Science: “Just” a Matter of Faith?

A colleague put me onto a blog from last week, where the author explores the “faith” factor in science. He notes how many books about science, intended for a popular (non-specialist) audience, are pitched (in their titles, at least) with a “God” angle. He concludes (rightly, I think) that titles such as Is God a Mathematician?, The God Effect, or God Created the Integers (all popular books by respected scientists) are “about claiming and signaling authority,” rather than any real conversation between science and religion. In order to be credible when addressing ultimate mega-questions, apparently, a science expert has to use “the semiotics of religion.”

The blogger, I think, misunderstands both science and religion. His caricature of religion is that it depends on irrational and unsupportable claims of authority; and that religion provides “very simple, very comforting, and very accessible answers” to the Big Questions about “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” None of that is exactly true as a description of religion (or at least as a description of theology as I am familiar with it).

His depiction of science is not much better, though he clearly has more sympathy for science. Science is concerned with real, objective truth, which is grasped by a select few gifted and trained individuals who command the “postgraduate horrific math” that scientists employ as “their own arcane language.” While “real” science is concerned only with facts, rationality, and evidence, what passes for scientific knowledge for most people is simply belief in some so-called expert’s interpretation of scientific truth. The question is asked, “How do we know the science we know?” And the answer is, by trusting experts, not by real first-hand knowledge. And the identification of qualified experts is a cultural choice, not a scientific process.

The real picture of both science and religion is more complex, and (fortunately!) more interesting.

Every kind of human knowing—including “scientific” knowledge—involves a necessary dimension of personal commitment. Human beings do not, and cannot, know the universe “objectively” simply because they are enmeshed and involved in that which they are attempting to know. (For more about this, you might read some Michael Polanyi, such as his Personal Knowledge.) It’s more than a little misleading to reduce this insight to the suggestion that science (or religion, or economics, or history, or any other area of knowledge) is “just” a matter of faith. That word “just” is dismissive and trivializing, and obscures important aspects of all kinds of “knowing.”

Besides, all of us are “laypersons” in almost all areas of knowledge. I am a trained theologian, but I am a layman when it comes to quantum physics, non-Euclidian geometry, rice farming, art history, seismology, road construction, internal medicine, etc. The list of my non-expertise is endless! When I need to use some knowledge from all those fields in which I am a layman (or when I am simply curious), I rely on others who (I hope) know more than I do. My judgment about these “authorities” can be mistaken, so I might turn to the wrong people. I can and do misunderstand them at times. My knowledge will be imperfect, second-hand, and perhaps seriously flawed. But much of the time it will be good enough for what I need to do (or to satisfy my curiosity). And if I need to (or just want to) know more, and better, I can study the math, or visit the museums, or plant my own crops, or learn whatever I need to learn to become less of a layman and more of a first-hand “knower” in another field.

So, of course, science, like theology, is not inherently or necessarily a closed guild. The mathematical language of the scientists (like the Greek or Hebrew or specialized jargon of the theologians) is not deliberately “arcane” to protect the secret truth from prying lay eyes, but rather as precise as possible. Math is hard, but an intelligent person who works at it can learn to do differential equations and matrix algebra. Something similar is true of the language of theology, as well (even Greek!). Truth, in both science and theology, is public truth, accessible (in principle) to anyone, but that doesn’t mean that there is some iron-clad method which will mechanistically and automatically crank out unarguable truth. Knowing is hard, and holistic. As physicist Richard Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there” (emphasis added). Amen! He could have said the same thing about theology.

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