Analogizing Faith vs Science

Imagine yourself standing on a field in the midst of a game as you stare down at a solid white line in the grass. The ball is at your feet, your teammates and opponents several yards away, and the crowd is completely behind you, waiting with bated breath to see what you will do next. Will you be the hero and lead your team to victory? Time is running out, your opponents are moving fast, you only have seconds to make the right move or it might be too late. What do you do?

The answer, of course depends on what game you are playing and where you are standing on the field. If you’re standing at your opponent’s goal in soccer with the ball at your feet, the correct answer is to kick the ball over the line and score the game winning goal. If you’ve fumbled the football to the back of the opponent’s end zone, you better not kick it past the line or they’ll get the ball back and kneel out the clock; pick the ball up, score the touchdown, be the hero. If you’re a left fielder reaching to pick up a fair ball while your opponent sprints for home, you better pick up the ball and make the throw to the plate. Given long enough, I could probably name a thousand possibilities that fit this bare bones scenario, but just a few will suffice to make the point. You can never know what to do next without knowing the game you are playing.

The ability to know and study the physical world (science) is like the ability to say that there really is a ball and there really is a line on the ground. You could do complex studies and deep analysis of the composition and weight and movement of the ball, and doing so might very well help you understand the best way to do what comes next; but if you simply hold onto the baseball or pick up the soccer ball or kick the football, you still lose the game.

Having faith is like knowing the rules of the game. It’s the type of knowledge that allows us to see any particular thing or action in the context of the game called life that we think we are playing. You have to know the meaning of the line and ball if you are to have any realistic hope of doing the right thing when you see them. Conversely, knowing the finer points of the rules and strategy of the game doesn’t guarantee victory – sometimes overthinking strategy makes it harder to simply score the goal/get a touchdown/throw the out.

This analogy of the relationship between science and faith implies at least three things:

1) To think of science and faith as opposites is to misunderstand the nature and role of each. Neither the particular items involved in a game nor the game itself have any meaning or make any sense without each other. And the contingent nature of human knowledge combine with the limitations of human rationality to guarantee that we never know for sure where the line is between the what (the concrete objects or actions we experience) and the why (the game we think we’re playing) of the world. Put differently, we can’t step back far enough to guarantee knowledge of what the game is nor can we zoom in close enough to figure out the game from perfectly understanding the building blocks of nature. But we also can’t play the game without some willingness to explore and understand the field in which the game of life takes place.

2) Treating faith and doubt like the difference between knowledge and ignorance is a categorical mistake. A better analogy is to ask if you see the world like a baseball, football, or soccer player. You could of course be wrong, but your error is not in what you see and experience as much as it is in the point of what you’re doing on the field. And to have faith or not isn’t nearly a yes or no question – it can take a lifetime of training to be any good at it even if you do understand the rules. Conversely, there isn’t much point in drawing lines between those who know the game and don’t because we can’t know enough about the game to know where a meaningful line would be. The choice is not one of deciding who is playing the ‘right’ game or playing ‘well enough’ – our choice is deciding whether or not to teach and learn from others the game we all think we’re playing.

3) To assume that we could ever act or think about the what (science) in distinction from the why (faith) is to misunderstand the nature of human life. There is no way to say what the world is without implications for how we understand what life is and is for. But there is no way to make a claim about what life is and is for without implying something about how we ought to view and understand the lived realities of the world. Thus, so many of our conversations pitting science against faith devolve into incoherent drivel. What we need more than anything else in this arena is the epistemic humility to see that neither faith nor science could mean what they mean without the presence of the other.


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