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The Demarcation Problem

Generally, the demarcation problem refers to the difficulty in deciding where and how to distinguish between what is science and what is not.  You can probably see how this is relevant to religion, and I’m sure you can guess that the problem of deciding the borders between religion and science goes back a long time.

Historically, there have been many different viewpoints on how science and religion could coexist, or even whether they should at all.  Some people (such as John William Draper or Andrew Dickson White, among others) have thought that science and religion have been continually in conflict and will remain so.  Others have taken a more moderate approach.  Personally, I’ve never thought that science and religion are necessarily mutually exclusive.  In fact, to have a balanced view of the world I think that a person needs both religion and science.  I realize that there are numerous atheistic people out there who would disagree that anyone needs religion, but I think that topic is best left for a post of its own.
In general, faith and science seek to tell us different things about the world.  Science exists to help us understand how creation works, and how we can harness the natural world to improve our lives.  Belief gives us something to strive for.  I know I’m over-generalizing here, but I’m trying to express my opinion in broad concepts.

In the past I’ve heard some religious people say that scientific inquiry should not proceed if it contradicts what religion teaches.  This is something I can’t disagree with stronger.  Generally, I think that we should be free to pursue whatever questions we may have, and I think that stifling people who ask questions often has the opposite of the intended effect.  It is by questioning our religion, our beliefs, and what we have been told that our faith grows stronger.  Think of it as a muscle, if you never test your muscles against something heavy, they will atrophy, until they can no longer lift even the lightest objects.  If we never question why we believe something and what our justifications are, then it seems as if the weakest arguments can punch a hole in our beliefs.  To defend against this people seem to develop an impenetrable mental wall of ignorance and intolerance, and they refuse to even acknowledge the probing questions others might ask about their faith.  If, as Christians, we truly believe, then no argument can shake our faith, since someone would be attempting to persuade us of a lie.  Thus by being willing to examine our beliefs in the most stringent manner, and by acknowledging and confronting the arguments and evidence of others we can say ‘Yes, I have seen your evidence and heard your arguments, and still I stand unmoved.’

This isn’t to say that I think science is the be-all and end-all man’s inquiry into the unknown.  I highly esteem it yes, but there are some questions that I don’t think science will ever be able to answer for us.  The first that springs to mind is the question ‘is there a God?’  Not only do I think that science cannot answer this, I don’t think it should try.  Pragmatically, wasting money and resources on trying to achieve an impossible goal seems futile when such effort could have been better applied elsewhere (such as flying cars, get on that science!).

Ultimately, I don’t think science and faith are incompatible because they seek to fulfill different aspects of man’s existence.  I also think that the two spheres of thought (and the people in each) should respect each other and largely not attempt to interfere with the other.  A person of strong faith is one that permits the free inquiry of scientific thought without fear, and a wise scientist is one who realizes that science cannot answer every question.  Though I’m hardly the first to think this…

“Gravity explains the motion of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion.” – Sir Isaac Newton



2 thoughts on “The Demarcation Problem

  1. I really like this post. (love Newton’s quote-btw) I think you make some excellent points when you state that a strong Christian is one that doesn’t fear scientific inquiry into what they believe. Since God is the ultimate scientist (consider the world His petrie dish), I think it delights him when His creation stops to consider what makes the creations run. He gave man his intellect and it is an affront to God not use it. Every time science annouces something that offends fundamentalists (Yes folks–the world really is OLDER than 7 thousand years) it is God showing man that try as we might, we will never understand everything from God’s perspective. That’s where faith comes into play…understanding what we can, and accepting that there are things that we never will.

    Posted by goddoglover | July 8, 2011, 12:09 PM
  2. I really like that quote you end with: “Gravity explains the motion of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion.”

    Posted by Curtis Poor | July 12, 2011, 7:06 PM

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