Why believe in God? Part III: Faith and Science

In a previous post I mentioned that Thomas Aquinas listed two major objections to the existence of God: the problem of evil and materialism. I addressed the problem of evil in Part II, and here want to say a few words about materialism—the objection that everything can be explained from physical properties alone. Spiritual realities are irrelevant. I think a more modern way to describe this problem is the question of “faith vs. science.” Which should we follow?

The phrasing of the question shows that people often see these as contradictory concepts. For many, “faith” means blindly trusting in something without real evidence, and “science” means relying on things that we can actually prove are true. This is not how we as Catholics understand faith. Faith is trusting in the word of another, while science (in the modern sense of the term) means a methodological study based on empirical observation and experimentation. While these are different, they are not contradictory. Both are ways to approach the truth. For example, we generally first come to know that the earth is round by faith in the word of another, and later are able to understand the proofs ourselves. In the physical sciences we can generally go back and work through the proofs that have come before us, but often it likewise relies on faith in the work that others have done. Progress is possible because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” They are two paths to the same destination, and both are concerned with evidence and truth.

The main question, then, is what happens when the answers given by faith and science disagree? Maybe the most notorious case is that of Galileo and the discussion of heliocentrism. What does it mean if we discover by science that the earth orbits the Sun, while the traditionally people have considered the Bible to teach that the Earth is the center of the universe? I may devote an entire post to the Galileo case, but the short answer is that the popular version of the case is often historically inaccurate. The issue wasn’t so much his teaching as his presentation. The Church was open to science as granting a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Cardinal Bellarmine (assigned to investigate Galileo) wrote: “If there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated [by science] is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” In other words, his problem wasn’t with the possibility of contradicting the traditional understanding of the Scriptures, but that he believed Galileo was rushing forward by proclaiming something that didn’t yet have sufficient data to support it—hardly an “anti-scientific” objection! Bellarmine believed that, if proven correct, Galileo’s theory would actually aid in Biblical studies by helping to distinguish what is literal from what is figurative. Even today, like the Bible, we often speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” without meaning to make geocentric claims! There is more to be said about the case, but even here we see an example of how faith and science can work together.

I would also like to respond to the challenge that faith is “blind,” and requires us to hold something without any proof. In fact, this challenge begs the question—what counts as “proof?” If we define it as “empirical scientific study,” then of course it will be limited to scientific study! Spiritual realities (God, souls, angels, grace, etc) by definition are things that are not made up of matter, and so can’t be detected by the use of microscopes, telescopes, etc. God is not a part of the world, but the creator of the world. You shouldn’t expect to find the architect of the house by rigorously examining all of the parts of the house. Likewise, the physical sciences can’t directly prove or disprove the existence of God. A popular response to this was to say that, if we can’t disprove the existence of God, we might as well believe in a “flying spaghetti monster!” However, we believe that there is evidence for our belief, even if not a scientific proof (remember, at this point I am only talking about the existence of God, not any particular revelation or faith group). We see an abundance of claims to encounters with the divine, and especially miracles. People have claimed to encounter effects without physical causes, which indicates the existence of spiritual realities (to my knowledge, none of these have been testimonies to a flying spaghetti monster!). Certainly some of these claims have been false, but materialism/atheism would require every single one of them to be false. The topic of miracles deserves its own post. Suffice it to say, scientific investigation does not clear up all of the claims. This evidence isn’t a strict proof, although gives reasons for belief. Faith is not a claim made contrary to evidence, but on account of evidence that has been encountered in a different manner.

As always, much more could be said. In conclusion though, I’d like to use the image of Pope John Paul II, who described faith and reason as the “two wings” of our flight towards God. The problem arises when one of the two wings is clipped. If we cut off the wing of human reason, then our faith loses an important clarifying light. If we cut off the wing of divine faith, our reason becomes closed in on itself. We lose insight into the deeper questions. The physical sciences help us to understand better *how* creation came about, but faith provides insight into *why* something exists rather than nothing. Faith and science do not exist in completely separate categories, and so at times will come into apparent conflict. However, the Church believes that, in the end, “if it’s true, it’s true!” (to quote my old teacher, Fr Fabian). Faith and science do not need to be seen as enemies. The sense of conflict comes from a simplistic understanding of the two concepts. One can love both faith and science (such as Fr Georges Lamaitre, the Catholic priest who proposed the Big Bang theory). If God is truth, then we are a friend of the truth wherever we find it.

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