13,978,000,000 years ago the Big Bang started our universe. The scientists tell us with great excitement that they have finally detected the initial gravity waves dating the vast expansion which took place. A leading physicist described it as “one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time”. Moreover it provides strong evidence for the existence of a myriad of other universes – perhaps infinite in extent.
This discovery (already questioned, I see, by other scientists) will have no effect on our belief in God. But I want to use it as an introduction to the conflicts between science and faith. Fortunately scientists who oppose religion as a source of truth on principle are a vocal minority; their soul mates are the believers who, by knee-jerk, dismiss any science which appears to contradict their faith.
Religion, qua religion, is not concerned with such questions as the Big Bang. The proposition is simple: God created everything which exists. We have of course attempted to communicate this proposition through expressing it in stories fitted to the understanding of the original readers. And we have made the understandable mistake in the past of thinking that these stories give us literal accounts. Today, the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture is able to describe this as “bad science and bad exegesis”.
Science, at least in its propaganda, makes a similar mistake. The questions that it asks are concerned with material causality and it is rightly held that these can only be answered though empirical evidence. Thus they can establish the boiling point of water or the gravitational waves of the universe, but they cannot establish the first cause of creation because that is not susceptible to empirical investigation. They have forgotten Aristotle’s dictum: “It is a mark of the educated man and a proof of his culture that in every subject he looks for only so much precision as its nature permits.” There is a rude arrogance in the claim that one’s chosen methodology defines the limits of accessible truth.
The questions which science asks and the questions which both religion and philosophy ask are different. They do of course bear on each other in different ways. But we need to be clear that science addresses the material elements of causal sequences, and the other two address the immaterial elements of our condition. Let’s look at some examples.
Freewill is a problem for scientists because, by definition, it is uncaused. So the idea has developed that a myriad of causes, dating back indeed to the Big Bang itself, are in operation. Thus our decisions are all determined. At first sight this is plausible. We are aware, when we make a decision, that we are influenced by our temperament, and by our emotional reactions to circumstances. And, if we are reflective, we realise that many of our motivations are unconscious. Scientists go further, and tell us that, since our rational and emotional responses are presented to us only through our brains, there is no room, nor need, for free decisions. It is as if that violin sonata we enjoyed must be attributed only to the violin, which made the music. The violinist is an unnecessary hypothesis.
It does not occur to them that their conclusion is self-refuting. If our decision is in fact only the end term of a vast chain of random causes, we have no reason to suppose that it is true. Random causes can only underpin random conclusions. They cannot even verify the claim that there is no free will.
Related to this, is the question of moral responsibility. I have noticed that non-believers are inclined to be shirty when it is suggested that they have no morals. But they certainly do have morals, and frequently they demonstrate this by their moral disapproval of religious doings. Of course they have to choose between being morally responsible and denying free will; they sometimes forget that they cannot have both. And when they are asked the source of their sense of moral obligation, they tell us that it is because they wish to be treated well by others, or that they are happy in a society which has acceptable moral standards. These are good reasons but unfortunately they are utilitarian, and so do not address right and wrong. Fortunately, they rarely practise what they preach.
A similar difficulty occurs with the question of consciousness. Even scientists recognize this as a hard problem. How does the vast amount of processing generated by the brain get converted into our sure sense of personal awareness? How is it that I experience myself not as thoughts or feelings but as an entity which has thoughts and feelings? The mechanisms of the brain which support consciousness are important to explore but the phenomenon of self-reflection lies outside scientific explanation. Indeed, we have to assume it before we can examine it.
Non-believers are inclined to claim that religious faith can be ignored because it depends on subjective inclination rather than evidence. We need perhaps to point out to them that their ability to make free decisions, their recognition of moral obligations, and their awareness of their conscious selves are all hard data, calling for an explanation. So when it is suggested to me that my beliefs are superstitious because they go beyond the evidence, I am inclined to point out that it is they rather than I who have chosen to exclude the very evidence on which all empirical evidence depends.