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Fields of Certainty as a Unifying Paradigm for Science and Religion

Alphonse Dougan

2005-04-01 00:00:00

A superficial understanding of science and religion perceives these two fields as being disciplines of different realms. Such a perspective sees science as an objective pursuit of knowledge based on observation and logic, and religion as a set of dogmatic assertions. Finally, some view “questioning” as the essence of science, while they view religion as requiring submission without inquiry.

These views reflect a shallow understanding of faith and religion as well as the reality of the scientific enterprise. In this article we argue that there are varying degrees of certainty in each piece of scientific and religious knowledge. One can thus imagine two fields of certainty where established knowledge is at the center and the less certain pieces of knowledge form field-like circles around a center. We further argue that this perspective can serve as a unifying paradigm for science and religion.

Science and Religion as Disciplines of Different Realms

The superficial understanding of science and religion as disciplines of different realms asserts that religion concerns the relationship of humanity with the divine and considers human relation-ships on this basis. Religion primarily relies on sacred scriptures and subjective experiences as sources of knowledge. Religious assertions tend to be absolute and they do not accept questioning. The main underlying assumption of religion is the existence of a supernatural, omnipotent Being referred to as God. Science, on the other hand, deals primarily with observable and measurable phenomena. Thus, its main domain is the domain of physical objects. It accepts systematic and objective observations or experimental findings, and inferences on these as sources of knowledge. Scientific assertions appear as theoretical models that attempt to provide objective descriptions of the physical world and predictions of natural phenomena. Science is ambivalent to the existence of a supernatural Being. The underlying assumption of science is that the physical world is governed by universal laws, regardless of the source. This perspective can be summarized in a table:

Based on this superficial understanding of religion and science, we can expect two disjoint spheres of interest that would not have much to do with each other, as illustrated in the figure above.

In this view, science and religion occupy different realms. This view gives complete sovereignty over the non-human domain to science. It leaves the unobservable phenomena to religion, with the condition that it might be claimed by science at any time. The current state of the relationship, however, refutes this simplistic perspective. Both science and religion make assertions that supposedly belong to the other and we perceive conflicts. Examples of perceived conflicts include the following:

- Spherical Earth vs. flat Earth.

- Sun-centric vs. Earth-centric cosmology or astronomy.

- Old universe or Earth vs. young universe or Earth.

- Evolution vs. the miraculous creation of animals and humans.

- A world-wide flood.

- …

We can illustrate the perceived conflict in figure two. 

Both the simplistic views of science and religion, as well as their perceived conflicts, are due to shallow understandings of scientific and religious knowledge. Let us first examine the idealized scientific process as the source of the scientific knowledge. The idealized view of the scientific process as taught at many schools is illustrated in the figure below: In this view, the process starts when the scientist makes an observation or becomes aware of a phenomenon that they can not explain with their current knowledge. They first define the problem clearly and hypothesize about potential explanations. They then design experiments to test this hypothesis. They conduct those experiments and make observations. An analysis of these observations may produce one of two outcomes: Either the proposed explanation is valid or invalid. If the proposed explanation is found to be invalid totally or partially, it is refined and a new cycle of experiments and observation is started. If at one point the hypothesis is validated, then the results are communicated to the scientific community. Other scientists repeat the same or similar experiments with the same goal: Validating the hypothesis. If other scientists also reach the same conclusions then the hypothesis gains certainty and may eventually be viewed as an established theory. An important yardstick for the formation of a new theory is its predictive power. When the theory is young, it is used to make predictions. When these predictions turn out to be accurate then the theory establishes itself. Otherwise it is refined and a new cycle of experiments and observation starts.

While the idealized process of scientific research appeals as an objective means of building knowledge, it suffers from some important weaknesses: The first one is that real scientists rarely follow this idealized procedure. Even when they do, many human factors, such as prejudices and non-scientific concerns, for example, material gain and reputation may interfere with the objective interpretation of the results. A third, and possibly the most important limitation, is that many subjects are infeasible or impossible to study under idealized conditions. Consider the theory of evolution for instance. It is impossible to re-create the conditions on the Earth at the time when life first appeared on its surface. It is impossible to observe generation after generation of creatures and to observe whether evolution really took place. What we can do instead is to examine the available fossil record, the Earth’s surface and make logical inferences. But as we move away from the systematic and repeatable observation or controlled experiments, our confidence in our knowledge decreases. Hence we witness a plethora of perspectives and explanations, even among believers of the Darwinian evolution, of what really took place. Generalizing from this example, we can see that the various pieces of so-called “scientific” knowledge are not at the same level in terms of their certainty. Instead, they form a field of certainty, like circles around a center, where the most certain pieces of knowledge are located. Moving away from the center, the amount of control over experimental conditions and the repeat-ability of observations decrease as does confidence in the knowledge. The following figure illustrates this concept of certainty fields for scientific knowledge.

The confidence field phenomenon is not limited to scientific knowledge. Revelation forms the basis of religious knowledge, but revelation is conveyed to humanity via messengers, their scriptures, their inspirations, their words, and conduct. While the revelation itself is not subject to uncertainty, the human factor introduces uncertainty mainly in three mechanisms:

1. The deterioration or intentional manipulation of certain religious sources.

2. Human misunderstanding or misrepresentation of certain divine statements.

3. Confusion of human interpretation with the literal revelation or prophetic tradition.

Upon considering the certainty fields of science and religion we can look back at the perceived conflict between them. Now we realize that the perceived conflicts lie at those places where either the scientific or the religious knowledge, or both, are not completely certain in their assertions. When we enumerate all of the perceived conflicts and examine them carefully, we can attribute each one to one of the causes of uncertainty in scientific or religious knowledge.

Let’s take the example of the theory of evolution again as a popular and contemporary matter. On the science side we see that many of the assertions of the theory carry a high degree of uncertainty. We are definitely not at the center of the certainty field of scientific knowledge. On the religious side, the clear assertion is that God is the creator of the Heavens and the Earth, as well as its inhabitants. The way by which God has chosen to create, however, is not as clear. We don’t know, for instance, whether God also works through a mechanism that includes evolutionary elements. Some believing scientists argue that God works through what they call “micro evolution” to adapt or eliminate certain species. Some evolutionists, on the other hand, refer to a concept of “lucky accidents” to explain certain aspects of evolutionary history that cannot be explained within the framework of blind chance and natural selection.

As another example we can consider the perceived conflicts in social sciences. Certain sociologists or psychologists make assertions that seem to contradict religious positions. Again on the science side, when the subjects of interest are humans, it is extremely difficult to control all the factors that are involved. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to have repeatable experiments. Since no human being is an exact replica of another and no society is exactly like another society, it is very hard to repeat any experiment in psychology or sociology. Finally, it is very hard to observe humans without affecting their behavior. Because of this and for similar reasons, some scientists have debated whether psychology and sociology can truly be classified as sciences. But these two disciplines are not alone in having difficulties in studying subject matters with the scientific method. A number of essential questions of personal and social life fall into this category of phenomena that are hard to explore scientifically.

These examples demonstrate that each of the perceived conflicts of science and religion can be attributed to one of the causes of uncertainty in scientific or religious knowledge.

An interesting question that falls under the topic of science-religion is the view of science from a religious perspective. Islamic sources include an interesting view: The “two books of God paradigm.” 

The Two Books of God Paradigm

According to Islamic sources, the universe and the revealed scriptures are the expressions of the same God in two different languages, the cosmic language and the human language. While the languages are different, the messages are the same.

According to this paradigm, essentially the same messages are expressed in different forms. The book in the human language sometimes comments on the book in the cosmic language and helps us understand it better. Let us give some examples of messages encoded in these two different languages:

The first message is the unity and omnipotence of the Creator of the Universe. The name and attributes of the Creator of the universe are the main theme of the Qur’an. Faithful scientists and science enthusiasts find this message clearly expressed in the cosmic language.

The second message is found the creation of the Earth and the cosmic objects in a way to provide for the human life on Earth. The Qur’an declares that Adam was created as God’s vicegerent on Earth and the Earth, together with its creatures were made subservient to him, subject to God’s commandments. Again, persons of faith see clear signs of this phenomenon on the Earth, as pointed out in numerous articles in this publication. Our subconscious tells us that the One who has provided us with so many bounties and gifts obviously expects appreciation and gratitude from us. Again, both books clearly point out this fact.

The third message is the display of God’s beautiful names in human beings. According to both Judeo-Christian and Islamic belief, humans were created from a single pair: Adam and Eve. They are thus brothers and sisters and nobody has a claim to superiority, except in virtue and piety. Furthermore, each human is like a mirror reflecting God’s beautiful names. In the perfect design of the human body and face we can observe the names The Most Beautiful and The All-Wise, among others. In the meeting of our various needs through wonderful sustenance, we can observe the names the All-Benevolent and the All-Compassionate.

How Religion and Science Might Benefit from One Another

The last dimension of the relationship between science and religion that we would like to discuss is how the study of one might benefit from the other. In his Twentieth Word (Second Station) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi lists many examples from the Qur’anic references to scientific advances like train, electricity, and states that miracles of the Prophets as well as historical events allude to future inventions and thus might inspire scientists to work in those directions. Thus, religious sources can provide direction and goals for scientific research. Another important problem in science is the question of ethics.

The scientific method itself is unable to produce its own ethical principles as it does not assume absolute truths to exist. Without an external reference, the scientific approach to the generation of ethical principles has to examine each of the plausible options and try them out. This, however, might have some serious consequences. In the process of trying out ethical principles many humans and animals might be hurt. Science, therefore, needs an external source of guidance in the definition and implementation of ethical scientific procedures.

Religious study can also benefit from science in two ways: The first way was alluded to by the “two books paradigm” above. By way of scientific investigation, a believer has the opportunity to appreciate the omnipotence and other beautiful names of God much better than an unbeliever person. Thus, the study of the universe helps increase and deepen our faith.

The second way science can benefit religious understanding is through encouraging common people to base their faith on stronger foundations. By acquiring skills of systematic observation, sound reasoning, and methods of inquiry, both religious scholars and lay people can enhance the strength of their faith and reduce superstition. Science and true religion, hand in hand, can work on eliminating blind faith and blind rejection.


We have touched upon several aspects of the relationship between science and religion. We began by questioning the simplistic views of science and religion and showed that they cannot be regarded as disciplines of totally different domains. We have provided a framework, called the “certainty fields,” which may help explain the perceived conflicts between science and religion. The “two books paradigm” was provided as an example of a paradigm where science and religion do not merely coexist, but also complement each other. Finally we have mentioned two ways whereby scientific and religious inquiry can benefit each other. The reader will no doubt appreciate the vastness of these topics and the need for further study. We have tried to provide pointers and resources for the interested readers. When understood properly and practiced harmoniously, science and religion can open doors to human achievement, spiritual as well as materi-al, that were unheard of in the past.


  • Nursi, S., The Words, Kaynak, Izmir: 1997.
  • Smith, H., Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, Harper, San Fransisco: 1993.
  • Shakir, M., The Qur’an Translation, Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 1999.
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