I recently read a post at Nan’s Notebook titled, “Science…Faith—What’s The Answer?” The intent was to elicit open discussion on the merits of faith and science as related to human existence. I found the comments quite interesting. Nan is a deconvert from Christianity, but not a combative antitheist like some, so I don’t mind commenting on her blog when I can.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see the post in time to offer my views, so I thought I would do so here. First, my short answer to the question…I believe both are needed for a fully-orbed worldview. Science asks “how” questions, where (religious or philosophical) faith asks “why” questions.
Alister McGrath, a former atheist who is now both a scientist and Christian theologian, says this:
“Science seeks to clarify mechanisms; religions offer meaning. These approaches do not need to be seen as being in competition, or as being mutually incompatible. They operate at different levels.”
Here are ten top scientists who weigh in on the question of science and faith.
Even Charles Darwin didn’t see a conflict between science and faith. In a letter to John Fordyce in 1879 he said, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.” (“The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin“, p.304)
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould repeatedly pointed out that science is neither atheist nor theist. It is just science. If it limits itself to the legitimate application of the scientific method—which it should—it is simply unable to comment on the God-question.
Nobel Prize winning biologist Sir Peter Medawar said we must acknowledge that there are “questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer.” (“The Limits of Science,” p.66)
What’s the problem then?
As “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley succinctly put it, “Science…commits suicide when it adopts a creed.” (“Darwiniana,” 1893, p.252). In other words, when it becomes an ideology rather than a method of discovery (referred to as “scientism.”) We theists do the same thing when we try to make our faith a scientific method.
Alister McGrath wrote a well-documented book on this subject, “The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God.” Here are a few quotes on this question (emphasis added):
Eugenie Scott, then director of the National Center for Science Education, made this point neatly back in 1993: “Science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores the supernatural for methodological reasons.” Science is a non-theistic, not an anti-theistic, way of engaging reality. As the philosopher Alvin Plantinga so rightly observes, if there is any conflict between “science” and “faith,” it is really between a dogmatic metaphysical naturalism and belief in God.” (p. 19)
The problem is not between science and faith but with ideological dogmatism. This certainly includes extreme religious fundamentalism, but also radical antitheism, as McGrath continues:
“British philosopher Mary Midgley is particularly critical of Richard Dawkins, whom she regards as the prime example of a scientist with pretentious and inflated views of the scientific enterprise in general and of his own prowess as a public intellectual in particular. How, Midgley asked, could anyone know the universe is meaningless? How could they show that it has no purpose? These must surely remain open questions. ( p. 28)
“As the sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund recently argued, on the basis of detailed conversations with leading scientists, the notion of an “insurmountable hostility” between science and religion is “a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality.” (p.38)
I personally believe science and faith actually need each other. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said, if we, as human beings, are to lead fulfilled lives, we need more than a partial account of reality that science offers. We need a big picture, or integral idea of the universe. And here’s what he said about the limits of science:
“Any philosophy of life, any way of thinking about the questions that really matter will thus end up going beyond science—not because there is anything wrong with science, but precisely because its intellectual virtues are won at a price: science works so well because it is so focused and specific in its methods. Scientific truth is characterized by its precision and the certainty of its predictions. But science achieves these admirable qualities at the cost of remaining secondary concerns, leaving ultimate and decisive questions untouched.” (Ortega, “El origen deportivo del estado,” quoted from McGrath, “The Big Question…”, p.4)
For instance, while we may be able to have a precise view of evolutionary history, we still don’t touch why we’re here in the first place. Science cannot answer these existential questions and they won’t go away by dismissing them.
I can have “faith” (confidence, trust) in the methods of science while having faith in finding meaning in something that goes beyond science. In my opinion, to make science or religion answer something they’re not meant to answer is where we go wrong.
I personally believe theists and atheists can have meaningful dialogue about faith and science as long as we understand these things and the conversation is respectful and open. But when we just dismiss and ridicule the other, we become the problem.
And atheists need to know that most Christians are not anti-science. According to a UROP study done by Max Tegmark (who is not a theist) in 2013, only about 11% of [American] religious people belong to a faith that could be considered anti-science (you can watch the video where he discusses this here).
So, in my view, it’s really extreme religious fundamentalism and radical antitheism that’s the problem, not some inherent incompatibility between science and faith.