The boundaries of science

This week I took part in a couple of experiments on the psychology of religion and meditation. I was only too happy to fill in questionnaires for my friends who are writing dissertations for their psychology degree, but the experience raised some questions for me: How can you study religion scientifically? Can you find out anything meaningful about spiritual people if you start from humanistic assumptions? What’s the relationship between science and religion in the social sciences? Is this where you throw in the towel and decide that science and faith really are at odds?

I attempt to address some of these questions with great trepidation as I’m not a psychologist, but I have a few thoughts, and great quote that I’ve been dying to use! Feedback welcome, especially from psychologists.

Science studies a subset of what life has to offer, and excludes a good deal: basically anything you cannot measure quantitatively. So we can’t expect psychology or any other branch of social science to take into account the existence of God. How then do psychologists and other social scientists study people – who (I believe) are essentially spiritual animals – in a meaningful way?

A good number of psychologists do (what I ‘humbly’ consider to be…) meaningful research on very interesting questions that can then be interpreted from either a faith based or humanistic viewpoint. An example is Justin Barrett‘s work on childhood beliefs. He has shown, along with other psychologists of religion, that we seem to be wired for belief. This is the beginning of a really interesting conversation. Either faith comes from our genes and doesn’t really exist, or God has given us a helping hand in the faith department by making belief in supernatural beings somewhat instinctive for us. Discuss…

Other psychologists get round the problem of science being unable (or unwilling) to postulate the existence of God in a different way. They start from the assumption that God doesn’t exist, and try to figure out why people would be deluded into believing in him (this is what I felt about one of the surveys that I took part in). I’m just not sure that such a huge bias will help anyone to study religion in a meaningful way.

My ideas on the relationship between science and faith are, at this stage, I think best summed up by pastor and developmental psychologist Daniel Harrell.

…theology can embrace scientific discovery without insisting that science buy theology’s presuppositions and without theology succumbing to science’s own predilictions. Faith allows for a perspective greater than human perception can muster, but this is never to deny the perspective that human perception can muster. We need not discount scientific discovery on religious grounds, even when we do take issue with scientific explanations as insufficient to paint the complete picture.

Nature’s Witness, Abingdon Press, 2008, p66

A dappled world?

The philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has rejected the idea of law in nature. Instead she has proposed that we live in a ‘dappled world’. Philosopher and theologian Lydia Jaeger spent her PhD investigating how far certain philosophers of science were influenced by their personal worldviews. In reading Cartwright’s work Lydia was intrigued by the theological metaphors that she often used. A stray comment in an obscure book review suggested Cartwright thought that law like behaviour in the world would imply the existence of a creator.

On meeting Cartwright and putting the question to her directly Lydia discovered that she did indeed think that the existence of law like behaviour in nature would point towards the existence of a creator. Because she did not believe in a creator Cartwright rejected the idea of scientific laws. Since those meetings Cartwright has become more explicit about her motivation for rejection of law in science.

Wouldn’t we all like to live in a dappled world? Despite her beautifully coined phrase, Cartwright’s claim that the laws of nature only apply in certain circumstances has not contributed to the ongoing development of modern science.

Certain areas of science – biology for example – are not apparently law like in behaviour. The world does not always appear to operate in regular ways, and it took faith for the first scientists to start investigating using the tools of science. The early scientists believed that the universe would reveal its secrets on a deeper investigation, and it did.

What do Christianity and science have in common?

Svilen Milev,
Svilen Milev,

I’ve been getting some useful feedback on these posts, and I would particularly appreciate your input on this one. It’s an illustration that I’ve been using in a number of talks recently.

This is a cartoon of the molecular structure of DNA. Obviously no one has ever seen it – it’s too small even for the most powerful of microscopes. It was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick (and several others) using x-ray crystallography in crystals of DNA. After their famous Nature paper was published, the science of molecular biology flourished and Watson and Crick’s model for the structure of DNA was tested in many ways. Now we have so much evidence for the double helical structure of DNA that no biologist would doubt it.

The structure of DNA hasn’t been ‘proved’. You can only prove things using maths. Science is about disproving things – narrowing down the options and getting nearer the truth. So in a way we believe that DNA is a double helix by faith – faith that is well founded on the ‘laws’ of physics, and lots and lots and lots of reliable evidence. I’d be fairly confident to stake my life on it (though I can’t imagine why I’d need to…)

What does that have to do with Christianity? This is something that I do stake my life on, so I’d better be sure it’s worth believing. Like science, none of the interesting questions in life – ‘Is that a great painting?’ ‘Does that person love me?’ ‘Is there a God?’ – can be solved mathematically. But I think there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claims of Christianity in history, archaeology, answers to prayer, the study of the Bible, and so the list goes on. For me the most important evidence is the way in which God changes lives. When someone you know well becomes a Christian you have the opportunity to see whether Jesus’ claims are true – first hand. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. That’s the reason why I’m a Christian, and why I think science and Christianity have something in common.