The Opportunities of Digital Dialogue

I certainly hope so. What’s needed is an openness to listen, instead of assuming that the other side is just ignorant of theology or science. I think the participants in this forum have so far been surprisingly very open-minded and sincere, so I’m optimistic about what we can slowly achieve here.

However, sometimes dialogue has its limits. This summer I went to a conference for Thomistic philosophy which was attended by a mixed audience of philosophers and scientists. The two groups often talked past each other (even though everybody was a serious Catholic). For example, a philosopher said that modern science was only studying “arrangements of matter” and so had little to say about the veracity of Aristotelian metaphysics. The scientist was offended that science was simplistically reduced to that phrase, and argued that scientists today talk about more than “arrangements” - they talk about bonds, forms, and states of matter, for example.

What I concluded from this interaction is that it’s hard to express what philosophy or science is by just saying a few sentences to each other. The mindset of a scientist is formed by many years of working in the lab, thinking with a certain accepted set of common rules that are very different from that of a philosopher’s.

I agree with you - but my point is that it was read primarily by scientists, secular or religious. The audience was not philosophers or theologians. So the lack of theological sophistication got by perfectly fine. Collins’ description of his faith in that book is perfectly orthodox and robust, but it wasn’t very extensive. I remember him quoting Augustine about Genesis, but he did not discuss Augustine’s views on creation in depth.

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Neo-thomism or neo-scholasticism is a tough nut to crack. One is always an outsider until one is not anymore due to having spent years in the conversation. I think what you are pointing out is that an interdisciplinary conversation of a certain type will take years to hammer out. Perhaps this is related to @Eddie point that BioLogos seems “tired.”

I’ve mentioned in other posts that I’ve really yet to see good interdisciplinary dialogue due to the fact that nobody really knows how to do it – there is no agreed upon method to model. Most academics tend to become rigid in their views, at least publicly, and become epistemic and ontological imperialists. Forgetting the first rule of PhD land if secular given us from Socrates, “I know that I do not know,” and if you want a Christian slant on it, “The beginning of Wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” Too often we try to make the other discipline more like our own.

We may be saying a few sentences to each other here, but the cumulative effect is nothing to sneeze at. I suppose the difference here, and perhaps this is part of the fifth way, is that it is happening in the public and in the open. If there are backroom conversations happening, they are administratively minimal. Or you’ll are really good at hiding them from us hoi polloi :smile:

@dga471 if dialogue has its limits, what are your thoughts about moving forward? What’s your endgame?

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Problems with public interdisciplinary dialogue, in my view:

  1. Dialogues are usually singular events with no-follow up or continuity between different dialogues.
  2. Each side presents their full-blown viewpoint without reflecting upon its hidden assumptions. As a result both sides talk past each other, not even using the same definitions of terms.
  3. Each side is presented first and foremost as a representative for their respective disciplines, instead of people with training in certain disciplines. Unsurprisingly, they feel pressured to keep within the bounds of their discipline, leading to each “making the other discipline like their own,” as you said.
  4. Dialogue is public and in real time, pressuring each participant to say something smart and definitive. The result is that everyone falls back on what they know best, which is trying to analyze another discipline using the methods of their own.

My guess is that the most important thing is a willingness to learn the basic content and methods of the other side, so as to get an idea of their mindset, not just propositional content. This may involve each side giving an introduction to the relevant content of their field, or each doing some reading beforehand. Even better would be long-term casual conversation between the two sides so as to get comfortable with the language of each. The important thing is adopting the attitude that you are learning, not evaluating or responding. That is what I have been doing personally in the last few months with regards to Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, for example. I feel the reverse should apply as well, to theologians properly studying science, getting into the technical details as much as they are able to. (William Lane Craig is a good example of this especially in his careful engagement with Vilenkin on the BVG theorem.)

A second suggestion would be emphasizing engagement that is written, long term, and informal and friendly instead of public debate. To some extent we are already doing this here, to a much better extent than in many other more adversarial venues. One interesting proposal would be to have a scientist and theologian work on a joint research project together for a few months. The idea would be not just peace, as Josh likes to emphasize, but intellectual cooperation. Perhaps come up with a toy model of divine providence that each side doesn’t have to fully endorse, simply as an intellectual exploration. I would be interested to learn the outcome of that.


Of note, we have found ways around all these problems, and more, on the Peaceful Science science forums.

  1. Dialogue is an ongoing conversation, instead of an event.

  2. The back and forth allows real questioning of assumptions, and definition of terms. The audience is huge, with some threads here already getting over 1000 views. However, the audience is also invisible and unseen, keeping the focus on legitimate exchange of ideas.

  3. This forum does not include avatars of disciplines, but several thoughtful scholars.

  4. Dialogue is public and in real time, but also can take place over days, with days between responses, allowing deeper reflection.

This is why I write:

One of the strange realities of the conversation between theology and science is that the most substantive dialogue takes place in digital spaces . Scholarly work often ends up entwined with public engagement. Key steps forward are often made in digital dialogue, immediately micropublished unofficially online. Forum threads, news letters, and blog posts can all become important artifacts in the ongoing conversation.Interesting ideas can hit the conversation immediately, without any filter. Peer review is real time, and part of the dialogue. It is through public comments on a blog post, for example, that new knowledge about population genetics was uncovered.

I’ve never been more hopeful for interdisciplinary dialogue than I am now. Technology is changing everything here. We’ve already see it this year, as major revisions to our understanding were established on forums before peer-reviewed papers or books. This need not be a fluke. There are structural reasons why a forum like this enables us to move past the pitfalls of other mediums.

Not only is it a place for innovative ideas to grow, it is also a place where we can be educated about other’s fields. @dga471, you are a physicist, but you are getting a deep exposure to several other disciplines, as legitimate experts tutor us. You won’t get a degree from this, but your competency and knowledge will grow.

Take seriously what happens here. This is the public square in a very real sense. It is very important what happens here. I think the exchanges we are seeing here are a new way forward.

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