What it's like in the real
Can an active, theistic view of God be reconciled with science?
Two professors give their thoughts...
| Linda Schwab, Prof. of Chemistry | Margaret Flowers, Prof. of Biology |
INTEGRATING FAITH AND SCIENCE
Linda S. Schwab,
Professor of Chemistry,
Wells College, Aurora, NY
Introductory Remarks as Panelists for the Campus Ministry Luncheon Series.
Topic: "Faith and Science"
Cayuga Community College, Auburn, NY, 19 April 2000
A title like "Integrating Faith and Science", these days, is bound to puzzle a lot of people. Oddly enough, some are no less surprised even if they happen to know a person with a strong and obvious faith who is a
scientist. Blending the two sounds like a trick on a par with a dog walking on its hind legs - "the wonder is not that it is done so well, but that it is done at all". Still others will regard such a title as proposing a dangerous mixture. Perhaps I'm the sort of person who is intrigued by bringing incompatible elements together just to see what happens; isn't that what chemists usually do? The "safe" course these days
is to keep science and faith strictly separate; in fact, to call all "good people" to agreement on that score. The statement often goes: science and faith don't have to fight; they occupy separate realms. Now that - which just sounded so sane, so reasonable, and so tolerant - is actually, I think, a crashing non sequitur. I do think that the former is true: science and faith aren't necessarily enemies. But the latter doesn't follow.
You can test that for yourself. If they do, in fact, operate as independent areas, it should be possible to determine which has command over a specific case. Here, I'm following what is probably the best recent statement of the separate-realms point of view. It was formulated by Stephen Jay Gould in an essay which appeared in Natural History in 1997 and recently in a book. The essay, and the solution it proposes to conflicts involving science and religion, was widely quoted last year during the controversy surrounding the revision in Kansas state education standards. The title of Gould's essay was "Nonoverlapping Magisteria", and here is his description of the two magisteria, defined as "teaching authorities": "the net of science covers the empirical universe: what it is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory).
The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value." Now to the test; pick a thorny issue in ethics: say, cloning, the use of fetal tissue in research, or "selectivereduction" in multiple births. Do scientists fail to weigh in on these, as scientists? By no means! Or another example: every research center has a committee to oversee the use of live animals in research; every medical center has a committee which oversees the participation of human subjects in studies. Are these committees staffed by theologians? No, by scientists; although some medical centers these days do include an ethicist.
Of course, these issues relate to specific scientific questions. Since we live in a world of matter, almost everything we can think of as an ethical problem is going to have a material, and potentially scientific, dimension. How about the reverse? Does faith impinge on science: does everything material have a moral dimension? That's an extremely interesting question. However, an absolute moral scale - a moral dimension of the universe, you might say - is not scientifically testable. Also, faith covers other beliefs which are not scientifically testable either, and science, by chosen self-definition, throws out of bounds whatever cannot be evaluated by experiment.
Although Gould certainly talks about the way in which scientific and religious issues touch each other, he does not apply so hard a test as this, but rather remarks "the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult". He describes the successful division of authority as follows, "if religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions [which are] properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution." As even these examples show, scientists are used to claiming at least equal insight, which, alone, leaves us back in the "complex and difficult" sorting of domains.
If it is not possible to make the distinction, then, perhaps we should look at the terms being used. You might have already noticed that I've been talking about "science and faith" and Gould refers to "science and religion". Religion and faith are, in practice, not always the same. One can "belong" to a religion by ties as tenuous as culture, family heritage or childhood experiences. Faith, however, requires active, personal choice and involvement. The monotheistic religions, for example, are notable for describing a faith stance which is particular, exclusive and demanding and involves whole-hearted commitment. Many of the details of a particular religion without any concept of the faith which animates it. This may be what leads Gould, and many others, to make a critically wrong assumption about religion and extend it to faith: it provides "the comfort still sought by
many folks from theology...a sop to our fears." It's not theology - the formal study of God, knowing about God - that provides comfort; comfort is a pleasing side effect of knowing God. Or again, knowing that the Ruler of the Universe says "fear not" is something quite a bit more significant than a "sop". Statements like these exemplify the essential faith quality of trust, and the personal and particular nature of that trust.
And since we're on the subject of terms, let's consider "magisterium", which means "teaching authority". It may have a specific association and history with respect to religion, but it strikes me as all wrong for science. Or to put it bluntly and personally, it cracks me up to think I belong to a magisterium. You know the saying about being President which surfaces every four years - anyone who would want to be probably shouldn't - and I'd say anyone who goes into science because it represents a realm of teaching authority or, worse yet, authoritative teaching, probably shouldn't. I went into chemistry because it's interesting to me in both its logical and practical aspects, and into teaching and research because they provide the satisfactions of useful work and are often fun. One of the interesting features of this science comes precisely in the limitations of the empirical method. I enjoy being able to say, "this is the best guess at the moment" because it carries the corollary, "now you try". Most scientists have a strong individualistic streak, and find such a challenge irresistible. Investing the responsibility for authoritative teaching in rampant individualists is going to be about as successful as herding cats.
But looked at another way, this claiming of a "magisterium" is a little sad. Science seems to have gotten awfully serious about itself in the last thirty years (or more; I'm just thinking about the part of its history I have seen) - some fields more so than others. No doubt scientists have long thought "mine is the only area really worth working in"; now you'll hear it said out loud, perhaps with a distant, brazen echo of Shelley's King Ozymandias: "look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."
And I think that's where the integration of faith and science comes in. It's neither an elaborate and pointless trick nor the mixing of an explosive combination. It's just a call - maybe a rare and individual one - to humility in stating the claims and limits of science. Doing science gives you the opportunity to contribute to the world's stock of truth - truth with a little, and very ephemeral, "t". It's no less interesting, satisfying and potentially beneficial to humanity if qualified by a clear recognition of its self-chosen, as well as naturally-imposed, limits. And these limits become fully visible only by comparison to an absolute, eternal Truth - with a capital T - to which faith is the only willing witness in today's world: a small, tattered flag planted in strange country.
Remarks given April 19, 2000 for the Campus Ministry Luncheon Series at
Cayuga Community College. The topic for that discussion was "Faith and Science".
THE INTEGRATION OF FAITH AND SCIENCE
Margaret G. Flowers
Professor of Biology
Chair, Division of Natural and Mathematical Sciences
Wells College, Aurora, NY
First, I should tell you that the perspective from which I am coming is two-fold. In the realm of science, I am rather broadly trained: primarily in biology with an emphasis in botany, but also in areas of geology and chemistry. In the realm of faith, I would be considered an evangelicalChristian; I take very seriously what has been passed down as Biblical canon, including the claims of Jesus and those of the Apostolic church. It is from these two points of view that I will be speaking.
There is what might be called a truism in the scientific community that the life of science and the life of faith are not at all incompatible - as long as they don't intersect. In this scenario, often referred to as Deism, God would wind up the clock at the beginning of time, set up a few of what we call" natural laws", set out some "moral principles", and then kick back for a long coffee break. I would submit that this is a view inconsistent with the Christian faith. The Christian claim is that God in the form of man, entered into world in
historically-documented events, and in fact, that God had been an active presence in the thousands of years of Jewish history preceding the time of Jesus. Can this active, theistic view of God be reconciled with science?
As I reflected on the scope of the scientific disciplines, the history of science, and the history of the "conflict" between faith and science, I could think of no more divisive topic than the overarching issue of
origins. This includes questions such as: How did the world come into being, and when? What happened to produce the amazing array of biological and chemical diversity that we can easily observe on a daily basis? What reliable pieces of evidence do we have to act as a window into times gone
I would submit that the root of the conflict is a philosophical one. Scientists and theologians were at one time able to keep off each other's turf with the attitude that the questions that each area addressed were different, but complementary: science was able to answer questions such as "how", "what" and "when"; theology could answer the ultimate question of "why". But as evolutionary theory developed in the decades following the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species", evolutionists began to strongly verbalize a theology connected to their theory other that of deism or theism: that of atheism. George Gaylord Simpson, one of the fathers of the modern evolutionary synthesis unashamedly claimed that, "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind." This message was indelibly written in the minds of the thousands of those TV viewers who heard from Carl Sagan, " The Cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be."
In response to this, some "creation scientists" proposed not only that God had uniquely created individual species, but also that the biological, geological and chemical methods used to trace the earth's history were flawed and that the earth itself is very young. So the battle lines were drawn. At the extreme of one side are the young-earth creationists who take a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible; the extreme of the other side is represented by scientists who do not believe in the existence of God, let alone a God that had any part in bringing about the world as we know it. This polarization is exceedingly unfortunate, for it caused both sides to dismiss (for opposite reasons) some very thoughtful work of believing members of the scientific community, notably biochemist Michael Behe, Physicist and Hebrew scholar Gerald Schroeder, and Astronomer Hugh Ross. And thus the myth that science and faith are two separate realms and, therefore, cannot be informed by each other is promulgated. Adherents of all the monotheistic faiths are caught in the middle.
What does this have to do with life in the world outside academia? In some ways, not much; in some ways everything. Let's look broadly at faith and at science. If we seek to define these words, we find, according to Webster, multiple ways to understand each. And so, among other things, faith is "firm belief in something for which there is no proof", - or - "belief and trust in and loyalty to God". Conversely, science is defined as "a state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance and misunderstanding"; and as "a knowledge covering general truths as obtained and tested through the scientific method". By definition, faith is portrayed as credence in shadows and the illogical, while science is equated with enlightenment. And unfortunately, this is the message often presented to schoolchildren.
But what does faith do, but to inform the individual's worldview. We all have a worldview, whether we recognize it or not. Faith in a God who interacts with the created world (or theism) removes the individual from an egocentric position; the lack of faith (atheism) or the belief in the coffee-break God (deism) puts the prime focus on the thoughts and actions of the human species. What does this have to do with life? A great deal.
Here's one instance: Western civilization is based on Biblical principles; our laws, for example, are based on the Ten Commandments. According to the Hebrew Bible, these laws were given to Moses directly by God - an example of the theistic intervention of God into human affairs; into life. The rejection of the existence of such a God removes the moral authority behind such laws, and they become the "Ten Suggestions" or the "Ten Good Ideas to Consider." And so our societal derivations of these laws also, then lack moral authority. If we accept the moral authority of our laws, then we must necessarily accept a theistic view of God.
African Mud Turtle
So to return to the question that I posed earlier: Can an active, theistic view of God be reconciled with science? Absolutely! But what it requires is two-fold. First, it requires absolute honesty in the scientific method - in the methods used (including acknowledging known strengths and weaknesses), in recording the observations made of the natural world, and in the interpretation of those observations. Second, and just as important, is the willingness to be surprised, to confront the unknown with a totally open mind.
In my view as a person of faith and as a scientist, if these two conditions were acknowledged by all parties, there would be no basis for a conflict between faith and science, and there would be no question but that faith and science both could and should be integrated in life.