Are We Beyond the Conflict of Science and Faith?

When I was a physics major in college, my father happened to be a professor of Medieval Philosophy at the same institution. One day, after lecturing on Dante and the Music of the Spheres, he happened across my physics professor, Jim Lang: “Jim, can you hear the music of the spheres?” Lang: “Hear it? Hear it? Bill, I can’t turn the damn stuff off!” That ought to be our attitude toward the ways in which the invisible things of God are made visible by the things of creation, which I think is the crux of the question, “Are we beyond the conflict between science and faith?”

The question seems factual, almost a kind of sociological investigation – is it or is it not the case that most of a certain group of what? – intellectuals?, citizens?, common persons on the street?, religious believers? scientists? are beyond the conflict between science and faith? But I am a philosopher, a believing and practicing Roman Catholic. I am not concerned primarily about that sociological question. My focus is and ought to be the tacit normative claim. Ought we to be beyond that conflict? The answer, of course, is yes.

Science provides us with an insight into the workings of natural causality. Faith provides us with an insight into the workings of divine causality. A favorite tactic of people of faith and scientists alike to eliminate apparent conflicts between faith and science is an epistemological solution – science knows facts and truth, faith involves feeling and a kind of emotional response to the transcendent, where the transcendent is understood to be noumenal, beyond the realm of fact and truth. That solution is nonsense. It misunderstands both Catholic faith and natural science. Scientists often experience a kind of awe and wonder at the intelligibility of what they study, an intelligible reality that transcends them. And Catholics make claims of fact when they speak of God, claims that exclude their contradictory opposites as false. The divine transcends the natural; it does not transcend the factual and the true.

This epistemological armistice won’t do. There can be no conflict between faith and science because of the factual truth claims about God that Christians ought to make, animated by faith. God is not a natural cause, and thus should not be understood within the context of natural sciences that study natural causes. In other words, the knowledge of God gained through philosophically informed faith ought not to be understood to be a kind of scientific hypothesis in competition with other scientific theories about the mundane workings of the natural world. This approach suggests that when naturalistic science fails we appeal to the God hypothesis as if to the God particle in cosmology, and when it succeeds we exclude God. But Catholic Christians ought to recognize God in the success of science, not its failure.

To see this one must adhere to and try to understand the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. God is not a kind of natural cause only a really really powerful one, perhaps an omnipotent natural cause, able in his power to do what we cannot, and yet doing it in pretty much the way we do it, interacting with an already existing world. If God truly created the world and its causes from nothing, then it is nonsense to suggest that God interacts with natural causes as we do. It is a kind of anthropomorphism for religious believers to see God as needing to intervene in nature to achieve his purposes, undermining the autonomy of natural causes, as if creating and sustaining all things in being from nothing isn’t enough for God to do.

But it is equally anthropomorphic for other religious believers trying to uphold the autonomy of nature to say that God created it all and then left it to work itself out. Both views regard God as if he is a natural cause, only different from all the rest of the natural causes. Natural causes operate on presupposed material. But there is nothing presupposed that God acts upon in creation – that’s why creation is ex nihilo, a doctrine that as a matter of history was a hard won victory of Christian orthodoxy over ancient Gnosticism and paganism. The gods of the pagans were always intervening and messing about with the world of nature and human beings, and the Gnostics broadly believed that the divine principle of light was always interacting with an uncreated material principle that it was not responsible for and that was presupposed to its action. Sometimes Gnostics included a divine demiurge who does what he can with the matter at hand, but whose action is also limited by it.

Those who think there is a conflict between faith and science, whether scientist or believer, have in effect regressed intellectually to a pagan, indeed Gnostic view of the world and God. But for Christians, God creates and sustains from nothing natural causes, and thus does not engage or interact with them as they do with each other. He is not an interacting cause, but an enabling cause.

There ought not to be a conflict between faith and science. If there is such a conflict it is only because religious believers and scientists alike do not consider well enough the nature of God, the nature of natural causes, the nature of faith, and the nature of science. The remedy for that sociological fact is the extraordinary gift that only religious institutions like Our Lady’s University can give to the world, a setting for an education that pursues indeed requires greater understanding of all these things in peace. Only such an education informed by scientific knowledge and faith can teach us to hear that lovely music that moves the sun and other stars.

John O’Callaghan is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. This column is a shortened version of a presentation he made this week at the university for a conference on, “Darwin in the Twenty-First Century: Nature, Humanity, and God.”