Debating God and science

February 6, 2014

In the wake of Tuesday night’s debate between Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and young-earth creationist Ken Ham, I noticed many of my clergy colleagues on social media linked to our United Methodist Church’s position on science and faith:

¶ 160 F) Science and Technology —We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology. We recognize medical, technical, and scientific technologies as legitimate uses of God’s natural world when such use enhances human life and enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world. We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced.

In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.

While I agree with much of this statement in principle, in practice “science,” as popularly understood and debated, often makes claims that far exceed its authority. I suspect that every time a new Gallup survey shows that nearly half of Americans don’t believe in evolution, Americans are rightly reacting against these claims. Heck, I don’t believe in evolution if one consequence of doing so means accepting the philosophical materialism that says, in so many words, “See… we don’t need God to explain anything that happens in the natural world.”

Many of us mainline Protestants have swallowed this lie—that any appeal to God for something so prosaic as explanations is resorting to the dreaded “God of the gaps.” Don’t we Christians know that science is rapidly filling those gaps, and once science has figured everything out, what room will be left for faith? So liberal Christians—going all the way back to the “father of liberal Christianity,” Friedrich Schleiermacher—insulate themselves from this fearful prospect by saying, “God is over here in this non-overlapping compartment, science is over there in that non-overlapping compartment—now can’t we all just get along?”

Needless to say, I believe we’ve ceded way too much ground to science.

First, it’s understandable that science has been successful in describing our natural world without resorting to God, because science rules out God before it begins its work. William Lane Craig explains this nicely in this podcast on creation and evolution:

Science seeks only natural causes of the phenomena in the world. It is part of the methodology of science to simply look for natural causes of the phenomena that it investigates. Therefore, supernatural explanations of phenomena would simply be methodologically excluded from the pool of live explanatory options. So, if we had a body of empirical data to be explained, the natural scientist will assemble a pool of live explanatory options to choose from and methodologically he would include in this pool of live explanatory options only hypotheses that are appealing to purely natural causes. That is not to say that there are not non-natural or supernatural entities that exist that might provide other sorts of explanations but simply that methodologically these don’t enter into the project of science. The project of science is to find the best natural explanation of the phenomena that it seeks to explain. So these supernaturalistic hypotheses wouldn’t even come into consideration – they are not even in the pool of live explanatory options. This would hold for the Christian scientist as well. The Christian scientist must be methodologically restricted to naturalistic explanations.

There is an important difference, Craig argues, between this “methodological naturalism,” which constrains scientific inquiry to consider only natural causes, and “epistemological naturalism,” which says natural causes are all there are. By all means, as the Methodist position says, scientific descriptions of the universe, constrained as they are by methodological naturalism, aren’t in conflict with theology. I hasten to add, however, that scientific descriptions, by their nature, will always be inadequate to describe reality.

Craig says that many scientists justify their epistemological naturalism by appealing to science’s “success” at describing reality. In other words, as Hawking and Dawkins have both said, science is so good at describing reality that we don’t need to resort to anything else—be it philosophy or theology.

About this, Craig writes:

What I would say to that is that that goes no distance whatsoever in showing that science is the only source of knowledge and truth. What it does is show that natural science is the best way of discovering truth about the physical world. It is what will give us knowledge of the physical world. But to say that, therefore, there are no ethical truths, there are no aesthetic truths, there are no mathematical or logical truths, and there are no metaphysical truths (like that the past has existed longer than 5 minutes or that the external world is real) would be, I think, an overly restricted theory of truth and knowledge. We can know things even though they can’t be scientifically proven. And, indeed, this kind of epistemological naturalism would actually undermine science itself because science is, itself, permeated by assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven. So if you adopt this view, it would in fact undermine the very project of science.

Craig describes the presumptuousness of epistemological naturalism using this nice analogy:

The philosopher Ed Feser gives a wonderful analogy.[7] He says imagine you have a metal detector which is so calibrated that it will detect anything metal – it is so infallible that it is the best metal detector you could find. He asks, “Would that prove that there are no non-metallic objects? That the only things that exists are metallic things?” Well, obviously not. And that is exactly the same error that the epistemological naturalist is making. Because his metal detector, so to speak, is so good and so efficient at discovering empirical physical truth he concludes there is no other kind of truth and that there is no other source of knowledge. That is as silly as the person who thinks the metal detector would show there are no non-metallic objects. That would be epistemological naturalism.

Besides—and this is my second point—science doesn’t come close to “filling the gaps” for which supposedly weak-minded Christians appeal to God. This was a central theme of that David Berlinski book I blogged about: scientists, along with everyone else, ought to be very humble about what we think we know about our universe. Contrary to popular belief, we simply don’t know much.

One gap that science can’t explain, for example, is why the universe appears finely tuned to support life. As Craig explains in this podcast:

Earlier in discussing the fine-tuning of the universe, we saw that in order for life to exist anywhere in the universe there has to be these exquisitely finely tuned constants and quantities present in the Big Bang as initial conditions. These initial conditions are required for the existence and evolution of life anywhere in the cosmos. In the absence of the fine-tuning of these initial conditions, there would not even be galaxies, there wouldn’t be stars, there wouldn’t be planets where life could evolve and exist!

Any explanation for fine tuning that people like Stephen Hawking put forward in the name of science is metaphysical—which is beyond the realm of science to know. As our Methodist statement says, “We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues.”

As Craig argues, however, even a finely tuned universe necessary to support life—however improbable that is—isn’t sufficient for explaining life.

These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the existence and evolution of life. In order for life to originate somewhere in the universe, other conditions have to be in place and these also turn out to be astronomically improbable.

If you are like me, you were probably taught in high school or in grade school that the way that life originated on earth is through chemical interactions in the so-called “primordial soup.” Chance chemical reactions in the early oceans, perhaps fueled by lightning strikes, originated living organisms. Back in the 1950s, a graduate student named Stanley Miller was able to synthesize amino acids in the laboratory by passing electric sparks through a methane gas in one of his experimental apparatuses in the laboratory. He was able to obtain amino acids by electrical charges passed through the methane gas. Now, amino acids aren’t alive but proteins are made out of amino acids and proteins are found in living things and so the hope was that somehow the origin of life might be explained on the basis of these chemical reactions. You might be saying to yourself that that seems like a pretty big extrapolation – he was able to get amino acids, amino acids make up proteins, proteins are found in living things, therefore living things can be explained through chemical evolution. I would agree with you – I think that is a pretty big extrapolation and is really something that goes so far beyond the evidence as to be a non sequitur. But, nevertheless, that is what most of us were taught, right? In the primordial soup that covered the earth, in the warm oceans or else perhaps in pools that were isolated, through lightning strikes and chemical reactions, somehow primitive life was birthed and formed.

What you may not know is that all of these old chemical origin of life scenarios have broken down and are now widely rejected by the scientific community.

The bottom line is, “science,” as it’s popularly understood, overpromises and under-delivers. While science is good at explaining what it can explain, that leaves out way too much reality. Re-insert God into the mix, and things make much more sense.

12 Responses to “Debating God and science”

  1. Michael Snow Says:

    John Calvin, in the 16th Century, made many wise comments on Genesis: “He who would learn astronomy…let him go elsewhere….”

    ”Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.”

  2. DrTony Says:

    Reverend White,
    First, I want to thank you for providing the link to the statement on science and technology in the Book of Discipline; it made it easier for me to include it in my own discussion of this topic.

    I am not going to make any assumptions about what it is you believe in terms of science because this piece is the only one on which I have any information. But I think that you are limiting yourself when you define science as you have in this piece. It would appear that you have an “all-or-nothing” approach which I believe most scientists do not share.

    While I ponder what you wrote in this piece, I invite you to read my thoughts on this issue – http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/the-master-lesson/

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks! I think I agree with you, if you’re saying that scientists themselves aren’t necessarily philosophical materialists. By no means! I’ve read that scientists in America go to church more regularly than the average American. It’s just that science limits itself to investigating only natural causes and natural explanations. It isn’t equipped to “see” beyond the realm of time, space, and matter. That’s why I’m bothered when scientific atheists speak about metaphysical realities in the name of science. Science has nothing whatsoever to say about anything metaphysical: it must remain neutral on the question.

      But scientists who are also Christians certainly wouldn’t imagine that reality is limited to our physical universe.

      • DrTony Says:

        I would agree with you that the number of scientists who regularly go to church is higher than average (and much higher than people might think.)

        The phrase “philosophical materialist” has me bothered, perhaps because I think it tends to in the direction of what is known as “scientism”, a belief that all answers can be provided by science. It is not science by any stretch of the imagination. I think the same would be true about your comments related to scientific atheists.

        As to whether or not a science can say anything metaphysical in nature, I think it would depend on the context of the conversation. We all deal in the metaphysical at some point or another in our lives, whether we are prepared to deal with it or not.

        Any study of philosophy has to deal with metaphysics and it is a natural extension of a study of natural philosophy (a really old description of today’s sciences). And ultimately there are questions that can only be answered in that area of the mind and however you wish to describe reality.

  3. Jeff Says:

    I am a UM and a Creationist. Sometimes unbelieving scientists place more faith in naturalism than Christians place in God’s Word. Unbelievers are trying to create their own word of authority in a universe filled with mystery. When faced with mystery, unbelievers will proclaim that one day, it will have a scientific explanation. They are closed-minded people who will reject God at all costs. I pray for a Divine dose of prevenient grace for those such as Dr. Nye.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t disagree by much, except to say that there’s a strong cultural (and probably demonic) force at work here, which tells everyone this story about modern science: science has most, if not all, the answers—or if it doesn’t yet, it will. If there is a God, he looks after “spiritual” things, but he doesn’t have much to do with the physical world. Let the scientists answer all the important real-world questions.

      Of course it’s a lie, but I’ve received this message loud and clear in school and in pop culture. Haven’t you?

      So we should be compassionate and prayerful toward people who have swallowed this lie. There’s always hope!

    • DrTony Says:

      Jeff,
      A couple of things – first Bill Nye does not have (to my knowledge) a doctorate in science.

      Second, is it just scientists who place more faith in naturalism than Christians? Or is those who have turned to Christians for answers only to be rebuffed.

      Are only non-believers close-minded or is that a term that can be applied to many Christians as well?

      In view of a mystery, we all want an explanation. One of the things that I am saying in my message tomorrow is that when you tell me that there is only one answer and you know it and I have to accept your explanation, I will want to find it out for myself.

      And what am I to believe when someone tells me that the world is some 10,000 years old and all the life was created in six days and I see evidence to the contrary?

      My argument will always be that both sides of this debate are missing the point. Don’t tell me what to think, give me the evidence that you have and let me develop out my own thoughts. And when it comes to believing in Christ, show you believe; don’t demand that I believe you without the evidence (and when someone asked if He was the One, His answer was to look at the evidence.)

  4. Morbert Says:

    “We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues.”

    This is a statement I can more or less agree with, though I would wager that the latter case is violate much more than the former.

    When theologians and philosophers make statements like “It is impossible for Darwinian evolution to account for the diversity and complexity of life.” or “It is impossible for self-replicating molecules like DNA to have arisen purely by natural laws” or “The gravitational constant has been finely tuned by an intelligent agent.”, they are making statements within the realm of science, and it is perfectly valid for physicists and biologists to address them on the matter.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Hey, Morbert! So you wouldn’t have a problem with Christians inferring design from the physical world, so long as we don’t imagine that we’re speaking scientifically. I agree with that.

      • Morbert Says:

        Sure. Plenty of people are Christian and believe in Evolution as part of God’s plan.

        Unfortunately, there is a very damaging movement in America that seeks to alter science textbooks and teach a misrepresentation of the evolution “controversy” to kids. When you have Pat Robertson criticising your fundamentalism, you know you’re in trouble.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Absolutely!


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