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Frank Percival perciva at WESTMONT.EDU
Tue Feb 17 14:49:48 EST 1998

I appreciated Ross Koning's comments on the need to "talk religion AND
science in our science classrooms so that students can learn the difference
between these two fields of inquiry."  I teach in an evangelical Christian
liberal arts college where we view this as a central part of our mission,
but there is no sense in which this type of discussion has to be limited to
our type of institution.  However, I would like to suggest a different way
of distinguishing between science and religion than that presented in Ross'

Ross laid out as a goal that students should "be able to distinguish belief
based on faith vs. belief based on evidence."  I think that a better way to
distinguish science and religion is on the basis of the types of evidence
each uses.  As we all know and teach our students, science is characterized
by a  method--it involves forming hypotheses which can be subjected to
experiments.  This necessarily limits the types of observations/data which
can be incorporated into scientific reasoning to the realm of "natural
processes" taking place in a material world.  When we choose to practice
science, we voluntarily limit ourselves to this type of evidence, and that
in turn determines the type of explanations we can produce.  It also
determines the kinds of questions we can ask--e.g., Ross referred in his
post to "the WHY questions upon which science must be silent."  Religion
can tackle these questions precisely because it is not limited to the types
of evidence used in science, although, of course, that involves giving up
the intellectual detachment and control inherent in the experimental

Although I have my own faith commitments, my argument here is primarily
philosophical.  It may be that the metaphysical naturalists actually have
it right, and there really is no more to reality than the material world
which is accessible to scientific investigation.  I am arguing that because
science involves a voluntary self-limitation to analyzing only the material
world, the question of whether or not there is any more to life than this
requires us to deal with evidence which lies beyond the reach of scientific

I finally got around to watching the movie Contact last night, and I think
that it did a nice job of dealing with the question of evidence.  When the
empiricist astronomer returns from her encounter with the new species, she
is confronted with the difficulty of convincing the world that the meeting
actually occurred.  She is not without evidence, but it is not the physical
evidence that can be evaluated and analyzed in an objective manner by
detached observers.  My goal for my students is that they will be able to
embrace the scientific approach to understanding life processes with a full
understanding of its strengths and its limitations and that they will know
that there is still work to be done when the science is over.


Frank Percival              |
Biology Department          |    phone:    (805)565-6119
Westmont College            |    fax:      (805)565-7035
955 La Paz Rd.              |    email:    perciva at westmont.edu
Santa Barbara, CA  93108    |

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