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Russ Colson: Faith and science: Common ground?

  • Article by: RUSS COLSON
  • December 20, 2009 - 11:28 PM

Today marks the fourth anniversary since a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional for a Pennsylvania school district to present the theory of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in science classes. Intelligent design is a school of thought arguing that the sheer complexity of living things looks suspiciously like the result of a deliberate plan.

So why can't intelligent design be considered as science?

Well, there's the problem of our not being able to detect the existence of a designer -- God -- in a tangible and reproducible way. In science, not seeing is not believing.

But it's not that way for faith. The ancient Hebrew language uses a single word for spirit, breath and wind -- recognizing that spirit moves invisibly through our souls, stirring us as wind stirs the trees or as breath stirs the body. In faith, not seeing is believing.

Can there ever be common ground between such divergent views?

Existence seems past denying by either camp -- "I think therefore I am." Thus, in the beginning, something ... just ... was. Perhaps a seed particle for the Big Bang. Or incipient laws of nature. Or a creative being of vast capability and extent. Whatever. Let's call it God.

But, is God being or nonbeing? Intellect or nonintellect?

One approach to answering this question, taken by philosophers since before Aristotle, is to consider whether existence itself is more like being or nonbeing. Is existence rational and ordered, reflecting intellect? Or is it irrational and chaotic?

Albert Einstein once said: "The world of our sense experience is comprehensible. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle."

This miracle is found not in a deviation from natural law (a common modern definition of miracle), but in the systematic failure of the universe to deviate from that law. It is the orderly and rational nature of the universe that speaks of God.

Science and faith agree on the importance of a rational universe. But in science, "rational" doesn't necessarily imply a "being." Science attributes rational and predictable behaviors to natural laws, a philosophy expressed in Isaac Newton's claim, "Like effects proceed from like causes."

Nevertheless, faith finds common ground with science in applying Newton's principle to nature's First Cause. Our universe is big and we know only a small corner of it, but in this small corner, the universe contains life. Rational, intelligent life (well, more or less).

Based on Newton's criteria for scientific inquiry -- "like cause" -- it seems reasonable that life must have arisen from life.

Reasonably, a rational universe proceeds from a rational First Cause.

Reasonably, the thing that "just was" is more like being than nonbeing.

Does this mean I have scientific proof of God, suitable for presentation in classrooms in place of traditional science? Of course not. The value of science derives from limiting our conclusions to those required by observation. "Reasonable" isn't enough.

Isaac Newton also wrote: "We are to admit of no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances."

An infinite God will always be more than just sufficient to explain a finite universe, thereby providing a more expansive answer than is justified. Thus, science, which is based on finite observations, must always fall short of proving God.

Charles Darwin, who undertook early training as an Anglican pastor, was fascinated by William Paley's classic 1802 discourse on the divine design of nature, often cited by proponents of intelligent design. In some ways Darwin desired to find concrete evidence for God. But he wrote in his latter days: "This conclusion [that the wonderful universe could not arise by chance] was strong in my mind about the time ... I wrote the "Origin of species"; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker ... and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."

As a scientist, I feel with Darwin the lack of scientific proof for God and even the lack of a means to test a hypothesis as comprehensive as God. But faith, in contrast to science, is about the search for God -- not about proof.

I can't measure the spirit with my instruments, but I look at the universe -- living, rational, complex and wonderful. And I believe in the wind.

Russ Colson is a professor at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, where he teaches geology and planetary science.

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