Within the church we most often consider the intersection of science and faith from a perspective that asks if science is a threat to faith. Within the scientific community (and the academic community more generally) the question is often flipped. Rather than science as a threat to faith, faith is viewed as a threat to science. Both are questions worth considering.
I recently came across a video put out by Big Think that features Francis Collins addressing this very issue in the context of two related questions: “Why is it so difficult for scientists to believe in a higher power?” and “How has your study of genetics influenced your faith?”
The video is short, and much of it can form the basis for a useful conversation of the intersection of science and the Christian faith. Here I’ll look at a few brief bits of the answers Collins gives, and add some of my own commentary. Collins begins by describing science and why he finds science a reliable tool for understanding the nature of the world around us.
(0:03-0:33) Science is about trying to get rigorous answers to questions about how nature works. And it’s a very important process that is actually quite reliable if carried out correctly with generation of hypotheses and testing of those by accumulation of data and then drawing conclusions that are continually revisited to be sure they are right. So if you want to answer questions about how nature works, how biology works for instance, science is the way to get there.
This is a reasonable description, and the caveat “continually revisited to be sure they are right” is a critical one. I don’t think that people appreciate this enough. When Christians make claims that science is ever shifting and thus unreliable or become frustrated that there is no easy way to undermine the entire understanding of an old earth and evolution it often reflects a misunderstanding of this crucial spiral process. This is not the weakness, but rather the strength of a scientific approach to the study of nature. It is, however, unwise to draw deep theological conclusions on the basis of the current scientific understanding. This was, perhaps, William Paley’s mistake. While it is profitable to think about possibilities, it is not wise to stake too much on them.
I will also note that the rigorous hypothesis driven approach plays a larger role in biology and related NIH sponsored research than in some other areas of science. Sometimes science is more of an exploration than the testing of a specific hypothesis. New capabilities open new vistas for exploration. The hypothesis driving the research is something of a loose idea rather than a specific concrete proposal. But conclusions are always continually revisited to be sure they are right.
Collins goes on to describe the specific role he sees for faith or other than scientific approaches to understanding the world around us.
(0:49-1:28) But faith in its proper perspective is really asking a different set of questions and that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here. The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm. Why are we all here? Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them? But you either have to say that those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them, or you have to say we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about. For me that makes perfect sense.
And on the harmony between science and faith:
(2:10-2:37) Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict I’m afraid.
Admitting that science is not the only way to learn about the world, and that it leaves out some very important questions does not lead unerringly to God, but it does lead to a far more complete view of the world in which we find ourselves.
Collins goes on to address the second question “How has your study of genetics influenced your faith?”
(2:41-3:27) My study of genetics certainly tells me incontrovertibly that Darwin was right about the nature of how living things have arrived on the scene, by descent from a common ancestor under the influence of natural selection over very long periods of time. Darwin was amazingly insightful given how limited the molecular information he had was. Essentially it didn’t exist. Now with the digital code of DNA we have the best possible proof of Darwin’s theory that he could have possibly imagined. So that certainly tells me something about the nature of living things, but it actually adds to my sense that this is an answer to a how question and it leaves the why question still hanging in the air.
The answer to the how question does not really get at the why question at all. Nor does it have much to say about how then, we should live. One has to add a metaphysical assumption or two to the mix. The answers to why type questions will never be determined by science alone. For many the accompanying assumptions are ontological naturalism and a kind of humanism. A Christian perspective is a valid alternative for consideration. It is not, and cannot be, disproven by scientific investigation of the nature of the world. (Although information about the nature of creation may certainly reshape some of our interpretations.)
The answers to why type questions will never be determined by science alone. For the Christian there is a harmony between the scientific approach to understanding the nature of God’s creation and the questions of God, human existence and mission that Christian theology addresses.
What do you think? How would you respond to someone who is convinced science has undermined Christian faith? Or that faith is a threat?
Can science address the questions concerning why and provide guidance on how we should then live?
What does effectively address these kinds of questions?
If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
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Francis Collins, I think, has a song for everything. The following may entertain some (although not exactly on the topic of this post).