Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Comparing the scope of faith and science


When we discuss faith and science together, we might encounter seemingly incompatible concepts and perspectives, but this should not be the case! Instead of having to decide between faith and science, we need to come to the discussion with a clear understanding of how they support each other. This approach demands that we know which questions to ask and where to go to find the answers.

Here are the basic questions that must first be dealt with: What questions does science ask and how does it find the answers? What questions does theology ask and how does it find the answers? How does each area of study evaluate conclusions and measure the accuracy of those conclusions? And maybe even more important, which questions cannot be answered authoritatively by each area of study? (This Worldview chart outlines the primary differences between 6 dominant worldviews.)

Note that here I will refer to faith, theology and philosophy interchangeably, although they are not strictly equal. Theology is the study of what is known about God. Philosophy is the study of fundamental questions of existence, which are heavily influenced by what we know or assume about God. Faith is simply how one lives out their beliefs about God and the world.

Remember that "science" simply means "knowledge" (Latin: scientia / know) and that each area of knowledge has its own scope which we commonly split into various "sciences" such as sociology, chemistry or philosophy. (See my chart outlining some of these categories.) But many people take a more limited definition of science while assuming that the natural and applied sciences have the ultimate authority in every area of knowledge, which is precisely the fallacy that must be addressed.


Some of my motivation for addressing this subject came after watching Ken Ham host Bill Nye in a tour of The Ark Encounter. (see This is almost painful for me to watch because neither one of them seem very concerned about listening to the other's questions or providing clear answers, only proving their own point. What makes this more difficult is a lack of real intellectual connection because their foundational beliefs are so radically different. It seems as though they are speaking different languages. It may be that if Ken would simply give clear answers to the science questions from Bill while clarifying which other questions are really issues of worldview, it would help to direct the conversation and provide boundaries for each of them. Ken's questions to Bill could then be limited to how worldview impacts the interpretation of science because worldview is Ken's primary area of strength.

Which circle is bigger?

Since many people consider science more authoritative than faith, let's begin there. The areas of biology, geology, physics and the like are considered "hard sciences", which means that they deal with measurable and observable data. The hard sciences include the natural, formal and applied sciences. Common questions include what is the median temperature of Santa Monica from 1950 to 2000 A.D.? or what are the anatomical differences between the gorilla and the spider monkey? or what is the speed of light? All of these investigations are accomplished with the use of measurement and can be repeated and recalculated for near absolute accuracy. The challenge for scientists then is to take measurable data and draw conclusions about patterns. These patterns are then grouped into theories about historical data and potential trends for the future. Science has beautiful and useful applications which have led to a huge increase in the storage, processing and retrieval of information, productivity, communication, health, longevity of life and care for our planet.

Faith is actually an application of our worldview which does not deal directly with measurable data but with philosophical questions that draw information from many fields of study including science and philosophy. Philosophy (which depends heavily on theology) is not a "hard science" and is traditionally included in the social sciences. This is the study which is most directly related to our worldview. Common questions include who is God (or is there a god)? who or what is man? is there a purpose to the universe and our existence? is there a good and evil or right and wrong? and how can we know anything at all? Note that all humans deal with these questions at some level because it is part of our built-in thought process and requires us to draw conclusions from many areas of study as well as from our personal experiences and interpretation of those experiences. If we agree that we can know anything, we can also know that these questions must be important. Why? Because we can examine records from every civilization addressing these questions and how their conclusions impacted their society.

The diagram below illustrates the 2-way interaction between knowledge and faith. What we believe is influenced by our knowledge, but our beliefs also have the power to override our interpretation of new data and experiences to fit them to our current worldview. Those beliefs then determine our actions, which is the outworking of our faith.

Notice that faith (the application of our theology) impacts every area of study, incorporating concepts from many areas of thought. It does not depend on the details of science alone but must consider scientific data as a viable source for confirmation of certain conclusions. Science, however, has a more limited scope and can draw philosophical conclusions only as theories because philosophical concepts such as love, morality or existential purpose cannot be measured directly. This means that science, by definition, cannot ask certain questions while faith has a right to claim scientific perspectives as long as they are not directly refutable by scientific data.

Potential problem areas

This is precisely the area where many people become confused. Does scientific data show the Bible to be in error? Is evolution or a random origin of the universe already proven as true? Is creation, the flood or the existence of God even possible? These are good questions but they must each be evaluated by filtering out what science can or cannot authoritatively address. By definition science can only speculate about origins of the universe, creation or the existence of God. Evolution is also not a proven fact because it is classified as theory and there is no hard evidence for macro-evolution (the gradual and randomly selective change from one species into a difference species).

This leaves us with the questions about supposed scientific errors in the Bible and potential errors in the historical accuracy of the Bible. Science can address both of these questions. The question of historical accuracy has been addressed at length and the Bible has profoundly and authoritatively proven its accuracy in every area that can be measured. Those events that are supernatural such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, and therefore beyond the scope of science, cannot be either proven or disproven by science. But it is also clear that some supernatural events, specifically the resurrection of Christ, have an amazing quantity of historical proofs that cannot be denied by thoughtful investigators. If we investigate the supposed scientific errors contained in the Bible, we see that more and more of these have been resolved in recent years to show that the Bible had the correct information before scientists "discovered" them. One example is the common human genome that identifies one common ancestor for all of humanity, although this was not thought to be possible just a few years ago. The global flood is another interesting study and, as it has not yet been proven false by scientific data, theologians can continue to assume that it is accurate, having sufficient data to support this perspective.

It is also important to remember that the Bible is not a scientific textbook. It is a historical record that also includes poetry and accounts of visions and prophetic messages. It was written by 40 different authors including shepherds, priests, poets, fishermen, lawyers and a physician, between 1900 and 3400 years ago. Theirs was a very different culture than ours in a time with very different values, technology and perspectives about life. This requires that anyone who studies the Bible does so with a knowledge of that culture and the ability to interpret the text in that light. Those who believe the Bible to be the authoritative and inerrant Word of God have a foundation for life and knowledge that is beyond value because the Bible provides wisdom from our Creator about every area of life. Those who do not trust the Bible to be authoritative or inerrant are limited to a human perspective on life and the natural world. It is that simple.


If you have followed the logic so far, you can now come to some conclusions about the seeming contradictions of faith and science. First, according to logic, faith and science cannot be both contradictory and true on any given piece of scientific data. I would add that the existence of logic is evidence of order and purpose in the universe and that logic is dependent on faith, not faith on logic. Second, it is not possible to build a theological perspective (or worldview) on the basis of scientific data alone because there are questions that science simply cannot answer. Third, any theological perspective that claims to be true must be willing to address or explain the data common to human understanding and experience including scientific data. Fourth, one's philosophical perspective will always be more complex and broader than their area of expertise and have a tendency to color or filter their interpretation and application of data into patterns that fit that perspective.

If one claims to have a biblical worldview, then the acceptance of biblical truth provides a foundation for each area of study and gives that study meaning and purpose within the bigger picture of God's design and purpose. If one has an atheistic or materialistic worldview, then the assumption that nothing exists outside the measurable and material universe always overshadows their approach to each area of study and only gives each study a practical or utilitarian purpose. In this sense, a person with a materialistic worldview has no concern with or basis for an opinion on the existence of God except by the fact that it raises objections to their assumptions about the world.

We are like children playing on the floor, each one with their own toys. Suddenly one of us looks up and says, "Hey, you can't play with that! Give it to me!" But then the parent comes in and says, "Okay, time to put away the toys." Who has the greater understanding? It must be the parent who gives the children the toys to play with while there is still time to play. The "toys" of the scientist or the philosopher no longer have value if no one is around to play with them anymore. It's not the toys that matter, but each of us who are loved and cared for by our Creator in spite of our ignorance or misinterpretations of reality.

Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, has said:
He who is presumptuous enough to think that he can find the true principles of physics and the laws of natural things by the force alone of his own mind, and the internal light of his reason, must either suppose the world exists by necessity, and by the same necessity follows the law proposed; or if the order of Nature was established by the will of God, the [man] himself, a miserable reptile, can tell what was fittest to be done.
In a study of many lives of great scientists, it is evident that faith in the Creator God informed both their worldview and their scientific discoveries since they "knew" the reality of a God who had created the world with order and purpose and enables us to know Him partially through a growing understanding of His creation. All of modern science is founded on this reality and a continued "trust" in the laws of nature and logic established beyond our own power of reasoning. Faith informs the natural sciences and enables us to interpret and apply them with an assurance of certain outcomes whether or not we choose to believe in God.