Science, faith, and cognitive dissonance

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).

6 thoughts on “Science, faith, and cognitive dissonance

  1. Thanks for your article- I definitely agree that it is not necessary to entirely compartmentalize science and religion. I think that as we look for the order of the universe that you talked about, as well as the order discerned by science, we are able to find the whole truth. One of my friends, Teppo, wrote an article about how science and religion work together for him here I think you might enjoy it and I would love to hear your thoughts on his observations. Thanks and I look forward to hearing what you think.

  2. Barbara

    It’s funny, I suppose, but I most often think of “miracles” as simply extreme examples – way out on the end of the bell curve, I guess – of ordinary occurrences.

    So I look at the Resurrection and say: “Well, people get revived after having been declared dead pretty much all the time; this event was just an extended version of that kind of thing. All the right conditions were in place for this to happen; maybe Jesus was revived by a freak electrical charge or something.” (Really!) The same with the Virgin Birth: I mean, we already know there’s such a thing as parthenogenesis in nature – and we know there are intersexed human beings, too; what’s really so crazy, given that knowledge, about a woman becoming pregnant without having sex? Surely it could happen – couldn’t it?

    What really strikes me as strange is that people calmly accept the weirdest ideas all the time: dark matter, “spooky action at a distance,” cosmological constants (!), eleven-dimensional “branes” as the cause of our universe, the square root of -1 – yet they spit out their coffee at the idea of these (to me) far less fanciful ideas.

    I kind of think of all the Biblical stuff as bends in the fabric of the universe or something. And really: there are hardly any of them, when you come right down to it – and all of them involve basic, homely kinds of things: birth, healing, food, wine, death. Jesus could have zapped his enemies with lightning bolts from his eyes – or granted people three wishes, or pulled rubies out of the ground. But, no: he dealt with human beings and everyday issues.

    I mean: Christians aren’t claiming that people rise from the dead every day; they’re claiming that it happened once. (Well, twice, I guess – or maybe 3/4 times, if you count Peter and Paul and whatever happened there.) And once (or twice, or four times) in 13 billion years seems about the right odds, to me.


    The laws of the universe were simply bent a little while Jesus was here, towards the end of the scale – but they sprang back once he ascended. Anyway: with God all things are possible – and perhaps this is the real message. To get people to back off their rigidity and to accept that marvelous things can be possible….

    Good post!

  3. Barbara

    (Or, Jesus could simply have been in a different dimension once he rose: the dimension of the Resurrection of the Dead.

    Most people in the dimension of the Resurrection of the Dead aren’t visible, though; that would be confusing for everybody. But Jesus was, due to the odd atmospheric conditions at the time – or due to the bend in the fabric of the universe.

    Look, stuff like this happened on Star Trek all the time…. 😉 )

  4. Pingback: Weekend Reads | I Think I Believe

  5. Great post. I am in agreement with you – things seen and unseen.
    I do believe cognitive dissonance theory can help us understand chapters of church history, however, and that it should be a lens we should be using in order to understand the past.

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