25 April 2010

Science and faith - war or peace?

The origin of the universe, the origin of life, evolution - these are some of the topics that seem to be endlessly debated across the science/faith divide. Molecules of lifeWhy does this happen, what are the root causes of the sometimes strongly-worded arguments? Perhaps it's time to take a fresh look.

Science is based on such things as reason, deduction, inference, and testing by experiment. At the most fundamental level science is simply a formal way of observing how things are. And it has an excellent track-record. We depend daily on the technologies that science has made possible. We drive our cars, watch TV, depend on medical help when we are sick or injured. All of these things and many more are rooted in generations of observation, hypothesis, and testing.

On the other hand faith is not based on observation and experiment but on assertion, often about matters that are untestable and are unknowable in the scientific sense. The existence of a powerful personality outside the universe and this personality's influence within it are not things science can investigate. Science doesn't reject faith (indeed it might investigate faith as a phenomenon) but it does not (and cannot) investigate the claims of faith.

There is therefore no reason for science and faith to do battle with one another, but historically this has happened repeatedly. An example of past 'warfare' concerns whether the earth or the sun is the centre of the solar system, one current skirmish centres on the origin of life and on evolution, another one on theories about the origin of the universe.

The usual pattern is that science draws a conclusion that offends people of faith in some way. Instead of understanding the scientific arguments and accommodating them within the framework of faith, believers often try to find holes in the science. Scientists continually refine our understanding in a formal way, believers sometimes lash out at new ideas they don't like.

How can we take this forward? Here is some advice for scientists and believers who have become embroiled in debates of this sort.

Scientists - Don't become angry, recognise that if the science is sound you have demonstrable facts on your side. State these straightforwardly and point detractors to the evidence calmly. If you are vilified and your integrity is questioned, recognise that these are the actions of desperate people who have not yet understood that facts are a form of truth. The battle will rarely centre on those facts, instead it will usually focus on attempts to discredit the people involved. Don't engage with these attempts.

Believers - Don't interpret statements from scientists as provocation, they are simply sharing factual information. Respect the people even if you don't like their thinking. Christ called you to love so speak in love, not in anger. Look at the scientific claims calmly, facts about the world cannot possibly contradict truth. Look for ways of accepting the science within your framework of faith. Remember the battles about the place of the earth in astronomy, why is that no longer an issue? Understand that if the Almighty exists, scientific and spiritual truth will be able to coexist, because he is the author of both.

Where there appear to be contradictions there is an opportunity for mutual understanding. Science deals with the realm of materials and energy, faith deals with the realm of the spirit. There is no overlap in subject matter and there is no clash of ideas that can't be accommodated.

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