Daniel in Babylon: Christians Scientists as Exiles

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

Continuing the discussion from A Call to Theology of Nature:

@dga471 and @T.j_Runyon, I’m really curious your thoughts on this article. @jongarvey makes an intriguing appeal to Daniel in Babylon. I think the metaphor of exile is a very good metaphor, for many reasons. What are your thoughts on this?

However, it is possible to live in two worlds, and to hold two views of nature at the same time – to an extent. I suppose the first generation of “mechanical philosophers” did not cast off Aristotle overnight. Perhaps the most graphic example of this “two worlds” mentality is in the Bible itself, in the case of Daniel.

In our flannelgraph understanding of the Bible, we tend to airbrush the fact that Daniel was renamed by his captors in honour of Bel (Marduk), and was trained in that whole Babylonian system of science, which specifically involved the three branches of divination of signs from the gods: the interpretation of omens in animal livers, the interpretation of astronomical signs, and the interpretation of dreams:

Now the whole point of the book is that he remained faithful to Yahweh and to Israel’s law through all his long official career. He attributed his wisdom at interpreting dreams to God, rather than to the massive body of empirical interpretations the wise men relied on, for Babylonian divination relied on empirical data, not mystical experience – the real skill, as in meteorology, lay in interpreting the signs. Yet routinely Daniel must have worked within the system – he was good at his job

What we don’t know is how much Daniel bought into the scientific system, and how much he simply applied its techniques efficiently,

What is clear is that he didn’t simply import Babylonian science into Israel’s culture, as a neutral advance in knowledge, because divination of all kinds was forbidden to God’s people.

But the biblical theology of nature was clearly not the same as that which Daniel had to work under in Babylon. Somehow he managed to be a faithful Prophet of Yahweh whilst being an excellent baru priest for a succession of pagan rulers, but the circumstances, and the grace given to him, were special. It must have been a somewhat precarious balance for him, though: ultimately the two worlds did not mix.

What are your thoughts on this I am curious?

2 Likes
(Taylor Reynolds) #2

This exilic mindset the the language the Veritas Forum is using moving forward for thinking about how to best approach campuses and find ways to be an asset to the University rather than a liability as the Christian community.

1 Like
(Daniel Ang) #3

Why is exile a good metaphor for Christian scientists? Josh, can you explain more why you think so?

Right now, this metaphor seems to imply that the mechanistic view of nature commonly assumed in science is completely at odds with a robust theology of nature, or even theology in general. Again, I would like to bring up the immense success of science in the last few hundred years since switching to this mechanistic view. Even @jongarvey and @Eddie have said that they are not seeking to replace it - only supplement it in areas where it seems to show its limitations. Sure, there was more success in medieval science than people like to give credit for, there is no question that there has been more success in the modern era. If the mechanistic view of nature is fundamentally flawed, then why has it resulted in such success? Wouldn’t it be odd that one has to be exiled momentarily from God in order to study his creation?

Rather, I think a better way forward is to think of ways to harmonize or synthesize the mechanistic view with non-mechanistic theology, such that we have a system with a robust theology of nature and allowance for a mechanistic view in areas where it is fruitful. Thus Christian scientists should not feel in exile, anymore than a car mechanic does; they should feel right at home!

Is this project of synthesizing two seemingly contradictory worldviews hopeless? While philosophers seem to prefer to commit to one metaphysical framework entirely, it is common in physics to acknowledge or even encourage the development of multiple models for the same phenomena. Different models might be better at characterizing the behavior of the system in different regimes. So for a scientist, it would be very natural to hold to two views of nature at the same time. The mechanistic one could be better for everyday science and technology, whereas the non-mechanistic (whatever it is) could be better for understanding God’s place in the universe, his relation to us, and our own worth as human beings.

1 Like
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #4

Here is a description that makes some more sense of it…

Does that make some more sense of it?

We can do this, but it is certainly not part of the scientific enterprise as we find it. That is the personal work we do extrinsic to our scientific work.

1 Like
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #5

I’d add also that science is not a worldview in the way I understand it. It is far too limited to be a complete view of the world.

Our task is not about integrating science with theology, but integrating our understanding of nature with theology. Nature and science are not exchangeable words. Science itself is never going to produce a synthesis between theology and nature, even though that is where we are going to make our homes.

The other reason exile is a helpful model is that is reminds us that truth that we do not have power here. @dga471 you are a PhD student, with no power to change the rules of the discipline. This is not really your house. We are guests here.

And that is exactly right. We find our home in science, seeking the prosperity of this city.

1 Like
(Jon Garvey) #6

@dga471 I raised the Daniel example speculatively, on the logic that a new theology of nature, if such emerges, will not be the Cartesian one on which the science project is based. That is inevitable, and it will make no difference to talk about the success of science, unless one simply wants to pitch science against theology.

The argument from the successes of science is in general a weak one - as weak as the “God of the Gaps” argument. In all walks of life one can find that success, viewed in a particular way, can arises from flawed premises.

So the greatest progess in science has come since it assumed there is no God in the late nineteenth century - that would be evidence for those who say that religion is false, if success were the sole measure. We don’t have any way of knowing, of course, what might have happened if some other philosophy and methodology had been at play in the same new historical circumstances. It’s arguably the case that huge government and private funding, aimed at profit or national power, lies behind much of the success.

Then again, Baconian science has been a largely pragmatic enterprise - push materialistic nature as far as you can and see what results you get. You could compare the success of Soviet athletics in the Cold War era - the Soviets won everything because their false ohilsophy was rigorously applied to winning medals. What only emerged later was the distinct lack of success in human costs, which were sacrificed to the system.

That’s not to say there’s no place for te kind of empirical science we’ve learned to do, just as athletics can benefit from more efficient training methods - only we need to remember that the post-soviet era has also bred the successes of Lance Armstrong and so on. Maybe that’s the equivalent of the scientific successes of climate change, loss of biodiversity, nuclear weapons, antibiotic resistance and so on.

3 Likes
(Daniel Ang) #7

I can somewhat identify with that feeling of exile, especially when I was in college - the vibe on campus was very secular, and I felt pressure to act no differently than anyone else, treating my Christianity almost “in the closet.” But I don’t think that was related to my status as someone studying science (as opposed to any other subject). I also never felt “lost in a church setting,” even then. Today, I feel much more comfortable about my own faith and how it relates to my work. All of us have very different ways in relating our science and faith, even on a social level. For me, I do not feel trapped between the university and the church, or theology and science - my goal has always been to feel at home in both settings.

I completely agree with what you write here.

Even if we don’t have the power to change the rules of the discipline, I don’t feel that it means we are not at home with it. The rules are fine as it is. We can make it our home too. Do car mechanics feel less at home in their profession because they normally don’t mention God when explaining why someone’s car isn’t working? For me, carpentry, cooking, medicine, engineering, and physics should ideally be no different in how they relate to faith. Only when a discipline is pushed beyond its proper place - as in the case of scientism - does it feel like a place of exile for a Christian.

So to summarize - the exile metaphor is useful to characterize the place of Christians in the world. We do not belong in the world (John 15:19). But I do not see that it has special applicability to Christian scientists. Christian scientists should face no unique hurdle in integrating their faith and work compared to other professions, I think.

1 Like
(Daniel Ang) #8

I’m not saying that success vindicates all the assumptions that modern science has been using. Rather, success seems to me to be a strong suggestion that there is something that is right about the Cartesian view of the world when doing science as opposed to the Aristotelian one, for example. A new theology of nature should come to terms with that, not necessarily submitting to Cartesianism fully, but finding a way to preserve or explain that way of thinking in the domains where it is actually useful - namely, the domains where science has already shown its successes.

For example, I don’t know how, for example, a Aristotelian view of the world could be more useful when we are trying to calculate the energy levels of the hydrogen atom. Even if we could reinterpret the calculation of the energy levels of a hydrogen atom in terms of capacities and natures (e.g. as Cartwright tried to do), the methods of calculations and the experimental methods used to test it (which were found using non-Aristotelian assumptions, as far as I can tell) should still be preserved.

The question is success in what. Science has had the greatest success in explaining and predicting the behavior of various things in the natural world. It has not had much success in explaining some other major things such as consciousness, morality, and many other religious beliefs. Thus the right thing to do is to cede science the domains where it has indeed been shown to be successful, while acknowledging that it has inherent limitations that make it unable to adjudicate on questions such as the existence of God or the truth of religion.

Of course nobody knows what would have happened if these extra-scientific factors were very different. But it’s a stretch from that to arguing that the new philosophy of nature behind modern science had little to do with its success. Once again, the onus is on the anti-modernist to prove his case that modern science can be completely excised of modernist philosophy of nature while still preserving its successes. To be clear, I’m not saying that’s impossible to do - I’m in fact looking forward to such a project. I’m just confused why the anti-modernists don’t seem to regard such a task as important.

I’m reminded of another quote from your blogpost:

When the theology was changed, the science changed – in this case, purposefully in order to do science in order to control nature for man’s ends rather than to understand it to know God better.

First, did this change actually affect scientific results, as opposed to what those results ended up being used for?

Next, is it always a bad thing to control nature for man’s ends? Aren’t we commanded to do that in Genesis 1:28? Despite climate change, biodiversity, and antibiotic resistance, modern science has brought massive improvements to living and health standards that I think are morally good.

1 Like
(Jon Garvey) #9

Lots of interesting questions here, most of which I can’t answer.

First, a negative - I’ve been considering (in thinking about a new theology of nature) how it would affect science, and of course the idea started with that, because science is so prevalent. But in fact theology doesn’t owe science a living, if it’s seeking to find out what the world is in relation to God. That said, you’re right to say that if our theology’s right, it’s unlikely to overturn the ancient insights that the world is intelligible and intended for us: there “ought” to be a way of doing good science with it.

I too am interested in how Aristotelian science might handle physics, since one thing it does seem to have right is that natures are a more obvious way to understand reality than laws, which don’t seem to make much sense as entities, with or without God. The go-to guy on that is Ian Thompson, who’s himself a quantum physicist. He’s not exactly an Aristotelian, but has adopted some of its ideas into doing science theistically. Maybe we could invite him here - he does comment at The Hump from time to time.

I think the answer is that it changed the questions being asked, and therefore the data obtianed even before the philosophy was applied to interpret it. Science, after all, (as many PoS guys have pointed out, and not a few great scientists) is a way of asking a hugely complex and interrelated nature specific questions of interest to the investigator, and getting back a particular type of answer in response.

It excludes most of nature, but a theology of nature doesn’t have that luxury, though it needn’t be that specific, either.

It seems to me that our problem in modern science is that the kind of questions we’re forced to ask now involve more and more of that mass of complexity - we’re interested in biology, in ecology, in psychology - and, of course, quantum physics - in which we can no longer exclude contingency as irrelevant. There seems less likelihood than ever that the universe can be said to run on a few simple mathematical laws.

And once we no longer believe in the old Cartesian dualities - mind/body, natural/supernatural especially, science can’t really be kept watertight from God - so science had better develop ways of deciding how it does good work with God’s immanence assumed.

One can still do useful work on the old basis - Newtonian science will do most of what astronautics needs, and great woodwork can be done using tools the ancient Egyptians developed. Nobody considers theology when they’re cooking supper… oh, wait a minute: we’re supposed to pray for our daily bread from him; our major sacrament involved bread and wine; our resurrection hope includes a Messianic banquet. How do we keep methodological naturalism intact in all that?

1 Like
(Jon Garvey) #10

Yes, but we need to see that in the context of history and history of theology. A much-cited source on this is Cameron Wybrow’s The Bible, Baconianism, and Mastery over Nature .