Dialogue Necessities

The facts surrounding the interface between faith and science drive various people to widely varying conclusions. It should be obvious to any spectator—and it should not be underestimated—how closely the topic is bound up in our foundational assumptions, and that part of our perspective which we may find difficult to logically defend, as it seems so natural to us.

As to the compatibility between faith and science, there are four perspectives that I’ve noticed most often in this debate.

 

  1. There are those who simply don’t care.
  2. There is atheist materialism.
  3. There are proclamations of “of course!” accompanied by some hand-waving (These people come in flavours anywhere between “fundamentalist” the “theologically liberal,” hence this view is expressed quite differently at times).
  4. There are people who acknowledge the existence of the interface, and attempt to reconcile the issues involved.

 

I will make it no secret that I advocate the fourth option, and level criticism at the other three—though I believe the third is the most blind of them, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

I ran a search to see if there was a term for the fourth option (I was about to call it “compatibilism,” but this has a range of other meanings, not the least of which pertains to free will and determinism), when I ran across a blog in which someone had said almost everything I was going to write here. Nonetheless, I like to formulate things in my own words:

It has been famously said by Stephen Jay Gould that science and faith are “Nonoverlapping Magesteria,” (NOMA) occupying two distinct realms, and having little to say to each other when practiced properly. The impact of this statement has been sufficiently large that I’ve read it in numerous publications without ever having touched his book The Rock of Ages, in which he wrote it. According to Wikipedia, the National Academy of Sciences has adopted a stance resembling this principle.

I do not believe this is a complete perspective by any means. I also do not believe that Gould was making an oversight when he wrote this, but that he was writing only about the specific interactions that he perceived between the two “Magesteria” through his work in science. He was correct in his assessment of what lay before him, but I believe that—being agnostic—he simply did not perceive what a religious person does, and hence advocated a perspective that seems at times to tend towards option 3.

There is a political advantage to option 3, in that it avoids conflict. It relieves tension, and allows an environment of sterile tolerance that I find intolerable at times. I should hope it isn’t true, however, otherwise we’re wasting time on issues of no consequence.

Strictly scientific people are happy with option 3 so long as the religious views in question are not literal creationism, Intelligent Design, or other perspectives that challenge the work done by the scientific method. For the religious person, however, option four is necessary for complete understanding. The adage “Science tells you how the heavens go, the Bible tells you how to go to heaven” is not sufficient. If God truly made the heavens, we should expect that the “way the heavens go” will tell us something about the God who made them, for even the precise movement of the scribe’s writing utensil as he first recorded the passages of the Bible was governed by the natural laws inherent in their design.

It is impossible to discuss this properly without eliminating the semantic confusion that at times governs the entire discussion, but suffice to say, the word “science” has several definitions. One of these is “knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.” Our understanding of the Bible as a text in modern day—our ability to interpret it in context—is based on this definition of the word science. Countless aspects of our spiritual beliefs must be translated into the language of real life, if we are to apply it, and real life is lived out in the physical world that is studied by science.

Setting aside the fuming conflict over creationism, there are many questions of a purely religious nature that must be considered in light of science:

Do we have free will or are we determined? What do we even mean when we ask this?

Do we have religious convictions concerning things that the natural order of the universe has made necessary?

When we describe the “supernatural,” do we include things that may lie within the “natural” realm, but that we cannot verify by experiment? Is there a difference? Do we assume that a divine action precludes a natural explanation? Is there a difference?

 

I could continue with these, but I already intend to discuss these in more detail eventually.

Fortunately for the scientific community, I believe the true questions on the interface between faith and science are to be reconciled exclusively by those who are religious. We may come to different conclusions, but we should have a common understanding of the facts.

Finally, we must recognize that science does not “say” anything, even if it is currently dominated by a secular, materialist perspective in Western society. Science does not “say” that we “should” behave a certain way, or make philosophical interpretations of the facts. Scientists may, but science does not.

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