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Brownback on Faith and Science

There have been quite a number of responses to Senator and presidential candidate Sam Brownback’s discussion of faith and science. These have varied from extremely favorable, from some Christians who think Brownback has managed an extraordinarily good balance between faith and science, while others are quite angry because Brownback has clearly injected faith into science.

Having read his piece several times, trying to get past the probable political motivations, I have to say that I cannot join those who applaud this statement. Though I certainly do not believe that science can or should answer all questions, and faith plays a very strong role in my life, there is a clear line that should not be crossed. That line is crossed when we let faith determine something that should be determined purely by scientific evidence.

The most blatant example of this problem can be seen in the creation museum. The sponsors of that museum believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old. This conclusion comes purely from scripture. More importantly they come from scriptural text which is clearly not designed to provide scientific information and has only a minimal historical content. Rather than allowing scientific study to determine what it is best able to study, young earth creationists come to a faith-based conclusion, and then impose it on the scientific evidence, no matter what happens.

A better approach would be to let each element do what it does best. Genesis addresses meaning and the relationship of God to the universe, though even to understand those elements of the story one must be careful to understand the type of literature involved and why it was written. Genesis does not attempt to provide a scientific discussion. When people claim to discover wonderful, scientific things in Genesis, their example always involves taking a vague statement and claiming that it fits precise scientific data exceptionally well. But one can make such vague statements agree with almost any set of scientific data proposed. One would never derive the details from Genesis; they are not there.

So where in Brownback’s statement does he cross this line? He starts out quite well:

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

This statement uses appropriate words such as “complementary” for the questions addressed by science and by faith. But we already have the seeds of the problem here. Brownback asserts that faith and science can’t contradict one another. Yet if they are truly answering different questions, how could they contradict? If there are baseball games going on in two separate fields, one would hardly find it necessary to assert that the outfielders in one game can’t produce outs by catching balls from the other. We wouldn’t imagine that would happen. We would only make such a rule if we thought someone was going to try it.

In this case, Brownback seems to be saying it’s OK for the questions to cross over, as long as they don’t contradict.

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less.

In what way does faith seek to purify reason? If we would say that the goal of faith is to make a more open, more truth-seeking person, then I would find that acceptable, though many, many people of faith have done quite the opposite. Yet as a goal of faith (or better spirituality) I would regard that as good. But just what is it that faith is supposed to do to my reason that would make my scientific conclusions differ from those of an atheist?

Unless one is first accusing a scientist who is an atheist of falsifying his conclusions, then there is no reason to assume that faith is purifying reason. I would like to think that my faith helps purify my reason, because I believe that my faith helps deal with my motivations and with who I am. But for all of those who read what I write and see what I do my words and actions–the effectiveness of my reason–can be judged by what I produce.

Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

Again, I ask, in what way does faith supplement the scientific method? This is one of those statements that sounds balanced and well considered, but doesn’t seem to have much meaning. Is there something about Kenneth Miller’s science (he’s a Catholic) and the late Stephen Jay Gould’s (he was agnostic) that is different? Is one a better scientist than the other? Fit any scientist who is also a believer into the first slot and any who is not into the second, and tell me where it is that faith improves the functioning of the scientific method for the scientists of faith. (I do note some cases in which faith, however little I like the particular version involved, does harm to the science.)

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

And here we see the problem. The questions of microevolution and macroevolution may be debatable. Personally I think that the distinction is simply a technical one. People who believe in microevolution but not macroevolution usually simply don’t comprehend either one. Yet whatever they are both are processes of the natural world and should be studied as such. So having said that science and faith are complementary and can’t contradict, Brownback immediately asserts (though without admitting it) that they do contradict, and that when they do, he’s going to take faith.

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. . . .

Again, we contradict the “complementary idea. What precisely is it that people of faith, in other than their role as scientists if such they are, have to contribute to origins? They can discuss the spiritual values of humanity, but there will be no new interpretations of fossils, or of genetic clocks, or of the relationships between lineages that are provided by faith. All of those elements of understanding origins will be managed by scientists doing science.

I believe the “monopoly” language is to be read as favoring the incorporation of intelligent design creationism in classrooms. Of course science should have a monopoly on determining scientific questions. That’s how science works. Senator Brownback is a politician trying to trade on people’s dislike of the word “monopoly.” Truth, however, needs a monopoly. Compromising intelligence and stupidity doesn’t produce greater intelligence, it produces more confusion.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

“An image and likeness unique in the created order” goes beyond both science and faith. We have a Bible addressed to humans, and humans are (shockingly!) the subjects. That doesn’t mean that we are unique in the whole created order. We don’t even know whether there is life in the rest of the universe and if so whether there are other intelligent species that hold a similar position in their ecosystems.

When he continues that “[a]spects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected” we understand that despite any lip service given to science, Senator Brownback places his particular faith, and his particular doctrines of that faith over and above the scientific evidence. The origins of human beings are to be discovered by science. The relationship of human beings to God can be discussed in religion. But if my conclusions in religion deny the evidence of science, then I’m crossing the boundary.

As a scientist who comes to realize that the earth must be older than 6,000 years must adjust his understanding of Genesis accordingly, so a scientist who has based some aspect of man’s relationship to God on a scientific conclusion that is superceded by a better one must adjust his understanding accordingly. To do anything else would be to deny the revelation of the creator as given directly in his creation. But in this case, the most important thing to note is that such a person is not supporting science.

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  1. Dr X says:

    Ran across post via a comment in Dispatches from the culture wars. Nice post. I commented on Brownback earlier in the week with a similar analysis, but sorted out what I believe are the theological influences (and the politically motivated contradictions).

    Brownback’s Doubletalk On Evolution

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    Henry, I can’t help thinking that you are being a bit unfair on Brownback, at least based on what you have quoted from him (I haven’t read any more). Perhaps this is because you read him as promoting ID. I am just reading him for what he says without inferring his position on that particular controversy.

    One way in which faith can purify science by bringing in values is in keeping it from going off on immoral tracks like vivisection and unrestricted embryo research. I don’t know if Brownback had this in mind, but perhaps he ought to have done, especially because these themes can easily link into the abortion debate.

    If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

    Now I don’t like the concept of “a guiding intelligence”. But it seems to me that the contrast here is not so much between evolution and creation as between atheistic evolutionary philosophy, of the Dawkins kind which goes well beyond the proper limits of science, and descriptions of origins which have a place for it being fulfilment of a divine plan, whether ID, “theistic evolution”, or the more nuanced versions which you and I hold to.

    Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion.

    Indeed. Biologists can present the scientific evidence, but should not be allowed to dominate the philosophical discussion. People of faith should be allowed their say as well, not as an alternative pseudo-science but as religious philosophy.

    How this should be handled in public schools is of course a separate matter, and our British system is very different from yours. I would tentatively suggest that science lessons should be restricted to the evolutionary consensus on facts and mechanisms but without any philosophical underpinning, and the more philosophical issues should be discussed separately, in a forum where religion as well as atheism can be presented.

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