Slate‘s William Saletan wrote a post about the much-publicized debate between creationist crackpot Ken Ham and Bill “the Science Guy” Nye in which he argued that, while creationism is a “delusion,” it’s largely harmless because people can compartmentalize their wacky theological beliefs and function perfectly well in modern society. They can even work successfully in scientific and technical fields.
He followed this up with a, to me, more interesting post about Jennifer Wiseman, a scientist working on the Hubble telescope project. Dr. Wiseman is not a young-earth creationist like Ham, but she is a Christian who believes in miracles, like the resurrection of Jesus. When asked how she reconciles science with her belief in divine intervention, Dr. Wiseman responded that miracles are
outside of the natural working of the forces of nature, and so science is not equipped to address that one way or the other. Science is equipped to address how things normally and naturally work. So as a scientist, I study the universe in the way it normally and naturally works and has worked throughout the whole history of time. I don’t look for anything else, because my scientific tools are not equipped to measure anything else. But does that mean that nothing outside of the normal, natural physical processes that science can address ever happened or ever does happen? Well, science can’t answer that question.
Saletan calls this “a textbook case of compartmentalized religion” and says that “[y]ou’d have no better luck talking Wiseman out of her belief in the Resurrection than you would talking Ken Ham out of his belief that God breathed life into the first man.”
But I don’t think this is right. “Compartmentalizing” implies a kind of cognitive dissonance, or even a “double-truth” theory of the kind held by some Medieval philosophers. This was the view that a proposition could be true in philosophy but false in religion; they occupied separate domains and could never conflict. At the time, this was an attempt to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy (the best natural science of its day) with Christian doctrine, but it was one that the church ultimately rejected.
Based on her comments, though, I don’t think that’s what Jennifer Wiseman is doing, and I don’t think compartmentalization in Saletan’s sense is necessary for believers. A better way to think about this is that there is an order to the universe that includes but also transcends the order discerned by science. God’s actions, by definition, do not fall under the natural laws that science investigates because God transcends the order that those laws describe. On this view, there’s no intrinsic contradiction in saying that scientific laws describe the “normal” operations of nature but that God may act in ways that exceed them. Common observation tells us that dead people don’t come back to life in the normal run of things; but if “the normal run of things” doesn’t have the last word, so to speak, then such a miracle may be possible. God is the one, after all, who creates and sustains the normal operations of nature, and miracles (if they occur) are expressions of this same Power. There is one reality and one truth, but science only comprehends those aspects of reality which its methods are appropriate to.
Now, just because something can be believed without contradiction doesn’t mean that it’s true, and I haven’t said anything about whether beliefs in a divine order or miracles are justified. But the point is that it’s possible to integrate a scientific and religious view of the world without the kind of epistemic compartmentalizing that would allow something to be scientifically true but religiously false (or vice versa).