Although the science vs faith debate has, I suspect, run out of steam these days, it is nevertheless a good and helpful idea, I believe, to reflect on some of the things that we have learnt. I was listening to a lecture some time ago now which was very helpful in explaining how we can better know and understand the cosmos that we are a part of by looking at the cosmos from different perspectives. The lecture focused on the important, but distinct, roles played by science and faith in building our knowledge and our understanding of the world, and in particular of ourselves as human beings.
To explain this process of knowing and understanding, imagine driving your car to the shops. One might ask “Why is the car moving?” A scientist’s response might make reference to the inner workings of the engine of the car, perhaps describing the burning of fuel and oxygen, and the conversion of the energy created to kinetic energy which ultimately moves the car along. This answer is perfectly valid, of course, and a fuller scientific explanation (I hope that I got my bit right) might be of interest to someone studying physics or to a budding mechanic.
But there is another equally valid way in which the question “Why is the car moving?” can be answered. It might simply be that the driver in the car wants to go and buy some groceries at the supermarket. This response is very different from that given by science, and indeed it is a response that lies outside of the field of science. The intentions of the driver are not observable nor in any sensible way scientifically verifiable.
However, when you take both answers together, one gets a much broader and more complete view of and understanding of the movement of the car. Both responses are valid. There may well be other perspectives that will contribute to an understanding as to how and why the car is moving. These distinct perspectives can work together, however, to build a comprehensive picture about the movement of the car. The whole picture is greater than the sum of the parts.
The fact is that there are often very different ways of looking at the world around us and all the different things that make up the world. I am reminded of looking at photos of the two main paths climbers use to get to the top of Mt Everest. One path is from the southeast in Nepal and the other from the north in Tibet. The paths look very different when seen from a distance, but it is the same mountain that we are looking at.
Science can explain much about the world and about human beings. It can explain how the different systems of the human body work – the respiratory system, the blood system and so on. However, if we want to address the question, for example, why humans are here on the earth, what purpose it serves, we are asking a question that science is not able to answer. The question of why we humans are here is a philosophical/religious question.
It would be a pity to want to know all we can about something and then look at it from one perspective only and think that perspective answers everything we need to know. Unfortunately, there are theologians, philosophers and scientists alike who have argued that their particular perspective is the right one and the only one. Alister McGrath reminds us that different perspectives can work together to give a more complete knowledge and richer understanding of the world and humanity in particular. You may know of Christian scientists, like John Polkinghorne, who express their delight at the way science has enriched their faith. Science can give us greater understanding of God’s wonderful creation.
The lessons here extend beyond the interaction of science and faith. As a Christian I believe that all truth is God’s truth. But none of us has a monopoly on all that truth. While reading the Scriptures is extremely important and vital for strengthening our Christian faith, studies in science, history, and culture can give us deeper insights into the world of the ancients in which the Scriptures were written, and our faith can be enriched. Indeed, we who are Christians can learn much from one another, from our different experiences and our different and diverse traditions.
The great joy of having different perspectives and learning from these is that we can come to a realization that the world is more complex than we might have thought, and that we will be less likely to pass judgement on others. The wisdom we gain may help us become to sharpen our own perspectives and views and to be a little more provisional in drawing conclusions.