Science and faith (Part II)


Kevin Simington

In my previous article I examined the tenuous nature of scientific theories, which are always incomplete, often inconclusive, sometimes completely misguided, and, occasionally, deliberately fraudulent. Science does not purport to be the fount of absolute truth, as evidenced by the continual revision and, often, the complete repudiation of proposed theories. In the light of this, it is extraordinary that so many people laud it so highly, elevating it to almost god-like status, trusting its pronouncements implicitly and adopting its often ill-founded conclusions unquestioningly.

A common mistake many people make is to assume that science and Christian faith are mutually exclusive. The assumption is that science deals with substantiated facts (an extremely misguided and naive understanding of science!) and that religion deals with unsubstantiated fairy tales. There are three points to make in response to this.

1. Science does NOT, on the whole, deal with substantiated facts. It does not make that claim. As explained in Science and Faith, Part 1, science is the quest to understand the universe, resulting in the formulation of theories which are constantly open to revision and repudiation. In science, nothing is ever finally and unequivocally “proved”.  Microbiologist, Dr Allison Terbush, in her article “Truth In Science”, published in the Berkeley Science Review, describes the tenuous and imperfect nature of this scientific quest for understanding as being like “blind monks examining an elephant”.[1] The proliferation of scientific backflips throughout history is testimony to how often these blind monks get it wrong! (See Part 1 for more on this).

2. Modern scientific methodology, itself, is based upon faith – faith in certain unprovable presuppositions. The principal among them is the proposition that every observable phenomenon has a purely physical cause. In other words, science makes the assumption that everything can be explained in terms of physical cause and effect; there is no metaphysical reality that transcends the physical universe, no metaphysical forces at play that can account for what we observe in the manifest realm. If something can’t be weighed, measured or observed, it simply does not exist. 

This, of course, is a completely unprovable presupposition. You can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove that something DOESN’T exist (philosophers have conceded this point for centuries). You can only prove that something DOES exist. In particular, science cannot prove that God doesn’t exist, because God, by definition, is a metaphysical being who transcends the physical universe, whereas science openly admits that its field of study is limited to that physical universe. 

Furthermore, the fact that science is predicated upon an unprovable presupposition (that everything has a natural, physical cause, and that there is no metaphysical reality), is a direct contradiction of another key tenet of science, which states that a theory or belief is only considered valid if it is substantiated by evidence. Yet there is NO evidence supporting the premise that the physical universe is all there is. None! This presupposition arises from an inherent atheistic belief which is, itself, a statement of faith that is unprovable.  So, when atheistic scientists criticise Christians for having a belief system based on faith, which is ultimately unprovable, they are guilty of exactly the same thing!

3. Not all scientists are atheists. Not all scientists subscribe to the premise that there is no metaphysical reality. Some scientists understand that while science, by definition, is limited to the study of the observable universe, it simply cannot comment on the existence or otherwise of anything that lies beyond the realm of that observable universe. So, while atheism and Christianity are mutually exclusive, true science, unfettered by atheistic presuppositions, is not incongruent with belief in a supernatural realm.

Accordingly, there are many scientists who have a strong Christian faith, and whose study of the physical universe strengthens their belief in an omnipotent Creator God. In fact, some of the greatest scientists of history, whose discoveries have transformed our world, have been men and women of indomitable Christian faith. 

In Part III of Science and Faith, I want to share with you the remarkable and inspiring testimonies of many of these great men and women of science.  But, for the moment, let us be clear about one thing – science and faith are not mutually exclusive. In one sense, everyone has faith. The atheistic scientist clings to the belief that the physical universe is all there is, a belief for which there is no proof, and which he holds by faith alone. The Christian scientist, on the other hand, approaches the study of the observable universe with the presupposition that it has been set in place by a transcendent Creator, the existence of whom cannot ultimately be proved. Both of them approach science with faith in an unprovable premise. The challenge for both (the naturalist and the spiritualist) is to let their study of the evidence speak for itself, without skewing or filtering their data in order to prop up a premise which science cannot ultimately prove. Science must learn its place. It is not the enemy of faith. Nor is it the saviour of faith (despite my firm belief that the universe provides powerful evidence for intelligent design).

So, let us stop this nonsense of claiming that science and faith are somehow arch enemies. They are not. They engage with two very different realms, and it is possible to be a citizen of both without the least hint of incongruence.

Max Born, the German physicist, who won the Nobel Prize for Science in 1954, said; “Those who say that the study of science must make a person an atheist must be rather silly people.”