Science – Impossible without Faith

If the physicists seem to achieve their ends more successfully than the theologians, that is simply a reflection of how much easier science is than theology.  –  John Polkinghorne

I don’t know about you, but I think John Polkinghorne is one smart guy.  If you know the name, you know that he started out as a physicist, and ended up as an Anglican Priest.  It is beyond question that he is a well regarded physicist, having earned a PhD at Cambridge, where he later became a professor, and was elected by fellow scientists as a Fellow of  the Royal Society – a prestigious lifetime position.  It is also beyond question that he is a Christian – a man of devout faith in God.  He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002 in part because of his treatment of theology as a natural science that invigorated the search for an interface between science and religion. His writings apply scientific habits to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy – including the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection, and God’s creation of the universe.  And he says that science and faith in God need not be in conflict.

The National Acadamy of Sciences recently highlighted the interplay between science and faith, saying “Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding.”  Following are statements by two other prominent scientists who like Polkinghorne, are also Christians.

“Creationists inevitably look for God in what science has not yet explained or in what they claim science cannot explain. Most scientists who are religious look for God in what science does understand and has explained.”— Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University and author of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Religion. 

“In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.” — Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Excerpted from his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (p. 6).  (More from Francis Collins can be seen on http://biologos.org .)

In the recent past I have disagreed with those who assert that the Christian faith and science are incompatible.  It is not science that is incompatible with religious faith – it’s atheism! People like John Polkinghorne, Kenneth Miller, and Francis Collins prove that one can be Christian, and still be a scientist.  Steven Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA)” notwithstanding, there simply must be places at which both science and faith could at least theoretically arrive.  Call those places truth, or call them reality.  If something is true, and if science will one day discover it, then man having had faith in it before it was discovered, does not invalidate it’s “truth-ness.”  In the Christian faith, there are doctrines which we accept as matters of faith that are non-negotiable.  These include the assertion that God exists, and a fairly small list of others.  Atheists have things they take on faith as well.  They believe that God does not exist.  They dismiss people of faith as “weak-minded” or “believers in superstition”, but they rarely if ever acknowledge themselves to be operating on faith.

As Pastor Tim Keller so deftly describes in a recent talk at MIT, you cannot prove the existence of God.  But neither can you disprove it.  Either way, you have to make a faith assumption.  A lot of people just don’t want to think about it.  They just want to be left alone.  The problem is, you can’t just abstain.  Everybody has to vote.  If you vote “I don’t know” you are really voting no.  I say that because a “yes” vote for God must be made affirmatively.  You are either a believer or not.  

Some people want to believe, but can’t get past the seeming conflict with science.  They read the creation account in Genesis and compare it to what science “knows” about things like the age of the Earth, and Man evolving up from “lower” species, and just shake their heads and move on.  I used to believe that the Genesis account was more allegorical, and that the important points were that God created every thing, He created every being and that He created man “in His own image” and “breathed life into” him.  I worried that my understanding of science (limited as it is) had “forced” me to adapt the Genesis account so they would not seem to be in conflict.

But what an amazing revelation!  I just read where the church father Augustine, writing in the early 400’s AD, came up with an interpretation of the creation narrative based on scripture alone, that takes both the “young-Earth” and the “day-age” creation adherents off the hook, and made it compatible with most of what science holds dear today, including evolution!  He said in part that based on a careful reading of both the Genesis 1 account and other passages, it is not only possible, but probable, that the Creation narrative does not preclude evolution!  He sees the “days” differently.  He believes Genesis 2:4 has the following meaning:

When day was made, God made heaven and earth and every green thing of the field.”

This leads him to conclude that the six days of Creation are not chronological. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mold it, even to the present day!  So not only is instantaneous creation from nothing (ex nihilo) still in there, but evolution is part of the creation as well!  Time was created at the moment of creation as well, and Augustine insists that the Bible is not even open to any other interpretation on that matter!  For him, eternity is a realm without space or time. Interestingly, this is precisely the state of existence many scientists posit existed before the big bang.

Yet there was one point on which Augustine would not have been open to alternative interpretation.  Though he likely would have been comfortable with the theory of evolution as an explanation of origins, he would have seen it as guided, not random or unguided.  For Augustine, God created a universe that was deliberately designed to develop and evolve. The blueprint for that evolution is not arbitrary, but is programmed into the very fabric of creation. God’s providence superintends the continuing unfolding of the created order.

Reading this article in Christianity Today gave me a renewed sense of appreciation for the accuracy of scripture.  The ancient words are unique among all written documents.  Many people have, for many years, been trying to dismiss the Bible as out of date, inaccurate or irrelevant.  But it has survived for thousands of years.  And every time science comes up with something that “proves” the errancy of scripture, what we find is that it is our interpretation that is in error, not the Word.  

I appreciate the respectful tone taken by the National Acadamy of Sciences and the Christian scientists mentioned here.  We all are searching for the truth.  We all take some things on faith.  We may never agree, but we certainly can and should be respectful of each other’s honest opinions.  Most of all, we need to learn the difference between real, actual facts and things that only seem factual until you strip away the metaphysical presuppositions behind them.

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9 thoughts on “Science – Impossible without Faith

  1. Havok

    If the physicists seem to achieve their ends more successfully than the theologians, that is simply a reflection of how much easier science is than theology. – John Polkinghorne

    Perhaps it demonstrates that science, given that it has a more solid epistemic base than theology, is simply a far superior method of exploring everything which is claimed to exist?
    Theology gives far too much authority to personal subjective experience and feeling, and far too little attention is paid to intersubjectivity. I would therefore claim that this leaves us in a solid position to reject the findings of theology.

    John: But it has survived for thousands of years. And every time science comes up with something that “proves” the errancy of scripture, what we find is that it is our interpretation that is in error, not the Word.

    That’s a nice way of putting things. “Hey, turns out the thing we based our lives on didn’t mean what we thought it did. Guess we’ll just try to reinterpret around the evidence”

    So, when a hypothesis is constantly found false, and in need of ad-hoc additions, not to improve the predictions made, but to simply encompass new data, when should it be discarded?
    I have no doubts that, with ad-hoc additions, the steady state model of the universe, Lamarkian inheritability of traits, or Geosyncline geology be made to explain the data. Turns out though, that the modern theories of Big Bang, genetics and plate tectonics do a much better job, and is are simpler
    .
    A non-teleological universe is sufficient to explain what we see around us, and has a long history of edging out “supernatural” hypothesis (as is currently happening in neuroscience regarding the mind, and biology in abiogenesis for example), why would we favour the addition of an entity, the evidence of which doesn’t respect basic epistemic principles of objectivity?

    1. Gosh Rian, your use of vocabulary is really impressive! Yet the epistemic base upon which scientific naturalism is built involves assumptions of faith. The belief that ‘nothing that is not natural is real’ is a metaphysical assumption without basis in established fact. It’s not even all that defensible.

      Truth is something that is discovered, not something that is made. Whether you believe it or not does not change it. It does not need you to believe in order to be true. The best that can be done is to try and understand it.

      Hey, turns out the thing we based our lives on didn’t mean what we thought it did. Guess we’ll just try to reinterpret around the evidence”

      Actually, you do that too! The difference is that you are not interested in truth, only your ability to discern it by the sheer force of your mind and your will.

      Ironic that your mind and your will are both the product of random, purposeless accidents of nature!

  2. Havok

    John, Naturalism for myself and many others is not an a priori assumption as you imply (and your belief in Yahweh seems to be). Should some reasonable evidence of the existence of this “supernatural realm” you claim exists be presented, then I would abandon it in favour of some other stance.
    However, science, and more broadly intersubjective empiricism, has no peer when it comes to investigating and modelling any realm which is claimed to exist, and the evidence gained from this process is simply that the supernatural is imaginary.

    You missed the point I was trying to make regarding the ad-hoc assumptions added to Christianity to protect it’s core beliefs. Scientific theories can be (and have been) discarded when they’re shown to fail and another is shown to be more successful. At what stage, however, is the Christian “hypothesis” to be discarded?

    I agree with you that truth/reality is something which is discovered. The problem with theistic “truths” is that they rely upon methods which do not respect or attempt to attain intersubjectivity and objectivity, and results in personal feelings being taken as truth. I’m sorry, but we should expect more from our methods for obtaining knowledge than that!

    As for my brain being and “accident” of nature, I really don’t have a problem with it. It’s the hypothesis which explains the data and is most parsimonious, and therefore is more rationally justified than whatever sort of “guided” evolution you accept. Something being unpalatable doesn’t make it incorrect 🙂

    1. If not a priori, then at what point did you make it? Sorry, bro. You either have to assume He does or that He does not exist. Your abject refusal to accept – or even consider – any explanation that might imply something supernatural is proof that you make the latter assumption.

      You keep on bringing up abiogenesis as a likely explanation for the origin of life. I’m sure you are aware of the mathematical near-impossibility of life having spontaneously sprung from non-life. To me, it takes a monumental leap of faith to believe that in spite of the odds, that life just sprang forth. It is at least as difficult to believe as that a preexisting intelligent entity was its cause. Further, how will science ever be able to demonstrate abiogenesis in action? The very acts of setting up the experiment are acts of intervention by intelligent agents.

      Additionally, I have never heard even an intelligent hypothesis as to what the cause of the “big-bang” was. For your worldview to be coherent, shouldn’t you at least have some theory about that? Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross refers to the big bang as the “creation event”. Really, you can dismiss the question, but the question remains. My worldview is coherent in that it assumes God is an eternal preexistent being – the great “I AM” of the bible.

      You will never be able to prove God’s non-existence. I’ll never be able to prove His existence. We both believe what we believe having made some faith assumptions.

  3. Havok

    So in your view, John, it’s impossible to take an agnostic view concerning the existence of Yahweh (or any other deity) and say “I don’t know. I’ll take a look around”?
    Do you dismiss, a priori, the existence of Zeus, Brahman or Ahura Mazda? Or even the different conceptions of Yahweh presented by Islam and Judaism? If I am dismissing a priori as you claim, at least I’m being consistent 🙂

    It’s funny that you claim my bias prevents me from accepting evidence for Yahweh, yet the evidence for the being depicted in the bible should be overwhelming. It’s not. Much of the phenomena which were attributed to your or other gods now have explanations which do not involve supernatural explanations (think lightning, the seasons etc).
    For those things which don’t have a thorough explanation (prior to the big bang, abiogenesis), we simply don’t have a thorough explanation, not scientifically, and not for your or any other god.

    I try to consider any reasonable alternative. The problem is lack of objective methodology, as I was trying to point out above. All claims of supernatural phenomena seem to fail in this regard – they all seem to end up resting upon personal, first person testimony, not intersubjective evidence.
    I find it amusing that you accuse me of refusing to accept your fantastic stories, yet you squeeze the supernatural in where it is not required – theistic evolution etc. Why not accept what scientific investigation tells us without adding in unjustified (and unneccesary) assumptions?

    On the topic of abiogenesis, the whole “life from non-life” statement is something of a canard.
    What makes life different from non-life?
    Where does one end and the other begin?
    Are short strands of RNA life?
    How about individual amino acids?

    Many of the pathways from simple organic molecules, through amino acids, to self replicating molecules (RNA being the most likely at present) have been worked out. It is unlikely that we’ll know exactly how it happened as there seem to be a number of viable alternatives (ice crystals, layers of clay, porous metallic heaps, etc), and a number of likely pathways.

    So given the current incomplete but probable explanations which don’t invoke supernatural agency, where is the evidence and explanation for how Yahweh created life?
    What was the process He used to “breath life” into the inanimate dirt?
    When did it happen?
    Are we simply to take the writings of people who thought the earth flat and the centre of the universe at face value?

    I’ve pointed you towards at least one paper on abiogenesis. Can you provide something with similar detail for “Genesis from/through Yahweh”?

    I expect when theories of abiogenesis are more complete, there will be those, like you do regarding biological evolution, who will squeeze their god in where it is not required.

    John: The very acts of setting up the experiment are acts of intervention by intelligent agents.

    I’ve heard this argument before, and it is pretty ignorant, sorry to say.
    Throw prebiotic soup into container, simulating early earth. Add heat/electricity/etc simulating the early environment. See organic molecules form. See organic molecules combine to form larger molecules (simple RNA). See simple RNA replicate using existing organic molecules.
    Now, you’re right that the initial conditions were set up by intelligent agents, as are the estimates of the initial conditions of the earth. But the chemical reactions which take place (and simple RNA type molecules have been formed as far as I know) have nothing to do with the intelligent agents.

    So, I wonder what part you think adds weight to the “God hypothesis”?
    And how would we verify/falsify this god hypothesis of yours?
    Or are we to simply accept it?

    John: Additionally, I have never heard even an intelligent hypothesis as to what the cause of the “big-bang” was.

    That’s not surprising, as you seem to insist that your preferred cosmic super being be intimately involved in the process. There are many hypothesis which are live in the scientific community. Read this for a bit of a run down of two of them and why they’re preferable to your “God did it” hypothesis.

    John: For your worldview to be coherent, shouldn’t you at least have some theory about that?

    Not have, but certainly not exclude the possibility for one. If you could demonstrate the impossibility of the universe forming without the actions of an agent, then my current stance would be untenable. I’d probably move to deism in that instance .
    Currently there are a number of plausible, scientifically based, testable theories, so I see no reason to adjust my position. I’m comfortable with “I don’t know but people are looking into it”.

    John: Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross refers to the big bang as the “creation event”.

    Good for him, though I’d expect nothing less from an Old Earth Creationist. Simply put, he’s not making a scientific statement when he says that, as our current theories (relativity specifically) break down when the universe was small, compressed and very hot. We simply don’t know what might have happened prior to the universe being Planck length in size (at Planck time).

    John: Really, you can dismiss the question, but the question remains. My worldview is coherent in that it assumes God is an eternal preexistent being – the great “I AM” of the bible.

    How did this agent act without time, to create? It seems agents require time to act.
    How does this agent think without a physical substrate? Brains are the only things we have evidence for as giving rise to minds.
    How does this agent outside of space-time interact within spacetime? The universe seems causally closed.

    You can define this being however you want, but YOU need to provide the evidence to back up this definition, otherwise Yahweh is in the same category as the Invisible Pink Unicorn (who created the universe last Tuesday, including the memories you have of earlier times).

    John: You will never be able to prove God’s non-existence. I’ll never be able to prove His existence. We both believe what we believe having made some faith assumptions.

    You’re right, it’s pretty tough to discount the basic notion of a generic “god”, especially a deistic one.
    I can be very sure, however, that the Christian god doesn’t exist. In fact, I’m sure enough that Yahweh as conceived by Christians doesn’t exist that I’m betting possible eternal torture on it, simply because I value truth 🙂

    An interventionist deity would leave a lot of evidence of it’s existence, and not just in the writings of ancient people and subjective “feelings”.
    Sudden healings should happen, statistically more frequently to Christians (of the “right” sect) than others. They don’t.
    Christians should survive tragedy and disaster more frequently due to the power of prayer. They don’t.
    We should find evidence of the sudden appearance of the current species of animals. We don’t.
    We should find evidence of a soul interacting/guiding neural processes. We don’t.
    We should find evidence of Earth being in a “special” place in the universe. We don’t.
    We should find evidence of amazing predictions in the bible. We don’t.

    All of these things are something like predictions which are made by the “Christian God” hypothesis. And as it fails every one of them (and many many more) I’m rationally justified to dismiss the hypothesis as very improbable and implausible.
    Which is exactly what I do.

    Do you find it strange or uncomfortable that your God is slowly becoming deistic? He can only, seemingly, interact using quantum uncertainty these days, whereas he did marvellous works in the past.
    Shouldn’t this not be the case if this being you believe in actually existed?

    1. I’m not going to respond to any of this. From our previous exchanges, I long ago came to the conclusion that they are pointless. The only meaningful thing on which we agree is that our viewpoints are irreconcilable.

      I wonder, though. Do atheists get together to do things like this?

      1. After deleting your comment accidentally, and trying to re-post, neither of us met with success, so let’s do it this way. Below are the points you made and my replies.

        Havok wrote:

        > Comment:

        John: From our previous exchanges, I long ago came to the conclusion that they are pointless.

        > Awww, don’t give up. I enjoy your attempts to justify your personal feelings as objective truth 🙂
        >
        I couldn’t care less about justifying myself to you, so thanks for the really enticing offer, but no thanks.

        >

        John: The only meaningful thing on which we agree is that our viewpoints are irreconcilable.

        > No really. You discount and doubt first person subjective testimony from so many other sources (think Mohammed’s writings, and the testimony of Muslims, Buddhists etc), just like me. I’m simply being a little more consistent as far as I can tell.
        >
        Well, let’s test that a little. Are you a Peter Singer type atheist, or do you believe it to be wrong to kill old people, slightly defective babies and disabled people? If so, on what grounds? Also, if I put a gun to your head and told you to claim one religion or die on the spot, which one would you most and least be likely to choose? Why?

        >

        John: I wonder, though. Do atheists get together to do things like this?

        > Your point being?
        > Lets say that people without belief in a deity didn’t do this (they certainly don’t do the “spreading their faith” part). It would simply show that perhaps that belief has utility, and say nothing about the truth of the that belief.
        >
        Careful, you might have conceded something far more significant than you realize.

        > And before you think I’ve conceeded your point, there are non-demoninational and secular charities. Doctors without Borders would seem to fit the bill, as do many others.

        Yes there are non-denominational charities. A few of them even do good things for the world. But what I want to know is whether there are any atheist groups or organizations that get people together to volunteer their time talent and financial resources to try to do something better for the world? Which ones do you belong to? Which one do you donate time to? Which ones do your friends help lead or donate money to?

  4. Havok

    John: From our previous exchanges, I long ago came to the conclusion that they are pointless.

    Awww, don’t give up. I enjoy your attempts to justify your personal feelings as objective truth 🙂

    John: The only meaningful thing on which we agree is that our viewpoints are irreconcilable.

    No really. You discount and doubt first person subjective testimony from so many other sources (think Mohammed’s writings, and the testimony of Muslims, Buddhists etc), just like me. I’m simply being a little more consistent as far as I can tell.

    John: I wonder, though. Do atheists get together to do things like this?

    Your point being?
    Lets say that people without belief in a deity didn’t do this (they certainly don’t do the “spreading their faith” part). It would simply show that perhaps that belief has utility, and say nothing about the truth of the that belief.
    And before you think I’ve conceeded your point, there are non-demoninational and secular charities. Doctors without Borders would seem to fit the bill, as do many others.

  5. Havok

    Thanks for sorting it out John. Sometimes technology is not friendly 🙂

    John: I couldn’t care less about justifying myself to you, so thanks for the really enticing offer, but no thanks.

    It doesn’t really matter whether you care or not. You’re making claims with are based upon poor standards of evidence. Standards which can entail mutually exclusive “truth” claims – The Triune deity of Christianity, the strictly monotheistic (but wildly differing) deities of Islam, Judaism (well, not so different there), Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, some forms of Hinduism, the pluralistic deities of other forms of hindiusm, various “pagan” beliefs, astrological charts, new age mysticism, theistic buddhism, etc, etc.
    You don’t have to justify yourself at all, though you should accept these many and varied “truths” along side your own. Either that or accept that Christianity is simply “true” for you, and that truth is subjective. I don’t think you’d accept that level of subjectivism, though.

    John: Well, let’s test that a little.

    John, what has this “moral test” got to do with your acceptance of subjective evidence?

    If you’re claiming that I have no basis for morality, or that I have to accept some extreme moral subjectivism/relativism (which you seem to be lead up to), I say you’re mistaken. There are moral/ethical theories which don’t require a deity, which give me grounds to claim Singer is right or wrong. In fact, it seems as if Singer’s own ethical theory is one such system. If you disagree with it perhaps it is not the ethical system, but your own subjective morality which is mistaken?

    If your thinking you have an argument out of this for yourself and other Christians, I again say you’re mistaken. Your claim that your morality derives from Yahweh seems on equal footing with the claims of a Muslim that morality derives from Yahweh (though Islams rules are in a different book to yours). It’s your “feeling” that it derives from Yahweh and can be found in the Christian Bible. I’m afraid that sort of evidence is not good enough.

    John: Also, if I put a gun to your head and told you to claim one religion or die on the spot, which one would you most and least be likely to choose? Why?

    Again, how is this related to the types of evidence you accept?

    For what purpose would I be choosing this religion?
    To save my life, the I’d pick the one followed by my attacker (So, Christianity in this case), in an effort to save my life, though I wouldn’t actually mean it 🙂
    If I were unable to lie then you’d have to kill me, unless Secular Humanism or Nontheistic Buddhism count as religions.

    John: Careful, you might have conceded something far more significant than you realize.

    I doubt it. I simply stated that religions can motivate people (to do both good and bad acts). I think you’re reading much more into it than there is.

    John: But what I want to know is whether there are any atheist groups or organizations that get people together to volunteer their time talent and financial resources to try to do something better for the world?

    First, “atheism” is simply a lack of a belief. It’s like asking if all non-stamp collectors have a “group”. I doubt there’s any organisation which is based on strict theism which you can name.

    Second, Secular Humanist organisations do conduct charity work. Other secular/non-denominational organisations also count, I would claim. I think you could even include foreign (and internal) aid given out by secular governments, at least to some degree.

    John: Which ones do you belong to? Which one do you donate time to? Which ones do your friends help lead or donate money to?

    Are we to extrapolate from me to all non-theistic non-Christians, and from you to all Christians and compare? Why? Even if I was the most selfish person you could imagine, and you carried out selfless acts without number, that alone would not demonstrate the truth of Christianity, nor the “emptyness” of lacking belief.

    On charitability, however, it seems that Peter Singer (who you seem to be maligning above) donates a 30% of his income to charity and donates a lot of time to charitable projects, that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (both atheist/agnostic) are the largest philanthropists in history, and that many European nations which are much less religious than the US, give more.

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