While my children were out purchasing their “afikoman presents” with my in-laws, I happened on my own holiday present in the form of a remarkable article by Dr. Francis Collins.
The highly regarded Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and the piece is a synopsis of his personal journey of faith. I found the statement noteworthy as much for what it did not claim as for what it did assert.
Collins’s main premise is that not only is there no conflict between science and belief, but that, in fact, scientific discovery is itself testament to the greatness of God’s creation. As he so beautifully writes,
As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan . . . I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.
This perspective is, in effect, a contemporized restatement of Mamonides’ famous declaration (Basic Principles of the Torah 4:12) that when man “contemplates these matters and recognizes the creations – angels, spheres, man, etc. – and sees God’s wisdom in all the formations and creations, his love for God will increase, he will find his soul, and his very essence will yearn to love God.”
At a time when there seems to be a recurrence of religious skepticism towards science, we would do well to recall that while this statement is likely the most well known of its kind, in fact, other giants of Jewish tradition both pre dated and have subsequently endorsed Maimonides’ attitude.
As the Psalmist poetically observes (19:2), “The heavens tell the glory of God and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork.” [See commentators there, especially Ibn Ezra.] This approach is further developed by many, including, to name just a few, R. Bachye ibn Pakuda (Chovos Ha-Levavos II:2), R. Moshe Isserles (Shut HaRamo, #7), and more recently, the Chazon Ish (Emunah U’Bitachon 1:3-7).
It is inspiring to read the account of a life long devotee of science and a leading expert in one of the most important areas of contemporary research reaffirming the basic compatibility of science and faith.
But perhaps even more important is Dr. Collins’s caveat about the limits of science in the furtherance of religion.
As he describes his evolution from self-described atheist to believer, Collins tells of his emerging realization that “one could build a very strong case for the plausibility of the existence of God on purely rational grounds.” (ital. added)
Further developing this point, he continues,
But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind. You have to hear the music, not just read the notes on the page. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.
When initially reading the article I was immediately struck – and thrilled – by his balanced approach. This, I beleive, is percisely the right understanding of the relationship between science and religion.
Science – whether it be genetics, Collins’s area of specialty, or in counteless other areas – has much to teach us not only about the world but, by extension, about God. And there is no question that scientific study and knowledge of the overwhelming complexity of the natural world can play a vital role in deepening ones appreciation of – and even belief in – God.
But science should not be used for something it was never inteded for. Science cannot prove the existence of God who is, by defintion, a supernatural being and beyond the measurable or observable categories that science deals with. I have never liked so-called scientific “proofs of God” for this reason; “arguments for God” perhaps, but not proofs.
A close reading of the Maimonides’ statement, I believe, bears this out. Note that he never says that observing the wonders of the natural world will prove God’s existence. Rather, he posits that the complexity of nature will deepen our love of God (and, by extension, humble us). But this presupposes that one already believes in God; it never suggests that these observations themselves will conclusively demonstarate the existence of a Creator. And that first step requires a leap of faith, or what we commonly refer to as emunah peshutah.
By aticulately demonstrating both the beneift and the limits of science, Dr. Collins has made a critical contribution to this importanct discussion.