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Science and Christianity

This guest contribution by Tim Earnshaw was delivered at a Christian seminar for James Cook University students. Tim puts it better than I could have, and has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Science and Christianity are often thought of as enemies. As two sides of a fight and the perception can be that in choosing one you reject the other.

Is it true? How do science and Christianity get along?

If you’re a Christian, how should you think about science?

If you’re a scientist, how should you think about Christianity?

This is a great topic and a really important one. In this short article I can’t cover lots of the issues and questions involved. What I hope to do is give a basic framework and provoke you to think and talk about it more. I want to argue that Christianity and science aren’t the enemies they have been made out to be. That you don’t need to choose between the two.

Understanding science

So lets start by talking about science. There are, I think, a few ways to talk about science. It is a body of knowledge, we talk about what science knows about the world. It is a group of people; the community of people who do science. But I think the most helpful way of talking about science and what I will mean when I use the word, is a method.

Science is a way of finding out things. It is a method of knowledge. It’s a way of answering the questions of how the world works, why things are the way they are. It covers a vast range of activities but what makes them scientific is that it is based on the observable evidence, data from the physical world, not our assumptions or traditions. It depends on what we can observe with our senses in the material world, that we then try to explain with a theory, that we then test by more experiments. Does our theory match the data, does it explain what we observe?

It has proven to be a profoundly powerful method. It is powerful because it is not tied to any prior position. As a method it says, "I am driven where the evidence takes me." It has proved to be extraordinarily powerful. It is hard to think of an area of life left untouched, and on the most part unimproved by, the advances the method of science has given us.

But it’s a deliberately limited method. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. It is not a weakness of science, in fact I think it is part of it’s great strength. Science works by saying, "I will only use what I can observe. Ignoring all other ideas and thoughts: what does the physical evidence say?" So, as a method, it limits itself to the physical, to the material. By definition any non-natural causes are excluded.

For the founders of modern science this was not a basis for atheism. In fact, many of the influential names at the forefront of the advancement of Science have been Christian; guys like Galileo and Newton. They understood science as better understanding how God had made the world, to better praise and glorify God. But science had a particular place, a limited scope. It was only talking about natural causes because that is what it is, a method for investigating natural causes.

So science is intentionally limited but it’s also provisional. There are lots of things to say here and we don’t have time to say them all.

1. Science is limited by what we know so far.

It’s provisional in that it’s our best attempt so far to explain the data we have. This isn’t a weakness of the method; it’s one of its great strengths. If we find physical data that challenges the current theory, it’s updated or replaced - no matter who came up with it or how inconvenient it is. Some of what we currently believe will be show to be wrong in the future. All of that is okay. It’s actually part of the joy and strength of science.

2. Secondly science is provisional in that it’s limited by the people who do it.

It’s limited in the same way all human knowledge is limited, it is done by people. People can be lazy or selfish or incompetent. You see this if you ever get into scientific research. It is not the utopian vision it is sold as: the fighting for research grants, the push to publish, the competitiveness of different schools, different theories. The scientific community is more ready to hear some things than they are others.

Science is provisional- it’s answers are always up for review. It is an insufficient method.

Science is not enough on it’s own. Science can tell us what we can do, but it can not tell us whether we should do it. Science can tell us we can split an atom and the energy we can produce by doing it. But science can not tell us whether we should. Science restricts itself to a natural framework and refuses to ask questions of morality and purpose, things that are not discovered by empirical methods.

But the reality is, science needs a framework of morality and purpose in which to operate. We can not do science without answering those questions. Not just can I but should I: is it good, is it right?

And the truth is we all do answer these questions. We need to be honest enough to think about how we answer them and where our framework comes from.

Science is not enough, it was never designed to be. It needs a framework in which to operate. We need to answer questions beyond what science answers. Finally, in terms of science, I want to say there is a

difference between what science can demonstrate and what some scientists assume - a pragmatic naturalism, that is a looking for natural causes, has for many people turned into a philosophical naturalism.

Philosophical naturalism is the world view that says that the physical universe is all that exists, that there is nothing else, no supernatural. And some scientists have moved to say that science proves it, that science shows that natural causes are the only causes. But that is not a scientific claim. To start by saying we are going to limit ourselves to natural causes, and then turn around and say we have therefore proven there are only natural causes, is smuggling your assumption into your conclusion. It is like saying I am only going to think about one person in the room. I will investigate everything about that one person. Then after finding out all sorts of things about them I look at my findings and say we only found out about one person therefore there is no one else in the room.

The claim that there are only physical causes is outside the parameters of science: it is a philosophical claim. It may or may not be true, but science can’t prove it. We need to be aware of the difference between science and philosophy. We need to be careful when people claim more of science than it proves.

This movement from Science to Philosophy is also why I am uncomfortable with aspects of ‘Intelligent Design’ as a scientific theory. Intelligent design is a teaching program that some Christian groups are using in science classrooms as an alternative to evolution. Intelligent design teaches that because there are things we can’t explain in our current scientific theory - irreducible complexity and other things - the best scientific hypothesis is that there was a designer. I agree that the complexity of the world points to a designer but that is not a scientific conclusion. Because science is the process of discovering natural causes.

It’s okay to agree there is an intelligent designer and to keep looking for natural causes. In fact I think teaching intelligent design as science can be unhelpful scientifically because it can stop you exploring and understanding the natural causes. It can be unhelpful theologically because it reduces God to the cause of the things we don’t understand. A "God of the gaps."

So science is a powerful method for discovering how the world works. It’s something that Christians have been involved in from its beginning and something we don’t need to be worried about doing. But it is limited, provisional and doesn’t answer everything.

Understanding God

I want to do something similar with God. I’m talking about the God of the Bible. Just as science has been used to make all sorts of claims, so all sorts of things have been said about God, from both people claiming to speak as scientists, and people claiming to speak as Christians. We need to stop and see what the Bible says for itself.

The Bible begins, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." God is not part of the physical universe. He stands outside the universe because he is its source. He created it. Which, in the Bible’s world view, gives great value and significance to the created world. It is real and significant. It has purpose and meaning because it was made. It is not random or accidental. It also means all of the created world belongs to God. He rules it, he owns it.

The Bible also says that not only did God make the world originally but he continues to sustain it. Hebrews 1:3 says he is sustaining all things by his powerful word. He is not the "distant watchmaker," setting up the world and leaving it to work out, nor is he a "God of the gaps," a God we only need to evoke when we can’t understand how something works. He is the one in control of it all. The means he uses to order his world are the means we discover thorough the process of science. What we call "natural laws" are, according to the Bible, just the way God normally works.

This is what makes science work. Science as a method depends on the assumption that the world is consistent. Why do we assume that? The Bible say’s it’s because God made it ordered and consistent.

It’s why so many of the fathers of modern science were Christian, convinced that God’s world was ordered and consistent and so they should be able to observe it and work out how it works.

Can God do things differently? Of course he can. It’s why the Bible is not surprised by miracles, because if God can sustain the world through one means, he can just as easily do it by another means. Miracles are no more works of God than every other event; they are just God acting differently for a particular purpose. In fact, some of the greatest miracles in the Bible are explained in the Bible by natural means. Listen to Exodus 14 describe the crossing of the Red Sea: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided." Here is a miracle of God, but it’s not amazing because they couldn’t explain how it happened, it was amazing because God did it then for the purpose of rescuing his people from the armies of Egypt.

One of Richard Dawkins' great attacks on religion is that it stops people thinking because you no longer investigate, you just say, God did it. But this misunderstands the picture of God in the Bible. Christianity is not a competing explanation for the mechanism of how the world works. Which is why, unlike the picture Dawkins paints, there are Christians involved in all the different levels of the scientific academy.

I emailed this talk to a Christian lecturer here at uni. One of his comments was

"To me, the fact that there is so much in this world that is driven by a natural order … all suggest that God is very much about the world working and sustaining itself through ordered phenomena. He (God) is on our side as scientists, I don’t feel that I am working in opposition to him. I just wish he would give away some of his answers about how the world works a little more easily! But the fact that it is hard to work out how the world works speaks to me about how complex it is, how wonderful God must be who created it .… Everyday, in my search for scientific truth, it tells me that I am not God, but I am just like a person visiting an art gallery and trying to describe the great work that someone else has made, knowing full well that I am incapable of ever being able to produce such a work."

The Biblical framework encourages us to do science and to use the empirical method; to explore God’s good world, to expect it to be explorable, to be able to understand it and to learn about it.

But then how do we know God? If he is not part of the created world, how do we know him? Can we know him? The Bible's answer is that we cannot discover God. We cannot, by ourselves, work him out.

If we are to know God, God has to reveal himself to us. Let me ask you, how do we know each other?

Guys, say there is a girl in your course who you want to get to know. What do you do? You could employ a scientific method. You could observe her; study her movement patterns. Follow her home and camp outside to observe how she lived. Most people would call that stalking, which - it’s really important for you to know - is illegal! And even if you managed to do that without getting arrested, you could discover a whole bunch of things about her. But you still wouldn’t know her - no matter how good a scientist you are. Because, human knowledge is relational. And relationships depend on someone letting you in. It depends on someone sharing themself with you. It is called revelation. You can know about me, but you can’t know me unless I choose to reveal myself to you. It is the same with knowing God. We can only know him if he chooses to reveal himself to us.

That is the claim of the Bible; that God spoke through human authors to write words that reveal him to us, that show his character, his purpose, so that we might know him. And at it’s heart is the person of Jesus Christ, the person who fulfills it all and makes sense of it all as he enters into creation. God become flesh that he might reveal himself to us.

The Bible is not a science text book. It is not an alternative explanation of cause. It is God’s letter to you, that you might meet him, that you might know him. When we treat the Bible as a scientific text book, we get in all sorts of problems. It’s like a guy writing a letter to express his feelings for you, and you look in it for the answers to your biology assignment. You’ll fail your biology assignment and you’ll miss that the guy really likes you and wants to get to know you. If you treat the Bible like a science text book, you’ll make it say things it isn’t trying to say, and you’ll miss God’s word to you; that he loves you and wants to know you.

What conflict?

So science isn’t anti-God. It is a method that forces us to look at the natural causes. And the Bible isn’t anti-science. In fact, it is pro science, and provides a framework in which science makes sense.

More than that, the Bible provides a framework in which science is profitable. It provides answers to the questions of morality and purpose that enable us to use science well. So, where is the conflict?

What about particular claims? What about Christians making claims from the Bible that are explicitly in conflict with particular claims of Science? Or visa versa. The reason we’ve spent some time understanding a framework, is to help see lots of the conflict comes from misunderstanding of science or of Christianity. I want to say there have been failures from both sides. Christians have been too quick to make scientific conclusions from the Bible. Some Christians do a great disservice to the Bible when they refuse to read it on its own terms and come to the Bible with the prior assumption that it must be answering scientific questions.

What about Genesis 1? Bible-believing Christians have different ways of reading this chapter. The challenge is to read Genesis 1 and let it show us what questions it is aiming to answer. When we read it as a scientific text book, we bring to it our questions that are quite modern questions - questions it might not be aiming to answer. I think Genesis is much more interested in answering questions of who and why, rather than how. It was written as a polemic against ancient world views that saw the world as the chaotic byproduct of warring gods, not as a polemic against modern scientific theories.

If you are a Christian, don’t be afraid to do science well. You won’t discover anything that God doesn’t already know, or that he’s worried about you finding out! At the same time, scientists have made theological and philosophical claims from Science which science can’t justify. Or they have written off Christianity, thinking of it as a competing explanation of how the world works rather than listening to what it has to say for itself. If you’re a scientist, don’t be afraid to seriously consider Christianity. Don’t put them in different compartments. If you’re not yet a Christian, come and investigate the central claims of the person of Jesus to get to know what God is like. And maybe you need to be ready to question your assumptions, to recognise what’s science and what’s a philosophical position, and to ask why you believe it. You don’t have to choose between science and Christianity. Much of the conflict between science and Christianity is driven by those with an interest in the philosophical claims more than the scientific ones.

But there is a deeper problem. God has revealed himself to us and we don’t want to know him. The Bible says that we resent the truth about God because we don’t want someone to rule over us. We don’t want someone to be our God. We want to do what we want, not what some one else wants.

At the heart of the matter, the "conflicts" between science and God are not questions about the scientific method, but questions about us. There is a part of us that wants science to be in conflict with God; we would prefer to dispense with God if we could. We like the promise that science has done away with our need for God, for then we could come up with our own ultimate answers about purpose and morality and meaning.

God confronts our human pride. It is belittling to think God would tell us what to do, how to live.

The real conflict is not between the method of science and God, it is between humanity and God, between you and God. And for all the power and wonder of science, it is powerless to deal with that conflict.

But that is the conflict that the Bible is far more interested in. That is the conflict Jesus came to deal with.

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