Mirrors with telescope: counting stars vs. the cells in one brain. / Pixabay.com
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The question above was the headline with a November 14 psychologytoday.com article by Joseph Pierre, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco – the latest of so many that address this perennial issue. His answer was yes or no, depending. Atheists may say no, period. As we’ll see, prominent scientists have replied with a yes.
Pierre explains that “many of our beliefs are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to falsify,” and religion seeks to offer satisfactory answers for many such scientific “unknowns.” Examples: Does God exist? What happens when we die? With these kinds of inevitable questions humans ask, faith believes “in the absence of evidence” as science understands that term.
Wariness about “absolute truth”
In his outlook, the best way to hold faith-based beliefs is to acknowledge “the possibility of being wrong” and allow “room for others to have different beliefs” without confusing faith with “absolute truth.” But, needless to say, most religions and most religionists do hold to absolutes.
He continues that “religious faith doesn’t have to involve denialism,” defined as rejection of the existing scientific evidence due to religious faith, as with those he labels “fundamentalists.” A typical example would be the “young Earth” creationists, whose literal interpretation of the Bible rejects science’s long-held conclusion that our universe and home planet have existed for billions upon billions of years.
Unlike faith-based knowledge, science is open to reformulated theories derived from new data, he continues. “Most of us hold scientific belief based not so much on faith as on the trust of experts.” When people lose trust in scientists’ expert consensus, the path is open to denial of evidence, misinformation, and unverified conspiracy theories that are fostered especially on the Internet.
Grounded in skepticism
By its nature, he explains, science “is grounded in a particular form of skepticism.” So “when there’s no evidence, as with many religious questions, science tends to be either agnostic or nihilistic, which is not always appropriate.” And it’s important to acknowledge that “many people have religious beliefs and still think scientifically.”
Some of them are not just scientists but famously so, he reminds us, and cites in particular Francis Collins, the recently retired director of America’s National Institutes of Health, who was much in the news over political entanglements in the COVID crisis.
For the purposes of this article, he’s important as the head of the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, with $45 billion in grants during fiscal 2022. Before that, Collins spent 15 years leading the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute as it concluded the massive effort that largely mapped the genes in humanity’s chromosomes. While at the University of Michigan, he established his reputation as one of the world’s top genetic researchers by identifying the gene that causes cystic fibrosis.
On the religious side, Collins depicted his conversion from atheism to evangelical Christianity, and told how faith and science are congruent, in his 2006 book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (Free Press). In it, he insists that “God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it possible” and science is actually “enhanced” by God. Contrary to some fellow believers, Collins embraces “theistic evolution,” according to which God’s creative work is seen as operating through Darwin’s theory of natural selection over eons of time to produce the proliferation of biological species. He adds, however, that Darwinism’s explanatory power is limited in certain ways.
“Harmony” with biblical faith
Responding to the wide discussion about his book, Collins in 2009 founded BioLogos (https://biologos.org/), with posted Web writings and related educational programs to promote this viewpoint. BioLogos believes that “the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God” and “invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”
The Guy started pondering all this in recent days when learning about the death this past May 28 of another world-class U.S. Christian in science, Owen Gingerich, a longtime astronomy professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Gingrich had various technical discoveries to his credit but his stature became news when the International Astronomical Union chose him to chair the committee to decide whether Pluto, though small, is still to be regarded as a planet in our solar system. (His panel said yes, but instead the I.A.U. called it a “dwarf planet.”)
Gingrich, a lifelong member of the Mennonite church, formulated his thinking on the science-and-religion interchange in a Harvard lecture series that he turned into the fascinating little book “God’s Universe” (Harvard University Press) Bu coincidence, it appeared simultaneously with Collins’s work and, like it, is clearly framed for amateurs like The Guy.
As you’d expect with such a prominent cosmologist, Gingerich affirmed Darwin’s basic insight and the vast timescale of the universe, over against what’s called “creationism.” He also opposed the “Intelligent Design” movement insofar as it’s offered as a refutation of Darwinism. He did conclude that the inexplicably complex person we know as God is the reasonable path for understanding the cosmos as described by science.
Set aside the infinitely vast universe, he suggested, and consider just each individual human’s brain, which per science is “by far the most complex physical object known to us in the entire cosmos.” It contains a number of synapse connections between nerve cells that “vastly exceeds the number of stars in our Milky Way,” namely 10 to the 15th power for the cells compared with 10 to the 11th power for the stars.
A “wonderfully congenial” universe
Then there’s the precise ratio between Earth’s existing molecules of oxygen and carbon, the gravitational forces and other environmental conditions that are “wonderfully congenial to intelligent, self-conscious life,” that is, humanity as science knows it. Are we humans “the unplanned outcome of a naturalistic, mechanistic process – that is, essentially a glorious accident”? Gingerich concluded that what we observe is both “extraordinary and improbable,” which means the universe “carries the hidden assumption of design and purpose” i.e. God. And there’s much more.
Speaking of scientists as believing Christians, Gingerich was a specialist in the history of science and discussed four major astronomers in his companion book “God’s Planet” (2014, also from Harvard). Copernicus (1473 – 1543) proposed that Earth rotates around the sun, laying ground for Galileo (1564 – 1642) and his celebrated conflict with the Vatican over Bible interpretation. Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) developed the laws of planets’ motions in the solar system, from which Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) assessed the gravitation among the planets and with the Earth and the Moon.
Gingerich was a member of the American Scientific Affiliation (https://network.asa3.org), an organization of scientists and science educators who believe in “the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct” and – pertinent to this discussion — that “in creating and preserving the universe, God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of scientific investigation.”
Those interested in pursuing these issues might well read the Collins and Gingerich books, and could tune in to a free ASA symposium streamed online January 27 on the topic “Why Science and Faith Need Each Other in These Times.” Register here: https://network.asa3.org/events/EventDetails.aspx?id=1794617&group=/ Keynoter Elaine Howard Ecklund is a Rice University sociologist who specializes in the relationship between science and religion.