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Creation, Part IV: Do Faith and Reason Conflict?

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Written by Basil on 12/28/2004 8:24 PM. Filed under:

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series
Part III in this series

Several centuries ago, the Ptolemaic solar system dominated astronomy. Ptolemy’s system placed the earth at the center of the cosmos, with the heavenly bodies orbiting the earth in concentric circles. Two men became convinced that Ptolemy’s ancient model was false; the first was Copernicus, the second, Galileo. In the case of Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church ordered him to recant or face excommunication, because heliocentrism made it impossible to believe that the sun literally stopped in its course through the sky as described in the Bible. Galileo did in fact recant and remained in silent communion with his church; his sacrifice, made to remain in communion with his church, remains one of the most tragically beautiful displays of humility the world has ever known. Galileo and science, however, won. The Copernican solar system continues to rule the day in astronomy, and the Roman Catholic Church in 1992 apologized for its haste in condemning Galileo for teaching what has turned out to be true.

A similar battle is being fought now over evolution. Though evolution was proposed long before Darwin as a method of explaining certain features of the fossil record, Darwin’s hypothesis provided a model of evolution that has withstood many valiant attempts to falsify it. Evolution now has as much support as any scientific theory or historical event. Yet, some view evolution as a threat to religious belief since it renders impossible literal belief in the creation stories of Genesis.

Is science incompatible with religious belief? In previous articles, I explored science as thoroughly empirical and naturalistic in its methodology. Science can only analyze what is apparent to our senses. Conversely, its competence is limited to the world perceived by our senses. Science can say nothing whatsoever about God, angels, spirits, and all the super-sensible objects of religious belief.

Theology takes these objects as its primary subject. If theology concerned itself only with objects unavailable to scientific study, there would be no conflict whatsoever. Our problem arises because theology is — or, more precisely, the sources of theology are — always making very concrete statements about this world we see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

These statements, when reformulated so as to be falsifiable, give science and theology an area in which their competencies could overlap. Was there ever an historical Adam and Eve? Was there ever a fishing trade on the Sea of Galilee? Was there ever an Imperial Roman census conducted when Cyrenius was governor of Syria? Was there ever a massacre of every child under three in Bethlehem? Was there ever a man conceived without human seed by a virgin mother? Was there ever a man resurrected after three days in the grave?

It is precisely in the acts of God in human history that science and faith can appear to conflict. Abstract theology is often completely inaccessible to science, as we have seen. Yet, some of the most important tenets of faith, especially Christian faith, turn on being grounded in an historical reality.

It would be extremely difficult to show, by a scientific examination, that the Jesus described in the canonical gospels never existed. Conversely, it would be just as difficult to show scientifically that he did exist. The same could be said of the various miracles associated with his life and ministry. The scientifically viable evidence is simply very slim for an unbiased scientific examination. We are left with a response based either on faith in the truth revealed in his person or on a lack thereof. This state of affairs is perhaps as it should be. Faith is most clearly revealed to be necessary when doubt is most possible.

In any case, a scientific examination would show only what could be perceived by the senses: This man lived, and he was associated with some rather extraordinary events. The faith factor still would be required to believe that his association with these miracles is one of causality and that the subject of the inquiry is both the man who can be subject to scientific inquiry and the God who cannot.

What most interests us in this discussion are the ways in which scientific descriptions of past events conflict with received religious accounts, as in the case of evolution or heliocentrism.

The first and most essential step is to recognize that faith and reason do not conflict. They are complementary ways of coming to know the truth of God’s creation. God reveals himself both in the world perceived by our senses and in the faith of the prophets and apostles, passed down to us through Scripture and tradition.

To rephrase this point: What is true cannot conflict with what is true. Sometimes new facts force us to reevaluate our human understanding of God’s revelation. This is to be expected. While God’s self-revelation is absolutely trustworthy, our fallible, human understanding is sometimes limited by many factors. Often, we realize the fundamental truth of an account remains essentially unchanged when new facts are learned.

In the case of Galileo, it was eventually seen that no fundamental dogma of the Christian faith was altered by learning that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way round. In the case of evolution, the misapprehension that a fundamental dogma is at stake threatens our comfort just as it did in Galileo’s day. Yet, is a fundamental dogma truly at stake?

The fundamental truth of creation is certainly not at stake. Science, as I have already indicated, is entirely incapable of making any statement about God’s activity in creation. It can only give us a clearer picture of what is perceptible by our senses; science is entirely empirical, in other words. The fundamental dogma — that all existence is created by God out of nothing and that it is wholly good — cannot be falsified by scientific study.

What is at stake then, for most people, is the veracity of Scripture and man’s place in creation. The beginning of this series has already addressed the issue of the veracity of Scripture: The literal interpretation is not an accurate one. These initial chapters of Genesis were never intended to be literally interpreted, as modern man understands literality. However, a deeper problem exists for many Christians. According to the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretation of the Genesis mythology, man is the source of corruption and death in the cosmos.

According to this view, God created the cosmos without death or corruption. Man was created immortal. It was the sin of man that introduced mortality and corruption into the cosmos. We are now ruled by sin and death. To put the Eastern Christian spin on this (because it is absolutely essential to my own struggle with this question): Adam’s sin made the entire race subject to death, and this subjection leads, through the fear of death, to the complex web of sin in our personal and social existence, a web from which we cannot extricate ourselves. The Incarnation overcomes this subjection by uniting our nature to life himself; by voluntarily subjecting himself to death, he conquers it forever. By rising on the third day, he gives us the guarantee that we are free from the grip of death and so free from the grip of sin.

This gets messy if the first Adam is not, in some sense, responsible for the reign of death and corruption. According to a biological view, they predate man. Death and corruption are a fundamental part of the cycle of life, and they have been so from the beginning.

Now we have a real conflict. Or do we?

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11 Responses to “Creation, Part IV: Do Faith and Reason Conflict?”

  1. Victoria Says:

    I don’t have much time for a thoughtful response, but to me, Adam has always been Everyman.

    For some muzzy reason of my own, I don’t think God created this universe to be permanent. So, for me, it doesn’t matter that life and death predated “Adam.” Therefore, for me, Christianity doesn’t need a historical Adam who brought death to the world. It’s not a very Orthodox view maybe, but I can’t get too upset that there is death. I mean, of course death upsets me, but I don’t consider it an awful, not-in-the-plan thing. We have physical bodies; they die; it’s all right.

    Suketu sometimes tells the Buddhist story of the perfect rose. Would a rose frozen at the peak of its beauty really be perfect? No. It would be abominable, because an eternally perfect “rose” is not really a rose at all. A perfect Rose grows, buds, lives, and then…dies.

    And the atoms are freed to go be something else now, but the *rose* was, and somehow still is and shall be.

  2. Chris Dmitri Says:

    And the above story is why I almost followed buddhism earlier in my life.

    While I have no disagreements with what you are saying Basil, I dont’ think any of this is really the point.

    Modern man has decided that Science has destroyed God. That reality must be tied to imperical evidence, and if there is no concrete evidence then there it does not exist. And I am sorry to say it, a great many scientist believe that science certainly can: say something whatsoever about God, angels, spirits, and all the super-sensible objects of religious belief.

    I would suggest you rephrase that to:
    Science should say nothing whatsoever about God, angels, spirits, and all the super-sensible objects of religious belief.

    I think that the major obstacle that you have when following this line of thought is convincing those on both camps that Science cannot speak to God and the spiritual. Good luck with that.

  3. Victoria Says:

    Perhaps science cannot speak of God, but it certainly can speak to us as spiritual beings.

    One thing that science is “for” is to make sure we don’t fool ourselves. Some people (esp the really hard science guys) take it a bit too far, and end up fooling themselves in the process, by saying that if we can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. But a dogma of anthropology is that “absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence.”

    Still can’t get too worked up about whether or not the universe always had death and “corruption” (the second law of thermodynamics? bet so).

  4. basil Says:

    Dmitri: No, it is correct as stated. Those who think otherwise, whether scientists or religious believers, are wrong. It is simply a matter of the makeup of science, its methodology and the sources of its data. I don’t have to convince anyone of the truth. If they want to be wrong, that’s their choice.

    I’m much more interested in convincing believers that they have nothing to fear from science and in teaching them to make the proper distinctions in appropriating scientific findings into their world-view. People like Richard Dawkins and Phillip Johnson, opposite sides of the same muddle-headed coin, really interest me not at all. They are entitled to their false opinions.

    I do wish they would shut up with their prattle, though.

  5. basil Says:

    Victoria: That bit about anthropology is excellent, and exactly what I’m talking about. Science, because it only takes empirical data for its study, cannot really speak about non-empirical realities. That does not mean they do not exist.

    You are, however, correct to note that there are certainly going to be conflicts. When there are, it is important that we take them seriously. Obviously, the first step will be to determine whether there is really a conflict at all.

    About the whole death and corruption thing, I talk about that in the next installment. Look for it.

  6. basil Says:

    Dmitri, to restate my hasty comment above, the “should” applies to scientists and other interlocutors who need to familiarize themselves with the limits of the scientific enterprise, not science itself. Science is what it is; “should” and “ought” have little meaning if any when applied to it.

  7. sockmonk Says:

    Does “science” have any existence independent of the practice of science, of scientific investigation, experimentation, etc.? If it doesn’t, then it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about what science “should” and “shouldn’t” do, and this is done all the time when applying ethics to science, as in “science should not invent a machine that will destroy the planet” or that would enable some other ethically objectionable action. This is generally used as shorthand for “scientists should not…”

    If you’re using “science” as shorthand for something else, it might help avoid confusion if you spelled it out.

    I look forward to your next installment, as you’re finally addressing the issue of origins stories as “creation myths,” functional explanations of how and why we got here and what life is all about.

  8. sockmonk Says:

    Regarding Gallileo… if a recent letter to the editor in a local newspaper is true, the story of Gallileo and the Catholic Church may well have been misrepresented. The letter says that Gallileo was actually censured for disobeying the Pope’s order not to publicize his findings. The main issue was not the heliocentricity of the universe, but submission to the Church, at least from the Catholic Church’s perspective. That seems different from how I usually hear the story told. (And no, I haven’t done any research as of yet into the exact details; wish I didn’t have to keep digging when this stuff comes up, but it keeps turning out to be necessary when people trot out conflicting versions.)

  9. basil Says:

    Science is also used as a shorthand for “the findings of science,” or “scientific knowledge.” Yes, in the sense that science means “the practice of the field of science,” ethical principles come into play, where it would be understood that to say, “science ought to…” really means, “scientists ought to….” I was just making explicit that ethical imperatives apply to people, not things.

    As for the Galileo incident, you are correct. However, the reason the pope wanted Galileo to keep quiet was precisely because the Copernican theory conflicted with their theology about how the sun stood still. For a more complete understanding of the whole process, read The Galileo Connection by Charles Hummel from InterVarsity Press. Absolutely essential in this conversation.

  10. Andy Holland Says:

    In your discussion about Darwin, while I do not believe in undermining the observations of gradualism which were known by the Church Fathers, though they were more scientific in indicating gradations, “Survival of the Fittest” is not a scientific theory – it is in essence an atheistic philosophy.

    Proponents of “Survival of the Fittest” often invoke extra degrees of freedom to specific observations to make them fit with the data. A proper scientific theory is bounded, specific and testable. You might as well say what survives survives. You could call it anything (“natural selection”, “kludge”) for example.

    Additionally, the fossil record indicates that less strong species tend to win, often after mass extinctions, so Darwin’s ‘stronger survive, weak die’ (Descent of Man) is not necessarily true (though it appears logically true in a common sense sort of way).

    Sometimes when David meets Goliath, David wins – and when he does win, the system around him (kingdoms, world history) change dramatically in an unexpected direction. The same may hold true in the fossil record, and the fact that species that appear weaker than their older cousins fill the earth, may indicate the exception is the rule! Why not?

    It should be noted also that the Darwin social-scientific world view is responsible for lots of repression and destruction. “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” was an ominous title! St. Nilus prophecy has come true, and vanity associated with science and “reason” has turned many away from the Truth.

    With regard to the Copernican system, it is also both correct and incorrect. The Earth is flat (in a Geodic Minkowski space) and accelerates upward at the local gravitational constant. Inertial canonical analytic solutions can prefer flat Earth (Geodic) reference frames, so the Earth is an Oblate Spheriod from a cartessian point of view. Furthermore, in a General Relativistic model, the Earth passes by the sun in a straight line (space-time) forever.

    Also, it is formally the center of the universe, since the universe is uniformally observationally distant in all directions (again a consequence of Einstein cosmology confirmed by direct observations). You will see 13.7 Billion Light Years in every direction – that makes where the observer is The Center!

    And if you don’t find flat Earth models useful, ‘When every valley is exalted, and every hill made low’ and one draws roads on it, a flat Earth model is very useful in a glove compartment – especially for guys who don’t want to ask directions!

  11. basil Says:

    Andy, I would like to note a few things.

    “Survival of the Fittest” Darwin never called his theory by this name, and no scientist has ever called his theory by that name. If memory serves, it was used as a derogatory term to describe Social Darwinism, the perversion of Darwin’s theory to mean, sociologically, the strong survive, the weak do not, and that’s acceptable. However, as ethicists will tell you, one cannot argue from a statement of fact to an ethical imperative. As C. S. Lewis stated, one cannot get from an “is” to an “ought.”

    The same is true for your later statement “that the Darwin social-scientific world view is responsible for lots of repression and destruction.” It is a perversion of his thinking that no decent human being has ever favored.

    Sometimes when David meets Goliath, David wins This is simply a different way of looking at fitness. I would strongly urge you to read the relevant literature for yourself, and stop depending upon regurgitations biased against science. Your humorous anecdotes at the end indicate that you are quite intelligent, so it should be no sweat. I strongly recommend Abusing Science by Philip Kitcher.