The World as History

By Miller, James B. | The World and I, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The World as History


Miller, James B., The World and I


The postmodern relations between science and religion hinge on such notions as the historical development of life, the cosmos, and even scientific models themselves; the loss of certainty about the "real" quantum world; and the recognition of contingency in language.

The present cultural moment is a very rich one, with the refined learning of the past three millennia in Western culture providing profound new insights into the nature of the universe and extraordinary new human powers for exercise in the world. Further, the increasing interaction of cultures around the world is making the expression human community more than a euphemism. In 1925 Alfred North Whitehead (1861-- 1947) wrote, "When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them." With science today as a global intercultural human enterprise and with new interactions between the three Western monotheistic traditions and the venerable traditions of the Eastern religions, world-level cultural trends attest to the prescience of Whitehead's words. To put them in perspective, we examine first the scientific dimensions of the postmodern thread of culture and then weave in the Western religious dimensions.

Scientifically, the emergence of postmodern culture has occurred along two lines: one focused on the history of life and the other focused on the history of the cosmos and the most basic physical structure of the universe. Just as the character of the modern and critical period was closely tied to the cosmological revolution that led to Newton's classical mechanics, so the character of the postmodern and postcritical period is closely tied to the conceptual revolutions of evolutionary biology, relativity, and quantum physics.

Life gains a biography

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Three conceptually significant points should be noted about his contribution. First, the vision of a progressive history of life on earth did not originate with Darwin. Prior to his work, however, historical theories of life lacked a credible model describing the mechanism of biological transformation. Second, the development of evolutionary theory in biology rested squarely on the development of a historical geology, which held that the current form of the earth was due to ordinary natural forces operating over very long periods. Third, the theological controversy that emerged over Darwin's theory had been foreshadowed in the conflict among geologists over the age of the earth and the processes that formed it.

A primary impact of Darwin's theory was that it undercut the traditional concept of design in nature. In Natural Theology (1802), William Paley (1743--1805) had argued that the functional unity of the organs of a single creature or, more broadly, the fitness of organisms to their environments stood as testimony to God as the designer of nature. But Darwin's model accounted for fitness either of organs in an organism or organisms in the environment as a consequence of ordinary processes in nature, without the necessity of referring to any guiding providence.

The world as relative and indeterminate

Physics has made significant contributions in shaping the contemporary vision of the cosmos. Three scientists of particular prominence stand out at the outset of these developments: Albert Einstein (1879--1955), Niels Bohr (1885--1962), and Werner Heisenberg (1901--1976). From their imaginations came the special and general theories of relativity, the foundations of quantum theory, and the principle of uncertainty.

For Newton there was an absolute frame of reference within which determinations of distance and time could be made absolutely. In his special theory of relativity, Einstein showed, on the contrary, that every observation, whether of distance or time, is affected by the relative motion of the frames of reference of the observer and the observed. …

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