Mark Vernon takes issue with Anthony Grayling on the question of the latter’s challenge to Madeleine Bunting ‘to name one – even one small – contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years’.
After all, there are a number of essentially theological ideas that underpin modern science, such as the notion that the universe is coherent, intelligible and so on.
But are those ideas essentially theological? Are they theological at all? (Does ‘essentially’ there mean – necessarily, or of its essence, or something like ‘perhaps not obviously but down deep beyond appearances’? It could be just a no true Scotsman move.)
I don’t think the ‘notion’ that the universe is coherent, intelligible and so on is an essentially theological idea, and I tend to suspect that claims that it is are part of the usual pattern of giving theism, or particular religions, credit for pretty much every idea anyone’s ever had, including some pretty obviously secular ones. We’re told that Christianity invented the idea of equality, anti-slavery, science, the worth of the individual, human dignity, secularism – you name it. But the notion that the universe is coherent and intelligible doesn’t depend on also thinking there is a god; the two can be separate thoughts; one can have one without the other; in fact, lots of people do have one without the other (some of them are called ‘scientists’). Why would it depend on thinking there is a god? Because the universe couldn’t or wouldn’t be coherent and intelligible unless a god had made it that way? That must be the thought, but it doesn’t seem like a very compelling thought to me. It’s the regress problem again, for one thing. If you think the universe couldn’t or wouldn’t be coherent and intelligible unless a god had made it that way, then why not also think a god couldn’t be a coherent-universe-maker unless a bigger god had made it that way, and so on? And for another thing, it adds a kind of person to the puzzle, instead of just stopping with a coherent universe, for reasons which are not self-explanatory, at least not to me. So why couldn’t people just look around them and see a lot of coherence and intelligibility and come up with the notion that the universe is coherent and intelligible, and leave it at that? They could; lots did; so in what way is that notion essentially theological?
I said at Comment is free that the coherent-universe notion could be a metaphysical belief (as opposed to a theological one) but also that it could equally well be a working assumption, which is what most scientists take it to be.
I don’t like this habit of labeling all or most human ideas religious or theological. It really is possible to think thoughts that are not essentially somewhere down at the bottom theological.