On the Conflict of Science and Faith

If you ask anyone in America what happened on November 22, 1963, older ones might say it was the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX.  But of the myriad other births and deaths on that day, another death had tremendous impact on the soul of the world.  It was also the day C.S. Lewis died.

I have often thought of that fact: that Lewis and I overlapped here in this life a mere few months.  I never met him, and if I had I would not have remembered it.  I got to know “Jack,” as his friends called him, while I was in graduate school.  I knew he had written science fiction and fantasy.  But I came to realize the greatest offering Lewis made to the world was in his enormous command of the broader issues of the Christian faith, and the easy way in which he related that to his readers.  Many of his collected writings were transcripts of lectures and radio appearances.  While his prose was indeed admirable, his ideas were light years beyond even that.

Lewis experienced the tragic loss of his mother at an early age.  At the age of 15, he rejected his upbringing in the Church of Ireland, and became an atheist.  After service in World War I, he completed his university studies, embarked on an academic career, and after meeting some influential friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he was reluctantly convinced to return to theism.  Two years later, he placed his membership with the Anglican Communion, to the Catholic Tolkien’s dismay.

One of the things Lewis made very clear to me was in his book, Miracles.  Lewis artfully extricated the concept of the supernatural—that which is outside of the normal natural laws—from the natural.  In that discussion, he talked about how only one who appreciates the supernatural can fully understand and appreciate the natural.  That person can step away from nature and respect it for what it is in a more holistic sense, and does not need to dissect it to it elemental parts.  He was not talking about the spooky, eerie manifestation of the supernatural, but the idea that God, and his son, Jesus, operate outside the normal laws that we have to live by in this universe.  He talked about Jesus’s first public miracle, the conversion of water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  In that act, he demonstrated that he had command of the natural world.  Rather than wait for the grapes to produce the juice, and the fermentation process to make the wine, he stepped around the process and went from point A (water) to point D (wine) without having to go through the middle steps as nature might do it.  Feeding the five thousand, which has been explained by some as merely demonstrating Jesus’s amazing power of persuasion to entice people to share the food they had packed with them, also stepped around the natural process of growing the grain, catching the fish, and preparing them for the meal.  He took what was already present and multiplied it, going from point A to something much farther down the alphabet.

Now, as a biologist and a Christian, I am frequently caught in the middle of the science vs. faith feud.  People on either side want to use science to prove that God exists or that God doesn’t exist.  I have come to realize that science is useless in trying to measure that which operates outside of natural laws.  We have no means to accomplish it.  For science to attempt to disprove the existence of God by the practice of science is as impossible as religion trying to prove the existence of God by the practice of science.  I know the arguments on both sides.  I understand them, at least to a fair extent.  The whole philosophy of science as an enterprise built not on proving a point but disproving a hypothesis cannot be used on a hypothesis that by its very nature (“supernature”?) cannot be empirically falsified.

As I perceive it, these two realms are like tandem subatomic particles, mirroring each other’s moves as they dance about the nucleus of reality.  If you know the velocity of the one, you have lost the spin on the other.  By knowing one’s position, the orbital trajectory of the other is lost.  To focus on one to the exclusion of the other is to lose the harmony and beauty of the interplay.

Whether you are pro or con with respect to a deity, you have a problem with using science to support your case.  The crux of the issue is this: How do you measure God?  One infers his presence from a set of data, while another infers his absence.  Any such measurement that we can use as those trapped in only four dimensions, would not be measuring God but rather some effect, some product, some trail of bread crumbs, or branches swaying in the wind.

An interesting side-effect of this is that those who use science to prove God’s existence and those who deny anything relating to God by the exercise of the process of science are actually unified in expressing their faith in a system, that science can answer any and all questions.  The position of faith is that God gave man science so that man may know and understand him.  The position of science is that man carved science from the hard rock of reason in order to subdue ignorance.  But they are both actually subject to the inability of science to penetrate the veil of concrete reality.

In the moral drama of the biblical Book of Job, there is a wonderful speech beginning in chapter 38 attributed to God, where he has listened to the complaints of Job, who questioned the reason for his many afflictions, being the unknowing pawn in the game proposed by Satan.

“Job 38:1  Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

2  “Who is this who darkens counsel By words without knowledge?

3  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

4  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.

5  Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

6  To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone,

7  When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

God goes on with a catalog of things that Job could not have known, including mysteries of nature from the movement of clouds, to the nature of constellations, to the function of great beasts thought to be the likes of the crocodile and the hippopotamus.  The questions were meant to humble Job, to remind him of his limitations, and all have limitations, on either side of this particular aisle.

On either side of the argument, the bottom line comes down to the fine point of faith.  The believer believes in God because.  That “because” is a vast and often undefinable set of reasons.  The unity and diversity of life suggest to some the hand of an artist.  The complexity of even the simplest cell suggests to some a grand designer.  But calculations of probability do not beyond a shadow of doubt “prove” God.  That is not playing by the rules of science, and it is dangerous to use a tool when we do not use it correctly, or for the proper purpose.

The denier of deity is also bound by the same yoke of science.  To hold that a possible, even probable sequence of events is the only explanation of any historic phenomenon is to speak where there is no eyewitness authority, and a violation of the very empirical rules that govern science.

According to the Book of Hebrews 11:1, “…faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. “ (NKJV)  This is easy for the believer to grasp.  Faith in the divine fills in the gaps.  It is a losing proposition to try to carry water in a basket.  But if I coat the basket inside and out with pitch, it just might work.  For the denier, faith in the system still fills in the gaps:  but for him, pitching the basket prevents water from getting in and spoiling the contents that he is already certain are there.

So, how can a person embrace both science and a religious faith?  It is not easy.  But I believe it gets down to understanding and embracing the complementary complexion of the supernatural with the natural.  Like a photon, our reality has a multifaceted nature.  A photon is at once both substance, a particle, and energy, a wave.  This is a good model for the broader reality.  By focusing on the mass of the photon, its value is diminished, since its intangible energy facet is discounted.  By only dealing with the energy of the photon, the role of its mass is poorly understood.  The photon must exist as both to be a photon.  Reality must account for the empirical as well as the spiritual, the material as well as the immaterial. The physical is easy to detect and measure, but the supernatural, in this context, even spiritual, is intangible and of an emergent or (more likely) foreign quality that cannot be empirically measured.

There are questions that relate to the physical universe that cannot be honestly addressed by the practice of science.  We may extrapolate back to 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, but there will always be a nagging question of what happened in that infinitesimally small fraction of second, smaller than the blink of gnat’s eye, immediately before that magic interval and back to the primordial event, itself.  And if by math and the collision of particles at CERN, we should by good fortune determine what may have come in that gap, there is still another question: what came before that? (While I am in no wise qualified to enter a discussion of cosmogony, I can’t buy into the idea that the universe was a fait accompli merely because of the law of gravity.)

But other questions more pertinent to human interaction cannot be addressed by science, either: for example, what can give meaning to life?  Someone may say that this question is too vague to answer, since it may differ from person to person.  But a person of faith has no difficulty in answering that: service to others and love for neighbor as well as for self, and above all, love for God because he loved us first.  Certainly, people of faith do not have a corner on the compassion market.  Atheists may be altruists, as well.  But faith lays a foundation that promotes that altruistic view.  And although differing expressions of faith have led to bloody conflict over the years, rising above the physical drive to manifest power, rising to embrace the truly spiritual will lead to an end to that kind of suffering in the name of religion.  Many of the most extreme examples of oppression in the last couple of centuries have been forged in the fires of totalitarian atheism.  Even today, in a more subtle sense, the philosophy that drives an ultra-conservative/ libertarian movement is only nominally affiliated with religion, having co-opted the religious conservative base to serve as the deeper philosophy’s foot soldiers.

Scientists who buck the system of scoffing at religion are apparently something of a dying breed.  But there are some still out there.  Like Saul of Tarsus after his conversion, they are the object of suspicion and derision from all sides.  Both scientists and people of faith see them as sell-outs.  Religious people think that we must use our training to prove the existence of God, or refute evolution, or chastise geneticists for playing God–and some do these very things–or face the judgment as being a heretic.  Scientists usually just scratch their heads and wonder where we went wrong, having not come to the point of shedding some ancient superstition and basking in the bleak light of humanism.  But we can be a bridge between two worlds. We see and understand things that people from either distinct camp cannot or will not see.

Perhaps that is one of the greatest reasons I choose to live a life of faith, consciously choosing to believe in something greater than myself.  Although contrary to empirical reason, it is a perhaps no more than a feeling that there is more to life than the physical.  While there are many religions in the world, I am drawn to the paradoxical demands of Christianity:  its central teachings run counter to the natural tendency of the focus on self.  For example, Jesus taught that there is exaltation in humility and joy in lowly service. When Jesus told his disciples that there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends, he entered the sociobiological realm and brought group selection at least to par with kin selection, making the experience of our common humanity the superior of the preservation of common genes.  Of course, that also flies in the face of philosophies like objectivism and rugged individualism, and forces the concept of love into a more concrete service than many may care to allow for.

There is the unfortunate tendency for some to twist the foundation of religion to fit the mold of a more self-centered existence: “I’ve got to serve and obey so I can go to heaven when I die.”  But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that John Lennon’s proposition was correct, and “Imagine there’s no heaven.”  What would you lose by living a life founded on the principles taught in the pure exercise of the central themes of the Christian faith?  I’m not talking about the power plays of the priestly caste, or the mind control games of legalism.  I’m talking about living the principles laid out in its foundational concepts like The Golden Rule, and the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  To do these things is not to lose one’s self, but to find meaning in service and, although not expected from the outset, to be humbly and graciously served as others (hopefully) may join in and reciprocate.  The core of Christianity is not threat, punishment, and self/soul-preservation.  It is cooperation, altruism, and unassuming benevolence.

The number of scientists with religious convictions may be declining today, but we do exist.  Some of us are quite content to live in both worlds, letting each experience in one realm inform and be informed by those from the other, the natural and supernatural co-existing in harmonious balance.  We are not sell-outs or intellectually inferior.  If we shy away from demands to prove God’s existence, it is not lack of faith that drives us or fear of professional repercussions.  It is understanding the limitations of the empirical system of inquiry.  After all, if God had wanted us to know his hat size, he would have told us, or made it a lot easier to find out.  And while I may see the “thumbprint of God” in various aspects of the physical and natural world like the infinite complexity of nature’s fractal geometry, or the resonance of a divine influence in the repetition of patterns like Fibonacci sequences and Golden Ratios, these do not open God’s mind to me with respect to purpose.  It is faith that opens a dimensional portal to a different realm of existence beyond the mundane, which leads to a way to find happiness in this life, and promises the most illogical, unnatural benefit for a temporal life of selflessness:  the hope of a continuing, unending existence.  Such a reward offers a stark contrast to what we may fear the most, that fear being the twin fates of irrelevance and the inevitable oblivion of non-existence.  But even if that were not on the table, faith would make me a better person for its impetus to ever greater service.  And a world where everyone looked out for each other wouldn’t be a bad place to visit or spend a lifetime.

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