Scepticism & belief in science & faith

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Chris Mulherin

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Out of Time by Alice Popkorn, flickr cc

The battle between sceptics and believers is hotting up. One side says it’s all hogwash – a story foisted upon us by credulous people who need certainty in their lives and a cause to believe in. Our responsibility, they say, is to ignore the doomsayers and get on with our lives. The other side says that, while there is no ultimate proof, belief arises logically as the best explanation of the evidence. They say that in the absence of a better theory, we are morally obliged to heed the precautionary principle and commit ourselves to the cause.

As a typically discerning reader of SPC, you will realise that I’m playing with ambiguity in such talk of scepticism, belief, and morality. Are we talking of climate science or religious faith?

Belief in humanly-caused climate change shares many characteristics with religious belief, a similarity that makes a lie of the claim that science and faithful belief are incompatible. And it is incorrect to suppose that science deals only in proofs and certainties and is a source of incontestable knowledge; the history of science is littered with ‘scientific’ beliefs once held to be true and now considered to be false.

I suggest that belief in Jesus Christ as God incarnate is a truth claim similar in many ways to belief in humanly induced global warming: both beliefs claim to be true about the things of which they speak; both beliefs are arrived at based on certain sorts of evidence; both arise from rigorous thinking within a community of enquirers; both are contested (for the moment) and healthy dissent is welcomed; both are fallible and incapable of offering ‘final proofs’ to the committed sceptic; both beliefs can waver in a physical or emotional ‘cold snap’; and both have consequences that matter a great deal. I will resist the temptation to draw conclusions, scientific or theological, about the hot place we might find ourselves in if we ignore the warnings!

In addition to these similarities, climate change and Christian faith are also intertwined at the moral level. In fact Christians have more deeply founded reasons for mitigating the effects of climate change than a secular worldview allows for. But that’s a provocative claim that we won’t tackle here. Meanwhile, this article is in two parts: firstly, it offers a brief background to the climate debate and secondly, it makes some connections between climate science and Christian faith.

The climate wars

If you aren’t up to speed on the climate debate, the gist is this: certain gases in the atmosphere act as an insulating blanket around the earth; they trap heat in a similar manner to the glass walls of a greenhouse. Life on earth depends on this ‘greenhouse effect’; without our terrestrial blanket the earth would be a perpetually uninhabitable glacial desert. So far so good—at least for the millennia prior to the industrial revolution. But human industrial capacity produces greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, which contribute to the effectiveness of the insulating blanket.

So the fundamental question at the heart of the climate debate is this: how significant is the human contribution to global warming? This is the key question tackled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which, since 1988, has collated the research of thousands of scientists under the auspices of the United Nations.

Climate sceptics (or contrarians or, in the extreme, deniers) doubt that human activities have a significant influence on global climate. On the other hand, believers accept the opinion of the IPCC that it is probable we humans are contributing significantly to a dangerous increase in global temperatures. The stakes are enormous and we proceed with business as usual at our peril; while the evidence does not amount to certain proof, it is beyond reasonable doubt and leaves no room for delay.

Climate science & Christian faith

Let’s turn now to connections between climate science and Christian faith. On the one hand, it is clear that theology and science are not examining the same objects; they pursue truth in different realms and they use different methods to arrive at their conclusions. But notwithstanding these differences, there are many similarities in the way science and theology go about their business.

In the first place, both climate science and Christianity claim to be true about the things of which they speak. While doubts or lack of certainty remain, both science and Christian faith make claims that are either true or false. It is either true or false that humans are causing significant changes to the global climate; it is either true or false that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and participated in the creation of the universe. But neither of these claims can be proven to be true or false; both are beliefs held with varying degrees of confidence.

Secondly, both scientific and Christian beliefs are based on evidence—neither consists of irrational or blind belief. Science, for the most part, focuses on the empirical evidence of the senses. It weighs up evidence using a number of foundational or ‘pre-scientific’ assumptions about the order and rationality of the universe, as well as the human ability to know that universe. And wherever possible science turns to experiment to test its conclusions. On the other hand, Christianity, like historical or moral reasoning for example, does not rely on repeatable experiments in order to make its case. But, just as history and philosophy have their own traditions and norms of enquiry, so too theology is a rigorous discipline.

Part of its rigour arises from the fact that Christian thought, like climate science, is a collaborative effort based on networks of mutual trust. No one person can master any serious field of enquiry. Thousands of scientists contribute to the climate discussion, each one an expert in their own field. But they have to trust the judgements of others with whom they collaborate in order to contribute to the overall IPCC ‘opinion’. So too, no theologian or biblical scholar or philosopher of religion can hope to master any but their own small corner of ‘the knowledge of God.’

Within both areas of enquiry there is also room for dissent and a healthy questioning that challenges the accepted norms in a way that strengthens the edifice of belief—either by confirming it or by showing where some beliefs are found wanting and ought to be rejected. It is true that there is more diversity of belief concerning ‘the God question’, but that is not surprising given that the moral and personal stakes are higher, the evidence is less tangible, and the subject matter is further from the everyday experience of the senses. And whether it’s science or theology, not only can the evidence be interpreted in different ways (which it often is), but even working out what constitutes significant evidence as opposed to irrelevant ‘noise’ is an interpretive judgement.

Finally, this room for dissent means that neither set of beliefs is capable of offering ‘final proofs’ to the committed sceptic. Renowned scientist, Michael Polanyi, describes scientific belief in a way equally appropriate to religious belief; it is about achieving “a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivably be false.”This lack of ultimate proof is found in the reports of the IPCC, which speak of degrees of likelihood, reflecting the fact that any scientific statement is, in the final analysis, the considered judgement of fallible human beings. In the words of physicist Richard Feynman, “scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

The climate sceptic, along with many who are sceptical about religious belief, assumes that reasons must be so overwhelming that the believer is left no possibility for doubt. But climate science, like Christianity, can always be questioned further and no amount of evidence will convince the true non-believer. The end to unbelief only comes when my considered opinion is that I have heard enough and that a conclusion is warranted—when I choose to believe what I know could conceivably be false.

Chris Mulherin is on the board of SPC, and works part time for ISCAST.org (Christians in Science), while completing a doctorate on science and theology. An edited version of this article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican February 2013.

 

 

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