Is faith incompatible with science?
Hespeler, 14 January, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 1:26-2:3, 2 Chronicles 4:2, Hebrews 11:1-3, Psalm 111:1-10
n the third century before the birth of Christ, one of the most brilliant people on the face of the earth was Archimedes of Syracuse. An inventor, mathematician and scientist, he accomplished many great things. He is the guy who is famous for discovering a process for calculating the volume of something that so amazed him that he jumped out of his bath and went running through the city naked shouting “Eureka.” You know, typical genius behaviour.
One of Archimedes’ greatest contributions to science, however, didn’t really draw a crowd like that. He was the first person to calculate the value of pi to any degree of accuracy. Pi, a
s you may recall from your high school days, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an extremely important number – foundational to many fields of science including geometry and physics. It is also used constantly in design and engineering. And thanks to the efforts of people like Archimedes we know that the value of pi is approximately 3.141592654. Archimedes calculated pi by using the work of a brilliant predecessor named Pythagoras. He employed the Pythagorean Theorem and extensive proofs and calculations to come up with a number for pi.
But couldn’t Archimedes have saved all of that work and effort? Isn’t there a much easier way to come up with a value for pi? Christians believe, after all, that there is another source of truth apart from science and reason. We believe in revelation and many believe that the Bible is an excellent place to go to find the revelation from God. So if the Bible were to tell us the value of pi, then we wouldn’t need all of those theorems and proofs and calculations would we?
And here is the thing: the Bible does give us a value for pi. It says in the Second Book of Chronicles that there was a great molten sea in the Temple of Solomon – basically a giant basin made out of bronze – and that it was round. The Bible gives us the dimensions of that round bowl, saying that “it was ten cubits from rim to rim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely.” So, in other words, the Bible is saying that there was a circle with a diameter of ten units and a circumference of thirty units. Well, if that is true, then all we have to do is divide the circumference by the diameter. Thirty divided by ten is 3. Pi is 3 according to the Bible! So Archimedes didn’t need to do all that work; it had been written in the Book of Chronicles about a hundred years before his time. He could have just agreed with what revelation said and declared that the value of pi to be three.
There, in the simplest terms possible, is laid out for you the great conflict that still bedevils people to this day: the clash between faith and science. Science tells us that pi is 3.141 and so on; the Bible says that it is three. And I know that there really isn’t anybody who, based on this scripture, has insisted that the number for pi should be 3. But could you imagine what it would be like if people did? There would be faith-based geometry, architecture, engineering and physics. Every calculation made with pi would be off. All circles would look strange. It would probably be a disaster with buildings collapsing and airplanes falling out of the sky.
And, though people don’t actually argue over faith-based versus science-based values for pi, they do argue over other differences of opinion between faith and science – things like evolution, the age of the earth, for some, even the shape of the earth. So, as people of faith, we really do have to figure out how we are going to sort out what is true and reliable when faith says one thing and science says something very different. So I am going to use a discussion of the value of pi as a way to look at how we approach that entire question.
The Catechism of the Presbyterian Church in Canada answers the question of whether science and faith are incompatible with a clear no. “We believe that God created a universe with its own order which we can explore by scientific investigation,” it explains. We believe that, because God created the world, not in some haphazard way but in a way that conforms to consistent order, that it is absolutely legitimate to explore that order on its own terms and that we can learn many things about the universe and about its Creator by doing so. I think that is something that we all understand to a certain degree.
We may believe in miracles, but we definitely do not attribute everyday events like the rising of the sun or the shifting of the wind to supernatural forces. Ancient people might have done so but we are children of the Enlightenment and have recognized that enormous advances have been made in knowledge and technology by making the assumption that the universe will always behave in predictable ways. So we are able to function without feeling as if we have to live in some eternal conflict between faith and science.
But the Catechism goes on from there to make a point that I think we can easily miss when we ponder this question. “Yet scientific investigation and the Christian faith differ,” it says, “in their goals and approaches.” The mistake we most often make is not to misunderstand the conclusions or proclamations of science or faith but to fail to see that they are seeking to do very different things for different reasons in different ways. When Archimedes calculates the value of pi, his goals and methods require a certain rigour and accuracy, especially when that number will be used to further scientific understanding in various ways. When the author of Chronicles gives the dimensions of a round basin, both his goals and method are quite different and the accuracy of the numbers don’t matter in the same way for that reason. He is trying to say important things about the glory of God and the ways in which, he believed, the Ancient Israelites rightly worshipped God.
So actually to use the number of pi you get from 2 Chronicles in calculations or engineering would be to misuse that passage because you have failed to understand its purpose. Again, I realize that people don’t actually make that error when it comes to the value of pi, but some do make it, for example, when they use other passages to calculate things like the age of the earth or to explain the origins of human life on this planet.
The Letter to the Hebrews declares that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That immediately sets faith apart from science. Science is entirely based on what is seen. The only way you can do it is by gathering observations, measuring and calculating results. And there is no question that science and its advances and understandings have been astounding. We have all benefitted and continue to benefit every day from all of what science has given us.
It doesn’t mean that science is always right. In fact, the very fact that science is based on what can be seen means that it must continually remain open to the possibility that new observations, new experiments and new ways of interpreting data will mean that science will have to change its mind. This is not an indication of the weakness of science but rather one of its greatest strengths.
Nevertheless, when scientists come together in peer-reviewed papers to a strong consensus on some understandings – as they have on such matters as evolution, the age of the universe, climate change and a host of other things – I believe that it is foolishness to disregard those conclusions. What’s more, to do so is not to abandon faith.
Faith, as the Letter of Hebrews makes clear, has a very different basis than science because it is based on what is not seen. It is not established through observation or experimentation. This may limit the usefulness of faith when seeking to understand the observed universe (you don’t need much faith to calculate the value of pi for example) but that is not where the strength or purpose of faith lies. Faith is particularly useful in understanding and valuing what cannot be seen and that includes not only God but also such essential things as justice, beauty, love and peace.
This is something, however, that we often fail to appreciate. Because we are thoroughly modern people, our view of the world has been largely shaped by scientific assumptions. We assume, for example, that the only things that are true are those things that are factual – that can be verified by observation. That is the modern bias towards reality – that facts are the only things that are true. There is a big problem with this because facts are only one kind of truth and an exclusive focus on facts can often hide deeper truths. Nevertheless, we all have bought into this assumption to a certain degree.
For this reason, some people will reject all faith and the Bible too. They will look at the truths that the Bible proclaims and declare that, since those truths cannot be verified in some demonstrable way, that they must therefore be lies, falsehoods and fictions. This is one response to faith that has become common in the world today because of the modern scientific assumption about truth.
But there is another response to the challenge of modern thinking and this idea that only what is factual is true that has become common over the last century or so. There have been many who have sought to defend faith and the Bible by insisting that everything that the Bible says is true and (since for them whatever is true must be factual) everything that the Bible says must be factual. Therefore, for example, if the Bible says that the world was created a little over 6000 years ago by God in six twenty-four hour long days of creative work, they will feel that they must defend this as objective fact. What’s more, they will put themselves in a position where, if they just admit that it might not all be completely factual, the very foundation of their faith will be shattered.
This is the approach to Christian faith that is called fundamentalism. It is, to be clear, a thoroughly modern approach to faith – an approach invented a little over a century ago in response to the growing success of scientific enquiry because it was seen as a threat to faith. But the problem with this approach is that it buys into a flawed modern assumption: that facts are the only truths that matter. It basically acknowledges that science is the only source of truth.
That is why it is important for us to remember the message that is there in the letter of the Hebrews and that is laid out in the Catechism: “Yet scientific investigation and the Christian faith differ in their goals and approaches. While science proceeds by theorizing about and testing the universe, the Christian faith is primarily concerned with knowing God who exists above and beyond the creation.” Recognizing the different goals and approaches of science and faith means that one of these sources of truth does not have to be elevated over the other one. We can acknowledge them both as valid.
The good news is that faith and science do not need to sort that out through violence and anger. They are allies together in the great quest to find all truth. I absolutely agree with the catechism that there need be no conflict between faith and science. We actually need both and are all stronger when we are able to use the strengths of both. The Christian faith must value all efforts to understand the universe that God has made because we are guided in all things by the conviction that all truth comes from God.