Science, Faith, and the Riddles of Life by Micah Wimmer

Science, Faith, and the Riddles of Life

In February 2014, Ken Ham – the founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, organizations devoted to promoting a young earth creationist view of the world – debated Bill Nye – an educator who is best known for his PBS show from the 1990s who, like almost all others with an elemental understanding of the issues at hand, affirms that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is essentially correct. The debate itself was long and tedious. I quit watching a stream of it posted on YouTube in the following days just twenty minutes in. It was clear the two of them, despite ostensibly debating whether evolution was true, and if the Bible’s account of creation was a historically believable one, were hardly speaking the same language. The entire spectacle was representative of a divide between American Evangelicals who claim to take the Bible completely literally and those who find its mythic claims unbelievable in any historical sense, superseded by scientific findings and theories accumulated over the last few centuries. Such evangelicals have a fidelity to literalism that leads them to believe the earth is six thousand years old – a figure deduced by adding up various genealogies found throughout scripture – and leads them to choose to either disregard modern scientific findings or reinterpret them to fit their preconceived theological beliefs. In the last few centuries, this battle has continued, as many see science as disproving the validity of, and eliminating the need for, religious belief. Others, meanwhile, attempt to reconcile their religious beliefs with scientific evidence in a misguided quest to spiritualize everything that leads to a bizarre confluence which does justice to neither science nor the reality of faith.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, provides a useful way to view the relationship between science and faith so the two are no longer in conflict, although this does not mean they harmoniously reconcile themselves to one another. In his later writings, Wittgenstein established the concept of “language games” essentially stating that each language game – science, for instance – has its own particular grammar and set of reasoning unique to itself. Therefore, it would be nonsensical to attempt to blend two language games — such as those of science and faith — as the grammar, logic, and meaning of each language game is radically and purposefully different from that of the other. Taking this idea seriously, one comes to see religion and science as two separate spheres which should not intersect.

Think of the statements, “I believe the earth is round” and “I believe in God.” While both of these statements are statements of belief, they represent two very different forms of believing. In the first, the speaker’s belief is rooted in evidence and data that support the claim, such as photographs from space showing the earth’s roundness and evidence of explorers, such as Ferdinand Magellan, circumnavigating the globe. There are empirical reasons for this belief.

According to Wittgenstein, the type of belief held by the religious individual professing belief in God is something separate from this scientific notion of belief. Religious belief is not based on any kind of evidence or proof – it cannot be founded on, or supported by, empirical data or reason as scientific belief can. Instead, religious belief is founded in “how one sees the world.” Despite religion’s lack of reliance on reasoning for support, this does not mean religious belief is irrational, but simply nonrational: rationality has no role to play as one’s view of the world is not empirical, but existential. Essentially, the key to the religious language game is the asking and answering of questions about one’s own existence – the “riddles of life.”

Because of these different forms of grammar and logic, Wittgenstein does not believe science and religion can critique or support one another. Consequently, whenever one attempts to ‘prove’ the existence of God with data or evidence, they are misguided since these proofs have nothing to do with the religious language game. Instead, these proofs are suspect to criticism by the scientific language game as they require, and are grounded in, impersonal data rather than one’s life. Conversely, whenever an atheist attempts to ‘disprove’ God by using rational proofs, they are equally misguided as they are not actually saying anything about religion and how it actually operates in the lives of persons of faith. With religion being founded upon one’s view of world and self, the encounter between self and God, atheism rooted in scientific skepticism is just as mistaken as one whose faith is justified by reason and ‘proofs.’

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich touches upon similar themes in his seminal book, Dynamics of Faith. In one section, he writes about “the truth of faith” in relation to scientific truth. He makes his viewpoint immediately clear when he states, “There is no conflict between faith in its true nature and reason in its true nature” because “the truth of science and the truth of faith do not belong to the same dimension of meaning. . . . Science has no right and no power to interfere with faith and faith has no power to interfere with science. One dimension of meaning is not able to interfere with another dimension.” Because Tillich defines faith as ultimate concern, he does not see how scientific evidence could confirm or deny one’s ultimate concern regarding the divine. For Tillich, “science can conflict only with science, and faith only with faith” because “the truth of faith cannot be confirmed by latest physical or biological or psychological discoveries – as it cannot be denied by them.”

Once one adopts Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, belief in God becomes an individual, existential issue instead of one subjected to burdens of proof. However, faith does not become completely relative, as one can only speak of God from within a specific religious tradition which places parameters on what one can conceivably say about God. Wittgenstein’s analysis is very useful as it does not deny the importance of either science or religion or set them up as opposed to each other. Instead, he posits that both are important parts of life for while “science can tell us about the world… we need the religious point of view to tell us about our existence.” In his work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he states, “even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (6.52)

If faith and science are to coexist in the mind of the believer while doing justice to both, the only way to do so is to keep them separate. As soon as one starts conflating God and science, they are no longer speaking about science, but instead are doing theology. There is no room for God in scientific inquiry, but this does not disprove or threaten the person of faith’s belief in God since science cannot claim to answer questions of existential import as religion does. However, theology is making a tremendous mistake when it clings to biblical literalism or dismisses the latest scientific findings for theology is absolutely worthless if it does not reflect and speak of the world in which we live. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy provides a way for religion and science to exist alongside each other without conflict by using the concept of language games to show science’s and religion’s separate logic, grammar, and function. This allows persons of faith to avoid feeling threatened by scientific discoveries which may initially appear to impinge on the Bible’s historical accuracy, and leaves science free from unneeded and unwanted intrusions from religion. It is a way of viewing the two separately that aids in answering “all possible scientific questions,” while also seeking to touch upon the “riddles of life,” those which religious faith is uniquely suited to address. Perhaps this will allow us to see both the grandeur of the cosmos, of all that is, and the meaning and beauty of our own lives – simultaneously, yet distinctly.

Micah Wimmer

Executive Editor | Social Media Manager at Christianity Now
Micah Wimmer is a writer whose work has appeared on Oakley & Allen, Nieman Storyboard, and the Shocker. A recent graduate of Claremont School of Theology, and an avid NBA fan, he lives in Akron, Ohio, with his two cats.

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