Truth in sciences, social sciences, and critical theory

Truth in sciences

The sciences also seek to understand and explain truth. The branches of science consist of scientific, theoretical, and empirical disciplines. The quest for truth typically begins with hypotheses that are formulated as propositions. These hypothetical truth propositions are then subjected to verification through reason, empirical observation, and testing. Hypotheses may be contested. Scientists will repeat the inquiry process until they are relatively certain of their theories, and these theories will be formulated as verified claims. Still, according to certain views of scientific investigation, true science will always embrace methods of critical science enquiry that respect truth. True scientific investigation recognizes that no scientific theory can ever be absolutely proven to be true - all scientific claims are always “tentative,” “open-ended,” and scientists must be ready to criticize their own hypotheses and acknowledge their ideological bias and misinformed biasness, among other foibles of human reasoning (Lee McIntyre, Respecting Truth, Routledge, 2015, Chapters 4 and 5). Nonetheless, verified claims can later be rendered invalid (such as evident in history -Ptolemy, Copernican, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Bohr on quantum theory, et al.) and if so, scientists will continue to seek more adequate theoretical explanations of reality based upon the preponderance of evidence, and be prepared to accept that none will ever have “the last word” (McIntyre, Respecting Truth, 125). Simultaneously, another category of truth exists despite Wittgenstein’s assertion that truly scientific truths are necessarily verifiable (cf. Tractatus-Philosophicus, Kegan Paul, 1922, repr. 1961): formal, metaphysical truths that cannot be empirically verifiable (and thus, un-provable) are nonetheless meaningful statements. For more on demarcation and criterion for and against verification, see Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Verlag von Julius Springer, 1935; Hutchinson & Co, 1959; Karl Popper, 1968; repr. Routledge, 2002). And, communicatively, language plays a much more critical role in scientific inquiry than has been acknowledged (cf. Michael D. Gordon, Scientific Babel: The Language of Science from the Fall of Latin to the Rise of English, The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Methodologically, Sir John Templeton explains that most natural scientists refrain from accepting a fixed perspective so that they can be epistemologically open-minded enough to seek and discover new insights and perspectives. They also challenge older assumptions and compete with each other to devise and test new hypotheses (cf. Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: A Humble Approach to Theology and Science, Templeton Foundation Press, 2000, 5). However, scientific openness does not mean that scientists do not have a framework or operative schema. As Michael Shermer observes, science operates out of

a set of cognitive and behavioral methods to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. Cognitive methods include hunches, guesses, ideas, hypotheses, theories, and paradigms. Behavioral methods include background research, data collection, and organization, colleague collaboration and communication, experiments, correlation of findings, statistical analyses.

(cf. Shermer, The Borderlands of Science, Oxford University Press, 2001, 98-99)

In Albert Einstein’s words, science is not a narrowly focused political enterprise. Science demands a deferential treatment so that scientists may be open to new and emerging ideas and paradigms (cf. Einstein’s letter to the Italian minister, 1938 in Charles Alan Taylor, Defining Science, University of Wisconsin Press,

1996, 3). Scientific methodology is not singular, but scientists follow a family of scientific methodologies, and often in complicated interaction with other disciplines (J.P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, Baker Book, 1989, Chapter 2). To be sure, a small but growing group of contemporary disengaged postmodern thinkers have articulated their rejection of the sciences, and not for religious/faith reasons, but because they followed deconstructive presuppositions and a Whiteheadian process interpretation; how this cluster will carve out a viable trajectory remains unclear.

Moving from the ontological and epistemological sciences into psychological, political, and social sciences, the sheer diversity of approaches that practitioners of these branches use to investigate their questions and promote their cases is more than this short chapter can adequately cover. While the process of hypothesizing and verifying with empirical observation and testing remain similar with natural sciences, what differs from natural sciences is that in these soft sciences, contemporary inquiries seek utilitarian goals, such as how to enhance self-esteem and/or transform interpersonal and/or intergroup relations. Also, biasness plays out more subtly than can be easily identified (e.g., Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, 2011). That said, understanding the history and sociology of these scientific developments is important. Sociology, psychology, and social psychology entered the big field of the sciences after years of defending their scientific credibility and demarcation as studies in human nature and human behavior. From there, critical theory of society and religion emerged in the aftermath of the world wars in the twentieth century. Theorists in critical theory of society researched human conflict and resolution at macro-levels with the goal of applying the findings to prevent repetition of massive human destruction (cf. Kruglanski for the historical development of these sciences, cf. Serge Moscovici, The Invention of Society, Polity, 1991; Arie W. Kruglanski and Wolfgant Stroebe, eds, Handbook of the History of Social Psychology, Psychology Press, 2011). Why should anyone bother with so much complexity in the process? Because, as Michael Lynch’s subtitle to his book, True to Life (MIT Press, 2004) explains, Truth Matters'.

Between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries

As far back as the eighteenth century, the Jewish philosopher Spinoza urged the freeing of science from the handmaiden role to theology in a conversation with Willem van Blyenberg. Spinoza followed the neo-Kantian rejection of social sciences and favored only natural sciences — the latter stood in a tradition that distinguishes Geisteswissenschaften in contrast to Naturwissenschaften. See Gadamer’s Truth and Method (Continuum, 1979, repr. 1989, Chapter 1) for nuances between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften in the humanist tradition.

Fast-forward to the early twentieth century, and Protestant thinkers repudiated thinkers of modernity who turned away from biblical revelation, and subsequently they rejected any interface between theological and non-theological disciplines. These Protestants, such as J. Gresham Machen, argued that theology and interdisciplinarity are mutually exclusive. Ever since Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans, 1923), some Christians have kept a distant from the sciences. In the middle of the century, many remembered Karl Barth’s (1886-1968) famous nein debates with Emil Brunner (1889-1966) as well as his devastating critique of nineteenth-century Schleiermacher’s (1768-1834) theological program as too “humanistic.” Barth’s strong criticisms and statement about the absolute incompatibility of natural sciences and the study of divine revelation remained in the consciousness of many theologians. Some theologians today continue Barth’s rejection of natural and human sciences as sources for theology.

Responding to the conservative backlash in the modernist/fundamentalist controversy, some followed Charles Fuller, Bernard Ramm, and others to find appropriate ways of engaging the sciences while upholding biblical revelation and the authority of Scripture. Fuller Seminary became the flagship of moderate evangelical and Protestant theological engagement with sciences and other fields of learning. Besides Charles Fuller, Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture offered a phenomenological method of correlation between theology and humanistic disciplines (cf. Oxford University Press, 1959). Still, other mainline Protestants who do not sympathize with Fuller and Ramm’s moderately conservative positions gained ascendency. And notwithstanding the differences between Barth and Ramm or between Barth and Tillich, many read the Barthian and/or Tillichian criticisms as prophetic corrections to the nineteenth-century Ritschlean liberal, cultural Protestantism’s descent from its transcendent theology (see Chapters 2 and 10 of this volume for a read of the theological landscape). Another significant voice in the twentieth century who affirmed theological engagement with other sciences is German Lutheran, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Though criticized at his time for his methodology, he firmly believed that theology must move from a hermeneutics of canonical texts alone to encompass a hermeneutics of history and a hermeneutics of the sciences so that revelation may be properly received. Pannenberg argued thus because he regarded revelation to be all-encompassing.

In the Catholic communion, Bernard Lonergan sought to update the First Vatican Council’s repudiation of modernity and method of sciences with a more orderly and complementary approach in theologizing. Lonergan sought a synthesis between theology and the intelligence, reasonableness, and learning from various disciplines. To the Jesuit dogmatician, theology ought to seek a unitive relationship with “relevant branches of human sciences” and by extension, his ideals could include all branches of interdisciplinary discourse relevant to theological studies (cf. Method in Theology, Crossroad, 1972, repr. 1979, 364). Lonergan did not offer his recommendation in a vacuum; his approach found resonance with the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes (1964), and the latter altered (and updated) the course for Catholic engagement with modernity. To be sure, Lonergan has certain proclivities and misinterpretations that tended more towards a disorientated subjectivist deconstructionism of

Catholic magisterium than an orderly synthesis of learning for affirming Catholic ecclesiastical theologization, so analyzed by Jeremy D. Wilkins’s Before Truth: Lonergan, Aquinas, and The Problem of Wisdom (Catholic University of America Press, 2018). More can be said of Lonergan’s concept of truth, including his dialectical synthesis of general and specialist theological methodological process for formulating doctrine and meaning in their many parts, but the review will do for now.

Into the twenty-first century

Philip Clayton’s Religion and Science: The Basics, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2019) reviews the various paradigms on the interface between science and faith. In classical naturalism (materialism) vs. theism paradigms, folks choose either faith or science as truer (or a more correct representation of reality and truth). The contemporary replay of naturalism’s attempted repudiation of a supposed delusion for theism is found in Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2007). This century saw various other formulations such as Ian Barbour’s reading of a fourfold relationship of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science, Harper & Row, 1990), John Haught’s call for approaches that seek contact and confirmation contrasts with the historic model that finds conflict between faith and science (cf. Haught, Science and Religion: Prom Conflict to Conversion, Paulist, 1995), and Francis Collins takes a constructive skeptical and theistic rereading of evolution (e.g., Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Free Press, 2006).

Some of the evolutionary theological rethinking came about because of the many versions of evolutionary scientific theorization that have emerged this century, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002). For a recent interaction of the wide-ranging development and debates about evolutionary theorization to the present, see McCall’s Evolution: Secular or Sacred? (Wipf Sc Stock, 2020; though McCall’s book is less a book of methodology than a book that teases out a multidisciplinary, post-Sanders, post-Whiteheadean, post-Tillichian non-dualistic process of pneumatological theological reading of evolutionary theoretical development, engaging with concepts such as evolutionary development, creativity, chance, shared animality, divine action, kenosis, convergence and emergence among other models). Perspectives on the relationship between science and religion may be simplified in paradigms such as the following:

  • • Religious teaching is consistent with science.
  • • Religious belief is compatible with science.
  • • Religious belief clashes with science.
  • • Religious belief is destructive for scientific inquiry and knowledge.
  • • Both religious belief and science depend on philosophical underpinnings.
  • • The war between science and faith is destructive and to be rethought.
  • • Religion may be a friend, or neutral with science.
  • • Religion and science may become partners for productive contribution to science/knowledge and well-being.

To be sure, the inquiry may be approached through the lenses of physics, biological sciences, neuroscience, cognitive science of religion, philosophy, theology, technology, and ethics, which Clayton has briefly reviewed. The preamble suffices as introduced for theological prolegomenon. Because of the array of methodological approaches in the sciences as well as the sophistication of truth construction in the sciences in this milieu, thinkers and theologians in the business of truth-making today can no longer simply follow an older, historic model that excludes data in the sciences for theologizing.

Developments in recent decades

For more than three decades now, theologians of various persuasions and schools of thought have meaningfully worked with professionals from other disciplines to produce multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and interdisciplinary theological discourses. Besides science and faith dialogue and critical studies, perhaps the earliest faith’s engagement with social sciences emerges from post Social Gospel’s analysis with social sciences (cf. Robert C. Fennell, “The Social Gospel and the Social Sciences,” in Jeff Nowers and Nestor Medina, eds, Theology and the Crisis of Engagement: Essays on the Relationship between Theology and the Social Sciences, Pickwick, 2013, 41—57). By our milieu, disciplines engaged include anthropology, astronomy, cognitive sciences, cosmogony, cosmology, ecclesiology, environmental studies, evolutionary psychology, natural sciences, organizational leadership, pastoral and counseling studies, political science, psychological studies, social psychological, and social scientific work. Some notable contributions have come from Alister McGrath, Amos Yong, Eugene F. Rogers Jr., F. LeRon Shults, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, John Barrow, John Polkinghore, J.P. Moreland, Jürgen Moltmann, Max Stackhouse, Patrick Henry, Phillip Clayton, et al.

In a recent decade, William Dennison has methodologically considered how non-theological fields of learning relate with Christian theologization (cf. A Christian Approach to Interdisciplinary Studies: In Search of a Starting Point, Wipf Sc Stock, 2007). To be sure, others have also attempted to theologize with insights from social and political sciences, such as James Gustafon’s Intersections: Science, Theology, and Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1966), Bernard Donahue’s essay in “Political Ecclesiology” (published in Theological Studies 33, 1972, 294-306), Leonard Boff’s Ecclesiogenesis (Orbis, 1986; 1991) and Johannes van der Ven’s Ecclesiology in Context (Eerdmans, 1996). Martyn Percy’s Calling Time: Religion and Change at the Turn of the Millennium (Sheffield Academic, 2000), Michael Barnes, Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Barry Harvey’s Can These Bones Live? (Brazos, 2008),

Theology, sciences, and interdisciplinarity 99 and others bring secular disciplines of critical theory, culture, economics, politics and various social theories into conversation with theology.

One must not forget the groundbreaking work of John Milbank, who in Theology and Social Theory (Blackwell, 1990, expanded, 2006) appraised contemporary interdisciplinarity in theology. However, Milbank recommended moving beyond secular reason, and he urged that secular reason submit to theology. Basically, Milbank saw no complementarity between social scientific disciplines and theology because, for him, the foundation of secularity is nihilism, which is not compatible with Christianity’s goals of honoring God and nurturing human flourishing. How can disciplines that are not directed theologically and towards the divine be able to provide any objectivity to the quest for truth? Accordingly, Milbank renders secular reason and disciplines “null and void, altogether lacking in truth” for Christian theology.

When the myriad proposals are assessed on their own merits, and at times these arguments are set in contradistinction with each other, one needs to weigh more carefully the validity of Milbank’s assertions. With their respective peerreview procedures to validate and invalidate inquiry processes in the quest for truth in the many fields of learning found in the contemporary milieu, many discoveries, learnings, and interlocution have been given wings to flourish, and many theorizations of truth in the disciplines benefited human flourishing. Are these really “null and void” and “lacking in truth” altogether just because the orientations and trajectories of these investigations and outcomes are non-theistically based or are approached with no concept of revelation undergirding their pursuit?

Readings on introducing sciences

I recommend that you choose three out of seven essays to read and digest. Familiarize yourself with the questions and scope of the sciences, and ask why and how you may or may not agree with the substantive discussions as members of your denominations and theological traditions.

Read Mickey Kolis, Student Relevance Matters: Why Do I Have to Know This Stuff? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), Chapter 8, “The Purpose of Science,” 57-63. How reasonable is Kolis’ appeal?

Read Sir John Templeton, Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: The Humble Approach in Theology and Science (Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), “Ninety-two Questions on Humility in Theology and Science,” (23 September, 1999) 171—179. Do pay attention to the logical development of thought and ask if Templeton explains his presupposition, and why the 92 questions truly are important for contemporary methodological concern for theology and the sciences.

Read Philip Clayton, Religion and Science: The Basics, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2019), Chapter 2, “Expanding the Options,” 17-35. Of the various reformulations, which seems more convincing — naturalism, theism, constructive skepticism, theistic evolution, agnostic naturalism — and why?

Read Bradford McCall’s “Alfred North Whitehead, Chance, and the Immanently Creative Spirit,” in Evolution: Secular or Sacred? (Wipf & Stock, 2020), 49-63.

Read Cornel W. du Toit, “Some Barthian Perspectives on the Present Science-Religion Debate: What is the Place of ‘Natural Theology’ Today?” FITS Teologiese Studies! Theological Studies 63 . 4 (2007): 1447—1471. Consider how defensible are both du Toit and Barth? Are considerations for natural theology still valid in a scientific age?

Read Christopher C. Knight, “Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church: Historical and Current Perspectives,” Science & Christian Belief 25. 1 (2013): 37—52. Ask, is it true that the Orthodox Church does not learn from the post-Patristic age? How does Orthodoxy then respond and relate to the quest for new sciences and learning? What can the rest of conservative Christianity learn from Orthodoxy’s journey towards science and truth?

Or, optionally, read Tom Lombardo, The Evolution of Future Consciousness (Center for Future Consciousness and AuthorHouse, 2006), Chapter 5, “Science, Enlightenment, Progress, and Evolution,” 267—422. Though a self-authored piece, the volume has received considerable attention, and so it may be helpful to trace Lombardo’s theory and conception of both consciousness and the science of learning truth.

Readings in social sciences and critical theory

Read either of the two sets: social sciences or critical theory of society and religion. Consider why and how theology should not ignore these fields even as you weigh in on why conservative evangelical theology often downplays these fields of learning.


Read Dilthey and Betanzos, Introduction to the Human Sciences (Princeton University Press), Preface. It reviews human science as disciplines of human learning.

Read Philip Clayton, “Religion and the Social Sciences: Reflections on the Human Quest for Meaning,” in F. LeRon Shults, ed., The Evolution of Rationality, Interdisciplinary Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (Eerdmans, 2006), 87-106.


Read Rudolf Siebert, Manifesto of the Critical Theory of Society and Religion, Vol. 1 (Brill, 2010), Chapter 9, “Towards a New Model,” 331-373 - a doublespaced publication so should be readable in half the expected time. In this excerpt from Siebert’s magnum opus, readers would want to ask: how viable is his “new model” for responding not just to fascism but also the disenchantment of twentieth-century people towards religion?

Read Thomas Luckmann, “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies,” in A. James Reimer, ed., The Influence of the Frankfurt School on Contemporary Theology: Critical Theory and the Future of Religion, Dubrovnik Papers in Honour of Rudolf J. Siebert (Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 33—42. Consider if religious consciousness is a modern construct or has it always been there (albeit dormant)? What roles do religious consciousness play in modern societies?

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