On its face, this question presents a false choice. Science and art belong to two separate realms. Both express deep truths about existence, but in very different ways. Science uses the symbolic form of mathematical equations to describe the mechanics of reality. Art uses paint, the written word, film and sculpture to depict the human condition and our relationship to the world around us. The scientific method is a rigorous “left-brain” activity. Art taps into our deepest emotions; its creation comes from a “right-brain” intuitive perception.
At the same time, these realms can overlap. The sciences of color theory and perspective have influenced artists for centuries. New technologies, like photography and computer graphics, have spawned new artistic mediums. On the other hand, many of our greatest scientific discoveries were conceived through sparks of creative insight. Astronomers and physicists often use terms like awe and beauty to describe the universe.
If we change the question to science versus religion, however, people flock to either pole of the debate. Some religious fundamentalists close their eyes to the scientific laws that make our 21st century lives possible in the name of preserving the literal words of scripture written down millennia ago by men who had a different understanding of how the universe worked. On the other extreme, scientific atheists look down their noses at those who hold religious beliefs as simpletons belonging to a different age.
The core problem in this debate stems from both sides overstretching their perspectives. A religious worldview that denies scientific knowledge will ultimately be doomed to irrelevancy. A scientific worldview without a larger philosophical, metaphysical or religious system in which to anchor itself strands one like a shipwreck survivor adrift in an ocean of meaninglessness. Neither science nor religion, on their own, can hold all of the answers to existence, but maybe together they can complement and strengthen each other.
Without the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, we wouldn’t have cell phones, the Internet, cars, fresh food in our stores 24 hours a day, air conditioning or medicine. Would you fly in an airplane if the laws of aerodynamics didn’t work every time? Our life expectancy has doubled in the last two centuries because of the advancement in our scientific knowledge.
Science excels at explaining the mechanics of how our universe works. In centuries past, humans filled in the gaps in their scientific knowledge with supernatural explanations: The sun moved across the sky because the earth was the center of the universe and Apollo pulled it in his chariot. Storms were vengeance from the gods who lived above. Humanity came into existence because a god formed us out of clay. Mental illness was seen as demonic possession. Scientific knowledge has now supplanted all of these supernatural explanations.
But as good as science is at explaining the how and the what of existence, it falls short with thewhy and the should. Science better describes mechanics than it does meaning.
Not withstanding The Big Bang, quantum theories of spontaneous creation of matter and energy, String Theory and concepts of a Multi-Verse, our vast scientific database still struggles to answer the most fundamental of all questions first posed by the Greek philosopher Parmenides in the fifth century B.C.E. and repeated by others through the ages: “Why is there not nothing?” On a personal level, this desire to understand the meaning of being may come out as “Who am I, and why am I here?”
Critics of religion enjoy pointing out how many wars and how much suffering has been caused in the name of religion. But only science has given us the tools to kill each other in ways never before imagined. Biologists have produced viral and bacterial weapons; chemists have developed gunpowder and ever more destructive explosives; physicists have given us the power to destroy our very existence with nuclear weapons. Scientific advances in mechanical and chemical engineering have made our businesses more productive than at any time in history, bringing us comfort and prosperity. These same advances have also polluted our environment to the point of endangering our planet.
We must also be careful not to overstate the infallibility of the scientific method. Scientific knowledge has inherent limitations. Science is not truth; it’s an approximation of truth. Math has a beauty, an elegance, to it. But at its heart, math is nothing more than a symbolic representation of an underlying reality, just as language is a symbolic representation of ideas and concepts. Sometimes, we have a tendency to confuse the symbol with the underlying truth it represents. An ancient Chinese saying cautions that “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.” Math, language and scientific theories are merely fingers pointing us toward greater truths.
The philosophical limits of math are no surprise to mathematicians. In 1931, Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems showed that an arithmetical proof cannot be both complete and internally consistent within itself. In other words, the axioms of the system cannot be proven within the system. For any mathematical system to work, it must begin with certain assumptions.
Another limitation with the scientific method is that all scientific theories rely on human conception, interpretation and evaluation. The history of science shows that the process of one scientific theory supplanting another is a bumpy one. Twentieth century philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn used the term paradigm shift to describe the upheaval that often accompanies a change in scientific perspective.
The Catholic Church’s reaction to Galileo is often held up as an example of the conflict between science and religion. Not only was Galileo required to recant his writings that argued for Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system rather than an earth-centered one, but the Church didn’t officially admit it was mistaken until 1992! However, Kuhn explained that much of the early resistance to a Copernican view of the universe came not from religious sources, but from other scientists. Bias, preconceived ideas, academic politics, ego and resistance to change are ever-present in scientific and academic communities and often result in institutional opposition to new theories, especially ground-breaking ones. Many scientists initially resisted Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo because they presented a new paradigm of the universe.
Centuries later, when Einstein proposed another fundamental shift in understanding space and time, his theories were also at first doubted by the physics community. In a twist of irony, Einstein himself later rejected the weirdness of the other great scientific breakthrough of his day, Quantum Mechanics. Declaring that “God does not play dice with the universe,” he never accepted the inherent randomness and unknowability of what has now become the most tested and verified scientific theory in history. These scientific disagreements continue today. Go to any research university and ask the theoretical physicists about the ultimate theory of existence, and you will hear heated debates.
As crucial as scientific knowledge is to our lives, it is not itself enough. We need a system of meaning that science alone does not provide. We need meaning not just to supply us a moral code to live by in our communities. We need meaning because humans crave meaning and purpose as worthy goals themselves. Religion doesn’t have to be the system that supplies meaning to our scientific understanding of the world; philosophy can also serve the same purpose. The point is that we need something more than science.
That science cannot provide all of the answers we seek should not, however, open the door to a religious fundamentalism that denies scientific theories like evolution. Nor should we assume that just because we do not understand an occurrence that it was miraculously caused. For someone who believes in a God-created universe, wouldn’t resisting scientific models of the universe be tantamount to resisting God’s creation? Why can’t our religious theories evolve with our understanding of the world, just as our scientific theories do? Must our religious doctrine be frozen in time from a different age thousands of years ago? What is truly infinite and ineffable will never be fully understood or articulated in its entirety. If we think of God not as static in history but immanent throughout, revelation will be an ongoing process — one we can and should participate in ourselves.
Many religious systems do not inherently contradict science. Buddhism, for example, does not depend on a deity for its path to salvation. Its meditation techniques are being studied in universities for the neurological changes they produce along with the corresponding health benefits. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, where much of the science versus religion debate takes place, we have modern theologies fully compatible with a scientific worldview. Twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich described God not as a supernatural being but as “the ground of being.” Tillich’s God is like the infinite ocean out of which each of us is but a wave, arising briefly and then falling back. Process theologians, beginning with Alfred North Whitehead, write of God as that creative power within the universe, a power that is both the source of existence and its boundary as well. They ask us to imagine that we are like cells in the divine body, each having influence over the other.
Atheist critiques of religion, like those from Oxford Biologist Richard Dawkins and Cambridge Physicist Stephen Hawking, are only valid in that they disprove a certain antiquated image of God — the grandfather in the sky who created the universe like a potter or a watchmaker might and who governs it like a cosmic chess master. If we allow our religions to evolve, we might find that science and religion can complement each other: each may open a different window into reality, just as art and science do.