Science as an Act of Faith

An Essay inspired by John Gribbin's "In Search of the Double Helix"

A colleague of mine recently invited me to guest lecture in one of his classes on the relationship between religion and science, particularly the history of the relationship between Christian Theology and Evolutionary Science since the time of Darwin. He invited me to read a portion of the class book to prepare: John Gribbin's excellent summary of the history of Evolutionary Science entitled "In Search of the Double Helix".

I know from previous experience that Gribbin is a master at making complex scientific subjects understandable to the common person. His "In Search of Schrodinger's Cat" is a masterful summary of the basics of quantum physics for the layperson. I highly recommend it if you are trying to get a grip on your quantum uncertainty about the nature of quarks.

In "Double Helix" Gribbin once again shows his prowess in making the complex understandable. And his historiography is generally good too. I love the way he contextualizes Darwin's era, and makes it clear that Darwin was part of a whole network of thought that was shifting paradigms.

However, in one area, I find Gribbin's treatment sadly lacking. And this is probably unfair to say, because what I am going to speak about only comes from around 4 pages of one book, and is probably not representative of Gribbin's thoughts on the issue. And it is also unfair because Gribbin is writing about the history of science, not the history of religion and science.

Nevertheless, I wish his engagement with theology was much more nuanced. He seems to fall into some stereotypes that abound about reactionary, literalist Christians versus rational, objective scientists. I don't think these stereotypes serve any of us well- whether scientists or religious believers- in furthering the dialogue between the two major Sources- Science and Religion- that people draw on to make sense of their world. Yes, it is true that many of the more "literal" religious believers go nuts over Darwin's work, both then and now. But there is a strong tradition, even if it is a minority tradition, of creative engagement between theology and science.

Thus, I want to use this issue as an excuse to write about a more creative synthesis of the two. And I do this in honor of Gribbin's work. Because really, I am going far beyond the scope of what he meant to address in this chapter, and because he is a writer I admire who has helped me understand a great many things about science.

I find Gribbin's account in chapter 1 flawed at many points, particularly on pages 9 and 21-23, and I would like to correct it. The central flaw is that he is comparing a POPULIST view of Biblical interpretation and theology (that might be held by a great many lay Christians or poorly educated Clergy) with a SPECIALIST view of Science (that is full of nuance and attention to detail). He does nothing even close to comparing specialist, nuanced views of BOTH Theology and Science.

For instance, he speaks as if all educated Christians, even in Darwin's time, believed in literal 6 day creation around 4004 BC. That is not true of the mid-1800's, nor even for the earliest times of the Church. Sure, there are many Christians of every age, who, lacking education and the ability to interpret literature, have believed such "young earth" explanations. But, in every age that we have Christian scholars comment on Creation and Genesis, we have scholars who doubt the 6 "days" are literal, and hypothesize that the Earth is quite old. That is true from the mid 200's AD to now.

The theological school of Alexandria in the 200's, led by world renowned scholars like Clement and Origen, thought such crass literalism was unhelpful and allegorized much of the Old Testament. Saint Augustine, in the 400's, even hypothesized that, since the "days" are symbolic, God could have made everything over a long period of time using a process of gradual development of creatures. Many theologians and Biblical commentators through the Middle Ages until the present day have followed the lead of Augustine and the Alexandrians.

Gribbin's other philosophical mistake is his dichotomy between Christians who "believe" without "doubting" certain articles of faith based on religious authority, versus scientists who evaluate whether a hypothesis is "good" or "inadequate" based on a rational examination of the evidence. On this view, only religious people rely on faith or belief. Scientists don't need faith: They rely on rational acceptance.

First, it is simply begging the question to say that trustworthiness, or credibility, or believability is not something that is involved in the scientific process. A whole host of "faith" stances have to be engaged in to get to the point of empirical demonstration. One must have faith one is sane, and that one's sense observations correspond to reality. This in turn entails faith that there is actually an objective reality outside of one's self. This also includes faith that the physical constants and "laws" are uniform across the universe, and will not suddenly cease to function in the middle of empirical demonstration. One must have faith that the web of beliefs and assumptions one holds about the predictability and explainability and rationality of the universe (one's "paradigm") are fundamentally accurate before starting to test select portions of that universe. Finally, one must trust that one's lab colleagues are trustworthy people, and that the lab techs have reliably calibrated one's tools. And this is just a cursory exploration of all the faith involved in the act of scientific investigation.

It seems that science is saturated with credibility and believability all the way down. Not to mention imagination. Einstein once dismissed Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (along with its implications for wave-particle duality) by saying "God doesn't play dice". That is fundamentally a faith stance of believing that there HAS to be another way of explaining quantum phenomena other than the current hypothesis that fits the evidence (and coincidentally has been shown to be an incorrect faith statement on Einstein's part!).

This is because for Einstein (as for all scientists and indeed all humans) if certain ideas are beyond their imagination, then they are literally unbelievable. That is until the paradigms of scientific imagination switch for people like Heisenberg and Bohr and the Copenhagen school, so that they can think in possibilities beyond folks like Einstein. Then ideas like quantum uncertainty, string theory, and multiverse become believable, and hence testable.

All this is just a rehash of Kuhn and his concept of paradigm shift. But it is also important to see that it is key to the story of Darwin too. Because Darwin served as hinge point for a building trajectory of evidence to break into a new paradigm. As Gribbin's chapter 1 makes clear, many other scientists made observations that pointed in the same direction, and made evolution into a believable concept that could be imagined and tested. Darwin was merely the straw on the camels back. And it's no use blaming religion or theology for not thinking of full fledged evolutionary theory. Because until Darwin put all the pieces together not even science considered this a fully imaginable or believable concept.

So any true account of science is incomplete if it claims that science is "just the facts ma'am". It isn't just the facts. It requires concepts of credibility, belief, imagination, and a whole sociology of knowledge that accounts for paradigm shifts.

Second, Gribbin seems to accept a populist account of Christian belief as a reliable representation of intelligent Christian theology, but I doubt he would he accept a populist account of evolution as a reliable account of science. For instance, there have been many who have said that cutthroat "Social Darwinism" is an authentic (and empirically demonstrated) application of evolutionary theory. Millions have believed this, and they probably outnumber the number of genuine Biologists who actually teach evolution. Should we then accept that Social Darwinism is a true plank in the platform of evolutionary biology? What about millions of Nazis (and Americans and Brits!) who believed in Eugenics as a logical extension of evolutionary theory? There were plenty of certified scientists who were part of the Eugenics movement!

No, there are clear and logical reasons why such populist expressions of evolutionary theory are not counted as "the real thing". In the same way, millions of populist Christians believe in young earth creationism, and among their ranks are a handful of certified academicians. But this does not Christian theology make. This is because there are a number of logical distinctions, and a body of literature, that shows literalist creationism is not representative of Christian theology in the specialist sense.

In fact, I do not think young earth creationism was even a "majority opinion" for theological specialists in the England of Darwin's day. I could be wrong, and it would take a massive literature review to be sure. But I am sure there were significant theological voices that welcomed Darwin's insights. And I certainly know that literalist creationism has been a fringe minority opinion of certified theological specialists throughout the 20-21st centuries.

So, if we are going to judge the reaction of theological specialists to biological specialists since Darwin's day, I would say that the interaction is much more integrated, creative, and balanced than Gribbin (and many others) would lead us to believe.

One of the most fertile areas of interaction between theology and science is in the area of epistemology: How we know what we know, and what we accept as credibly believable.

Gribbin says that rather than believing things on the basis of authority (as all "Christians" supposedly do) the scientist will objectively evaluate evidence and simply say "that is a good hypothesis" or "that is not a good hypothesis". But theological specialists would never say that faith is simply believing in something based only on authority, regardless of the evidence. I will get to the basis of genuine theological belief in a moment.

But first, what does Gribbin's scientist mean by a "good" hypothesis? Does he not mean that it is a hypothesis that is imaginable, fundamentally rational, and thus believable? In philosophy, this refers to the fact that the hypothesis is made up of meaningful, well-formed propositions. Yes, that's part of it.

Secondly, it means that this rational hypothesis "works" when tested. It corresponds to the world it describes, and it is able to predict interactions in the world. Thus, the "good" hypothesis is the best explanation which fits the relevant data.

Furthermore, this hypothesis is then singled out as "most believable" from among other hypotheses that have lesser (or the same) explanatory power. Many times, there are multiple hypotheses, functioning within different paradigms, that seem equally plausible given the evidence. In this case, the decision of the "best" hypothesis is purely a leap of faith which may only be validated by experimental evidence decades later. A great example of this is the hypothesis of "Aether" versus the hypothesis of "Space-time" around the turn of the 20th century. As the Newtonian paradigm was giving way to the Relativistic paradigm, both hypotheses had great explanatory value. It took decades- in which scientists took their respective faith stances- for experimental data to sort it out.

In fact to do science, the scientist must have faith in a whole nexus of not-fully-validated hypotheses, in order to test yet other hypotheses. For instance, we have faith in the explanatory value of several hypotheses about how gravity works, in order to test other aspects of physics, even though we do not have a unified theory of gravitation (or electromagnetism, or weak force, or strong force!).

So now that I have shown how what counts as "accepting a good hypothesis" is saturated with acts of faith and belief, here is the big kicker: This is very similar to what most theological specialists would identify as the act of faith itself.

Theologically, faith is not accepting the claims of authority regardless of evidence. Faith is the acceptance of the most probable explanation of the relevant evidence. Populist Christians may accept doctrines such as the Incarnation or Trinity or Atonement because "The Bible says" or "The Church says". But specialist theologians, if they accept such doctrines (not all do!), accept them because, like scientists, they think they are the best available hypotheses that best explain the relevant evidence.

The true difference between science and theology is not the difference between "faith and reason" (BOTH use faith AND reason). The true difference is what counts as relevant evidence and what counts as "real".

The "hard sciences" accept only empirical, reduplicable facts as evidence. And methodologically, this is necessary to do good science. The "softer" the science, the more it relies on evidence that it is not strictly able to reduplicate (such as a sociologist studying cultural migration patterns). When you get to theology, the evidence is almost entirely historical: It cannot be reduplicated any more than Julius Caesar, or the American Revolution, or Darwin's Voyage of The Beagle can be repeated. Rather, it relies on logical inference back to forensic evidence found in literature and archaeology and sociological patterns.

Next, in reference to what counts as real, science must necessarily truncate reality to what can be observed and tested. For science, what is methodologically "real" is what is strictly empirical. Science could not work as science any other way. In this, science is more a tool for understanding the world rather than a worldview. I think it is a mistake to view science as a comprehensive account of all that is real. Rather, it is a methodological tool to explore one dimension of reality: The empirical dimension.

But, while science can only consider empirical explanations as "real", theology and philosophy can take a wider, more comprehensive view of reality. They can allow the possibility of transcendent, or "trans-empirical", or "metaphysical" explanations.

For instance, the empirical method itself is a metaphysical, or non-empirical, construct. It cannot empirically test itself using empirical data because it is the rational tool that stands outside empirical phenomena and gives us a method to understand it. Yet, theology and philosophy can test the empirical method itself by asking questions such as: "Is the empirical method coherent and consistent logically?" or "Is it rational to assume that the empirical universe is rational and understandable?" or "Is the nature of reality such that a regulated, rational tool such as empiricism should work to explore it?" or "Why is there reason and order instead of chaos and unpredictability?" or even "Why is there something instead of nothing?"

Theology might answer that, given the world of empirical phenomena, which follow a logical and mathematical regularity which can be described scientifically, it seems that there is a logical, rational, trans-empirical Source which is the fabric of rationality that regulates reality. This Source might be termed "God", and it might be hypothesized that this is also the Source of the predictable physical mechanisms that allow for the evolution of ever-more-complex life forms. This is NOT theology declaring how these evolutionary mechanisms work. Rather it is theology saying that there is a certain type of metaphysical explanation for why there is any rational, predictable mechanism of any kind in the first place.

Theology might go further and say that, if there is such a God as this, it is reasonable to assume that God may reveal his character and his purposes for causing a rational universe, in ways we can understand, as we evolve biologically, socially, and intellectually. And thus theology might come to see Biblical "Creation Stories" as a symbolic disclosure of WHY God made us, adapted to pre-scientific human understanding, instead of as a literal, pseudo-scientific explanation of HOW God created us. Questions of how- mechanisms, methods, empirical causes- this is the realm of science. Questions of why- meaning, purpose, and motive- this is the realm of theology and divine revelation in Scripture.

Something like this, I think, would be representative of true specialists in theology. And I think it would be a much more fruitful way for Gribbin (and scientists in general) to interface with religion. It is much more fruitful than the stale old caricature of "religion as willfully ignorant faith in spite of evidence" versus "science as objective explanation of evidence apart from faith".

With all that said, Gribbin does give a nod to more creative engagement in a two sentence quote on page 22. While the rest of his treatment I find lacking, this is where I would like to push the argument:

"For those who do subscribe to the religious view of creation, it is quite possible to reconcile this with the idea of evolution by taking the Biblical story as allegory and imagining the Creator establishing the whole Universe, with all its physical laws, and then leaving evolution, both physical and living, to take its course. That truly does smack of the Great Architect."

I think this is a very helpful route to start to travel. I would want to tweak that away from the Deist implication of a Watchmaker God who has now left the scene. I would want to steer it toward an idea that God is the vibrant power that animates the universe, and the "fabric of rationality" that the system of the universe is woven into. In this, evolution is not just something that God merely allows to happen, but a dynamic process that expresses God ultimate desire to bring about intelligent, conscious, moral beings who can freely share in God's Love.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.