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Do Science and Chrisitianity Conflict?
by Kenneth A. Boyce

This is a written version of a talk given for College students at Truman State University in Kirksville Missouri, USA. It was sponsored by the Baptist Student Union of that same campus.

Has science killed God, or has it simply revealed that He never existed in the first place? In that clip from the movie Contact that we have just seen, did you notice the implicit assumption made by Jody Foster's character, Dr. Arroway? The assumption was that belief in God and belief science are fundamentally incompatible. Dr. Arroway does not argue for this position, she simply assumes it. She takes it as a given. Why? What exactly is it about science that conflicts with belief in God? Do they conflict? Is one more rational than the other?

On some levels, I can identify very much with the character of Dr. Arroway portrayed in this movie. Like her, I tend to have a skeptical bent towards many things. As a physics major, I am, like her, deeply interested in science. Unlike her, I am also a Christian. I have a deep and meaningful faith in Jesus Christ which is the most important thing in my life. Contact is one of my favorite movies, in part because the questions it addresses are close to many of the same questions that I have personally struggled with. Is there a conflict between my faith and science in terms of what each tells me about the world? If not a conflict in the realm of facts, is there, perhaps, a conflict in the methods and attitudes of each toward finding truths about the world? Must I, to be consistent, choose between my love of God and my love of science? Because of these and other questions, and my search for answers to them, I found myself adding an additional major to the physics major I started out with, a major in philosophy and religion.

The issues involved in these questions, I have found, are very deep and trace themselves back to some of our most fundamental beliefs about reality. Brilliant people spend their entire lives studying these questions and often come to very different conclusions. So what is it that makes me, just an undergrad at Truman like yourselves, qualified to stand up here and address this subject? That's a good question. The only answer I can give is that I believe that my own personal involvement with these issues, as well as what I have learned in both of my majors, gives me something of a unique perspective on the whole question of the relationship between science and Christianity. I often find that many of those who see a conflict between science and Christianity (on both sides) have what I call a sort of "tunnel vision" -- they often seem to be blind sided by a single perspective and are unable to see the bigger picture. Other than that, I don't claim to be any more qualified to address these issues than the rest of you. My purpose here, then, is not to give you some definitive resolution to this issue, but, hopefully, to give you some perspective that will help you think more about it.

It is my conviction that if this is a barrier in your spiritual search, it does not need to be, and there are answers.

That being said, I would like to begin addressing this topic by looking at what I believe to be three very common misconceptions about the nature of science and religion that often figure prominently in the whole "science versus religion" debate.

The first misconception is that the scientific method is the only reliable means of obtaining knowledge about the world.

This position is known as "Scientism," and it is one that many in our modern western culture, either consciously or unconsciously, assume to be the case. Often, for example, we use the word "scientific" as a synonym for the word "rational." Something can only be proven, we think, if it can be "demonstrated scientifically." In our culture, science is often regarded as the final judge in all matters of truth. To disagree with science, is to disagree with reason itself. Despite its popularity, however, this position is false, for two basic reasons:

First, it is false because it is self-refuting. The statement "the scientific method is the only reliable means of obtaining knowledge of the world" is itself a statement which can not be known through the scientific method. By its own standards, then, scientism is a position which must be accepted solely on the basis of blind faith, and one which cannot be known to be true.

Second, this position is false because it contradicts many things in our own experience. How do you know that you are in love with someone or that someone genuinely loves you? How do you know that things like racism and the killing of innocent people are wrong? How can you verify scientifically that life is meaningful and worth getting up in the morning for? None of these things are things that can be verified scientifically, but that does not seem to make any of them any less meaningful or less knowable.

Another misconception that many people have about science and religion is that science deals solely with the objective whereas religion deals solely with the subjective.

This is also false. I'll also give two reasons why I believe this to be the case.

First of all, science is not a wholly objective enterprise. Scientific research is guided by theories, working hypotheses, operational frameworks, and the like. Scientists not only make observations to formulate theories, they also use theories to guide them in making observations and to interpret what they are seeing, and these theories and the manner in which they guide observations, reflect the biases of the scientific community at the time.

An experiment I once did for a lab class, I believe, illustrates this point. I was required to measure the charge to mass ratio of an electron. Now, for you English majors out there, that means I had to figure out what number you get when you take the charge an electron has and divide it by amount of mass that an electron has. I did this by observing how a beam of electrons bends in a magnetic field. When I performed this experiment, I did not go into the lab with some "neutral" point of view, but with my mind all ready saturated by several theories which both guided me in doing the experiment and told me what I was seeing as I did it. This is clearly seen when we ask ourselves the following questions: "What's mass?" "What's charge?" "What's an electron?" "What's a ratio?" All of these things are highly abstract and theoretical constructs in themselves. Without these theoretical concepts to guide me, I would have had no way of making sense of what I was seeing, what I was measuring, or even how to go about doing the experiment or measuring anything. How did I know that that little glowing beam of light that I saw was the result of ELECTRON beam, for example, except for the fact that the THEORY told me that's what it was. Ultimately, the theory itself was justified by its ability to make sense of what I was seeing and in a broader context, its ability to make sense of other types of phenomena in my experience.

This illustrates how theories are not only things that scientists test, they are frameworks which condition what the scientist sees and how he or she goes about seeing it. They provide the scientist with a particular point of view -- with a BIAS, and because of our human limitations, this is unavoidable. There are no facts that don't involve some level of interpretation. All observation takes place in particular theoretical frame of reference. As they sometimes say in the philosophy of science, there are no theory neutral facts. All data is theory laden.

A second reason why it is false to maintain that science deals solely with the objective whereas religion deals solely with the subjective is that religion often has objective components to it. Those of us who are Christians, for example, believe that God has objectively revealed certain things about Himself in nature, history, the Bible, and primarily and most definitively in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that because of this, those of us in the Christian community cannot just believe what we want to about God or whatever it is that feels right to us, but we must seek to conform our beliefs about God to what God has revealed about Himself through these sources. Just as the scientific community must "test" its theories against what nature reveals through observation, the Christian community is called to "test" what it believes about God against what God has objectively revealed about Himself.

Consequently, both science and religion often involve both subjective and objective components as well as a complex interaction between them.

The final misconception that I would like to address tonight is that science deals with matters of "fact" whereas religion deals solely with matters of "faith."

This is false because science, too, must rely on faith to make knowledge claims about the world. In order to claim that the practice of science leads to truth, one must have faith that certain fundamental claims about the world are true.

In fact, there is a view of science called "operationalism" or "instrumentalism" which denies that science really produces knowledge about the way that the world actually is. This view holds that science is merely us imposing our human conceptions of order upon the natural world; that science is merely a sort of human game of finding patterns that allow us to predict and control our environment, but that these patterns are just human constructions which reflect nothing about reality itself. I believe that this view is false -- I personally wouldn't care about science if I didn't as I'm interested in finding truth not playing games -- but, there is no way to "prove" that it is false outside of a certain faith that, ultimately, the universe makes sense and is understandable to us, and that there is a certain sense in which our minds resonate with the way the world actually is. Likewise, Christianity, as a view of reality, makes certain faith commitments about God and His revelation to us, and then works within those commitments to make knowledge claims about the world. I see no less validity in this approach than I do in the approach of science as both require that such faith commitments be made.

Now, having addressed these basic misconceptions, I would like to briefly take a look at three areas of potential conflict between Christianity and science and see if any such conflict really exists. Of course, we only have time to scratch the surface of each of these areas.

The first area that I would like to take a look at is the area of history. Historically, have science and Christianity been enemies of each other? At times, they have seemed to be. I'm sure that all of us are aware of what happened to Galileo, how he was ordered to be silent by the church for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun, and placed under house arrest. Overall, though, many modern scholars believe that the answer to this question, despite the popular view that the church has always been in conflict with science, is no. Many famous scientists in the past were also devout Christians or at least held something close to a Christian worldview. This includes scientists like Sir Isaac Newton (who wrote more on theology than he did science), Galileo himself, Johan Kepler, Sir Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell, to name just a few. In fact, there was a time when it was not uncommon for a person to hold a duel appointment in both science and theology. Also, though the importance of the various factors involved in bringing about the scientific revolution is debated, it is likely no accident that it happened in the West, where Christianity dominated. Christianity emphasizes the beliefs that the universe was freely created by God and that human beings were created in God's image. Together, these two doctrines encouraged the belief that the universe is a rational place that can be investigated by human beings, but also, since it was freely created by God, something that had to be investigated through observation and not just through pure reasoning. This is because if the universe was freely created by God, then the logical possibility exists that it could have been otherwise, and so we have to look and see which way it really is. It was a Christian view of reality, then, that helped sow the seeds of the development of what we today would call the scientific method.

Well, if Christianity and science are not enemies of each other historically, then what about factually? Do they make conflicting claims about the world? At times, yes, they do. One of the earliest examples of a conflict between Christianity and science (or, rather, the precursors of science) occurred when the works of Aristotle found there way into Medieval Europe. A fundamental tenet of Aristotle's natural philosophy was that the world was eternal, that it had always existed and always will exist. This clearly conflicts with the Christian doctrine that the world was created by God a finite time ago and that it will someday come to an end. There were many scholars in that day who, though Christians themselves, maintained that Christianity was fundamentally incompatible with science and reason at this point. It would not be until the 20th century, with the advent of Big Bang cosmology, that science would completely abandon the notion that the universe had always existed. In fact Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, even went so far as to fix up the equations of his theory of General Relativity which otherwise predicted that the universe must be either contracting or expanding -- just so he could avoid the implications of the conclusion that the universe had a beginning in time. When it was discovered that the universe is expanding, Einstein called this the biggest blunder of his life. Suffice it to say, scientists no longer believe that the universe has always existed and this conflict has dissolved itself.

Still another area of conflict came with the development of Newtonian physics. Newton's theories of gravitation and motion, though Newton himself did not believe this, seemed to suggest to many that the universe functions like a vast cosmic machine, which, once started off, runs on its own in a completely deterministic fashion. Put in the initial conditions, and Newton's equations predict exactly what will happen, like clockwork. God, if he existed at all, was thought by many after Newton to just be a sort of cosmic watchmaker who wound the universe up and then let it run on its own. Now, this flies in the face of the Christian view that the universe is constantly governed and sustained in its existence by God, that God is fully active in His creation at every moment. It also seems to violate the Christian view that there are creatures, such as ourselves, which posses freewill, creatures which are not completely subject to mechanical forces. Many suggested that Christianity was no longer plausible in light of these developments, that science had rendered it out of date. Suffice it to say, that with the advent of quantum mechanics, which has replaced Newtonian physics, we no longer believe in the Newtonian picture anymore. The picture of the universe given by quantum mechanics seems to allow for the possibility that nature is not wholly determined by mechanistic forces, that there is a certain room for freedom, and perhaps, causes for certain events which lie outside of nature itself. In fact, the physicist and philosopher Sir Arthur Eddington once remarked that, with the advent of quantum mechanics, the universe is starting to look more and more like a great thought than a great machine. Now, I don't want to make too much of this. In my opinion, quantum mechanics is often abused to argue for metaphysical claims that it doesn't really support and there are a number of ways that quantum mechanics can be interpreted. The point is that the so-called "problems" for Christianity created by Newton's physics have disappeared.

In both the above cases, the Christian community was right to hold on to the fundamental tenets of its beliefs, even though they seemed to be in conflict with the science of the time. Of course, I do not believe that it is always the case that the Christian community has been right in times of conflict with science. It was wrong for the church to oppose Galileo. Not all the Christians here will agree with me, and that's okay, but I also believe that those Christians who hold the universe is only six thousand years old are also wrong. I speak only for myself here, but I believe that both these incidents are the result of a misunderstanding and misapplication of the type of literature involved in Biblical texts and the type of information those texts are trying to communicate. Note though, that these matters involve things that are secondary to the Christian faith, not fundamental issues as in the previous two examples.

In any case, I think that we need to realize that both science and theology are fallible human attempts at interpretation, either of what we observe, or what God has specially revealed about himself. As such, both attempts are subject to mistakes that at times may bring them in conflict with one another, and this must always be kept in mind. It is my conviction that whenever such conflicts exist, it is because we have made a mistake somewhere, either in our theology or our science, and that further investigation into both will cause the conflict to resolve itself. And, we have already seen two examples of where that was the case.

Well, if not in conflict historically or in the realm of facts, perhaps science and Christianity conflict in another way. If not in what the say about truth, then perhaps in the way they go about discovering truth; perhaps they conflict on the level of methodology. Is there something about a scientific approach to discovering things about the world that is fundamentally at odds with a theological approach?

I believe that the answer to that question is no. It is true that science and Christian theology use different methods, but that does not mean that they use incompatible methods. In every field of human endeavor, the method must conform itself to the subject matter. You don't decide if a person will go out with you the same way that you decide the answer to a math problem, -- trust me, I've tried it before and it doesn't work out so well. We have already seen that the position that the scientific method is the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge of the world is self-refuting. Science confines itself to what can be empirically observed. As such, its domain is limited. Theology concerns itself with what God has revealed about Himself, and, according to Christian belief, this revelation comes, in part, through our observations of the universe God has made, but is not limited to that. This means that those of us who are Christians need to take science seriously, but that we need not limit ourselves to science and that we are free to move beyond it.

So, the short answer to the question as to whether or not, on the whole, Christianity and science are incompatible, is no. There is nothing at all inconsistent about maintaining both a scientific and a Christian outlook. In closing, I want to suggest that things do not stop there. I think that, in the midst of all the arguments over whether or not the two conflict, there is a deeper agreement between what science and Christianity have to say about the world, an agreement that is often overlooked.

Science, as we have seen, to be a means of finding truth, requires a certain faith that the universe manifests a deep rational order that we as human beings can understand. Christianity maintains that the universe was created by God to reflect His glory and that as human beings we have been created in God's image with the capacity to understand how it does so. And when we look at the universe from a scientific point of view, when we probe into the depths of reality, we find that the universe does seem to resonate deeply with certain structures in our own minds, such as mathematics and even some of our conceptions of beauty. We find that the universe is, in fact, a beautiful place, and that the laws which underlie it are both simple and eloquent. Einstein once remarked that the most unintelligible thing about the universe is the fact that it is intelligible. This amazing fact is perfectly understandable in light of a Christian worldview, however. And from a personal perspective, I can say that one of the things that draws me to science, is that through it, I acquire a new appreciation for the glory of God that manifests itself in creation.

Perhaps there are some of you here tonight that have felt the same way. You are convinced by the beauty of the world that there must be a God, but you do not know that God personally. You do not have a relationship with him. Perhaps you want to, but you are still not sure that it is possible. Might I suggest it is time that you try a little experiment. Take a step of faith, and sincerely ask God for that relationship. Ask Him to help you find answers to the questions you are seeking and for the strength to trust Him even when those answers seem unavailable. I think you will find, as I have, that God is faithful, and that if you earnestly seek Him, He will reach out to you.

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Kenneth A. Boyce 2001.
Last revised: 6 April, 2002.