Science: Friend or Foe?

Are evolutionary changes random or do they follow patterns? Does chance really exist or is the world guided by an invisible Being?

Scripture & Science » Science: Friend or Foe?

Science may not float everyone’s boat. But can a religious believer ignore it?

Scientific materialism – the view that there is nothing beyond the physical world – is widely promoted these days: a challenge to those of us who attribute ultimate meaning to life and cling to hope beyond death.

For the Christian, either the Bible’s claim that there is a God is true, or atheists arguing that science has killed him have got it right. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

So far in this series, we have therefore asked two key questions: can we be religious in an age of science? Or is the maker of heaven and earth a flight of fancy?

We found that, indeed, the world around us is so intricate and so finely balanced it virtually cries out for a supreme creative mind.

Yet, some say bringing God into the conversation doesn’t solve anything. Why try to explain the complexity of the universe by positing an invisible being that would be even more complex than the mysteries science is trying to solve?

Others yet argue that we humans are obsessed with reading meaning into things. Biologist Charles Monod (1910–1976) believed that science had found a cure for this addiction: ‘Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance’.

Did Monod settle the issue? As in other areas of life, scientific counterarguments and opposing conclusions are never far away. Atheism’s poster boy Richard Dawkins, for instance, observed that evolution is not guided by chance but natural selection.

Which begs the question, if evolutionary changes only seem random but in reality, depend on a deeper structure, are we back to St Thomas Aquinas’ age-old question of ultimate causes? If evolution follows certain patterns, where did the patterns come from? The fact that there is an infinite chain from observed phenomena to underlying factors, led Aquinas to conclude that God must be the ultimate reason for everything. Evidently, he hasn’t convinced all of us. But it makes you wonder if Monod’s claim that ‘man at last knows’ to be a product of chance was a tad hasty. What exactly do we mean by chance? And what can we know with certainty? Aren’t we all guessing?

Back in the early days of modern science, English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) believed to have found the key to knowledge: scientific experimentation. His French counterpart René Descartes (1596–1650), on the other hand, looked for an underlying rationale behind the universe as a whole.

So, who was right? Which is it: experiment and observation? Fundamental principles? Or both? After all, scientists keep making new discoveries through experiments. Then they develop a theory around the discovery they made. Or they revise or even ditch an existing theory as a result of the discovery. All the time, people are looking for overarching principles behind seemingly random observable data. And at regular intervals they change their minds about overarching principles.

Scientists don’t mind that. It keeps their jobs fun and interesting. Yet, as great as their guild has been at making our lives longer, safer, better informed and more comfortable, when it comes to the big, ultimate questions, scientific conclusions on life, the universe and the rest are bound to remain provisional. Despite Charles Monod, we do not know. We keep facing new questions.

According to some, this is where faith and science can bury the battle axe. I am inclined to agree.

For reflection and discussion:

  1. Should scientists stick to physical reality or contribute to ultimate questions: who we are, where we come from and why we are here?

  2. What do you make of Galileo Galilei’s metaphor of God having written two separate books: Holy Scripture and the book of nature?

  3. Reflect on Job 38:18: ‘Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?   Declare, if you know all this.’ (NRSV) How might this Bible verse speak into conversations around faith and science?

Further Reading:

Science and Christ, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Harper Collins.

Quote: I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman.

Art for Reflection: The Constellations drawings are a series of sketches in black pen and ink by Pablo Picasso, drawn on 16 pages of a notebook in 1924. For these small drawings, Picasso was inspired by sky charts, and he wanted to show an artistic exploration of the limits between abstraction and figuration. A collection of black dots is connected by thin lines to produce different kinds of figures, some are created geometrically, while others are expressed in free composition.