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Science, faith and certainty

August 30th, 2011

In many people’s minds, there is no argument. Science is based on evidence and can give us close to certainty; faith is not based on anything and is a delusion – believers may say they are certain but they cannot be.

But there is a problem for this view – what do we make of top scientists who also believe in God?

John Polkinghorne is an eminent British particle physicist (i.e. he studied and researched quantum physics – the science of the fundamental particles that make up atoms). He was professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University and had a role in the discovery of the quark particle.

But at age 50 he left science to become a minister of the Church of England, a chaplain and a writer on science and religion. I can recommend two of his books – Science and Christian Belief and Exploring Reality.

Science and Certainty

Polkinghorne argues that science’s conclusions are not as certain as some people may think, but nevertheless sufficient to draw reasonable conclusions. For example, we cannot see quarks, but it is reasonable to believe they are there. “We don’t believe in quarks because we’ve seen them” says physicist Stephen Weinberg, “We believe in quarks because the theories that have quarks in them work.” The same could be said for gravity.

Faith and certainty

According to his biographer, Dean Nelson, Polkinghorne believes in God in the same way he believes in quarks – the theories that have God in them work. He says of belief in God:

It’s a reasonable position, but not a knock-down argument. It’s strong enough to bet my life on it….. I give my life to it, but I’m not certain. Sometimes I’m wrong.

Can we compare the evidence for quarks and God?

While there are similarities (neither can be seen but their effects can be seen), there are also differences. The evidence for quarks is measurable and repeatable, whereas the evidence for God is not so directly available. Scientific unbelievers scoff at the comparison, but believers argue that knowing God is not just knowing facts but also about knowing a person.

And so the arguments go on. But I’m with Polkinghorne. I see no reason to be afraid of not being certain, but I see sufficient reason to believe.

One Comment

  1. […] Atheists sometimes characterise christians as people who believe in myths and magic, based on faith, which is the opposite of reason. I think this can be shown to generally be a mis-characterisation (see Is faith the opposite of reason? and Science, faith and certainty). […]

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