Does doing science make a person less likely to believe in God?

Q. It would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than “methodological naturalism” (a commitment to work only from empirical data) 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. But do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages “metaphysical naturalism” (the presupposition that there is no supernatural, and that natural causation can explain everything)?

This is the second part of a detailed question that I’ve posted in its full form here.  (The terms “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” come from a book by Brian Alters.)

In response to this part of the question, I’d have to say no, I don’t believe that the discipline of working only from observable, measurable data and seeking the most reasonable explanation for one’s observations necessarily encourages disbelief in the supernatural.  I can imagine a scientist who was also a person of faith saying, “Let’s see how much we can account for this way,” but still expecting that in the end there would be many things that could only be regarded with reverent wonder.

The lives of scientists throughout the centuries who have also been people of deep faith provide abundant anecdotal evidence that methodological naturalism does not inevitably lead to metaphysical naturalism.  Such scientists include Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Mendel, Pasteur, and, more recently, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project.  Numerous further examples could be given.  Many of these scientists have written about the compatibility of faith with scientific endeavor.  (See, for example, Collins’ book The Language of God.)

Along those lines, in my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey (himself a widely published scientific researcher), I cite the example of King Solomon, who was noted for his natural-scientific investigations, and paraphrase one of his proverbs this way:  “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.”  I go on to say that “when we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes.  So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm.”

In other words, we can adopt the discipline of “methodological naturalism” for the purposes of science without worrying that it will lead to “metaphysical naturalism.”

(The entire text of Paradigms on Pilgrimage is now available free online.)

Sir Isaac Newton, scientist and believer (portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689, courtesy Wikipedia)

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!