Science vs. Religion
What is the relationship between science and religion? Conflict? Dialog? Complete separation? or something else? I want to present a piece of writing that I believe speaks wonderfully to this subject and captures many of my own issues with the topic of science and religion.
Here is a chapter from a book written by John W. Loftus called, "Why I Became and Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity" This is a great book, that exceeds the work of most of those who are called the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris). This book is a balanced and well written presentation of all the issues (philosophical, historical, ethical, etc) between theists (Christian in particular) and Atheist. The author also provides you with his own life story along the way allowing you to appreciate his work all the more. I included his citations as endnotes. These blog would not allow me to format the endnotes properly so they are merely numbered within the text to which you can find the information with the corresponding number at the bottom. So here is his work:
The Lessons of Galileo, Science, and Religion
The French philosophes, or social critics of the eighteenth century, used the trial of Galileo for propaganda purposes to show the conflict between science and Christianity, and it was. It was a conflict of sciences that the church as an institution got caught up in. The church had taken a stand on Aristotelian science and was not prepared to let the new science progress. And yet there was more to it. (1)
The problem for astronomers in this era was to explain the retrograde motion of the planets. The word “planet” in Greek literally means “wanderer,” and in the New Testament the word means “deceiver.” In the night sky the planets seem to back up and then go forward again as the weeks go by, rather than move in one direction across the sky. This observed motion is actually because the earth revolves around the sun along with the other planets. All of the planets pass each other in their yearly cycles. But since “the ancients viewed the celestial realm as the residence of the gods,” (2) the planets were defying the perfect symmetry of the heavenly realm. The retrograde motion of the planets seemed to contradict the perfect divine order of the universe, thus endangering human faith in the divine creator of the universe.
The philosopher’s task, in Plato’s words, was to “save the phenomena”—to redeem the apparent disorder of the empirical heavens. The Pythagoreans actually suggested a stationary sun, and Aristarchus posited a heliocentric theory. Yet the obstacles were formidable to these viewpoints: there was no observable stellar parallax (described later) because they lacked a telescope. There was also the commonsense notion that a moving earth would force people on earth to be knocked about. Plus the ancients believed in the terrestrial-celestial separation between the realm of the gods and of humans. They believed that the heavens operated by a different set of laws than on earth.
The reason this was a problem is because Aristotelian cosmology led to the conclusion that the earth was the center of the universe. Aristotle’s viewpoint is teleological. He concluded there were four causes for everything that exists: (1) the formal cause, “What is its form?”; (2) the material cause, “what is it made of?”; (3) the efficient cause, “What made it?”; and (4) the most significant: the final cause, that is, “what purpose does it serve?” According to Aristotle, rocks fall to earth because they seek their rightful place. And heavier ones fall faster because they have more potentiality, he said. This is a purpose-oriented answer, but it is completely untrue when falling in a vacuum. “Why does water freeze faster when it’s hotter?” He answered it’s because hot water has more potentiality. But it doesn’t freeze faster! “Why is there wind?” Aristotle claimed the wind is the result of the earth breathing. These are purpose-oriented answers. He talked as though nature is a consciously operating organism. This teleological viewpoint led to the idea that the earth was the fixed center of the universe. Why? Because all objects fall to earth, their rightful place. Therefore the earth is the center of the universe. According to Aristotle, teleological explanations are ultimate explanations for why something happens.
Ptolemy (100-178 CE) outlined the answer to the problem of the planets that held sway until Copernicus. It was very complicated and involved the notion that planets revolved around certain circular points in the universe called epicycles, thus explaining why the planets were brighter during the retrograde cycle. (By the way, Ptolemy argued convincingly for a spherical earth!)
Nicholas Copernicus had come to regard the Ptolemaic system as a “monster,” which still failed to account for or to predict observed planetary positions with reliable accuracy. Copernicus believed that “the divine creator, whose works were everywhere good and orderly, could not have been slipshod with the heavens.” With him the appearances were saved with greater conceptual elegance. He saw his work fully published on the last day of his life, 1543 CE, titled The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Yet “for most who heard of it, the new conception was contrary to experience and so patently false, as to not require serious discussion.” (3)
The Trial of Galileo (1633 CE)
By Galileo’s day in the early seventeenth century, the Catholic Church felt compelled to take a definite stand against the Copernican hypothesis for various reasons (the Protestants had done this earlier). One major reason was that Dante harmonized the Christian religion with the science of his day. When the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology was embraced by the Christian poet Dante (1265-1321 CE) in his extremely popular Divine Comedy, the ancient cosmological view “fully reentered the Christian psyche.” (4) Dante did this, according to Richard Tarnas, by “poetically uniting the specific elements of Christian theology with the equally specific elements of classical astronomy…The Aristotelian geocentric universe thus became a massive symbolic structure for the moral drama of Christianity…all of the Ptolemaic planetary spheres now took on Christian references, with specific ranks of angels and archangels responsible for each sphere’s motions…Every aspect of the Greek scientific scheme [was] now imbued with religious significance.” If, for example, a moving earth were to be introduced into that system, “the effect of a purely scientific innovation would threaten the integrity of the entire Christian cosmology.” (5)
Tarnas again: “If the earth truly moved then no longer could it be the fixed center of God’s Creation and his plan of salvation. Nor could man be the central focus of the cosmos. The absolute uniqueness and significance of Christ’s intervention into human history seemed to require a corresponding uniqueness and significance for the Earth. The meaning of redemption itself, the central event not just of human history, but also of universal history, seemed at stake. To be a Copernican seemed tantamount to atheism.” (6)
According to Christian philosopher Diogenes Allen, the Aristotelian/Ptolemy view “included values as part of the very fabric of the universe…Obligations and rights…are confirmed and supported by the physical order of the cosmos itself…It seemed to threaten the very foundations of the social, political, and moral order.” (7)
The invention of the telescope changed the debate. It destroyed several Ptolemaic conceptions: (a) They believed that the spheres of the universe were perfect, yet Galileo noticed the moon has craters; (b) they believed everything rotates around the earth, yet Galileo discovered Jupiter had four moons; and (c) they believed the heavenly bodies were eternal, yet Galileo discovered sun spots indicating that the sun was decaying. He defended the Copernican system with observations, and thus began the rise of modern experimental science. He showed by experiment how heavier rocks do not fall faster than lighter ones (contrary to Aristotle). He conceptualized tying a string from a heavier rock to a lighter one, thus making them one object. But would the combined rock now fall faster than either one, or would the lighter one drag? Such problems plagued the older view.
But look at how Galileo’s views were answered purportedly by a Florentine astronomer named Francesco Sizzi: “There are seven windows in the head: two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth. So also in the heavens there are two favorable stars, two unfavorable, two luminaries, and Mercury alone undecided and indifferent. From all this, and from other such natural phenomena, such as seven metals, etc., all too pointless to enumerate, we can conclude that the number of planets is necessarily seven…Furthermore, the alleged satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can have no influence on earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist…Besides all this, the Jews and other ancient peoples as well as modern Europeans have always divided the week into seven days and have named them after the seven planets. Now if we, like Galileo, increase the number of planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.” (8)
What must be understood about the trial: First, there was real debate about the geocentric system—but it was to be regarded as a “hypothesis not fact.” Second, Copernicus’s and Galileo’s systems contained ideas that were “hopelessly inaccurate,” and there was no evidence yet for things that should be notices. For instance, the proper planetary orbits were not known yet—they were arguing for more complete circles revolving around the sun; and there was “no observable stellar parallax”—individual stars should appear at different points in the sky when the earth is at its two farthest distances in its cycle around the sun. Either the stars were immensely more distant, which we now know is the case, or the earth didn’t move. Thus, the Copernican system was not yet established on scientific grounds. Third, the pope, Urban VIII, felt personally betrayed by Galileo, a former friend, because he thought one of the incompetent speakers in Galileo’s book Dialogue of Two Chief World Systems was intended to represent him.
Regardless, with the success of the Copernican revolution the belief that the universe operates uniformly by the same consistent pattern of laws is firmly established as fact. Scientists will not, cannot, and should not give in on this. Any theory that contradicts this viewpoint should be judged on scientific grounds to be in gross error, like biblical literalism, which places the earth ten thousand years old at the center of the universe.
1. The Relationship of Science to Religion
Ian Barbour presents four ways of relating science and religion. (9) Let me briefly comment on them.
Conflict. Scientific Materialism (“Scientism”) vs. Biblical Literalism
Scientific materialism (“scientism”) makes two claims: the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge; and matter is the fundamental reality of the universe. The first one is an epistemological claim. The second one is a metaphysical claim. Yet the second claim is based upon the first one, which has been shown to be very reliable through the centuries. Biblical literalism claims that a literal interpretation of the Bible sets the limits for science. It claims that a universal flood explains geology, and a six-day creation explains the origin of the universe.
J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig make a distinction here between strong scientism and weak scientism. Strong scientism states, “There are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.” Weak scientism, in their words, will “allow for the existence of truths apart from science and are even willing to grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But advocates of weak scientism still hold that science is the most valuable, most serious, and most authoritative sector of human learning…fields outside science gain if they are given scientific support and not vice versa.” Accordingly, if weak scientism is true, “then the conversation between theology and science will be a monologue with theology listening to science and waiting for science to give it support.” (10) I’m an advocate of weak scientism. In the words of Steven Pinker, during an interview when he was asked if something was possible, said, “That’s an interesting hypothesis; I hope someone tests it.”
Biblical literalism was one of the problems in Galileo’s day. It is a very untrustworthy approach to science, and so it is rejected by scientifically educated people today. According to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the argument against biblical literalism is “simple.” “I have yet to see a successful prediction about the physical world that was inferred or extrapolated from the content of any religious document. Indeed, I can make an even stronger statement. Whenever people have used religious documents to make detailed predictions about the physical world they have been famously wrong. By a prediction I mean a precise statement about the untested behavior of objects or phenomena in the natural world that gets logged before the event takes place.” (11)
This view can be summed up in these words: Science and religion are totally independent enterprises and separated into watertight compartments. They have contrasting methods and differing languages. The rest is merely deciding who reigns over which area—turf wars. However, Barbour reminds us, “if religion deals with God and the self, and science deals with nature, who can say anything about the relationship between God and nature, or between the self and nature?” (12) Furthermore, if religious beliefs have an independent status, there must be ways of establishing religion on its own grounds, and that is something I am arguing against in this book. Unless someone can propose a mutually agreed-upon reliable scientific test to show that religion is a legitimate domain of knowledge on its own merits, it doesn’t have any independent status.
This view can be summed up in these words: There are some methodological parallels between science and religion as well as some differences. Religious beliefs interpret and correlate experience, much as scientific theories interpret and correlate experimental data. All our beliefs can be tested by the criteria of consistency with experience. But personal involvement is more total in the case of religion, since the primary goal is the reformation of the person. Science sets limits within which accounts of meaning can work. Science explains but religion reveals, science informs but religion reforms.
Donald MacKay advocates this viewpoint: “both science and theology give different kinds of explanations—with different methods and aims—about the same objects. Both explanations of the same event can be true and complete on their own levels. But the methods differ greatly.” Both of these explanations can be correct and are not mutually exclusive. Compare how an artist, poet, theologian, or astronomer might view a sunset. They can all be correct from their perspective, even if they disagree with one another. MacKay would argue that there is no incompatibility in claiming that the formation of the universe as we know it is the result of natural processes, and that “the cosmos is God’s creations.” Each explanation is from a particular conceptual framework and can be true from that framework. (13)
Howard Van Till argues in a like manner by setting the limits of the dialogue: “When scientists make statements concerning matters of origin, governance, value or purpose of the cosmos, they are necessarily stepping outside the bounds of scientific investigation and drawing from their religious or philosophical perspectives…[Similarly]…when theologians make statements or conjectures about geological processes or thermodynamic phenomena or cosmic chronology, they are necessarily stepping outside the bounds of scriptural exegesis and into the domain of modern natural science.” (14)
However, unless someone can propose a mutually agreed-upon reliable scientific test to distinguish between competing religious claims, scientists don’t know which one of them to dialogue with. Richard Dawkins makes a passionate and thoughtful case that science does not need to dialogue with religious views since they don’t have a reliable method like scientists do. He writes: “Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn’t Russell’s teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific skepticism?...A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?” It is said that “science concerns itself with how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions. What on Earth is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word ‘why’ is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow?...What is the color of abstraction? What is the smell of hope? The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn’t make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention…Perhaps there are some genuinely and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science…But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?” (15)
Religion is used by people of faith to explain the gaps in our knowledge, but science has been filling those gaps one by one. There is becoming less and less room for God, as we explain more and more. Call it the God of the Gaps if you want to (see note) (16), but we are less religious today because of science. After surveying several times when theologians have retreated in the face of the progress of science, Richard Carrier wrote, “theologians have been wrong every time so far. Why keep betting on them?” (17) I just don’t see why we should.
The content of theology and science can be integrated. Natural theology asserts “from below” that understanding nature can give rise to and support theology, as argued by Thomas Aquinas, Norman Geisler, and Richard Swinburne. The theology of nature asserts that our understanding of the general characteristics of nature will affect our models of God’s relation to nature. Religious beliefs and scientific theories should be in harmony, such that some adjustments or modifications are called for. Arthur Peacocke and Teilhard de Chardin advocate this view. Chardin argues from evolution to the existence of God, and that at some point humans will achieve convergence to an “Omega Point.” (18) Then there is panentheism, or process theology, which is defended by Paul Davies, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. “The World Is God’s Body.” Deism is an integrative approach that went through four different stages and traveled from England to America and France. The last stage merely affirmed that God created the universe and that’s it. Deism basically rejects revealed religion and instead affirms that reason must support any theological belief. If it can’t, then that religious belief is to be jettisoned. (19)
However, if there is any integration taking place, religious beliefs are always the ones that have been forced to integrate with science and not the other way around, so why not just admit science sets the boundaries for what we believe? Science and its theories can be tested empirically in a dialectical manner, whereas there is no mutually agreed-upon reliable test to establish religious beliefs. Scientific tests on prayer have actually shown the opposite. I suspect that with scientists who have tried to integrate science and religion, the integration has become complete for some of them. For them, science swallows up religion with nothing left over.
Here Is Some Scientific Evidence Against The Christian Belief In The God Of The Bible
Astronomy tells us the universe is thirteen to fifteen billion years old and arose out of a cosmic singularity. No account of the development of this universe can be harmonized with the creation accounts in Genesis except that these accounts were pure mythic folklore. Archaeology shows us there isn’t any evidence for Israelites being slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, or that they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, or that they conquered the land of Canaan. Geology confirms the slow evolutionary development of life in the sedimentary rock layers on a planet nearly five billion years old, just as astronomy confirms the slow evolutionary development of galaxy, star, and planet formation. Geology also disconfirms that there was a universal flood that covered the earth. Neurology confirms that strokes, seizures, and other illnesses stem from a brain malfunction and hence disconfirms that there is something called a mind or soul. Sam Harris points out that if God created us with minds, then there is no reason to expect that he also created us with brains. Modern medicine has achieved astounding results that such superstitious practices like exorcisms, bloodletting, and supernatural healings are delusional. Psychology confirms that who we are and how we behave are determined to an overwhelming degree before we reach the age of accountability. People are not evil so much as much they may be sick. People are born with different propensities for evil based on their genes, and these propensities are acted upon by upbringing and environment. There is no rebellion against God. If God is omniscient, then like the ultimate psychotherapist he knows why we do everything we do, and since this is the case, there can be no wrathful God.
Science Has Also Displaced God
There are four cosmological displacements:
1. The Copernican theory of the heliocentric universe defended by Galileo (1600s). Man was no longer the center of our particular solar system.
2. The discovery that our solar system is not central to the Milky Way galaxy, but located on the periphery, out on a spiral arm (c. 1900). Man was not even central in his own galaxy.
3. The discovery that our galaxy is only one of billions of galaxies (c. 1930s). Man isn’t even central to the universe as a whole. We are insignificant.
4. The possibility that there are an infinite number of universes, called a multi-verse. God is no longer needed.
The Origins Of Experimental Science
Christians claim that “the fully amplified Judeo-Christian view of creation was, historically, a very significant factor in the rise of science…Furthermore, it appears that no other historic views had the same fruitful logic and suggestiveness that could give science momentum…Science makes sense only in a certain kind of world—the kind that was in fact first envisioned by Christian theism.” (20)
What motivated Newton to quantify the movements of objects? The history of scientific notions about motion itself reveals various ideas, depending a great deal upon religious and philosophical views, beginning with Parmenides and Zeno, who denied there was motion. Ockham simply believed there was no need to posit the existence of motion since the simpler explanation is that things just reappear in a different place. And yet Ockham, Zeno, and Parmenides all saw the same things we do today. So for them to see things differently, people had to adopt different philosophical assumptions. Without a change in these assumptions, science would never have arisen; this is true. The question is whether they came from Christian theism or not, and even if they did, whether this proves anything at all.
Michael Polanyi, Ian Barbour, Thomas Kuhn, and Karl Popper all examine the art of scientific discovery and what it takes to understand science. (21) It’s more than just one fact built upon another. On the one hand the philosophical foundations had to be in place for there to be some initial discoveries, although on the other hand, it must be acknowledged that surprise discoveries cause a change in their assumptions. I maintain that this whole process of discovery is just a two-way street, both changing the other in tandem, dialectically.
It’s claimed there are four foundations, or bases of science. Let’s take a very brief look at them: (1) Einstein said, “The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” (22) While this may be true, for all I know, if so, it doesn’t say anything about Christianity per se, and it doesn’t say whether there is an external world independent of the perceiving subject, nor that this cannot be defended from a naturalistic standpoint, either. It would only support that claim that such a belief helped to establish science. Historically, even false beliefs have caused science to advance, as Karl Popper has shown. For that’s how science progresses, he argued, by informed conjectures and guesses, which in turn are refuted for better ones, and so on. Does anyone want to say that just because Galileo had a false understanding of the way planets revolve around the sun that his model of the universe didn’t help science progress? Newton’gs theory of gravitation helped science progress too, and while it is still close enough to be used in contexts that only require a close approximation, it was wrong and eventually superseded by Einstein’s relativity theory. As we shall see shortly, the Greek philosopher/scientist Thales was wrong to suggest water is the source of all things, but his naturalistic method was probably more important to the advancement of science, which excluded supernatural explanations. Besides, the fact is that Einstein probably did not believe in the supernatural anyway. (23)
(2) The intelligibility of nature—that we can understand nature to some degree. Immanuel Kant is reported to have said, “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” This seems strange coming from Kant, who did not think we see reality itself, the “things in themselves.” That being said, many aspects of the world still defy our comprehension or ability to describe them. Does anyone truly understand quantum mechanics?
(3) The uniformity of nature—that nature is ordered according to patterns we generalize into laws, and that these laws operate uniformly throughout the whole universe. Let me elaborate here. The notion of the uniformity of nature presents us with the “riddle of induction.” What justifies the belief in the uniformity of nature such that scientists can be confident in induction as a scientific method? When speaking of this problem, Paul Kurtz argued, “All other positions face a quandary similar to that hurled at the scientific humanist—though compounded. It is unfair to burden the scientific humanist with the ‘riddle of induction,’ for there is a ‘riddle of intuition’ or a ‘riddle of subjectivism’ or a ‘riddle’ for any other method. The intuitionist, mystic, or subjectivist can only justify his position by assuming his method to do so, thus committing a petito principi (begging the question). The burden of proof rests with these alternative positions…If all positions involve some question begging and are on the same ground in this regard, we may ask: ‘Which is the least self-defeating?’” (24)
In truth, the uniformity of nature is a good model for understanding the universe, which has a great deal of support that is continually being tested in light of observations from distant galaxies, and that may be all we can claim. Philosopher of science Bas Van Fraassen has gone farther in a detailed argument that there are no natural laws. While he agrees there are “regularities,” he argues that no metaphysical account of laws can succeed. He develops an empiricist view of science as a construction of models to represent the phenomena. Van Fraasen argues that no adequate account of the concept of natural laws has been given, although science can continue without recourse to such laws. I’m certainly no expert in this area, but we should hesitate before claiming that nature operates by uniform natural laws. (25) Victor J. Stenger, who agrees with Van Fraasen, has argued that “the laws of physics are not restrictions on the behavior of matter. Rather they are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behavior. (26)
(4) The adequacy of scientific language and mathematics to adequately describe the world. It has been said that “humans invent abstract mathematics; basically making it up out of their imaginations, yet math magically turns out to describe the world.” (27) But science works as a way of investigating the world because the world behaves in a manner that can be investigated and can be described (in part) by formal mathematical language. Mathematics was not made up. It came as the result of empirical observations. Before people decided 2 + 2 = 4, they took two sets of two, put them together, and counted the result. This is just part of the whole anthropic principle as applied to science. If the world didn’t behave regularly, then we wouldn’t even be here to learn about it in the first place.
Science is a joint effort, performed in various fields of specialized research, where discoveries of the past become stepping-stones for progress in the future. Science proceeds on the basis of past research in a multifaceted array of separate specializations. Scientists don’t have to continually “reinvent the wheel,” for instance. There is little room in science for very many fundamental assumptions. The main exception is the philosophical notion that our senses reliably reflect a mutually shared experience of this world. But that’s an assumption we all make precisely because without it we cannot live a normal life.
Dr. Joshua Sharp, assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia, described it to me (via e-mail) like this: “The assumption of science is that the universe that appears to exist actually exists, and that our observations of the universe relate to the actual universe in some repeatable way. This assumption can only be supported by circumstantial utilitarian evidence (with it, we can predict the future), but we have acquired mountains of utilitarian evidence for it! This assumption has led us to certain mathematical models, including logic. Science can present no evidence for or against solipsism or the Matrix; assuming that what we observe in some way approximates a universe that actually exists. But we can justify a belief in logic. We did not assume logic; we assumed the universe and developed logic by observing how the universe works.”
With modern science we simply don’t need metaphysical assumptions, since a good scientist could be an atheist, a pantheist, a deist, or a Muslim. The bottom line, if nothing else, is that science justifies itself pragmatically. We needed some assumptions to help get science off the ground and to jettison the superstitions that held us back from discovering it. But those beliefs which we might have called assumptions in a prior era are now known as the bedrock facts of science because, if for no others reason, they produce solid results. The assumption for Galileo was that the universe operates by the same set of laws. Now this is no longer considered an assumption at all. It is a well established fact! So pragmatic justification alone is all we need. It’s surely all that anyone has to go on. To reach the moon we must do thus and so. We did thus and so and we reached the moon. Therefore doing thus and so gets us to the moon. As Stenger writes, “The validity of the scientific method is justified by its immense success.” (28) Why would we need a worldview to see this? According to Karl Popper scientific knowledge progresses based upon “conjectures” or “guesses,” which are falsified and replaced by better “conjectures” or “guesses.” I see no good reason to suppose this body of knowledge is dependent on any worldview considerations. Moreover, the results of science are breaking down superstitions around the globe too. So in a way, as science progresses it’s tearing at the heart of religious beliefs everywhere by providing the answers that religion always promised but failed to deliver.
Paul Kurtz sums up what the pioneers of modern science did by telling us they actually “abandoned tradition, mysticism, revelation, and faith, and proceeded directly to the Book of Nature. They eschewed hidden occult explanations for natural causes. They rejected purely speculative metaphysics and sought hypotheses and theories that were verified by empirical observation, experimental prediction, and the precision and power of mathematics. Scientific progress could only occur when the theological and philosophical authorities of the past were discarded, and a fresh bold approach to nature was adopted.” (29)
Richard Carrier is doing his doctoral dissertation on science and early Christianity, which will be published when he’s done. According to him, to say “‘our concept of science is an outgrowth of Christian theology’ is no more true than ‘our concept of science is an outgrowth of pagan theology.’ Modern science grew up in a Christian context, but only by re-embracing ancient scientific values against the grain of the original Christian mind-set. In turn, those ancient scientific values grew up in a pagan context. As with Christianity, that’s not causality, it’s just circumstance.” Moreover, “most Christians were uniformly hostile to the whole system of scientific values, condemning them as vain, idolatrous, arrogant, and unnecessary, if not outright dangerous. It took a long, gradual process to finally change minds on that score.” In the end, Carrier argues, “Christianity was bad for science. It put a stop to scientific progress for a thousand years, and even after that is made science’s recovery difficult, painful, and slow.” (30) And I think history would bear this out. Every major innovative scientific advance was made difficult by the Church, and still is today.
Let me put it this way. Christians claim their faith gave rise to modern science even though the Bible literally contains talk of a six day creation, a three-tired universe, a worldwide flood let loose from the firmament above, nine-hundred-year-old men, talking snakes and donkeys, a sun that stood still, and a hell in the deepest parts of the earth, and they still want to claim their faith gave rise to science? That’s balderdash (sorry, I can’t resist)! Science itself has completely undermined these views, forcing thoughtful Christians to reinterpret their Bibles over and over again. Furthermore, if Christianity gave rise to modern science then why are these apologists silent about the fact that it didn’t begin among Christianities that existed in the Byzantine Empire, Russia, or Egypt? This fact alone helps us see that cultural factors were the dominant ones.
Methodological naturalism best describes the method I use to evaluate any claim, which is the basis for my skeptical control beliefs. The phrase “methodological naturalism” is believed to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 in a paper subsequently published as “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences.” De Vries distinguished between what he called “methodological naturalism,” a disciplinary method that says nothing about God’s existence, and “metaphysical naturalism,” which “denies the existence of a transcendent God.” (31)
This method assumes that for everything we experience there is a natural cause. (32) Paul Kurtz defined it as well as anyone when he wrote that it is a “principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations.” It is argued that methodological naturalism lead to philosophical (or ontological) naturalism, whereby it’s claimed all that exists is nature. Again in Paul Kurtz’s words, philosophical naturalism is “a generalized description of the universe. According to the naturalists, nature is best accounted for by reference to material principles, i.e., by mass and energy and physical-chemical properties as encountered in diverse contexts of inquiry.” (33)
The ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Thales was probably the first person known to adopt a methodological naturalist standpoint. He asked the significant question, “What is the source of all things?” His answer was that water was the source of all things. His question led to the beginnings of Western philosophy as we know it and with it provided probably the most important basis for science itself. His answer was a naturalistic one that did not rely on any supernatural explanation. He assumed a natural explanation for the source of all things, even if today with the periodical table of elements we know his answer was faulty.
We who live in the modern world operate on this method ourselves every day. This method is the foundation of modernity. It is what defines us as modern people. In today’s world all modern educated people base their deductions on the method of naturalism in a vast number of areas. Before the advent of science, in previous centuries people either praised God for the good things that happened to them or they wondered why God was angry when bad things happened. If someone got sick, it was because of sin in his or her life. If it rained, God was pleased with them; if there was a drought, God was displeased, and so on, and so on. Science wasn’t content to accept the notion that epilepsy was demon possession or that sicknesses were sent by God to punish people. Nor was science content with the idea that God alone opens the womb of a woman, nor that God was the one who sent the rain. Now we have scientific explanations for these things, and we all benefit from those who assumed there was a natural cause to everything we experience. Because of this, we have some control over the natural processes of life. Because we seek to understand the forces of nature, we know how to make life easier for ourselves, with fewer diseases. We can predict the rain. We know how babies are conceived, and how to prevent a host of illnesses. There is no going back on this progress, and it is ongoing.
Christians themselves usually assume a natural explanation when they hear a noise in the night. They usually assume a natural explanation for a stillborn baby, or train wreck, or an illness. Even a Christian police detective assumes a natural cause when investigating a crime. If Christians were placed back in time with the same modern mind-set they have today, they themselves would ask for evidence if someone claimed that an ax head floated or a donkey talked. But because it’s in the Bible, they adopt it unquestionably, and I find that to be holding to a double standard. Why do they operate on a double standard like this? Ancient people didn’t even have a firm conception of natural law. For all they knew, anything could happen in nature when acted upon by God, gods, or goddesses. Ancient people just didn’t have the required scientific understanding of natural laws we do today in order for them to question a miraculous story when they heard one. Scientifically literate people today are simply not gullible enough to believe any such story. All of us ask whether an unusual event can be explained naturalistically, unlike ancient people.
In scientific disciplines methodological naturalism is a way to gain the truth about nature, and it has astounding results. Many scientists go so far as to claim that since it works, then nature must be ultimate, but that doesn’t follow as a scientific claim, for the later conclusion is beyond the scope of science; it is a metaphysical claim. Although, as Barbara Forrest argues, it’s a conclusion that makes a great deal of sense. Forrest examines the question whether methodological naturalism entails philosophical (or ontological or even metaphysical) naturalism. In her own words, “I conclude that the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion give (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.” (34)
Scientists believe that methodological naturalism has had so many successes in the past that it will prove fruitful in understanding how we humans got here on the planet earth too—that there is a natural explanation for it all—even if there are several problems to work out yet. Creation scientists believe that there are too many problems to work out and that a supernatural explanation is needed to explain human life. Mainstream scientists think that creation scientists have given up way too early in the game on a method that is rock solid throughout history. Creation scientists stress that methodological naturalism in a not a final statement on how the world works, whereas many mainstream scientists think that the reason the method works so well is because nature alone must be the final reality. This naturalistic method has brought in modernity and jettisoned superstition. It is what defines us as modern people. And while it seems to me that as yet there is no repeatable experiment that can show that nature is ultimate, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, and there are some very good conceptual schemes for how it may have taken place. (35)
To see why admitting supernatural claims into scientific discussions should be prohibited, consider David A. Shotwell’s conjectural hypothesis that “each subatomic particle is inhabited by a ghostly little gremlin.” According to this hypothesis, “each gremlin maintains the existence of its particle by a continuous creative act and is in instantaneous telepathic communication with all the others. By this means they cooperate to produce the universe and its lawful behavior. This hypothesis ‘explains’ everything that exists and every event that occurs.” The reason he advances this hypothesis is to show that “if you admit the supernatural into your calculations, anything goes. That is why a supernatural explanation is useless to a scientist…It provides no direction for research, suggests no testable hypotheses, and gives no reason to expect one result rather than another from any observation or experiment.” (36)
Christians like Plantiga object to the use of methodological naturalism in many areas related to their faith. They cry foul. They argue that their faith provides them with the control beliefs to interpret the evidence regarding the origins of the universe and of the human race. And they cry foul when it comes to the strict adherence to that method when analyzing the claims of biblical miracles. Robert T. Pennock tried to address their concerns in chapter 4 of his book Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism. (37) The author argues against the new creationists for failing to realize that science is committed to methodological naturalism and not philosophical (or ontological) naturalism. Methodological naturalism is a much weaker position, he argues. It does not deny the existence of supernatural entities, per se. it simply assumes for the purpose of inquiry that they don’t exist. It operates on the assumption that in the context of scientific inquiry only natural processes and events happen. He wrote: “The methodological naturalist does not make a commitment directly to a picture of what exists in the world, but rather to a set of methods as a reliable way to find out about the world—typically the methods of the natural sciences, and perhaps extensions that are continuous with them—and indirectly to what those methods discover.” (38)
According to Pennock, adopting methodological naturalism would prevent biblical creationists from appealing to divine causes as an alternative to evolutionary ones. He points out that just as Christians shouldn’t do this when it comes to the scientific study of origins of language because of the Tower of Babel story, they shouldn’t do it when it comes to the scientific study of our origins because of the Creation stories, either. The adoption of methodological naturalism, he argues, would rule out these kinds of explanations without at the same time preventing religious beliefs in nonscientific faith contexts. Therefore, Pennock claims methodological naturalism, is contrast to ontological naturalism, is compatible with the belief in God, As such, believers should have nothing to fear from it. Doing so keeps science free of God, and as such, science can continue to progress unhindered by these religious beliefs.
Surely this will not satisfy Christian theists like Plantinga, who wrote, “a Christian academic and scientific community ought to pursue science in its own way, starting from and taking for granted what we know as Christians.” He continues, “What the Christian community really needs is a science that takes into account what we know as Christians. Indeed, this seems the rational thing in any event; surely the rational thing is to use all that you know in trying to understand a given phenomenon.” But do you notice what he’s doing here? Plantinga is forced into retreating to Bayesian background factors to support a weak position. He’s trying to explain the evidence away. He’s retreating to what is merely possible; that while methodological naturalism has worked very well in understanding our world, it’s possible that it doesn’t apply across the board into the Christian set of beliefs he’s adopted from the Bible. And he’s right. It is possible. But again, how likely is it that it works so well on every other area of investigation but that it shouldn’t be used in investigation the claims we find in the Bible, which form his background beliefs? I will argue later, when it comes to the distinctive miraculous claims that a Christian firmly holds to, that they are believed based upon the evidence found in history, and history can at best show us probabilities. To be blunt here, many claims can be rationally denied in history, even if they happened. That’s right. Even if they happened! And of those events in the past which we are confident took place, they still leave room for a lot of doubt about the specifics. There are always additional unanswered questions. As such, history is a slender reed to lean on in the face of the onslaught of science (see my chapter 8).
Michael Martin sifts through this whole issue and tries to find a justification for methodological naturalism that doesn’t commit the Christian believer to ontological naturalism. (39) Martian asks, “If you reject Ontological Naturalism and yet believe that Methodological Naturalism is an appropriate stance in the context of science, how can Methodological Naturalism be justified?” As I understand him to say, after surveying several possible justifications for this, Martin suggest this one: “Do not use explanations in science that cut off further inquiry unless inquiry-blocking explanations are the only plausible ones that can be thought of…in the long run!” This, Martin argues, “is compatible with scientists acting for long periods of time as if certain explanations are ultimate relative to their evidence and background theories. But such a practice would not block inquiry because in contrast to explanations in terms of God, it would be possible fore these explanations themselves to be explained as science progresses.” Then he concludes by saying, “Although the prospects of a metaphysically uncontroversial science are not encouraging, I see no reason why science cannot be conducted in a way that does not block inquiry, and I suggest that Methodological Naturalism should be justified in terms of not blocking inquiry.” And as such, according to Victor J. Stenger, “methodological naturalism can still be applied without implying any dogmatic attachment to metaphysical naturalism.” (40) That being said, Dr. Joshua S. Sharp, told me (via e-mail): “Since no one can precisely determine what the ‘the long run’ means, it is impossible to predict which areas will always prove resistant to future non-inquiry-blocking explanation. Therefore, supernatural explanations can never be justified for scientific phenomena.”
(1) See Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1989), pp. 26-49; Mario Biagioli, Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993; and Timoth Moy, “The Galileo Affair,” in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? ed. Paul Kurtz (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), pp. 139-43. To read the primary documents of the Galileo trail and aftermath in order to decide for yourself on this issue, see Maurice A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and his Retrying Galileo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). I maintain that for the medieval person influenced by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the Copernican theory was a very serious threat to the faith. I also maintain that the Church had no business telling Galileo what he could think or write. It’s appalling to me that the Church ever had that much power to stifle science and freethinking like this.
(2) Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), p. 49.
(3) Ibid., p. 251.
(4) Ibid., pp. 248ff.
(5) Ibid., pp. 195-96.
(6) Ibid., pp. 253-54.
(7) Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 41, 42.
(8) Francesco Sizzi, Dianoia Astronomica, 1611.
(9) Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (New York: Harper & Row, 1990); and Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (New York: HarperCollins, 2000)
(10) William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 347.
(11) Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “Holy Wars,” in Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are The Compatible? pp. 74-75.
(12) Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science, p. 16.
(13) See Donald McKay, Brain, Machines and Persons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 19ff.
(14) See Howard Van Till, The Fourth Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 197-198; and Howard Van Till, Davis A. Young, and Clarence Menninga, Science Held Hostage (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
(15) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Miffin, 2006), pp. 55-56.
(16) I can agree with Robert Larmer that there isn’t anything wrong with arguing from the gaps in our knowledge to the existence of a God. See his “Is There Anything Wrong with ‘God of the Gaps’ Reasoning?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 52 (2002): 129-42. However, if he’s correct, then I can legitimately argue from the fact that science is closing these gaps to the nonexistence of God. It’s not a large step to take. Since it’s reasonable to think there will always be gaps in our understanding, the only question left is which set of control beliefs best explains why these gaps are being closed. The point is that Christians must admit that the scientific method is indeed extremely fruitful, but then deny it should be applied to an investigation of the Bible and its claims of miracles, including the origin of the universe. They have to deny what seems to scientifically literate people undeniable, or at the very minimum, most probable. They must apply a double standard here, for while they accept it in all other areas of their lives they deny it when it comes to the Bible. Why the double standard?
Christian philosopher W. Christopher Stewart objects to the “god of the gaps” reasoning because, as he says, “natural laws are not independent of God. For the Christian theist, God upholds nature in existence, sustaining it in a providential way.” From his perspective this is true. But his rationale for objecting to the god of the gaps reasoning is a bit strange. He says, “To do so is to make religious belief an easy target as the gaps in scientific understanding narrow with each scientific discovery.” “Religion and Science,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael Murray (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 321-22. Now why should he be concerned with this unless science truly is leaving less and less room for the supernatural? He’s admitting the evidence does not favor his faith. He’s trying to explain away the evidence. I dare say that if he still lived in a prescientific era before science could explain so much he’d be arguing this is evidence that God exists!
(17) In Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God (Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2005), pp. 87-88.
(18) Arthur Peacock, Theology for a Scientific Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993); Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976).
(19) J. O’Higgins distinguishes between four types of Deism in “Hume and the Deists: A Contrast in Religious Approaches,” Journal of Theological Studies 23, no. 2 (October 1971): 479, 480, which is summarized in Norman L. Geisler and William D. Watkins, World’s Apart: A Handbook on Worldviews (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), pp. 148-49.
(20) Michael Peterson et al., Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 212, 214. See also the works by Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974); The Origin of Science and the Science of Its Origin (South Bend, IN: Regnery, 1978); and The Road of Science and the Ways of God (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978); J.P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989); Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); and recently by Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great about Christianity (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007), pp. 83-111.
(21) Michael Polyani, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); Barbour, Religion in the Age of Science; Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1959), and his Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routeledge, 1994).
(22) Albert Einstein said this in an essay titled “Maxwell’s Influence on the Development of the Conception of Physical Reality” (1931)
(23) On this, see Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 13-19.
(24) Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991)., pp. 57-58.
(25) Bas van Fraassen, Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
(26) Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007). See his book The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).
(27) “Science Finds God,” Newsweek, July 20, 1998.
(28) Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 37.
(29) Paul Kurtz, “An Overview of the Issues,” in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? p. 11.
(30) John Hick argues for the same thing in An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 327-29.
(31) Paul de Vries, “Naturalism in the Natural Sciences,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15 (1986): 388-96.
(32) For discussion of this see Alvin Plantinga’s essay “Methodological Naturalism?” parts 1 and 2, which can be found at www.arn.org and in the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (49 ). Barbara Forrest’s “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection,” Philo 3, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2000): 7-29, along with Michael Martin’s “Justifying Methodological Naturalism,” can both be at www.infidels.org/library.
(33) Paul Kurtz, “Darwin Re-Crucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?” Free Inquiry (Spring 1998): 17.
(34) Forrest, “Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection,” pp. 7-29.
(35) For a naturalistic account of the beginning of this universe, see chapter 12 of Paul Davies, Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature (New York: Touchstone, 2002).
(36) David A. Shotwell, “From the Anthropic Principle to the Supernatural,” in Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? p. 49.
(37) Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
(38) Ibid., p. 191.
(39) Martin’s “Justifying Methodological Naturalism,” as found at www.infidels.org/library.
(40) Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 29.