In this, my fourth and final post on Francisco Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, I wish to examine very briefly his views on knowledge as related to science and religion. I am addressing the same primary audience that he does in his book: believers in God. For the sake of brevity, and because Ayala seems also to have accepted them himself, I am going to work on the basis of two starting assumptions: there is a God, and he has revealed himself through the Scriptures. I ask readers who contest those assumptions to recognize that this is not the place for me to defend them. This is a blog, not a book, and to do the job properly would run very long. Even as it is, my treatment here can only be an introduction to issues of religious versus scientific knowledge, but I trust it will at least open up some good discussion.
Fences Around Religious Knowledge
Ayala devotes an entire chapter to showing there need be no contradiction between revealed religion–Christianity, to be specific–and evolutionary theory. Clearly he respects Scripture. He would like Christians to understand that Darwin has been a gift to religion as well as science. If it is a gift in the Ayala takes it to be, however, it comes to us as a horse once did to Troy with dozens of armed men hidden inside. The problem is most clearly expressed on page 172 (emphasis added):
The scope of science is the world of nature, the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations concerning the natural world, explanations that are subject to the possibility of corroboration or rejection by observation or experiment. Outside that world, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another. Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic, or moral; nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose; nothing to say about religious beliefs (except in the case of beliefs that transcend the proper scope of religion and make assertions about the natural world that contradict scientific knowledge; such statements cannot be true).
When there is a conflict of knowledge or opinion between science and religion, science always wins; religion’s statements “cannot be true.”
Now, is this necessarily so? Why would it be? One could muster several plausible reasons, I suppose: science is evidence-based, its conclusions are open to public challenge and revision, it follows a near-universally trusted method for determining what is true, and its results have been wildly successful in helping us understand and control nature.
Why Would This Necessarily Be?
Let us, however, recall the assumption we have made for present purposes, and that Ayala seems to hold: that there is a God who has revealed himself through the Scriptures (an assumption that I hold to be quite true, but again, it is not my purpose this time to defend it). This God is revealed as the omniscient and omnipotent Creator, faithful and reliable, certainly able and eager to reveal himself to humans. He speaks with complete authority: he knows what is true. He cannot lie. Therefore what he speaks through the Scriptures is true, and if I may paraphrase, when science makes assertions about the natural world that contradict Scriptural knowledge, such statements cannot be true.
Given our assumptions, why would that conclusion not follow? Why would Ayala (who appears to have respect for God and Scripture) say just the opposite? We can never trust any Christian beliefs except as science allows, he says. It’s tantamount to saying we can only trust God as far as science allows; but who forced God aside and enthroned science in his place?
Religious knowledge has its obvious difficulties. Agreement is hard to find, and from a human perspective there is no universal method for testing religious truth. Let us not overstate the problem, however. Ayala is not speaking of comparative religion, or the conflicts of belief between Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and secularists. He speaks as one who believes in a Christian conception of God, to others who believe in the same God.
Interpretation: It’s for Both Science and Scripture
Ayala takes the position that the Bible just isn’t intended to speak to the same questions as science. It’s not a book on natural history or cosmology. Therefore if science contradicts the apparent teaching of theology on these subjects, then theology can gracefully bow aside and say, “A thousand pardons; I didn’t mean to be intruding on your territory.” This opens up the matter of interpretation: how literally (for example) are we to take the Genesis creation account? That’s a valid question. But interpretation is a valid question for science as well. How do we interpret nature and its evidences? Theologians have been wrong; scientists have been wrong too. Scientific knowledge is fluid, sometimes adjusting in minor ways, sometimes completely being overturned. A few years ago it was scientific knowledge that stomach ulcers were caused by stress; now it’s scientific knowledge that about 90% of them are caused by H. Pylori bacteria, and most of the rest by certain medications. Why then should “assertions [by religion] about the natural world that contradict scientific knowledge” necessarily be false?
Historic Christian theology teaches that God has spoken through nature, through an internal witness in human hearts (conscience, for example), and most clearly and unambiguously through Scripture. Psalm 19 expresses all three of these sources of revelation. Some theologians point out that God has written two books: the Bible and the book of nature. Both “books” may be understood correctly or incorrectly; both need to be interpreted. For a Christian, then, there is more than ample room for discussion about interpretation: Are the early chapters of Genesis intended to be taken literally or figuratively? Great question! Let’s work on it. The book of nature is open to similar discussion. Properly understood and interpreted, the two sources of knowledge must agree.
If God is indeed God, the Creator of all, who speaks only truth, there is no need to ask which source of knowledge trumps the other, for in the end there can be no contradiction between them. Apparent contradictions are signals that our understanding or interpretation from one or both of these perspectives is wrong, and that we have more work to do. They do not automatically signal that science is right and that Scripturally-based knowledge is wrong. That view of knowledge is no gift at all.
Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, by Francisco Ayala. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. 256 pages. Amazon price $24.95.