A question about science and religion

The following question about science and religion was recently submitted to this blog. Even though the writer invites me to “edit the length . . . for space considerations,” I find the whole question so thoughtful and articulate that I’d like to run it in its entirety here, and address its three points in a series of posts.

Q.  In your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage you state that “science, in seeking to explain origins, answers questions of what, when, and how, but responsibly remains silent on questions of who and why, which are instead the purview of religion and philosophy”. When you discuss Brian Alters’ book Defending Evolution, you speak sympathetically of his view that in its pursuit of knowledge science is properly “methodically naturalistic,” limiting itself to what can be observed and measured, as opposed to being “metaphysically naturalistic” and denying the existence of God or the supernatural.

These views seem to be held by many modern intellectuals including S. J. Gould who wrote that the “net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work that way (theory)…[while the] net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

In light of the above, I have a few questions that you might be able to answer through a couple of posts.

First, although it seems intellectually satisfying to isolate religion and science into separate domains with a shared border, it doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture. Though religion typically answers questions of who and why, it would seem to transgress into the realm of science in many areas. Considering that science looks at the empirical realm, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science. Jesus either had a human father or he didn’t. He also either physically died and rotted somewhere or he was brought to heaven. Either way though, those are measurable phenomena in the empirical realm that the Bible answers supernaturally. Of course, miracles are merely a suspension of the way the world normally operates but that is the point, if the spiritual world is real there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that science can never explain. Is it accurate to maintain that the two domains of science and religion really are so separate or is it more of an ideological goal to strive for to achieve clarity in thinking?

This part of the question is answered here.

Secondly, I would agree that it would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than methodological naturalism in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement which would definitely be unproductive. However, isn’t it possible that in being methodically naturalistic scientists might be blinding themselves to certain physical facts that don’t fit their paradigm which would in turn lead to wrong conclusions and theories about the physical world? For example, in the case of origins, in one direction, I don’t think that scientists would rightly ever conclude that God exists because they were unable to explain the origin of the universe or of life. Appealing to the supernatural is off limits in science and is usually viewed as lazy investigation. In the other direction though, assuming that God did create the universe and life, there will come a time when scientists, because they are methodologically naturalistic will be looking for something that isn’t there. They will be trying to explain in physical terms something that can only be explained supernaturally. Beyond just origins though, isn’t it possible that scientists have already constructed theories that aren’t getting the full picture because they are methodically naturalistic? Do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages metaphysical naturalism or is that only a “straw man” constructed by modern creationists?

I respond to this part of the question in this post.

Finally, this is more of a question that is posed along the border of religion and science, “from the middle of the lake” (assuming there is a middle). If God did use evolution and at some point along the line injected a soul into prehistoric humans as the Catholic Church maintains, wouldn’t that mean that there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of “soul-possessing” hominids and “soulless” hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference (or maybe just geography)?

I answer this last part of the question here.

Feel free to edit the length or format of my questions for space considerations.

Thank you!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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