Okay, way past time to dust off the blog…
Been thinking about this issue while reading a lecture by Dr. (Sir) John Polkinghorne. I like where he started the lecture; “Science has purchased it’s very great success by the modesty of its ambition.”
Science and religion are not incompatible at all. Science concerns itself with the study of what is observable, while religion with what is not necessarily observable. (I admit even these are arguable points) There is no conflict here, the conflict can occur when science tries to draw conclusions about metaphysical issues (what cannot be observed) on the basis of what can be observed physically. Science is simply too narrow of a field of study and willingly does not include the possibility of certain things in its equation. (I.e. a supernatural Creator) Equally, religion makes the same mistake when it assumes that everything observed will fit neatly within our understanding of what has been said. (God’s Word) Here again is an arguable point of conflict; God’s Word simply does not address certain things about His creation. It is as if He intentionally left many, many things just for the purpose of our discovering them. As with many fields of science, every time another layer of the puzzle is resolved it merely opens up another layer of what is yet to be discovered. It seems as if there are many conclusions in science today that are continually being trumped by the latest discovery of tomorrow.
Further, in religion the pursuit is not so much in the form of “discovering what is discoverable” but rather in knowing why it is discoverable at all. Again, where we run into conflict is when science attempts to answer what are really metaphysical questions while religion sometimes tries to answer questions that God has simply not answered. I’ll give you an example, in the Bible, the letter written to the “Hebrews” chapter 11 and verse 3 says;
By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made from things which are visible.
While this statement will not satisfy the average scientist, it also leads the believer to temper his or her views on scientific discovery. Why?
First, the question of origins. Science begins with a ball of matter or energy which spontaneously explodes. The Bible begins with a “matterless” expanse. The Bible accounts the order of the knowable universe to a Creator Who made it by speaking matter into existence. That is not an “observable” phenomenon. It is outside the realm of science and what science asks. (Science is the pursuit of what is observable and knowable, again, an admittedly arguable definition) So what is stated here in this passage is that the question of origins, predating what is observable, is a matter of faith. (What is not observable) Let me explain the faith component like this as it pertains to this verse and why Christians believe what they do concerning the universe’s origins. (Although there is much debate even within ecclesiastical circles) What faith does in a situation like this is, it bypasses the rational mind and lays hold of what God says as being “truth” and treating it as real. That is a metaphysical answer to a physical question and not where science wants to go or can go by its own self-imposed limitations. (The study of what is observable)
The flip side is when science draws a conclusion from what is observable about that which is not observable. “When I look into space I don’t see God therefore He does not exist”. It would be just as absurd to say; “I didn’t see Michelangelo paint the Mona Lisa therefore Michelangelo does not exist.” I may be confusing metaphors but I don’t think so. I also know that my illustration is a gross oversimplification. But the point is science deals with what is observable and religion with what is not observable, taken this way there is no conflict at all. But when those two fields try to answer each other’s questions, there is trouble.
Take the creation/evolution conflict. (Even the title “creation/evolution” is an oversimplification of the discussion, but I hope you understand what I mean when I use that term) Science says the world is roughly 13.7 billion years old. That is a conclusion drawn from observable facts. (Although those facts are a bit slippery and the age of the universe keeps changing to keep up with the latest scientific discovery) Many religious people look at the Bible, do their own math and conclude that the world is about 6,000 years old. As usual in an argument like this, the creation side largely ignores or marginalizes what contradicts their own view and the evolution side does the same thing. (Although each side would argue that!) But having taught the book of Genesis a few times and the first few verses even more than that, I am perfectly content to conclude that God did not explain Himself other than by saying; “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1) God starts in “matterless” existence and science does not. God simply does not answer the “scientific” question with a “scientific” answer. He offers a metaphysical answer, He makes it an issue of faith, (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 11:3) while leaving for the scientist a universe full of observable thing to occupy him. I cannot empirically prove Genesis 1:1 and neither can the scientist disprove it. We are dealing with two kinds of answers for the same question and those two answers address two different aspects of that question. Science takes us back to matter, the Bible to “pre-matter”.
As a person of faith, it really does not matter to me whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or 14 billion. The God that I worship, the God of the Bible and in my view the only God there is, He could have created everything we see 5 minutes ago and created us with all of our memories of it. I don’t think He did, but He possess the right and might to do whatever He wishes with what He has created. So maybe there is room to step back, recognize that science and religion may be looking at the same question but coming up with two very different answers because each is concerned with protecting the integrity of what it wants to believe. In my mind this is not necessary. The Christian can and should not only pursue any and every field of science without fear of faith being destroyed, but also the scientist can rest comfortably in his own work knowing that he is by the very nature of what he is doing, delving into something only as far as he can see, and that in itself is its own limitation.
Again, I know I am generalizing as science does sometimes need to deal with what is unobservable and religion does deal with what is observable. (Behavior for instance) But I hope you can see, or at least consider, that there does not have to be conflict between the two, there is plenty of room in the knowable and unknowable universe for those who wish to venture beyond it.