Wednesday, February 15, 2012

February 12, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics: Can Faith and Science Coexist? (Long Version)

Psalm 8:1-9

Note - this message was originally written as two separate messages, but they have been combined into one. This version, the longer version, contains material not presented on Sunday morning, due to time constraints. Most of the additional material has to do with the various view of the origins of the universe and the anthropic principle.

Does anyone understand this picture? I don’t. It’s an illustration about the way that dominant and recessive genes work. The only thing I know to do with that illustration is to set it on fire and dance around it in celebration that I don’t have to learn what it means.

I am not in any way, shape, or form a scientist. I took biology my first semester in college and passed by one point. I remember struggling to understand dominant and recessive genes and inherited traits. The only thing I understand about inheritance is that I will never come into any kind of inheritance.

Although I am not a scientist, I believe in science. I am often encouraged by the advances of science and the way science has improved our lives. Often encouraged, but not always, and I’ll explain that later in this message.

We are continuing our series of messages Answering the Skeptics, and this morning we come to the intersection of faith and science, as we consider the question Can Faith and Science Coexist?

Richard Dawkins, who I have referred to on several occasions in these messages, says that it is impossible to be a scientist and a Christian. Stephen Hawking, in his book The Grand Design, writes that it is not necessary to believe in God in order to explain the universe and its origins – Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going ( Lawrence Krauss, author of the book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, says the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question ( Lawrence Krauss is wrong. Of course the question of why there is something rather than nothing is a religious question.

There is a very lively debate between science and religion, and is most often seen in the controversy over teaching intelligent design, creationism, and evolution in public schools. We also see it in end of life issues and in questions about human cloning. What is really behind the conflict, I believe, are several deeper questions – is science is making religious faith irrelevant? Can religious faith stand up to the progress of science? Are faith and science necessarily in conflict? Is it possible to believe in God and believe in science? What, if anything, can science tell us about God?

The struggle between faith and science is not new. Faith and science began to part company in the early 1500’s when Copernicus made his famous proposition that the sun – and not the earth – was the center of the solar system. Two other scientists built upon the work of Copernicus. Giordano Bruno hypothesized that our solar system was but one of many others in a universe that was boundless. Today he would probably win a Nobel Prize. His reward, however, for such a view was to be burned at the stake in 1600. The work of Galileo, who in the early 1600’s affirmed the findings of Copernicus, drove a further wedge between science and faith. In 1633 Galileo was tried and under threat of death recanted his theories and spent the rest of his life under arrest.

The discoveries of scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo led to the Scientific Revolution, which led in turn to the Enlightenment, which placed reason and science at the center of life. It was during the Enlightenment that people began to openly speak of atheism, although not in any large numbers and it received a generally unwelcome reaction. The Enlightenment and its emphasis on science and reason laid the foundation for modernism, which further separated faith and science and also saw the entrance of atheism in public life in a far more open manner. In the 1800’s Charles Darwin came along with his theory of evolution and natural selection, triggering a controversy that hit one peak in the famous Scopes trial of 1925, but continues to be a source of conflict.

What I find most disappointing is how the conflict between faith and science has been deepened because the church has failed to understand and accept certain scientific truths. No one would now deny that Copernicus and Galileo were correct, but for many years the church opposed and fought their discoveries because they were seen as a threat to the teaching and beliefs of the Christian faith. The relationship of faith and science has been tenuous ever since, and some of it has resulted in bad theology.

As believers, we occupy a rather strange land when it comes to science and faith. Many have some misgivings about science as it relates to our faith, while at the same time living with and appreciating the benefits of science. Every time we visit a doctor we benefit from scientific discoveries. Would anyone want to roll back medical science a few hundred years? We live in comfort because of science. When it’s cold or hot outside, we are able to keep it comfortable inside. You can thank science that you can hear me much easier because of the technology in our sound system. Or, if you’re trying to sleep, maybe you aren’t thankful for that advancement. When church is over you will get in your vehicle and drive to your home which is full of science – computers, satellite dishes, appliances, iPods, video games, and much more.

What is really at the heart of the conflict between faith and science is the question of worldview. Where did all this – the universe – come from, and how did we get here? That question has intrigued humans for all time. Science deals with the how, while faith deals with the why, and those are two very different questions. It is a question of worldview.

What is a worldview? Our worldview is the lens through which we see all of life. It is how we interpret everything that we see and hear; it is what shapes our opinions and our values and every facet of our life. My worldview is that God is the creator of this universe and all that it contains, and that worldview informs everything I believe. If we were created by God that means we were created with a specific purpose, and if we were created with a specific purpose then we ought to be living that purpose. If my worldview were that this universe and all it contains were nothing but the result of the collision of matter and the subsequent rise of life without any sort of divine intervention, that would affect everything about my life. If I believed there was no creator, I would then believe there was no particular purpose to life and I would be free to construct all of my own ethics in life and would be free to live in any way of my own choosing.

Worldview is of incredible importance to our lives. This is the heart of the conflict between faith and science – was creation by design or by accident? Are we here by divine intent, or as a result of random accident?

When we talk about faith and science, we must also talk about process, specifically, how did we get here?

There are four major ways of viewing our Origins –

1. The Young Earth Theory of Creation.

This belief says the earth was created about 6,500 years ago. It totally rejects evolution as a factor in creation and finds its timetable by retracing the generations of the Bible to a time of roughly 6,500 years ago. It asserts that creation took place in six literal 24 hour days. Questions about the scientific age of the earth, dinosaurs, and any evidences of evolution are generally answered by this response – God said it, I believe it, that settles it. The earth was created in appearance as very old in order to test our faith. One of the questions for this theory is this – does the creation account of six days necessarily refer to 24 hour days, or do they refer to epochs, that is, to periods of time, or stages of creation? This view, while using science to prove its points, is very much in conflict with most generally accepted scientific beliefs and discoveries. This is where you would find a lot of evangelicals in our country, and includes believers in Intelligent Design.

2. Theistic evolution.

This belief accepts evolution as scientific fact. It does not, though, accept the view that evolution is necessarily atheistic or in conflict with faith. Theistic evolution believes that God, over a long period of time, directed creation and was active in every step of creation. This view strives to find harmony between scientific discoveries and faith. This is where you would find people such as Francis S. Collins, to whom I have made reference several times.

This is also where I would place myself. I believe the days that are recorded in the book of Genesis were not 24 hour days, but epochs, or stages of creation. I believe God used the process of evolution and that the world and all of creation is continuing to evolve.

3. Deistic evolution.

Deism was a very popular religious point of view at the time of the founding of America. Many of the founders of our country – Thomas Jefferson, for instance – were deists. Deists believe that God created the world – that he began the process of creation – and then ended his involvement in the world. He was like the clockmaker who builds a clock, winds the clock, and then leaves it alone to work according to the principles by which it was built. The people who hold this position are generally people who would define themselves as spiritual versus religious and are probably not adherents to institutional faith.

4. Atheistic evolution.

This is the domain of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other well-known atheists. This position holds that God was not part of creation, that God was not needed for creation, and that science necessarily leads to atheism. Only a small minority of Americans would fall into this category.

Patrick Glynn, an atheist turned Christian and author of the book God the Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason In A Postsecular World, writes about his journey from unbelief to belief. In his book he writes about his learning of the anthropic principle, and how this was crucial to his turning to faith. The anthropic principle was first put forth by the physicist and cosmologist Brandon Carter in 1973. Carter delivered a paper that refuted the idea that our universe is random. Many scientists had previously operated on the assumption that everything about our universe was accidental, the universe being simply a collection of random outcomes of collisions of matter and of evolution and natural selection. Carter’s deduction, as he saw evidence of a very orderly universe, was to postulate that the universe was “pre-planned” from the very beginning. The possibility of the creation of the universe and life depended upon everything being “just right” from the very start – everything from the values of fundamental forces like electromagnetism and gravity, to the relative masses of the various subatomic particles, to things like the number of neutrino types at time 1 second, which the universe has to “know” already at 10-43 second. The slightest tinkering with a single one of scores of basic values and relationships in nature would have resulted in a universe very different from the one we inhabit – say, one with no stars like our sun, or no stars, period. Far from being accidental, life appeared to be the goal toward which the entire universe from the very first moment of its existence had been orchestrated, fine-tuned (Glynn, p. 7-8).

Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, writes of this as well. As someone who passed biology by a single point, it gets a bit difficult for me to follow, but the basics of what Collins says is this –

1. At the creation of the universe – what is commonly referred to as the Big Bang – matter and antimatter were created in almost equal amounts. But they were not quite equal – for every billion pair of quarks, there was one extra quark. It is this tiny fraction that makes up the mass of our present universe. If there had been an equal amount – a complete symmetry – the universe would have devolved into pure radiation, and people, planets, stars, and galaxies would never have come into existence (Collins, p. 72).

2. If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in 100 thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size. On the other hand, if the rate of expansion had been greater by even one part in a million, stars and planets could not have been able to form…this simply pushes the question back to why the universe had just the right properties to undergo such an inflationary expansion. The existence of a universe as we know it rests upon a knife edge of improbability (Collins, p. 73).

3. Speaking about the heavier elements of the universe, Collins goes on to say, if the strong nuclear force that holds together protons and neutrons had been even slightly weaker, then only hydrogen could have formed in the universe. If, on the other hand, the strong nuclear force had been slightly stronger, all the hydrogen would have been converted to helium…and thus the fusion furnaces of stars and their ability to generate heavier elements would never have been born. Adding to this remarkable observation, the nuclear force appears to be tuned just sufficiently for carbon to form, which is critical for life forms on Earth (Collins, pp. 73-74).

The anthropic principle began to take science in the direction of finding a purpose and plan in creation.

Having said all that, I will add this – I was reading the other day of the beginnings of the universe, of the great scientific concepts of our expanding universe and the convergence of elements that brought about life, about the physical principles that operate the universe, about photons and matter and energy; and then I thought okay, what am I going to do about lunch? We struggle with these great questions about life and creation, about belief and faith, but we must fit them into real life. You may be thinking to yourself – you know Dave, this is remotely interesting, but what I really need is something that will get me through today and the rest of the week. I need something that will help me balance all the demands of my life; I need something to help me get along with my boss and coworkers; I need something to pull my family together; I need something to help me figure out how I’m going to pay my bills.

Well, it all begins with our beliefs. Someone, somewhere, is challenging everything you believe about life, about faith, about God. Your life comes down to your worldview. Are we here by accident or by design? Are we here for a purpose or just to stumble along and make our way as best as we possibly can? I believe that we are created in the image of God and imbued with a purpose that informs every second our lives. And personally, I can’t think of anything more practical.

So let’s look at four practical principles that I believe are important in the discussion of the relationship between faith and science –

1. Why must faith carry the burden of proof?

A number of authors writing from the perspective of unbelief use the same phrase – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (see, for example, Harris, page 41), meaning that the claim of God’s existence is extraordinary and thus requires extraordinary proof. My question is this – why is it not more extraordinary to claim that God does not exist, thus requiring extraordinary evidence against his existence.

The question of belief versus unbelief often comes back to a person’s starting point, and we talked a little about this when we discussed the topic of faith and reason. Instead of forming a hypothesis that says God probably doesn’t exist and we’ll do all of our experimenting in a way that demands evidence for his existence, why not form a hypothesis that says God probably does exist and we’ll do all of our experimenting in a way that demands evidence against his existence.

A hypothesis is great because it gives one a starting point for experiments. The problem is that a hypothesis already contains built-in assumptions that lead us in a particular direction from the beginning. Victor Stegner, for instance, in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, presents his hypothesis in this way (page 22) –

1. Probably, if God were to exist, then there would be good objective evidence for his existence.

2. But there is no good objective evidence for his existence.

3. Therefore, probably God does not exist.

This has a built-in prejudice from the beginning that one should be able to prove that God exists, but it’s really a useless formula and here’s why – just because there is some kind of a correlation between the first two points doesn’t mean the third point true is true. And, it’s possible to question the assumption of any of the points made in Stegner’s argument.

The reality is, science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. That doesn’t mean I have any doubts about God or that I believe that science does not in some way point us to God; it simply means that science cannot definitively answer this question – that is why we talk about a leap of faith. At some point every person has to weigh the evidences and claims and decide for himself.

2. We make some Esau trades when it comes to science.

You will remember the story of Isaac and Esau, where Esau traded away his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 27). An Esau trade is a really bad choice where we are willing to trade something with long-term implications for short-term gain.

Isn’t it interesting that science is generally associated with the word progress, but we don’t always ask about the type of progress and the consequences of that progress? In the past I used to worry about someone stealing my wallet; thanks to science, I now must worry about someone stealing my entire identity. If one is a thief, that’s great progress. Some people think that social media sites, such as facebook, are great examples of progress. But when that picture of you dancing on a table with a lampshade on your head shows up in a job interview a few years from now, is that progress?

Science, at times, asks us to make some Esau trades. While medical advancements have done wonderful things, they have also complicated end of life issues. How many of us have sat at the bedside of loved ones and made heart-wrenching decisions about whether or not to pursue certain medical procedures?

Further, if people reject belief because of the evil that has been done in the name of faith, and if people reject institutional faith – the church – because of the hypocrisy it sometimes perpetuates, should we not also reject science because of what it has unleashed on this world? Why not be consistent?

If one desires to point out that faith has unleashed evil in our world, one must also be willing to look at what science has wrought upon us. Sam Harris hammers on the idea that we live in an age when mankind possesses the ability to bring about our own destruction, and because this is so we cannot afford religious belief of any kind because it is the most likely suspect that will trigger our self-destruction. While it is tragically true that mankind possesses the weaponry and technology to bring about our annihilation, it is science, not religion, which must answer for this. I would remind Sam Harris that even if religious terrorism in its most extreme form pushes that button, it is science that gave us that button. Some extreme form of religion may give someone a motivation to push the button of destruction, but it is science that has given us the weapons that will be used in our destruction.

Whatever problems religion has brought to this world – and I would acknowledge there have been problems – I would also argue that those problems are far fewer than claimed by unbelievers. I would also ask the question – what has been brought to us in the name of science, and can science save us from itself? Can we expect science to save us from the destruction of our environment, for example, when it is science that has provided us with the products and the technology that has so damaged our environment?

3. Will science ever recognize the spiritual?

One of the core principles of science is that of reductionism, which is the reducing down of everything to its most simple and basic components. This is done to better understand how things work so a scientist can then build new technology based on the discoveries that reductionism makes possible. If you apply this principle to computers and the digital world, at the most basic level everything is simply a combination of ones and zeros – everything. All that you see on your computer screen and all of the applications your computer performs are just combinations of ones and zeroes. But collectively, it is much more, isn’t it? We could say that when properly combined those combinations of ones and zeroes allows the computer to come alive.

Science has a difficult, if not impossible time, understanding this dynamic. On one hand, for instance, one could say that the writings of Shakespeare are simply a collection of words. Reduced down to the essence of language, that’s what you have. But is Shakespeare just a collection of words? Is the 23rd Psalm or I Corinthians 13 just a collection of words that are then gathered into sentences and then strung together? Is Amazing Grace just a series of musical notes? On one level, yes – if you examine them on a scientific level that reduces them down to the most basic of levels. But all of these are so much more – they are, in a word, spiritual.

When parents gaze upon their newborn child do they say that’s a nice combination of DNA and cells? Absolutely not. What do they say? We’re holding a miracle. It is faith that brings everything alive to us. Science can help things to function or explain to us why they function, but science cannot see a miracle, and that is the difference between having vision and possessing the ability to see.

4. We don’t have to have the answer to every question.

I’m thankful science continues to look for answers to the great questions of our universe. But I also know that it is not a failure when we understand we don’t have to have answers to everything. There may not be an answer to everything, but in a spiritual sense there is an Answer.

I said in the first message of this series that we must learn to live with some paradoxes in life. That doesn’t mean we stop looking for answers and it doesn’t mean we look for a cop out when it comes to the tough questions of life. It simply means that there are always going to be questions we can’t answer, and that’s okay. No matter how far science advances, there are going to be questions. New discoveries, as exciting as they may be, will also reveal more questions.

Just because faith doesn’t answer every question doesn’t mean that faith is somehow inadequate. Faith allows us to understand that we can live with a measure of mystery, and though we don’t have every answer, we have The Answer in the person of Jesus.

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