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Veritas Forum explores science and religion

By JEANNE LEE | April 13, 2017

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KUNAL maiti/photography staff Nuclear Science and Engineering professor Ian Hutchinson argued that religion complements science.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Ian Hutchinson discussed the relationship between religion and science as part of the Veritas Forum last Thursday, April 6. The talk titled, “Does Science Lead to Atheism?” took place in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy.

Hutchinson discussed his past experience participating in a debate surrounding science and religion that was broadcasted on PBS.

The debate took place in New York City, where, according to Hutchinson, the majority of the audience members were liberals and atheists. Hutchinson emphasized that today’s presentation was meant to be a discussion.

“This is not a debate,” Hutchinson said. “We’re not trying to win a vote. It’s a forum, and we’re trying to discover the truth.”

He pointed out how some religious beliefs were more susceptible to being discounted by science.

“The belief that thunderstorms are literally the actions of angry Zeus, hurling down lightning bolts from Mount Olympus, could reasonably be considered to be refuted by our scientific understanding of lightning,” he said.

However, Hutchinson argued that this is not the case for God and the Bible.

“The situation is very different for the biblical conception of God, who is the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, not just one of its residents,” Hutchinson said. “The belief in God who put in place and upholds the laws of physics is not refuted, or even contradicted, by science.”

He pointed out that, to many, the laws of nature seem to support atheism.

“If everything that happens in the world is just the workings of impersonal laws of physics, then those laws begin themselves to take on the appearance of being the foundational reality,” Hutchinson said. “If the world is nothing but a closed system, governed by laws, then all we have to deal with is those laws, and God makes no practical difference. He might as well not exist.”

Hutchinson also discussed problems with deism and determinism. Deism is the idea that God created the universe but does not intervene, while determinism is the idea that all events are predetermined.

“If the universe really were deterministic, then it would indeed be a difficult to make sense of,” Hutchinson said. “If everything just follows from the equations of physics and the initial conditions of the words ‘determinism,’ you could point it to atheism.”

On the other hand, Hutchinson argued that unpredictable occurrences in science can support deism.

“One of the more remarkable things about physics is now we know the universe is not deterministic,” Hutchinson said. “Quantum physics shows that there are phenomena that are inheritably unpredictable.”

Hutchinson also argued that the theory of evolution does not contradict with Christian belief because the presence of animals and plants provides evidence that suggests an original creator.

“The exquisite adaptations of animals and plants to their environment showed evidence that they were designed and that that implied there was a designer: God,” he said.

Because evolution suggests that genetic variance  causes biodiversity, many believe that evolutionary theory replaces the role of the creator in intelligent design.

Some, therefore, argue that evolution serves as an alternative to what had previously been the best argument  atheism: Creationism.

Hutchinson, however, disagreed with this argument and explained that both the theory of evolution and the existence of a creator could coexist.

“A sensible theistic response to evolution is to say that having a natural explanation of a natural phenomenon does not at all rule out the purposes or attentions or actions of God,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson provided an analogy of a person boiling water to illustrate his argument.

“If there is water boiling in a kettle on a stove, the fact that there is a scientific explanation of boiling does not rule out the explanation that the water is boiling because I want a cup of tea,” Hutchinson said. “Some things done by God have no natural explanation, but God can and does use natural ways to accomplish his will.”

He then transitioned to discuss the role of Christianity in academia. He showed the audience data from a survey conducted by the National Academy of Science, which showed that the majority of people in academia were in fact not Christians.

“It is true that the poll suggests that the top elite of scientists are a lot less likely to believe in God,” he said. “It is the case that the most accomplished academics are less likely to believe in God.”

Hutchinson then elaborated on the historical relationship between the church and academia. He argued against the fact that the church had prevented the growth of science.

“The myth is that the church held up the development of science,” Hutchinson said. “It is believed that only when this warfare between science and religion was effectively won by science that true liberation of human thought from the debilitating effects of religious faith was accomplished.”

Hutchinson explained that universities were originally Christian foundations, but that they over time became more secular.

He argued that, rather than hampering scientific endeavor, the churches promoted it.

“The very fact that Christian institutions nurtured science, and that Christian ministers were frequently the scientists responsible for its development, and that the great scientists of history were predominantly themselves Christians gives the lie to the mythology,” he said.

Hutchinson finished the talk by saying that science does not lead to atheism.

“I think that my science leads me to God,” he said.

Audience members who attended the presentation, such as freshman Omar Lloyd, appreciated Hutchinson’s balanced stance on the discussion.

“Hutchinson was on both sides of the debate,” Lloyd said. “He was saying you could have religion and science in the same fields and not really have major conflicts.”

Junior Kelsey Waddill believes these kinds of discussions are crucial to furthering the discourse on science and religion.

“As a humanities student at a very scientifically minded school, and as a Christian, I feel like this is a very pertinent question,” Waddill said. “Having a discussion like this and being able to carry that into our day-to-day lives is part of fostering more feelings of getting an answer.”

Others who attended the talk pointed out areas in which Hutchinson could strengthen his argument.

“He picked sections from the Bible as examples,” Lloyd said. “It seems like he didn’t go to other religions but he went to Christianity first.”

Some students also mentioned that Hutchinson’s arguments seemed to come off as biased, since he was speaking about the subject matter from a Christian perspective.

“While I am Christian, I can say the one thing is some of his discussion seems a little bit anti-secularist,” freshman Luc Renaux said.

He highlighted the need to balance secular institutions with the belief of others.

“I very much value the secular institution and the secular state. My response to that is how you balance expressing your belief, but also realizing in a secular institution respecting the belief of others,” he said.

Students respected Hutchinson’s use of scientific knowledge in his argument.

However, junior Ben Costello also believed that building an argument using disciplines outside of the sciences would have been interesting to hear.

“One thing I thought was interesting was that there is truth that science can get at through its methods,” he said. “It’s different than the methods used in other disciplines, and that doesn’t mean that the kind of truth these disciplines arrive at is any less true or less important than the kinds of truths that science can get at.”


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