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Book review: Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science by Michael Ruse

Price: US$18.57; NZ$79.97
Hardcover: 264 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (March 8, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521755948
ISBN-13: 978-0521755948

Unfortunately this book does not discuss the real spiritual feelings involved in the scientific endeavour. That would have been closer to my interests.  However it does argue there is a place in science for people of faith. This is of less interest to me but this subject clearly has an audience.

Perhaps the publishers should have reversed the title and subtitle of this book.

Many might find Ruse’s conclusion there is ’room for faith’ trivial. After all, we know scientists who also have a religious commitment. That is just an empirical fact.

On the surface one might see this as involving cognitive dissonance. But that is also not surprising. We humans have a great ability to compartmentalise different ways of thinking within the same brain, and to justify that. I have known scientists who are atheists, agnostics, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. But I have also known scientists who believed in astrology or were strongly superstitious in other ways. Hell, I even knew one scientist who belonged to the NZ ACT Party!

But Ruse is not talking about this. He argues that it is possible to be both a Christian and a scientist without any mental compartmentalisation. That one does not exclude the other from philosophical and epistemological points of view.

His foundation for this conclusion is a philosophical analysis of the history of science, of modern science and of possible alternatives to modern science. After a similar analysis for mainstream Christian theology he confidently declares there is room for faith.

History of science

I am pleased that although Ruse really wishes to analyse modern science he does give a history going back to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE. It’s still only a history of western science but much better than many theists making this argument allow. They often describe science as originating within Christianity and therefore restrict their histories to last 400 years.

Although this history is necessarily brief his portrayal of the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries as involving the breakaway of science from philosophy and religion is useful. He ties this up with a move in philosophical attitude from a mental portrayal of what reality should be to an acceptance of what we discover reality is. Once we saw reality as ordered or non-magical gods had to be kept at a distance otherwise miracles got in the way. The act of claiming a ’God-given’ order to the universe meant God got ’pushed out of the equation.’

Two other books I have recently reviewed make similar arguments. They were Alan Chalmers’ The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone and Massimo Pigluicci’s Nonsense on Stilts.

Organism and machine metaphors

Ruse uses a metaphor approach. He explains that our understanding is invariably helped, tied up with, metaphor. We are continually trying to picture a counter-intuitive reality using familiar concepts and objects. Hence metaphors.

He describes science as evolving from an organism metaphor of the ancient Greeks. Objects had a purpose, an internal vital force. They saw the world as an organism.  Advancement of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth century brought a machine metaphor which Ruse sees as still applying today.  ’We have left the self-regenerating world, where everything is referred to ends, and we are now in a world of particles — atoms, corpuscles — endlessly moving in space — mindlessly, as one might say.’

Ruse distinguishes two forms of the machine metaphor – the machine as an artefact (mechanism 1) and as a process (mechanism 2).

Frankly I felt he overdid the metaphor approach and at times it was confusing. It may initially bring clarity but becomes rather forced and, I think, leads to him drawing some false conclusions.

Ruse explains that, although it might describe his philosophy, he is unhappy about the term ’materialism.’ He points out the discovery of electromagnetic forces ’showed the idea of a world of simple masses, atoms, is no longer tenable. Whatever may be the basic stuff of existence, forces in some sense must be included. For this reason, a lot of people (myself included) hesitate to speak of themselves as materialists, if this means some sort of Cartesian res extensa is the substance of reality.’ So he is using the machine metaphor in its place. Unfortunately this reinforces an impression of mechanical materialism inappropriate for modern science.

It’s true that “materialism” is a much-misused and misinterpreted word. But surely this should encourage explanation, development of its meaning as an appropriate philosophical approach in modern science. Not its avoidance. I wish he had taken the bull by the horns. If Ruse had done this I feel he would have made an important contribution as this description is sadly lacking in popular philosophical accounts. Using a machine metaphor conveys a concept of mechanical materialism typical of the 18th and 19th centuries which is not appropriate today. This needs to be updated to produce a materialist philosophical description compatible with modern scientific understanding. His reasons for avoidance of the word probably are reasons he should not have avoided it.

But maybe this requires a philosopher more familiar with modern physics and understanding of matter.

Unasked, Unsolved questions.

Ruse tries to find questions that are beyond the scope of science. He needs these if he is to make room for faith. He produces four questions:

1. Origins. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why this?  ’I will simply say that I do not think that is tackled by science all.’

He then gets into an ongoing chain of causation and an uncaused being. You can see where that goes. But just because we cannot currently combine relativity theory and quantum mechanics, cannot go back to the time zero of the ’big bang’ and beyond says nothing about future possibilities. I think he is wrong to rule this out of science — and in fact cosmologists do research such things. They don’t rule it out.

Incidentally, I found his tendency to rest arguments on personal uncertainty or wishes frustrating. He often makes comments like ’But I am not sure that it is our question at the moment.’ I wanted more.

2: Morality. Yes, that old argument.

’Machines can be used for good or ill, but they are not themselves moral objects. . . . . . we should not expect something based on the machine metaphor to be a source of moral judgements’. See the problem of taking metaphors too literally? While most people agree science cannot make moral decisions Ruse’s argument is just not satisfactory.

While claiming morals as “another set of questions that science does not even set out to answer’ he does properly qualify this. ’The claim is certainly not that science, even discounting the matter of technology made earlier, can say nothing about morality. I happen to believe that it can say a great deal about what we do and think and in particular why we think some things are moral and some things are not.’

3: Minds. Consciousness

Again he takes his own metaphor too literally.

’Machines cannot think. Hence any science that is a machine metaphor based is bound to fail the attempt to explain consciousness — thinking, self awareness, what Steven Pinker (1997) calls ‘sentience.’’ Machine metaphors are just far too crude to apply to consciousness. This is just naïve mechanical materialism.

Again many, if not most, scientists in this field will disagree. However, he does accept this partially by referring to the work of  Paul and Pat Churchland and quoting, if arbitrarily, Daniel Dennett.

4: Purpose — what is the point of it all.

Here the machine metaphor is a problem for Ruse as it implies purpose. Machines are designed and built for a purpose after all.  He accepts there is no place for ends in science and moves from the machine as an artifact to a mechanism metaphor. ’Not what the part is for, but how does the part work.’ And he quotes Dijksterhuis: ’The mechanism of the world picture led with irresistible consistency to the conception of God as a retired engineer, and from this to His complete elimination was only a step.’

However, he still wants to legitimise the ancient need to see purpose in everything so he must list this as a question science cannot answer. Of course many would say that it is a meaningless question.

The philosophy of ’faith’

Covering what Ruse seems to define as the ’spiritual’ side the book has a chapter ’God’ and attempts a philosophical analysis of Christianity. I found this hard to follow, not the least because of extensive quoting from the bible and theologians. The theological style of argument is not known for clarity. Often, I suspect, purposely so.

However, Ruse has had to be selective in considering a place for ’faith’ in science. In broad terms there is only one modern science but there are many modern religions, ’faiths.’ Ruse chooses to restrict his analysis to Christianity. And then only ’mainstream Christianity” — whatever that means. He excludes the creationists, the intelligent designers, etc. But he still includes design.

I don’t think the groups he has excluded are as minor as he suggests. For example, even in New Zealand surveys show that something like 40% of Christians do not accept evolutionary science. So, if Ruse can find a place for ’faith’ his conclusions only apply to part of Christianity. And not necessarily the major or most politically important part. After all, it is these unconsidered ’faiths’ which on the one hand are most hostile towards science. On the other hand they work hard to impose their own ’supernatural’ philosophy on to science. And their theological influence does extend into mainstream Christianity.

And, of course, his conclusions will anyway be used to bolster all those weird and wonderful Christian sects who he has purposely not included in the consideration.

Room for ’faith’?

Ruse’s claim there is a place for faith rests on his argument there are questions science cannot answer — or even investigate. However, typical of this argument is that it awards a magisterium to religion by default. It does nothing to show a case for any special role of religion in such questions.

This is Ruse’s problem. He argues clearly, if not always convincingly, for exclusion of his four questions from science. But I could not find any argument for including these same questions in the province of ’faith’ or mainstream Christianity. No evidence “faith” could provide answers, or even investigate. It is an argument by default, not merit.

Morality is a clear example of the argument by default. Moral decisions are something that we all have to make. Science may help with information but in the end the decisions about right and wrong are ours. Religion has played a role in recommending and codifying such decision but it doesn’t have any special power in making such decisions. It cannot define what is right and wrong any better than your neighbour. And that historical role has declined as more secular institutions and arrangements have displaced religion.


I enjoyed and found useful the first part of this book. We need more popular writing on the history of science and scientific philosophy. However, while I can understand Ruse’s unwillingness to come to grips with philosophical materialism the alternative, his use of metaphor, was confusing at times. More importantly in places he falls into the trap of taking his metaphors too literally and, I believe, using them to uncritically ring-fence areas of reality from scientific investigation.

That and the restrictive definition of ’spirituality’ or ’faith’ he chose for consideration do weaken his argument. I was not convinced the ’room for faith in the age of science’ is anything more than the usual compartmentalisation of ideas and beliefs which all humans indulge in.

However, the relationship between science and religion, and the question of compatibility, is a hot topic. I am sure the theologically minded will welcome the book — and will use it in their debates and sermons.


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