Towards an Integration of the Sciences and Humanities

Four models about the relation between science and religion have been proposed (Barbour, 1997): Conflict; Independence; Dialogue; and Integration (Fig. 1).

The conflict model arises if one misunderstands the nature of science or religion, by adopting an extreme fundamentalist view of either. The independent model (Gould, 1999) does not do justice to the rich interplay between the two felt by many of us who practice science.  The dialogue model (Fig. 1) has an intersection along a fuzzy boundary, where different questions are asked about the same reality. An integrated model, however, is now my preference (Fig. 1).

As a student I was thrilled to join a University community from which I could learn a huge range of subjects. Today, as a senior academic, I still share that thrill. Indeed, one of the joys of St Andrews is the ease of attending inaugural lectures on a wide range of sciences and humanities.

However, a distressing aspect of modern University life is overspecialisation, with no time or inclination to look outside the narrow confines of our expertise. Why is there such a chasm between the sciences and the humanities?  Why do many theologians know little of science and vice versa?

I have enjoyed helping organise since 2007 a series of public lectures on Science and Religion (see They led me to edit a book (Priest, 2016) (Fig. 2), where twelve scholars from a range of fields proposed an integrated model, which this article briefly summarises, starting with science and religion, but extending briefly to the humanities

Historical aspects are discussed in Sec. 2, the nature of the sciences in Sec. 3, and the new model in Sec. 4. Several authors have similar approaches, including: McLeish (2014), who proposes a ‘science of theology’; Trigg (2015), who argues that science needs metaphysics; and Bancewicz (2015), who shows how science enhances faith.

Historical Considerations:

Early Meanings of ‘Science’ and ‘Religion’

Harrison (2015) demonstrates the falsity of the idea of a long-term conflict between science and religion, since the modern notions of ‘religion’ and ‘science’ emerged only in the 17th and 19th centuries as accidents of history and political power.  ‘Scientia’ and ‘Religio’ began as virtues, inner qualities of an individual, intellectual and moral, respectively.

For Aristotle (384-322 BC), people become better by acquiring intellectual virtues.  For Augustine (354-430), religio is rightly directed worship. He said that, since the books of nature and scripture are modes of divine communication, ‘You should not interpret scripture in a way that conflicts with reason and experience’.

For Aquinas (1225-1274), religio refers to inner piety, acts of devotion and prayer, whereas scientia is a personal habit of mind, which include the seven gifts and nine fruits of the spirit, as well as grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry, coupled with Aristotle’s natural philosophy, mathematics and theology. Early scientia bears only a remote resemblance to modern ‘science’ and does not share its goals or methods.

The Scientific Revolution

From the 16th and 17th centuries, the Reformation and the rise of experimental natural philosophy led to a new conception of religio as a set of beliefs and practices.   Science began to refer to methods and laws of nature.

Francis Bacon proposed a non-allegorical way of reading the book of nature. Kepler and Galileo said it is written in the language of mathematics, while Descartes and Newton talked about natural laws. Boyle focussed on experiment and observation.

In this new unity between theology and science, discourse about God was part of natural philosophy.  Christianity motivated science by regarding nature as orderly, good and worthy of study.

Professionalization of Science (Late 19th Century)

The transformation towards modern science was completed in the late 19th century due to: professionalization and redefinition of science; invention of the terms ‘Scientist’ and ‘Scientific Method’; and the myth of ‘a perennial conflict between science and religion’.

‘Science’ was now defined to be natural philosophy plus natural history, but excluding theology, metaphysics and the humanities. This severing of ties with the humanities split intellectual life unhealthily into ‘two cultures’.

The word ‘Scientist’ was coined in 1847 to mark them as distinctive.   The invention of the ‘Scientific Method’ gave coherence and unity.  The humble accumulation of data for Bacon’s induction was replaced by the scientific method, in which experiments adjudicated between different hypotheses.

The Conflict Myth between science and religion was invented by Draper (1875) and White (1897) but is sheer fabrication.

While it is true that Galileo was tried and forced to recant the heliocentric hypothesis, this was not a conflict between science and religion. The Church was the strongest supporter of astronomy and was simply accepting the current scientific consensus. It was happy to accept heliocentrism as a hypothesis, but Galileo arrogantly insisted it as fact, even though he couldn’t prove it and the evidence was flimsy. Indeed, good support only appeared 50 years later (Newton’s Principia, 1687), and two evidences were demonstrated much later (parallax in 1838 and the Earth’s rotation in 1851).

The Nature of the Sciences:

Being a Scientist

Is being a scientist cold, rational, logical, mechanical, undertaken by computers and emotionless people in white coats, and having nothing to do with the arts? Is the world reductionistic, with the weather determined by individual clouds, life by individual molecules in cells, and our thoughts by individual electrical signals in neurons?

Modern science is far from being clockwork and deterministic. It has a combination of regularity and chance, of law-like and random behaviour. Statistical fluctuations are common, and so laws can only predict general trends, but not the formation of, say, individual cyclones.

Being a scientist in my experience involves:

  • creativity, leaps of faith, intuition and imagination, in which inspiration is followed by perspiration as technical skills help work out an idea;
  • it often fills me with a sense of beauty and wonder and therefore humility;
  • openness and questioning, which lead to a voyage of discovery;
  • and trust and integrity, which are crucial for the scientific community.

The close parallel between the nature of a scientist and a person of faith suggests to me an underlying unity. Thus, a scientist can indeed be a Christian, provided he or she is open to the insights of science and is responsive to the hand of the maker in the Universe.

The word scientist (a person who ‘knows’) is less appealing than the earlier natural philosopher (a ‘lover of wisdom’). Science involves ‘searching for the wisdom of natural things’ (McLeish, 2014) and is more about imagination and creative questioning than method or logic, since wisdom and understanding speak of deeper significance than simply knowing.

Levels of Understanding

The many different sciences form a rainbow (Fig. 2) representing different levels of understanding, with interactions both ways, so that one cannot predict higher level behaviour from the lower level alone (Fig. 3).  They are not always reductionistic, since emergent properties at higher levels can interact back down and affect lower levels.

At the lowest level one finds quantum physics, and above that in turn: fluids, atoms (chemistry); complex molecules, individual cells and primitive life (biology), humans behaviour (philosophy, psychology and theology) and so on.

Each level is described by its own approach, terminology and techniques. The complexity is quite staggering: one cubic centimetre of air contains ten billion trillion (1022) particles; a human brain has ten billion nerve cells (1010), each with 5000 connections; and the human body has 37 trillion cells.

The Scientific Method

The ‘scientific method’ proposed in 1878 possesses five steps shown in Fig. 5.  However, the sciences are nowhere near as simple as this method would imply.  It is sometimes followed by scientists, but usually not.

Thus, the first step is not necessary, since a scientist may stumble on a discovery by accident. Also, the second is irrelevant when one starts not with an experiment but by gathering data and seeking a pattern in them. Again, experiments are not always involved, since they may be impossible or unethical or inappropriate.

There are diverse ways of doing science, with more aspects than the above six steps. There is a range of methods, some empirical and some not, some deductive and some inductive, just as in many of the humanities.

Aspects of an Integrated Model:

What is it that Unites Sciences and Humanities?

The integrated model that we have in mind is sketched in Fig. 2. The core idea is that Science is not monolithic with a single approach, but consists instead of a range of different sciences that continuously and seamlessly merge into one another and into the humanities. Both are immersed in an underlying unity sharing creativity, community, beauty and wonder, and which provides meaning, where different questions are asked about the same reality.

In this more holistic approach, what united sciences and humanities in classical times was Aristotle’s idea of scientia and religio as virtues. So, what is it that unites them today? In my view, it is

  • a common search for understanding, which involves both reason and imagination

 It is not the case that the sciences are purely rational whereas the humanities give free unconstrained reign to the imagination. Rather, both reason and imagination are central to the sciences and humanities, to both types of endeavour, and they often lead to a sense of wonder and beauty. Creativity is crucial to the sciences, but equally logic and patterns of understanding are important for the humanities.

Reason and Imagination

If sciences and humanities are part of an integrated family, it is important to recognise the range of complementary gifts and insights they offer and to improve communication.

In general, reason and imagination need each other. Without rationality and experience, one loses touch with reality and is unconstrained, wandering around aimlessly, dreaming up explanations bearing little relation to reality.

Theorists such as myself need be grounded in observations or experiment. The constraints of a rational framework can drive creativity.

Without creativity in the sciences, the path of reason soon stops. Indeed, uncertainty and doubt are essential for creativity and can lead one to discover new and unexpected results. Imagination has always been recognised as being central to the arts, as the source of creative acts of painting or music, but it is the constrained working out of a creative idea that leads to a final work of genius.

Sciences and Faith

Our hearts and minds are not opposites in conflict with one another, but are complementary parts of what it is to be human. God gave us both and we need to value both and to hold them together in a healthy balance. Thus, the sciences, the humanities and faith are part of an underlying unity, which we glimpse when we open our eyes in humility to the wonder and beauty of humanity and the Universe.

For me, science affects faith. Studying the Sun often gives a sense of wonder and beauty because of the amazing structures we observe in the Sun’s atmosphere; and the underlying elegant mathematics for the behaviour of the Sun – it is there waiting to be discovered. The fact that mathematics underpins the Universe is consistent with there being a divine creator. The symmetry and elegance in the mathematics is uncanny and points for me to a deeply rational heart to the Universe that is reflecting an aspect of the divine mind. Indeed, the sciences are based on faith that the Universe can be understood by rational inquiry.

Jonathan Sacks (2011) has given a persuasive argument for a partnership between sciences and faith in a search for meaning. The sciences speak with expertise about the future with reason, whereas religion speaks with authority about the past through revelation. A creative tension between the two keeps us sane, such that the sciences ground us in physical reality, while religion preserves our spiritual sensibility, keeping us human.

To the question ‘Why are we here?’ the answer from the sciences is silence. The idea of sheer happenstance and of the purpose of humans being to blindly replicate themselves is a barren and bleak one. Rather, the discovery of God is the discovery of meaning, a God who creates us out of a selfless desire to make space for otherness – in a word, a God who loves. We exist because we are not alone – we are part of a cosmic drama of relationship.



Bancewicz, R., God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith, Monarch Books, Oxford, 2015.
Barbour, I. G., Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, HarperOne, New York, 1997.
Draper, J. W., History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, D Appleton and Co., New York, 1874.
Gould, S. J., Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Ballantine Books, New York, 1999.
Harrison, P., The Territories of Science and Religion, University of Chicago Press, London, 2015.
Hedley Brooke, J., Science and Religion: Some Historical   Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991.
McGrath, A. E., The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, Rider, London, 2004.
McLeish, T., Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.
Priest, E. R., Reason and Wonder: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, SPCK, London, 2016.
Sacks J., The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2011.
Trigg, R., Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, Templeton Press, Conshohoken, 2015.
White, A. D., History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, D Appleton and Co., New York, 1896.

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