Monday, September 30, 2013

Do Science and Religion Overlap?

In one of my classes in graduate school, the professor often referred to science and religion as “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” or NOMA. This definition was coined by prominent biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who said:

“Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains. in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” (in Miller 1999:170)
“...These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” (Gould 1999:5-6)

Here is a very good, short article that takes a mostly-NOMA approach: Science and religion: Reconcilable differences

When I learned about the NOMA concept, I took a quick survey among my friends and relatives in my own faith, and none of us thought it accurately represented our viewpoint. And we are not alone-- even a small sampling of statements from religious entities demonstrates a spectrum of ideas about the relationship between science and religion, from NOMA to extensive overlap. (Would you like me to share these interesting statements in a future post?)  In fact, there is an entire academic field dedicated to studying the relationships and interplay between religions and science. Here is an example of how one theologian, Ted Peters, has summarized eight possible views about science and religion: Peters' Typology. It quickly becomes apparent that:

“There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts.” -John Brooke (1991:321)

So, how do we go about understanding such an array of viewpoints? Stay tuned next time, when we will unravel this mess and summarize the whole shebang with three simple diagrams.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Most Helpful Diagram: Science and Reality

In previous posts, we defined science, explored its characteristics, and established that it is limited by its method and our five senses to investigating testable, falsifiable hypotheses about the natural world. (Have I beaten this point into the ground enough yet?) Hence, it is not a system designed for investigating all of truth-- such as love, beauty, spiritual experience, ethics, and most of the other things religions talk about.

Of course, there are plenty of people who believe that everything can be explained by science-- or rather, that there is nothing beyond the scope of science. This view, called “scientism,” is not part of science itself (because it’s not testable or falsifiable); it is something these people take on faith, ironically enough. Still others have trouble with the word “truth,” because they believe there is really no such thing. (I would ask them to explain how they know that is true and catch them in their own paradox.) So instead of talking about “truth,” maybe a less problematic term is “reality”-- the way things really are, whatever that turns out to be, and whether we understand it yet or not. Whatever our view, let’s all adopt a little bit of humility and assume that reality-- the whole of it taken together-- is far beyond our current understanding.

Okay-- we are ready! (drumroll) Here it is, folks, the most helpful diagram I have ever thought of (click to enlarge):

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Announcing My Novel!

Just a quick post to let everyone know that my novel, Emergence: A Journey of Friendship, Science, and Faith, is now available as an eBook! (The paperback version will be coming soon.)

Here is the link to purchase the eBook:  Emergence (ePUB format)
Kindle edition: Kindle

And here is the blurb that will be on the back cover of the paperback:

When Meg, a promising young scientist, meets Miriam, a biology professor with a devout belief in God, Meg finds her atheism challenged in new ways. As she and Miriam build a friendship, Meg begins to come to grips with the limitations of science and with events in her own life that have shaped her atheism. When she finally understands that science cannot be used to justify disbelief, Meg’s intellectual honesty compels her to examine the question of God afresh. But with her first steps of faith come new challenges, including complications in her budding romance with a fellow graduate student. When faced with an unexpected blow, will Meg emerge as a person of faith or be plunged back into disbelief?

This novel tackles issues at the science-religion interface and explores, through the story of Meg and her mentor, how science and faith can be compatible. It does not shy away from difficult issues but addresses them squarely from the standpoint of faithful belief and honest inquiry.

(And now I will get back to my regular posts and show you the diagram I promised you last time-- soon.)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Three Exciting Things You Should Know About Science

Okay, I think last time I may have waxed a little too science-y for some of my readers. But you see, all of this is leading somewhere-- somewhere you will be glad you went. If you will just bear with me for today’s post, I will reward you next time with a diagram that I believe will be very helpful to your understanding of how science fits into the grand scheme of… well, everything. So I will risk being a bit science-y one more time in order to set us up for The Best Diagram I Have Ever Thought Of.

Indulge me for a moment while I talk about three things everyone and their Aunt Gracie should know in order to navigate today's science-laden world with minimal confusion.

Last time we settled upon a definition for science, namely the scientific method and the knowledge it produces. Additionally, anything that can be called science must meet the three criteria below. Again, I will use quotes from prominent scientists to explain these, so that you don’t just have to take my word for it. Skip over the quotes (but notice the headings) if you do want to take my word for it and not read the entire post:

“One may believe, as many scientists do, that the universe was brought into existence by the action of a supernatural being, but such a belief is neither within the realm of science nor contradictory to the tenets of science. We must be able to observe events in the real world, directly or indirectly, for them to have scientific value, and testing of hypotheses and theories must be accessible to our senses or to instruments that can measure the events.” -Hickman et al (1988:5)

“Science cannot draw conclusions about things it cannot measure or manipulate experimentally. That is why science is a poor tool to decide beauty contests or to make aesthetic judgments on artistic matters. Nevertheless, these other things are indubitably real.” -Massimo Pigliucci (2002:145)

“I shall certainly admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. In other words, must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.” -Karl Popper (1959:18)

“Popper’s claim also allows one rather neatly to delimit science from nonscience: any claim which in principle cannot be falsified is outside the realm of science.” -Ernst Mayr (1982:26)

“Falsifiability means that a theory is scientific only if there is some fact or observation that, if true, would tend to disprove, or falsify, the theory. In other words, science must be subject to falsification.” -Michael Ruse (1996)

“The tentativeness of science follows directly from its testability. Science knows no ultimate truth not subject to revision.” -Michael Ruse (1996:303)

“ the nature of its methods science can reach only provisional, probabilistic conclusions, not absolute and immovable truths.” -Pigliucci (2002)

“Uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process because the goal of science is to incrementally reduce levels of uncertainty by subjecting alternative hypotheses to rigorous tests. …[Scientists] cannot prove the truth of an assertion; rather they fail to disprove that assertion, and thus support it.” -Barry Noon and Dennis Murphy (1994:386)

Do any of those criteria clear up any misconceptions you may have had about science? If so, I’d love to hear about it-- send me a comment.

Hopefully you are convinced by now that science is a specific method aimed at discovering some kinds-- but not all kinds--of truth, and never with absolute certainty. Clearly there are some aspects of reality that science cannot investigate. Even the National Academy of Sciences agrees with me:

“At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and [science] is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. … Whether there is a purpose to the universe or a purpose for human existence are not questions for science.” -National Academy of Sciences (1998)

I emphasize the limitations of science not because I wish to criticize science-- far from it! Rather, I emphasize the boundaries necessary to preserve science as a reliable system, because I love science (in case you couldn’t tell).

And now, with our basic definition of science (from last time) and these three criteria in place, I am ready to draw The Best Diagram I Have Ever Thought Of. But I will leave you hanging in suspense until next time!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Defining Faith and Science: Part 2

As you recall, we were about to define Science. I could have a tendency to get very long-winded about this, because:

“Scientists, curiously, have been rather inarticulate about stating what science is all about.” -Ernst Mayr (1982)

“...I cannot give you one single definition of science. Instead, I can describe what philosophers of science generally consider some of the attributes that characterize scientific thinking and methodology today.”- Michael Ruse (1996)

So what are those attributes? Let’s toss around a few statements from prominent scientists and one from the dictionary, explaining kinda-sorta what science is:

“Science is…guided by, and is explanatory with reference to, natural law, and it is testable, tentative, and falsifiable.” -Hickman et al (1988:6)
(Say what? If you want to know what we mean by “testable, tentative, and falsifiable,” wait for my next post, and you will find out!)

“Science: Systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” -Random House Webster’s College Dictionary

“Science is not a body of knowledge. The body of knowledge we refer to as ‘scientific’ is a product of science, but it does not define it. is a method used to uncover and provisionally explain observations about the world, as well as to predict future observations.” - Massimo Pigliucci (2002:127-128)

“Even though no one will question the indispensability of the method, the almost exclusive preoccupation of some philosophers of science with method has deflected attention from the more basic purpose of science, which is to increase our understanding of the world in which we live, and of ourselves. ...Yet to think of science merely as an accumulation of facts is very misleading. ...Tentatively one might suggest that what characterizes science is the rigor of its methodology, the possibility of testing or falsifying its conclusions, and of establishing noncontradictory ‘paradigms’ (systems of theories). Method, even if it is not all of science, is one of its important aspects…” - Ernst Mayr (1982:23-24)

You will note that while there is some disagreement here about whether science includes a body of knowledge, there is no disagreement that the method is central. The consensus seems to be:

Science is: The scientific method
Science is: The scientific method and the resulting body of knowledge

Either way, the important point is that science isn’t just “learning about nature and stuff,” and it isn’t a list of facts; it is a specific process. We should note that the method itself does not always proceed in as neat and orderly a fashion as the average “scientific method flowchart” represents. But it is certainly not haphazard! Here’s a great website that discusses how science really works: How Science Works

The central idea of the scientific method is that we test our hypotheses about the natural world against evidence gathered by our five senses (or instruments that extend them) through experiment and observation). Let me just emphasize those words again, so that you can’t miss them: test, natural world, evidence, five senses, experiment and observation.

Does that sound like it includes every imaginable kind of knowledge? Certainly not! Because of all the above criteria:
“Science is a limited, bounded enterprise.” -Massimo Pigliucci (2002:146)

And it does not contain all of truth.

Remember this! No, there will not be a quiz later. But getting this right is important, you know, “and that’s why I’m bothering telling you so.” (Dr. Seuss)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Defining Faith and Science: Do I Dare?

When science and faith clash, it is often due to how those terms are defined. Trouble almost always arises when we allow opposing parties to define each other’s positions. We will get nowhere in our discussion as long as we allow people on one end of the spectrum to define faith as “an irrational belief in something imaginary,” people on the other end of the spectrum to define science as “a materialistic, anti-God conspiracy” and both groups to define their own views as “the only view worth considering.” I invite readers of this blog to engage in civil and honest consideration of all views involved. So let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) and come up with some good working definitions.

Faith: There are probably as many ways to define faith as there are people who practice it. But as a starting point, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines faith as “1- a strong belief or trust in someone or something; 2- belief in the existence of God, strong religious feelings or belief; 3- a system of religious beliefs.” Sometimes we use faith as a synonym for religion (definitions 2 and 3), but often we use it to denote a feeling of trust. In this latter sense, faith can be strong or weak, absolute or tentative, but everyone practices it to some degree. Religious people have varying degrees of faith in God; scientists have varying degrees of faith in science; and anyone who gets up from their chair to walk across the room has some degree of faith that their legs and the floor will hold them up. In this sense, it is impossible to live without faith of some kind. We gain faith in something-- be it God, another person, or the principles of physics that allow us to walk across the room-- through our experiences with it.

The real debates over faith arise over the question of whether the particular thing we have faith in really warrants our trust, that is, whether our faith is realistic. And how are we to know what reality is? How are we to know that our particular understanding or knowledge is valid? We will each define reality based on what we, through our experience, have learned to have faith in. The arguments quickly become circular, with the bottom line being that none of us can prove to each other what reality is. 

Don’t go away! We will come back to this point later. Now it starts to get fun!

Science: Science is one system humans have developed over the course of their history for trying to get at, grasp, and make sense of reality-- whatever reality is. In other words, science is a system-- a method-- for gaining reliable information.

But alas, I have given you enough for today. Join me next time, when I will discuss exactly what science is, what it is not, and how it relates to reality. I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


The interesting thing about harmony is that it is usually created by two or more notes that are not the same. While unison (two identical notes sounded together) is technically considered a type of harmony, we usually think of harmony as being created by differing notes that complement each other in a pleasing way. The music I love best takes me through a variety of experiences-- unison, pleasing chord-based harmonies, and even dissonance, that unsettling rubbing of notes up against each other just before the chord resolves back to harmony at the end of a phrase. For the same reason, I love the varied interactions I experience between science and religion. Sometimes they sound in perfect agreement, or unison, and this is pleasing. Other times, they give us agreeing but differing notes, or perspectives, that are beautifully complementary, and this is more thrilling still. And occasionally they rub up against each other in temporary incongruity, causing an intriguing dissonance waiting to be resolved. I believe that the symphony of truth, authored by the Master Composer Himself, contains every true note in the scale, in the most sublime combinations we can imagine and that, in the end, even the most dissonant chords of our present experience will resolve into the most glorious harmony we have ever heard.