University News

U. talk examines science-religion interplay

Discussion explores the ways in which religious beliefs, atheism can affect scientific research

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2015

Believing in God makes practicing science more fulfilling, said Hans Halvorson, professor of philosophy at Princeton, at a debate Wednesday night on the fraught relationship between religion and science.

The event, which drew a few hundred attendees to Salomon 101, pitted Halvorson against David Rand, professor of natural history and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology. The debate was sponsored by the Veritas Forum — a Christian nonprofit that holds discussions on “the modern relevance of Jesus Christ” at universities around the country, according to its website — as well as several Christian student groups at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.

“We are not here for final answers,” said Kenneth Kim ’17, a member of the Reformed University Fellowship, an Evangelical Christian student group that helped organize the event. The goal of the debate was to challenge audience members to explore the roots of their faith — or lack thereof — in relation to science, he added.

Moderator and Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02, who has written extensively on the relationship between religion and science, began the discussion by asking each panelist to clarify his stance on the status of truth in faith.

Halvorson, a “self-identified Christian believer” who studies the philosophy and history of science, said if there is a creator who made the world according to a blueprint, then the search for that blueprint should motivate all scientific experiment and exploration.

Rand, who described himself as a “possible atheist” and “religious about rowing,” questioned Halvorson’s assertion, arguing that faith can wildly mislead a scientist in practice. For example, Rand once conducted an experiment with the aim of identifying a certain candidate gene — a single genetic sequence linked to causing a particular disease. Though he firmly believed the gene existed, he ultimately could not find it — his faith in its existence led him to waste time and money on an ultimately hopeless pursuit. “I don’t think God should play a role in the way I do science,” Rand said.

In response to Miller’s question about whether the Book of Genesis is wrong, Rand asserted that the text “is entirely inconsistent with modern science,” though it could play a role in establishing a world view if used as an allegory. Halvorson said while he sees the internal inconsistencies of Genesis, “any serious Christian has to be at least a little bothered because you don’t want to say (the Bible) is false.”

In addition to Miller’s moderation, students texted questions to a central number, and members of the sponsor Christian groups chose questions to be asked.

The truth in the narrative of the resurrection of Jesus Christ emerged as another point of contention between the speakers.

Halvorson said he believes in the resurrection, and no laws of nature render it impossible. But Rand said while it is possible that Jesus re-emerged from being “in bad shape for a few days,” it is inconceivable that he was resurrected from the dead.

Each speaker closed by posing a challenge to the audience. “Every one of you believes at least one false thing,” Halvorson said. “I challenge you to find out what that is and stop believing it.”

Rand interrogated the distinction between spiritualism and science and urged the crowd to analyze cause-and-effect reactions in life.

“I’m personally interested in (Halvorson’s) point of view that theism provides a more rational basis for accepting and practicing science than atheism does,” Miller said after the forum.

“I really liked it and felt it was extremely thought-provoking,” said Jonathan Dow ’18, though he added, “I was a little disappointed by its focus on Christianity.”