The role of faith in science

It is non-controversial that faith, or in a more general sense religion, contributed to the development of the modern sciences in many ways. Theologically, the notion of the creation of the universe by God made it possible to demarcate the world as an independent field of investigation. Western Christianity’s emphasis on the difference between faith and reason prepared the soil for the emergence of scientific rationality. Christian universities encouraged scientific research and contributed to the propagation of its results. Many influential scientists in Western history, such as Jean Picard (f1682), Giovanni Battista Riccioli (J1671), Francesco Grimaldi (J1663) or Gregor Mendel (J1882), were churchpersons and important scientists at the same time. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) referred to their faith in God in their writings. In the twentieth century, Albert Einstein (18791955) had a kind of belief in God, and other leading scientists of that age, such as Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), offered complex views on the importance of faith for scientific research.[1] Kurt Godel’s (1906-1977) revolutionary ‘incompleteness theorem’ is closely connected to his ‘ontological proof’ for the existence of God.[2] [3] [4] The best example is offered by Michael Polanyi’s notion of ‘personal knowledge’. As he argues, scientific knowledge is based on personal commitment. Scientific truth cannot be reached mechanically. Our personality goes into the sciences, including our emotions, conviction and faith. With reference to Augustine’s favourite biblical passage ‘If you do not believe, you will not understand’ (Isa. 7.9),10 11 Polanyi writes, ‘We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge’.11 In various ways, faith has played a crucial role in the flourishing of the sciences.

  • [1] See the revelations about his own and Einstein’s faith in God in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond:Encounters and Conversations (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
  • [2] Hao Wang, Reflections on Kurt Godel (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), pp. 161, 195.
  • [3] See also a better translation in ch 1.
  • [4] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1962), p. 280.
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