Neo-atheist Sam Harris alleges that the faith of Christian geneticist Francis Collins is
Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, a Nobel laureate, and the original head of the Human Genome Project, recently [asserted] in an interview that people of African descent appear to be innately less intelligent than white Europeans. A few sentences, spoken off the cuff, resulted in academic defenestration… Watson’s opinions on race are disturbing, but his underlying point was not, in principle, unscientific… there is, at least, a possible scientific basis for his views. While Watson’s statement was obnoxious, one cannot say that his views are utterly irrational or that, by merely giving voice to them, he has repudiated the scientific worldview and declared himself immune to its further discoveries. Such a distinction would have to be reserved for Watson’s successor at the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins.1
How should one understand and respond to the accusation that Christianity is ‘unscientific’?
The term ‘science’ comes from the Latin scientia, which means ‘knowledge’; a concept that subsumes, and so fails to specify, what contemporary usage means by the word. Indeed, as philosophers Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel observe: ‘Defining science is problematic, to say the least…’2 Bruce L. Gordon reports that ‘There is no consensus among philosophers of science as to what constitutes a proper scientific explanation or what criteria a theory must possess in order to be truly scientific. Despite extensive attempts, criteria that indisputably demarcate science from non-science or pseudo-science have never been offered.’3 Consequently, ‘Philosophers of science are much less optimistic than they were a few decades ago about the possibility of finding any really coherent demarcation criteria.’4 Samir Okasha suggests that:
‘science is a heterogeneous activity, encompassing a wide range of different disciplines and theories. It may be that they share some fixed set of features that define what it is to be a science, but it may not… Wittgenstein argued that there is no fixed set of features that define what it is to be a “game”. Rather, there is a loose cluster of features most of which are possessed by most games. But any particular game may lack any of the features in the cluster and still be a game. The same may be true of science.’52
The question ‘Is x science?’ may be like the question of whether or not a pile of sand is a dune. We can’t say exactly how many grains of sand makes a dune, but that doesn’t stop us distinguishing between a grains of sand on the one hand and a dune on the other. As J.P. Moreland says: ‘One can recognize clear examples of science without a definition… and clear cases of non-science… But these are at opposite ends of a continuum with fuzzy boundaries and several borderline cases.’6 In a rough and ready sense, then, I propose to define ‘science’ as:
• A first-order discipline involving systematic inquiry into the physical world, the primary aim of which is to know (understand, explain and/or predict) as much as we can about physical reality. Whatever else it is, science is a first order discipline (being a first order discipline is a necessary but non-sufficient criterion of being scientific). Questions about the nature of science aren’t scientific questions. Hence science cannot be defined in terms of a commitment to naturalism and it can’t rule out philosophical knowledge about nonphysical realities. Scientists may be committed to naturalism, but science is not. Indeed, science is neither epistemologically nor ontologically omnicompetent; that is, it doesn’t encompass every way of knowing or everything about which we can know. To claim otherwise is self-contradictory. The statement ‘Science is omnicompetent’ isn’t a first order statement of science, but a second order (philosophical) statement about science; one that denies the possibility of second order statements about science!
Christianity is a spirituality; that is:
• A ‘form of life’ or way of relating to reality - to ourselves, to each other, to the world around us and (most importantly) to ultimate reality – via worldview beliefs, attitudes and actions. Jesus’ filled out this generic structure in a specific way when he taught that true spirituality is receiving God’s offer of forgiveness and relationship made in Christ, loving God: ‘with all your heart [i.e. your attitudes] ... and with all your mind [including your worldview], and with all your strength [i.e. your actions]’ and therefore ‘to love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mark 12:30-32, cf. Deuteronomy 6:5):