Note: This is the third article in a series titled A Layperson's Journey to Reconcile Science and Personal Faith. The other installments include
There are certain natural phenomena that stir the heart deeply. I recall a recent trip to the coast of Oregon, sitting on the small cliffs above the beach, watching the sun set. The sound of the waves, the cry of gulls, and the gentle but strong feeling of the wind against the skin caused such a mixture of joyous, melancholy desire that I wanted to cry and yet laugh, sit forever and yet run. Similar feelings arise when I look into the night sky on a perfect summer night or when I connect perfectly with someone in a deep conversation over dinner. I hesitate to speak too much for others, but I can’t help but imagine that many people find stirring moments like those experienced in the presence of a perfect coastal sunset to be calls to something more, something higher, something better. For me personally, answering that higher call has been a journey of faith, specifically as a Christian. I find these moments described before as both affirmations and invitations: affirmation of there being something more than just the physical world and invitations to seek out what that “more” is exactly.1 At this point it’s possible for the intellectually minded (specifically the scientifically inclined), to both acknowledge these experiences as real and simultaneously dismiss them as nothing more than chemical processes given to us by evolution and (in a hand-wavy sort of way), claim these emotions were developed to help us survive. Many scientists would say that, while these feelings are real, to put too much meaning behind them is ridiculous and that my emotions are getting the better of me. My highly-evolved system is merely trying to improve my chances of survival, and that even if modern science cannot explain every detail as to how these feelings assist in that aim, it is still what is occurring. Besides the fact that this kind of reductionism is not only boring and dull, I also find it not very convincing.
In this essay I take a different view. A non-trivial concern of any religious person today is whether the claims of science are at odds with the claims of faith. Many argue that science has shown that religion is nonsense, or, at the very least, literally interpretations of religious views do not reflect reality. The existence of religion is the remnant, so the argument goes, of once-useful survival behaviors that should now be considered obsolete. Elsewhere I argue that this line of thinking (naturalism) leads to nihilism.2 But, even if naturalism can ultimately be shown as a nihilistic worldview, it doesn’t necessarily mean that faith isn’t actually at odds with science. By holding the teachings of the Bible true, for example, are Christians standing in opposition to science? In this essay I discuss why I think this need not be the case; specifically, that science and faith are actually incredibly compatible. First, I take a careful look at philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, specifically examining his points on Richard Dawkins, the Christian evidence base, and his claim there is deep concord between science and Christian theism. Second, I examine some of the salient points from The Language of God, written by preeminent scientist Francis Collins. Chief among those arguments is his support for theistic evolution, captured in the phrase "BioLogos." Third, I draw several points from Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God, showing how social aspects actually create a strong illusion as to the gap between science and faith, despite atheists not being united on this front and philosophical naturalism providing no moral backing for the real way people live their lives. Finally, I conclude with some personal thoughts from all of this, reflecting on how I have come to close the gap between science and faith in my own mind.
PLANTINGA: WHERE THE CONFLICT REALLY LIES
Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies makes the claim:
“there is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism” (p. vix).
Plantinga spends the book arguing for this claim in a plethora of ways. One of the first approaches involve showing weaknesses in Richard Dawkin's arguments concerning the implications of evolution. This strategy by Plantinga makes considerable sense, as Dawkins has seemingly been one of the most vocal opponents of religion from the scientific community. Plantinga focuses his analysis on Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins makes his own claim: that natural selection is how life developed to the present state, and that there was no higher power involved in this process (p. 13). More importantly, Dawkins concludes in Watchmaker that “the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design” (p. 14). Plantinga argues, (I think successfully) that Dawkins does little in his work to show that this is indeed the case.
In order to understand Dawkins’s case, Plantinga first highlights the specific school of evolutionary thought to which Dawkins belongs because there is some disagreement in the field of evolutionary study as to what really are the true mechanisms of evolutionary change (p. 22 - 23). A Darwinist, Dawkins hold that evolution is powered by “natural selection culling random genetic mutation” (p. 15). For this particular view on the evolution of life, it follows that “there is a complete Darwinian history for every contemporary species, and indeed for every contemporary organism.” In other words, there should be some complete path, even if it is not something that is possible to discover today, from simpler organisms of the past to the complex organisms of the present. This, rather suddenly, brings us to an interesting statement from Planting: that this particular view of evolution is not in conflict with Christian theism so far, since God could have easily guided this Darwinian history; but Dawkins doesn’t think so, instead holding that this history, and the evidence for it, show there is no God (p. 16 - 17). To argue for this, Dawkins provides a three-part question, using the development of the human eye as an example, which Plantinga summarizes:
“[First] Is there a path through organic space connecting, say, some ancient population of unicellular life with the human eye, [second] where each point on the path could plausibly have come from a preceding point by way of a heritable random genetic mutation that [three] was adaptively useful, and that could plausibly then have spread through the appropriate population by way of unguided natural selection” (p. 19)
Dawkins’s premise is that if this is true (that the path exists as defined in the three part argument above), it proves a universe without design. However, Plantinga raises multiple objections to this claim, all based in how Dawkins approaches proving his claim. Among those objections, the primary issue that stood out was this: when making his arguments, Dawkins works with the idea of the probability. In other words, in respect to his three-part question, Dawkins is essentially asking if those requirements (the path, the heritability, the distribution of traits) are probable? Plantinga, when addressing Dawkins's usage of probability in the question, points out this implies that “mutations must be reasonably probable, not too improbable, with respect to the previous point [on the Darwinian path]” (p. 20). But then, asks Plantinga, “How much improbability is too much?” (p. 20). At this stage, a reader unfamiliar with Dawkins, like myself, might assume that a number of equations be forthcoming to demonstrate that this probability is reasonable enough to inspire confidence that the universe exists without design. However, such an expectation is to be disappointed. In fact, Dawkins only backing for a "not too improbable" threshold is that he “feels” it’s not too improbable and does not “attempt at the sort of serious calculations that would surely be required for a genuine answer” (p. 23). This, says Plantinga, makes the arguments “controversial, unsupported, and pretty much guesswork” (p. 22 - 23). Although there are various peripheral aspects to this analysis, the core element is that Dawkins makes strong arguments but does not provide the rigorous work to back those claims up.
Plantinga’s analysis of Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker illustrates several things. First, Dawkins’s claims do not follow from his arguments. Plantinga says that Dawkins arguments, “At best... show, given a couple of assumptions, that it is not astronomically improbable that the living world was produced by unguided evolution and hence without design” (p. 24). Second, while Dawkins and many creationists would argue that evolution and God-as-creator are incompatible, “Dawkins gives us no reason whatever to think that current biological science is in conflict with Christian belief” (p. 30). My personal feeling after reading this section a few times is how surprisingly weak was the position taken by Dawkins. As a Christian, it can be easy to develop a feeling of “punching up” when it comes to discussions on science. Perhaps, if one is a young earth creationist this is true and you are at a disadvantage. But modern science strongly indicates that Darwin was right and that the diversity of life arose through some form of evolutionary processes. However, this is simply not the same thing as saying there isn’t a God. As one writer said, “Nothing about evolution disproves God or religion. It is simply a sound scientific understanding of our origins” (Federman, 2013).
Defeaters and the Christian Evidence Base
Despite Dawkins’s failure to illustrate a real issue between science and theistic Christianity, there are certainly scientific views where such a conflict can be found. Simonian science and methodological naturalism are such areas. In such cases, Plantinga asks, “... what should you think about scientific theories incompatible with Christian belief? Should the existence of these theories induce intellectual disquiet, cognitive dissonance? …does the existence of such theories give you a defeater for those beliefs with which they are incompatible?” (p. 164).
Plantinga thinks that areas such as Simonian science do not provide such a defeater (p. 164), but before explaining why, it is worth discussing his explanation of defeaters. Although there are multiple types of defeaters, is essentially a piece of information which “rebutts” another idea previously held, such that you cannot rationally continue to hold the first idea now that you have the new information. Plantinga gives an example illustrating defeaters: you see what you think is a sheep in a pasture. Another man comes along who owns the pasture. He says there are no sheep in the pasture, but that he does have a dog that looks like a sheep. You cannot, at that point, rationally hold that what you’re seeing is a sheep (p. 165). You have, therefore, acquired a defeater for your belief. There are further nuances to defeaters which he discusses, but one more critical point is this: “whether a belief B is a defeater for another belief B* depends on what else I believe” (p. 165). Plantinga gives the example of the sheep again, but also points out that if I think the owner is a “contrarian” who likes to give people a hard time, you haven’t necessarily acquired a defeater. In other words, your further beliefs (as to the nature of the pasture owner) give you a defeater for your first defeater.
Returning to the original question posed, as to whether some aspects of science (such as the Simonian type), actually provide defeaters for Christians, Plantinga says no (p. 164). He proposes that this is due to something called an evidence base and, in this specific case, the Christian’s evidence base. An evidence base, in this context, is “The set of beliefs I use, or to which I appeal, in conducting an inquiry” (p. 167). The evidence base we hold largely determines the conclusions at which we arrive. To illustrate, Plantinga offers an example in which is he is trying to discover why his car won’t start and the likelihood it is due inhabitation by evil spirits:
If... I think it very likely that evil spirits never inhabit automobiles, then I will assign that hypothesis a very low probability and will not pursue it further as a live option. A Brazilian tribesman, on the other hand, might think it much more likely that evil spirits should do such things, and might therefore assign this hypothesis much greater probability” (p. 167 - 168).
Using the concept of defeaters in combination with that of evidence bases, why does Plantinga argue that Simonian science doesn’t provide a defeater for Christians? Simply put, the Christian evidence base includes parts of Simonian science, but it also incorporates much more, such as belief in God (p. 175). In fact, Plantinga says Christians shouldn’t be surprised that methodological naturalism of the strong sort (e.g. that science denies the tenants of the Christian faith), comes to the conclusions it does. In other words, “... that conclusion is a simple consequence of the evidence base they start with” (p. 175). While part of an evidence base can provide a defeater for belief (perhaps a Christian holds an evidence base that includes Simonian science), it doesn’t automatically provide a complete defeater (p. 175).
This discussion of evidence bases can leave many unanswered questions. For example, something Plantinga points out is that evidence bases can lead to forms of “intellectual irresponsibility” because someone can flippantly ignore evidence presented because they claim they have another evidence base (p. 183). Although there isn’t space to discuss it fully here, Plantinga provides a “reduction test” which points out that, in the end, this irresponsibility can be avoided with certain appeals to rationality. If you are presented with evidence of something that conflicts with something else you believe, can you continue to rationally hold the previous belief? (p. 184). This exact situation has happened throughout Christianity’s history, such as with the rise of Copernicanism, which eventually led Christians to realize the earth was not the center of the universe. This had occasioned a defeater for some interpretations of the Bible (Collins, p. 154 - 155).
The primary point of this discussion on defeaters is this: someone who holds the presupposition of methodological naturalism as their evidence base is going to come to the conclusion that faith and science are at odds and deny tenants of the Christian faith. As Plantinga says, “that conclusion is a simple consequence of the evidence base they start with” (p. 175). When Christians encounter certain aspects of science which appear to be in conflict with Christian theism (Plantinga argues these are superficial conflicts), they should consider that their evidence base is much broader than one which presupposes naturalism. This is obviously just one small step in the entire reasoning process. After all, a Christian should have a firm grasp of what their full evidence base is and why they believe what they do believe. Nonetheless, there is no automatic defeater for faith flowing out from science, because the Christian evidence base includes large amounts of the scientific evidence base, as well as those of Christian theism.
Concord Between Science and Faith
Plantinga argues that science and Christian theism actually go quite well together, providing a number of evidences to illustrate this alignment. In one section he discusses commonly known positions such as the fine-tuning argument and Behe’s discussion of irreducible complexity. But Plantinga points out, after significant discussion on both, that these are actually not the strongest arguments. In the case of the fine-tuning argument Plantinga says, “It does offer support, but only mild support” (p. 224). In the case of irreducible complexity he says, “Behe’s design discourses do not constitute irrefragable arguments for theism,” instead providing more of an intuition for the idea we were designed and not the results of a magnificent accident (p. 264). Instead, there are stronger positions of alignment between science and Christian theism. Several of these are presented here. It is worth noting that each of these evidences builds upon the other to create a more complete picture of the relationship between science and faith.
The first area of “deep concord” from Plantinga takes the position that the most fundamental ideals of science are tightly coupled with the idea of imago dei, e.g. humans were made in the image of God. He starts with two questions: (1) what is required to do science with success and (2) what is the nature of science itself? (p. 266). Starting with the second question, Plantinga summarizes the definition of science as “a search for truth about ourselves and our world… [and] at bottom an attempt to learn important truths about ourselves and our world” (p. 267). So then, science is about searching and knowing truth as it relates to our world. But, and anyone who espouses scientism will disagree with this, Plantinga points out science cannot answer many questions, such as why slavery is immoral (p. 267). We must look elsewhere for that. How do these things relate to the divine image? He points out that traditional Christian theism holds that God is a being of knowledge and that human beings were made in that image (p. 268). Now, God created us to be knowers of truth and gave us the ability to do just that:
“God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties. The medievals had a phrase for it: adequatio intellectus ad rem (the adequation of the intellect to reality).... That there is a match between our cognitive or intellectual faculties and... whatever exists” (p. 269).
Now, compare this with a universe created by a blind force, instead of God, which is the philosophical naturalist’s position. It might be incorrectly assumed that one would just expect humans to have faculties capable of gaining true knowledge about our environment. But this assumption would be wrong. Atheist and philosopher Noam Chomsky says, “This partial congruence between the truth about the world and what the human science-forming capacity produces... yields science. Notice that it is just blind luck if the human science-forming capacity, happens to yield a result that conforms more or less to the truth” (Plantinga, p. 269). In fact, unguided natural selection does not require that our ways of knowing add up to the truth of reality at all: “[natural selection] has no interest in our having true beliefs” (p. 271). But, argues Plantinga, for science to be successful, what people observe about the world around us needs to add up to the truth of what the world actually is (p. 271). In Christian theism, this is not the “blind luck” mentioned by Chomsky, but actually the expected result. God, a being of knowledge, made humans in his own image, including that feature of being able to to know the truth. We therefore were given faculties that matched our environment.
Plantinga’s second argument of concord is based on the idea that science relies fundamentally on the predictability of the universe. Positing that regularity is espoused in Christian theism and that it works closely with the needs of science, Plantinga begins by comparing two medieval philosophers, Ockham and Aquinas, and their views of God (p. 273). Aquinas viewed God as primarily intellect, meaning that he saw the way the world turned out (with its moral laws, etc.) as inevitable because it stems from the nature of God. Ockham thought of God as primarily will and therefore felt that much of the nature of the world is arbitrary. A God driven by will primarily would, as Ockham’s arguments illustrate, not require a world of regularity or predictability. Evidence from the Christian tradition seems to side with Aquinas on this. Plantinga says, “Christian theism involves the idea that God governs the world; that what happens does not come about by chance, but by virtue of God’s providential governance” (p. 272).
But what does this regularity and “providential governance” have to do with science? Plantinga argues that science cannot work without a “high degree of regularity and predictability” (p. 271). Not only must our faculties be equipped to know the truth (as was argued before), but science does not work if the truth is changing unpredictably. While there is some randomness in the universe, one of the classic approaches to scientific inquiry is through the scientific method. In this way humans can observe the behavior of the universe, form hypotheses as to why the universe behaves a given way, then make a prediction based on those hypotheses. At that juncture, experiments can be performed. If the hypothesis under test was correct, then a result that more-or-less matches the prediction will be observed. This is how science has been performed for centuries (Nature, Defining the Scientific Method, 2009). Even if one is arguing for a different approach to scientific inquiry, it’s still necessary that the universe behave in a reliable way, else the observations and hypotheses you form are worthless. This behavior of the universe is very much in line with Christian thought around God’s nature, such as that espoused by Aquinas. As such, science and Christian theism are in close alliance.
The third argument deals with the nature of universal scientific laws, specifically constancy and necessity. Plantinga points out that the universe is indeed governed by laws and that this governance by laws fits well with the idea of Christian theism. While some Christians may argue for God’s direct intervention in every single natural phenomenon, Christian tradition would actually indicate that God has established laws to govern the universe. Plantinga quotes scientist William Whewell: “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this - we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interposition of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws” (p. 275). Is the concept of law important to science? Plantinga says yes, and lets Stephen Hawking explain why in part: “the more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws” (p. 277). A key point to this is also that these laws be discoverable. Plantinga says, “On this conception, part of the job of science is to discover the laws of nature; but then of course science will be successful only if it is possible for us human beings to do that” (p. 277). Plantinga is arguing that there is a tight coupling between the Christian theistic understanding of law, in the sense that God not only establishes it but makes it available to us. Even with his moral law, he laid it’s groundwork, but then made it something we can know. The natural laws are the same way. They exist, but are also knowable.
Some might think that it is merely coincidence or a self-fulfilling prophecy of a sort that Christian theism aligns with science so well. As it turns out, this is simply not the case. Planting points out that the four horsemen of atheism, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett, would agree that the universe behaves in the way described above. It shows predictability, constancy, laws, and is discoverable via our knowledge faculties. However, they would also have to say that this was an incredibly lucky coincidence (p. 283). Plantinga continues:
“ ...theism enables us to understand the necessity or inevitableness or inviolability of natural laws: this necessity is to be explained and understood in terms of the difference between divine power and the power of finite creatures… from the point of view of naturalism, the character of these laws is something of an enigma. What is this alleged necessity they display, weaker than logical necessity, but necessity nonetheless? What if anything explains the fact that these laws govern what happened? What reason if any is there for expecting them to continue to govern these phenomena? Theism provides a natural answer to these questions; naturalism stands mute before them.” (p. 283).
This is an incredibly important difference. Science requires the kind of universe you would expect from Christian theism, while philosophical naturalism, by its nature, argues against these notions.3 I think it highly important to remember that this is not an argument for the existence of God, nor was it intended to be such. Instead, it is an illustration of the alignment that true science and Christian tradition have with each other. The God of the Christian supports the very nature and fabric of science.
FRANCIS COLLINS: THE LANGUAGE OF GOD
Any modern discussion of science and faith would be remiss if evolution were not specifically discussed. This is a complicated topic and, while I myself have found peace between the theory of evolution and Christian theism, many Christians and atheists (and everyone in between those two viewpoints) can find it difficult and confusing to reconcile. The truth of evolutionary theory is one which many scientists, theologians, and philosophers have addressed in detail, so there is no shortage of resources to see what has been said on the topic. Suffice to say I have yielded to the experts in these fields and hold evolution to be a true theory. In the future I hope to give more details on my personal intellectual journey to that position, but there is not space to discuss it here. Instead, I will take the stance that if evolution is true, Christians have nothing to fear. While popular faith or science writers would oftentimes have us believe that evolution and faith are entirely incompatible, this is really not the case. In his book, The Language of God, esteemed scientist and dedicate Christian Francis Collins argues that faith and evolution are very compatible and proposes a more broad strokes approach for Christians wishing to reconcile their faith and science.
First, Collins starts with Genesis itself. For many Christians, a direct, literal interpretation of Genesis is key to an orthodox faith. Obviously, the theory of evolution, and specifically Darwinian evolution, stands in opposition to this. Evolution teaches that “all the lifeforms on earth share a common ancestor as a result of variation and selection over a very long time” (What is Evolution?, BioLogos, 2019). But Collins asks a different question: what if Genesis, and specifically the first two chapters, is not supposed to be interpreted literally? Collins doesn’t think that was the intention, and one of the reasons is there are clear conflicts between the timelines of chapters 1 and 2, such as exactly when God created Adam. In Genesis 1 it appears he created Adam after vegetation and in Genesis 2 it’s before (Collins, p. 150). Additionally, continues Collins, the sun wasn’t created at the beginning so it’s difficult to decipher how to define a day (p. 151).
But what are Christians to make of these confusing depictions? The problems really only arise if one must take an extremely literal view of those passages. It might be easy to assume that theologians have always viewed Genesis literally and that it wasn’t until relatively recently that Darwin forced the issue. Collins points out that “Nonliteral interpretations since Darwkin are somewhat suspect in some circles, since they could be accused of ‘caving in’ to evolution theory… compromising the truth of of the sacred text”(p. 151). Thankfully, continues Collins, this is not the case and the chief example of this comes from writings by Saint Augustine approximately 1500 years before Darwin was even born. Augustine was cautious about taking a literal view of the creation account and he “question[ed] the duration of the seven days of biblical creation,” coming to the conclusion that it was “impossible” to tell “what kind of days these were” (p. 152).
Another example that should give Christians great caution about how Genesis 1 and 2 is interpreted comes from the story of the scientist Galileo. Collins writes that “Galileo ultimately came to the conclusion that his observations could make sense only if the earth revolved around the sun… [which] placed him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church” (p. 154). This conflict with the Catholic Church involved Galileo being called “atheistic,” and a heretic (p. 155). The source of the conflict, Collins explains, is that certain scriptures “seemed to support the church’s position at the time” that Earth was the center of the universe (such as Psalm 104:5 and Ecclesiastes 1:5); today we see that “claims that heliocentricity contradicted the Bible are [overstated], and the insistence on a literal interpretation of those particular scripture verses seems wholly unwarranted” (p. 156). Christians could not rationally continue to believe that the sun revolved around the earth with this new information from Galileo.4
Collins warnings should not fall on deaf ears. It is easy for Christians to give in to moral panics and modern religious viewpoints that lack historical context. In this case, Christians should be aware that when science gives us a partial defeater for our viewpoints, it need not trigger a cry-to-arms. The comparison between Galileo and the Catholic Church with Darwinian evolution and a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 is valid and useful. Collins quotes Augustine again, this time giving us some exhortation to be careful about how we appear to those outside of the church:
“Even a non-Christian knowns something about the earth… and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is… [that] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?” (p. 157, quoting St. Augustine Genesis 19:39).
BioLogos: A Framework
But what does it mean for a Christian to accept the idea of evolution? Collins proposes a framework which he describes as BioLogos, a viewpoint firmly rooted in theistic evolution. Theistic evolution, says Collins, “is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers” (p. 199). Theistic evolution rests on a number of ideas, including (1) the age of the universe (around 14 billion years old), (2) the existence of life as we know it seems highly improbable, (3 and 4) that we don’t yet know the exact origin of life, but that diversity came about through evolution once God started the process, (5) that humans also evolved, and (6) importantly, humans are special in ways that “defy evolutionary explanations and point to our spiritual nature” (p. 200). Collins says that theistic evolution gives scientists who also hold to Christian theism a way to engage in their field in an “intellectually fulfilled” way, while also holding to the Bible (p. 201).
Is this viewpoint threatening to orthodox Christianity? Collins points out that the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis certainly didn’t think so. In fact, says Collins, Lewis viewed “the story of Adam and Eve as something resembling a moral lesson rather than a scientific textbook or a biography” (p. 208). Lewis writes the following:
“For long centuries, God perfected the animal form, which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands… and throat capable of articulation and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all of the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated… Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God” (p. 208).
On the other side of the equation, is theistic evolution a threat to science itself? Collins doesn’t think so, because, he argues, it isn’t a scientific theory (p. 204). Instead, Collins is arguing that clear lines between science and faith be drawn in terms of responsibility, while simultaneously drawing new lines that show the relationship between the two. For example, science tells us about the details of origins and how life developed. Genesis was never intended to provide us with that level of detail (p. 206). On the other hand, where the physical universe came from, why we’re here, how we address moral issues, science cannot and should not answer these kinds of questions (p. 204).5
As someone engaged and interested in AI, conversations around the nature of consciousness and the nature of Mind arise frequently. Did Mind come about through evolutionary processes? Are people merely calculating machines? These and other questions are difficult to answer when one is taking a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2. Methodologies modeled around evolution have been applied to AI with success and as a Christian wishing to contribute to the field, it quickly becomes a question as to whether such techniques are valid. If one holds that evolution is some sort of wicked, atheistic viewpoint and not a serious scientific theory (I use “theory” in the scientific way here and not casually), then I must ignore not only these techniques, but broader evidences from DNA, geology and physics. Ultimately, Collins, a firm believer in both the God of the Bible and evolution, says that his research in DNA provided great evidence for evolution and “how descent by modification from a common ancestor has occurred” (p. 198). However, instead of “finding this unsettling,” says Collins, “I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this master plan of the same Almighty who caused the universe to come into being” (p. 199). Like Collins, I too see theistic evolution as an excellent bridge between these two worlds. Interestingly enough, if tomorrow I woke up and the entire scientific community had abandoned evolution in light of new evidences and new theories, I would likely not find it too troubling because this framework of faith and science allows for science to comment where it is responsible, while allowing faith to inform us in its own domain, knowing that sometimes those lines between faith and science will blur and cross.
TIM KELLER: THE REASON FOR GOD
Pastor Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God deals with a plethora of arguments around questions such as the existence of God, miracles, morals and scripture. A couple of key points can be drawn from Keller’s discussion on these topics and applied to this idea of closing the gap between science and faith. First, he shows that many of the apparent conflicts between science and faith are socially constructed. Second, he highlights that atheists are hardly united with the views of those such as the new atheists, who find it difficult to believe intelligent, thinking people could believe in God. Third and finally, Keller argues that our own sense of morality argues for the existence of God, illuminating how people live like there is a God, while stating they don’t believe in Him. All of these provide excellent dialog around the science and faith conversation, further extending the Christian evidence base previously discussed by Plantinga.
To begin, Keller makes a compelling argument that oftentimes the science and faith conflict is strengthened, and sometimes even created by, social construction, rather than substantive contention points. Claims by atheists like Dawkins, says Keller, can be described as “simplistic scheme[s]” in which “at the one end of the spectrum, in ‘conflict,’ are both the proponents of ‘creation science’ and, ironically, thinkers like Dawkins” (p. 91). Plantinga would agree with this assessment, stating that the new atheists like Dawkins have “claims [that] are loud and strident. They propose to deal with their opponents not by way of reasoned arguments and discussion, but by way of ridicule… Why they choose this route is not wholly clear… [One reason] is that they know of no good reasons or arguments for their views, and hence resort to schoolyard tactics” (p. xi). Perhaps then, and I certainly think this is the case, the contentions of science and faith are not nearly so mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is just the ranting of philosophical naturalists in the public airways who cause us to believe it. Keller adds another wrinkle, stating that the conflict model of science and faith might have been a strategic move by intellectuals to free themselves from the church, as proposed by sociologist Christian Smith. He says the following:
“Smith argues that the conflict model of the relationship of science to religion was a deliberate exaggeration used by both scientists and educational leaders at the end of the 19th century to undermine the church’s control of their institutions and increase their own cultural power. The absolute warfare model of science and reason was the product not so much of intellectual necessity but rather of a particular cultural strategy” (p. 92)
Secondly, Keller argues that atheists hardly have consensus on these issues, starting with the famous Stephen Jay Gould. Gould implied his awareness that many real scientists hold a theistic or religious view of some kind, along with evolution. It also seems that he was reasonably at peace with this fact. He says, “Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs - and equally compatible with atheism” (Keller, p. 94). On the contrary, Keller points out, new atheist Dawkins “gives the impression that all atheistic scientists would agree with him that no rational… mind could believe in God.” This is obviously not the case. Celebrated philosopher Noam Chomsky, himself an atheist, had this to say about the New Atheist movement: “I'm not impressed with it, frankly. And I don't think they address the concerns, feelings and commitments of seriously religious people” (Crawley, 2009). Obviously Chomsky doesn’t align with the feeling of those like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, who use language that would lead one to believe science and faith can never be reconciled. Keller references the atheist Thomas Nagel who says, “The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in the physical… I believe the project is doomed - that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts” (p. 95). What are we to make of all this? Keller concludes that despite the popular acceptance of the idea that science has overcome religion, “... we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we have to choose between the two, or that if you want to be a Christian you will have to be in conflict with science” (p. 95).
Finally, shifting perspectives slightly, Keller argues that the human sense of morality is itself a good argument for the existence of God. I see the success of this argument (if it can be successful) as an implication that science and faith can be reconciled. Before going into this, I should note that there are various claims in evolutionary psychology that human morality arose through evolutionary processes and can be explained entirely as such e.g. without requiring God as the source of human morality. I won’t go into these objections here, but there are excellent counterpoints to those views as well that should put the Christian theist’s mind at ease. Returning to Keller, he says our sense of morality is oftentimes undermined when we assume there is no God. We hold a moral view but, if we say we’re atheists, we hereby annul our rights to have a moral conscience. A relatable example he gives to drive this claim home is that of our compassion towards animals. There is an internal belief in many people that animals have rights as well; but the fact is this sense of right and wrong towards animals (for example, beating a puppy would be wrong), doesn’t carry into the animal kingdom where nature is itself harsh and cruel (p. 150). What are we to make of this? Human beings could be more highly evolved, but that doesn’t really matter in the context of this situation. The reality is that nature is about fitness and even if we have a sense of morality, it doesn’t actually mean that beating small puppies is wrong, but simply not fit. But we don’t live that way. Keller, referencing Arthur Leff, writes, “if there is no God, then all moral statements are arbitrary, all moral valuations are subjective and internal, and there can be no external moral standard by which a person’s feelings and values are judged” (p. 159). While this by itself doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God, and it certainly doesn’t reconcile science and faith, nonetheless it should give any reasonable person pause. Keller further drives the point home: “If you insist on a secular view of the world [that there is no God] and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists” (p. 162).
In closing, I want to share some of my personal thoughts on my own journey to reconcile science and personal faith. In the introduction, I described an emotional experience on the coast of Oregon, where it seemed that my very being wished for, to the point of bittersweet longing, something more. I am fully aware that such language lacks anything near the rigorous requirements of either the philosophical or scientific world, but I still believe it has great merit. My reasoning is simply this: in the end, it is moments like my coastal experience that drives our search for more. We want something deeper, stronger, better. It is not only someone with a religious view who might think this way. For example, imagine you are some famed atheist who suddenly decides to write a book. The work will highlight why religious people are foolish, simultaneously lauding the upper echelons of scientific achievement. Your book will accentuate, perhaps even reveal, new aspects of unguided Darwinian thought. It is honorable and good, you think, to write such a piece. But, any truly honest assessment should find you a liar. After all, what is honor or nobility or good? These are merely feelings and illusions, at least according to your own world views. In fact, you are not even a liar for desiring them, for lying is an illusion too. It matters not. There is no judge, no jury, no gavel. There is only the grave. Perhaps (and one can after all hope at this), consciousness is also something of an illusion and life extension programs will reach full potential in the next fifty years and you will be able to leave your body, living forever in a digital world, even though your physical body might die. But of course, and you know this, the journey of the whole universe will not allow you to have a true eternity. Eventually, perhaps in a few billion years, it will all be over. The universe will be gone and you with it. But were you ever really there? Who knows.
My only point in such an odd and bleak description is this: if I am wrong and there is no reconciling faith and science because philosophical naturalism is a true description of the world, then what did it matter that I tried to convince myself otherwise? Who is my judge? Who will punish me, besides perhaps some temporary mocking on the Internet? My pain in that scenario, in the grand scheme of the billions of years that will make up evolution’s story, would be so minuscule, so infinitesimally small, that it will not matter. If pain could last a thousand years, it would be as if it were a day on such a scale.
But there is another side to this coin, one that is less bleak and fatalistic. It amazes me that we are here and that amazement drives my desire to close the alleged gap of science and faith. I'm going to wave a dismissive hand at those who would object with epistemological counterpoints at the insane claim we are here and actually exist, not because I find those objections invalid, but simply because I want to get somewhere (whatever that means). Therefore I am going out on a philosophical limb and stating that I believe that I am here right now and that this glass of vodka next to me is real. With this question of reality set aside for now, we can proceed. Going back to my opening statement: It amazes me that we are here. I find that my own existence compels me to look a the world through a lens of wonder as to not only how it came to be here, but why. The very fact that I want to ask why and how gives me overwhelmingly strong (admittedly very personal) reasons to buy the idea that this universe came about by some sort of odd, unguided accident. To me, the universe tells me about Another. By studying it in a plethora of ways, as a scientist do, we are, whether we realize it or not, painting a picture of origins. But, to me, this applies to far more than just science. To me, exploration in all areas of human endeavor reveal in each exquisite detail beauty, order, chaos, meaning, and purpose that demands we ask why and how.
Enough with my emotional, sentimental arguments and enough with this essay. Whether examining the weak arguments from Dawkins (who, by all accounts should be one of the most despairing members of our species, but seems to be on moral life-support through the efforts of others more honorable than himself), or showing that our sense of morality is good evidence for God, it seems clear to me that the evidence is clear: faith and science are not as separate as initial thought. Plantinga illustrated to me that faith works closely with science in that the nature of science works best with the claims of faith. Evolution, the recent enemy of orthodox Christianity, I've come to realize is my ally and simply one of the methods God used to execute his magnificent plan. Further, complex social trends, forgotten historical shifts, and unexamined presuppositions have created this apparent gap between faith and science. Nonetheless, upon close examination, I came to realize that the gap was never really there.
- I understand that saying there is “more” is different than saying that the “more” is in fact everything described in the Bible. As someone who believes in a benevolent God, I personally hold that he has thoroughly communicated with people throughout history and the Bible is the record of the salient points of that communication.
- See my article Some of the Shortcomings of Scientism and Naturalism as Grand Theories of Everything. Retrieved from https://ockm.ai/some-of-the-shortcomings-of-scientism-and-naturalism-as-grand-theories-of-everything
- Some might argue that, luck or no, the world is just the way it is and you wouldn’t expect it to be any other way. This is a form of the anthropic principle, which Plantinga discusses in Where the Conflict Really Lies as well. But, says Plantinga, to argue that the world is just the way it is and therefore the way it is would be just as you expect, is not really an argument against Christian theism (p. 197 - 198). Although it seems right that the world is as it is, and that if it weren’t that way then it wouldn’t have the nature that it does have, this doesn’t necessarily negate the truth of the arguments thus presented.
- Plantinga was actually referring directly to “pre-Copernican beliefs” but the idea still holds. Where the Conflict Really Lies, p. 184.
- Some might argue that science can indeed answer this question of where matter came from, as well as questions on morals. To the former point I would say that science, by its definition, deals with the physical world. I am taking the position that the physical universe, including its laws, as well as time itself, had a beginning and that is why the origin of the universe itself is a philosophical and/or religious question up until the point that the first thing of the physical universe came into being. At that instance, science begins its commentary, and not a moment (whatever that means) before. To the question of science and morals, I make some of my arguments in my essay Some of the Shortcomings of Scientism and Naturalism as Grand Theories of Everything.