Against Methodology in Science and Religion

Recent Debates on Rationality and Theology

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Josh Reeves
Routledge Science and Religion Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     142 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The question of whether theology is a rational intellectual activity often is seen to be synonymous with the question of whether theology is a science. On common philosophical standards, in order to answer whether theology is a science, one should first provide definitions of theology and of the unique features of science, and then analyze whether theology satisfies these features. The intelligibility of this task, though, presupposes that unique and essential features of science exist that can be identified.

According to Josh Reeves, in Against Methodology in Science and Religion, however, it is not the case that there are unique and essential features of science. Instead, Reeves endorses “the widely shared belief by current historians that science has no essential nature, meaning that there are no features that unite ‘scientific’ or even ‘rational’ inquiry across time and disciplines.” (102). Furthermore, “because science is not a sufficient unified entity, there is no totalizing logic that can be used to separate science from nonscience” (47). Consequently, “once we realize that no common essence unites what we group together under the categories of science and religion, then we will not feel the same impulse to solve the problem of how they fit together” (4). The questions whether theology is a science and whether religion and science fit together, on Reeves’s account, therefore, cannot be answered on common philosophical standards, but should be seen as ill-posed.

In order to support his anti-essentialist thesis regarding the nature of science, Reeves first rejects the positions put forward by Nancey Murphy (Chapter 3: The Lakatosian Program of Nancey Murphy), Alister McGrath (Chapter 4: Alister McGrath’s Scientific Theology), and J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen (Chapter 5: The postfoundationalist project of J. Wenzel Van Huyssteen). He then turns to the analysis of the putative anti-essentialist results of current history of science (Chapter 6: Anti-essentialism and the history of science) before he ends with a brief outlook on the future development of the field of science and religion (Chapter 7: Anti-essentialism and the future of the field of science and religion).

Reeves’ book is well-written and a good introduction to the debate on the relation between science and religion. However, there is a problem with Reeves’s anti-essentialism: Reeves’ anti-essentialist conclusion appears to be both unsupported by sound philosophical argument and based on a misunderstanding of the impact of historical research on normative questions in the philosophy of science. His only reason for anti-essentialism, as far as I can see, seems to be that current history of science failed to uncover unique features of science and that because of this it is philosophically inadequate to suppose that there is a set of unique features of science after all. But, that a set of features unique to science does not exist simply does not follow based on the assumption that the history of science so far failed to discover such a set of features.

Furthermore, it remains unclear why Reeves assumes that the results of historical research do have such an enormous impact on the normative and rational reflection of those features that should be used to separate science from pseudoscience. After all, philosophy of science deals with normative questions, while the study of history does not. Therefore, contra Reeves, I would argue that we cannot use descriptive conclusions from the study of the history of science to answer normative questions in the philosophy of science. Reeves’ argument, ultimately, is analogous to the argument that no objective moral values exist because the study of the history of humankind did not discover values shared amongst all cultures and times.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benedikt Paul Göcke is on the faculty of Theology and Religion at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
August 5, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Josh Reeves is Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at Samford University. Having run the New Directions in Science and Religion project, he has also written multiple articles on science and religion for peer-reviewed journals and is a co-author of A Little Book for New Scientists (2016).


Josh Reeves

Thanks Benedikt for your review. As you might suspect, I don’t agree with your critique.

Take your analogy: if no shared moral values were discovered among human societies, why would philosophers believe they really do exist? The reason is that these philosophers have other, independent, lines of evidence to support universal morality. Arguments for the existence of God, for example.

But in the case of science, what independent reasons would there be for believing that there is a universal characteristic that all sciences share (that we haven't yet discovered over the past 400 years)? Is there a Platonic form for science? Is there a theological claim that God created a universal science along with universal morality?

If, as I argue (following historians of science), the very meaning of the term science changes over history, which of those meanings of “science” is universal? The 19th century one? The 17th century?

In any case, historians and most philosophers have given up hope of finding one unique characteristic underlying all sciences as a hopeless task. If all attempts to find an essence of science to date have failed, then the argument of my book holds: that all attempts to make theology “scientific” to date have failed. I am open to changing my mind once you show me the real essence of science for all times and places! 


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