On The Relation Between Science and the Scientific Worldview

Heythrop Journal 54 (4):554-562 (2013)
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It has been widely believed since the nineteenth century that modern science provides a serious challenge to religion, but less agreement as to the reason. One main complication is that whenever there has been broad consensus for a scientific theory that challenges traditional religious doctrines, one finds religious believers endorsing the theory or even formulating it. As a result, atheists who argue for the incompatibility of science and religion often go beyond the religious implications of individual scientific theories, arguing that the sciences taken together provide a comprehensive challenge to religious belief. Scientific theories, on this view, can be integrated to form a general vision of humans and our place in nature, one that excludes the existence of supernatural phenomena to which many religious traditions refer. The most common name given to this general vision is the scientific worldview. The purpose of my paper is to argue that the relation of a worldview to science is more complex and ambiguous than this position allows, drawing upon recent work in the history and philosophy of science. While there are other ways to complicate the picture, this paper will focus on differing views that scientists and philosophers have on the proper scope and limits of scientific inquiry. I will identify two different types of science—Baconian and Cartesian—that have different ambitions with respect to scientific theories, and thus different answers about the possibility of a scientific worldview. The paper will conclude by showing how their differing intuitions about scientific inquiry are evident in contemporary debates about reductionism, drawing upon the work of two physicists, Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne. History is more complex than this simple schema allows, of course, but these types provide a useful first approximation into the ambiguities of modern science.
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