Ian G. Barbour 1923-2013 in memoriam


In Memory of Ian G. Barbour

On the 24th of December, at the age of 90, Ian Barbour passed away in Northfield, Minnesota. He was the first one to inspire a fruitful debate on science and religion, back in 1960s when the entire environment of the academia, both natural sciences and philosophy, were rather skeptical, if not hostile towards theology. In the citation nominating Barbour for the 1999 Templeton Prize, John B. Cobb rightly said that “No contemporary has made a more original, deep and lasting contribution toward the needed integration of scientific and religious knowledge and values than Ian Barbour. With respect to the breadth of topics and fields brought into this integration, Barbour has no equal.”

Education and Career

Barbour was born in Beijing, China. His mother was an American Episcopalian, and his father a Scottish Presbyterian. He grew up in China, the US, and England. After he received his PhD in physics from the University of Chicago in 1950, he studied theology. He got his B.Div. in 1956 from Yale University’s Divinity School, and taught at Carleton College beginning in 1955. He published his Issues in Science and Religion in 1966, Myths, Models and Paradigms in 1974. He became well known after his Gifford lectures from 1989 – 1991 at the University of Aberdeen. These lectures led to the book Religion in an Age of Science (reedited and republished in a more extended version as Religion and Science. Historical and Contemporary Issues in 1997), which is probably the best summary of his position. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1999 in recognition of his efforts to create a dialogue between the worlds of science and religion. Barbour was married to Deane Kern from 1947 until her death in 2011. They had four children.

Barbour’s Contribution to Science and Theology Dialogue

It is hard to overestimate the value of Barbour’s contribution to the science/theology debate. In fact, he may be regarded as its initiator. His project was extremely ambitious, difficult, and fragile – taking on account the fact that one of the partners of the debate was rather unconvinced that the whole conversation had any sense. Barbour begins with a preliminary attempt of specifying possible ways of relating science and religion (conflict, independence, dialogue, integration). He also tries to compare methodology of science and theology, and the role of scientific and theological models and paradigms. He shapes this conversation around the latest ideas developed in philosophy of science by Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos. He strives to name similarities and differences between science and theology in order to prove that a dialogue is possible and might be fruitful. Setting up the stage, Barbour develops a historical overview of the science/theology relationship in the Western tradition, which then helps him to offer an analysis of contemporary issues, including: quantum theory, relativity, order and complexity, cosmology, design, chance and necessity, evolutionary theory, and hierarchy of levels in biology. As a conclusion of his project Barbour proposes a philosophical and theological reflection that suggests a major revision of the theological understanding of the nature of God and divine action.

I may disagree with many of Barbour’s propositions – which will become clear in the second part of this entry – but this does not change the fact that I remain deeply indebted to Ian Barbour and to what he did to promote the dialogue between theology and natural science. His example inspired a variety of scholars such as Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Robert John Russell, Sallie McFague, Philip Clayton, and many other prominent representatives of the theology/science debate. Sitting in my room and writing this post, I am looking at my bookshelf knowing that the entire section on science and religion, including books published by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, John Hopkins University Press, University of California Press, and Continuum, would have probably never come into existence if not Ian Barbour and his work. May he rest in peace of God, of whom I believe he now knows more than any one of us.

Critical Evaluation of Barbour’s Project

In terms of philosophy, already in his first book Issues in Science and Religion Barbour argues in favor of ‘critical realism’ which, as he suggests, should be applied in both science and theology. He claims that scientific truth should be assessed in terms of its: 1) agreement with data, 2) internal coherence, 3) applicability in relevant variables, and 4) possible applicability in future research programs. He concludes that in accordance with these rules, we have to agree that scientific truth is a subject of continual revision, that is, that our access to reality (realism) is never ideal and needs to be corrected (critical realism). When saying this Barbour wants to distance himself from so-called naïve realism (a conviction that our access to reality is always and fully accurate), instrumentalism (scientific truths are only instruments to predict and control the reality with no aspiration of revealing the truth about the world), and idealism (which would dismiss empirical science claiming that the truth is discovered in a mental analysis and description). In his definition of ‘critical realism’ Barbour is of course influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He suggests that this methodological tool can be applied in theology as well, opening a dialogue between the two disciplines.

Although I agree with the main thesis of ‘critical realism’ I am rather “critical” with regard to some important nuances of Barbour’s position. What is at stake, or rather in danger in ‘critical realism’ is ‘realism.’ There is a very thin line between the claim that science constantly needs to revise its truths and statements about reality, and a claim that we actually do not have an access to the reality as it is in itself. I have an impression that Barbour sometimes crosses this line. In Religion and Science he says explicitly at one point that “reality is inaccessible to us” (p. 110). When debating over the nature of models in science he emphasizes that they are merely “abstract symbol systems, which inadequately and selectively represent particular aspects of the world for specific purposes” (ibid., 117) They are just “imaginative human constructs.” I am pretty sure that it was not his intention to go this way, but it sounds like a cognitive skepticism. Moreover, I assume that Barbour, when speaking about ‘classical realism,’ refers to Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which is usually associated with this term and is accused of naïve and uncritical realism. A famous French mediavist Étienne Gilson answers to those accusations saying that “[Classical] realism does not reject the idea of a critique of the different kinds of knowledge. It accepts it; it calls for it. But it does reject all a priori critique of knowledge as such. Instead of prescribing limits to reason a priori, which soon become limits to reality itself, realism accepts reality in toto and measures our knowledge by the rule of reality. Nothing that is validly known would be so if its object did not first exist – to which we can add that there is nothing to prevent us from seeking to define, within this real order, the relations between the thinker and the thing thought about.” That is why Gilson suggests to replace ‘critical realism’ with ‘methodical realism,’ and famous Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) with res sunt, ergo cogito (things are, therefore I think). (Gilson, Methodical Realism. A Handbook for Beginning Realists, 87)

Another issue at stake in Barbour’s project is his use of ‘critical realism’ in theology. Comparing theology to science he says that theological data consist of religious experience, stories, and rituals. As a Catholic I cannot agree with such a proposition. It sounds too much like the liberal Protestantism of Schleiermacher. We cannot forget that the primary source of theology and religion is Revelation. Although we know it through ‘experience’ and we have to ‘interpret’ it, we still assume that the truth consists not only in our experience/interpretation, but in God’s intentional revealing Himself. We believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit/faith we can know God’s truth, independent of our experience, even if we know it as a way of darkness. Thus, Revelation has a kind of objectivity that is not present in scientific truths (or is different from the objectivity of science). It has its source in God’s authority which in Catholic Tradition finds its special expression in the teaching of the Magisterium. Barbour seems to value more tradition transmitted through stories and rituals, which he opposes to “abstract concepts and doctrinal beliefs” (Religion and Science, 113-14).

That is why, although I am all in favor of Barbour’s approval of Kuhn’s emphasis on historical and sociological aspects of science and his suggestion that it develops through scientific revolutions, rather than through a linear accumulation of data, I remain skeptical about his application of these ideas in theology. Naturally faith has both sociological and historical aspects, but it differs significantly form scientific knowledge. In case of scientific models we are making references to truths about nature that we may hope to come to know entirely, whereas in theology we are dealing with God who will always remain unknown (transcendent). What would be the way of verification/falsification of theological models? From the Catholic point of view we cannot relay merely on ‘religious experience,’ treated as an equivalent of empirical testing in science. For what would be the criteria of such an analysis? Does an experience of God’s withdrawal and of spiritual desert mean that I should change my religious paradigm? It also seems that many theological paradigms which are based on the same data (e.g. Platonic Augustianism and Aristotelian Thomism) are able to coexist, which is rather unlike in the case of scientific paradigms, which – according to Kuhn – are radically different, if not totally exclusive, and remain incommensurable when it comes to languages they use. Although this position has been softened by Lakatos’ proposition of an unchangeable ‘hard core’ of a scientific paradigm and peripheral auxiliary hypotheses which are subject to change, the problem of verification of theological truths still remains.

There are many other philosophical issues in Barbour’s project that need to be addressed, but that would require a more serious form of publication. I am pretty sure that next months will bring many possibilities of a fruitful debate on his work. Turning to theology I would like to mention only one issue, that is Barbour’s acceptance and development of the process theism of Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb and Griffin. It is very significant for somebody coming from the Thomist tradition, for subscribing to process theism Barbour supports and develops a criticism of the classical theology. He thus follows the entire movement in contemporary theology, suggesting a need of a substantial revision of the understanding of the nature of God and his divine action. The whole issue opens another debate, which I hope to comment and develop on my blog in future entries.

I will stop here leaving the door open for further conversation…


Ian G. Barbour 1923-2013



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