Are Science and Religion At Odds?

Published on October 11, 2009 by CT in Blog, Questions

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Are Science and Religion At Odds

Non-exhaustive answers to hard and relevant questions—From the Ask a Smart Guy or Gal Series…

Question:  Are Science and Religion At Odds?

A friend asked for my thoughts on “God, the Big Bang, Creation, Age of the Earth, and Genesis,” all minor questions, right?  I sent him a quick response, outlining three things to think about:  1) The ultimate question to address is first cause, 2) Creationists need not fear science, and 3) Creationists and Naturalists both apply bias to the facts they observe.

But there’s more to say on this subject.  Much more.  And I’m not the one to say it, because I haven’t studied this issue like I should.  So I found someone who has (my brother), and I asked him to share his thoughts.  And I think you’ll find it to be a worthwhile read:

For starters, it’s important to note the limits of knowledge and the limits of science.  People who describe themselves as scientists are not always forthcoming about what science really is.  Science can mean simply knowledge or, in more modern times, it can mean knowledge gained through use of the scientific method.

You may remember this from high school, but the scientific method starts with a hypothesis to explain phenomena, then tests that hypothesis in ways that are repeatable and verifiable.  When we ask questions about the universe’s origins, it’s worth noting that modern science cannot, by definition, tell us anything about it.  The reason is simple:  we can’t repeat and verify how the universe began.  What this kind of science can do is make speculations based on available information, which is what the philosopher or theologian does as well.  This is why the war between Religion and Science is really a false war; the competition is actually between Theism and Naturalism.

We can take cosmology (study of the universe) as an example.  Most people believe in the Big Bang or creation by some sort of God.  But it’s misleading to really call Big Bang cosmology science in the same way we call Biology or Chemistry science.  It’s actually more akin to philosophy or metaphysics.  Cosmology states beliefs, not facts.  But don’t take my word for it.  George F.R. Ellis, a Fellow of the Royal Society, co-author with Stephen Hawking of Cambridge of The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, and a physicist considered to be one of the world’s leading theorists in cosmology, states:

“People need to be aware that there is a range of models that could explain the observations….For instance, I can construct you a spherically symmetrical universe with Earth at its center, and you cannot disprove it based on observations….You can only exclude it on philosophical grounds.  In my view there is absolutely nothing wrong in that.  What I want to bring into the open is the fact that we are using philosophical criteria in choosing our models. A lot of cosmology tries to hide that.” (W. Wayt Gibbs, “Profile: George F. R. Ellis,” Scientific American, October 1995, Vol. 273, No.4, p. 55., as quoted on www.big-bang-theory.com)

But cosmology is no outlier.  Much of modern science tells the same tale.  When we hear there is broad consensus from leading scientists, we tend to believe them, because they seem a lot smarter than we are.  But consensus isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  In years past, there was consensus that the earth was the center of the solar system; that one didn’t work out too well.  In the early 20th Century, there was consensus that an invisible “aether” filled space; we now know this is nonsense.  Ultimately, if you look back 200 years, very little of what we knew to be true scientifically was actually right. Theories are discarded or replaced over time as more discoveries are made.  This should give us pause today as we examine scientific evidence and make conclusions that are pronounced as gospel truth.

The dirty little secret about evolution is that it is a theory like many of those that have come and gone throughout history.  Again, we can go to the theory’s leading voices to make the point.  You have probably heard of Richard Dawkins, a renowned Oxford zoologist and well-known apologist for Darwinian evolution.  Dr. Dawkins has openly stated both on film and in writing that “nobody knows how life got started on earth. We know what kind of event it was:  the origin of the first self-replicating molecule…”  When the lead apologist says nobody knows how the most important event to evolutionary theory happened, that should trigger a flag for us:  we’re no longer in the realm of science.  We’re now dealing with philosophy or metaphysics, where presupposition, not evidence, is the key driver.

If the scientific community that studies origins is comprised largely of Naturalists rather than Theists, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find their conclusions have natural, rather than supernatural, explanations.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t in their own right to observe the evidence and make calculated speculation about questions about origins; it just means we critique their conclusions, even consensus-driven ones, on philosophical grounds.

Ultimately, if we treat the science that says the earth is 4.5 billion years old like the science that gives us the ability to make a rocket that can go to the moon, we do a disservice to both science and philosophy.  This should raise many questions, and we’ll address some of them here in the future.  In fact, if you have any big ones you’d like to see discussed, you can share them here.  But as you consider these thoughts, realize science will take us to the point where faith must begin, and this is true whether you believe in God or not.

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    Contemporary astrophysics says that dark is 25% and dark energy about 70% of the critical density of the Universe. They cannot be observed by any current instruments. These widely accepted theories imply that science can now study on 5% of this Universe.

    In 1959, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, introduced me to mysticism and the universality of the Universe. While many scientists believe that science and religion can co-exist harmoniously, few would grant the same to mysticism.

    In “Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists” (Shambala Publications 2001), Ken Wilber includes lengthy essays by Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington. Albert Einstein, who never claimed to be a mystic, did write:

    “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Chris_Tomlinson Chris_Tomlinson

      Ron,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If you're up for it, can you expand a little more on what you mean by mysticism as you've come to understand it? It seems that could mean so many things.

      You know, Einstein's statement could be a wonderfully poignant description of God, with a few minor amendments:

      "The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical union we have with Jesus in faith. He is the sower of all true science. To know Him as that which is impenetrable to us, that He truly exists, manifesting Himself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties cannot fully comprehend, even in their primitive forms–this knowledge of Him, this being in His presence, is at the center of true religiousness."

      Thoughts?

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    Chris,

    Sorry, I missed your reply last week. The definitions of mysticism vary, not only among religions and their divisions, but also with each person, whether or not they have had a "mystical experience." One good source:

    Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, by John Bowker (Published by Oxford University Press 1997, 2005):
    Mysticism. “The practices and often systems of thought which arise from and conduce toward mystical experience. Mystical systems are distinguished from other metaphysical systems by their intimate connection to a quest for salvation, union and/or liberation realized through forms of mental, physical and spiritual
    exercise in a classic definition. Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or lesser degree, such a direct experience; one whose religion and life are central not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that
    which he regards as first-hand personal knowledge.”
    Note: Non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism, seek the same ultimate Reality, but it is not conceived as God.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Chris_Tomlinson Chris_Tomlinson

      Thanks, Ron. One of the interesting things I noticed in Bowker's definition is the assumption that all mystics have experienced a connection with God ("a mystic is a person who has…such a direct experience"). I may be narrow-minded on the subject =), but that seems to be a big assumption. Or to put it another way, how do we distinguish between those who have had a direct experience with God and those who merely believe they did? This seems important, particularly in those cases in which these mystics offer logically opposed viewpoints to one another.

      So how do you define mysticism personally? You mentioned the definition may vary–based on each person's experience. I'd be interested in hearing your personal take on the issue and how you've come to see it.

      Thanks for checking back in; I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

  • http://www.suprarational.org Ron Krumpos

    Chris,

    You are asking for words for that which has no words. That is not a cop out. It is like asking an astrophysicist to explain the Universe, preferably in 20 words or less. Or a psychiatrist, "what is the human mind?"

    To quote myself in "the greatest achievement in life," my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org
    "Many of us have had a brief absorption in universal unity, with no sense of separateness. Unless we were advanced in spirituality, or actively engaged on the mystical quest, the awe of oneness which had we felt was as inexplicable as it was profound. It was impossible to sustain it when we tried to understand it; sometimes it may even have been frightening. We had seemed to have lost hold of “reality.” We actually had a glimpse of true Reality, the nature of being itself."

    "Almost every person feels that their life is lacking in some way, although they are seldom able to define it. There always seems to be something missing. True mystics feel wholeness often. It is not a temporary absorption in divine union. Rather, it is identifying with the divine essence everywhere. Living, for them, usually
    expands beyond their own immediate sentiments, thoughts and sensing. Their feeling, thinking and actions become for the soul, the whole and all, not for “I, me” and “my.” Their sense of being reaches beyond limited personal concerns."

  • drallendunckley

    To C.T enjoyed your brother's article. He hit the nail on the head in every paragraph. Keep up the good work!