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PERSPECTIVES ON FAITH & SCIENCE

GOD AND THE LIMITS OF UNDERSTANDING TWO LANGUAGES? TWO PERSPECTIVES? OR TWO CULTURES?

These days, many think of religious faith and scientific reason as being inevitably opposed; partisan camps with totally different ways of seeing the world. Americans in particular are likely to think of the pitched battles being waged in courtrooms and on school boards nationwide over whether the faith-based account of the development of life on Earth known as intelligent design should be taught — in science courses — alongside the current evolutionary account. Learn more about the ongoing battle over Darwin.

In this politically charged climate, similar debates have erupted over abortion rights, stem cell research, genetics, and a host of other topics that impact the way we live in an age of scientific innovation.

But it's just as easy to see in science and faith two manifestations of humanity's desire to understand its place within the hidden mysteries of the universe. And the faithful are not necessarily opposed to science; nor are the scientists opposed to religious belief. Albert Einstein, for example, told THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1930 that he found in the "cosmic religious feeling…the noblest motive for scientific research"

Certainly science and faith provide two very different avenues to understanding. Put simply, the scientific method demands experimental or observational proof before belief; religious faith by its very nature demands belief without proof. But even this can be the beginning of a dialogue, not only a dispute.

The BIBLE, as BILL MOYERS ON FAITH & REASON guest Sir John Houghton, who's both a world-renowned meteorologist and a believing Christian, points out, "was never meant as a scientific textbook." At the same time, Houghton says, "The science we do is God's science. The laws of science we use and we study and we discover, they are God's laws, because they're the way he runs the universe. So science and theology should not be opposed."

In Houghton's view the sort of Biblical literalism that dismisses warnings about climate, that rejects the Darwinian account of evolution, is fundamentalism, not faith. Along with John Houghton, FAITH & REASON guests Margaret Atwood, Anne Provoost, and Colin McGinn have also addressed topics of faith and science and the connections between them. Find out what they — along with a selection of Bill Moyers' previous interview guests — had to say.


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GOD AND THE LIMITS OF UNDERSTANDING

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard put it best, perhaps, when he stated that holding religious faith depended on accepting paradoxes beyond reason — that there is no path to faith by way of reason; that we must indeed put aside reason in order to believe, to take a "leap of faith." Science, on the other hand, is a practice of reason.

But reason cannot encompass everything that humans experience. On BILL MOYERS ON FAITH & REASON, author Margaret Atwood imagines a scientific take on the Biblical account or creation, and points to the explanatory power of religion in the places where scientific accounts break down.

Margaret Atwood: "For instance, a physicist will say...Okay, instead of "Let there be light", there was the Big Bang, which must have been actually quite brilliant visually. And then you say to them, "But what about before that? What happened before that?" And they will say, "Well there was a singularity… You will say, "What is a singularity?" And they will say, "We don't know." So at some point in the story, there's going to be "We don't know." Okay, so think of it as a stage like this. And in the wings, there is "We don't know."

For Sir John Houghton, the essential connection between his religious faith and his scientific rationality is the doubt that is an central part of both: "...one of the most important statements you can make as a scientist is: I don't know. One of the most important statements you — you should be prepared to make as a believer is: I don't know."

"Biology, especially as it reaches for an account of human biology and of our own life, comes more and more to discover that there's gap between the world as science understands it mathematically and materialistically, and life as we human beings live it and encounter it." -- Leon R. Kass, biologist

listen Hear more from Leon R. Kass (49:27) or read the transcript (PDF)

"There's one question scientists are mostly scared to discuss. What is the nature of self-awareness? Dare we utter the C-word? Consciousness?" -- Murray Gell-Mann, Nobel Laureate physicist

listenHear more from Murray Gell-Mann (25:51) or read the transcript (PDF)

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TWO LANGUAGES? TWO PERSPECTIVES?

For Sir John Houghton, religion and science coexist in his experience not as separate ways of seeing, but as elements of a complete way of seeing the world in bold relief: "Something I've used, you know...is the metaphor of binocular vision... If you look through one eye, it stays flat. You must have two eyes to see things with."

"I don't think we should equate science with religion. But science is progressively playing a more and more essential part in the life of every individual. This is likely to increase even further in the future." -- Chen Ning Yang, Nobel Laureate physicist

listen Hear more from Chen Ning Yang (26:02) or read the transcript (PDF)

But for other thinkers, the divisions are starker, with science and faith existing as entirely opposed ways of seeing and understanding.

Colin McGinn: "We observe what's happening to come up with theories. And we arrive at our scientific beliefs and they are — And there's a consensus because the evidence is publicly available. It can be cited. It's not personal. Nobody says I know by revelations that the earth goes around the sun."

"I believe in truths, but I don't believe in the Truth. Furthermore, I think that vision of an underlying Truth, with as capital T, that scientists are privy to, has been a very counterproductive vision. It has served scientists very well, but what it has done, above all, is encloses the world of science and immunize it from criticism." -- Evelyn Fox Keller, physicist, and professor of rhetoric

listenHear more from Evelyn Fox Keller (25:44) or read the transcript (PDF)

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...OR TWO CULTURES?

For Colin McGinn, scientists and believers speak incompatible languages. In McGinn's analysis, religious adherents not only fail to see the strengths of scientific arguments, but fail even to understand them at all.

Colin McGinn: "For the last 30, 50 years even perhaps, reason has been under attack. Subjectivism, relativism, multiculturalism have been brought in to undermine the Enlightenment values of the disinterested search for truth, the belief in objective justification, the belief in objective reality, the belief in science, the belief in history....At the same time, faith is flourishing because if there's no such thing as reason, how will faith ever be criticized. So we get the idea, well, people have different faiths, and since everything's relative anyway, there's no point in trying to criticize other people's faith and point out there's no evidence for it. "

Mary Gordon (who is a practicing Christian), feels that science — or at least the cultural upheaval that made contemporary science possible — has its roots not just outside of religious belief, but in the rejection of belief: "If it weren't for atheists and agnostics, there would have been no Enlightenment."

But Anne Provoost cautions us not to replace "God" with "science." "We should not consider our scientists as — the Gods that will solve it for us. We will have to solve it for ourselves. But, on the other hand, we should not make the scientists the devils. And pretend that they are just bringing us the bad news."

Famed writer Isaac Asimov voiced a simliar philosphy: "Science doesn't purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism, a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It's a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match."

listen Hear more from Isaac Asimov (48:40) or read the transcript (PDF) (DVD/VHS)
Physicist Steven Weinberg is more absolute about what science can tell us: "We're going to get to the end of the chain of "whys," and we're going to see the few simple principles that govern everything."
listenHear more from Steven Weinberg, Physicist (26:42) or read the transcript (PDF)

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Perspectives - What do you think?
"I began to read about evolution and realized it, biological evolution as opposed to philosophical evolution. Biological evolution was just the way things seemed to have happened at least to some degree. And I thought, "Well, if God makes it that way, that's fine...I want to find out about that."
-- Sir John Houghton

Respond

"Because I, too, feel there's something deep and incomprehensible, and so far, uncomprehended at least. But what Einstein was not, and what I am not, is a believer in anything supernatural. Because I think that actually brings it down to a lower level."
-- Richard Dawkins

Respond

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The Battle over Evolution


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