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Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion

Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion

by Jim Proctor


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Contemporary scholarship has given rise to several different modes of understanding biophysical and human nature, each of which is entangled with related notions of science and religion. Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion represents the culmination of three years of collaboration by an international group of fourteen natural scientists, social scientists, humanists, and theologians. The result is an intellectually stimulating volume that explores how the ideas of nature pertain to science and religion.
Editor James D. Proctor has gathered sixteen in-depth essays, each of which examines and compares different aspects of five central metaphors or "visions" of biophysical and human nature. These visions are evolutionary nature, emergent nature, malleable nature, nature as sacred, and nature as culture. The book's diverse contributors offer a wide variety of unique perspectives on these five visions, spanning the intellectual spectrum and proposing important and often startling implications for religion and science alike. Throughout the essays, the authors do a great deal of cross-referencing and engaging each other's ideas, creating a cohesive dialogue on the visions of nature.
Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion offers a blend of scholarly rigor and readable prose that will be appreciated by anyone engaged in the fields of religion, philosophy, and the natural sciences.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781599473147
Publisher: Templeton Press
Publication date: 10/15/2009
Edition description: 2
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

James D. Proctor is professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. With a background in geography, environmental science, and religious studies, his research primarily concerns concepts of nature, science, and religion, as well as contemporary environmental thought. Proctor is coeditor of Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, editor of Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, and coeditor of an upcoming volume tentatively titled After Environmentalism.

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Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion

By James D. Proctor

Templeton Press

Copyright © 2009 Templeton Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-314-7



Willem B. Drees

What is the nature of "visions of nature"? When labeling visions of nature with terms such as evolution or emergence, it seems as if they are indeed visions of nature, slightly expanded from the natural sciences. However, in speaking of visions, the ambition seems to be more far-reaching, as a vision is to guide our actions, and thus to incorporate goals or values and a sense of who we are. This is most obvious when the vision speaks of nature as sacred. This transfer from a descriptive and analytical sense of a "vision of nature" toward an evaluative or normative interest seems to be the significance of thinking through our visions of nature. Visions of nature may turn out to be visions for nature as well.

However, philosophers have long challenged such a transfer from descriptive to prescriptive claims. Describing a shampoo in advertising copy as "purely herbal" may promote sales, but as a recommendation it is logically fallacious—many herbal substances may well be harmful to one's hair. Philosophers speak of the naturalistic fallacy, or the is-ought distinction. Thus, visions of nature that serve as visions for nature seem to combine in a single package facts and values. Are such packages intellectually illegitimate? In the second part of this chapter I hope to begin by unpacking the five visions under consideration, to understand to some extent the appeal of these visions and some of their limitations.

Before focusing on the five visions, I will introduce a model for understanding religious convictions in relation to the natural sciences and to our moral intuitions, in a brief formula:

a theology = a cosmology + an axiology

My claim is that this model may clarify why disagreements on visions of nature are not likely to be resolved by additional scientific evidence. Thus, the conclusion will be that visions of nature are of intellectual interest, as possible ways of looking at reality, that they may also be of religious or moral interest by nourishing certain "moods and motivations," but that precisely for that reason, science is not qualified to decide on competing visions of nature. Addressing the nature of our "visions of nature" may clarify our moral disagreements, but will not resolve them.

Theologies as Packages

What Might Religion Be?

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has studied the cultural function of religious symbols. He concluded that

sacred symbols function to synthesize a people's ethos—the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood—and their world view—the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order.

This insight regarding the role of symbols in synthesizing ethos and worldview brought him to an oft-quoted definition:

a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions which such an aura of facticity that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

This definition is, as a definition of the empirical phenomenon of religiosity, not perfect. Perhaps it neglects the role of rituals, and puts too much emphasis on the cognitive role of symbols as contributing to conceptions of the order of existence, thus bypassing ritual, social, and other noncognitive roles of religion. Perhaps the definition fails to shed light on complexities of representation and truth. Besides, the definition suggests a causal arrow from symbols via conceptions to moods and motivations, whereas the symbols may also express moods and motivations—the passage quoted before, about synthesizing ethos and worldview, has less of this causal suggestion in it.

However, insofar as the definition is about the cognitive side of a religion, what could be called a "theology," the definition highlights the observation that, in religious thought, conceptions of the order of existence are intertwined with the appreciation of reality and norms for our behavior. To speak of the world as God's creation has a descriptive and a prescriptive aspect to it. In the same article, Geertz also speaks of models of the world and models for the world; that is, of models that seem to be descriptive and models that articulate a normative orientation and transformative ambition. In order to acknowledge the concentration on cognitive and normative dimensions, I will speak here not of a "religion," as Geertz does, but of a "theology."


Theologies, as systematic positions, seem to offer a particular view of the way the world is and of the way the world should be, of the True and the Good, of the real and the ideal. Each theology expresses a particular relationship between a cosmology—in the metaphysical sense as a view of the way reality is—and an axiology, a view of the values that should be realized. Thus, as a heuristic to clarify and explore a complex area of discussion, I suggest the following "formula" for understanding the nature of theologies (plural):

a theology = a cosmology + an axiology

with the + sign not being a mere addition, but the crucial issue: how the two are brought together. Axiology is a grandiose word for a theory of values and of what we value, that is, a philosophically reflected articulation of our moral intuitions.

Theologies can be quite different in the way they relate and prioritize cosmological and the axiological aspects. The definition allows one to concentrate on existential issues, which become prominent when our reality is not in accord with what we think ought to be, thus stressing the tension that might be involved in the and in the formula. But it may also be about supernatural or magical elements, as particular claims regarding the cosmological order. Within the Christian tradition, there are—based on my definition—various theologies. When the emphasis is on God's saving activity, the tension between the way the world is and the way it will be is prominent, whereas in creation-oriented views (whether ecologically inspired or as natural theologies) cosmology and axiology stand less starkly in contrast; the prophet emphasizes the tension, whereas the mystic stresses how we fit in to the larger reality. Whiteheadian process thought is one particular articulation of the interplay of axiological and causal elements. This way of integrating regulative ideals into cosmology has required particular, and in my opinion problematic, choices in cosmology: choices regarding panexperientialism and regarding the place of physics in the order of the sciences. However, it is an interesting and relevant attempt to integrate valuational and causal elements in a single categorical scheme.

In my opinion, the attempt to combine "is" and "ought" statements is what makes theology problematical and valuable. Again and again, the difficulty of the combination finds expression in the problem of evil, which typically concerns the relationship or tension between the two main components. The significance shows up precisely in the same context, when a prophet speaks up against evil in the name of a higher good: "Thus speaks the Lord."


The definition of theology as "cosmology and axiology" does not yet refer to the natural sciences. A cosmology is, of course, related to the sciences. However, the relation is not straightforward. One may distinguish between science and any interpretation of science as a view of reality; that is, any cosmology, metaphysics, or philosophy of nature. A cosmology, in this sense, is a view of what the world (with its substances and relations, and conceptions of space, time, matter, forces, causality, etc.) might be like, given what we know (and what we know not to be the case; science may well be stronger in what it excludes than in what it includes). Any such metaphysics is an interpretation of scientific knowledge, constrained by the sciences but also underdetermined by them.

It may be useful to distinguish further between various aspects of the sciences. For our current purposes, three levels may be sufficient: (1) theories, (2) taxonomies and empirical generalizations, and (3) observations and experiments. At the "high" end, there are theories that describe vast domains of realities. That is where the integration provided by the sciences is most clearly visible. Among these are Newton's understanding of forces and motion, the atomic theory of matter with the Periodic System, electromagnetism, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, quantum physics, Einstein's improved understanding of forces, motion, and space and time, and so on. At the "low" end, there are the manifold observations and experiments that connect scientific ideas to the world.

Relations between the high end and the low end run a large gamut. Some of it is inductive in kind, generalization toward overarching rules or statistical expectations. Major relations are, however, hypothetical-deductive, where the creative researcher postulates entities, forces, or other causal factors that may explain the observed phenomena. Certainty is always limited. Inductive generalization may be of limited validity beyond the phenomena that formed the basis for the generalization, as conditions not yet taken into account may be essential. Hypothetical-deductive approaches, such as those advocated by Karl Popper, acknowledge openly the creative and provisional nature of the hypothesis—which may be refuted if deduced consequences do not match observations. However, even such refutations are not final, since it may be that one does not consider the theory itself refuted, but rather one of the additional hypotheses involved, such as hypotheses regarding the measuring equipment or the initial conditions—an insight regarding the underdetermination of refutations and theories that has come to be known in philosophy as the Duhem-Quine thesis.

Even if one accepts a particular theory, metaphysical or cosmological inferences drawn from it may be highly disputable. Does quantum mechanics force upon us an indeterministic metaphysics? Not at all, as witnessed by the continuing debates over the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Does the Special Theory of Relativity that describes space-time as a four-dimensional space-time force upon us the idea that time is spatial and the future is just as much already there as the past? Again, interpretations vary. Furthermore, precisely where the cosmologically most interesting issues are, such as the nature of time and of causality, of matter and of interactions, science is at its most speculative. Chemists work with the Periodic Table, and atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The first two of these are made up of quarks, but what is the end of the line—super-strings? And the Big Bang theory is a very successful theory describing the evolution of the universe, but precisely when we get to the very beginning, beyond the Planck horizon, the theory becomes unreliable, as we need a quantum theory of space and time—an area of quantum cosmology where approaches are as much guided by preconceived philosophical ideas and preferences in mathematics as by observations. In a review article, Jeremy Butterfield and Christopher Isham wrote about theory construction in this field of quantum gravity and quantum cosmology:

In this predicament, theory-construction inevitably becomes much more strongly influenced by broad theoretical considerations, than in mainstream areas of physics. More precisely, it tends to be based on various prima facie views about what the theory should look like—these being grounded partly on the philosophical prejudices of the researcher concerned, and partly on the existence of mathematical techniques that have been successful in what are deemed (perhaps erroneously) to be closely related areas of theoretical physics....

The situation ... tends to produce schemes based on a wide range of philosophical motivations, which (since they are rarely articulated) might be presumed to be unconscious projections of the chtonic psyche of the individual researcher—and might be dismissed as such! Indeed, practitioners of a given research programme frequently have difficulty in understanding, or ascribing validity to, what members of a rival programme are trying to do. This is one reason why it is important to uncover as many as possible of the assumptions that lie behind each approach: one person's "deep" problem may seem irrelevant to another, simply because the starting positions are so different.

Thus, underdetermination seems a real issue within the sciences, and especially so when one comes to metaphysical or cosmological conclusions regarding the nature of nature. However, underdetermination need not be understood as "Everything goes," as lower levels and requirements of consistency considerably constrain the options.

A Scheme

So far, I have described theological convictions as combining cosmological and axiological ones. Each of these is related to underlying disciplines, such as ethics and the natural sciences, with these, in turn, related to observations, experiments, and moral intuitions. Deep down, of course, both of these series relate to the world in which we live and the experiences we have. Thus, in a sense there are two levels where integration occurs—at the theoretical level of theology (or worldview) and in practice, in life as lived.

Visions of Nature

Where should we locate our topic "visions of nature"? Some visions fit nicely in the left-hand column, as a scientific image of nature. When evolution or emergence is the central notion, science seems to have primacy. However, when nature is considered "malleable," there is a cosmological dimension, as reality is in some way flexible, but also an axiological one, or at least this vision of nature that requires a moral orientation—for how would we otherwise have a sense of direction? When nature is considered "cultural," we seem to leave the plane of discussion, as the whole structure is a human scheme. However, it may also be understood within this framework as emphasizing underdetermination in the relationships, and thus reminding us of the distance between empirical evidence and all theoretical constructions, whether still within science (theories) or beyond science in interpretations and visions. When nature is referred to as being "sacred," we clearly have moved toward the axiological side of the scheme, stressing the valuation of nature. It could even be considered a particular theological perspective, excluding other models, such as those that would reserve the concept of sacredness for a transcendent realm or entity beyond nature.

Thus, the emphasis of the five visions discussed here is not uniform—as alternatives addressing issues at the same locus in the scheme. Rather, they move across the whole scheme. However, in seeing them as visions of nature, with the connotation that they are also visions for nature, visions that should guide our behavior, they have a similar integrative function as theologies as understood here. Thus, in the next section, the five visions will be considered, each in relation to science and to the wider meanings that may be attached to it.

Visions of Nature

Evolutionary Vision: Continuing Disputes

Evolutionary biology does provide an encompassing vision of nature. It offers explanations for similarities between organisms, the functionality of organs and behaviors, the biogeographical distribution of species and extinct species, and much more. Its explanatory scheme is of a remarkable simplicity, with hereditary variation and selection at its core, supplemented with knowledge of underlying chemical processes (DNA), and various variations on the basic scheme (e.g., sexual selection).


Excerpted from Envisioning Nature, Science, and Religion by James D. Proctor. Copyright © 2009 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Visions of Nature, Science, and Religion James D. Proctor,
1. The Nature of Visions of Nature: Packages to Be Unpacked Willem B. Drees,
2. Visions of Nature through Mathematical Lenses Douglas E. Norton,
3. Between Apes and Angels: At the Borders of Human Nature Johannes M.M.H. Thijssen,
4. Locating New Visions David N. Livingstone,
5. Enduring Metaphysical Impatience? Robert E. Ulanowicz,
6. God from Nature: Evolution or Emergence? Barbara J. King,
7. Who Needs Emergence? Gregory Peterson,
8. Creativity through Emergence: A Vision of Nature and God Antje Jackelén,
9. Rereading a Landscape of Atonement on an Aegean Island Martha L. Henderson,
10. The Vision of Malleable Nature: A Complex Conversation Andrew Lustig,
11. Visions of a Source of Wonder Fred D. Ledley,
12. Nature as Culture: The Example of Animal Behavior and Human Morality Nicolaas A. Rupke,
13. Environment after Nature: Time for a New Vision James D. Proctor,
14. Should the Word Nature Be Eliminated? John Hedley Brooke,
Afterword: Visualizing Visions and Visioners James D. Proctor,

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