People want certainty. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, and people long to feel comfortable. The gray areas of life feel unstable, sometimes unbearably so. As a result, humanity craves a solid foundation for knowledge. This quest has taken various shapes throughout history.
One path to certainty, followed by many, is the path offered by science. Science offers tangible knowledge. Science tells us that if we can see, taste, touch, smell, and feel something, we can understand it. It seems, therefore, there is no ambiguity in scientific conclusions.
Those who turn to science alone as a path to certain knowledge are understandably skeptical of other paths to knowledge, especially the path of faith. Faith, for a religious believer, entails belief in supernatural realities that can’t be proven or demonstrated by the scientific method. It seems like faith is at odds with science. For this reason, many would jettison faith altogether and stick with the more comfortable certainty of science.
Yet this is not the only possible response. Perhaps faith and science are compatible.
Models of Faith and Science
It’s worth noting that there are different paradigms used to describe the relationship between faith and science. There is the popular view, discussed above, that faith and science are in conflict with one another. Others argue that they are totally separate, equally valid fields of knowledge and study that never need to intertwine. Finally, there are those in the middle who argue that faith and science can somehow co-exist. It’s not clear that the only way to view faith and science is as mortal enemies; in fact many scientists themselves do not see their faith as being at odds with their beliefs. As pastor and theologian Tim Keller says, “Even though the concept of warfare between science and religion still has much popular credence, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we have to choose between the two …. There is no necessary disjunction between science and devout faith.” An incompatibility between faith and science is far from a given. In fact, there are many counterpoints to the incompatibility claim, one prominent example being Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and a devout Christian. Examples like this seem to point to, at least, the possibility of faith being compatible with science.
Science Requires Faith
The fundamental reason that faith and science are compatible is this: You can’t have science without faith! The scientific endeavor rests on one foundational belief: Our sensory perceptions of the world reveal to us the world as it truly is. This is a belief—an assertion—not a scientifically-provable fact. Science can only proceed on the assumption that our senses perceive the world accurately. On scientific grounds, we could only prove the reliability of our sense perception by using our very own senses. This kind of circularity means that we’re left with the options of doubting everything our senses tell us, or choosing to trust them. For this simple reason it seems that, far from being incompatible, science presupposes at least a certain amount of faith.
Science and Religion
What does this all mean for science and religion? At the very least, it shows that the scientific method doesn’t invalidate faith as a primary and real way of knowing. Faith is a fundamental necessity for any knowledge to be possible. We can’t proceed through life without faith. We trust that our senses are reliable; we believe that the laws of nature will continue to function regularly tomorrow as they have today; we have faith that other humans have their own conscious existence despite not being able to see their minds. Whether or not we should have faith that God exists remains a valid question, but whether faith is a valid way to know God is not.