Navigating Faith and Science, Joseph Vukov. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022.
Summary: A framework for understanding the intersection of science and faith.
I’ve read a number of books about science and faith. Most in some way try to give the lie to the idea that science and faith are necessarily in conflict, despite public perceptions. Many, in some way, involve discussions of Ian Barbour’s schema of several models: the conflict model, the non-overlapping magisteria model of Stephen J. Gould, and that of faith and science in dialogue. Most prefer the dialogue model.
This book also does all these things, devoting an introduction dealing with the perception of conflict, stating a preference for science and faith in dialogue, and devoting a chapter to each of the three models. What, then, makes this book distinct.
First of all, the author proposes that all three of the models have their place. After showing how both scientism and fundamentalism contribute to perceptions of conflict, Vukov argues that there are always areas of potential conflict between science and faith. For example, big bang cosmology and Christian faith both posit beginnings for the physical universe. At this level, there is no apparent conflict. But what if an alternative scientific theory were proposed that posited no beginning but a continuous existence? This is an example of the potential for conflict and it is healthy to recognize this potential.
Similarly, much of science is the same for a Christian, a materialist, or a Buddhist and beliefs have no intersection with experimental results. Likewise science cannot determine the existence or non-existence of God but there are times when the independent perspectives on the same phenomenon, like prayer, reveal a fuller picture than either alone. Independence reveals both the physiological effects of prayer and the experienced reality. It is like studying a work of art both “close in,” seeing the brush stroke, and “further away,” seeing the big picture. Likewise, science can only answer questions of what is and how things work, but cannot address what ought be done. Furthermore, Independence fails to reckon with the influence of the values and worldview of the scientist that influence the questions they ask and their choices of research.
Finally, dialogue can incorporate both science in exploring certain phenomena, for example, the possibility of miracles, bringing both rigor to study of purported miracles by identifying instances that cannot be explained by natural processes and affirming the possibility that such may occur. Dialogue can be important around medical questions like brain death and the possibility of sustaining some form of “life” in the body. But dialogue can degenerate into “feel good” conversations without substantive conclusions. Dialogue can move us further away from as well as closer to truth.
All of this points up another distinctive idea the author brings to this discussion, that of intellectual humility. The best of us know in part, actually a very small part at that. Rather than suppressing this, the author proposes that we are at our best when we acknowledge our humanity with its limitations in knowledge. We may believe “all truth is God’s truth” but are hard pressed to demonstrate how science and faith are seamlessly so. Acknowledging where conflict exists is a form of humility where intellectual arrogance on the part of scientism or fundamentalism asserts the primacy of one at the expense of the other. Intellectual humility recognizes that just because one sees no overlap in the “magisteria” doesn’t mean there isn’t overlap. Arrogance may blind us from seeing. Likewise, a pre-requisite of good dialogue is esteeming the worth of what the other brings to the conversation, as well as the worth of our own contribution.
Intellectual humility and the strengths and limits of each model encourage us give us a well-stocked toolkit rather than a single tool that does not always work. It enables scientists and persons of faith to labor together in the pursuit of truth that is bigger than us mere humans.
The author offers all of this in a readable and entertaining format using illustrations regarding extra-terrestrial life, winning lotteries, the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the universe and the discussion of multiverse theories. Rather than being daunted or defensive about evolutionary biology, for example, allows the dropping of our guards to really learn from each other. Where the models of conflict or independence seem preferable, the stance of intellectual humility allows the room to breathe, to rest, and to learn rather than fight. Rather than offer overly-simplistic “solutions” to understanding the intersection of faith and science, Vukov offers us a way of living in the intersection, often one that runs through the lives of those who are both scientists and persons of faith.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.