Saturday, February 25, 2006

Science and Religion

A very smart friend of mine, who is more widely read on this topic than I, recently posited several questions to me. I'm going to selectively quote her below, followed by my thoughts. Yes, I'm lazy in just quoting some emails, but also I think the questions are important, and well-phrased by Apollonia.

I'm still playing around with the relationship between religion and science and what is the appropriate role of each. For example, science cannot answer "was Jesus the son of G-d?" That is not a question that is testable or falsifiable and so is not within the ability of science to answer. Similarly, religion cannot answer what the mechanisms are that cause AIDS, the Bible doesn't have a chapter on that one.
I don't like the idea that the two are separate but equal, that they have independent spheres of investigation and each should stay to its own...At the same time though trying to incorporate the two into some sort of pseudo hybrid that doesnt accurately
reflect either viewpoint like the day-epoch theory to reconcile creation and evolution is equally distasteful because it doesn't recognize the subtle beauty that either understanding brings to the origin of man and his place in the world.

My thoughts:

The realms of science and religion are not separate, you are right in that. They are, in fact, completely overlapping in one sense. If you accept the Christian conception of the world (and all people will eventually, whether they want to or not, but that's another story) you accept the idea that there is one being over all, who created and sustains his creation at his pleasure. Therefore, any investigation of that creation is an investigation into Him, in some sense, however small. As the Psalmist says, "The heavens declare the glory of G-d." (Psalm 19, verse 1)

What does that mean for the scientist? It means that they must undertake those studies, those investigations, in humility before their creator. If you approach the study of cell biology from the understanding that you are a child of the G-d who made and understands far deeper than you ever will the process you investigate, then you are unlikely to use that knowledge for nefarious ends. Dr. Moreau's mistake is not in his science, it is in his replacement of G-d with science. For we are all made to know and love and be loved and known by the creator of the world. That part of our nature begs for fulfillment, and when denied through our sinful stubbornness, our bodies will fill it, with gods our own making, like friends, lovers, sex, possessions, or ideas. Science can become a god like anything else. When it does, there is no consistent way to reign in the drive for knowledge as knowledge, wherever that takes us. And we are warned biblically, what profit is it to man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

In that sense, science is utterly subordinate to religion, or more properly, to faith, for religion is merely the human trapping that dresses up faith.

In what sense then, are they separate? Faith, or theology, or the church, is, as you stated, ill-equipped to understand the mechanisms of HIV infection, in the protein-cytokine-crazystuffIdon'tunderstand sense. Science as a pursuit can direct our understanding of those processes, but properly understood, science is without an ideology, and is therefore ill-equipped to act on that knowledge in a responsible way. This is where the humility of the scientist before G-d is so important.

It would seem then, that I am saying science is never superior to, or completely separate from, faith. This is true, for though it may be equipped to answer questions, science is only one pursuit within the world, and it is a way of understanding a part of the world, while faith is a way of life, an all-consuming worldview which shapes everything we do, and though when strictly concerned with theology, it cannot answer scientific questions, more broadly, it places science and the answers and questions stemming from it in their proper context.


Is the line where I have drawn it, and is the solution as I have outlined? Is it the kind of hybrid my questioner finds distateful?


CLD said...

Your response is incredibly insightful and leaves much to ponder. But one distinction should be made clear. (This is not a critique of your post, simply an elucidation of one aspect of it.)

It is not faith, but God, to which science is subordinate. Faith and science are human pursuits (though both are arguably divinely inspired). To say that science is subordinate to faith requires that individual (or community) faith have the power to invalidate scientific theory. In this way, an individual could disclude the experimentally corroborated conclusions of a large community of scientists and declare their conclusions to be rubish because those conclusions do not match with the individual's faith or interpretation of religion. But how can (well-established) scientific theory ever conflict with that to which it is subordinate? The answer is that faith may require interpretation, as might scientific theory, and it is in the human interpretation of God and His works that inconsistencies are introducted. It is true, however, that science is subordinate to God. It must be, since science is in essence the exploration of His creation and of the principles that He chose for the world to follow.

But how do we follow faith and follow science and expect consistencies and the preservation of the principles of each (e.g. morality and objectivity, respectively)? That seemed the true essense of your post: you prioritize faith above science in a functional way, and thus in the exercise of living our lives, you declare science to be subordinate to faith. (Others may take a different approach.) ie, By using faith to guide the direction of science, morality may be preserved. And on that I need to think more before answering. Besides, this response is already long enough. :)

Nathan said...

Thanks for your response, cld.

I could not disagree more. Yes, science is subordinate to G-d. Everything is. Faith is not G-d, true.

But faith is the proper human response to G-d, and as such shapes our entire worldview. Everything we do, say, think, or become must be subordinate to G-d. That subordination, that shaping of our lives, is faith.

Saying then, that science is subordinate to faith means merely that as a pursuit it must be undertaken in submission to G-d, and therefore in an attitude of faith. Faith is not science, and is not equipped to elucidate molecular pathways and viral structures and epitope configurations. How that knowledge is pursued, understood, and used is the province of faith.

I would argue that there is no way science as pure objectivity can contradict faith. Science as ideology can, and does, often. But it is that kernel of ideology which gets scientists in trouble, for having replaced G-d with science, they do not see it as ideology. Saying something created, or some use of a created thing, is useful solely in and of itself is the first step towards paganism.

Anonymous said...

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.