Science and Religion in Europe History and Philosophy of the Great Debate
Full course description
For the past 2500 years, European culture has been characterized by a simultaneous and competitive forthcoming of two major traditions of knowledge: religion and science. During the largest and first era of this historical period religious thought dominated the intellectual pursue of knowledge. Over the last 3 or 4 centuries however, this role has become significantly less important as a result of continuous scientific successes that explained the world without making use of any theological reasoning. The logical outcome of this progress would be that eventually all religious thought will disappear completely from academic fields of investigation and that, after three of four hundred years of scientific growth, this change of perspective would be visible right now. However, any observation of the intellectual state of affairs clearly shows that both the scientific and philosophical realities in Europe are different. Theology still plays a considerable role as a partner, a critic and an adversary of the (natural) sciences when it comes to the scholarly debate of many important topics.
This course will address key elements of the evolution of the relationship between science and religion in Europe and will seek to analyse and evaluate the dispute between these traditions of knowledge from a philosophical point of view. This relationship will be explored through discussions of a number of central problems within the natural sciences (for example questions coming from the fields of physics, chemistry, cosmology and biology) and how scientific and theological positions express and clarify them. These central problems will be the most significant past and present ‘areas of conflict’ between science and religion that shall be highlighted and thoroughly scrutinized throughout the course.
The knowledge claims of major European scientists from the past and the present (from Plato to Hawking) will be carefully studied within their historical and academic context and claims will then be critically discussed and related to their theological counterparts. To offer comparison, attention will be paid to the work of distinguished European theologians like Hans Kung, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas Torrance and Alister McGrath. The main question here will be whether philosophy can contribute to the elucidation, interpretation and perhaps even solution to the ongoing debate between two central knowledge systems that are considered mutually exclusive.
Some of the studied scientific topics of debate will be: evolution theory, genetics, theory of relativity, quantum theory, Big bang, emergence theory, complexity and probability theory, chaos theory, information theory and artificial intelligence. A few of the theological schools of thought and points of view under discussion will be: atheism, deism, pietism, methodism, intelligent design and creationism, ‘religious experience’ theory, process theology. These outlooks will be studied by means of the following philosophical approaches; epistemological theories (dealing with ‘the problem of (religious) knowledge’ and with the identity of a ‘scientific’ or ‘theological’ theory), ethical theories (looking for an analysis of ‘the good’), metaphysical concepts (related to ideas of ‘truth’, ‘reality’ and ‘transcendence’), and rational instruments (presenting a few systems of logic). These approaches will allow us to construct a framework to study and evaluate the question at hand from a strictly objective and well-balanced point of view.
First: to show students from a historical and philosophical perspective that European scientific thought isn’t always as ‘independent’ from non-scientific (read: ‘religious’) influences as it wishes and claims to be and that its ‘autonomy statement’ in fact is embedded in an ongoing metaphysical/religious debate that as such contributes to its identity as well.
Second: to teach students in a philosophical way to critically develop and ultimately take their own position regarding the science – religion debate as it still can be found in the European (or American) academic context.
This is an introductory level course, although some basic knowledge of the natural sciences is desirable. Students with Science and Humanities majors are best suited.
- H.M.S. Timmermans