Are Science and Faith Compatible?
Lately it seems as if some of the most volatile and debated issues of philosophy, religion, politics, and science have become even more polarized then they have ever been. I do recognize my own limited point of view in this regard and accept that such a statement is likely hyperbolic to the extreme. Yet, in recent history, our culture has certainly tended toward partisanship, especially in matters of faith and culture. This may be a small and fleeting moment in the grand scheme of things, but it is one that we are in and must discuss rather than allow the continued fragmentation of society based upon misunderstanding and mischaracterization of so many issues. As the title of this post suggests, my purpose in writing is primarily to discuss the compatibility of science and faith, though I do want to stress that I believe that this issue is only symptomatic of a larger trend of radical polarization of ideas in our culture.
So, again to the question: are the realms of science and faith compatible? Can one be a faithful adherent of religion, acknowledging the supernatural, and still understand or even practice science? The short answer should be an absolute “yes!” However, many do not agree. Some claim that the very basis of faith, that there is what cannot be proven empirically, flies in the face of science. Or, in other words, that what cannot be proven empirically cannot be said to exist! Such a notion is obviously false. One need only question the reality of abstract ideas, numbers, metaphysics, or aesthetics to recognize that many things that our culture (and even science itself) depends upon to be true are not empirically verifiable. (See my series, Science and Faith, for more elaboration on this point.) What is really the problem here is that science, by nature of what it is and how it operates, illegitimately excludes that which cannot be proven empirically from truth as a whole.
Perhaps, then, the realm of science is being inappropriately misunderstood as a comprehensive epistemology rather than a method? Science is not a category of knowledge, nor its primary source. It is a method by which some knowledge is apprehended. Religion, on the other hand, is also not the primary source of knowledge. Religion is a practice which generally attributes its method to the influence of the supernatural (Though a case can be made for non-supernatural or secular religions, my point here is to focus on the relationship between religion of the supernatural kind and science). While the supernatural catalyst of religion, especially in the theistic sense, may have the properties of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc., no one (that I know of) claims that religion can lead to the apprehension of the same qualities.
However, both science and religion allow for conclusions to be made about reality. This is where the conflict occurs, since the conclusions tend to be characterized as contradictory. D.J. Grothe, in a recent interview with Dr. Michael Shermer on the program ‘Point of Inquiry,’ said:
“Science and religion are incompatible if religion makes any claims about the universe inconsistent with science…but not…if you’re a religionist who’s willing to give up all of the supernatural claims.”
This statement may require some time to register as the falsehood that it actually is. Grothe claims that science and religion only conflict when religion disagrees with science! In other words, science is always correct. But can science always be correct? Surely a look at many incorrect theories should prove otherwise. Yet, what I am more interested in questioning is the characterization of science as something that can even be characterized as “correct” or “incorrect.” Science is a method that should lead to a correct determination provided that steps are taken without error, similar to the mathematic process of addition. However, can it be said that “addition is always correct?” Of course not! The process of addition provides the correct sum when it has been conducted without error. What Grothe is doing, perhaps unwittingly, is establishing science as an inerrant and comprehensive teleological source, rather than using it as a method through which to apprehend knowledge. Moreover, Grothe, most likely wittingly in this case, neuters religion to only that which is non-supernatural. Clearly, this undercuts the very purpose of the religions which he claims contradict science. Again, he has stacked the deck in his favor.
Grothe’s guest, Dr. Michael Shermer, responded by saying:
“There’s no evidence through science [for the effects of faith]. Wherever there have been attempts to prove it, those attempts have failed- most recently with the prayer and healing studies with the 1800 cardiac bypass patients with which there was no effect at all. This is a big mistake that religious people make…trying to use science to prove something. They’re going to fail. They always do.”
What Shermer says may be true, if not for the time being, possibly forever. Perhaps science will never prove the effects of faith, or the existence of the supernatural. However, this is really not the issue at hand. In fact, it seems to be a red herring meant to categorize the faithful as misusing science to somehow prove faith. Surely this is not true of all people of faith, nor is it germane to the compatibility of science and faith. Incidentally, I recall reading an article in the New York Times about the study mentioned by Shermer and wondering just what exactly the parameters were for tracking the relationship between prayer and health. Were the people praying all accounted for? Were they all praying for the same thing or to the same god? Were the patients themselves praying? Was there any relationship at all between the faith or skepticism of the patients and those who prayed for them? It seemed to me that the conclusion was: not enough people got better, therefore prayer doesn’t work. I would ask whether prayer is, in this case, being limited to the act of supplication rather than being understood for the rich, nuanced and multifaceted practice that most who pray believe it to be. Regardless, even the perceived failure of such a study has little to do with the compatibility of faith and science.
Decades ago, when presumably the polarization of science and faith was less severe, atheist George Wald spoke on the relationship between the two in an address to the John XXIII Institute Conference on Theology and Ecology. He said:
“I think the struggle to know is epitomized in science. One could add a word and say an unending struggle to know God. I think the big question is, if one added that word, would one have changed the meaning of the sentence? For me, no.”
While I may disagree with his atheistic position, I do agree with his statement. Wald sees both science and religion as in pursuit of knowledge, yet he has chosen to pursue one over the other. It seems he is content to make that choice, yet in speaking this way he makes no claim that his decision was compelled by a valid restriction of religion by science. In fact, he went on to characterize his own secular scientific position as religious.
Is it possible then, that the question itself of whether science and religion are compatible is actually contributing to the false dichotomy of “science or religion, but not both?” The very birth of scientific practice is rooted in the belief in a teleological universe which should be ordered in such a way as to be studied systematically. Without such a philosophical grounding, one has no basis to believe that the systematic approach of science would be at all effective. In other words, science began with faith. So long as the faithful in this world practice science, in whatever capacity, the notion that one can either be faithful or scientific but not both is a false dichotomy.