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2005 - 2007: Vanderbilt University

Scales and Hierarchies: Implications for Science and Religion


Upcoming Lectures and Activities
    • Year 1 Theme
    • Year 2 Theme
    • Year 3 Theme
Project Leaders
Organizing Committee/Working Group
Additional Information



We propose a Templeton Research Lectures project to bring to Vanderbilt outstanding thinkers to engage scientists, social scientists, humanists, and theologians committed to the dialogue between science and religion. To traverse disciplinary boundaries and to examine scientific and religious discourses we use the model of the hierarchy of nature. This heuristic device lets us examine the problem of scale, extending from the very smallest to the very largest. Our intuition is that intellectual inquiry and the examined life, including its spiritual dimensions, are not subject to a single set of propositions, no matter what their source. We view the dialogue between science and religion as continuous and ongoing. And we believe a focus on the hierarchy of nature is both large enough to attract key intellectual partners and focused enough to permit genuine advance.

We seek Templeton Research Fellows whose research fits our three broad annual themes: (1) “Scales, Hierarchies, Emergence,” (2) “Causality in the Disciplines,” and (3) “Meso-level Analyses: Toward Progress in Religion.” We will select a Templeton Research Fellow for each year and ask him or her to engage some aspect of these themes. We also expect Templeton Research Fellows to interact with the sixteen members of the TRL oversight committee. This will provide each Fellow a thoughtful audience and provide us a wonderful opportunity to develop Science and Religion at Vanderbilt University. Proposed Research Fellows include:

  • Year One: John Haught, Stuart Kaufman, Nancey Murphy, Ronald Numbers
  • Year Two: Merlin Donald, Gordon Kaufman, Kenneth Miller
  • Year Three: Patrick Brennan, Francis Collins, Sallie McFague, Mikael Stenmark

Vanderbilt University , a Research I institution with a strong reputation in the study of theology and religion, is ideally prepared to host and to publicize a Metanexus Templeton Research Lectures project. “Scales and Hierarchies” will be a university-wide undertaking, led by distinguished faculty members, administered by the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, and promoted aggressively to the general public. The initial impact within the University has already begun with the establishment of an intellectually diverse sixteen-member faculty oversight committee dedicated to exploring science and religion. In conjunction with the presence of the invited Templeton Research Fellows, these teachers and scholars will foster new discussions, new courses, and new interdisciplinary projects that will merit publication and wide-spread response. Lectures by the Templeton Research Fellows, faculty presentations, and all other invited religion and science talks, will be advertised widely and disseminated via webcast and regional educational access television. We estimate 375,000 individuals will be directly exposed to project lectures and events over the three-year period.



Upcoming Lectures and Activities

Year 1 Theme: Locating Religion and Science: Scales, Hierarchies, Emergence
Research Topics: Year one of the project will be a form of fieldwork research. We will review relevant publications, including The CTNS/Vatican Observatory’s project,Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, and engage in mutual education. We will learn about each other’s discipline and about its specific objects, tasks, and implications for our mutual inquiry. We intend to not merely survey our colleagues’ research, but to understand that research in the context of how each deals with scale, with special concern for the issues associated with reductionism and emergence.

In year one, we will ask faculty committee members to consider and respond to the following questions:

(1) How do you and your discipline initially conceive the terms “science” and “religion”?

(2) Where do you locate your research, what are its objects, what objects lie “below” and “above” this level of research?

(3) What specific problems do you find when you address the issues of below and above? To what degree can you link propositions within your discipline to propositions made above and below yours?

(4) Do issues of reductionism and emergence appear in these attempts?

(5) To what degree does literature about Science and Religion, especially papers from the relevant volumes in Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, pertain to your work?

(6) Having isolated these specific problems, can you compare them to similar problems that emerge in other disciplines?

(7) Can you generalize any part of these insights to revise your initial conception of religion and science?

These five volumes of research papers on science and religion provide an ideal starting point for Year One. They set the stage for general issues in quantum physics, chaos theory, evolutionary and molecular biology, the neurosciences, and physics, showing how each pertains to classical issues such as explanation and reductionism. For example, in an important paper, “Quantum Theory and the Macroscopic World,” George F. R. Ellis discusses “Micro-to-Macro Relations: Bottom-Up Causality.” See: Volume 5, Quantum Mechanics (2001), eds. R. J. Russell, P. Clayton, K. Wegter-McNelly, J. Polkinghorne. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, pp. 259-292.


Year 2 Theme: Commensurability and Incommensurability: Causality in the Disciplines
Research Topics: Year two of the project will build on the shared learning of the first year and move toward more constructive engagement across fields of study. Year one of the project is about levels of being; year two is about interactions across levels.  In some cases the higher level phenomena can be explained in terms of lower level constituents.  Thermodynamics of gases may be the best example.  In these cases static structure at the higher level may be dynamic function at the lower level.  The apparent success of this reductionistic approach may be deceptive. Important intellectual problems remain. We suggest that there are many examples of explanatory gaps between scientific discourses that pertain to discrete, and apparently impenetrability, levels of being.  Examples of this incommensurability and irreducibility include:

  • The mass properties of matter that are not explained by subatomic properties.
  • The role of reasons in explaining intentional action.  The properties of neurons per se cannot distinguish an intentional wink from an unintended blink.
  • The role of culture in explaining tools, artifacts, and religion.
  • The role of grammar and semantics in explaining language.

In year two we sort out where explanatory gaps are and whether bridging concepts exist or can be formulated. We will ask and explore these kinds of questions:

(1) Given the objects that you study and the scale at which they are located, is morphology of prime importance?

(2) How do you isolate and identify causal forces that impinge upon these objects?

(3) Can you isolate causes “from above” as well as “from below”?

(4) Do problems associated with emergence and reduction in your discipline parallel or diverge from those that we’ve seen in other fields?

(5) What parallels and dissonances do you observe between your field of study and that of other disciplines, including the study of religion and religious forms (such as myth and rituals)?

(6) What consequences might these findings have for the task of theology?

Using our heuristic of scale, we can ask if developmental models pertain to all the sciences and disciplines. The concept of morphology (or form) fits well meso-level disciplines, such as botany, clinical psychology, comparative religion and theology, and, by extension, formalist studies in the humanities. Does it also fit nano sciences, on the one hand, and astrophysics, on the other? If the notion of morphology is restricted to only a few of the disciplines, such as comparative botany, what does this imply for theological reasoning? If there are limits to the utility of the concept of morphology, do these predict limits to the utility of related Darwinian concepts, such as adaptation and ecological fit? Even stricter questions arise when we seek to apply mechanical or electrical models of cause to neuroanatomical events.

For example, Jeff Schall, whom we cite below, concludes his review of efforts to map saccadic eye movements in a monkey to specific regions of the monkey’s brain by noting how difficult it has proven to understand this seemingly simple event. In a strict model of neural cause and behavioral effect (or event), each neural event produces one, predictable action and each action is produced by that one neural event. Alas, this is not true of the monkey brain: “Several lines of evidence demonstrate that the same saccade can originate from markedly different brain states” (02.20). This is a crucial fact. First, it means that somewhere between the neural origins and the ultimate receptors in the monkey’s eye muscles distinctive information was lost. Schall suggests that somewhere in the brain stem differences are resolved into a unified signal that elicits the saccadic movement. Second, it means that the dream of mapping one-to-one cause and effect cannot be realized. Since we cannot reduce each saccade to a single, predictable neural cause, we must talk about “intentionality.” This is a complex concept that entails equally dense concepts like “reason” and “belief.” As Schall notes, this latter concept brings us close to conundrums of psychology and profound questions of what constitutes choice.

Once we have expanded the discussion to talk about intentionality, choice, and reason we are moving even closer to the realm of ethics, law, and, we suggest, theology. Confronting E. O. Wilson’s dream of a complete reductionistic triumph, Stephen Jay Gould notes that even if we can map completely an idea onto a fixed neural substrate, we cannot then claim that we can answer all our questions. Knowing that a particular organization of neurons produced a certain question, such as “What is the nature and destiny of human being?” does not let us answer that question. For this is a religious question; it asks us to locate the future of human being. It talks about the All, and the All has not yet yielded to a fixed attack by any consortium of sciences.

Religion too is both a general phenomenon, typical of most cultures, and a personal, seemingly ineffable (and therefore incommunicable) experience. Using the model of biological adaptation, we can see each religious variation as a response to specific challenges and ecological opportunities. In the study of religion, we confront two tasks: to understand how such adaptations occur and to see how each addresses universal questions about justice and injustice, good and evil, purpose and destiny that emerge in religious traditions. A third task is to relate religious language and experience to the many levels of reality itself—including its moral dimensions.

Scale and hierarchy are themes; they represent “abstract entities that bring meaning and identity to an experience and its variant manifestations.  As such, a theme captures and unifies the nature or basis of the experience into a meaningful whole” (p. 362). DeSantis, L., & Ugarizza, D.N.  (2000). The concept of theme as used in qualitative nursing research.  Western Journal of Nursing Research, 22, 351-372. 

(2003). The Hedgehog, The Fox, and The Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities. New York: Harmony, pp.234-235.


Year 3 Theme: Meso-level Analyses: Toward Progress in Religion
Research Topics:
Year three of the project will begin with a series of papers, findings, workshops, and public events to bring our discussions to much wider audiences. Given the presence of major research centers newly funded at Vanderbilt from which we can draw expertise, and the group of scholars we name below, we believe that these questions can best be addressed here.

Year Three will be centered on the tasks of revising the work of Year Two, preparing publications, and presenting a major conference on Science and Religion. It will be devoted to outcomes from years one and two. The conference theme will emerge from the work of the project and it will feature summary papers by project participants, reports on project findings, and invited presentations by outside experts.



Project Leaders

Volney P. Gay, Professor & Chair of Religious Studies; Director, Center for the Study of Religion and Culture; Professor of Psychiatry; and Professor of Anthropology (B.A., Reed College, 1970; M.A., Ph.D., University of Chicago 1973, 1976). He is a faculty member of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, from which he graduated in 1990. Among his six published books are Freud on Sublimation: Reconsiderations (1992), which won the Heinz Hartmann Award from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Joy and the Objects of Psychoanalysis (2001). His recent grant support includes a Templeton Foundation Fellowship, “Science and Religion” for $70,000 in 2001-02. He is also Co-Principal Investigator at Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, with Douglas A. Knight. They were awarded a five-year grant of $3.5 million from Vanderbilt University to sponsor research on religion and culture. Among Professor Gay’s 30 articles and book chapters are studies on philosophy of science, psychology and anthropology of religion, hermeneutics, and social sciences and religion. In collaboration with Prof. Tom Gregor, Chair, Department of Anthropology, he led a seminar from 1997-1998 on intellectual problems at the intersection of psychological and cultural studies.

Richard Haglund, Professor of Physics. He was educated at Wesleyan University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he completed a Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics. Following postdoctoral training at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, he joined the permanent laboratory staff to pursue research in laser fusion. Since joining the Physics faculty at Vanderbilt University, he has developed a major research program in laser interactions with materials; the projects range from laser-assisted mass spectrometry of biological molecules to the use of lasers both for fabricating and for characterizing the ultrafast optical response of nanocrystalline materials. At Vanderbilt, he has actively pursued an interest in cultural aspects of science, founding an undergraduate program in “Science, Technology and Humanities,” organizing a faculty seminar on “Chaos, Causality and the Humanities,” participating in a year-long faculty seminar on “Science and Society,” and most recently team-teaching a course on “Science and Literature” with a colleague from German Studies, centered on the scientific and literary work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Haglund’s interests in science and religion are primarily historical and sociological, and he has published several scholarly articles, a monograph and book reviews in this area.



Organizing Committee/Research Team

Click on the name of a committee member for biographical information.



Additional Information


Mark Justad, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Center for the Study of Religion and Culture Divinity School
310 Alumni Hall
Nashville, TN 37235
Tel. 615.322.0882


1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA
Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313