The Whats and Whys of Science and Faith

A recent NPR story ( got me thinking on the perennial question of the relationship of faith to science (Yeah, I know; I keeping biting off bigger subjects than I can chew). In the story, the noted biologist E.O. Wilson talked about his hope that science and the humanities would work together to answer the great questions: “where did we come from, who are we, and where are we going?”

Wilson’s remarks intrigued me, because these are questions that theological types like me play with all the time. Yet I was also struck by the thought that neither scientists nor theologians should think that they can actually answer them.

Science’s job is to focus on the “what” and the “how” questions of human life in a physical universe, to apply a rigorous process of observation and hypothesis to the physical world, and arrive at conclusions about how things work. As it does so, science inevitably tries to understand the origin of things, be it human life or the universe as a whole. Yet when science goes all the way back, either to the first single-celled organism, or to the Big Bang, it runs headlong into its great limitation: the question of “why.”

Almost inevitably the question of where we, or the universe around us, came from involves the question of meaning: Why are we here? What is the purpose of this life, or this world in which we live? A scientist can venture answers to those questions, but doing so takes her or him out of the realm of science, and into that of religion or philosophy. These questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are beyond the purview of scientific investigation.

And so now we’re into theological territory; questions of meaning are our bread and butter. That means we’re the ones primed and ready to answer them, right? Well, no. We can explore them, and seek God’s wisdom about them. But as flawed, fallen, and finite creatures, we will not be able to give final, definitive, good-for-all-time answers.

In the science vs. faith wars, the opponents too often commit similar mistakes from opposite directions. When scientists conclude (as some, but by no means most, do ) that there is no reality beyond the physical world, and claim that they have reached this conclusion on scientific grounds, they have sinned against the scientific method, which is incapable either of proving or disproving ultimate reality. When people of faith–specifically Christians–claim to have full knowledge of the mind of God, we commit the sin of intellectual pride. We forget that it was God who found us, not the other way around, and that we are embarked on a quest for One whom we will never fully know or comprehend this side of eternity, but who has always known and understood us.

So Godspeed, Professor Wilson. God grant success to the search for what and why, that it might shed light on a darkened world. And God grant us the humility never to think that the goal of that search lies firmly within our grasp.

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