Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Clash of the Titans?

I was asked at an interview at Yale medical school to explain my position on the conflict between Science and Faith. I have often been asked this question, and have frequently thought about it. Most often, the questioner means the conflict between Reason and Faith.

The question has always struck me as an odd one; I have never really seen a conflict but have heard several arguments in favor of one. There is the political conflict, the peer-pressure argument, the straw man conflict and the philosophical conflict.

But don't all the smart people believe in science? Historically speaking, the most scientific of people have been men of vibrant faith. Newton wrote over a million words on the Bible and Kepler was very devout. Bacon, the man who came up with the very idea of science, openly ridiculed science apart from faith. He said he'd rather "...believe all the fables in the Legend... than that this universal frame is without a mind." Even contemporarily, there are many brilliant scientists who have sincere faiths. Francis Collins, the co-cracker of the human genome describes his faith in "The Language of God."

The political argument begins with, "Well what about Galileo?" The view being that the Church (which the questioner assumes is the same as the philosophical concept as Faith) persecuted the noble and humble scientist for his findings. This argument is silly for a number of reasons. Firstly, the story is wrong. Galileo was a mischievous man who, while brilliant, was less than shrews when he publicly mocked the most powerful man in the world and got off with house arrest.

More importantly, political groups fighting, be they ancient or modern, does not mean that there is any actual conflict that matters for you and me. Politicians fight over all sorts of meaningless things that may or may not be real. The important question is not, "Are people fighting about it?" (because the answer is always yes) but rather, "Do I see a conflict?"

This brings us to the Philosophical conflict. The assumption here is there is some underlying conflict between reason and faith. There are two Titans; if one is winning, the other must be losing. The most immature of these views is the straw man and it goes something like this. "Faith is believing something in contrary to proof. Reason is believing something because of proof." My apologies to a majority of my readers who hold this view, but this is plainly stupid. I have been a conservative Christian for a decade and have never heard such a view preached. This is a straw man, assuming a definition of faith that no one believes and then glorying in the carnage of straw.

There is, however, a legitimate conflict between reason and faith for most people that is more than imagined. This dispute arises because of certain assumptions we have made as a society. Primarily: the only true things are measurable. Gravity, which is measured to be 9.81 m/s^2 is real; God, who cannot be measured, is therefore not real, at least not in the same sense. He may exist in the same place my preference for vanilla ice cream exists: an unreal and totally subjective place.This assumption about the universe is more un-testable than the God it purports to make irrelevant. How do you test the statement: “everything that is real is testable.”

In fact, you know that the opposite is true. You know for certain that you think, but there is no instrument that can prove this. Machines can prove blood flow to a brain, but not thought or conscious existence. Every day you depend on the laws of logic (like "a thing is itself") which have no basis in the measurable or scientific. Science itself depends on what you knew was a certainty in kindergarten, that Cinderella is Cinderella and not Snow White.

There is no fundamental conflict between reason and faith, unless you have an insupportably narrow definition of reason. There are immature arguments, excuses based in bad history, and a deceptive but pervasive view about truth. If you really think through it, there is actually no fundamental conflict.

I am a reasonable man: I am a published scientist, a nearly-graduated civil engineer and an aspiring doctor. I am a man of faith: I have been diligent in studying the Word of God and living it though serving the poor and loving my neighbor. Amidst the corpses of many fallen straw-men, here I stand, my feet firmly planted on the rock of Truth, my eyes pointed towards heaven, unmoved by the whining wind, protesting against my existence as a man of faith and reason.

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