Saturday, July 18, 2009

Faith in Science

An interesting issue brought forth by Michael Gerson at the Washington Post the other day (not to say that it's a terribly interesting editorial) about religious scientists. He identifies two competing schools of thought regarding scientists (whose jobs require that they work with empirical data exclusively) who believe in supernatural beings.

On the side that is uneasy about this relationship:
For some scientists, this combination of scientific excellence and religious faith is contradictory -- like being a geneticist and believing in unicorns or astrology. "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs," says Peter Atkins of Oxford University. "But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because [religion and science] are such alien categories of knowledge." Behind this assertion lies the assumption that the scientific category of knowledge has superseded the religious one.
The problem I have with Atkins's position is that I don't understand what he means by being "a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word." To be a scientist is to be employed as one who does science, isn't it? Can't you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and work in a lab? Maybe Atkins is making some kind of essentialist claim--I don't know. Also, I think his use of the word "knowledge" is problematic here. Certainly science and religion are competing systems of truth claims, but "knowledge" implies truth, not just truth claims. It seems he's asserting two categories of truth, and I don't see that.

Gerson goes on to explain the views of another scientist, Francis Collins, who is also an evangelical Christian, who insists "that there are two categories of knowledge, two ways of knowing. And though they are different, they are not 'alien' to one another, or contradictory." Eventually he stakes the position that
[f]or Collins, modern science and Christianity are not competing answers to the same question; they are ways of thinking about two very different sets of questions, both of which should be taken seriously.
I don't know that Christianity has ever given good reason why its truth-claims should be taken seriously. I guess I'll have to read Collins's book myself.

Aside from all of that, I have to accept Gerson's final premise: "that anti-supernaturalism is not a litmus test at the highest levels of science." Now if we could just get the religionists to apply that principle to religious tests for public office.

No comments: