Science, Faith and Semantics


Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist and author, debated John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science, in 2010.  This was the first of the Dawkins Lennox debates. They are both well-spoken and well-suited for the task.

Aside from the usual issues and points that are made in these sorts of debates about faith and science, some nuances emerge that are interesting to consider. One particular interchange gives rise to interesting considerations.

Dawkins asserts that faith is belief with no evidence (implying that faith is the antithesis of reason). Lennox disagrees. Dawkins, then, claims that faith would not be faith if it was rational and evidence-based. To Dawkins, faith is defined by the absence of reason and evidence. Lennox, on the other hand, asserts that faith is the willingness to repose belief, trust and commitment in something for which there is evidence, but no “proof” (as in mathematical proof).

Dawkins attempts to cast faith and reason as opposites, while Lennox fits them together in succession. Who is right?

Note that the Dawkins did not focus on the quality of proof necessary to make faith rational or reasonable (as Lennox did); Dawkins assumed that faith, on its face, is irrational and characterized the attempt by Lennox to marry faith and reason as semantics. He is right, of course, but semantics is always involved. Appealing to semantics hardly settles the matter.

The definition of the word “semantics” is “the study of meanings of words. Every argument requires the terms supporting the argument to be defined. Dawkins defined the term “faith” in a precise manner, equating it with the lack of evidence/reason. Lennox defined faith differently. Call it semantics, or whatever you will, two people using the same word to mean different things will not arrive at the same conclusions – ever.

When two people ascribe different meanings to the same word that frames their arguments, they will necessarily disagree about the conclusions they reach.

In fact, we often use definitions and applications of words in subtle ways to advance our positions. The Dawkins/Lennox debate is a case in point. They way each of them defined faith led them to different conclusions.

Dawkins defines “faith” to mean belief that is unsupported by evidence. From that premise everything else he says flows. Lennox fundamentally disagrees on that point, asserting that faith is the willingness to repose belief, trust and commitment in something for which there is evidence, but no “proof” (as in mathematical proof). Ironically, if they would each ascribe the definition of the other to the word, in turn, they might agree with each other, but the argument goes deeper than that.

While Dawkins seeks to maintain a separation between faith and evidence, and Lennox seeks to marry faith evidence.  This is where they fundamentally disagree. Dawkins chooses to define “faith” to support his position that faith and science are mutually exclusive, while Lennox defines faith in a way that harmonizes the two.

As with any argument supported by a premise, the premise determines the conclusion. In this case, the definition of the word “faith” determines the ultimate position of each man. To the extent that they each define the word differently, they are arguing at cross purposes. In one sense, they are both right (if we apply each man’s definition of faith to each man’s position), but they could never come to any agreement because they start from different meanings of the word, faith.

The definition, then, is where the argument starts and ends. Semantics it may be, but the semantics determine everything.

Are faith and evidence mutually exclusive as Dawkins suggests? The answer, clearly, is that faith and evidence are mutually exclusive if they are defined to be mutually exclusive!

Borrowing the usual, common meaning from Merriam-Webster, a simple definition of faith is “strong belief or trust in someone or something”. From that common definition (which Lennox seems to adopt and Dawkins does not), Faith may or may not involve evidence; whether evidence supports “faith” is not inherent in the definition; neither is it exclusive.

Lennox agreed in his comments that faith that is not supported by evidence is irrational. Christian faith, Lennox says, is supported by evidence. Because it is evidence-based, it is, therefore, rational. That statement, on its face, is true.

People may disagree on the quality or extent of the evidence. Whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant the belief, trust and commitment attendant with faith, is a matter of opinion and personal assessment, but the statement is undoubtedly true.

Dawkins’ attempt to win the argument by imposing his definition of faith on the dialogue, a definition with which there is no agreement, is disingenuous.  I could define the color black to describe the color white and disagree with everyone who uses the common definition for the color black. The argument, however, would be meaningless.

Dawkins does not want to allow faith and science to coexist. He is not arguing so much over whether they can coexist harmoniously, but arguing against the possibility of them coexisting harmoniously by using a loaded definition for the word, faith. He defines “science” and “faith” to exclude the possibility of harmonious coexistence from the outset.

Indeed, this is nothing but semantics. The semantics, however, is the most important thing in this argument, and (truth aside) it determines everything.

One thought on “Science, Faith and Semantics

  1. Pingback: Evidence, Love and Faith | Navigating by Faith

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