Mystery & Evidence

Mystery and Evidence‘s (Tim Crane. NY Times. 9/5/2010) opening paragraph immediately caught my attention.

There is a story about Bertrand Russell giving a public lecture somewhere or other, defending his atheism. A furious woman stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied: “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’ ”

What do you think of Russell’s response?

By seeking to understand religion more fully, Tim Crane, Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and author of two books, “The Mechanical Mind” (1995) and “Elements of Mind” (2001), provides a more nuanced atheistic response.  In particular, he investigates the significant differences between the way in which science and religion approach reality.

Science too has its share of mysteries (or rather: things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.

This point gets to the heart of the difference between science and religion. Religion is an attempt to make sense of the world, but it does not try and do this in the way science does. Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses. The characteristic mode of scientific explanation is showing how events fit into a general pattern.

Religion, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of the world by seeing a kind of meaning or significance in things. This kind of significance does not need laws or generalizations, but just the sense that the everyday world we experience is not all there is, and that behind it all is the mystery of God’s presence. The believer is already convinced that God is present in everything, even if they cannot explain this or support it with evidence. But it makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning. This is the attitude (seeing God in everything) expressed in George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir.” Equipped with this attitude, even the most miserable tasks can come to have value: Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and th’ action fine.

Have you wrestled with the relationship of science and religion?  How do you agree/disagree with Crane’s observations?

Note:  Crane rejects Christianity due to what he considers the lack of factual basis for the central Christian doctrines (e.g., Jesus’ resurrection).

Print Friendly

Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

More Posts - Website


  • Kevin Birth commented on September 9, 2010 Reply

    Crane represents the relationship between science and faith as an exclusive choice, but there is no factual or logical case for this representation.

    Moreover, science is willing to assume convenient illusions to carry on its work, e.g., the concepts of time used in most scientific work is fundamentally at odds with the concepts of time advocated by theoretical physics. Indeed, some physicists strongly argue that there is no such thing as time, which throws into confusion the ways in which sequence and duration (and consequently causation) are imagined in most scientific disciplines. Put more concretely, relativity and neuroscience are incompatible.

    So while Crane may argue that there is no factual basis for the resurrection, there is also no factual basis for one event occurring one second after another event without appealing to a tautological definition of abstract, decontextualized time that defies what physics teaches.

    Bottom line: Crane is falling prey to simple ethnocentrism, i.e., “my way of knowing is better than your way of knowing” when all ways of knowing have limitations.

    Which is why the just live by faith not just science.

    Tim commented on September 14, 2010 Reply

    I agree with Kevin that Crane’s dichotomy between “religion” and “science” is quite incorrect. While there may be different definitions of science (e.g. “nomological” versus “forensic”,, science is basically an approach of basing one’s beliefs on evidence or observation. True, Biblical, reasonable “religion” is the same, only using different data (Scriptures, history, etc) on which to test one’s models (theological doctrines). Thus Paul does not simply say “believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and if you ever have doubts, embrace the mystery of it all and accept it by blind faith”, but instead he cites eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15).

    On Russell’s answer, I think that generally speaking God did give us adequate proof about Himself, but it is interesting to note the restraint used by God throughout the Bible. God has given just enough evidence so that those who seek Him can find Him, but no more… so that those who were closedminded and trying to avoid Him would have less guilt on Judgement Day (Matt. 13:10-17, Mark 4:10-12,23-25, Luke 8:10) (We all have heart biases that affect the way we process evidence… none of us are completely “neutral”…) In this way God shows love even to those who hate Him. He does not force Himself upon people. In fact, some times He deliberately does not provide evidence that would have forcibly ‘tipped the scales’ in people’s minds and caused them to believe in Him, as in Matt. 11:21 when Jesus said that if the same miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon they would have repented. Yet as the just Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25), God gave Tyre and Sidon and Bertrand Russell ‘enough’ evidence, such that if they disbelieve in Him, it is their fault…

Leave a Reply