Monday, December 12, 2016

Science and Faith (not by Mary Baker Eddy)

Yesterday's talk on "Science and Faith" was enlightening. A key insight was that some study science for many of the same reasons that some study faith. These sets overlap, as in the case of our speaker, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, an oceanographer and former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. (I'll not comment on Jefferts Schori's theology, except to say it came up only peripherally in yesterday's talk.)

So why do people study science? And faith? For one thing, they (we) are inspired by wonder and a desire for understanding. We bring passion to our study: a love of beauty and excellence. An elegant theory is a beautiful one, in both fields.

Both science and faith have history and tradition; both are done in community. And in both fields, advancement comes from questions. (Questions can also bring trouble, which occurs to me just as I type these notes.)

Change is often resisted by the community, but if the community is healthy, new ideas are evaluated according to their merits. The Bereans, for example, upon hearing new ideas from Paul and Silas, judged these ideas for their content, rather than on their political implications (Acts 17:11). Contrast this with the reactions of the Thessalonians in Acts 17:5-7.

Science, too, has good examples and bad. The good examples we consider normative and typical, as we'd like them to be. But bad examples abound. Think of Semmelweis and hand-washing, Galileo and his debunking of Aristotle, or the chilly reception the Big Bang theory got in the previous century.

So religion and science have more similarities than I'm accustomed to think. This puts me in mind of a class Carol and I took some time back, "Encountering the World of Islam," where a key insight for me was that there are a lot more similarities than differences.

Differences there are, to be sure—fundamental differences in fact. But similarities abound. In science and faith, in Islam and Christianity, there are good characters and bad, those motivated by truth and those motivated by self-interest. Well, that's a bit simplistic; we all have mixed motives, but some are more willing, perhaps more able, to accept truth when it surprises them.

Math == Theology?

During the Q&A period after the talk, a man across the room said that with new ideas in science, we can test them via evidence. If people can run experiments similar to yours and get similar results, they can confirm the theory. But for theology, where's the evidence?

The bishop replied that there's the evidence of a life well-lived, but that the time scale is quite different.

But I was stuck on the idea of running experiments. You can run experiments in physics or chemistry or even psychology. Neuroscience. But mathematics? (I studied math in college.)

A mathematical proof is an argument by which you try to force the other guy to accept your claim. Well, all scientific proofs are, I guess, but you can't run math experiments very easily; you appeal to past results, you apply axioms and rules and theorems to one formula to get another, and someone can say you've made an incorrect inference, if you have. But there's no experimenting.

And theology? God doesn't necessarily cooperate with any experiments. You want a control? God won't be controlled.

Postscript: Questions

Jefferts Schori mentioned that advancement comes through questions, and it occurred to me while typing that questions sometimes bring trouble. We see this in Genesis 3, where an accusation comes in the guise of a question—a question asked by the devil in the guise of a serpent! I think honest questions that spring from honest curiosity—or even honest doubt—are great and must be encouraged. But we need to pay attention and to be discerning lest we drift away, as the writer to the Hebrews (2:1) warns.

The Lord himself said, be as shrewd as snakes (Matthew 10:16); the Apostle Paul wrote, "I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil." The Apostle Peter tells us to be on the alert (1 Peter 5:8)—not against questions, but against the accuser.

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