The Idea of Critical Realism: a Bridge Science and Religion


Science vs Religion is a century-old debate. Many argue today that there is an existence of irreconcilable difference with science and religion. But we have scientists from religious backgrounds and non-religious backgrounds. Therefore, we can’t say that they live in conflict with their religion or that they avoided religion because it conflicts with their science. Perhaps, we need to move beyond our binary thinking and look for more compatible options that complement both science and religion and serve as a bridge. The concept of critical realism seems to be the better concept which brings religion and science together. Critical realism as the only plausible way to assess and compare the value of religion and science. Science is objective knowledge, produced by an objective methodology while religion is essentially subjective and a matter of personal belief. On the other hand, critical realism acknowledges both the creativity of man’s mind and the existence of patterns in events that are not created by man’s mind. As we explore, we can know more about how the concept of critical realism brings peace and harmony between science and religion by serving as a bridge.


Does God exist? More specifically does God exist as a reality independent of our human belief in God? Certainly, we cannot answer this question on the same kinds of grounds as we can answer questions about the existence of, say, magnetism, electricity or radiation. Actually, in this study, our aim is not even to answer this question definitively. our aim is more moderate. We wish merely to establish a bridge between science and religion.

What is Critical Realism?

The term derives its origin from Roy Bhaskar’s a realist’s theory of science in 1975. Since then, critical realism has emerged as one of the most powerful new directions in the philosophy of science and social sciences, offering a real alternative to both positivism and post-modernism. Bhaskar’s critical realism emerged from the vision of realizing an adequate realist philosophy of sciences and of explanatory critique. As this unfolds in critical realism, it proceeds according to a twofold critique against established positions. “Firstly, against empirical realism and transcendental idealism, critical realism argues for the necessity of ontology. Being realist about ontology means being able to speak and understand being apart from human thought and language.” It establishes that things exist apart from our experience and knowledge of those things. Secondly, against the implicit ontology of the empiricists and idealists, it argues for a structured and different account of reality in which different stratification and change in central. Critical realism thus attempts to steer between the reality that exists independent of our mind and dependent on our mind. Given the dynamism of critical realism I believe would serve as a bridge between science and religion. In the dialogue between theologians and scientists, a good deal of common ground has emerged not least has been the realization that many scientists and theologians share a critical realist outlook towards the subject of their investigations, that is to say, they believe that the subject matter of their investigation is real, rather than a human construction but that our knowledge of it can only ever be incomplete.

Science and Religion-Critical Realism

Since the emergence of the new science in the seventeenth century, there have been consistent attempts to demarcate science from other forms of human cognition, particularly religion. Different philosophical traditions have produced varying accounts of how the demarcation is to be made, but a common feature which may share is the assertion that science is objective knowledge produced by objective methodology while religion is essentially subjective and a matter of personal belief. “Dr. Peacock, in his paper Creation, Humanity and God,” and his many other writings on science and religion has consistently put his finger on these deeper, epistemological, root causes for the perceived rift between science and religion. In advocating a critical realist view of both science and religion, he has argued that, while there are obvious differences, there is much which as intellectual enterprises, they share in common.

Dr. peacock, of course, is not alone in this, in fact, there are other philosophers, scientists, and theologians in the discussion. In the past two decades or so, similar kinds of insights have come from philosophers’ theologians, and scientists. Like Peacocke we have many scholars who contributed to the use of critical realism as a methodological bridge between science and religion, some of the remarkable names are Barbour, Polkinghorne Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas Torrance, Sallie McFague, Philip Clayton, Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alister McGrath, Ernaum McMullin, Robert John Russel, Ted Peters, and Nancey Murphy are the prominent figures. In recent attempts, they all tried to carry these ideas in the philosophy of science and religion. When we analyze these disciplines deeper in the philosophical tradition which accepts that science and religion are enterprises that both provide some foothold on the nature of reality. It is opposed to both spirit and intention to the kinds of philosophical limitations imposed by logical positivism. Today, more than that it seeks to reopen for consideration questions which positivism declared meaningless. It is to this end that we would both endorse some form of critical realism. Which we take to assert that, while no ultimate conception of the nature of reality is possible. There is nevertheless a reality which we can discern however dimly and that certain insights may therefore be more profound and some are likely to be hearer to the truth than others.

If critical realism is to be consistent it has to be reflexive, in other words, it has to accept the same limitations on its own position, as a theory of knowledge, as it wishes to impose on theories in science. Just as there is no ultimate conception of knowledge. In suggests that it is the working of philosophy of practicing scientists and theologians to find the nature of human knowledge is closer to the truth. The point is this, that critical realism, as we understand it, is a radical position which fully acknowledges that scientific knowledge is not certain or probable and for the very good reason that science is a human endeavor with all the limitations implies. 

Science without religion is lame, Religion without Science is Blind

Is science without Religion lame, and Religion without science is Blind? Einstein’s famous statement finds many supporters; here, at last, the conflict between science and religion is laid to rest and both are upheld for their differences yet complementary roles. Others, however, may be less enthusiastic with Einstein’s proposition that religion is necessary to give legs to science or science to give eyes to religion. For them the issue is indeed one of science versus religion, reason versus faith, realism versus idealism matter versus spirit, still others may wish Einstein had made the stronger statement that science and religion are parallel quests revealing similar truths. To this group of people, declaring science and religion to be separate but equal is to miss their metaphysical common ground. Today for some Einstein’s position to be just right, while others may find it to be too hot or too cold. As one would imagine, there are lumpers and splitters. Those who discover a unity to science or to religion and those who stridently dispute such a unity. What is important here is to note that Einstein’s argument is utterly dependent on these definitions. If, indeed, science and religion are defined as unitary and complementary in this case science is about facts, religion is about values and two need each other than there is no other possible way to imagine their relationship. 

Barbour and Critical Realism

Barbour viewed critical realism as an alternative to three competing interpretations of scientific theories; critical realism, instrumentalism, and idealism. Speaking of science that scientific theories depict reality and they yield partial, revisable, abstract but referential knowledge of the world. Scientific theories are expressed linguistically through metaphors and models. Scientific theories and models selectively represent particular aspects of the world for a specific purpose, they are to be taken seriously but not literally. Turning to the philosophy of religion, Barbour constructed a similar defense of critical realism. Here his sources in religious epistemology, methodology, and language include the writings of John Wisdom, John Hick, Ian Ramsey, and Frederick Frere. With this argument in place, Barbour was prepared to make his crucial bridging methodological claim. The basic structure of religion is similar to that of science in some respects, though it differs at several crucial points. There are some similarities as well as differences in science and religion. Similarities; both science and religion make cognitive claims about the world using models seen as analogical, extensible, coherent, and symbolic and these models are expressed through metaphors. Differences; but there are important data of religion compared to that of science. Religious models serve non-cognitive functions which are missing in science, such as eliciting attitudes, personal involvement, and transformation. Moreover, compared to science, where theories tend to dominate models, in religious models are more influential than theories. Religion lacks lower-level laws such as those found in science, and the emergence of consensus seems an unrealizable goal. Religion also includes elements not found in science such as stories, rituals, and revelation through historical events. 

The idea of Critical Realism

Highly influential for this discourse was a statement from Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote in Religion in the making. The dogmas of religion are the attempts to formulate in precise terms the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. In exactly the way, the dogmas of physical science are the attempts to formulate in precise terms the truths disclosed in the sense -perception of mankind. With his surprising parallelism, he inspired not only Polkinghorne but also the pioneer of the modern science and religion discourse, Ian G. Barbour to advocate the same epistemology in both subject and object in knowledge. Barbour assumes that science to be the objective end of the spectrum of knowledge, while religion is imagined to be more at its objective component involved. Both religious and scientific language are realistic and referential in intent.

Barbour and Polkinghorne make use of a chemist-turned philosopher of science named Michael Polanyi to explain the of critical realism in science and religion. He was convinced that personal knowledge is involved in the scientific process, even that faith played a key role; not so much the faith of the church, but the fiduciary capacity of researchers to follow their visions. Nevertheless, he went to so far to describe this capacity with the church father’s motto faith seeking understanding. The claim for comparability or for a parallel process of knowing in science and religion is better understood with such a conviction in mind. This idea of critical realism in both science and religion relies much on one’s critical consideration. 

The involvement of science with theology

I believe, it is very much necessary that two cultures come together to make each other stronger, it fosters each other’s culture as well as improves the quality of two cultures' heritage. It is the same with the case of religion when they interact and come together, they foster the quality of their approach to reality. If we believe this one world, we live in has been created by one God. Faithful believers and informed philosophers alike are aware that the separation to some degree is something artificial, a human construction imposed on one world, which may on the one hand serve the purpose of furthering departmental in-depth research, with the cost, on the other hand, of losing the greater picture of our reality out of sight. Thomas Torrance a renowned theologian edited the English translation of Karl Barth’s quote, one important difference; science only informs us what light is thrown upon reality by the empirical observation of the facts of external nature. Science only informs us what light is thrown upon reality by the empirical observation of the facts of external nature. The idea behind this argument is that just as science theology has its own logic, reflecting on the rationality of its particular.

07 July 2022
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