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.