The Perceived Problem of Faith and Science | Part 3: Bringing Faith and Science Together

Corey Miller, Ratio Christi CEO and President

This is the third and final article in a series looking at the relationship between faith and science. The first article examined faith from contemporary, historical, biblical, and philosophical frameworks. The second article honed in on science. We add its strengths and limitations. We addressed why it is such a useful tool for producing knowledge, and we denoted its inherent limitations. We’re now in a good position to bring faith and science together and work through some of the apparent tensions.

Click here to view Corey being interviewed on this topic.

The Nature of Science and the Relationship between Religion and Science
Some of what counts as science today is not really science, but philosophy hidden in scientific clothing. This goes unnoticed by most people. Our culture has largely confused science with “scientism.”1  Scientism is roughly the view that the only things that can be known to be true or rational are those which can be drawn through scientific methodology. Herein lies the problem. Scientism is taken to be true, but it cannot be verified as true by science. What scientific test could be used to test if scientism is true?

To bring clarity, the statement about scientism is a philosophical statement, not scientific. Scientism in its strongest sense is self-defeating because it cannot satisfy its own criteria. Anything that is self-defeating is not only false, but necessarily false. No amount of discovery will ever make it true. Even in its weaker form as the premier way of knowing by which all other disciplines should be judged, scientism is problematic. Consider the previous article concerning the limitations and presuppositions of science. In addition, even weak scientism marginalizes faith discussions and questions about Intelligent Design (ID). Many Christians embrace weak scientism and practice methodological naturalism, the view that doing science requires invoking all and only natural explanations. This rules out ID conversations altogether even though they’re fine with research programs in fields like SETI (search for extraterrestrial life), archaeology, cryptology, and forensic science. Far from being the disciplinary authority it is often claimed to be, it is in fact dependent on other disciplines. Science needs philosophy as its foundation.

An important word about philosophy. Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom. It has its own subject matter like reality, knowledge, and ethics. But it also functions as the second order discipline that studies the assumptions, concepts, and argument forms of other disciplines. This includes science. Defining science, its nature and limitations, isn’t the job of the scientist, but of the philosopher. For many, this comes as quite the surprise. In the field of philosophy of science we investigate the deepest questions about science, such as its form, strengths, and limitations. The philosopher is the authority in these matters.  Such questions might include

“What is science?”
“Should we expect a particular intellectual activity to have both necessary and sufficient conditions for it to count as science?”
“Is there one universal Scientific Method?”
“What are the roles of scientific laws and scientific theories?”

In science, by contrast, questions are raised and investigate within various domains of the natural world. Examples include biology, astronomy, and physics. Each domain has specially trained scientists (e.g., biologists, astronomers, and physicists), and they are typically considered the final authority within their domain. Questions asked by such scientists might include: “What bonding forces hold various atoms together?”  Or, “How can we best explain the life cycles of different stars?”

It is in this spirit that Templeton prize winner, Ian Barbour, a physicist and philosopher of science, makes this shocking statement: “At the outset it should be stated that there is no ‘scientific method,’ no formula with five easy steps guaranteed to lead to discoveries.  There are many methods, used at different stages of inquiry, in widely varying circumstances.”2  After 150 years, philosophers of science have not arrived at a consensus on what precisely defines science, what activities demarcate science from non-science. This is known as the “demarcation problem,” and it is significant.3  It seems that while there is a recognizable cluster of methodologies characteristic of science, there is no airtight definition for science.

Having disabused ourselves of any confusion between the good that is science and the false philosophy that is scientism, we can now consider a plausible way to relate religion and science. One of the greatest misunderstandings in pop culture and among academics is the proper relationship between science and religion/theology.

Theology and science are examples of the human mind thinking theoretically as it was designed to do. It is legitimate to differentiate these fields based on the types of questions asked, the conclusions sought, and the types of data they are willing to accept. But differentiating them doesn’t entail isolating them. The Christian theologian has faith in Scripture and the scientist has faith in numerous philosophical assumptions. Let’s be clear on this point. These philosophical assumptions are necessary for science to operate. However, these assumptions are untestable, and even unprovable. Therefore, to accept them requires a confident belief. This is what we call faith. What are examples of such philosophical assumptions? The scientist must assume the reality of an external world. The scientist assumes that our senses can and do convey perceptions that are reliable. The scientist assumes that the laws of nature apply consistently across space and time. This list could easily be continued.

Certain things count as “data” for scientific input in terms of formulating scientific theories.  These are what we think of when we think about science. These are such things as experimental lab results, observations, measurements, and background theories. Likewise, certain things count as data for theological doctrinal formulation. These include personal experience (individually and communally), Scripture, church councils and creeds, and general revelation which includes what we experience in the natural world.

Within both science and theology, we need to recognize that there are certain beliefs that we can have more confidence in than others. Beliefs comes in degrees of certitude. In Christian theology, given the data of Scripture the deity of Christ is a high mark of relative certainty. Similarly, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a high mark we can be relatively certain of in science. Both fields have mystery on even fundamental tenets in the field: the Trinity in theology and the nature of light for the physicist. Both scientists and theologians need to recognize that theories and doctrines are interpretive abstractions, models, which cannot be confused with the data itself in nature and Scripture. Perhaps our interpretation of the data does express the truth, perhaps only partly, or perhaps we misinterpret the data altogether.

There seems to be four normative views (V1-V4) concerning the philosophical relationship of religion and science, two of which are conflicting and two of which are non-conflicting:

V1  If there is conflict, then scientific statements trump religious statements.
V2  If there is conflict, then religious statements trump scientific statements.
V3  Religious statements and scientific statements cannot conflict as they are entirely separate domains of inquiry (NOMA or Non-overlapping magisterial authority). Science tells us how the heavens go, religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us about the age of rocks, religion tells us about the Rock of Ages.
V4  Religious statements and scientific statements may appear to conflict, but don’t really conflict at the level of the facts when properly understood.

V1 and V2 are to be rejected by Christians as they assume that a fundamental incompatibility exists between the worlds of nature and Scripture, as in scientism or a sort of religious fundamentalism that lacks appreciation for a literary rather than a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. But if God exists, and we have good independent reasons for thinking so, then this is untenable because of the unity of truth thesis which affirms that all truth is God’s truth and cannot contradict. This holds for both Word and work, Scripture and nature, where God is the author of both.

Of the two non-conflicting views, V3 is likewise untenable given its Enlightenment assumption that there is a bridgeless gulf between matters of religion and matters of science. In fact, there are clear cases of overlapping interests that concern comparable theological and scientific data (e.g., creation). V4 seems to be the most plausible, the view of integration. It holds that all truth is God’s truth. It does justice to considering a realist view of science and a genuine literary approach to the Bible. It seeks a rational integration of all the data.

Further, while it acknowledges tension in interpretations of nature and Scripture in, say, the Genesis narrative, it holds in principle that when all the evidence is in and is properly interpreted there cannot be contradiction. This means intellectual humility must be accompanied in the interpretation process. Suppose there were three top theological interpretations on a given textual issue ranked t1-t3 with the best literary grammatical interpretation. And likewise suppose there were three top scientific interpretations on a related issue in nature ranked s1-s3. For example, take the creation account. It may be that we cannot rank t1 with s1, but rather t2 with s1 or t1 with s2, or something like that. At the end of the day, all the data ought to harmonize. Any alleged conflict cannot be at the level of the facts themselves, nature and Scripture, but at the level of the interpretation of the facts, science and theology. The problem, then, is not truth, but rather it is with our understanding or interpretation of the facts rightly interpreted.

Bringing these three blog articles to a close