(I wanted a photo of a dialogue… what I found instead was this one, me with my fellow Jesuit Justin Whittington, fighting over a dish of ice cream! But then, dialogues work best when they are based on friendship.)
And then I wrote… In 2017 I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book called Theism and Atheism: Opposing Arguments in Philosophy (which came out finally in 2019). It was my friend Fr. Joe Koterski SJ, one of the editors of the book at a philosophy professor at Fordham, who thought to invite me. Tragically this past August he died of a heart attack while giving a retreat. The chapter is long, so I will be breaking it into multiple parts. If you want to see the whole thing, why not check out the book itself?
Yes or no?
In pursuing the theme of the dialogue between believers and nonbelievers, the editors of this book have specifically charged me to provide “an essay that discusses the relation between religion and science, with an overview of contemporary science and the very nature of scientific knowledge,” including a discussion of whether “its predominant methods, its proper subject matter, and its goals are essential for addressing questions about whether scientific knowledge seems to support or to conflict with the sacred texts of theism.”
In particular, they have posed eight questions to me. To begin this essay, I answer those questions directly:
Does science favor theism or atheism? No.
Does scientific progress favor theism or atheism? No.
Do recent advances in cognitive science favor theism or atheism? No.
What should we make of claims by scientists to have made discoveries about religious experience and religious belief formation? Do they simply reveal some of God’s ways of communicating with us? No.
Do recent neurophysiological studies—for example, of mystical experiences—favor theism or atheism? No.
Do studies of the efficacy of petitionary prayer and near-death experiences (or other paranormal phenomena) favor theism or atheism? No.
Do considerations from astrophysics and physical cosmology favor one view over the other? No.
Do considerations from quantum mechanics favor one view over the other? No.
I suspect that these were not originally intended to be questions answered by a simple yes or no. Even so, I think that it is important to recognize from the beginning that both theism and atheism can find equal support (or lack of support) in science. To put it another way, if the editors were expecting me to argue in favor of God because of something I find in my science, then I am on the opposite side of the theism/atheism divide. I do not believe in the kind of God who could be demonstrated by science.
It is not surprising that I do not think the atheists and I are so far apart. There are a lot of versions of God out there, and not only do I think that most of them wrong, but I also think that they are well worth not believing in. I believe in only one God; I reject the others—which is to say, I believe in only one more God than my atheist colleagues. Because we are not so far apart, it may well be that science is a place where the worlds of theism and atheism can find common ground, a theme to which I return in a later part of this chapter.
One reason why I am so curt in dismissing these questions is that they carry hidden assumptions about the nature of science and the nature of faith—assumptions that I, as a scientist and believer, do not accept. These are quite common assumptions and assumptions that get in the way of dialogue. Thus, in order to find common ground in science, it is important for both believers and nonbelievers to identify and deal with these assumptions and to identify assumptions that I believe both sides can accept.
From that starting point, I want to examine a new aspect of the faith-science discussion. I do not propose to examine faith or science but rather to examine the dialogue, to try to see what a fruitful discussion between those of faith and those of science might entail. My intent is not only to examine how believers might engage the nonbelieving scientists but also how we might engage a notable group who probably would not feel represented by my discussion as a theist: the evangelical fundamentalists who seem to have rejected science for reasons that both I and the atheists find false.
The Two Books
The idea that the study of nature and the study of sacred texts make up “two books” has a long and noble history. Indeed, Saint Paul asserts in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans that since the beginning of time, God has revealed himself in the things that were created. Olaf Pedersen, in his introduction to The Two Books: Historical Notes on Some Interactions between Natural Science and Theology (published posthumously in 2007), traces back to the church fathers Origen and Tertullian the actual imagery of nature as a “book” parallel to scripture that teaches us about the divine.
This metaphor can be taken in a very misleading way. The request to examine where scientific knowledge seems to support or conflict with sacred texts embodies that misconception. Those who imagine a war between religion and science do not think of using science and scripture as books to be read in parallel; rather, they see each as its own Big Book of Facts, closed and complete. They picture science and faith as two competing sets of truths. What happens when the facts in one book contradict the facts in the other? Which do you choose to believe?
This misconception follows from a naïve understanding of both faith and science. Neither is based on rigid certainties that can fit into a book. Indeed, the case is just the opposite. Neither faith nor science rightly understood can make claims to absolute certainty. To push the metaphor further, if faith and science are each books, neither of them is a closed book; they are unfinished books. Science books go out of date notoriously quickly after all, while at the same time, even after thousands of years, scholars seem to always find new ways to interpret and argue about scripture.
Faith and Certainty
In Dynamics of Faith the theologian Paul Tillich writes of faith as “an act of a finite being who is grasped by and turned to the infinite . . . certain in so far as it is an experience of the holy. But faith is uncertain in so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed.”
The writer Anne Lamott, in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, put it more succinctly: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty”. If we had certain knowledge, facts in a book, then we would not need faith. In the same way, science does not consist of just the formulas and answers in the back of the book—even if sometimes that is how it is taught in high school.
While both science and faith have doubt as an essential part of their character, Tillich remarks:
The doubt which is implicit in faith is not a doubt about facts or conclusions. It is not the same doubt which is the lifeblood of scientific research. Even the most orthodox theologian does not deny the right of methodological doubt in matters of empirical inquiry or logical deduction. A scientist who would say that scientific theory is beyond doubt would at that moment cease to be scientific. He may believe that the theory can be trusted for all practical purposes. . . . Doubt in this case points to the preliminary character of the underlying theory. (1957, 19)
He goes on to discuss other forms of doubt, but after dismissing skepticism and cynicism, he recognizes the nature of religious doubt as
the doubt which accompanies every risk. It is not the permanent doubt of the scientist, and it is not the transitory doubt of the skeptic, but it is the doubt of him who is ultimately concerned about a concrete content. One could call it the existential doubt. . . . It is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth.
…Serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character.
Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York:Harper and Row, 1957.
Scientific uncertainty might involve questions of precision and accuracy. How good are our data? How complete are our theories? Religious uncertainty in Tillich’s view, however, is akin to that encountered in attempting to ask questions for which no certain answer can be found: Whom should we marry? What career should we pursue? Where should we live? All of life consists in making crucial decisions on the basis of inadequate information. Yet even though we do not have full knowledge of the truth, we still have to choose. Just such a choice faces us when we must decide to admit or reject the presence of God in our lives.
Beyond pointing out the role of doubt in faith, however, Tillich also recognizes that the origin of faith lies in experience. The time when we feel called upon to make a decision about God is often recognized as a “religious experience.” Every religious experience begins with, well, an experience. Every act of faith begins with a new and startling thing that has happened to us: a sudden tragedy in life or an unexpected and inexplicable moment of holiness. It can sound like the voice of God on a mountaintop or a still small voice within us that calls us. It can reaffirm us in the choices we have made or call us to some new and unexpected action. Faith starts with the data point of that experience in which we are confronted with an event that demands that we make a choice. The idea that religion depends only on obedience to authority without connection to experience is false.
Science and Uncertainty
As Tillich points out, science is marked by uncertainty. He notes that the uncertainty arising from an imprecision in our data or limitations in our theories is of a nature different from the uncertainty of making personal decisions. I think he overlooks the fact that science as a human activity is also subject to the same risk-accompanying doubts as religion. When we identify science only with reason, we miss out some essential points of what makes science what it is. Science is not just a recitation of facts (or data points with associated error bars, one sort of doubt) found in a science textbook. It is not even just the quest for an accurate description, finding the right equation to describe nature as best it can. Rather, science is the act of a human being looking for a deep understanding of nature, and understanding is more than just data.
Merely finding the most accurate equation to match the data is not science. A computer could do that. Instead, what we seek in science are insights about why nature behaves the way it does. We might begin by searching for all the different solutions that a computer could give us to fit our data, but then we have to use human judgment and intuition to decide which solution seems most likely to lead us to understand the bigger puzzle we are trying to solve. That decision must be made intuitively, as an act of faith. (This idea is also developed in Stanley Jaki’s The Relevance of Physics, 1965, p. 129)
Consider one of the first examples of rational, mathematical science in action, the description of the motions of the planets. If all we want to do is to predict eclipses and cast better horoscopes, then the Ptolemaic system of circular epicycles about a fixed earth can calculate planetary positions just fine. In fact, if we refine the system by adding more and more epicycles, we can calculate those positions ever more accurately. It is an example of Fourier’s theorem: an infinite number of epicycles in a Ptolemaic formulation gives a perfectly accurate description of planetary positions, indeed, one far more accurate than relying on Kepler’s ellipses. Kepler’s version of the Copernican system (elliptical orbits about a fixed sun), however, led to and supported Newton’s laws of motion and of gravity. These laws completely changed the way we understand physics. No version of Ptolemy, no matter how accurate, was going to do that.
Notice what this means about the nature of science in terms of the “big book” idea. First, it reminds us that no science is permanent; the book is unfinished. The pre-Copernican system of planetary positions held for fifteen hundred years, but even that was not fixed and eternal. Our best science of today may well be seen to be wrong in a thousand years or ten years or tomorrow. There is no predicting ahead of time when it will come up short. Note that it is not even or only that we will replace our theories with newer and better theories. If we can learn anything from the history of science it is that sooner or later our questions will change so much that today’s certainties will be not just wrong but, indeed, irrelevant.
More essentially, science is not the same thing as “getting the right answer.” It is coming up with an answer that leads to new insights. It is impossible to calculate ahead of time whether or not a given explanation will lead to fruitful insights. Indeed, there is no way to know ahead of time just how useful any given insight is likely to be. Generally, it takes years of work before a clear judgment can be confirmed about the value of a particular piece of work, and even then such judgments are never final. Yet the scientist must decide, in the absence of this certainty, which explanation is worth pursuing now—in time for the next grant proposal or the next thesis defense. Such decisions are just those that Tillich says faith must make without certainty, and they are made on the basis of something that looks a lot like faith.
As an example, the current state of theories of gravity in twenty-first-century cosmology are reminiscent of the Aristotelean/Copernican debate of the seventeenth century. Given the evidence for an accelerating universe, one can either attempt to adapt Einstein’s general theory of relativity, with perhaps the addition of a cosmological constant, or one can abandon Einstein in favor of any of a half dozen different exotic theories of gravity. The consensus today favors staying with Einstein, but then the consensus for most of the seventeenth century favored staying with Aristotle.
(To be continued…)