Science and Faith

Recently, we happened to hear, on public radio, a song about evolution by a songwriter named Chris Smither. It was funny, but also made sense in a way the songwriter may not have meant. It's an amusing satire on the notion of intelligent design. In it, Smithers comments sardonically on the unlikelihood of certain Old Testament myths, then he brings together Darwin and God in a stanza that equates evolution with intelligent design:

Well, Charlie Darwin looked so far in to the ways things are,
He caught a glimpse of God's unfolding plan.
God said, "I'll make some DNA,
They can use it any way
They want from paramecium right up to man.
They'll have sex and mix up sections
Of their code, they'll have mutations,
The whole thing works like clockwork over time.

Many are now convinced that the theory of evolution accurately describes how life has advanced on our planet -- through random mutations that improve the chances for a life form's survival. Smithers may be smiling sardonically about the idea of God setting things in motion -- with DNA -- and then leaning back to enjoy the show as evolution does all the work for Him. But his smile needn't be ironic. Why is it so hard for the faithful to accept both evolution and God? The laws of physics and chemistry have built a sophisticated and majestic factory for producing and sustaining life, our ecosystem. And this natural factory has produced human intelligence, which is now advanced enough to understand many aspects of how this biosphere works. So doesn't the whole long process of evolution actually seem to be the most intelligent way to produce life if it is, in fact, producing intelligence itself? Atheists see no need to bring God into the discussion if the origins of life can be understood through scientific investigation -- and they believe it can -- while the faithful doubt that science can explain it all. Yet something is missing on both sides of this argument.

The creationist want to interpret what are clearly myths -- meant to convey a sense of meaning and moral order -- as a set of facts and propositions similar to scientific truth. And, on their side, the atheists fail in exactly the same way: laughing at myths by showing how the facts don't support a literal interpretation of them. Both sides make the same mistake of equating myth with fact.

Faith and science don't need to be at odds with one another if you give each credit for what it's meant to do. If you watch an hour-long video from the Santa Fe Institute in which D. Eric Smith explains how biological metabolism very likely evolved from geological chemistry, what you gain is an awe-struck impression of how simple processes can lead to more and more complex ones. Smith suggests that an invariable order underlies, and works together, with the seemingly random progress toward life as we know it. The laws of physics and chemistry -- the laws of nature -- give rise to life in a way that is both unpredictable and yet intricately ordered. Listening to him, you may be amazed at how it all could have led, inevitably or not, to human intelligence and our search for meaning. Science still hasn't fully explained how incredibly sophisticated strands of RNA and DNA could have assembled themselves at random into a first single cell capable of reproducing itself -- but it's hard to see how religious dogma could help us with that either. (A little humility is warranted all around.) But does that matter?

Even with gaps in our knowledge, we can appreciate the natural order by learning how to confirm and replicate small parts of it in a laboratory. Yet we can align ourselves with it just as wonderfully by praying in a church. In the first instance, we're hoping to make the world a better place by unlocking the processes that gave rise to it; in the second, we're learning why we should care about making it a better place. In the face of the mystery of existence, these two attitudes, curiosity and reverence, are entirely compatible, as Einstein understood. Science explains how we got here, in its own way, while faith matters more as a vision of where we're headed, as we try to follow in the footsteps of those who saw God as our destination, regardless of how we originated. I think it matters more to consider God a beacon for our greatest potential, an image of what we can still become, rather than to worry about how the first single cell astonishingly pulled itself together and, apparently, set all life in motion. What do you think?

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.