Isn’t Science More Rational than Faith?
by Alister McGrath
One of the core arguments of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion is that religious faith is irrational. “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument,” he opines. Faith is a “process of non-thinking”, which is “evil precisely because it requires no justification, and brooks no argument”.
This is typical of Dawkins’ swashbuckling style, which mingles overheated rhetoric with a scant regard for evidence and accuracy. So let’s look at things in a little more detail.
Everyone agrees that science is one of the most secure forms of knowledge we possess. How do we know that the chemical formula for water is H2O? How do we know the structure of DNA? The answer is simple: because that’s what the scientific evidence tells us. I don’t think anyone will quibble with this.
Dawkins is right to praise the sciences for their ability to give clear, reliable answers to some important questions, such as “how is genetic information transmitted?” So far, so good. But look at another question: “What is the meaning of life?” This is clearly an important question. But can science answer it? Dawkins’ answer is that science discloses no meaning to life – and therefore that there is no meaning to life. But is he right?
Let’s look at some wise words written by Peter Medawar, one of Oxford’s most brilliant scientists, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on immunology. In a book titled The Limits of Science, Medawar reflects on the question of how the scope of science is limited by the nature of reality. Emphasising that “science is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon”, he distinguishes between what he calls “transcendent” questions, which have to be answered by religion and metaphysics, and questions about the organisation and structure of the material universe.
With regard to the latter, he argues, there are no limits to the possibilities of scientific achievement. He thus agrees with Dawkins – but only by defining and limiting the domain within which the sciences possess such competency.
The Limits of Science
So what of other questions? What about the question of God? Or of whether there is purpose within the universe? As if pre-empting Dawkins’ brash and simplistic take on the sciences, Medawar suggests that scientists need to be cautious about their pronouncements on these matters, lest they lose the trust of the public by confident and dogmatic overstatements…
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