Simple and complex faith and the believing scientist

When simple faith is enough

When it comes to science we all know something about its theories and practical applications. Even if we do not understand precisely how nuclear plants, jet engines, cell phones and smart televisions (and their remotes) work, we all experience their versatility and benefits.

But should we think about the connection between faith and science? Is it possible for scientists to sustain the concept of a Creator God? And if so, how do they do so in light of arguments of colleagues who maintain that it is not necessary to believe in God to explain reality and the origin of the universe?

One possible solution is to ignore the discussion altogether and adopt a simple faith that is adequate under normal circumstances for most Christians. There are times when a rock bottom confidence in God’s creative power, the redemption made possible through Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is more than enough. Without concern for scientific research and theological arguments, this kind of basic trust in God’s love and constant care can be the foundation of life especially when we seek God’s will, have critical decisions to make or are in the midst of illness and suffering. I have tried to express this in a poem that came to me when I visited historic colonial homes in the Adirondack region of New York:

My faith is simple
like a log cabin floor,
varnished clear
by years of use.
No complex joints
hold it together
with nails and synthetic glue.
You can stand on it.
And that’s that.

When complex faith is necessary: The believing scientist

If fundamental faith is sufficient for most believers in everyday life, it is not the case among many scientists. What is at stake is much more complex and involves abstract concepts of the origins and nature of the universe and the newest discoveries in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics. Personally, in my college teaching I encounter this need among my students who major in these fields in general or in quantum physics in particular. This aspect of faith is critical for them and they struggle to relate their beliefs to the evolving concepts of ultimate reality. It is also important to the rest of us who think that all truth is one, and are convinced that changes in scientific knowledge will not eliminate belief in God.

A classic example of what takes place in contemporary debates about science and theology is illustrated by a conversation published by Time magazine in November 2006 between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Dawkins is emeritus fellow of New College Oxford and Collins was the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Dawkins’ position is well-known from books and articles written before and after 2006. In his opinion, the concept that God created the universe is not only erroneous but misleading, nonsensical and dangerous. In the beginning, he argues, is the primordial self-replicating molecule, not a Creator. For him, the question about God is a scientific one that is improbable and unnecessary. Although he sees wonder throughout the universe (or multi-universes), he does not recognize any plan behind its origins. Even if we do not have a complete understanding of the beginning, we do not need God to explain it.

Collins, on the other hand, argues that his acceptance and use of scientific method and his knowledge of modern biology and astrophysics do not prevent him from believing in God. On the contrary, he thinks that God is outside of space and time and is not open to scientific explanation. Furthermore, he argues that human altruism goes beyond the simple evolutionary principle of survival. Self-giving justice and morality are not built into DNA, but are attributes that are ultimately from a living God. Faith, for him, is not the opposite of reason but relates to a reality outside of the natural world, in the spiritual realm. Believing that these two areas co-exist, Collins contends, in no way compromises his ability to think as a scientist or accept theories about evolution or the origin of the universe.

Since 2006 this debate has deepened and become more complex thanks to recent discoveries in astrophysics, quantum mechanics and biology. In a recent examination of the question of faith and science, Stephen M. Barr, (professor of theoretical particle physics at the University of Delaware and a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology) published “The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion,” a stimulating and carefully reasoned examination of the work of Dawkins, Collins and other scientists and theologians who take the God question seriously.

Barr’s study is a critical one for the ongoing examination of the relationship between faith and science and he carefully critiques the positions of many scientists and philosophers who take an atheistic position. He is particularly critical of writers like Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking who consistently argue that science rules out the idea that God stands at the beginning of creation. This position, Barr contends, stands in direct opposition to a recent survey that shows that nearly half of American scientists believe in a God who answers prayers.

Although Barr’s arguments are based on detailed scientific research and are not that easy for the layperson (like myself) to understand fully, he asserts fundamentally that the scientists who rule out belief in God are often guilty of a form of scientific materialism (i.e., the idea that all evidence points to exclusively materialistic descriptions of the physical world and the universe that need no other explanations). Some of them, in his opinion, degrade the uniqueness of humanity, and rather than considering that human beings are made in the image of God, find them to be an end product of evolution (perhaps a temporary one), a mere collection of chemical and neurological elements that the universe neither cares about nor needs.

Barr argues that it is not necessary to separate science and theology since there are clear analogies between the limits faced by the scientist and the theologian. Both understand that there are certain aspects of reality that are unknown completely at present (and may never be known) and that faith is an extension of this recognition. The scientist as believer is convinced that reality is intelligible and that final knowing and perfect insight is the state of being of God who stands before creation, and, in fact, for the Christian and Jew, is God.

Throughout the book Barr discusses key issues that determine the ongoing debate including anthropic coincidences (the fact that the earth and indeed the universe appear to be uniquely hospitable to life on earth); the role of evolution as a sustained scientific theory and how it is compatible with biblical concepts of creation and informed belief in God; the ways in which the latest discoveries in quantum physics inform and strengthen faith in God; a proper understanding of qualia (in contrast to quanta); and how superstring theory and the principles of symmetry assist in our understanding of the beauty and nature of creation.

Barr focuses especially on the ways in which discoveries in contemporary quantum physics provide understanding and appreciation of physical and spiritual realities at the same time. Superstring theory, for example, provides a mathematical structure of such “towering grandeur” that can almost be called “miraculous.” In particular he argues that quantum research into the non-deterministic nature of the universe, how things can be one thing in one place and quite another in another and still be the same thing (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) and how objects can be far distant from one another and still be in synchrony (a principle now being used experimentally by Chinese scientists), all lead to a better understanding of God’s creative processes.

Barr’s discussion of randomness in modern physics is particularly edifying. Randomness (the fact that science often has to deal with probabilities rather than certainties), he contends, does not mean unplanned, uncaused or inexplicable. It simply signifies that the connections are, at present, uncorrelated in our understanding. The example he provides is one of taking a car trip with his children. If they see cars going by – ones of different makes or from different states – they may think that the whole process is unplanned and random (e.g., a Ford from New Jersey, a Chrysler from California, etc.). But, in fact, the whole system of interstate roads is carefully planned; and even though it cannot be predicted which car will go by next, it is known that there are companies that make cars, that states exist that systematically issue license plates and that individual drivers are not moving at random but have made decisions about where they are going.

In regard to the scientist’s thinking about God’s existence, Barr is particularly interested in the discovery of modern physics that an observer’s interaction with reality can actually change it – that how consciousness can transform what is observed and actually exists. This leads him to the conclusion that the first and final consciousness that stands behind the universe is God’s. God, he argues, is the one who existed before space and time (scientific theory demonstrates how they had a beginning at the Big Bang) and is the first explanation of everything. Here he also presents a caveat: Saying that God is the ultimate explanation is not to say that theism is the complete explanation. Knowing God as creator, obtaining information about biblical texts on creation and drawing on the insights of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians do not tell us how the natural world works. Theology enables us to understand why it exists and who made it possible. Two elements of the beginning – that the components of natural order fit together and a divine mind stands behind them – are not antagonistic, but can coalesce in a coherent way.

One major element of Barr’s understanding of the compatibility of quantum physics and theology necessarily involves a consideration of various interpretations of the Big Bang and the biblical concept of creation out of Nothing (creatio ex nihilo) in the first creation story in Genesis 1. The fact that the universe started from Nothing does not mean that it originated on its own with some inexplicable random event. Even if there is Nothing at the beginning of the universe (or the beginning of more than one universe), it does not mean that God was non-existent or absent. In order for Nothing to exist, there has to be a pre-existent state that enables it to move from Nothing to Being. Even a state of no universe is not really Nothing — it is already Something in readiness.

Barr realizes that this complexity cannot be understood without analogy (as limited as such a comparison may be) and the example he provides it one of a bank account. It is possible, as he points out, to have a bank account with no money in it. It can be empty or can even have a negative balance (if it is overdrawn). If it has zero dollars it is not non-existent, however. And what is more, the fact that the account has zero in it does not mean that the bank and the individual that created it are non-existent. Similarly, Barr argues, in order for a universe to begin there has to be pre-existent rules or characteristics of what a universe is and what is required for universe A or universe B to come into being, even if at one point they are Nothing or have zero content. The concept of universe already existed before the Big Bang and the physical mechanics that govern all universes can be attributed to the action of God who exists outside of Nothing. It is God who is the giver of reality, the One who makes creation out of Nothing possible at all.

The value of the correlation of science and faith

The brief review of the major issues involving the interactions between faith and science and Barr’s critical analysis of the possible conflicts between the two is critical for future discussion and learning in and out of the church. It enables believing scientists to consider their faith in the light of new discoveries and provides a basis for ongoing dialogue. It also provides an impetus to scientists or laypeople who think that science rules out belief in God and gives them rational and spiritual reasons to reconsider their conclusions.

For all of us, moreover, it provides increased understanding through ongoing research about the beauty and complexity of the world in which we live. For me (as a non-scientist, a pastor and teacher of the Bible), it not only gives me a sense of amazement about what scientists already know and what they have yet to discover, but it also fills me with a deepened sense of wonder. We observe, for example, that our own Milky Way Galaxy contains hundreds of millions of stars and that astronomers now estimate that they can count at least two trillion galaxies in the history of the known universe (see the June 2017 issue of Astronomy magazine). Trying to fathom what this all means leaves me in awe as our knowledge evolves about the universe and also allows us to learn more about the nature and power of the God who is still creating and still caring for us (Psalm 8).

earl-johnson-jrEarl S. Johnson Jr. is a retired PC(USA) pastor living in Johnstown, New York, and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College. For a discussion of biblical concepts of creation and the way and relevant interpretations of various General Assemblies see his book “Witness Without Parallel: Eight Biblical Texts that Make Us Presbyterian.”