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F. Metaphysical System vs. Specific Philosophical Issues

Finally, then, philosophy can be seen as functioning in at least two distinct ways in the theology and science conversations. It can provide an overarching synthesis, a complete metaphysical framework that is ‘consistent and coherent, adequate and applicable’Whitehead, Process and Reality, Ch. 1, esp. p. 3. For Whitehead, the rational side of speculative philosophy should be ‘coherent’ and ‘logical’, while its empirical side should be ‘applicable’ all fields of knowledge. Examples include William Stoeger’s use of neo-Thomism or Barbour’s use of process philosophy as providing a broad arena for relating a series of theological issues and a diversity of scientific fields. Such systems allow one to ask very general questions about nature and draw on, and smoothly integrate, a variety of sciences for distinctive answers. The difficulty comes when the system no longer suits changes in scientific theories, for a metaphysical system is usually not open to a ‘quick fix,’ or when the metaphysics limits rather than facilitates the theological agenda and its engagement with science.

On the other hand, philosophy can serve a more limited goal: it can provide specific terms and concepts, such as space, time, matter and causality, that are shared by differing disciplines and carry similar meanings without embedding them in an overarching metaphysical framework. Examples include Peacocke’s use of ‘law and chance’ in both scientific areas such as biological evolution and in the doctrine of creation, and Polkinghorne’s use of openness in relating chaos and complexity in nature to the possibility of divine action in the world. On the one hand, a philosophical analysis of scientific cosmology can point to the contingency and rational intelligibility of the universe. These presuppositions may be imported into theology where they the become relevant to the doctrine of creation. It can also mediate a concept of nature from theology to one underlying the natural sciences. The difficulty with this approach, on the other hand, is that, without a single overall and unifying system, there may be pervasive questions underlying the entire relationship between theology and science which cannot be addressed by the fragmentary connections offered by individual terms and concepts, and the theological reconstructions in light of science may be more piecemeal than broadly coherent.

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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