Friday, March 1, 2013

Philosophical Fridays: Science and Religion, Conflict - Concord - Complements?

It is very common for dogmatic Christians and dogmatic atheists to agree on one thing: science and religion are in complete disagreement with one another. But from a biblical point of view, this can hardly be the case. Passages such as Psalm 19 teach that God is the creator of the natural world as well as the ultimate author of Scripture. Since there is one God, all truth is God's truth, and there can be no conflict between the study of the natural world (science) and the study of the supernatural (religion).

Indeed, from my perspective, the study of science is made possible because of my belief in God. I believe that the universe displays rationality, that it functions in ways that can be described by rational, elegant, even beautiful, mathematical formulas. And I believe that human beings are endowed with just such a rationality as to detect and define these abstractions. Such an enterprise is understandable within a theistic framework. I know that naturalistic philosophers have proposed various theories of human rationality and the existence of the universe that seek to adequately explain this reality, but such explanations are inadequate to me. 

On the other hand, some believers have concluded that in order for the Bible to be true, we must be able to show that it possesses scientific knowledge far ahead of its time. This is usually called concordism, the effort to establish concord (harmony) between the Bible and science. The problem with such an approach is obvious once you ask this basic question: what scientific model is the Bible supposed to agree with? Ptolemaic astronomy? Newtonian physics? Relativity? Or whatever model happens to be the latest construct in the year 2456? 

The problem with tying the biblical text to any one particular scientific paradigm as proof of the inspiration of Scripture is that scientific models change. Just as surely as our knowledge of science has changed from 200 years ago until now, it will be much different 200 years from now. The Bible was written to people in a particular time and place, using non-technical language that anyone could understand. Attempting to filter Scripture through the grid of whatever the latest scientific model may be is a huge mistake (one I have been guilty of myself!).

So rather than seeing science and religion as in complete conflict or straining to put them in complete concord, it seems to me the best approach is to see them as complementary. Science answers questions related to what things are and how they work. So for example, science can show us some aspects of how the brain works and what neurons are. But when scientists move from the realm of "what" and "how" to why, they are moving into non-scientific, philosophical realms. That is the right of any person, of course; we just need to be clear that speculations about the ultimate questions of why there is a universe or why there is human consciousness are not scientific discussions but philosophical ones.

By the same token, the Bible does not give us "modern" scientific explanations of what the material world is or how its processes work. It speaks phenomenologically (as things appear), in language anyone could understand whether in 15th century BC or 25th century AD. What Scripture does address is the why question. Why does nature work? Why is there a universe at all? Why do human beings exist? 

The key issue here is humility. Those in the scientific disciplines need the humility to recognize the limits of science, and not veer off into fundamentalist scientism. And by the same token, Christians need to recognize the purpose and objective of Scripture, and not veer off into irrational distrust of science (properly understood) on the one hand or the needless and strained effort to tie the Bible to any particular scientific construct on the other.

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