Saturday, July 04, 2015

How to relate faith and science?

As I was clearing my office, I realized that I have bought books to help me form my own understanding on the relationship between faith and science.

So, how to relate faith and science? I think there are 4 ways.

First, we learn about the nature and limit of scientific inquiry. Two professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have published works on this: Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism (Fiat, 2011) by Professor of Nuclear Science & Engineering Ian Hutchinson, and Certainty: Is Science All You Need? (Veritas, 2014) by Professor of Chemistry Troy Van Voorhis.

Both of them point out the limitation of scientific inquiry to attain truth, exposing the prevalent yet mistaken belief that only science can produce true knowledge or certainty (a.k.a. ‘scientism’). British scientist Rupert Sheldrake in The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012) and American philosopher Thomas Nagel in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) make similar point.

The Professor Emeritus of Physics at Open University Russell Stannard and Professor of Computer and Information Science at City University of New York Noson Yanofsky in their respective The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? (Oxford University Press, 2010) and The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us (MIT Press, 2013) highlight several areas of inquiry that scientific method could not investigate, and so cautioning the public from having blind faith in science to give answer to all questions.

David Goodstein, the former Vice Provost at California Institute of Technology, has drawn from his experience of investigating allegations of scientific misconduct to produce the book On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science (Princeton University Press, 2010). He detailed how the scientific enterprise is not as objective as many would like to believe, that science is actually a very human endeavour that is filled with subjective interest, agenda, and belief. And often, it is not easy to differentiate actual scientific fact from its misrepresentation. Many scientific reports are taken to be truthful by the sheer act of faith. Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones have recorded many such cases in ‘Bankrupting Physics: How Today's Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

This first approach reveals the reality of the scientific enterprise in all its usefulness and weaknesses in achieving and publicizing real knowledge. Faith is found in the whole enterprise. In fact, the very advancement of scientific experimentation requires certain dogmas to be accepted before it can be conducted.

The second way to relate faith and science is by learning the broad history of scientific development. The three classical texts are David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450 (University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition, 2007), Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion:  Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

These works show that modern science didn’t come into the world out of nowhere. Rather, it is a product of a long historical process where faith and the investigation of reality are more often intertwined than separated. In many cases, it was faith that motivated and sustained scientific inquiry. Therefore what we call ‘science’ today is a profoundly circumstantial enterprise.

If these 3 works appear too academic, there are 4 books on the same topic that are more accessible: John Losee’s A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Oxford University Press, 4th edition, 2001), Owen Gingerich’s God’s Planet (Harvard University Press, 2014), Ronald Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2010), and John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2008).

The third way to make sense of faith and science is to learn how theology can be done in a ‘scientific’ manner. This exercise enables us to see how faith and science can work together to advance collective knowledge about the world and ourselves.

For examples, J. Wentzel van Huysteen’s interdisciplinary study on human uniqueness in Alone in the World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Eerdmans, 2006), Philip Hefner’s proposal on the ways and benefits of collaboration between faith and science in The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Fortress, 1993), Alister McGrath’s research on doctrinal development by interacting with philosophy and science in The Order of Things:  Explorations in Scientific Theology (Blackwell, 2006), John Polkinghorne’s study on the binary relation in Science and Theology: An Introduction (Fortress, 1998), Tom McLeish’s study on the theological purpose of science and the scientific wisdom of theology in Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford University Press, 2014), and Andrew Steane’s work on the dynamics between science and belief in Faithful to Science: The Role of Science in Religion (Oxford University Press, 2014).

The fourth way to relate faith to science is by learning about the sociological and personal account of scientists who practice religious faith. Willem Dress' Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates (Routledge, 2010) highlights cultural factors that influence how we relate faith and science. The ground-breaking work Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Elaine Howard Ecklund shows that many scientists are also people with faith. The volume Faith in Science: Scientists Search for Truth (Routledge, 2001) edited by W. Mark Richardson and Gordy Slack contains interviews with scientists across various religions on how they see their scientific work in view of their faith and vice versa.

As for personal account, one can see how faith and science are related from the story of John Polkinghorne, who was previously a Professor of Theoretical Physics at University of Cambridge before becoming an ordained Anglican priest, through his own From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (SPCK, 2007) and biography by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion (Monarch, 2011).

Lastly, there are many easily accessible books written on this subject. I would personally recommend the following: God’s Undertaker:  Has Science Buried God? (Lion, 2007) by Oxford’s mathematician John Lennox, Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding (Oneworld, 2006) and Why There Almost Certainly Is A God: Doubting Dawkins (Lion, 2008) by London's philosopher Keith Ward, and Big Bang, Big God: A Universe Designed for Life? (Lion, 2013) by Cambridge's astrophysicist and priest Rodney Holder.