For many Christians, the gap between faith and science seems to be insurmountable. But for scientists like Steve Donaldson, director of Samford University’s computer science program and a co-founder of the university’s Center for Science and Religion, faith and science are interwoven, each dependent on the other for the development and shaping of new ideas.
Donaldson, who was one of 25 participants selected for the two-year Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities seminars at the University of Oxford (see “Closing the Gap”), and his Samford colleague Josh Reeves, assistant professor of science and religion, co-authored the new book A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science, which explains how and why scientists in every age have found science and faith compatible.
Recently, Donaldson discussed the book with Morgan Feddes, Advance managing editor. The interview has been edited for length.
In the book, you mention the importance of knowing about the history of science as it relates to how we as Christians understand science. Do you think that this lack of knowledge of science history is part of what creates – or at least doesn’t bridge – the division between science and theology?
Absolutely. It’s both a lack of knowledge of the history and the philosophy of science. Unfortunately, many scientists are really not up on either. … If you understand not only how [science] works now, but how it’s worked through the years, and how different perspectives have [developed] about what science is, what it does, what it’s capable of doing, it puts the whole science and religion issue in some light that is just otherwise not there. …
People have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years. You go back to Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras … a lot of the things they believed about the world they got wrong, but their way of trying to understand the world is very similar to a lot of the things we do today.
I’m actually reading a book right now by a Nobel Laureate in physics who is trying to deal with this issue of why the world is beautiful. He’s not just talking about pretty colors. … He’s talking about the beauty and the mathematics behind the physics that makes the world work. The beauty in the self-organizing principles that we see in nature and things like that. He goes back to the ancient Greeks to begin his journey in this book, with good reason, because these people were thinking deep thoughts. … That also helps us [wonder]: If people can believe for 2,000 years something we now don’t think was right, what about the things we believe today?
It gives you a certain sense of humility as well as appreciation for what these people did. If you’re going to be a good scientist or a good theologian, you need that historic background. You need those insights into what others have done. When I teach classes here, whether it’s a computer science class or a scientific inquiry class for our honors students, those ideas get worked into any of those classes. For some of them, they’re the core of the class. You’re really asking this age-old question of how we know things and what we really do and don’t know, what we believe about the world, and things like that.
We read a lot about this growing push for the technical schools and the elimination of the liberal arts. Do you think instead we should be pushing more for one less science class and one more history of science class?
That’s such a great question and observation because you’re right – there is a push… to focus on what is deemed to be practical as opposed to theoretical knowledge. … For some people, it may be okay. There are always going to be people who are not inclined to think deeply in awe. But how do you know unless you attempt to educate them, unless you give them the chance? …
But it’s hard. We struggle with it even in a liberal arts school like ours. Let’s say you have a chemistry major; you want to crank out a student who knows chemistry. They can go into the workforce and be productive, or they can get into grad school and be a successful student there. You’ve got to give them a certain amount of chemical knowledge. You want them to be the best, not only for their sake, but for the sake of the reputation of your school. Every chemistry course you give them is one less course they can take in the humanities or in something else, but it also means they lose this broader perspective.
So there has to be some sort of mixture there – a happy balance. I think that there are a lot of liberal arts schools that do a good job of balancing that effectively, but there are schools which are dropping the liberal arts because they don’t see the value of that. That struggle’s going to go on. … I don’t think we’ll lose. I think there will be some losses, but I think there will be some gains. But if you don’t fight the battle, you’ll lose it.
What are some of the hidden pitfalls that you see students fail to navigate as they advance in both their scientific career and their own personal faith, and in their understanding of how the two interact?
What I see a lot of times is an innate human tendency to draw boundaries, to sequester things in their unique categories. It’s hard to see how those boundaries might overlap and may even merge into one another. When it comes to issues like science and religion and how to put those together, usually when people first approach these issues, those boundaries look … firm and impenetrable.
I particularly see that with students when they first come to Samford. … I teach a course called “Scientific Inquiry.” We look at not only science but the philosophy of science – how does science work? We focus on several major theories; we look at cosmology, relativity, quantum theory, and evolution. … Many of them struggle with some of these things.
But what we try to do is to help them bridge that gap – and you see a lot of them bridge it. … We talk about difficult issues, and over time you’ll see the student realizing that the boundaries [between science and religion] are their construction. … They are ones that [either] they have erected or somebody has erected for them in the past. If they can come to understand things like God’s much bigger than any conception [we] have of him, there’s a good chance that some of these things can be worked out. Once they realize that, it’s a liberating vision for them. …
Clearly the origins issue is a hot button, but it’s not the hardest problem in science and religion, quite frankly, and it’s certainly not the most interesting one. … I’m talking about things like mind, brain, soul, consciousness issues. The more we learn about neuroscience, where does the soul fit in? Where does free will fit in? Those kind of issues that touch us where we live as human beings, trans-humanist issues – they’re going to hit us blindside.
They’re already starting to, but in the next few years – as our technologies give us the ability to modify ourselves in all sorts of interesting ways – questions about evolution are going to look kind of mundane because they’re highly theoretical. There’s really not much of a practical side to that in terms of how it affects our day-to-day lives. These other questions, they’ll affect us day in and day out. What are we going to do ourselves? What kind of plans will we make for our children in terms of their hereditary features if we can control some of those? All these sorts of things. All of a sudden, those questions are going to loom very large at this interface of science and religion.
I hear a lot about how science really helps enrich and strengthen our faith and understanding of God, but how do you see it working the other way? How do faith and theology enrich our work and our understanding of science?
It can frame the questions we ask. … I’ll give you an example. I had a grant … [where] I was able, as a cognitive and computer scientist, to set up a project where we used the science to think about some deep theological questions about randomness in providence – how God might interact with the world [in ways] that have appeared to us to be largely random elements. …
Our project was to simulate the evolution of neural architectures by looking at the random elements that were there [while] recognizing that there’s never any such thing as pure randomness – it’s always constrained. How do the constraints affect what happens in these evolutionary simulations? How does that relate to our understanding of things like God’s foreknowledge? …
This is great fun, because you’re getting to combine your scientific knowledge with these deep theological and philosophical questions. … You’re letting the theology frame your scientific questions that you’re asking. The same thing can be done with questions about free will and the soul as you look at what we know from science. That can help raise these theological questions, but the theological questions could in turn encourage you to pursue a particular line of research.
What are things you tell your college students, your Sunday school students – anyone questioning their understanding of faith and science – to keep in mind?
I tell them, “Don’t put God in a box.” The biggest hurdle I see that people have is [the idea that] God wouldn’t do it this way. I say, make sure you distinguish between “wouldn’t” and “couldn’t,” because if you say, “God wouldn’t,” you’re limiting God, and that’s pretty presumptuous. If you say, “God couldn’t,” well, that’s pretty presumptuous, too. Once a person starts thinking about that, it has this tendency to help them back off a little bit from any dogmatism they might have about their position. That goes for all of us. It goes for me. It helps keep us humble.
There’s a chapter in The Little Book that deals with intellectual humility, because that is so important. It’s real easy for the scientist who’s successful to think they’re really hot stuff, and they might be – in a very micro domain of the world. But in the overall scheme of things, there have been a lot of people who are very knowledgeable and very smart. It helps to realize that some of those people probably had insights that I’ll never have and understood things that I never will. That humility then gets extended to the point where you realize, “I could be wrong about this or that.” Once you get there, it’s so liberating.
The other thing that’s liberating is for these people to think that they don’t have to believe everything they’ve been told – that there may be another way to think about this. It’s not to say that what they’ve been told is wrong. … It may be right, but you need to make it your own. You need to know it’s right, and if it is right, you need to know why you think it’s right, and to explore that.
One other major hurdle for many of our students … is what I call the binary fallacy. [It’s the idea] that it’s got to be this way or that way – there’s no really in between. This is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles that people have when it comes to science and religion. “Either God created the world, or it evolved.” Well, that’s a false dichotomy.
You can see [false dichotomies] in so many of the great works out there written by scientists who see no room for God at all. That’s because they’re guilty of what I like to call the binary fallacy. … This is very typical of many of the so-called new atheists. But it’s also true of a lot of great theologians who are devout Christians but can’t see how God could possibly have done it some other way. They’ve created this barrier: that you have to come down on one side or the other [of an issue] without realizing the barrier’s something they’ve erected, [and that it was] not necessarily God who did it.