NPR logo On Faith And Science: An Idealized Dialogue


On Faith And Science: An Idealized Dialogue

In this Gustave Dore engraving from Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan, the Fallen Angel, is flung from Heaven and nears the confines of the Earth on his way to Hell. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In this Gustave Dore engraving from Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan, the Fallen Angel, is flung from Heaven and nears the confines of the Earth on his way to Hell.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Within the perennial debate between science and religion, something that tends to irritate scientists — especially those who declare themselves atheists or agnostics — is the insistence in the existence of a parallel reality, inaccessible to reason. To explore this clash of world views, playing itself out in countless debates, conversations and confrontations, here is a fictitious dialogue between an atheist scientist and a religious person well-versed in the current state of science.

Scientist: "A supernatural cause doesn't make sense: if it's supernatural, that is, beyond the limits of space and time, beyond the laws of Nature, beyond the material, how can we know of its existence? After all, we can only know if something exists if we detect it, if we can demonstrate its reality, even if indirectly, like with electrons and other things too small for us to see. Otherwise, this existence is a fabrication, a fantasy. Even worse, if this cause actually manifests itself, say, through a 'vision' or some bizarre occurrence, it becomes a natural phenomenon, amenable to be studied by scientific methods. In other words, if some kind of god exists, it's impossible to know that it does. And to my mind, there is no other way of knowing. And don't give that 'love is here and you don't explain it' argument. Love is a concrete emotion, marked by clear physiological and psychological effects."

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Religious Person: "You may quantify these feelings but you don't understand them. Not everything is about measuring, you know? Things aren't so simple, black and white, exists or doesn't. I understand that, according to the scientific method, something needs to be detected to be real. But consider this: no one knew about Uranus until it was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel. So, did Uranus exist before it was observed? I'd say yes, even if we didn't know about it. Science can't determine what doesn't exist, only what does."

Scientist: "But you can't, or shouldn't, compare God to a celestial object. From what I understand, His existence doesn't follow the laws of Nature. If it did, God would be a natural phenomenon, and wouldn't have this transcendent nature that you like so much and that is the cornerstone of your faith. If God "hides" in a parallel reality, He will never be part of science."

Religious Person: "No question, God will never be part of the scientific canon. And this is precisely your problem, to think that everything should be part of this canon. I don't think this way. There are things beyond science, beyond what science can and knows how to explain. Science has a very clear methodology, separating the object to be studied from the rest. This method assumes that this separation can be done. And there is no question that it works real well in the laboratory, or when an astronomer observes a galaxy. But how to explain, for example, the Universe as a whole, or the question of how it began? How to look at the Universe as an object of study if we can't get out of it, separate it from the rest? Can science as we know it deal with the totality of things?"

Scientist: "I agree, this is a very complicated problem, that philosophers like to call the First Cause and physicists call initial conditions. We do need to assume a context in order to offer an explanation. We don't have, at least for now, a law or principle that explains how to select an initial condition for the Universe, although there are plenty of conjectures out there. But they all suffer from some kind of arbitrariness, which comes from having to assume something from the start or to start with. Sometimes I think we are like a fish in an aquarium trying to make sense of the ocean as a whole. Still, even if we don't know how to explain something we don't need to invoke a supernatural explanation. And that includes the origin of the Universe. Especially if the explanation assumes the Universe is the work of some kind of entity that we can't ever be sure exists. What kind of explanation is that?"

Religious Person: "That's the explanation through faith, beyond science. You don't measure or quantify it. It just is."

Scientist: "Better to be ignorant than to be fooled. I prefer to keep trying to understand things my own way."

Religious Person: "Good luck with that! May God inspire you."

Scientist: "Nah, I'd rather find this inspiration on my own."

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser