God Or Science?

God Or Science? June 23, 2024

Gregor Mendel and a Punnett square.
Gregor Mendel and a Punnett square.

I want to open this article on the compatibility of faith and science by quoting two very different viewpoints: “Science must destroy religion.” While this quote may seem to have been uttered by a college freshman looking for shock value, it is actually the title of an essay by Dr. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and “philosopher.”

The second quote comes from the famed French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, “A bit of science distances one from God, but much science nears one to Him.”

In the following essay, I would like to address a simple question. Is it possible to believe in God and science, or does faith in one preclude faith in the other?

Since I will argue that there is no conflict between believing in God and science, I think it is helpful to define what theists mean by God and what scientists mean by science.

To some extent, the rationality of faith in God is predicated upon what is meant by God. If by God one means an “invisible friend” or an “old man living in the sky” or a “flying spaghetti monster,” then faith in God is both silly and irrational. Fortunately, this is not what serious people mean by God.

Drawing on Catholic philosophy, we can state that God is that being whose essence is existence. That is to say, God exists necessarily; He cannot not exist. Why is that the case?

While the arguments for God’s existence and efforts to explain God’s nature are complex, I will try to condense and simplify the arguments.

The universe comprises efficient causes. Everything that comes into existence is caused by another; nothing can cause itself to exist. It is manifest, therefore, that everything requires a cause prior to itself. However, there cannot be an infinite regress of causes since such a regress would eliminate the possibility of subsequent effects. Therefore, there must be a cause which itself is not caused. That is a cause that exists necessarily. That is what we call God.

I mentioned above the importance of causes in understanding what Catholicism means by God. Science, too, is concerned with causes. Whereas philosophy and theology study ultimate or first causes, science is the study of proximate causes. As such, science can be defined as the systematic study of the physical and natural world.

Prior to the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century, science was categorized into three types: theoretical, practical, and productive. Theoretical science seeks knowledge for its own sake. For Aristotle, this type of science included theology. Practical science included matters such as ethics and politics. Finally, there is productive science. Today, productive science is known as technology.

From what has been said thus far, it may be difficult to discern why there would be a conflict between science and faith in God. Strictly speaking, there can be no conflict between religion and science as they do not concern themselves with the same subject matter. Why, then, do so many like Sam Harris argue that religion and science cannot co-exist?

I think there are two fundamental reasons for this supposed conflict. The first is a misunderstanding of what is meant by religious faith. From an atheistic worldview, faith is frequently construed as believing in a proposition that one knows is false. More charitably put, faith is an unjustified belief in God. Fortunately, this is not what Catholics mean by faith.

While the word faith often has a religious connotation, we all, in fact, have faith in everyday life. We all believe our friends and family want what is best for us. Even science begins in faith. The scientist must have faith in his own reason and faith that predictable laws govern the world he examines.

In the realm of religion, faith “is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that He has said and revealed to us, and that the Holy Church proposes for our belief because He is truth itself.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1814). Succinctly put, faith is having good reasons to assent to a proposition or claim.

The second cause of the supposed conflict between science and religion is epistemological. Epistemology is that facet of philosophy that concerns itself with how knowledge is obtained. Specifically, the problem lies in what is called scientism.

While varying in degrees, scientism is defined as the belief (yes, belief) that all knowledge is reducible to the scientific method. There are numerous problems with such an approach.

First, scientism is self-contradicting. The theory that knowledge is reducible to the scientific method cannot itself be reduced to the scientific method. Scientism must rest on axioms that are matters of faith, not science. Additionally and ironically, while scientism seeks to invalidate philosophy, the claim that all knowledge must be derived from science is a philosophical statement, not a scientific one. Finally, it is possible to identify four sources of knowledge that are not entirely or intrinsically scientific: perception, memory, consciousness, and reason.

So, how should Catholics approach the conflict between science and faith in God? The answer is simply to deny that there is such a conflict. Instead, we should view the universe as God’s art and science as man’s attempt to discover, understand, and – in some cases – manipulate that art for his own purposes.  

My space here is complete, and I must cease. I will close with a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

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