How Science and Religion Converge Rather Than Conflict – Part 1 of 5

Must science and religion always be in conflict? Are they completely unrelated realms of inquiry? Or can they converge to help us discover the nature of reality? Over the course of this week, I will explore the nature of explanations and scientific explanations, and then discuss the relationship between science and theology.

Let's start with some epistemology, shall we? We need an account of the nature of explanation. Human beings are rational creatures by nature and thus have an inherent need to understand the world around them. But what kinds of explanations satisfy the human knower?

An explanation gets at the fundamental question of “Why?” While human beings ask "what" questions (“What happened in the Steelers-Bengals game yesterday?”) and "how" questions (“How did Troy Polamalu become a Hall-of-Fame caliber player?”), human inquiry almost never stops there, particularly with the most important questions of life. But merely stating that an explanation seeks an answer to why questions is much too broad to be helpful. The parent who asks why her two-year old child was lost to cancer may be looking for consolation rather than a reasoned explanation. More precision in our account of explanation is needed.

At the most basic level, an explanation has two components: the explanandum and the explanans. The explanadum is that which needs to be explained, such as an event or object, and the explanans is that which does the explaining, such as sentences put together in a coherent form. For instance, let us take event E to stand for my 3-year-old son’s act of hitting my 7-year-old daughter (note the frequency of E has no bearing on my illustration). E constitutes the explanadum and as even philosophically untrained parents know, requires an explanans. Why did my son Jonah hit his sister? The explanans, L, may come in the form of a carefully constructed linguistic utterance. Jonah may say (and actually has said!), “Daddy, I hit Ella because she is a bad guy.” A satisfactory explanans ends further analysis. Given L, my need for an answer to why E occurred is satisfied and my investigation ceases (Of course, proper moral justification for Jonah’s actions is another question altogether).

Again, our account of explanation cannot stop here or else it is too minimal. A further question arises. What amounts to an adequate explanans? Explanations are often framed in terms of causes. A cause can be defined minimally as something’s bringing about an effect and is an important explanatory feature. Any explanans must appeal to some form of causation.

We can distinguish between two types of causes, as another illustration about my children will demonstrate. Let us take explanadum MR to stand for my 11-year old daughter’s messy room. What explanantia are live options? It seems to me I have two. When I ask Paige why her room is messy, she may reply that a magnitude 7.0 earthquake caused all of her clothes to fly out of their dresser drawers and land on the floor in chaotic piles. Thus, an adequate explanans for MR could be an event. However, my daughter may confess she was the one who threw her clothes into chaotic piles on the ground. Thus, a second explanans for MR could be the actions of an agent. Either event-causation or agent-causation provides sufficient explanantia.

It is important to note my brief discussion of causation does not limit causality to a relation between events. Rather, I am open to causality entailing dispositional states within a rational agent. I grant that a key distinction can be made between causes and reasons (for further analysis of reasons and causes, see Robert Audi’s book, Practical Reasoning, or William Alston’s article, “Wants, Actions, and Causal Explanations” in Intentionality, Minds, and Perception). However, reasons can provide a causal account of some explanadum. A dispositional state, such as believing cleanliness is not a form of godliness, can causally motivate the actions of an agent and thus, be causally sufficient. I resist all such moves to push causality outside of the realm of agency and confine it to a relation between events.


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Brett Kunkle (@brettkunkle) is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation to know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and parents. Brett has a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology and co-authored the book A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

Brett Kunkle