Wednesday, July 12, 2006

George Coyne on faith and science

A couple of years ago I heard Father George Coyne give a talk on stellar evolution at UC San Diego. Father Coyne wore his Roman collar, but in his prepared remarks sounded as any other astronomer would in describing the life cycle of stars and the significance of that for producing all elements in the universe heavier than helium. Such is the scientific training of the director of the Vatican Observatory, still a research astronomer despite his other duties. He is also a Jesuit priest, and as such has had reason to reflect on historical conflicts between faith and science. He summarized such conflicts in a way I liked, that the only people who think there is a conflict between faith and science either don’t know faith or don’t know science.

I think that’s true, but what does it mean? Creationists often speak as if they know science better than scientists. They say there is no conflict between the Bible and science because good science agrees with the Bible. That’s not what Father Coyne was saying. It takes such a tortured view of science to say it doesn’t conflict with the Bible.

One thing some creationists say is that science requires some process to be reproduced in the laboratory before it can be considered science. So astronomy is not a science? So most of geology is not a science? There is no rulebook with such a rule in it.

It is important to reproduce any finding in science before taking it too seriously. Some in the US Congress were ready to fund cold fusion research based on a press conference in Utah. Fortunately other researchers not only failed to reproduce cold fusion, but also realized the error made by the Utah researchers before a bill could get through Congress to waste money on this mistake.

The media have trouble with this concept, often giving headlines to single studies, then giving more headlines to other studies that contradict the previous. People get the idea that no one knows what they’re doing, but this is science. It takes time to understand why people get whatever data they do. Fortunately nature is always there to return to, whether that’s human nature or the nature of rocks or stars. One can do more studies, get more data, and understand what was wrong with previous studies. If nature changed each day, science wouldn’t be possible, but nature remains the same, and our understanding of it has increased exponentially since the power of science has been understood.

It’s not that one has to reproduce all of nature in a laboratory before one can be a scientist. Astronomers can return to make more observations of the sky. Geologists can go back to the field to find more features in rocks. Paleontologists find more fossils. Archaeologists find more artifacts. They reproduce their results by going back to the universe, which hasn’t changed since we started looking. Those who say that the idea of evolution isn’t science don’t know the first thing about science. Yet they believe their own rhetoric, apparently, as they believe Genesis, without asking the questions that would shake their belief.

Father Coyne sees it differently. In response to questions, he referred to the Bible as stories, not to be read as a science lesson. Many liberals do this, saying the Bible can be embraced as metaphor where it cannot be believed literally. So did God create a universe or did God create a metaphor? Did He create neither one?

My guess is that He created neither one. It might be wrong. The Creator of the universe might be the same God who answers my prayers. For some time I’ve been aware that He doesn’t have to be. God is whoever and whatever God is. My understanding of that begins with the fact that someone or something has answered my prayers. For someone else, faith begins with the creation stories in Genesis. Is that true faith or false faith? Genesis conflicts with science. Some try to massage the words of Genesis to match science, but there are verses in Genesis that simply don’t match the data anyone can find in nature. The order of the creation of life in Genesis is wrong. There’s no way around that. Many animals existed before flowering plants did. Not all sea animals preceded land animals. I can believe Genesis was the best vision of creation anyone could come up with 3000 years ago, but to say today that it should be revered as truth is to know nothing about either faith or science.

Father Coyne is a loyal Catholic. Even so, he is open to possibilities, as any good scientist is. He mentions the possibility that God is not the Creator, but a God who is taking advantage of an opportunity that arose in a purely physical universe. He doesn’t go so far as to actually believe that. I do. It’s one way to understand why the physical universe is not all that kind to us. It has given us life, through a number of remarkable features of the universe, but it’s far from perfect, not even perfection corrupted by sin. Of course, I might be wrong about that.

My faith is something very different. No matter how many people believe that faith is based on what someone believes, it’s not necessarily so. Faith is a connection to God. It is trust and devotion. It could start with belief, but that’s not what I see. I see people with all kinds of beliefs doing whatever they feel like doing, pumping out whatever hatred, indifference and falseness is within them, even in the name of God. Such people can be found all over the internet. Maybe God approves of them. Maybe my understanding of God is wrong. I reach for the real God, whoever and whatever God is, and I get what I get. This is my faith. It’s been good to me, so my trust in and devotion to God, as I understand Him, has deepened.

This is what I know faith to be, from experience, maybe from revelation. I know what science is from my education and training. They don’t conflict. I don’t know with certainty that this is what Father Coyne meant. He may see faith as being beyond science. I don’t. Faith can be observed, in others and within oneself. It can’t be controlled enough to study well scientifically, but it’s not completely beyond science. There’s just not a good handle on faith right now for science to grasp. But there’s no conflict. Mainstream science has it right. New data will come along to extend what science knows, to develop a new context for what has gone before, but not wipe it all out. Faith is harder to identify. I would say true faith connects to the real God. False faith doesn’t. Maybe false faith isn’t as useless as that. Maybe metaphors are worth something, instead of just being wrong. I can live with such uncertainty.

False certainty is something else. Those who say their faith is true and mainstream science is false are wrong. I spent a lot of time being sure they are wrong, that every argument against evolution is mistaken, as others have. So those who say such arguments are right are wrong. I suspect their faith is wrong, too. It seems to be based on the same sort of biased arguments with which they attack science.

I ask God. He agrees with me. Maybe He’s not the real God. He’s the only God I know intimately. I trust Him. If there is a greater God, we have both made peace with Him as best we can. I’m sure this feature of my faith is not what Father Coyne had in mind regarding faith. Maybe he’s right for the wrong reason. Maybe I am. Maybe we both are. It wouldn’t be the first time a human being has managed that.

Knowledge has increased. It wasn’t greater in the ancient past and watered down in the present. The increase has accelerated, despite all obstacles. Yet many people believe what they want to believe. It is a conflict, but not between faith and science. It is a conflict between propaganda and science. It is a conflict between pride and faith, between idolatry and faith. No one with true faith should be threatened by God being whoever and whatever God is, by being wrong about some aspect of God. But if your pride and idolatries don’t allow you even to consider that you might be wrong, that’s not faith. That’s human nature. Knowing the real God fixes that. That’s my faith. It is my hope for myself and for others, for now and for the future.

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