find no individual enjoyment in nature: science can find no aim in nature: science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience. It divides the seamless coat -- or, to change the metaphor to a happier form, it examines the coat, which is superficial, and neglects the body which is fundamental. (p.154)

The disastrous separation of body and mind set in train by Descartes is one example of this blindness. What Whitehead said was inherent in the methodology of science does not have to stay that way. He called for a more subtle science that did not neglect half the evidence of the senses. Some suggestions in this direction have been made in Chapters 2 and 3 for a new dialogue of science with faith.

Religion in the West has tended to preoccupy itself with the internal aspect of life and, moreover, one sort of life -- human life. It has recognized the inner aspect of being a human, but its dominant tradition has denied or ignored the inner aspects of the rest of the creation. A deeper religion will explore the whole world with the perspective it has of the human. Furthermore, it will not regard the exploration of the outer as irrelevant but will find a more complete perspective in dealing with the question -- what is the nature of what is? And that includes God.

In addressing British scientists Baillie (1951 pp. 11-15) told them he had long been in the habit of regarding as the most important single passage in the whole literature of Western Philosophy Plato’s report in the Phaedo of Socrates’ autobiographical reminiscences as he sat in prison awaiting death in 399 BC. Socrates says that when he was a young man he had a consuming interest in natural science, always seeking into the causes of things, and asking such questions as whether organic growth is due to fermentation caused by variations of temperature, and whether thought and memory can be explained in terms of the brain. In the pursuit of these studies he said he seemed to forget or to unlearn many important things he had formerly known quite well. And that led him to have an idea of another possible approach. One day he heard a man reading a book by Anaxagoras, in which it was said that the ultimate cause of all things is mind. Socrates was delighted with this idea. If things are ordered by mind, then they will be ordered for a purpose. So we need to study purpose as an ordering principle. He then got hold of the book for himself and read with great eagerness. But his hopes were grievously disappointed:

He seemed to me to be exactly like a man who should begin by saying that I, Socrates, do all I do by mind, but who, when he went on to assign a cause for each of my actions, should say, first that I am sitting here now because my body is composed of bones and muscles, and that the bones are hard and divided by joints, while the muscles can be tightened and relaxed and, together with the flesh and the skin which contains it, cover the bones; and that therefore when the bones are raised in their sockets by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am now able to bend my limbs; -- and that that is the cause of my sitting here un prison] all huddled up. In the same way also he would explain why I am saying this to you: he would speak of voice and hearing and air and a myriad other causes of that sort, and would altogether forget to mention the real cause, which is quite simply that, since the Athenians have thought it right to condemn me, I have thought it right and just to sit here and bow to their sentence. For, by the dog, I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would long ago have been in Megara or Boethia, prompted by their own opinion of what is best, if I had not thought it better and nobler to submit to any penalty the state inflicts, rather than run away. To call these other things causes is too absurd. Had the contention been merely that without the aid of bones and muscles and the rest I could not carry my purposes into effect, that would have been true enough. But to say that I do what I do because of them and not because my mind knows what is best is a very loose and careless way of speaking. (quoted by Baillie 1951 pp. 12- 14)

The two types of causation which Socrates was so careful to distinguish are mechanical causation (from the external environment) and purposes (internal relations). That is causation by antecedent events and causation by ends or purposes. The problem of the relation between science and religion is the respective rights of these two kinds of causes and the relation between them. What has been blocking any healthy relationship between science and religion is the substantialist prejudice, that is to say substance thinking. It recognizes only external or mechanical causation. Science does it by concentrating exclusively on the explicate order. Religion does it when it recognizes mechanical causation as the way in which God acts in the world and in human life.

The physicist who at one time spoke of electrons as particles, existing in independence of any relations they have to their environment, was guilty of substance thinking. The theologian who asserts that God is independent of the world and unrelated to it is guilty of substance thinking. The perfection of God is supposed to have that kind of character. That is to make God a substance. But if the world is dependent upon God and if God is influenced by the world, then God is not a substance. The substantialist paradigm in both science and theology paved the way for the territorial division of substances. And in this process the scientists’ substances always appear more real than those of the theologian. As the schoolboy said in his essay on science and religion: ‘The difference between science and religion is that science is material and religion is immaterial’! Physics has now come to recognize that there are no substances. That is something theology, and as well other sciences, could learn from physics.

You cannot divide the world up into parts and think. Science and religion in a postmodern worldview will be concerned with the whole of the world. Each will bring a different perspective and emphasis needed by the other. God is not to be conceived as the creator of substances. God is not before the creation. God is causal within the creation. God’s mode of action is not through external causation. God does not have to compete with earthquake or tempest. God’s action is through internal relations that constitute entities -- The still small voice within’. Science and religion may use different models to explain the world. And that is fine so long as we recognize that all models are abstractions. Each is like a map. For some purposes all I need as a map is a street directory map. For others I need a geological map or a map of the vegetation of the area, for other purposes I need a map of the world. Each one is an abstraction of the landscape. Such incomplete maps can be useful, provided we recognize their incompleteness.

As science and religion move away from their substantialist presuppositions they may come to find new depth in each other’s endeavors. As T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

An objective of theology is to bring science and religion closer together in a ‘deeper religion and a more subtle science’. While doing that there is need to preserve distinctive aspects of science and religion. About the only definition of science that seems acceptable to scientists is that science is what scientists do. When philosophers of science probe into what they think scientists do they come up with a wide variety of ideas. Science seems extraordinarily difficult to define. There is science according to Francis Bacon, science according to Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend. (See, for example, Charlesworth 1982 and Chalmers 1976.) Scientists, for the most part, leave these discussions to philosophers of science. They incline to a pragmatism -- to learn what science is you become apprenticed to a scientist. At least that is how departments of science in universities operate. The diversity of views as to what science is suggests that it is many things to many people. There are indeed ‘varieties of scientific experience’, which is the title of an important paper by Ravetz (1981). Yet there must surely be some common strands that run through these diverse experiences.

There was no problem in contrasting science as a method of finding out about things with the dominant model of knowledge at the time of the renaissance of science in the sixteenth century. The story is told that in the University of Paris the philosophers once disputed among themselves as to the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth. It was argued that the number could not be a multiple of three because that would imply disrespect to the Trinity; nor could it be a multiple of seven, for God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Neither the authority of Aristotle nor the ingenuity of the schoolmen could resolve the problem. It was finally settled by a young man who opened the mouth of a horse and counted the teeth. The doctors of the university were not convinced by this novel and unintellectual procedure. But the opening of the horse’s mouth is the beginning of science.

The beginning of science is observation. One may dispute what it is that is observed; nevertheless observation remains an essential part of science. Second is experiment. The word has the same root as experience. Indeed, experiment is a way of manufacturing experience. When Bacon looked at a piece of amber he could make a list of properties such as colour and weight. When he decided to rub amber with a cloth he was increasing his experience, for he found that it then had electrical properties. Thirdly, the formation of hypotheses or conjectures usually precedes experimentation. Hypotheses are tested by means of experiments, that is experience derived from carefully designed manipulations. Hypotheses are in this way refuted or validated. Experimental testing must be open to repetition by one’s peers. It counts for little, if anything, to claim to have an experience which cannot be repeated. The scientific knowledge so obtained may be put together in a general theory that usually comes from the pooling of the knowledge and experience of many scientists. However much philosophers may dispute the role of induction and deduction, there stands the centrality of observation, experiment, hypothesis, testing and repeatability.

So far I have given an indication of the method of science. The next issue to raise is the domain of science. Is this method applicable only to certain areas or is the method of science applicable to all areas of knowledge? Can it only give valid information about physical objects such as horses’ teeth, or is it widely applicable? There is a diversity of opinion about this. Neo-orthodox theologians exclude science as a methodology for theology because of their claim that theology gets information in quite a different way, namely by a process called revelation. Call it what you will, the insights of Jesus or Paul were based on their experiences. They pleaded with their contemporaries to pursue such experiences for themselves. The interpretation of these experiences led to all sorts of affirmations and disputations down the ages.

My own conclusion is similar to that of Wilber (1984), which he reaches after a much longer argument than I have given here:

All domains contain certain features or deep structures that are open to scientific investigation, because all domains are open to experiential disclosure. There is religious experience just as certainly as there is psychological experience and sensory experience. In that sense, we can speak of the science of religion just as legitimately as we speak of the science of psychology, biology or physics. (p. 20)

This is the German Wissenschaft which includes theology as a science (Pannenberg 1976 pp. 228 et seq.).

On the basis of experience from a variety of sources a religious person and the theologian formulate a theory which, like any theory dealing with complex issues in science, is a matter of weighing one experience against another, together with much subjective judgment. There are rules in this game such as consistency and harmony. In no domain is measurement the ultimate way of judging the validity of complex concepts.

This latter point is very important. Scientists who have a substance or mechanical view of the world exclude from their domain psychological and subjective categories. The preferred categories are those that can be weighed and measured. Hence Whitehead’s (1933 p. 69) criticism that science saw nature as a dull affair that was scentless, soundless and colorless. ‘Only that which is measurable is real’, said Galileo. It becomes increasingly incredible to common-sense that the only things that have any importance, namely feelings and qualities, are the things to be omitted from reality. The real is unimportant. The important is unreal.

The originators of the renaissance of science did not have a materialistic view. Their successors under the influence of Descartes did. A subtler science to which we need to return excludes no categories of experience at all. Science as it is practiced has both virtues and vices, successes and failures, and its practitioners work from a variety of metaphysical bases. The Cartesian base is a substantialist metaphysic. This was not the original metaphysics of science. It is rejected by those who reject the substantialist paradigm. This includes those who opt for dialectical materialism. Two biologists, Levins and Lewontin (1985), reject Cartesian reductionism in favor of dialectical materialism. Cartesian reductionism, they say, has failed to give satisfactory approaches in ecology, evolution, neurobiology and developmental biology. Their book discusses how dialectical materialism has influenced their biology. On pages 151-3, I refer to scientists who have rejected the substantialist metaphysic for a more mentalist metaphysic. The point is that what a scientist does depends a good deal on his or her metaphysical views of the world. There are many ways of playing the game of science.

Science, as a particular set of ways of experiencing and knowing, in principle excludes no domain. What then is religion? It too is concerned with human experiences and the interpretation of these experiences. In the view I am suggesting it does not have access to any ways of knowing that are not available to the scientist. There are no short circuits. The mind that is involved in religious concerns is not a different mind from the mind involved in scientific issues. Some theologians have claimed that the reverse is the case. Some attach a special meaning to the word revelation, making a distinction between the revelation of God in everyday events and in nature and special revelation which refers to special acts of God in history. This leads on to the notion of two sorts of history, secular and sacred. The position taken in this book and in process theology in general is that there is no distinction to be made between general and special revelation. When something of great significance happens it is made possible by a history of events that makes for the fullness of time. God acts in one way which is the way of persuasive love. I find no evidence to suggest that God acts as a manipulator on special occasions.

The medieval theologian claimed, as do also present-day fundamentalist Christians, that the writers of the Bible wrote inerrantly through special revelations vouchsafed to them. It is as though God dictated the whole record verbatim. The Bible was not written this way, as any scholar of history knows. Furthermore, the record in the Bible has to be interpreted. Interpreters differ. This was a problem for Martin Luther when he sought to replace the authority of the pope with the authority of the Bible. He recognized that the Bible was not self-explanatory. It had to be interpreted. Even Peter says ‘in the writings of our beloved brother Paul there are some things which are difficult to understand’ (1 Peter 3:16). Martin Luther appointed Philip Melanchthon as his interpreter of the Bible. Soon there arose other Protestant theologians who had different interpretations from those of Melanchthon. By what authority then does religion speak if the truth is not infallibly revealed in a book or in the pronouncements of a person?

The critical answer to this question for Protestantism is -- by no authority. To what then does one appeal amidst a clash of views? There is only one answer. The appeal is within to human experience. And for any one person that means that person’s experience and that person’s interpretation of experience. Jesus was asked by the priests and scribes by what authority he did all the things he did and spoke what he spoke (Luke 20:1-8). He turned the question on them and asked by what authority did John the Baptist speak? The question was a shrewd one since they demanded that all authority be vested in them, yet they knew that the people thought John’s authority came from God. They answered that they did not know. ‘Neither will I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘by what authority I do these things.’ Tillich (1955) comments: ‘The way in which Jesus refuses to answer is the answer’ (p. 80). Jesus, instead of answering, points to the acting and speaking of John. Here is the rise of an authority without ritual or legal foundation. But the priests and scribes deny the possibility of ‘an authority guaranteed by its inner power (p. 87). Jesus is saying to the authorities: look at John, see for yourselves what he does. And John says the same to Jesus. In the tremendous painting by Matthias Grunewald in the Prado Museum in Madrid, John points to Jesus on the cross. The picture centers on the exaggerated finger that points to the truth for him. The finger is saying, my experience breaks into me from that source.

Now you may say that is all very fine so far as it goes; science and religion get their information by the same mental routes. But science goes on in laboratories where experience is manufactured, religion has quite different practices -- praying and worshipping that go on in such places as churches. If by praying one means a direct telephone line to the source of truth, then nothing like that goes on in laboratories. But if by praying one means putting oneself in a frame of mind that is receptive to understanding, and if by worship is meant ascription of worth to that which is worthy, then that too goes on in the best laboratories.

The distinction between science and religion has more to do with their domains. The biologist who studies the physiology of a porpoise has a different experience from the physicist who studies electrons. The domain of religion has to do for the most part with other sorts of experience such as the sense of being forsaken, forgiveness, caring for, having courage, sensing an at-one-ness with the universe and many others, including what some call mystical experience. The word religion has the root meaning of binding together, which may be a deeper experience for the religious person than for others.

Implicit in what has just been said is that religion is a transforming agency. There are some sorts of knowledge you can only have by being transformed in the process. Religious knowledge is of that sort. The experience of forgiveness is to feel forgiven and to forgive others. The experience of being forsaken is to feel a void that may lead on to a new fullness of life. The experience of courage is, in some circumstances, simply to be. We need courage to be in the face of despair. At-one-ment, the reverse of alienation, is to find the whole universe friendly. I do not want to suggest that none of these experiences go on in laboratories. A deep empathy with nature is part of the dialogue a scientist has with what is studied. The success of Jane Goodall’s (1971) scientific study of chimpanzees in the wild was dependent upon the rapport she established with her subjects and evidently also the rapport they had with her.

There are no real battles between genuine science and genuine religion. There will always be battles when one or both are bogus; when dogma replaces interpretation based on experience, or when certain experiences are excluded a priori as, for example, when the mechanist excludes anything that cannot be weighed or measured. Bogus in this context means dogmatic, non-experiential, and non-testable (Wilber 1984 p. 51).

An analysis of the religious views of the founders of the great theories of modern physics (relativity and quantum theory) -- Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans and Planck -- reveals that all were non-materialists sympathetic to a spiritual view of the world and in the case of Schroedinger to mysticism (Wilber 1984). Was their metaphysics and their spiritual sensitivity derived from their physics? The answer seems to be that it came from beyond physics (metaphysics). Their understanding of life led them away from materialism to a view they found to be consistent with their physics. For example, Heisenberg said: ‘If we want to go beyond physics however, and begin to philosophize, then the worldview that can most easily explain modern physics is that not of Democritus, but of Plato’ (quoted by Wilber 1984 p. 32). Likewise Eddington said: ‘The new physics gives strong grounds for an idealistic philosophy which, I suggest, is hospitable towards a spiritual religion’ (Wilber 1984 p. 169). Schroedinger’s view of life was deeply religious. And in relating his religious convictions to his science he said: ‘No personal god can form part of a world-model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it’ (Wilber 1984 p. 89).

The interrelations of one’s science and one’s metaphysics are doubtless difficult to disentangle. These examples suggest that their understanding of science guided these physicists in their choice of a metaphysic. The reverse can also be true. The biologist C. H. Waddington (1969 pp. 72-81) was convinced that a scientist’s metaphysical beliefs have a definite influence on the work he does, both in the type of problems he sets himself and in the manner in which he tries to solve them. Waddington once told me that he became a developmental biologist as a result of having read all the philosophical works of A. N. Whitehead as an undergraduate in Cambridge University. And his approach to the subject of developmental biology was greatly influenced by his understanding of the Whiteheadian notion of the coming together of many events into one unified event.

The relation between science and metaphysics or religion which these scientists found is very different from the proposition that the fastest route to making religion obsolete is to hitch it to the latest fad in science. That also can happen when the new wine of science is poured into the old bottles of religion. As discussed in Chapter 7, the creative relationship between religion and science is a two-way process involving the transformation of both.

What has blocked the creative relationship between science and religion has been the substantialist paradigm. As soon as scientists break out of that, religious questions are asked. The domain of concern widens. The evidence for this is in the life and work of the founders of the new physics and its modern representatives such as David Bohm. One of these physicists, Heisenberg, said we have to avoid the cleavage of the world into its objective and its subjective sides and think more subtly about the relationship than we have been accustomed to do (Wilber 1984 p.42).

In biology we see the same breadth of concern when the substance paradigm is broken in the thought and work of Waddington already mentioned. One of the architects of modern evolutionary theory, Wright (1953, 1964) was greatly influenced in his understanding of the gene by his Whiteheadian metaphysical views. And because of this he was unable ‘to escape from the problem of the relation of mind and matter’ (1964 p. 111). Another architect of modern evolutionary theory, Dobzhansky, had a less explicit metaphysic than Wright but he was greatly influenced by his early upbringing in the Russian Orthodox Church. He rarely involved himself in church practices. But he could not leave his science untouched by his deep conviction that humans were truly free and that life made sense only in terms of commitment to concerns of ultimate worth. How, he asked, did this freedom evolve (Dobzhansky 1956)? How did the urge for commitment to concerns of ultimate importance become so strongly tied to human life (Dobzhansky 1967)?

I had the good fortune of working in the same laboratories as Wright in the University of Chicago and Dobzhansky in Columbia University in New York when they were both in their prime. Our discussions were as much philosophical as they were scientific. In Chicago, Wright and I became regular visitors with Charles Hartshorne of the philosophy department, himself at one time an assistant of A. N. Whitehead. In New York, Dobzhansky and I had a number of memorable discussions with both Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Needless to say our more mechanistic colleagues regarded these as somewhat aberrant, if not bizarre, activities! Two neuro-physiologists, Sperry (1977, 1983a, 1983b) and Young (1978, 1987), ask religious questions as a result of breaking out of the substantialist paradigm. Sperry has been deeply influenced by the role of consciousness as a cause and the role of values in human life. Young, like Dobzhansky, emphasizes the importance of free choice in life.

Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.
So said William Blake in ‘Gnomic Verses,’ i.

Ecology and Economics

The relationship between science and religion has been crucial for humankind for some four centuries. Every generation has reaped a bitter harvest as the tension between them remains unresolved. I have indicated what seem to me the opportunities of this generation to resolve some of the more destructive relations of the past and find creative openings for the future.

There is a sense in which the unhappy relation between ecology and economics has been with us, not just for centuries but for ten millennia. It began with the Agricultural Revolution which brought with it the beginning of villages and towns and the loss of much virgin lands. This inaugurated major changes to the face of the earth as a consequence of human activity. The Industrial Revolution much later accelerated the process of change and added to the burgeoning population on earth. Later still came the revolution in hygiene and medicine that was responsible for the greatest increase in rate of population growth in the history of the world, with its attendant strain on the resources of the earth.

The needs of peoples of the earth today depend upon three related systems: the production system, the economic system and the ecological system. The production system is the industries to do with farming that produce food and secondary industries that produce material goods such as steel. The economic system is the framework of arrangements within which industries operate. It is supposed to manage the total productive effort. The ecological system is the life-support system on which all life depends. It includes the ecological cycles that maintain the composition of the atmosphere and the oceans and those that are responsible for the degradation of wastes. Logically the economic system ought to be designed to conform to the needs of the production system and the production system ought to be designed in relation to the requirements of the ecological system. It is logical to ask in this order: what are the needs of the peoples of the world for production goods? How can we manage things to produce these needed goods whilst maintaining the integrity of the ecological base of production?

In reality the relations of the three systems are the other way round. The global environmental crisis tells us that the ecological system has been disastrously affected by the design of the production system, which has developed with almost no regard for sustaining the ecological system. For example, the growth of secondary industries and their use of fossil fuels has led to the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels and the pollution of the atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide and other gases. The effects of the latter could be disastrous in the long term for agricultural production. The faulty design of the production system has been imposed by the economic system which invests in factories that promise increased profits. The goods are not necessarily those most needed. Advocates of economic growth don’t care what is produced. They are as happy to see a factory for speedboats set up as a factory to produce cheap bread, and little concern is shown for efficient use of resources and the maintenance of a healthy environment.

In capitalist countries, if not in others also, what the poor urgently need is more cheap housing, bread and public facilities such as schools, medical services and transport. The economic system ensures that we produce 95 cents’ worth of expensive things to be bought by the already well-off for every five cents made available to do the things that most need doing. Baking a bigger cake according to market forces is said to be the efficient way to proceed. We do not need more speedboats, computer games or revolving restaurants on top of city towers. But those are the sorts of things we get when we allow a bigger cake to be baked. Market forces will always devote most of the available resources to supplying those with ‘effective demand’ with what they want rather than to producing what most humans need. That is one reason why most of the world’s resources flow into rich countries to produce so many unnecessary items when they could be producing what millions of poor people need. It is why so much land and capital in the Third World is put to producing luxuries for export. It is why in the 1980s the flow of goods was from ‘south’ to ‘north’. When agribusiness turned its attention to producing food in Third World countries for the inhabitants, their products went into the mouths of the middle and rich classes, not those of the poor. The reason was simple. The poor couldn’t afford to buy food: the demand was there; the purchasing power wasn’t. Injustice became further compounded.

Away back in 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes pointed to the demoralizing consequences of economic affluence. In his essay on the ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grand Children’ he recognized the possibility that human beings in the future could be freed from the struggle for subsistence, but he was not optimistic. On the contrary, he said, ‘To judge from the behavior and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing’ and he added: ‘If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose . . . must we not expect a nervous breakdown?’ (quoted by Abrecht 1972 p. 178). A large part of the affluent world is now experiencing a large measure of freedom from the struggle for subsistence, but there are many within that world who are not and many more outside that world who can hardly survive. Furthermore, the world is also experiencing the crisis of the spirit which Keynes predicted. To that is to be added the environmental crisis.

What confronts us is not a series of separate crises in industry, economics and ecology but a single basic defect that lies deep in the design of modern society, be it in capitalist, socialist, developing or developed countries. The problems may, in theory, be more amenable to correction in the centrally controlled economies but this does not seem to be the case in practice. We are all in the same boat concerning relations between the production, economic and ecological systems. Paul Abrecht, who was at the time director of Church and Society in the World Council of Churches, on a visit to East Berlin spoke with the director of the economic planning office in the East German government. The limits-to-growth debate was then raging in the West. He asked the government planner if the German Democratic Republic was also concerned about ecological constraints on economic growth. ‘Limits to growth?’ he replied, pointing to the television set in his office. ‘There’s the villain! Most of our people can now watch television from West Germany and they see all the goods available there and expect us to make them available here. So our government must match the West.’ When Abrecht asked whether he believed that a television picture from a Western consumer society was stronger than his country’s ideology he simply laughed. A churchman from another Eastern European country said to Abrecht: ‘In our country Marxism is asleep. Our economy develops according to quite other theories.

Too often a particular economic system rather than common-sense governs our lives, be it in East or West. Keynes was well aware of this when he wrote in 1936: ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else’ (quoted by Ehrlich, Ehrlich & Holdren 1977 p. 843).

The proper object of economic activity, says the economist of sustainable societies Daly (1973), is to have enough bread, not infinite bread, not a world turned into bread, not even vast storehouses full of bread. The infinite hunger of humanity is exacerbated by the madness of producing more and more things for more and more people. More is not better, especially when the process of getting more destroys the life-sustaining systems of the world. Daly believes in assessing the basic needs of humanity, in devising economic systems that will look after those needs while attending to the health of the environment at the same time. Economists are always asking -- what is the health of the economy? They would better ask -- what is the health of the environment and the people living in it?

There are limits to the growth of industries producing material goods. Our task is to see to it that such growth as is necessary fulfills legitimate human needs. That could mean de-development in rich countries in order that the poorer countries have their fair share of the resources of the earth. And in doing that we have to learn how to get more from less. The principle is that the rich must live more simply that the poor may simply live. Today 75 per cent of the world’s population live in developing countries; by the year 2000 some 79 per cent will be living in those countries. Bangladesh is the poorest country in the world. With 97 million people it is the eighth-largest country in the world. By the year 2000 at least 53 million people will be added to its population, even allowing for some decrease in birthrate. The world has not solved the problem of how to feed and house the poor people of Bangladesh or anywhere else in the world, though it knows well how to make the rich richer. Increased production of itself will not redress distributional injustice. The rich can no longer continue to hide behind the slogan ‘let ‘em eat growth’.

For those who want a world of peace, justice and sustainability. existing institutions tend to frustrate individual purposes. The question I am asked more than any other when I speak to high-school students about these things is -- but what can I, as an individual do? The modern world is showing that we can do a lot. The mismatch of economics, ecology and politics has brought into being a new emphasis on grassroots movements which see the need for a wholeness that is missing in conventional wisdom. In the assessment of Rector Soedjatmoko of the United Nations University, virtually all the significant social and political movements in the last two decades have begun from below. ‘Governments,’ he says, ‘tend to become prisoners of their own experts. The grassroots movements sweeping across the political landscape force governments to reexamine the advice of their experts and to send them back to the drawing boards to look for other solutions’ (quoted in Development Forum 13 (2) 1985 p. 15).

Grassroots movements have led to the formation of new political parties as witness the ‘Greens’ in the German Federal Republic and the Ecology Party in Britain. In March 1983, supported by two million votes, twenty-seven members of the Greens took their place in the Bundestag. The Ecology Party in Britain would have a significant representation in the British Parliament if there were proportional representation in the franchise. For the first time in Australia, state elections in Tasmania in 1989 brought five ‘Greens’ into parliament, which resulted in them having the balance of power with the prospect of a major change in direction in environmental issues in that state.

The power of public opinion was the force that created departments of environment in practically every country in the world and led to worldwide conservation programs culminating in the worldwide Conservation Strategy of the United Nations Environmental Programme. When the Club of Rome met thirty heads of state some years ago, the then Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, said that most of the heads of state present agreed with the call of the Club of Rome for a new approach to the interrelations between economics, ecology and politics. But he added, ‘We don’t have the political will’ to proceed on that path. Convinced as they may have been by the need for a new direction, they did not have the grassroots support. To proceed along those lines would be political suicide. We tend to think of the politician in the democratic state as a leader trying to persuade the public. The tables are turning. Now the politician is waiting for a lead from the public, together with their support, before taking the initiative. Grassroots support provides the political will.

During the 1960s Rachel Carson awakened the world to the dire consequences of chemical pollution associated with modern industry. A decade later F. F. Schumacher, a forward thinking economist, challenged the ‘bigger is better’ mode of technological thinking in his book Small is Beautiful (1973). He has a significant following in the movement toward an appropriate technology for a sustainable society. In the U.S.A. Paul Ehrlich aroused a nation as well as much of the world to the needs of zero population growth if we were ever to surmount the ecological crisis. He realized that the log jam in so much of our thinking was our inability to relate economics and ecology. He brought a new thinking in this realm in his books, particularly Ecoscience (Ehrlich, Ehrlich & Holdren 1977), Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives (Pirages & Ehrlich 1974), The Machinery of Nature (Ehrlich 1986) and New World New Mind (Ornstein & Ehrlich 1989).

Further examples of the disastrous consequences of the fragmentation of knowledge by the disciplinary approach to the two already given could be multiplied. Another obvious example is modern medicine. Curative medicine has been dominant over preventive medicine. Specialist medicine has tended to drive out general medicine. And the psychological and spiritual aspects of health and disease have taken a back seat. Yet there is no clear-cut division between the sick body, the sick mind and the sick soul. When I am sick I want to be made whole and that involves me as a whole person. A doctor in New York, well known for his work in a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases, remarked every time I stick in my needle I feel: penicillin is not enough!’ Acute stress, or more precisely certain ways of reacting to stress, can affect or in some cases even cause the onset of diabetes, arthritis, asthma, the common cold, herpes, AIDS and cancer (Locke & Colligan 1986). It is now known that stress inhibits the immune response of the body and we become, as a result, more susceptible to viral and bacterial diseases. Some of the links between emotions and health are known. They involve the base of the brain, the nervous system and hormones (Hall & Goldstein 1986). Medicine is more than plumbing and pill-popping. Medical schools throughout the world face problems presented by the disciplinary approach. Many of them are experimenting with ways to see health as wholeness. But to do that medicine needs to recognize the insubstantial basis of its theory which alternates between a dualistic and a materialistic position. Some practitioners have recognized this deficiency and have begun to develop a process theory of medicine (Ford 1986).

The examples I have given of the tower of Babel fallacy are enough to indicate that religion in the postmodern world will become relevant in so far as it can once again find dialogue with all the disciplines and help to transform their divided house into some sort of whole. The tower of Babel is in shambles. We may be able to rebuild if we start from the new foundations of a postmodern worldview.

Viewed 80419 times.