I’ve probably had the conversation a couple of dozen times over the years and, admittedly, with a bit more frequency since I started wearing medieval garb. When people discover that I’m Catholic and that I have a background in physics, they often want to know how exactly I do it—how I deal with all the tensions and “incompatibilities” between faith and science. The general impression seems to be that a scientist is not allowed to believe in religious mumbo-jumbo, and a Christian can’t really accept the findings of modern science.
While I’ve never had a problem reconciling the two myself, and while I’ve been happy to try to explain their compatibility to various people over the years, it has only been with the help of G.K. Chesterton that I’ve been able to articulate the matter clearly.
The commonly accepted perspective is that, on the one hand, religious belief is dogmatic and constrains us to a rigid, irrational framework, while, on the other hand, science is open to whatever we can discover through experiment and empirical investigation. Of course, in a certain sense it is true that Christianity is a “restrictive” worldview—but no more so than the materialist atheism that many assume must be the basis of modern science. As Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, “[The Christian] cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist.” But he goes on to note that there is a further sense in which the common opinion gets it backward:
The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.
Christianity, like any particular worldview, must be “restrictive” in order to signify anything—an affirmation logically implies a negation—but it is in fact less restrictive than the materialism that supposedly frees us to think rationally. The Christian is perfectly able to apply his reason to whatever he pleases, whether material or not. When I work through some differential equation or learn about some new physical theory, I am not taken aback or annoyed because I do not detect the operation of spiritual or immaterial forces. While I believe in a spiritual order of being, I do not demand that it show itself in my study of physics, nor am I disappointed when it does not. This, too, Chesterton summed up nicely, using the doctrine of immortality as an example:
Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut.
These quotations from Chesteron came to mind recently while I was listening to William E. Carroll’s lecture on cosmology at a recent Thomistic Circles event. By way of illustrating a typical “scientific” attitude toward philosophy and natural theology, he quoted from a popular book on quantum gravity by Lee Smolin: “By definition the universe is all there is . . . the explanation for anything in the universe can involve only other things that also exist in the universe.”
If we are simply discussing the material order of things and the conclusions we can draw by using the tools of empirical science, this statement is perfectly acceptable, but Smolin (and other materialistic scientists) want to raise this to a philosophical claim: there is nothing besides the material order and, therefore, all explanations must be physical. As a Christian, I am perfectly willing not to think about the spiritual order when I’m working through some physical model of the universe, but I need not demand that the former does not exist in order to make sense of the latter.
Of course, culturally, there is a conflict or tension between faith and science inasmuch as there are plenty of believers who see science as a threat to their faith and plenty of scientists who see faith as a threat to their science. But this sad divorce is not necessary, and the more I study the underpinnings of both science and theology, the more I see that they are both wonderful gifts from the same God, who made us in his image and gave us an intellect capable of probing the fascinating depths of both the material and the spiritual.
Image: A Spotless MBE Machine