The Perceived Problem of Science and Faith | Part 1: Putting Faith in its Place
Corey Miller, Ratio Christi CEO and President
Science and faith are hot topics. There are scores of books, articles, and videos covering how they relate to each other. Perhaps your interest is in learning more for yourself. Or perhaps you would like to be better prepared to weigh in while talking with friends or colleagues. This is a three part series that will help you understand the relationship between faith and science. This first article addresses the very nature of faith, a necessary first step in light of some modern misunderstandings. The second article will shift the focus from faith to science. Is science the measure of all things, or can we identify some inherent limitations? We can take it a step further. Might it be the case that science relies on a bit of faith in order to arrive at its conclusions? The final article will position us to consider a plausible model of the philosophical relationship between religion and science and how to work through some of the apparent tensions.
Click here to view Corey being interviewed on this topic.
The Nature of Faith
Currently speaking, our culture underestimates the role of faith and overestimates the role of science. Contemporary culture often treats “faith” in a pejorative sense in contrast to reason. The faithful are often depicted as brainless slaves, ignoring reason, leaping into the dark, and succumbing instead to wish fulfilment. They are accused of consuming the drug of religion to make it through a harsh world. Mark Twain famously defined faith as “believing what you know ain’t true.” In a book I edited with atheist and Christian authors, one author titled his chapter, “Faith in anything is unreasonable.” He contended that “faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence.”1 Today, you do not have to look far for negative perceptions on the meaning of faith. Some believers even communicate that faith is blind. This poor understanding of the notion of faith was not always so and ought not be so.
Historically speaking, Christianity’s self-understanding has been such that it is part of a knowledge tradition. According to Jesus in John 17, the goal of life—the good life—is the “knowledge of God.” The major concern by philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages was largely a project expressed in Latin. Fides quarens intellectum means “faith seeking understanding.” Indeed, living at that time was the greatest philosopher and legal scholar of the Jewish tradition, Moses Maimonides. He considered faith to be a moral virtue. Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary and one of the most prolific writers in the Christian tradition, likewise considered faith to be a virtue. For him, it was the preeminent intellectual virtue such that in its absence, none of the other virtues can be fully expressed. He wrote approximately 100 volumes before he died at age 49. And this was without the benefit of the printing press. He certainly didn’t think that faith was in any sense blind. In the Middle Ages, it meant "faithfulness to a trust or promise; loyalty to a person; truthfulness.”2 From the Latin, fides conveys "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, belief.” Thus, faith was a sort of trust or confidence in a trustworthy object or person.
As a matter of historical fact, the great halls of reason today, the modern universities, were for centuries largely established in the context of, and motivated by, the Christian faith. Universities such as Bolonga, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia were Christian in origin. The same goes for the earliest universities in South Korea and India.3 Most of the founders of the subdisciplines of science were Christians. Faith informed and inspired their scientific efforts and reflections. Consider Mendel in genetics, Pasteur in bacteriology, Kepler in astronomy, Linnaeus in taxonomy, Newton in physics, Boyle in chemistry, and Maxwell in electrodynamics. The list goes on and on of founders of subdisciplines of science who saw themselves as reading the two books of God, God’s world and God’s word. Clearly, faith was not only compatible with reason, the collaboration brought about many of the pillars of modern civilization.
Biblically speaking, while there is more than mere intellectual assent, it is certainly no less than intellectual assent. Faith ought never to be construed in opposition to reason. The Latin is derived from the Greek used in the New Testament as pistis, meaning belief or trust. The Hebrew Old Testament equivalent is emunah, meaning faithfulness or trustworthiness. Faith, according to the New Testament, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Now, faith in God becomes controversial because it is often confused with mere “belief.” Yet belief requires no evidence or action, and so the two notions are non-identical. For instance, something like “2+2=4” can be believed exclusively in terms of intellectual assent. This differs from the Judeo-Christian notion of faith, which also involves volitional consent. Thus, while faith is also translated as “belief,” it is more than mere belief.
Philosophically speaking, it is for this reason that philosophers distinguish between belief in and belief that.4 Someone can state “I believe that Hitler existed,” and “I believe that banana shakes taste great.” The first is an objective truth claim, while the second is a subjective truth claim. Yet both are truth claims. By contrast, “I believe in marriage” means that I view it as an important part of human relationships and culture. And “I believe in the US Constitution” denotes a sort of confidence or trust.
“I believe in God” implies that God exists, but it means something more. It adds some sort of pro-attitude reflected in my willingness to act upon it. Religious believers go much further than mere reason allows -- or so it seems, and this is objectionable to some. It is uncomfortably true that there is a disproportion between the evidence for God and the level of commitment required by believers in God. But this is not unique to religious beliefs. Suppose I’m planning to drive my car across the state next month. I have only probabilistic knowledge that the car will reach its destination. Let’s assign it a 90 percent probability. Yet, I cannot get into the car only 90 percent. I must commit 100 percent to act on that belief. My confidence level requires that there be a disproportion between my intellect and my action.
How Certain is Certainty?
It can be said categorically that most of the beliefs we hold about anything lack 100 percent certainty. The exception lies in the fields of math, logic, and introspective philosophy. That is, most of your beliefs are a composite of faith + reason or belief + evidence. The question is always whether it is a reasonable belief. While trust is something earned, it is also something given. Trust is something we all must give with respect to most of our beliefs since we lack certainty in our knowledge. Thus, even in the good domain of science where we lack certainty, faith plays an important role. We explore this in Part 2.
1 | Victor Stenger, “Faith in Anything is Unreasonable,” in Is Faith in God Reasonable? Debates in Philosophy, Science, and Rhetoric, edited by Corey Miller and Paul Gould (NY: Routledge, 2014), 55.
2 | Corey Miller, Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas on the Good Life: From the Fall to Human Perfectibility (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, forthcoming 2018).
3 | Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)
4 | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTPHXNMi9tA
Corey Miller is the President and CEO of Ratio Christi. Corey is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Religions at Indiana University-Kokomo. His educational background includes Masters degrees in philosophy, biblical studies, and in philosophy of religion and ethics. His PhD is in philosophical theology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Corey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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