Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Topic: Problems of Debate Between Physics and Religion

by Howard Murphy


Lead: Abigail Barnhart, Kelly O'Rourke

The initial problem seemed to be finding an appropriate definition of both science and religion, as if by defining the two fields it would be possible to find out where their interests intersect and narrow the areas of conflict by definition.

It was pointed out that the two have not always been in conflict. In the Middle Ages, religion and science were united in approach and viewpoint. Now as the number of scientists has increased dramatically and church attendance has declined, both institutions seem to be having "public relations" problems. Science, for example has seemed to become more impersonal, less interested in the well being of people. Religion, on the other hand has lost authority in temporal matters, but is re-asserting itself in the areas of ethics and feelings.

At the turn of this century, the gulf between the two was great. Religion was superstition- the "opiate of the masses."

St. Thomas believed that religion was revelations of divine truth. If scripture is to be interpreted as factual truth, however, it is apparent that there are bound to be collisions between science and religion. Furthermore, historically, when collisions between the two have occurred over issues of fact, religion has backed away. Dogma has created problems and excluded individuals.

So where do science and religion intersect? What do they share in common? Theology has had difficulty expressing the true nature of god. Likewise, science is unable to determine the initial cause of the universe. Organized religion and science also share dogma, infrastructure, and the rule of authority. Each seeks, in its own way, the "limits" of human understanding and experience. Organized religion fails because of its claims, specifically because it claims to speak for God. Sometimes science makes false claims or suffers when things are done in its name.

Why should we seek to unify the two?

A short discussion ensued in which the vitality of organized religion and Christianity in particular was examined. Professor Brockelman gave the opinion that Christianity had lost much of its attraction. Others took issue with this, citing a rise in the fundamentalist movement as evidence of their position, especially among young people. The issue of the "hardening" of dogmatism and the resultant fracturing of the church into different sects was raised and discussed. One class member pointed out that in both science and religion, people needed "something to hold on to."

Howard Murphy tried to sum up his view of the discussion so far by pointing out that it seemed to him that the group was dismissing organized religion and making religious enlightenment a function of individuals. If progress towards religious truth is made best by individuals, then that puts it in stark contrast to scientific progress, which is best made by collective effort.

Professor Brockelman was asked to define religion. He replied that religion was the quest for "how to live a meaningful life." "God," he said, was the "ultimate transcendent reality." When religion and science are separated a kind of "schizophrenia" set in. Science could not be done properly without considering ethical issues to determine which kinds of experiments should be done, or what should be done with the results of a particular investigation.

Could science and religion join with religion playing the part of a kind of ethical advisor to science as science runs increasingly into ethically uncertain territory?

One class member remarked that he found it interesting that up until now we had never mentioned the issue of "evil."

Although, I can not quite recall the context, someone mentioned the notion of the "flip side of 'wow'" and pointed out that although 'wow' spelled backwards was still 'wow,' when inverted it spelled 'mom.' The significance of this continues to escape me, but the proximity of this revelation to Sunday's Mother's Day holiday does seem a little too suspicious to write it off to coincidence. Hmm.

The role of mathematics and its ability to put things "in perspective" was discussed briefly. Professor Moebius pointed out the fact that many times mathematical approaches without apparent utility have been developed as outgrowths of mathematical curiosity and then later turned out to be very useful as avenues of approach to some apparently intractable problem.

The class ended with a final comment by Bruce that ethical acts seemed to be inclusionary while exclusionary acts tended to be destructive.


Respectfully submitted,



Howard C. Murphy