Monday, October 22, 2007

A Tale of Two Faiths: Science and Religion

In recent years, public debates about creationism in the secondary curriculum have highlighted what seems to be an insurmountable divide between science and religion. This week, I’m discussing this divide with theologian Dr. John Haught. He’s a senior fellow in Science and Religion and the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, and he visited YSU recently as part of the Albert and Thomas Shipka Lecture Series. Along with writing books, such as God After Darwin and Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, Haught provided expert testimony in one of the several court cases about the place of evolution in the school curriculum, in which he explained why "intelligent design" should not be taught in the science classroom.

For Haught, the idea that religion and science can’t fit together reflects a misreading of both. As he explains, the problem is not – as I had always assumed – about whether we read the creation story literally but about the religious implications of the key concepts of evolution. As Haught explains in our interview, and in the texts that you can access from his webpage, the apparent challenges to faith rest in the idea of a deity who could create a mutable world, especially one in which randomness and natural selection would play major roles. Yet, he suggests, these concepts do not necessarily contradict the core beliefs of Christianity.

Further, and even more interesting, is Haught’s claim that we might view science as another type of faith. The idea that we can only believe in what can be proven through material evidence and that nothing beyond that can possibly exist is itself an article of faith for scientists. So, he suggests, the conflict over evolution and creation is a conflict between two faiths.

As for how to resolve the conflict, Haught emphasizes the importance of education – not merely education in science or religion but education that examines the relationship between them. This should happen in schools but also among scientists and theologians. He believes that dialogue can be the first step to reconciliation.

Haught’s ideas reflect a complex and crucially important dialogue going on in American culture today, as we wrestle with the place of religion in public and private life. This is not simply a theological or philosophical debate; rather, it is a debate about what it means to live in a pluralistic society in which religion has almost always been at once contested and central, diverse and influential.


Janko said...

Another great show!

I enjoyed this conversation a great deal, especially the comments about how Dawkins et al, are creating a worldview that clashes with other worldviews. And how when we look for pure science in the Bible and fail, religion suffers.

But I'm not sure of John's analogy of the various viewpoints combining science and faith to the layered reasons behind why a pot is boiling. He mentioned that there are all these reasons the water may be boiling, which is true, but all of these layers of explanation are falsifiable as well.

In his example, some of the layers such as faith are not falsifiable, so doesn't this break down his analogy?

But of course, by using words such as "falsifiable", perhaps it shows I am coming from a scientific perspective and not a theological one.

ndf54321 said...

I liked the show too. Actually it was my first experience with Lincoln Avenue. It stimulates me to blog now for almost the first time. Feel free to edit/delete/ if this is not commensurate.

I think Janko's comment about falsifiability has substance. It is really worth developing.

I don't think it is so much a matter of faith to use that --Karl Popper's -- criterion. For example perhaps there is something about the scientific approach or an alternative that would
be falsifiable.

For example I would be willing to consider some other approach if the scientific one were found falsified, if something went wrong say with evolution based on substantive information.

What if evolution it were found unable/inadequate to grapple with important situations as we continue to explore in the many different directions we are now taking? (Genetic manipulation, gene mapping, gene activation, stem cell research, molecular evolution, life in the universe, or other even more relevant/important directions.)

Then it would be important to change. But isn't that very likely to be a scientific adaptation?

Newtonian physics was revised eventually even after centuries of success: When measurements in new realms and new phenomena were discovered, modifications consistent with Newtonian physics where it had worked before were developed to handle these new areas where Newton's laws broke down. They are now known basically as relativity and quantum mechanics.

As they sometimes say. 'Be my guest.' In other words I would welcome some other approach. But what specifically could it be?
It seems that all examples I can think right now are scientific.
The multileveled boiling explanation again reminds me of
science in another way.
How much reductionism should we use in science itself? Do we use the full machinery of physical laws or do we drop a bit? Do we model complex biological or chemical systems atom by atom, electron by electron -- say by solving the equations of quantum mechanics rigorously or do we try to find some other more tractable model that deals approximately but effectively with the situation.

Do we use all electron quantum mechanics calculations or do we try to apply standard organic chemistry and biochemistry?

Physical science also abounds with such situations.

But Dr. Haught seems to be after something else. As can be seen by my very limited sucess here I am really struggling to latch on to specific examples. Is it like working hard and narrowly on the physical or biological science without considering the social impact? Like working really hard on the fission bomb and celebrating its successful first test without understanding the long range implications of it's use. (Richard Feynman versus Robert Wilson.)
Let me struggle (incompletely and likely inadequately) for some other examples.
Is it like using atomic bombs to build canals or simplifying mining as were proposed in the 1950's
(Edward Teller?) without explicitly discussing unintended consequences which could be quite severe?
Is it like recombining DNA without
proper precautions least something dangerous emerge?

Are we setting up our own eventual undoing by creating the world wide web which we even now we cannot turn off?
E.G. What if we really do figure out quantum computing and plug it into that system. Will it become self aware? Will it bother to tell us when it has? (Esther Dyson) Will it quietly observe us or will it take over. (And would you blame it?)

Not that these somewhat undisciplined or at least underdeveloped ideas connect directly, but perhaps it does suggest that thinking on several levels, lets say introspection, is quite important, even for the effective pursuit of science now that science/technology is getting so big for its britches.

Carl Sagan said near the beginning of his Cosmos series 'We are a way for the Universe to know itself'.
I'm confident he meant that in a rather scientific way.
But it's a pretty serious charge. That's a pretty heavy weight. Can we pull that off without introspection, looking for unintended consequences and the thinking through of implications?

When we do science aren't we in a way trying to translate or sift down natural phenomena into something humans can grasp? That may allow pretty wide latitude, but there must be some social even era dependent constraints.

Aristarchus ( circa 200 BC) could perceive/envision the Sun as the center of the planetary system, but arguably social/technological constraints really didn't allow him to pass that rather credible perception on to the rest of humanity. Therefore he was constrained from developing perhaps to even his own full appreciation/potential.

Are we now similarly constrained from exploring stem cells in this country? Am I at least vaguely generating relevant examples now or at least approaching some sort of tangency/contact with (parts of) the subject?

Again I liked the climate, confidence and ambiance of his remarks. But I am somewhat lost as to Haught's specifics.
Does he have some or is he challenging us to do what I've tried to do above? Or both?