Fruitful Coexistence

I think that science and belief in God or an intelligent designer can peacefully, even fruitfully coexist. There have been leading scientists who maintained religious belief and even considered their work to be an investigation into the mind of God, but did not invoke God in their scientific explanations. (I should note, however, that the majority of leading scientists apparently are not religious, and have not been since at least 1914, according to the surveys published in Nature (Larson and Witham 1998).)

The great scientist I have in mind is not Albert Einstein. Sometimes one finds his name invoked as a scientist who spoke of God more than once, and who therefore must have been a believer. Yet Einstein was a confirmed atheist; when he spoke of God, he apparently did not have a personal God in mind, but rather a tremendous awe of the beauty of the world insofar as it was revealed by science.

The man I have in mind is actually James Clerk Maxwell, who was a brilliant mathematician and physicist, a devoted husband, and a very religious man. One only has to read his personal correspondence with his wife to see that he was a devout believer in God. But from the devout believer, we find the following statement about the aim of science:

All the mathematical sciences are founded on relations between physical laws and laws of numbers, so that the aim of exact science is to reduce the problems of nature to the determination of quantities by operations with numbers.
(Maxwell 1856)
Somewhat at odds with that statement is the following passage written by Maxwell in a letter to the Victoria Society, as it is quoted in Natural Philosophy: A Survey of Physics and Western Thought by David W. Snoke (2003) who cites Campbell and Garnett (1882).
I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that this view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of.
Yet the full context of the quote makes clear that what Maxwell said is not at odds with the previous quote. The passage is actually from a rough draft of a letter politely refusing an invitation to join the Victoria Institute:
SIR-I do not think it my duty to become a candidate for admission into the Victoria Institute. Among the objects of the Society are some of which I think very highly. I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of. But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society. For it is of the nature of science, especially of those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions to be continually-[here the MS. ends].
(Campbell and Garnett 1882, 196)
(Snoke's book in which the out-of-context quotation appears is intended to be an introductory physics textbook which includes 'many fairly advanced topics of philosophy and Christian theology.'. The Access Reseach Network, which publishes the book, is currently engaged in publicizing the ideas of Intelligent Design theorists and their attacks on Evolutionary Theory which they call 'Darwinism'.)

Particularly illuminating is an exchange in letters between Maxwell and C. J. Ellicott, the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol. The Bishop inquires about the possibility asserted by someone that 'the last work in science' might explain a conundrum in the Bible: that light is created before the sun. Maxwell first carefully shows how far his work is compatible and how far incompatible with this assertion. But then he says:

But I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis, even if by so doing it got rid of the old statement of the commentators which has long ceased to be intelligible. The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.

At the same time I think that each individual man should do all he can to impress his own mind with the extent, the order, and the unity of the universe, and should carry these ideas with him as he reads such passages as the 1st Chap. of the Ep. to Colossians. . .
(Campbell and Garnett 1882, 191)

MIT Professor Ian Hutchinson (1998) has given an excellent seminar talk on the life of Maxwell. In it Hutchinson describes both the scientific side and the personal, religious side of the great scientist with loving detail. Here is his analysis of the full exchange between Maxwell and the Bishop:
Thus Maxwell penetratingly criticizes the misuse of partial scientific knowledge to interpret scripture, let alone to shore up faith by supposed harmonization with the latest science. He has no need of scientific 'proofs' of Christianity. Instead, his expressed concern is that ill-judged linking of specific scientific theories with religion will be an impediment to the growth of science. And his emphasis, in relating science and faith, is in science's enhancement of our wonder at the glory of creation. Certainly a much more enduring theme than the aether [whose existence was posited in Maxwell's work], which has long since been discarded!
This concludes the line of argument; you are through the IDC Sieve. You may start over at The Introduction, or proceed to the feedback page.

Introduction Natural Processes or Not? Operating Not Within Natural Processes Operating Within Natural Processes No Evolution Construing Evidence in Favor of Fine-Tuning Empirical Doubts About Evolution Proof of Design Unlikely Hypothesis Likelihood Likelihood of Design Likelihood of Fine-Tuning Why Not Evolution or Chance? Supernatural Explanation in Science

© David Montalvo 2004
updated 3-22-04