It was a little after 7 pm on a Monday. Every seat in the Montana Tech auditorium was filled. In addition, students and faculty were on the stage, on steps, in aisles. Many others were outside trying but unable to enter. There was a sensation of vibrant anticipation.
A mild mannered and distinguished plasma physicist, Ian Hutchinson, with an accent as unmistakably English as his tweed jacket stood below a large screen. He was the unlikely cause of the excitement. And, for a highly respected Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics University, the subject of his presentation was arguably even more improbable: "Faith and Science are they Friends or Foes? ". The event was part of the Veritas series of Forums.
Christian life is a beautiful choreography between the intricate struggles of existence and the sublime invitations of the Gospel. It is challenging enough by itself without imagining conflicts that have essentially no basis in reality. There is, currently, a fairly widespread cultural perception that Christianity is at best uninterested in scientific matters and at worst hostile towards science. Many young people, in particular, view the two as if on a collision course or already in open warfare.
This is not new. The so called age of "Enlightenment" contributed to the pejorative notion of Christianity as unenlightened with lasting results. More recently some Marxist, Existentialist and Utilitarian philosophies have portrayed the Christian Churches as obscurantist institutions. The hostility is now considerably less intense but the scars of its deep wounds have penetrated layers of popular culture and permeated academia.
History, however, gives persuasive evidence that this conflict is a fabrication. Since the 1890s until this day, the proportion of physicists, mathematicians and biologists who are devout believers is relatively high and remarkably steady. Contrary to a common opinion, scientists are not feeling increasingly uncomfortable with their dedication to both scientific research and religious conviction. Hutchinson remarked that he finds more believers among his scientific colleagues than among professors of Humanities.
A new generation of brilliant historians has also applied exceptional scholarship to the understanding of the foundational role of Christianity in the emergence of Western Science.
The Religious Genesis of Science has three main sources:
_The God of Nature: Since the medieval scientist understood nature as creation, making scientific observations of reality was honoring God.
_The first universities were predominantly Church foundations, starting in the 1080s in the Italian city of Bologna. For centuries religious universities were the only scientific institutions.
_The fundamental importance of theory: When scientists first applied mathematics to the study of nature, they were using a principle that had been the common practice of theologians since the very early Church. Metaphysical concepts provided the rational language with which to speak about God. Theology had shown the way to science: Reason is the primary investigative tool.
David Lindberg, a profoundly insightful historian of science brilliantly points out that it is the "fate of all foundational contributions to human knowledge to be considered pointless and utterly irrelevant by subsequent generations who take their seminal intuitions entirely for granted."
From Pythagoras to the incomparable Newton and beyond many of the giants of science were not only religious but also profoundly mystical. The imaginary conflict between science and religion cannot possibly honor their monumental human and scientific achievements.
During the Forum, Ian Hutchinson called "scientism" - the belief that only science can achieve knowledge of reality - a form of religion. He also showed convincingly, in my opinion, that the reduction of all knowledge to science is based on arguments that are not themselves strictly scientific but more properly metaphysical.
To illustrate various legitimate methods of describing reality, he offered definitions of himself from the perspective of physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, philosophy and religion. All of which were true and compatible. Most movingly he spoke about his personal spiritual journey with transparent sincerity.
After a fascinating conversation with a moderator that covered how science and faith are conceptualized in the modern world, he took numerous questions such as:
.Is it legitimate for religion to suggest ethical limitations to science?
.Is the presenter deliberately ignoring historical evidence of the Church persecuting scientists?
.Could you talk to us about the Higgs boson, the "God particle"?
.Can science strengthen or weaken belief?
It was an event of great intellectual stimulation that drew enthusiastic curiosity and interest. It reflected an undernourished hunger for philosophical thought and historical inquiry. I particularly admired Hutchinson's ability to communicate his passion for both science and his Christian faith. It was an inspiring evening of Academia at its original best.
Note: Veritas Forums are events that engage students and faculty in intellectual investigation and conversation about the hardest questions of life and the modern relevance of Jesus Christ and other world views in addressing these questions.
Ian Hutchinson is a professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently conducting research on producing practical energy from controlled nuclear fusion reactions. He is the author of "Monopolizing Knowledge" on the subject of Scientism, Reason and Religion.
Montana Tech of the University of Montana is in Butte, MT