Do Faith and Science Contradict?: Interview with Catholic Physicist Dominique Lambert
Prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins have consistently chastised religion for thwarting scientific research. But Professor Dominique Lambert, a respected expert in theoretical physics and the philosophy of science at the University of Namur, Belgium, believes not only does the Catholic faith, when correctly applied, not hinder science, but gives it vital intelligibility, meaning, and purpose.
In this interview, Professor Lambert speaks about the necessity of a harmonious relationship between faith and science and why the Catholic faith is best equipped to provide it.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by your assertion that only with faith is it possible to give complete intelligibility to science?
Lambert: In this dialogue, we have to say first of all that I cannot extract from science some theological point of view. In other words, science is producing many questions—rational and coherent questions—which are beyond the scope of its own methods. For example, the question of the ultimate foundation of existence, the meaning and history of existence—life, values, questions of a metaphysical and ethical nature—these are in fact produced by scientific activity but cannot be solved within the borders of scientific method.
Q: But atheists will insist that science can offer all the answers. Why is this not so?
Lambert: Because methodologically, science puts into brackets this question of meaning, the foundation [of existence]. The source of the existence is not solved by science because science presupposes this assumption, but rationally you need some explanation. For example, you can say: “I believe the world is a source of existence” or I can say, “Rationally, no, the existence of the world is received from a cause that is external to the world.” So you have a rational question but the answer cannot be formed because of methodological reasons. Intelligibility in fact needs some other explanation than this.
[With the Christian faith] you can shed some light on scientific findings. You can discover that many questions of a foundational value of meaning can receive some kind of intelligibility coming from this source of intelligibility. If you start from point of view of a believer, then you can get some coherent answer, with an increase in intelligibility. This point of view respects science completely, because you don’t modify science and you don’t try to extract from science that which is not science. You respect its autonomy, but you shed some light on it, [giving] an answer and an increase in intelligibility.
This is important. It’s not straightforward because we can, for example, adopt a religious position but one which will decrease the intelligibility of the world. But, in fact, we can prove that Christian belief is not like this. The Catholic tradition, for example, can shed some light and provide some elements as answers to fundamental questions, completely respecting the autonomy of science while at the same time increasing the intelligibility of science.
Q: You say that Richard Dawkins and other such atheist scientists try, in their own way, to offer a metaphysical perspective to science, but this doesn’t work. Could you explain more?
Lambert: His [Dawkins’] way of looking at religion, his way of giving to science some metaphysical power, does not respect the epistemological level of science. In fact, he is giving to science some metaphysical power that science does not possess. I respect his point of view, but we can in fact show that Dawkins gives to science some non-scientific powers.
Q: You also have observed a common trait among Nobel Prize winners in science, that they almost always write about philosophy after receiving their awards. Why is this and what does it say about science and faith?
Lambert: This is, for me, a clue that science is not self-sufficient. Many, many great scientists are writing books on their activities, but books which are in fact philosophical works. This is normal, but it’s important to look at this phenomenon, because it shows us that in fact science cannot be self-sufficient. Science produces metaphysical questions and, in fact, great scientists tend to solve these problems. This is normal because their scientific activities produce these questions.
The problem is to believe that these solutions belong to science, or to believe that a philosophical solution is given immediately by science. It’s not true. We cannot say biology leads to atheism because we cannot extract from science something that is not scientific. But we can say, for example, that a religious, theological point of view can illuminate scientific research and can help to extract some coherent meaning.
We have to realize that sometimes it doesn’t work. For example, I can assume some theological point of view, and I realize it can be completely incoherent with the scientific research. Take American creationism in the literal sense: if we adopt this point of view we will discover it does not respect the contents of contemporary biology—there is a kind of contradiction and it doesn’t work. But in the Catholic Church, we have a theology of creation whose point of view respects evolution and so on completely, but gives to evolution an additional meaning which is not directly present in the scientific research but that scientific research is coherent with this point of view.
Q: It is therefore essentially about respecting philosophical and Christian methods, allowing the two to come together?
Lambert: Yes, and both are articulated without any confusion and without destroying the link completely, because it is important, on the one hand, to methodologically distinguish the levels. But it is important on the other hand to unify them by a kind of articulation which is not concordism [the practice of identifying a scientific fact or theory with a particular phrase or passage in the Bible].
Q: You also talk about faith giving hope to science. Could you explain more?
Lambert: If we are believers or atheists, we are carrying out the same science, but a religious attitude can change the way we do science. Of course, your ethics, your ontological perspective is influenced by your theological point of view or religious attitude, and this gives you a kind of optimism. Msgr. Georges Lemaître, who discovered the Big Bang theory, said that science is the same for atheists and believers, but religious beliefs give you a nice optimism and hope, hope in the enigma of the universe as a solution. Of course, it doesn’t change the science, but it gives you an optimism of hope and maybe it changes, not science, but your life.
Q: Would you say it also gives life to research?
Lambert: Yes, it gives you some meaning to your scientific life, a sense of your scientific practice and action. You can have other nice motivations, but faith gives you a nice impulse and realization that all of this world has a deep meaning to be discovered. That is the solution to the enigma, as Msgr. Lemaître said.
I would also like to emphasize that, regarding the relationship between science and faith, it is important to avoid two kinds of problems: those coming from concordism and discordism. We need to avoid them and instead need some kind of articulation. In fact, in the Catholics tradition we have this quest for articulation because we have the nice tradition of fides et ratio [faith and reason], intellectus quaerens fidem [seeking to understand faith], and fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding]. The First Vatican Council condemned rationalism—that is, reason alone without faith—but also fideism, faith without reason. It’s very nice to realize that in the Catholic tradition we have such a dynamic articulation between fides et ratio. I think this tradition proffers absolute respect but without breaking the autonomy of science and theology.
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