Book Review: The Faith of Scientists In Their Own Words

March 01, 2009

Book Review: The Faith of Scientists In Their Own Words


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot

In a sense, each of us is an explorer. As children we ask probing questions: Who am I? Why am I here? As adults, while it is easy to bury questions beneath the hum and buzz of life, even the busiest moments can’t wholly drown out our searching questions. People from all walks of life wonder about the meaning of life; or if there is a God. And, if we live long enough, surely we will contemplate the end of life’s journey. In all these things we ask, we seek, we pursue. We explore the world around us, the worlds above us and the worlds within us in search of answers.

But where do we start this search for, dare I say, ‘truth’? Many people these days seem to start either from the vantage point of faith OR of science, which today are considered to be more foes than friends. The contrast is heightened with the prominence of movements, such as New Atheism, which have fervently set about promoting this seeming great divide. However, there is a point of connection in that faith and science are often perceived to share the common thread of the search for truth. It is in this vein that a recently published book, The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words by Nancy Frankenberry (Ed.), enters as a helpful resource for the layman to approach some of the most fundamental questions in life.

Frankenberry is currently a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, and has published works that include the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of science and feminism. In The Faith of Scientists she has collected the thoughts and opinions of 21 scientists on matters pertaining to what Frankenberry terms ‘faith’, by which she primarily means one’s views on ‘God, religion or the sacred’. Frankenberry has collected various primary source documents from these scientists—letters, interviews, essays and other works.

After a brief introduction by Frankenberry on her purpose and method in collating the anthology, she moves straight into her presentation of the 21 scientists who are divided into two broad categories: ‘Founders of Modern Science’ (Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and A.N. Whitehead) and ‘Scientists of Our Time’ (Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Steven Weinberg, John Polkinghorne, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies, Edward O. Wilson, Stuart A. Kauffman, and Ursula Goodenough). It may be immediately surprising to find the names of prominent atheists in these lists. Indeed, in this book you will find Catholic and Protestant Christians, rational theists, humanists, agnostics, atheists and even what one might term modern-day pantheists. This gives a clear indication of the breadth of Frankenberry’s definition of ‘faith’, although it may be telling that even the atheists sense something beyond themselves.

Each scientist receives his or her own chapter that contains an overview and commentary on the scientist’s life and achievements, a one-paragraph summation of the scientist’s contribution to science, the primary source documents ordered chronologically, which form the bulk of each chapter, and a section for those interested in further reading material. Frankenberry’s introductory comments on each scientist and each section outlining further reading demonstrate her tremendous research and astute insight into the lives and thoughts of the scientists included. I’m almost persuaded that these sections were the most valuable in the book.

In any case, the book is a helpful resource in our search for ‘truth’. It seeks to fill a gap in asking the same sorts of questions we have asked ourselves in solitary moments, but from the perspective of the scientists, who have a certain profundity and eloquence in their asking that helps us clarify our ponderings and reflections on ‘life, the universe, and everything’. Thus, reading The Faith of Scientists is for the most part like learning from an intelligent, albeit opinionated, teacher about matters close to our hearts. The style is largely conversational and learned, although certain scientists come off as dogmatic and confrontational. But even in places where we sharply disagree, we can hone and refine our thinking.  

This book raises important issues. First, I’d agree with those scientists who intimated in one way or another that life without God is ultimately meaningless (e.g. Polkinghorne). From the perspective of atheism, the answers to our childhood questions of identity are dehumanising, stripping individuals of significance. Richard Dawkins tells us that humans are ‘DNA-propagating machines’ and Stephen Jay Gould proclaims that we are ‘a glorious accident’. This futility is sealed by the inevitability of the final destination of all living organisms— including humans—death. As such, what is the point of exploring and searching; what is the point of science?

Furthermore, within the atheistic worldview, there are no objective aesthetic standards. The scientist might say he is pursuing science because of the beauty of either the universe or the process of discovery. But the sense of beauty is both subjective and illusory— nothing more than a series of biochemical reactions which produce a certain sensation in us; the projection of our own feelings onto the universe.

Worst of all, as many philosophers have argued, a universe without God would entail that morality does not exist. Yes, we have a sense of right and wrong actions, but, according to naturalistic atheism, this sense is merely an evolutionary by-product of ensuring the survival and propagation of the human species.

We care for others, not because it is good or right, but because it helps ensure our survival. When survival of the species becomes the final arbiter, we have no choice but to accept an ‘anything goes’ approach to morality. In short, an atheistic universe entails personal meaninglessness, aesthetic relativism and subjective morality; life is absurd.

On the other hand, if there is a God, then not only is there reason to explore, to search for ‘truth’, but truth itself makes everything else reasonable. The existence of God grounds objective morality as well as aesthetic beauty, since morality and beauty are based in God’s eternal, unchanging holiness and beauty. And the existence of God gives our lives meaning, since we live for his glory. As C.S. Lewis famously said, ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’ Truth is restorative, restoring to us the proper view of ourselves and the universe around us as well.

Second, this book raises questions about where we can find ultimate, restorative truth. I was impressed with the amazing discoveries of the 21 scientists, as well as scientific progress overall. And the Bible certainly tells us that the whole of creation declares the wisdom and power of God—that God’s glory is seen in the vast beauty of the starry hosts above and the multifaceted intricacies of the molecular worlds below (e.g. Psalm 19; Romans 1:19-20). But this only goes so far. If knowledge of ultimate truth comes through knowing God, not just knowing his works, then we must focus our exploration on the one who stands behind the natural world. We can appreciate God by the study of his creation in science, but we cannot know him as the living God by the same means. For us to know God, I believe, we must know him as he has revealed himself through his Word, the Bible, where we see and meet the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate—God in his greatest glory. In the words of Blaise Pascal: ‘He can only be found in the ways taught in the Gospel.’

It is for this reason that, while The Faith of Scientists serves as a useful aid in mapping out some of the roads before us in our journey and search for truth, it certainly won’t do as the final word. I would recommend this book for the explorer in all of us—whether we think we’ve found what we’re looking for, or are still searching—but with the colossal caveat that even the best and brightest scientific minds can’t answer all our questions. It serves as a valuable starting point, but as a Christian I see futility in science for the sake of science. I’d want to present the biblical worldview that points us to our creative God who stands behind science and makes science much more interesting. For this reason I would recommend Redeeming Science: A God- Centered Approach (Crossway Books, 2006, 384pp) by Vern Poythress, which offers an exegetically-grounded and fairly comprehensive Christian perspective on science.

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