Robert Mixa responds to Lawrence Krauss's recent article in Scientific American
which makes the popular claim that religion and science are at odds. Read below for Mixa's fact-filled rebuttal.
The myth that science and religion are irreconcilable is a hardy perennial among contemporary “intellectuals.” Lawrence Krauss’s recent article in Scientific American (“Faith and Foolishness
,” August, 2010) is just one more example of the trend.
Dismayed by the perpetuation of this myth, I sent a link of the article to my friend, who is working on his PhD in philosophy. Since his dissertation research deals extensively with the philosophy of science, he was able to give me a lot of insight into the problems with Krauss’s argument.
As we discussed the article, we began to realize that Krauss’s construal of all religion as fundamentalism is, in fact, itself a fundamentalism which is not capable of understanding the unique Catholic synthesis of Faith and Reason, and which arrives at its anti-religious conclusions through selective use of evidence.
Nevertheless, Krauss’s article does raise a legitimate issue: many Christians, particularly fundamentalist Protestants, reject scientific evidence for the big bang and biological evolution. The statistics he produces demonstrate the high rate at which religious believers reject scientific evidence about the origins of the universe and human life. But Catholics are not fundamentalists.
From a Catholic perspective, evolution and the big bang are non-threatening so long as they do not deny God as creator and author of both the world and Scripture. Accordingly, if our interpretation of Scripture conflicts with reliable evidence about the world, we should be willing to re-examine our interpretation of Scripture, rather than just rejecting science (and at times attacking scientists). But Krauss doesn’t want to admit this since it defies his simplistic narrative of science vs. religion.
Krauss's presentation of the evidence is as one-sided as that of the fundamentalist believers he criticizes. Consider the case of the big bang. Krauss is a professor of physics. It is not unreasonable to expect a professor of physics to know important figures in the development of the big bang theory. Here, however, is a piece of evidence that would be an embarrassment to Krauss’s thesis: the big bang theory was originally put forward by Georges Lemaître
, a Jesuit priest.
Lemaître recognized that if Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct, then the universe must be expanding. At the time Lemaître put forward this theory, however, Einstein himself was so committed to the idea of a steady-state universe that he had modified the general theory of relativity by introducing the idea of a “cosmological constant” into his equations, in order to avoid the obvious conclusion that the universe was expanding (and therefore had a beginning at some point in the finite past). Einstein later recognized this as a blunder on his part. Still, it took the scientific world as a whole nearly 40 years to fully embrace Lemaître’s original insight about the expanding universe.
By ignoring Lemaître’s contribution to contemporary scientific knowledge, however, Krauss can paint a much simpler picture of the supposed conflict between “science vs. religion.” Ironically, by ignoring important evidence that contradicts his thesis, he practices the same kind of intellectually bankrupt selective attention to evidence practiced by, for example, “creation scientists.”
Krauss’s attack on Bishop Olmstead reveals a different blind spot. In the last several centuries, science has made enormous strides in understanding the world around us, and given us unprecedented power. There was a time of naïve optimism when people believed that scientific progress would eventually bring about a kind of utopia. These dreams, however, have led to bitter disappointments. Modern science gained power over nature much faster than it gained the wisdom to know how and when to use that power. The fundamental advances in physics that gave new insight into the origin of the universe also enabled us to create nuclear weapons capable of wiping out the entire population of the planet. The new insights into biological processes that have enabled us to understand human origins and fight disease have also enabled the creation of biological super-weapons that, if unleashed, could infect and kill millions. The ability to exploit our resources to create the convenience and comforts of modern life has driven many species to extinction, filled land, air, and water with pollutants, and threatens to cause massive global climate change. And now we are also faced with the prospect of increasingly powerful genetic manipulation—the possibility of recreating ourselves.
In 2004, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger engaged in a public dialogue with philosopher Jürgen Habermas on the role of religion in public life. Ratzinger pointed to this ambiguity in the achievements of science, and argued that scientific reason alone is not enough to guide the application of scientific knowledge and technique. Krauss may disagree with Bishop Olmstead that an unborn child is a human person, or may believe that unborn persons do not have the same rights as adults. But this is not a purely scientific question. Science can tell us about the development of the embryo—and from the biological perspective, an unborn child is clearly a self-organizing, living organism from the moment of conception. But it takes more than biochemistry to fully grasp the moral status of any human being, including the unborn. In arguing that it is wrong to kill an unborn child, Bishop Olmstead is not rejecting any genuine scientific discovery. He is attempting to remind doctors that just because they have perfected the technique for performing an operation does not make it good to do so.
Ethics must grapple with hard cases, and here we are dealing with a hard case. The mother's condition made it likely that, without an abortion, she would die. Thus, in order to save the mother's life, it seemed to be necessary to end the life of her unborn child. Sister McBride helped arrange for this to be done. Suppose, however, that we vary the case slightly: suppose that the mother's illness was as likely to be fatal, but an operation existed that would make it possible to kill her six-year-old child, and extract from the child some tissues which could be used to save the mother's life. In both of these cases, the deliberate killing of the child is a means to the good end of saving the mother’s life. But, would Krauss think that in both cases, only a monster could invoke the principle, “The mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s”?
Krauss may not think that the unborn child has the same rights as a six-year-old (it is, unfortunately, all too easy to ignore the moral claims of those we cannot see). But this is not a scientific conclusion. If Krauss thinks that science alone is enough, then he is blind to the dangers of science unguided by well-grounded ethical judgments.
Krauss is right to point out that religious irrationality has caused great harm. Christians and other religious believers should not close themselves off to the findings of science. The world is God's creation and in certain ways, it reveals the signature of its creator. If God is the author of both the world and the Scriptures, then any interpretation of the Scriptures which is in conflict with well-established truths about the world must involve a misunderstanding. And examples like that of Lemaître remind us that it is possible to be both a deeply committed Christian and a creative and original scientist.
On the other hand, if religious believers should be accountable to science, scientists also wield enormous power in the modern world, and should be held accountable for the way they use that power. It is not irrational religious belief that has given us oil spills, chemicals in our drinking water, the possibility of nuclear winter, holes in the ozone layer, or the likelihood of disastrous global climate change. Those are the fruit of scientific exploitation conducted without adequate attention to long-term consequences of scientific knowledge and power.
The Catholic tradition—which has always insisted that science cannot be divided from ethics, and that faith cannot be separated from reason—is in a unique position to inform constructive discussion of this mutual accountability.
Robert Mixa is a Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.