The Perceived Problem of Science and Faith
Corey Miller, PhD
President/CEO Ratio Chrsti
Putting Faith in its Place
Science and faith are hot topics. There are scores of books, articles, and videos covering how they relate to each other. Perhaps your interest is in learning more for yourself. Or perhaps you would like to be better prepared to weigh in while talking with friends or colleagues. This is a three-part series that will help you understand the relationship between faith and science. This first article addresses the very nature of faith, a necessary first step in light of some modern misunderstandings. The second article will shift the focus from faith to science. Is science the measure of all things, or can we identify some inherent limitations? We can take it a step further. Might it be the case that science relies on a bit of faith in order to arrive at its conclusions? The final article will position us to consider a plausible model of the philosophical relationship between religion and science and how to work through some of the apparent tensions.
Currently speaking, our culture underestimates the role of faith and overestimates the role of science. Contemporary culture often treats “faith” in a pejorative sense in contrast to reason. The faithful are often depicted as brainless slaves, ignoring reason, leaping into the dark, and succumbing instead to wish fulfillment. They are accused of consuming the drug of religion to make it through a harsh world. Mark Twain famously defined faith as “believing what you know ain’t true.” In a book I edited with atheist and Christian authors one author titled his chapter, “faith in anything is unreasonable.” He contended that “faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence.” Today, you do not have to look far for negative perceptions on the meaning of faith. Some believers even communicate that faith is blind. This poor understanding of the notion of faith was not always so and ought not be so.
Historically speaking, Christianity’s self-understanding has been such that it is part of a knowledge tradition. According to Jesus in John 17, the goal of life—the good life—is the “knowledge of God.” The major concern by philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages was largely a project expressed in Latin. Fides quarens intellectum means “faith seeking understanding.” Indeed, living at that time was the greatest philosopher and legal scholar of the Jewish tradition, Moses Maimonides. He considered faith to be a moral virtue. Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary and one of the most prolific writers in the Christian tradition, likewise considered faith to be a virtue. For him, it was the preeminent intellectual virtue such that in its absence, none of the other virtues can be fully expressed. He wrote approximately 100 volumes before he died at age 49. And this was without the benefit of the printing press. He certainly didn’t think that faith was in any sense blind. In the Middle Ages, it meant "faithfulness to a trust or promise; loyalty to a person; truthfulness.” From the Latin, fides conveys "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, belief.” Thus, faith was a sort of trust or confidence in a trustworthy object or person.
As a matter of historical fact, the great halls of reason today, the modern universities, were for centuries largely established in the context of, and motivated by, the Christian faith. Universities such as Bolonga, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia were Christian in origin. The same goes for the earliest universities in South Korea and India.  Most of the founders of the subdisciplines of science were Christians. Faith informed and inspired their scientific efforts and reflections. Consider Mendel in genetics, Pasteur in bacteriology, Kepler in astronomy, Linnaeus in taxonomy, Newton in physics, Boyle in chemistry, and Maxwell in electrodynamics. The list goes on and on of founders of subdisciplines of science who saw themselves as reading the two books of God, God’s world and God’s word. Clearly, faith was not only compatible with reason, the collaboration brought about many of the pillars of modern civilization.
Biblically speaking, while there is more than mere intellectual assent, it is certainly no less than intellectual assent. Faith ought never to be construed in opposition to reason. The Latin is derived from the Greek used in the New Testament as pistis, meaning belief or trust. The Hebrew Old Testament equivalent is emunah, meaning faithfulness or trustworthiness. Faith, according to the New Testament, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Now, faith in God becomes controversial because it is often confused with mere “belief.” Yet belief requires no evidence or action, and so the two notions are non-identical. For instance, something like “2+2=4” can be believed exclusively in terms of intellectual assent. This differs from the Judeo-Christian notion of faith, which also involves volitional consent. Thus, while faith is also translated as “belief,” it is more than mere belief.
Philosophically speaking, it is for this reason that philosophers distinguish between belief in and belief that.  Someone can state “I believe that Hitler existed,” and “I believe that banana shakes taste great.” The first is an objective truth claim, while the second is a subjective truth claim. Yet both are truth claims. By contrast, “I believe in marriage” means that I view it as an important part of human relationships and culture. And “I believe in the US Constitution” denotes a sort of confidence or trust.
“I believe in God” implies that God exists, but it means something more. It adds some sort of pro-attitude reflected in my willingness to act upon it. Religious believers go much further than mere reason allows -- or so it seems, and this is objectionable to some. It is uncomfortably true that there is a disproportion between the evidence for God and the level of commitment required by believers in God. But this is not unique to religious beliefs. Suppose I’m planning to drive my car across the state next month. I have only probabilistic knowledge that the car will reach its destination. Let’s assign it a 90 percent probability. Yet, I cannot get into the car only 90 percent. I must commit 100 percent to act on that belief. My confidence level requires that there be a disproportion between my intellect and my action.
How Certain is Certainty? It can be said categorically that most of the beliefs we hold about anything lack 100 percent certainty. The exception lies in the fields of math, logic, and introspective philosophy. That is, most of your beliefs are a composite of faith + reason or belief + evidence. The question is always whether it is a reasonable belief. While trust is something earned, it is also something given. Trust is something we all must give with respect to most of our beliefs since we lack certainty in our knowledge. Thus, even in the good domain of science where we lack certainty, faith plays an important role. We will explore this in the second part.
The Limitations and Assumptions of Science
How should we think about the relationship of faith and science? I lay this out in three articles. In the first part, I discussed the nature of faith and how it is viewed through various lenses, including the contemporary, historical, biblical, and philosophical perspectives. This second article shifts the focus over to science. While the enterprise of science has enjoyed many past and present successes, we must exercise caution and not place it on too high of a pedestal. Science, like any producer of knowledge, ought to be examined at its foundations to understand its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s look at some of the inherent limitations of science. Let’s examine some of the philosophical assumptions underlying science.
It has been said that people who lived during the American Civil War had more in common with Moses or Abraham than with us. This can largely be attributed to the explosion of information and technology produced through science. But perhaps we let this word ‘science’ roll a bit too easily off our tongues. What is science? From there, how should science and religion interact, if at all? And is creation or theistic science a science or a religion? Queries of this sort are philosophical in nature and not scientific.
The practice of science is carried out within the context of a worldview. Many assume that when a scientist puts on a white lab coat and pulls measurements, she merely gathers evidence, faithfully delivering objective facts to the end users – you and me. But this is an oversimplification. Objectivity is a myth. There are limitations internal to science that, for example, prevent true objectivity. There are also external philosophical presuppositions underlying science.
As an example, let’s look at the issue of certainty. We can all agree that we are more likely to accept or believe something as our certainty in it increases. We might even suggest that the highest form of certainty is when we can attach a particular word to it: proof. Who hasn’t seen a news story suggesting science “proved this or that is true.” But there is a problem. Science does not prove things true. Science cannot prove things true. Why? Because science relies on inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning in science commonly works by examining repeated instances of an event, and then drawing a conclusion about what must be true for that event to happen again. This is a method of inference. While this form of reasoning is powerful to science, it is a limitation in that we must be content with probabilistic conclusions, not proof or absolute certainty. The word “proof” is reserved for another type of reasoning, called deductive reasoning. We find this method used in various fields of mathematics and logic. This reveals something very significant. There are certain things science cannot know and science cannot know anything for certain. In addition to internal limitations, science is also limited by several external underlying philosophical presuppositions, which cannot be settled by science.
First, the scientific enterprise assumes that nature exists independent of our minds. While this may seem like common sense, this is taken for granted. How do you know that you’re not being deceived by an evil demon, or in a dream state thinking this is reality. Or perhaps your brain is in a vat controlled by a super scientist who is plugging you with electrodes to provide you with virtual images, and not any real reality? Many do not, and have not throughout history, believed in the full reality of the external world. This is typical for eastern thinkers. It cannot simply be assumed; it needs argument.
Second, science assumes that nature has an intelligible order that can be known. But appearances and reality aren’t necessarily the same. Again, this seems to be just plain common sense, but it too is embedded in philosophical framework. A helpful example is the periodic table. The story of its development is fascinating, but did you know that the idea of laying out the elements into rows and columns came about before many of the elements were actually discovered? The table had holes where no elements fit, yet the brave assumption was that there must be missing elements just waiting to be discovered. And they were right! Is it not interesting how this points to a deep assumption that nature has an intelligible order.
Third, science assumes the existence and applicability of the laws of logic, a category presumed central to rational thought. But note that this is a category of philosophy, not of science. Scientists borrow from philosophy and use the laws of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of excluded middle. They use these in discussing their experimental observations, inferences, and conclusions. Since knowledge of the world itself is questionable, then the status of scientific statements about the world is also questionable. These entities are the preconditions of thought including scientific thought. They are inescapable truths known with certainty, unlike in matters of science, and are not known by science but are instead rationally discerned. But this assumption makes best sense given a certain worldview. Again, it is philosophical.
Fourth, science typically assumes the reliability of our senses -- such as taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell. They generally assume that our senses accurately deliver bits of truth about the world to us. But how do we know that our faculties provide information about the external world that is accurate? And even if they do, how do we know whether they are truth-conducive, which is to say, whether they are aimed at giving us true beliefs? This is not unimportant. If scientific naturalism is true, then perhaps they are aimed at survival instead, in which case it is possible that giving false perceptions of the world could provide survival advantage? Having a false sense of depth perception where you think a predator is much closer than it really is serves an example that would send you into flight for survival. This might seem to undermine our confidence in sense perception beliefs.
But it is worse for naturalists who embrace evolution. It is perhaps self-defeating. As atheist philosopher of science, Alex Rosenberg says, “natural selection sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs.” One implication of this is that the composed beliefs of naturalism plus evolution, or naturalistic evolution, seem to carry its own defeater. Namely, on this model how can we know that any of our beliefs formed by natural selection, including beliefs about naturalism and evolution, are true? We cannot. Furthermore, although most won’t deny the reliability of our sense perceptions in practice, our rational justification for them seems to rest on a circular argument. One cannot justify one’s sense perceptions without appealing to some sort of track-record argument such as “they’ve been reliable in the past.” Again, these are all philosophical considerations that take place prior to science and can’t be settled by science.
These various assumptions or presuppositions can only be justified by a prior commitment to a larger philosophical or theological view. Thus, science is dependent upon underlying philosophical commitments just like other areas of human inquiry. Science is in a position of trust or, faith, not unlike religious commitment. Clearly, it is important to consider the philosophical nature of science. One must engage in philosophical discourse or make philosophical assumptions about such views before a scientist can even begin to do her work. It is interesting to note that many scientists, if not most, do not formally train in coursework that examines the philosophical foundations of science. They simply conduct science with an unawareness of the assumptions that underlie their field.
Unfortunately, our modern notion of science has largely come to mean whatever can be explained in terms of chemistry and physics. But science was not always this way and has taken a decidedly naturalistic philosophical turn. Science comes from its Latin origin, scientia, which denotes all fields of knowledge—not just the hard sciences or those who want to be so associated. The Greek equivalent of scientia is episteme, or epistemology, the second major branch of philosophy pertaining to theories of knowledge.
The Medieval thinkers, who founded the modern universities, used to say that “theology is the queen of the sciences [scientia] and philosophy is its hand maiden.” Imagine the hub of a wheel representing theology and the spokes representing the diversity of academic disciplines like economics, psychology, language, and mathematics. It is the glue of philosophy that anchors the diversity of disciplines into the unity of knowledge constituting the university. This explains why everyone who possesses a PhD, whether formally trained in philosophy or not, possesses a Doctor of Philosophy in their respective field. Unity in diversity forms the university, the modern university being largely a product of faith seeking understanding.
n these first two part we have now surveyed the depths of both faith and science. One final part will serve to bridge these two areas and show how they complement each other.
Bringing Faith and Science Together
This is the third and final article in a series looking at the relationship between faith and science. The first article examined faith from contemporary, historical, biblical, and philosophical frameworks. The second article homed in on science. We add its strengths and limitations. We addressed why it is such a useful tool for producing knowledge, and we denoted its inherent limitations. We’re now in a good position to bring faith and science together and work through some of the apparent tensions.
Let us consider the nature of science and the philosophical relationship between religion and science. Some of what counts as science today is not really science, but philosophy hidden in scientific clothing. This goes unnoticed by most people. Our culture has largely confused science with “scientism.” Scientism is roughly the view that the only things that can be known to be true or rational are those which can be drawn through scientific methodology. Herein lies the problem. Scientism is taken to be true, but it cannot be verified as true by science. What scientific test could be used to test if scientism is true?
To bring clarity, the statement about scientism is a philosophical statement, not scientific. Scientism in its strongest sense is self-defeating because it cannot satisfy its own criteria. Anything that is self-defeating is not only false, but necessarily false. No amount of discovery will ever make it true. Even in its weaker form as the premier way of knowing by which all other disciplines should be judged, scientism is problematic. Consider the previous article concerning the limitations and presuppositions of science. In addition, even weak scientism marginalizes faith discussions and questions about Intelligent Design (ID). Many Christians embrace weak scientism and practice methodological naturalism, the view that doing science requires invoking all and only natural explanations. This rules out ID conversations altogether even though they’re fine with research programs in fields like SETI (search for extraterrestrial life), archaeology, cryptology, and forensic science. Far from being the disciplinary authority it is often claimed to be, it is in fact dependent on other disciplines. Science needs philosophy as its foundation.
An important word about philosophy. Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom. It has its own subject matter like reality, knowledge, and ethics. But it also functions as the second order discipline that studies the assumptions, concepts, and argument forms of other disciplines. This includes science. Defining science, its nature and limitations, isn’t the job of the scientist, but of the philosopher. For many, this comes as quite the surprise. In the field of philosophy of science we investigate the deepest questions about science, such as its form, strengths, and limitations. The philosopher is the authority in these matters. Such questions might include
“What is science?”
“Should we expect a particular intellectual activity to have both necessary and sufficient conditions for it to count as science?”
“Is there one universal Scientific Method?”
“What are the roles of scientific laws and scientific theories?”
In science, by contrast, questions are raised and investigate within various domains of the natural world. Examples include biology, astronomy, and physics. Each domain has specially trained scientists (e.g., biologists, astronomers, and physicists), and they are typically considered the final authority within their domain. Questions asked by such scientists might include: “What bonding forces hold various atoms together?” Or, “How can we best explain the life cycles of different stars?”
It is in this spirit that Templeton prize winner, Ian Barbour, a physicist and philosopher of science, makes this shocking statement: “At the outset it should be stated that there is no ‘scientific method,’ no formula with five easy steps guaranteed to lead to discoveries. There are many methods, used at different stages of inquiry, in widely varying circumstances.” After 150 years, philosophers of science have not arrived at a consensus on what precisely defines science, what activities demarcate science from non-science. This is known as the “demarcation problem,” and it is significant. It seems that while there is a recognizable cluster of methodologies characteristic of science, there is no airtight definition for science.
Having disabused ourselves of any confusion between the good that is science and the false philosophy that is scientism, we can now consider a plausible way to relate religion and science. One of the greatest misunderstandings in pop culture and among academics is the proper relationship between science and religion/theology.
Theology and science are examples of the human mind thinking theoretically as it was designed to do. It is legitimate to differentiate these fields based on the types of questions asked, the conclusions sought, and the types of data they are willing to accept. But differentiating them doesn’t entail isolating them. The Christian theologian has faith in Scripture and the scientist has faith in numerous philosophical assumptions. Let’s be clear on this point. These philosophical assumptions are necessary for science to operate. However, these assumptions are untestable, and even unprovable. Therefore, to accept them requires a confident belief. This is what we call faith. What are examples of such philosophical assumptions? The scientist must assume the reality of an external world. The scientist assumes that our senses can and do convey perceptions that are reliable. The scientist assumes that the laws of nature apply consistently across space and time. This list could easily be continued.
Certain things count as “data” for scientific input in terms of formulating scientific theories. These are what we think of when we think about science. These are such things as experimental lab results, observations, measurements, and background theories. Likewise, certain things count as data for theological doctrinal formulation. These include personal experience (individually and communally), Scripture, church councils and creeds, and general revelation which includes what we experience in the natural world.
Within both science and theology, we need to recognize that there are certain beliefs that we can have more confidence in than others. Beliefs comes in degrees of certitude. In Christian theology, given the data of Scripture the deity of Christ is a high mark of relative certainty. Similarly, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a high mark we can be relatively certain of in science. Both fields have mystery on even fundamental tenets in the field: the Trinity in theology and the nature of light for the physicist. Both scientists and theologians need to recognize that theories and doctrines are interpretive abstractions, models, which cannot be confused with the data itself in nature and Scripture. Perhaps our interpretation of the data does express the truth, perhaps only partly, or perhaps we misinterpret the data altogether.
There seems to be four normative views (V1-V4) concerning the philosophical relationship of religion and science, two of which are conflicting and two of which are non-conflicting:
V1 If there is conflict, then scientific statements trump religious statements.
V2 If there is conflict, then religious statements trump scientific statements.
V3 Religious statements and scientific statements cannot conflict as they are entirely separate domains of inquiry (NOMA or Non-overlapping magisterial authority). Science tells us how the heavens go, religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us about the age of rocks, religion tells us about the Rock of Ages.
V4 Religious statements and scientific statements may appear to conflict, but don’t really conflict at the level of the facts when properly understood.
V1 and V2 are to be rejected by Christians as they assume that a fundamental incompatibility exists between the worlds of nature and Scripture, as in scientism or a sort of religious fundamentalism that lacks appreciation for a literary rather than a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. But if God exists, and we have good independent reasons for thinking so, then this is untenable because of the unity of truth thesis which affirms that all truth is God’s truth and cannot contradict. This holds for both Word and work, Scripture and nature, where God is the author of both.
Of the two non-conflicting views, V3 is likewise untenable given its Enlightenment assumption that there is a bridgeless gulf between matters of religion and matters of science. In fact, there are clear cases of overlapping interests that concern comparable theological and scientific data (e.g., creation). V4 seems to be the most plausible, the view of integration. It holds that all truth is God’s truth. It does justice to considering a realist view of science and a genuine literary approach to the Bible. It seeks a rational integration of all the data.
Further, while it acknowledges tension in interpretations of nature and Scripture in, say, the Genesis narrative, it holds in principle that when all the evidence is in and is properly interpreted there cannot be contradiction. This means intellectual humility must be accompanied in the interpretation process. Suppose there were three top theological interpretations on a given textual issue ranked t1-t3 with the best literary grammatical interpretation. And likewise suppose there were three top scientific interpretations on a related issue in nature ranked s1-s3. For example, take the creation account. It may be that we cannot rank t1 with s1, but rather t2 with s1 or t1 with s2, or something like that. At the end of the day, all the data ought to harmonize. Any alleged conflict cannot be at the level of the facts themselves, nature and Scripture, but at the level of the interpretation of the facts, science and theology. The problem, then, is not truth, but rather it is with our understanding or interpretation of the facts rightly interpreted.
1 Victor Stenger, “Faith in Anything is Unreasonable,” in Is Faith in God Reasonable? Debates in Philosophy, Science, and Rhetoric, edited by Corey Miller and Paul Gould (NY: Routledge, 2014), 55.
2 Corey Miller, Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas on the Good Life: From the Fall to Human Perfectibility (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, forthcoming 2018).
3 Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)
1 Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (NY: Norton, 2011), 112.
1 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2018).
2. Ian G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (NY: Harper Collins, 1971).
3 Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher Reese, and Michael Strauss, Dictionary of Christianity and Science: The Definitive Reference for the Intersection of Christian Faith and Contemporary Science (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).