Science and Religion

Whether you follow Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson or the fundamentalist creationists; the debate of science and religion still goes on, though most people seem to believe we have gotten beyond it (and science won).  If so, I believe it is a Pyrrhic victory.  I am not sure how much religion needs science, but I believe science is philosophically dependent on Christianity.  Even so, there are major problems reconciling science and religion, to which I think the best option is to suspend judgment.

Having said that science needs a Judaeo-Christian world view, I do not deny the scientific discoveries made by the Arabs, Chinese and other cultures, or the modern advancements of science made by people who deny religion; but I believe scientific discoveries are dependent on some basic philosophical assumptions that are unique to the Judaeo-Christian world view.  Among these assumptions are that there is a physical universe (it is not a dream or illusion), it has meaning and purpose (else why explore it?) and we have free will so we can reason.

Conflict of Science and Scripture

There is clearly a difficulty with reconciling the early books of the Bible with the discoveries of fossils, DNA studies and astronomy.  The long timeline that these scientific discoveries need seems to not fit with short chronology of Scripture.  Working back through the Old Testament genealogies show no break, and there is no literary evidence that the later people like David and Solomon are ‘history’, while the earlier people like Noah or Adam are ‘mythology’; Jesus himself seems to affirm their historicity, as also does Paul.  While the genealogies are a difficulty, I do not see them as the real problem, the is no need to follow Bishop Ussher and insist on a recent creation (6 pm on 22 October 4004) even some Church Fathers like St. Basil did not insist on literal ‘days’ for the creation.

If we are going to pick problems between science and religion, I think there is an even bigger one: Death.  First, I am not sure there is a clear definition/understanding of exactly what death means.  How could Adam and Eve eat plants without the plants dying (Genesis 1:29), and how can the same happen after the resurrection (Revelation 22:2)?  It does seem that there is a rather common meaning most of the time where the genealogies state “and he died” (Genesis 5), implying the ceasing of bodily function and decay; but it is difficult to consistently apply this to plants (which have similar cellular function at this level) if they are consumed both before the fall and after the resurrection.  I feel that something significant is missing here.  Death is the real Biblical problem of the Fall, somehow the whole creation underwent a radical change at a historical point in time in Adam’s life. On the other hand, evolution is founded on death; if organisms don’t die then there is no “survival of the fittest” (to reference an old paradigm); evolution is based on the premise that death is ‘natural’ and has always been a part of life.

The Self-destructiveness of Science

If religion has problems with science, I find that science has problems with itself; if followed to its conclusion, it destroys meaning, freedom and values.   Without meaning, science is pointless, without freedom science is irrational and impossible, without values science can do anything (or nothing).

Loss of Meaning

Current cosmology predicts that the cosmos will either continue to expand till all the stars burn out and leave nothing but cold cinders floating in space, or collapse into a giant black hole.  Whatever we do in the meantime is insignificant as to changing this fate.  Without significance, we have no meaning.

As one person put it after a cosmology lecture: “I just need to keep short term goals”.  If we cannot get off of this planet and to another solar system, at some point the sun will expand, then burn up and consume the earth.  Longer term prospects are no beter.  If there is not eternal significant to our actions; and everything is just time, chance and matter, then we are all just playing rather absurd games.  Whether it is the game of ‘saving whales’, ‘stopping global warming’ or making a billion dollars, it is no different than striving to win a Monopoly game or Pokemon Go.  These are all in the technical sense just ‘games’ with a set of artificial goals and rules that we play for the enjoyment of playing, because the game has no larger purpose.  Whether I develop nuclear energy, create a nuclear holocaust or oppose nuclear development; it is all just a game that has no effect on the final end.  In this context, Albert Camus is right, the only real philosophical issue is suicide.

Loss of Freedom

If we do not have freedom, we cannot make choices based on reason, and hence we cannot logically work through scientific problems.  If our thinking is genetically or psychologically determined then we can never reason our way to ‘truth’.  Watson and Crick, the early pioneers of discovering DNA saw genetics as leading to determinism; the psychologist B.F. Skinner argued that we are psychologically determined; and more recently Steven Wolfram (A New Kind of Science) sees the mathematics behind everything as being fundamentally deterministic.  These are well written arguments, but it is rather amusing that they are trying to use logical persuasion to convince us that we are not ultimately logical or reasonable, since we have no freedom.  I believe these people have not discovered a truth about reality (it is all deterministic), but a truth about science; when we are left with only mathematics and particulars, determinism is the only logical conclusion.

Loss of Values

If the universe is a product of time, chance and the impersonal; then what we have now is what we have always had.  Any discussion of what ‘should be’ or ‘ought to be’ implies that there is a goal or purpose to the universe (and it is not chance), or that the universe at some point has changed and is no longer what it ‘should be’.  Without a historical fall (a change from what it ‘should’ be) we cannot say that something is right (‘should’ be) or wrong (should not be), at most we are left with the Marquis de Sade‘s statement “what is, is right” (or more properly “what is, is”).  We may not emotionally like the Marquis’ conclusions, but logically they are hard to argue if we accept his assumptions.  Dostoevsky understood the Marquis when he said “if god does not exist, everything is permitted”.

The pursuit of science is the pursuit of paradigms, and the paradigm questions people ask are driven by the values (goals) that are pursued.  Does one study a virus to learn how to cure it or turn it into a biological weapon?  Without values, science does not stop, but it can do anything.  It will however be eroded.  If one is pursuing a scientific career, then it is permitted to lie, cheat and falsify data to get ahead; there is no commitment to scientific integrity if everything is permitted and personal career goals are more important than the ‘advancement’ of science.

Suspended Judgment

One of the points I like about Thomas Kuhn’s The Nature of Scientific Revolution is the need to both be logical and keep grounded in facts, while at the same time being willing to suspend judgment and ignore certain facts.  This is necessary because every paradigm (at least in its early stages) has facts and arguments that seem to falsify it.  Ultimately paradigms require a degree of faith.  Paradigms are also not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but more or less useful.  The bigger paradigms the bigger the challenge.

I retired working at Monsanto, a company steeped in genetics research; most of the work required assuming genetic evolution.  I found myself trusting the paradigms of evolution in order to understand the development of corn and how the plant we know today likely came from a Mexican grass.  When I first started at Monsanto I read up on genetics; I clearly remember a book saying that each gene produces one protean, and that chromosomes are full of ‘junk DNA’, DNA sequences between genes that were evolutionary byproducts with no purpose.  In a few years it was found that most creatures have more proteins than genes, and the ‘junk DNA’ functioned as regulators and modifiers.  The discovery of the ‘Round-Up ready gene’ was a fluke (equivalent of winning the lottery), but the paradigm assumptions were that genetics was fairly simple and it would not take long to find another controlling gene (drought tolerance, increased yield, …) that would be the next break-through (and stock enhancer).  Biases (desire for quick stock returns) prejudice looking for simple solutions and avoiding harder, more complicated solutions (ie expensive fundamental research).  I learned that paradigms usually end up being more (much more) complicated than what anyone originally imagined.  Sometimes a ‘wrong’ paradigm like Newton’s physics can trigger a long run of development (the Industrial Revolution), but at other times the simple solution has a short life.

Working with paradigms (especially scientific ones) requires a split mind, a willingness to be optimistic enough to trust the paradigm to produce results; but enough doubt to follow the facts that may show it wrong.  Most scientists recognize that the ‘standard model’ is incomplete and doesn’t reconcile with gravity.  They know it is flawed, but it is still useful enough to achieve significant results.  It is such a split mind, and suspension of judgment (certainty of truth and falsehood) that is needed for holding science and religion together.  For scripture, I can trust the major paradigms (decisions of the Ecumenical Councils) as they are backed up by spiritual experience (knowing God), without having to be equally dogmatic about other issues, like the chronological history of early Genesis.  I can believe ‘that’ there are meaning and values (a Fall and Resurrection) without knowing the details of ‘how’.  This gives me the foundation for pursuing science where I can use evolution as a working paradigm without having to work out the details of origins.  Most modern scientists recognize that Most scientific research is in such small, restricted specializations that the large paradigms have little consequence; as evidenced by how little impact changes to ‘string theory’, ‘dark matter’ and the like have to the advancement of computers, genetics and the building of bridges.

This stance of a split mind requires a suspension of judgment, an admission of not knowing it all, and a willingness to affirm things that for all practical purposes seem to contradict each other, and not asking questions that are interesting but irrelevant (“did Adam name the dinosaurs?”).  It is the rush to judgment, and a lack of faith and humility, that leads to the conflict of science and religion – an insistence that one side has all the right ‘facts’ and a final judgment can be declared.

I may be able to get buy without science as a monk caught up in hesychia in a quiet cell, but it is difficult to be a scientist without meaning, freedom and values.


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