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Forced compatability serves neither science nor religion

July 10, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Kathleen Parker ("In God and Darwin We Trust," Tuesday, May 12, page A4) probably imagines she has helped to resolve the apparent incompatibility of belief in God and an acceptance of Darwinian biology.

She does this by her praise for Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist and professed fundamentalist Christian who writes and lectures about his conviction he can make a case for the mutual compatibility between the world of science and the domain of faith. Their claims of success are premature.

Dr. Collins writes, "One can believe in both God and science. In fact, the latter (science) does more to prove the existence of a creator than not." This claim would be unacceptable to most scientists who hold that science is silent when it comes to unseen and unknowable metaphysical entities. As presented by Ms. Parker, Dr. Collins uses very imprecise language in order to get the appearance of harmony that might not exist.

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"Science and faith," "science and religion," "science and God" and "science and theology" are shifted and blurred without the clarity required to sort out the issues involved. Moreover, there is a lack of depth in Dr. Collins' understanding of the philosophy of science that comes about when a fundamentalist mentality attempts to cope with the assumptions, methods and attitudes that are a part of science.

Dr. Collins is clearly a nice person who wishes to offer hope and security to those who find the implications of a Darwinian perspective unattractive. There are many qualified clergy who are happy to do this, but it is not the function of scientists. They are involved in an objective approach of observation, experimentation and verification of the world in which we live.

It is evident every person on this planet can claim to have reached a state of harmony in some combination of religious values and the various statements of scientists about natural events. But these personal beliefs cannot be expected to trump or void the findings of science. Even scientists are known to have held beliefs considered to be at variance with facts. Sir Isaac Newton, an intellectual giant, is reported to have had some unorthodox beliefs. However, Newton surely separated his science from his beliefs.

One cannot ignore the contradictions inherent in Dr. Collins' simultaneous acceptance of natural causation required by science and the belief in miracles reported in both books of the Bible. This would also permit him to practice medical science and diagnose a patient as possessed by demons. His thinking is held together by the glue of good will and collapses under even casual inspection.

If Dr. Collins really wants to help people understand issues between science and faith, he could start by explaining how we can better communicate about these two distinctively different realms of our experience. It all begins with an understanding of sentence purpose.

All human experience can be transmitted to others by way of three kinds of sentences. First, there are sentences of fact. The truth value of such sentences is determined by the ability to confirm or disconfirm the claims of fact made in these sentences. If the facts support the claims made, those qualified to judge will accept the claim and it will remain so until other facts require an alteration or rejection.

The second kind of sentence is one of logic. Statements of logic cannot violate accepted rules of reasoning such as the principle of noncontradiction. "All bachelors are unmarried males" is a logical statement. It would be unacceptable to then add some are married. Internal consistency is a requirement of valid thinking.

The third kind of sentences are statements of emotion. They represent opinions about faith, values and personal preferences. They cannot be tested for factual accuracy. Standards of morality and judgments about the beautiful and the ugly are included. If one is convinced dandelions are the most beautiful flower in the yard, it is their opinion, but carries no factual weight beyond their private acceptance.

We, as citizens, would be well-served if we became proficient in sorting out the sentences presented to us by public officials and those in the persuasive arts. We could then determine the truth value of the sentences they put forward. Looking for factual support, logical consistency or purely personal opinion would be helpful in determining the merits of their claims. Each could then more clearly define delicate issues such as the proper relationship of science to religion.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College

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