Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday. On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist. I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating. For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site. Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.
Tell me one last thing, said Harry. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?
Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Cogito, ergo sum, (I think, therefore I am)
Several years ago I read the book God, The Failed Hypothesis, by the late Victor Stenger. Stenger, who struck me as a second or third tier writer among the new atheists, was fond of offering the saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I imagine he was very proud of that phrase and felt it was quite the demolishing argument against faith and anything in the realm of religious spirituality, but it made the mistake of assuming that science is the sole arbiter of reality as well as missing the point of what constitutes evidence. Claiming, for instance, that absence of evidence is evidence of absence, actually says more about the limitations of science and the scientific method than it does of faith. Applying science to faith is a bit like taking a Rembrandt painting into a lab to determine why it is a great piece of art. Some concepts are far too abstract for science, and a lab is not the place for dealing with abstractions.
The question of evidence is very much tied into an understanding of the nature of reality, and philosophers help us to understand that reality can be a tricky substance to nail down. While Descartes’ famous declaration might prove that we are sentient and therefore existent beings tied to reality, any confidence in our perception of reality, and therefore evidence, might well be mistaken. Our minds, which are the filters through which we perceive reality, can be quite the deceptive creatures. In fact, just because something is perceived by our minds as reality does not mean it can be trusted to be reality, so can we trust our minds to tell us what is true, even when supported by science?
In this column, as Ms. Allewalt and I deal with the relationship of faith and science, I would posit the claim that the two are not mutually exclusive, as is often asserted by those on the side of atheism. While they are not exclusive, however, they are different. Science, by its very nature, is materialistic in its approach; that is, it deals with the senses, the things that can be seen, touched, and measured in a concrete, material way (known as scientific, or materialistic, reductionism). Because science begins with a demand for empirical proof, it can be understood why some might believe it is incompatible with faith. Practicing the scientific method is often viewed as meaning one must think exclusively as an empiricist, thus rendering faith and science about as compatible as oil and water. Faith, however, while not rejecting empiricism, reminds us of the need for something deeper, because faith affirms that the universe and life are more than what we find in the material and it recognizes a deeper layer to all of existence, a layer that does not fit under the microscope of science.
Both faith and science ask many questions, but they are different questions, and they are questions that, taken together, provide a more complete picture of life and the universe. Science is a study in the how, while faith offers an explanation in the why. Science can answer the how, but not the why, at least not on a philosophical or spiritual level. Science seeks to understand the principles that guide the operation of our universe, while faith seeks to understand our place within that universe and the broader questions of meaning and purpose. Religion, for its part, does not function on blind faith, as it is often accused, but recognizes that there is more to life and our universe than a materialistic reductionism. This does not mean there is a problem with either religion or science; it simply means they operate in two very different realms, but taken together can give us a greater sense of the whole of all things.
The crude and offensive stereotype of religion as a relic of a pre-scientific age notwithstanding, faith and science have long gone hand in hand. I am obviously well aware of the Catholic Church and Galileo and the misguided proclamations of religious fundamentalists about science, but those are not representative at all of the ways in which faith and science have often worked hand in hand. For many believers, such as Francis Collins (Director of the National Institutes of Health and former Director of the Human Genome Project), scientific work becomes an expression of faith. For believers such as Collins, religion is not anti-science and science is not anti-religion. Science is a tool, and one that can function just as well when utilized by people of faith. It is only those out to advance their own ideologies either against faith or in support of a fundamentalist faith that would make such a claim to the contrary.
Even in the realm of scientific reductionism, however, we find that no one reduces life simply to the level of what can be tested in a laboratory. Everyone recognizes that life is much more than the sum of its physical parts; it also includes the metaphysical components, and the ultimate evidence of this is our recognition of the existence of love. To me, the ultimate evidence of transcendence, and thus faith, is that of love. In a universe built upon scientific reductionism love cannot exist, because love cannot be reduced to such a level. Love is a transcendent quality, something that takes place in the brain but possesses a quality that takes us into the realm beyond, into the spiritual. Otherwise, what we call love would amount to little more than a feeling of pleasure generated by some chemicals in the brain and neural activity or, perhaps, biological determinism. Love is a transcendent, spiritual quality, and it is one that points to something equally transcendent that is the underlying force of our universe, and I believe that is God.