Dundee discussion: can science explain everything?
On the first evening of the Dundee CU events week, more than three hundred students crowded into a lecture theatre to hear two opposing answers to the question “Can science explain everything?”. The event, a discussion between Dr David Booth and Dr Andy Bannister, had been organised by the Science Network in Dundee and was moderated by the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University, Sir Peter Downes, who is a self-proclaimed agnostic.
It was a significant event, and not just because it was the opening act for the rest of the week’s evening activities, but also because this is a topic pertinent to the majority of students in a heavily science-based University. The speakers themselves have unique credentials which qualify them to discuss the question and the topics around it. Dr Booth has a PhD in Population and Evolutionary Sciences, was former moderator of British Council café scientifique and is a Senior lecturer at the School of Life Sciences. Dr Bannister, who is the main speaker at the CU events week, is Director of Solas ministries, the former Canadian director and lead apologist at RZIM ministries, and holds a PhD in Islamic studies.
A range of topics were discussed, with both parties joining in enthusiastic debate and rigorous questioning where it was merited, remaining respectful of each other but never retreating from their obviously well thought-out positions. Sir Downes started off by asking both participants to define religion and science respectively, and how they overlapped.
Dr Booth insisted that there was no overlap; indeed faith was only needed in the past, where there were no facts to provide security to the community. He conceded that science cannot by definition answer the “why” questions that human beings seem to be plagued with since childhood, but also reiterated that no explanation for these questions is needed in order to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. He supported that religion was a coping mechanism created by humanity to survive, and that as it now presented no objective results or solutions in everyday life, could not be of any more use to our modern society.
Dr Bannister presented the history of the modern scientific method, which flourished in the environment the Christian religion created, where law and order were expected in the universe since they believed in a Law-giver. He further went on to support that the seeming conflict between religion and science, known as the “conflict thesis”, was a traceable construct designed to pit two communities against each other, which would otherwise have co-existed harmoniously. He also pointed out the different frameworks that religion and science work in, which means that discussion on the scientific impact of religion in daily life or the religious impact of science on ethics is totally irrelevant.
The discussion then moved on to the relevance of science and religion in ethical discussions and moral dilemmas. Dr Bannister presented how ethics needs the framework of religion to operate, ergo, to claim to be both moral and godless is to be a living contradiction. Dr Booth explained how science sometimes can quantify morality, either by observing it in the animal kingdom or, as John Nash did, by producing mathematical calculations for the best (or moral) course of action.
Both speakers agreed that neither religious factions nor scientists should adopt a pretentiously arrogant stance when discussing issues pertinent to areas out of their expertise; it is important to approach these topics with epistemic humility.
In the closing statements, Dr Bannister reiterated the importance of searching for truth regardless of the consequences, especially when considering the claims of Jesus Christ. Dr Booth underlined that his position did not care so much for truth, as for practical usefulness. Since religion offers no real relief from the pain of living, it should therefore be cast aside by rational people for the freeing alternative of rational scientific thought.
The response was hugely encouraging, with the audience actively engaging during Q&A, and a lot of positive feedback from Christians and non-Christians alike. For many of us it was encouraging to see such a respectful discussion on this topic, that did not shy away from hard questions. Many Science Network students were heartened by the engagement their course mates showed in later conversations and were excited to discover what a great impact we can have when we embrace our calling within science to follow Christ and proclaim His name boldly.