Why Science and Religion Need Not Be At Odds: A Brief Look at How Creative Systems Theory Reconciles this Most Fundamental of Conflicts

[The following reflections are adapted from two of my most recent books: Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future and Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions.]

The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that the reason many ultimate questions have before left us baffled is not because they are inherently difficult, but because answering them requires that we think in ways that we are only now becoming capable of. When we bring the needed maturity of systemic perspective to bear, answers to such questions become newly available. Indeed they become straightforward—even common sense (see Common Sense 2.0).

The conflicting views of science and religion present a particularly intriguing and consequential such ultimate question. Most crudely the question asks, Which interpretation is right?  The better question might be, How do the material and spiritual relate to one another—if they do at all?

In modern times, starting with Descartes, we’ve tended to place the material and the spiritual in wholly separate worlds. This is not an entirely unhelpful solution. It has shielded us from perceived contradictions so basic that they have resulted historically in people being burned at the stake. But this is not a solution that can satisfy for long. Descriptions that depend on two mutually exclusive explanations can’t ultimately be sufficient.

Central to the concept of Cultural Maturity is the idea that modern age ideas and institutions are not the end points and ideals we tend to assume them to be. The concept argues that moving forward effectively as a species will require a new, more “grown up” stage in human understanding. Creative Systems Theory makes understandable how at least the potential for this more sophisticated kind of perspective is built into who we are. In my various writings I’ve described how we have seen the beginnings of Cultural Maturity’s changes throughout the last century.

A key way that culturally mature perspective alters understanding has immediate implications for the science/religion debate. Such perspective helps us “bridge”—get our minds around—all manner of polarities that in times past have set one kind of understanding against another—for example ally versus enemy, masculine versus feminine, or mind versus body. (My early book Necessary Wisdom was organized around this basic recognition.) If the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct, not only is polarized, separate-worlds thinking no longer necessary, increasingly it gets in the way of the sophistication of understanding our times require.

Creative Systems Theory describes how culturally mature understanding is a product of specific cognitive changes. The result—what the theory calls Integrative Meta-perspective—reveals polarized, separate worlds thinking to be historically important, but something that we can—and must—now get beyond (see Integrative Meta-perspective: Understanding the Cognitive Underpinnings of Cultural Maturity). At the end of this piece, I will touch briefly on how the way Integrative Meta-perspective alters our relationship to polarity represents only one way to think about how culturally mature thought takes us beyond traditional understanding in science and religion. But it offers an accessible place to start. Particularly when combined with Creative Systems Theory’s detailed formulations, it takes us a long ways toward the needed new understanding.

Creative Systems Theory describes how not only do the material and spiritual relate as aspects of something larger, the specific way they relate reflects dynamics at the heart of what makes us human. And it goes on to delineate how this way they relate manifests in predictable ways at different historical times. Creative Systems Theory makes clear that in spite of how often through history the relationship between science and religion has appeared adversarial, science and religion have all along been engaged in an essential kind of conspiracy.

A basic recognition about polarity’s role in how we think provides good introduction both to this conclusion and to Creative Systems Theory’s thinking more generally. Polarities are not just either/ors—with any polarity we find an underlying symmetry. In some way polarities contrast a “harder” quality with something “softer” and more permeable. In our personal experience, think objective versus subjective or thoughts versus feelings. More psychological language makes our understanding more precise and dynamic. We can think of polarities as juxtaposing more right-hand, archetypally masculine characteristics with qualities of a more left-hand, archetypally feminine sort.

Creative Systems Theory’s conclusion with regard to science and religion at its simplest can be described in terms of this basic symmetry. The theory proposes that our ideas about science and religion at any point in time are as much products of how we understand as what is “out there” to understand. Creative Systems Theory proposes that science and religion represent an ultimate expression of these complementary “harder” and “softer” polar proclivities as they manifest at the largest of systemic scales. Science is about collective right-hand, archetypally masculine experience in its purest expression. Religion is about collective left-hand, archetypally feminine sensibility, similarly cleansed of contamination by the right.

I introduce this approach to answering the science/religion question in my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, by drawing on Robert Pirsig’s widely enjoyed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Pirsig addresses the material/spiritual polarity using a simple image. He proposes that we can think of the world as a handful of sand arranged in separate piles. In Pirsig’s description, “classical (more right-hand) understanding is concerned with the piles and the basis for sorting and relating them,” while “romantic (more left-hand) understanding is directed toward the handful of sand before the sorting began.”

Put another way, science gives expression to the “difference” half of ultimate polarity at the most encompassing of systemic levels. And religion gives expression to ultimate polarity’s complementary “connectedness” dimension. (While we commonly think of polarity in terms of opposing differences, the most basic of polarities in fact juxtaposes difference with unity. Thus when we identify with unity we are in fact taking sides.)

Pirsig goes on to emphasize that, “what has become urgently necessary is a way of looking at the world that does violence to neither of these two kinds of understanding and unites them into one.” He is, of course, far from the first to pose this challenge—but the answer to how we might address it has always seemed just out of reach. The fact that it has eluded us is of no small consequence. Among other things, our past inability to address it effectively has left science and religion appearing to venture in wholly separate worlds.

Creative Systems Theory’s answer to the more basic question of why we think in polar terms in the first place provides important deeper insight into how polarity’s apparent opposites ultimately relate. The theory proposes that what makes us particular (if not unique) as creatures is the audacity of our tool-making, meaning-making—think “creative”—capacities. It goes on to describe how the generation of polarity is inherent to how formative processes work—newly created form buds off from original wholeness and evolves through a predictable sequence of creatively-related polar juxtapositions (see Patterning in Time). In this picture, the two sides of polarity are not just different, they work together to support and drive creative change. The gender-infused language I used earlier hints at this larger relationship. Polarity’s more archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine right and left hands, while they may sometimes appear at odds, juxtapose in ways that are, in the end, “procreative.”

Creative Systems Theory describe how human developmental processes of all sorts organize creatively—and not just personal change processes, but also cultural change. We can understand the evolution of societal beliefs and structures through the course of human history as a predictable expression of this specifically creative kind of organization. This applies to religion’s evolution from animism, to polytheism, to absolutist monotheism, to the more liberal monotheism of the Reformation. It applies similarly to science’s evolution from the nature-centered observations of tribal times, to the philosophically idealist beliefs of people like Aristotle, to the mystically-infused formulations of medieval times (as with alchemy), to the formalization of the scientific method with modern age understanding.

The language of narrative provides a simple way to bring this creatively-framed systemic picture as it relates to science and religion to life. Culturally mature perspective helps us step back from who we are as tellers of stories about how creation works. We can think of science and religion as history’s two great “creation story” storytelling traditions.

All cultures have their tales about how things originally came into being. And most include, too, ways of accounting for events that followed: the amazing and mysterious emergence of life, as well as the immense new creative capacities that arrived with conscious awareness. We can think of all of history’s great encompassing stories as versions of this story—told in ways appropriate to their time, place, and perspective.

Our past stories have taken the forms they have in part because of each time’s practical circumstances (for example, the invention of the telescope resulted in a dramatic challenge to past belief). But even more they have taken the forms that they have because of the developmentally specific sensibilities that at different times have ordered our worldviews. Our early animistic and much later Enlightenment interpretations were different not just because of what we knew, but because of how we knew. In present times, that translates into the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution on one hand, and on the other, into modern monotheistic religion’s various accounts of a spiritual genesis.

A creative interpretation of the science/religion polarity helps us appreciate how these two narrative traditions have also taken the forms they have because of the internal vantages from which they have been told. Religious/spiritual traditions have observed creation’s story from a more left-hand creative vantage, from the perspective of the more connectedness-loving aspects of understanding. Science has simultaneously observed creation’s story from a complementary more right-hand vantage, from the perspective of the more difference-loving aspects of understanding.

Creative Systems Theory’s overarching perspective highlights how, all along, science and religion have been observing a single story. The recognition that the beliefs of science and religion reflect creative polarity at its most basic makes clear that at any moment science and religion together reflect something larger. And the theory’s developmental formulations let us delineate how (and why) the realities of science and religion—and of particular significance here, how we conceive of their relationship—has evolved over time in the particular ways that they have.

A simple way to think about this evolution turns to which “creative hand” at a particular time has the most prominent influence. Creative Systems Theory describes how culture’s larger creative narrative has progressed from a time of archetypally feminine dominance in our tribal beginnings toward a Modern Age in which archetypally masculine proclivities hold the much larger sway. As we would predict from this description, we see a parallel progression over time from realities defined almost wholly in spiritual terms with our animistic beginnings, toward what we find today, a world in which many people hold strong religious beliefs, but in which more material values (scientific, but even more than this, economic) ultimately have greater influence.

We can also think of this evolution in terms of how archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine tendencies have related to one another. In early societies, material and spiritual sensibilities tended to be spoken of almost as one. Later, as in much of the European Middle Ages, material and spiritual inclinations more often took expression in ways that were explicitly at odds. Later still, as with Cartesian dualism, science and religion more comfortably coexisted, but accomplished the feat by, in effect, ignoring each other’s presense. This sequence of juxtapositions is just what we would expect to find if the relationship between science and religion is ultimately creative.

The concept of Cultural Maturity, by bringing attention to our specific time in this evolutionary picture, alerts us to how today’s changes are making separate-worlds views unnecessary. Integrative Meta-perspective makes it newly possible to step back and grasp this kind of more dynamic and integrative view. When we add Creative Systems Theory’s creative-framing of history, we are able to see how science and religion, however irreconcilable their conclusions have often seemed, have all along been working together to support and drive the creative evolution of human values and human understanding.

What does all this tell us about how science and religion might become different in the future? In Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future I take a shot at predicting how beliefs might evolve in the decades—and centuries—ahead (see The Future of Science and The Future of Religion). But thinking very far beyond our present view is difficult, no matter how culturally mature our vantage.

That said, I can comfortably assert some basic results that follow from the concept of Cultural Maturity. Certainly, Cultural Maturity’s changes don’t let either science or religion off easily. Culturally mature perspective challenges the mechanistic and objectivist underpinnings of classical science (see “‘Come On” Stephen Hawking: The Quandary of Free Will In an Apparently Deterministic Universe”). It also challenges the parental assumptions of traditional faith (see Beyond Culture as Parent). And if the observations here are correct, we can add that we should expect increasing fascination with more encompassing ways of thinking.

There is a further piece implied in what I have described that relates to how thinking in each of these spheres should become different from what we have known. New formulations in science and religion should themselves each be increasingly systemic, this in the sense of at least acknowledging the validity of both more left-hand and more right-hand aspects of understanding. For each, this will require a stretch. But it will be necessary if science and religion in times ahead are to reflect human understanding at its most complete. It will also be necessary if science and religion are to effectively contribute to the maturity of perspective that will be essential if, as a species, we are to make wise decisions going forward.

(Other explanations are put forward today that similarly claim to end the science/religion debate. But rarely do they in fact provide a larger picture. New Age ideas that claim to embrace cutting edge science in the end collapse science into spiritual oneness (see What Cultural Maturity is Not #3: Confusing Spiritual Ideology With the Future’s Needed “Growing Up”). And those that conform to a narrow scientism or reflect related techno-utopian beliefs commonly do the reverse, reduce spiritual experience to, in effect, hallucination, a trivial byproduct of a mechanical world (see What Cultural Maturity is Not #1: Techno-Utopian Delusions). In Creative Systems Theory’s formulation, sensibilities of a material and a spiritual sort come together in an appreciation of human understanding’s larger creative workings.)

[I observed earlier that the “bridging” of polarities provides but one of several useful ways to think about how culturally mature perspective alters understanding. A couple further ways of addressing where Integrative Meta-perspective takes us—the role of multiple intelligences and what Creative Systems calls “parts work”—each in a different way helps fill out this more encompassing picture for science and religion. I describe each of them in detail in the post Integrative Meta-perspective: Understanding the Cognitive Underpinnings of Cultural Maturity. For here, some brief reflections suffice:

Multiple Intelligences: Key to culturally mature perspective’s more dynamic and encompassing vantage is the recognition that intelligence is multiple. We are not just rational beings. More emotional, imaginal, and body-derived aspects of intelligence play key roles in making us who we are. Creative Systems Theory makes this fact explicit. It delineates how each aspect of intelligence is key to our toolmaking, meaning-making natures. Each manifests in predictable ways over the course of any formative process. The concept of Cultural Maturity emphasizes that if, in times ahead, we are to be not just intelligent, but also wise, we need to draw consciously, and in an integrated fashion, on the whole of this cognitive complexity (see Multiple Intelligences).

Descartes’ modern age picture not only placed polarities in separate worlds, it also placed intelligences in separate categories. Rationality came to stand distinct, idealized as the basis of final, “objective” understanding. The remaining aspects of intelligence were then lumped together in a second, secondary world of “subjective” experience. While this act cleaved us from ourselves, in its time it served an essential purpose. It took us beyond the strangling constraints of medieval mysticism. But like with what I observed earlier for polarity, such separate-worlds thinking can’t work as an ultimate solution.

Historically, the most creatively germinal aspects of intelligence—in particular, animistic sensibilities and the more magical/intuitive sensitivities of the imaginal—have given rise to spiritual/religious beliefs. The most creatively manifest aspect of intelligence—the rational—has given us the more material and mechanistic sensibilities that inform the worlds of science, engineering, and economics. Integrative Meta-perspective’s ability to hold the whole of intelligence opens the door to thinking about both science and religion in more dynamic, complete, and creative ways.

Parts Work: What I call “parts work” is the most effective and direct approach I know for engendering culturally mature understanding. With regard to science and religion, it provides a concrete way to engage more encompassing perspective.

“Parts work” is a hands-on method that engages the various aspects of our psyches like characters in a play or crayons in a box. A person (in their “whole-person” chair) is guided in placing their various parts around them in the room. Each part is given its own chair. The person is then facilitated in learning to consciously hold this larger creative complexity. “Parts work” challenges a person to deeply engage and draw on all of his or her parts. And, at once it challenges us to recognize that in each case the viewpoints that parts represent are partial. “Parts work” is about learning to embody the whole-person/whole-system chair and to live from the new, more culturally mature identity it reflects.

A simple recognition provides the starting point if a person wishes to engage science and religion in more culturally mature ways: Neither the truths of science nor those of religion appropriately occupy the whole-person chair. Within our systemic complexity, scientific and religious belief each represent parts. The chairs that advocate for more material and spiritual sensibilities each have much to contribute to the whole-person/whole-system chair’s reflections. But they are at best consultants. A person doing “parts work” quickly appreciates that when they miss this essential fact, ultimately unhelpful—indeed dangerous—conclusions result.

In addition to learning that neither the science chair nor the religion chair gets to sit at the center of things, the person also learns to recognize how “cross talk” between the science and religion chairs similarly gets one in trouble. This kind of internal debate had a function in times past. Indeed we can understand each of history’s previous views of how the material and the spiritual relate in terms of it. But it has no value going forward.

“Parts work,” by directly supporting Integrative Meta-perspective, produces a fundamental kind of “re-wiring.” With regard to science and religion, the chairs that advocate for more material and spiritual sensibilities no longer get to be in charge or to talk to the world. Similarly, they no longer get to talk to each other (as with the cross-talk of Cartesian dualism). The result is a more encompassing picture in which science and religion each become newly filled out and able to contribute in more complete and dynamic ways.]