Conflict between faith and science is a popular narrative, but Dr. Jennifer Wiseman isn’t buying the story line. Wiseman, senior project scientist for the NASA Hubble Space Telescope Program, spoke last week at a forum on faith and science at Seattle Pacific University.
“I don’t think that through traditional scientific study that we can suddenly prove the activity of God,” Wiseman said during a keynote address at SPU’s Day of Common Learning. “I don’t even think that’s a positive way to do science. But I do think that if one is inclined to faith in God, for reasons that I think are well founded, you can learn something about the nature of God by looking at the nature of nature.”
Wiseman is well versed in the dynamic as director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She sees three basic models for that dialogue.
The conflict model holds that science and faith are incompatible. Science tells us what can be measured, while religious belief is superstition that relies on faith without proof. The contrast model finds little overlap, as faith and science are pursuing different questions. In the contact model the two sides learn from and inspire each other. It’s the last two models that Wiseman, a Christian, follows personally.
“Science is focused on the natural world. Science tells us how things work in terms of physical cause and effect,” Wiseman said. “Our scripture and our faith focus for the most part on the bigger, even more important questions: Why? Is there a purpose? Who? Is there a God? What does God want of me? How should we live?”
When Wiseman talks about the amazing dicoveries in astronomy, God is there. She refers to stars as God’s factories for creating heavy elements, and to gravitational lensing is God’s magnifying glass. But while she finds in science the inspiration for praise and worship, she says that religion doesn’t color her eyepiece or alter scientific fact.
“The beauty of science is that it shouldn’t matter what your faith is,” she said. “I do science experiments with colleagues from many different faiths and cultures, and we all come to the same scientific conclusions. If we don’t, we look into the science and see who’s doing the wrong kind of analysis. Do we have the same philosophical conclusions after we get the scientific conclusions? Not necessarily. That’s when you get into these other non-scientific but important questions of is there evidence for God’s beauty and handiwork and what’s our role in life.”
Wiseman acknowledged barriers for understanding between faith and science. She said lack of good science education can make it difficult for some to find the relevance of science, that it can be tough to disentangle political views from science, and that some theologians are driven into a tizzy by the notion that there may be life elsewhere. Natural disasters also often prove to be a stumbling block.
“Plate tectonics allows life to thrive and our atmosphere to be refreshed,” Wiseman noted. “But say that to someone who has experienced an earthquake. They’re not going to say, ‘Praise God for plate tectonics.’”
“We don’t quite understand the mysteries of how the natural processes of the world that can bring so much good can also bring so much suffering, and that’s a major impediment to faith in God for many people,” she said.
Wiseman spoke glowingly of Hubble and the volumes of data and images it has produced both for scientists to study and for people to enjoy. She said she often gets questions about whether gazing out into the cosmos is worth the expense and effort, given the challenges we face at home on Earth.
“We need a balance between addressing the difficult problems on our planet while also inspiring people and looking out into the big picture of what it means to be human,” Wiseman said.
“Science can give us a better understanding of ourselves and our place in creation.”