I’m currently reading the Orthodox apologetics book The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason by Professor Aleksei Il’ich Osipov. Now, I’ve read a fair bit of apologetics literature—including most notably the English classics by GK Chesterton and CS Lewis—but, with the honourable exception of Saint John of Damascus’s Exact Exposition, it’s one of those genres that I’ve kind of been turned off of due to over-exposure. There’s something slightly unseemly about the debate-club tactics of too much of apologetics writing, attacking opposing views where they’re weakest and concealing one’s own flaws. However, I’m finding this book to be interesting in several ways.
I’ll give one modest example here. I will have more to say about the book later, I’m sure: Osipov is both profound and well-read, and he has a number of interesting things to say on a wide variety of topics in the history of philosophy and the history of religion. But I did want to touch on a couple of specific things he says about the relationship between Christianity and science.
Osipov seems to have a solid background in anthropology and the natural sciences—something that seems to have been held over from a Soviet education. (Many of the scientists and expert authorities he quotes were Soviet.) What’s more, he doesn’t take a straightforwardly-oppositional view to the sciences, even though the bent of his overall argument is strongly opposed to materialism and atheism.
Osipov accepts as given the timeline proposed by Soviet anthropologists regarding the emergence of the human species: dating it back 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. He is markedly more sceptical about the links directly relating human beings to the various pithecine species, but no more so than most evolutionary biologists. It’s still an open question in biology at what point the divergence into the genus Homo occurred, and what position the pithecines occupy in our extended family tree, so to speak.
Furthermore, Osipov sees no contradiction whatsoever between accepting the scientific evidence about the date and nature of human emergence on the one hand, and belief and trust in the God of the Scriptures on the other. Indeed, he sees the archaeological evidence of the presence of religious belief (such as ritual burial practices among the Neanderthals) to be confirmation that the presence of God has been felt and intuited even by our distant ancestors—and as an argument against the various atheistic naturalist and sociological theories of religion:
Religion is much more ancient than class societies, older than social oppression… [religion is] about 30 to 40 thousand years old. The general presence of religion throughout humanity is one of the most impressive facts of world history. Such a phenomenon could not be the result of chance, of someone’s fantasy or fears. It should have its own cause in something fundamental, or be rooted in man’s very nature, in the very essence of being.
This position is fully consistent with Osipov’s later-expressed view on the limits of science, which is essentially an endorsement of Stephen Jay Gould’s position of non-overlapping magisteria: ‘Natural knowledge, as a whole, studies the visible world. Therefore, the foundation of religious truth—the existence of God—cannot be subject to scientific refutation.’
Religion and science are two essentially different realms of human life activity. They have different points of reference, different goals, tasks and methods. These spheres can touch each other, intersect each other, but as we see, they cannot disprove one another. At the same time, Christianity preaches the two-hypostatic nature of man’s existence, the undivided unity in him of spiritual and physical natures. Both answer God’s plan for man; and only the harmonious integration of their activities gives man’s life a normal character. Such a life presupposes the need for the ‘bread’ of technological development for his body, and the spirit of religious life for the soul. Just the same, man’s guiding impulse should always be his moral-reasoning, spiritual impulse.
Christianity sees science as one means of obtaining the knowledge of God (see Romans 1:19-20). But first of all, Christianity sees science as a natural instrument of this life, which must nevertheless be used with caution. Christianity regards science negatively when this two-edged sword wielding such terrible power acts independently of the moral principles of the Gospels. Such ‘freedom’ corrupts the very purpose of science, which is supposed to serve for the good—and only the good—of man (as the famous Hippocratic Oath says, ‘Do no harm!’).
The overall aim of Osipov’s book, as is clear from the title, is to showcase the paucity of Western rationalism (the ‘path of reason’) for answering the deeply-held questions, and for satisfying the deeply-held wants of the soul, before showing how these needs and wants are met by Christianity in general and by Orthodox Christianity in particular. But he is not anti-West. Much like the Slavophils whom he admires and whose thought he seeks to build from (particularly Khomyakov and Kireevskii), he sees within the West a vast and brilliant exploration of the potentials of the human mind—but an exploration which has hard limits and an unfulfillable end. Likewise, even though he faults scientific advances for producing ‘acquisitions in the field of microphysics, microbiology, medicine and military-industrial technology’ which have potentially world-ending consequences, he does not fault the discipline itself and sees much good which can come from it.
The compatibilist position which Osipov takes, therefore, isn’t only—or even primarily!—about ‘following the science’ (a phrase which now fills me with utter annoyance at its insipidity). More to the point: it’s about doing religious investigation properly. Christianity is not, when correctly understood, at war with the knowledge of nature that the natural sciences provide. Christianity is, however, very much at odds with its misuse, and at odds with misguided attempts to turn the methodological naturalism of science into an ideological naturalism posited as a ‘comprehensive doctrine’.