The Big Question(St. Martin’s Press, 2015), by Alister McGrath, an accomplished scientist and scholar, provides a powerful lens to which we comprehend our universe and our human weakness. He paves a logical well-argued road to the compatibility between science and faith. This excerpt from chapter three, “Theory, Evidence, and Proof,” helps us to understand science and religions complicated correlation.
For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
How Do We Know What Is True?
We all like things to be simple. As a teenager I exulted in the simplicity of the natural sciences. They proved things! They offered certainties, based on rigorous engagement with the evidence. I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy when I was about sixteen, particularly enjoying its anti-religious polemic. Yet Russell irritated me at one point. He declared that one of the chief benefits of philosophy was to teach us “how to live without certainty.” This was ridiculous, in my view. Did he not know anything about science? Did he not realize that it proved its theories? Why did we have to live with uncertainty when science gave us certainty?
The Human Yearning for Certainty
At that time I saw science as a wonderfully honest and reliable way of thinking about the world which offered proven answers to the big questions of life. As far as I was concerned, faith — especially religious faith — was just about guesswork and hopeful thinking. I held to what I later realized was a simplistic scientific positivism from which faith was totally excluded by the evidence — a view later expressed so well by Richard Dawkins:
“[Faith] is a state of mind that leads people to believe something — it doesn’t matter what — in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence, then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.”
You only believe what you can prove. That, as far as I was concerned, was why science was so great. When a matter needed to be settled, the scientific community devised experiments that resolved the question. When did anyone ever do an experiment that proved there was a God?
I do not think I ever went as far as Richard Dawkins later did in suggesting that religious people were mentally ill. But I was quite convinced that religion demanded disengagement from reality and taking refuge in an invented universe which bore no relation to what I knew through physics. Religion dealt with a fictional universe in which everything was made up. Science dealt with things that could be proved — that could be shown to be right. It was the most secure and reliable form of knowledge.
Yet every now and then it was as if someone drew aside a curtain, revealing a glimpse of a darker and more complicated world, spoken of only in whispers by those who taught me science at school. It was as if they had sailed “forbidden seas” — to borrow a nice phrase from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — and did not want me to go there just yet. As my fellow students and I studied the nature of light in physics classes in the late 1960s, we were told that people once thought that light traveled through a medium called the “ether.” Of course, we were assured, nobody believed that sort of nonsense anymore! I gained the impression that this was the sort of thing people believed way back in the Middle Ages. Then I realized that my teachers were talking about what scientists believed a mere two generations earlier. So why, I wondered, did science change its mind about so many things? If the evidence compelled us to believe something, surely that was the end of the matter? If something was proved to be true, how could you change your mind about it?
The problem, of course, was that I was being taught a simplified and sanitized version of science, suitable for school kids and nobody else. We were taught that science was about facts — an established body of knowledge, proved by experiments. It is an infantile view of science which is still found in low-grade popular works such as Christopher Hitchens’ amusing New Atheist manifesto God Is Not Great. But it is not the real, hard science I later came to discover. What I and my classmates at school were not told was that the progressive nature of the scientific project meant that what scientists believed today would change over time — sometimes being modified, sometimes being abandoned altogether. The same evidence might be interpreted in new ways — or new evidence might come to light which forced science to abandon existing ways of seeing things. That is why my reading in the field of the history and philosophy of science shook me to my foundations. I suddenly realized that things were much more complicated than I had thought.
Simplistic talk about “compelling evidence” is seriously misleading for a number of reasons. It suggests that evidence is a purely objective matter and fails to recognize its complicated subjective aspects. Human beings are creatures who exercise reflective freedom and are perfectly capable of forcing “evidence” into their preferred and predetermined modes of thinking. The Lysenko affair of the 1940s illustrates this well. The maverick biological ideas of Trofim D. Lysenko (1898–1978) were seen as politically acceptable to the leaders of the Soviet Union, and the scientifically orthodox ideas of his opponents were denounced as “bourgeois” or “fascist.” As the sad history of evolutionary biology during the era of the Soviet Union makes clear, a “groupthink” can emerge which disregards evidence it considers inconvenient, or which accommodates it — often through the application of intellectual violence — within an ideological framework.
Russell was right. We need to cope with uncertainty. And that is challenging, both intellectually and existentially. Looking back on my days as a teenager, I cannot blame myself for longing for certainty. We all do it, in our own ways. We want to know where we stand. Maybe there are deep psychological forces at work within us that incline us to adopt this very naïve model of science, even if we know its limits. This also helps us understand why religious and anti-religious fundamentalisms, which trade in certainties, are so attractive to some people. The real world, outside these bubbles of spurious certainty, is rather more challenging. Yet we have to cope with it and live within it.
The Big Question Copyright © 2015, Alister McGrath. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.