In this edition of our Via Media column, Professor and Economist Anthony Waterman explores the relationship between science and religion.
Anthony Waterman is a writer and retired Professor of Economics at St. John’s College. His recent works can be found at amcwaterman.com.
Protestant fundamentalists think that Evolution ought not to be taught in American schools because the Bible trumps science. Scientific fundamentalists — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the like — think that science destroys religion. Both are wrong. The Bible can tell us nothing about science. Science can tell us little about religion, and that little tends to confirm religion.
In all save the most anti-intellectual fringe groups, religious practice — including Christian practice — is rationalised and underpinned by certain knowledge claims called “beliefs”. Virtually all Christians, for example, believe in a single, Creator God, understand the risen Christ as a unique, God-man hybrid, and feel that Christ is still present in this world through the operation of what they call the “Holy Spirit”. Without those beliefs, most of the things they do as Christians — in church or in their families at home — make no sense. What is the cash value of religious knowledge claims? Can they really count as “knowledge”? If so, is it the same kind of animal as scientific knowledge? If not, what is it — and how can we know that we “know”?
First, scientific knowledge. A famous philosopher of the last century, Sir Karl Popper, explored the matter more thoroughly than any of his predecessors, and his analysis was developed and refined by his younger colleagues. Popper pointed out what ought to have been obvious, but had never been noticed before. It is impossible to know if a scientific theory is true. We can only know if it is false. This is because scientists can never be sure that Mother Nature may not suddenly throw something at them that upsets their previous theory. Therefore, scientific knowledge, said Popper, can only be produced by the method of “conjectures and refutation.” We must be “bold in conjecture, and ruthless in refutation.” We must stick our necks out with a plausible theory that could be refuted if proper evidence appears. But until hard evidence turns up, our theory counts as scientific knowledge. It is only a slight caricature to say that scientific knowledge is the current body of as yet unfalsified theory. It follows that nothing can count as scientific knowledge unless it is falsifiable. Popper had lots of good clean fun with Marxians and Freudians about that. They were not doing “science” as they pretended: they were constructing myth, which of its nature is unfalsifiable.
How do we know that our theory has been falsified? Research scientists continually get “wrong” results: observations that are not predicted by their theory and perhaps even ruled out by it. Do they simply give up and go back to the drawing board? No. They live with these “anomalies” until they get a better theory: one that predicts all the true facts of the old theory and avoids its anomalies, and which also predicts new facts that can be tested.
Falsification is thus the way scientific knowledge grows and develops. It depends crucially on evidence available to all the world. It is therefore public knowledge. It is produced by the scientific community as a whole, and in a sense is the property of that community. But it is not exclusive. All who so desire, and who master the discipline of scientific inquiry, may have access to that knowledge.
What about religious knowledge? Some theologians and philosophers think that religious knowledge, or at any rate Christian religious knowledge, resembles scientific knowledge to some extent. Many would agree, for example, that if incontrovertible evidence came to light that Christ did not rise from the dead, then Christianity would be false and we should have to abandon it. But most of what we call religious knowledge is not falsifiable in this way and therefore has more of the nature of myth. The Genesis account of Creation and Fall, without which Christian belief is pointless, cannot possibly be falsified. Its truth can only be known, if at all, by faith. What does that mean? It means that we come to know through what wedo – as in “Adam knew Eve his wife” (Gen. 4:1).
We can know about an apple by examining it, and by looking it up on the internet. But we can onlyknow what it tastes like by eating it. St Augustine taught that it was through practice of the so-called “theological virtues” that we come to know God. Hence, “a man supported by faith, hope and charity… does not need the Scriptures except for the instruction of his neighbour.” He has come to knowledge of, rather than merely knowledge about, God.
Can religious knowledge, direct and experiential as it is, be falsified? Ultimately yes, but not in the same way as scientific knowledge. Believers sometimes lapse because their faith — however reinforced by hope and charity — no longer makes sense for them, no longer explains their experience of what they used to think of as “God.” This is a subjective and private falsification which has no necessary consequences for the faith community they have quitted. But in science falsification is objective and public, and it commits the entire scientific community to a revision of what is to count as knowledge. Religious “knowledge”, therefore, is certain and infallible for those who still believe. But scientific “knowledge” is always tentative and provisional for those who understand and produce it.
It would appear, therefore, that Christian faith can give us no information about evolution or any other scientific theory. Religious fundamentalists who think that it does misunderstand their own religion. It would also appear that science cannot destroy religion. Scientific fundamentalists who believe it can are confused about scientific knowledge.
There can indeed be a scientific study of religion as a social phenomenon, but this leaves religious knowledge unaffected. And for those like Sir Isaac Newton, who already believe, science may support theistic belief: “The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). But science can no more prove that religious beliefs are true than it can prove that they are false.