I read two essays this past week whose well reasoned arguments impressed me. Though the two articles are not related, and not exactly addressing the same point, in a broader sense are on opposite sides of a larger debate regarding the role of religion/philosophy on the one side and science on the other in shaping our thinking on major issues.
Lisa Randall writing in the 3 October 2011 issue of TIME, How Science Can Lead the Way , defends the role of science in shaping public policy in dealing with subjects like climate change and warns that following ‘faith based’ ideas while rejecting real science places the entire nation at risk for making very bad policy with seriously detrimental consequences. As she argues, empirically based logic allows us to test ideas and improve them and thus is a more reasonable way to determine national policies. Randall characterizes the difference between science and revealed religion as:
“Logic tries to resolve paradoxes, whereas much of religious thought thrives on them. Adherents who want to accept both religious influences on the world and scientific explanations for its workings are obliged to confront the chasm between tangible effects and unseen, imperceptible influences that is unbridgeable by logical thought. They have no choice but to admit the inconsistency–or simply overlook the contradiction.”
First, while she believes religious thought thrives on paradoxes, I would say that is true only for a small portion of believers. It is true that a number of us are awed by mystery and that it feeds a certain spirituality. I would say though that for many believers paradoxes are a threat to their faith as they imagine that religion has to do with fundamental facts not with paradoxical mysteries. For my part, I do spiritually thrive in the world of religious paradox, and I am drawn to the science of uncertainty. Both speak to me of God and the limits of human rationality.
Randall does point out exactly the problem facing believers who also are comfortable with the work of science: we have to deal with the inconsistencies in world view or overlook the contradictions between faith and reason. It is an apt description of what people of faith are sometimes faced with. Probably she overestimates how often that contradiction rises to the level of conscious decision making (not to mention decisions of conscience!). I think many believers accept the realm of scientific knowledge and assume faith and reason are not contradictory. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t occur mostly because we don’t think through the issues completely. However, for much of one’s daily life this ignoring the contradiction has no major impact – kind of like the same way in which Newtonian/classical physics was good enough to get a man to the moon but does not come close to accounting for the quantum world. Randall writes:
“In fact, an important part of science is understanding uncertainty. When scientists say we know something, we mean we have tested our ideas with a degree of accuracy over a range of scales. Scientists also address the limitations of their theories and define and try to extend the range of applicability. When the method is applied properly, the right results emerge over time.”
I wonder about her claim that “Scientists all address the limitations of their theories”. For most scientists that may be true. But it is also well known today that a number of evolutionary and atheistic scientists believe they can explain everything about humans through genetic science – there are no limits to what science can do. That is what causes problems for people of faith. These are issues raised in the recent book by James Le Fanu Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.
To understand science, Randall says you must understand that it deals with uncertainty. This is a truth that is not completely understood by many believers. Believers often imagine a world in which there are absolute facts and no uncertainty. For them the Bible is either absolutely literally true or of no value whatsoever. That is how they read the Bible and that is how they imagine science views the world. But science especially since the rise of quantum mechanics in the 20th Century deals much more in scales of probability. Many things can be predicted with great scientific accuracy, but there is a degree of uncertainty because of the number of factors that can effect events. Indeterminacy is a fact of physics today. Thus science can be fairly certain of some of its ideas, and that degree of certainty has allowed for much of the technology which benefits us today. It does however also admit to a certain level of uncertainty.
I would only comment that it is this degree of uncertainty, no matter how microscopically small, which should allow believers to realize that science is not always opposed to faith. The worldviews of science and religion share a fascination with mystery and uncertainty. Faith in God is not hurt by the facts, by truth, or by the laws of nature. However, ideologists often hold to ideas despite the facts. This can be as true as ‘faithists’ as of atheists.
In the next blog we will look at an essay that says there are ways to real knowledge from fields other than science.
Next: Well Reasoned Words (II)