Toward a Complete Worldview
© Dennis L. Feucht 2001
Do these statements reflect your beliefs about science and religion? They are not uncommon, but are they true?
This document invites open-minded scientists and engineers to deepen their understanding of the history of science, the rise of neo-paganism, and beliefs already held in common with the biblical worldview. As science is challenged by post-modernism, scientists have good reason to reflect more closely on the foundations of science and its historic alliance with Christianity. This document presents challenging thinking and conceptions about science that might open the way to a serious examination of Christianity.
Questions with a limited range of possible answers can often be settled.
Ohm’s Law, for example, is limited to certain electrical phenomena and is demonstrably correct as applied to these phenomena. Consequently, explanations inconsistent with Ohm’s Law must be wrong. It is not a controversial issue. Neither is the DNA structure of chromosomes. Other questions, such as how the brain or the weather works, or whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, are open to further exploration, investigation and wonderment. Answers are generally regarded as probing and tentative, and can neither be refuted nor confirmed definitively at this time. But the kinds of questions that both challenge and disturb the most are those with multiple, incompatible answers, with arguments based on differing assumptions and interpretations of the data. For a prominent example, many scientists are convinced that the development of life as explained by Darwinian evolution is a solved problem. Others within science are not so sure. And some are sure the theory is incorrect. A more recent issue involves questions about the long-term effects of human activity on the ecosphere - again, strong but differing answers.
This document offers a perspective on what to make of wider questions with disputed answers, questions that generate controversy because whether enough is known to answer them definitively is itself an issue.
Whether a question is answered or unanswered depends on the larger setting in which answers are sought and given. The wider questions about life and reality - about the "big picture" - were largely settled earlier in Western European history, when the Christian worldview was well-accepted. What complicates our setting is that it has fragmented into largely incompatible strands of Christian and Enlightenment influence. And a third, quickly growing strand rejects much of what is held in common by the first two. This has resulted in what for many people, including scientists and engineers, is a fragmented worldview, a kind of double-vision on life or split picture. A key aspect in addressing disputed questions is to understand this fragmented setting. We live continually within it and are influenced by it, but like a fish in water, are often unaware of its consequences on our thinking due to its incessant familiarity.
In the past era of acceptance of science, Christians and scientifically-minded non-Christians could carry out their arguments with the implicit understanding that they shared, in practice at least, sufficient common ground to argue.
While disagreeing on answers to basic questions, shared common practices in the areas of truth and morality left society without significant disruption. Each could continue to contribute to commonly-valued institutions. But now, these institutions are threatened by the rising popularity of attitudes and outlook that devalues science, Christianity and reason.
The common ground of the past that is no longer dominant is a common view of truth.
When a Christian or atheist of the old school would say, "This is right" or "That is wrong," they might not have agreed, but they understood each other. They were both functioning under the assumption that, whatever the topic, some rational sense could be made of it, that one could state assumptions and then reason to compelling conclusions. Both believed in the objectivity of truth and that something significant could be known about it by rational minds. Statements were true or false independent of who was making them. This classical view of truth is based on the idea that a statement, A, is not non-A - a basic law of logic expounded by Aristotle, essential for rational thought and communication.
Put another way, everyone before the onset of the split picture thought in terms of absolutes. As both Christians and non-Christians such as Ayn Rand understood, they are essential to rationality. One could argue about what is absolute, but to deny absolutes is inherently self-contradicting and consequently irrational. No one can rationally deny absolutes – not absolutely. Reason cannot establish the absolute that there are no absolutes. This circularity suggests that we cannot merely think our way to the truth. Some have despaired of this limitation and have consciously and deliberately abandoned absolutes for relativism. Worse yet, others have felt relativistic pressures on their thinking and have given in to it in some areas of life, but without ever rationally realizing that they were doing so. Consequently, some scientists function quite rationally and objectively in the laboratory, but then slide into a kind of relativism when dealing with social matters, for instance.
Absolutes expose limits of what can be known purely by reason.
Our understanding of truth depends upon reason as a kind of mental tool that itself reflects something of the nature of truth. But reason requires some starting material, something to work with, and this comes from activities beyond thinking alone. We recognize a world outside our mind when we seek such material elsewhere, and in this search confirm our belief in the existence of objective reality.
At one time, almost everyone functioned on this basis, not only in the lab but generally. Objective belief was more encompassing so that all of life could be lived on a unified basis. To understand the extent to which this is no longer true is to understand the split picture and the dilemma of our setting.
What is happening to the enterprise of science has already largely happened to the Christian enterprise.
Almost everyone is familiar with it, but few understand its content or grasp its motivations. Even some members of the scientific enterprise find it hard to understand why key contributors to science, such as Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton or James Clerk Maxwell, spent much of their time studying theology and the Bible. Theological study is often viewed as irrelevant or even antithetical to science by many contemporary scientists. Yet historically, most scientists before the twentieth century found Christianity to be a key motivation of their scientific efforts. For them as for many scientists nowadays who continue in their tradition, there is no split picture. The same set of principles and views that provide scientific motivation also provide an approach to life more generally.
For those who value science and its technological consequences, the luxury of ignoring the larger culture in which science flourished in the past is now ended.
In the accepting cultural climate of the late 19th and early 20th century America, scientists and engineers were free to concentrate on their love of discovery and invention, encouraged by an admiring populace. Perhaps the 1950s was the last decade in which this was clearly so, before the 1960s counterculture and its rejection of absolute or objective values. And at the end of the twentieth century, politicians, policy-makers and popular culture are familiar with science, and also technology, but often do not understand it or appreciate the motivations that give rise to it. For science and engineering, the "party" is now over. Like Christians, scientists and engineers no longer hold a favored position in society and are beginning to experience the social position accorded minority views and unfashionable attitudes.
Engineers and scientists can predict and plan physical events to the extent that we understand their causes.
But our life in society is much more complex to understand, predict and control, and by its messiness drove some of us to prefer the attraction of nature’s inherently simple rationality instead. It is here that many have thrown up their hands in acquiescence, believing that wider questions are so broad and far-ranging that no satisfying, definitive answers can be discovered. The instinct to apply the familiar methods of our scientific experience seem out of place because the basic questions are not posed in a way that allows for conclusive experimental testing or even theoretical formulation based on known scientific principles. So where do we start in making sense of the big picture?
One place we can start is by making sure the questions are well-defined and answerable in principle.
We can first identify more precisely what the key words used to talk about science’s wider context are intended to convey when they are used. Before rational thought and meaningful communication can occur, the language in which we think must be commonly understood by those with whom we are attempting to communicate. Too often, misunderstanding or confusion results because familiar words trigger different meanings in each of our minds. After all, words themselves mean nothing; but we mean something in our use of them. A word is a label for a meaning in our minds. To make effective use of words, the meanings they label must be refined by limiting their possible range of meanings.
This act of refinement is to "show limits," or define. To define is to denote essential characteristics, those characteristics without which we cannot adequately distinguish between what is being defined and all else. Inadequate distinction results in descriptions but not definitions. To be clear about our meanings, we need concepts; ideas, with their wide range of meanings, are inadequate. The constituency of matter was but a vague idea until Rutherford’s effort led him to conceive of the atom. The big picture is similarly vague to many scientists and engineers because the same kind of effort is required to make sense of it.
Worldviews, Philosophy and Religion
To even talk about the big picture, we must first define what we mean when we use this metaphor, for it has an extremely wide range of possible meanings. We need a concept often labeled as worldview.
worldview:a set of basic beliefs from which other beliefs or behaviors follow.
All of us have some worldview of some kind, whether it be primitive and piecemeal or well thought-out and systematic. Our worldview lies at the root of who and what we are and encompasses our basic attitudes and motivations. We express it in various ways. For some, observance of it is unceremonial and informal; or it can be highly structured and ritualistic.
Philosophy is the effort to frame worldview-related questions in the clearest manner.
Its purpose is to clarify the three basic questions: what is true (epistemology), what is the good (ethics), and what is real (metaphysics). Posing a simple, to-the-point question can be as difficult as answering it. Philosophy as an academic discipline does not try to offer answers to the questions it poses, but instead sharpens the questions and categorizes, clarifies and critiques the various answers to these questions. Religion offers answers as worldviews. Because the alternatives are so wide-ranging - about as different as anything can be different - the word demands definition.
religion:the expression or observance of a worldview.
This definition is blandly wide to avoid bringing in the connotations of a particular religion and thus narrowing the definition arbitrarily at the outset. Because a worldview is demonstrated in practice as religion, the two concepts are closely linked, and in many cases they can be interchanged without significantly affecting the intended meaning. By referring to all basic sets of beliefs and resulting behavior in practice as religion, all alternatives (different though they may be) are in the same category.
How different are religious alternatives? Soviet Communists did their best to rid Russia of the observances of "religion" because they recognized that some forms of religious expression tend to dull rather that enliven the human spirit. In its place, however, they developed their own, with their most revered site at Lenin’s tomb. This kind of observance is an alternative religion, as defined. But Soviet Communism is generically related to the Christianity that it intended to destroy. Karl Marx, knowingly or not, retained basic assumptions from his German Christian background. For something really different, one can go East, where the basic premises (or presuppositions) overlap much less. But no need to; the East has now come to the West, and New Age beliefs are also familiar.
If the word religion seems uncomfortable to use at all, it is probably because of its extremely wide range of possible meanings (corresponding to the wide range of worldviews being expressed through it). As a vague idea, it is nearly worthless for concept development. While it is objective (specific examples can be given in detail of actual religions), it is too abstract and labels an extremely wide range of alternatives. Much of the trouble with the word derives from connotations attached to it. In our historically Christian culture, religion often means Christianity or a biblically-based view. Then those who are not Christian are not religious and the "religion" to be kept out of American public life, for example, is Christianity because it is "religion." Those who practice a less historically dominant or culturally novel worldview (that is, have a different religion) are not "religious" and their religion is consequently not the one in mind when it comes to public policy issues. The word philosophy is also frequently used to refer to religion, but without the connotations of any established religion. In the West, in this context, philosophy usually means "a religion that is not biblically based." The confusion is about categories; that is why religion is defined broadly here, to avoid such errors of categorical exclusion.
Christianity is a particular religion that is relevant to science partly because it is compatible with a scientific outlook in ways that most others are not.
Christians might be tempted to dispose of the others by elevating Christianity to a superior category. This intellectual sleight of hand assumes that Christian beliefs are entitled to be excepted from scrutiny because they are in a different, even superior, category. Sometimes scientists apply this "categorical transcendence" when they speak of humanity as though they are not included, or of their view of life as though it were an alternative to religion because they are "scientific." These forms of categorical exclusion often result in confusion or misunderstanding.
It is not uncommon to find contemporary scientists for whom science is their religion.
Consequently, we need to distinguish between science per se and science-as-religion, often called scientism. Not all scientists accept scientism as their religion. Only a minority ever have. To place scientism in a different category than religion (as defined above) is to invoke categorical exclusion. Instead, by putting all competing religions on the same "playing field," they can all be judged by the same criteria. The best or only correct religion is thereby acceptable by the same reasoning that discounts the others.
Mathematics begins with axioms, definitions and even undefined notions such as points or lines. We then apply to them given rules of logic which are also assumed. In a wider sense, each of us also applies some basic set of beliefs in our behavior and mental activity. This is our worldview. Our religion is revealed empirically in our decisions and actions, whether we have cognitively managed to identify these beliefs or not. Science (including applied science – that is, engineering and technology) also proceeds on basic assumptions (or presuppositions) that are reflected in the attitudes and general beliefs about nature and the nature of knowledge within the scientific community. In any particular area of science, these presuppositions are lived out by scientists who think, make observations and eventually conclude that certain assertions about nature are true. They are believable and worth relying on in further activity. A desire to know the truth about nature is the essential scientific motivation. A desire to use such knowledge for the good of humanity is the basic engineering motivation.
Some of our most certain beliefs, such as our conscious self-awareness, are not the result of any scientific discoveries.
Whether all questions of interest to us could be settled scientifically depends on what we mean by science. Defining science is not a simple task. Philosophers of science have argued about this at length. Some see no connection between science and religion while others see no distinction. We can approach the issue by considering some questions about science:
Is science defined by what is studied?
The subject-matter of astronomy, physics and chemistry (the physical sciences) is matter and energy itself, while the life sciences (biology) focus on its most interesting organization in self-replicating systems. Just as the ultimate nature of matter and energy are unknown, so is life or the earth (as studied by geology). Yet identifiable aspects of nature are there to be studied. We could identify animals before we knew of zoology. People observed lightning before any theories of electricity were developed. In the 19th century, the success of the physical and life sciences encouraged the application of their methods to the study of persons, both collectively (sociology, anthropology, economics, political science) and individually (psychology).
While people have always studied other people, the success of physics suggested that its methods could reveal new truths about human nature. The key to success in physics could be attributed to application of the belief that nature had a rational order or form that could be discovered by careful, systematic experimentation. The extension of this idea to the study of persons has not succeeded to the extent that physics has, in part because persons are not like things in some important aspects and consequently cannot be subjected to the same methods of study as things. While patterns of behavior can be rationally discerned in people, suggesting general principles, and while human beings, as persons, have a physical existence, the direct application of physical-science methods to the study of persons makes the assumption that humans are essentially reducible to explanations in the way matter and energy are. For example, an assumption found among anthropologists, is that what is among primitive cultures is in itself right because it is there for them to study. Changing it (as missionaries and colonizers do) disturbs the subject-matter and interferes with the purity of the data. That such activity might benefit indigent cultures is beside the point.
At an earlier time, the study of God (theology) was considered the "queen of the sciences." A brick wall had not yet been built between science and religion, and the peculiar view of nature among the early scientists was inspired by their more basic religious view of nature as a creation by an intelligent and benevolent Creator who subsequently acts within its history. This motivating foundation for science is no longer the dominant consensus within the scientific community, which is largely in a reactionary stance to its own religious origins. From Copernicus through Newton, Maxwell and Planck, the earlier scientists, almost without exception, derived their scientific motivations from their wider biblical view. Nowadays, from Dawkins to Sagan and Crick, the view that "the universe is all there is, was or will be" is the dominating religious orientation. The early scientists were generally more aware of the basic assumptions behind their competing enterprise than the participants in the long-established science of our era. In confronting opposing views of how nature should be regarded, they were made to consider the prescientific assumptions underlying their enterprise - assumptions that are necessarily religious in kind. With the recurrence of relativistic and culturally-determined attitudes toward truth, the scientific community is again challenged to rethink the underlying foundations of the scientific enterprise.
What gives rise to the more thoughtful reactions of twentieth-century scientists against the heritage of science are faulty views of nature developed within theology. Medieval theologians attempted to derive more information from the revealed word of God in the scriptures than was there. Some of the resulting natural theology made claims about nature based on what now would be considered inadequate or faulty methods of interpretation of the biblical texts. Not as much was known about the meaning of the texts then and such errors are, in part at least, excusable. The phlogiston theory of heat was a serious scientific theory at one time, and its protagonists cannot be fairly slighted on the basis of our hindsight. Similarly, earlier theological errors are not a sufficient basis for dismissal of the more general biblical ideas themselves. Worldviews are to be evaluated on their own merits, whether biblically derived, secular or pagan. (See "Basic Alternatives.")
Is science defined by how it is studied?
Is it defined by its research methods and is there a scientific method? Methods of study limit what can be studied. (See previous question.) How science is done depends to a significant extent on what is being studied and what is assumed about it. Science is often distinguished from non-science by empirical methods, those employing experimentation and observation of physically sensed and measurable phenomena. Reason and imagination alone are insufficient to understand nature. In this way, science departed from the tendency of the medieval scholastics and from ancient and medieval pagan superstitions. The early scientists believed that nature had an integrity of its own which could not be reliably deduced from human imagination.
Physics and psychology are fields in which experiments can be performed and observations made. But what of astronomy? Astronomers can only observe; they cannot subject the heavenly bodies to experimental control. Astronomy is thereby not an experimental science, but it is empirical. Astronomical measurement of physical quantities such as time, light intensity, stellar spectral compositions and pulsar frequencies, is essential to the field. Cosmology, however, while based on the empirical findings of astronomy and the theories resulting from them, is almost pure mathematical conjecture tenuously extended from scanty empirical data. It is a scientifically-based approach to a natural history of the universe.
Geology, anthropology, and paleontology are largely observational sciences too. Experimentation and testing of theories is limited because entire planets or the past are not experimentally accessible. Geology has become more empirical as methods of measuring continental drift, volcanic activity and the interior of the earth have become available. But anthropology, paleontology and evolutionary biology are strongly rooted in natural historical development, and the applied methods are those of historical reconstruction, using what is known from the experimental sciences. Strictly speaking, such "sciences" belong in the category of natural history. They make use of the results of the physical and life sciences to reconstruct what might have happened in the past. They also share with other historical studies both method and approach. While mainstream historical study involves human events and would draw on the social sciences for whatever scientific insight is needed, natural history mainly involves natural events, processes and principles. Sometimes such natural history is called "origins science."
Natural history intersects with the generic biblical worldview because both have their datum in historical events.
In contrast, pagan worldviews generally treat history as merely a medium for expressing ideas, such as the Hindu Vedas or Bagitavita do. Ancient pagan documents of the Near-East use a semblance of history to offer stories as a means of conveying ideas or theories about life and the universe. The biblical view instead regards historical events as the necessary precursors to the present, and uniquely shares with science a belief in the necessity of history for an understanding of the present and future. The past is both real and substantial. Consequently, much of the discussion of the relationship of science and biblical religion take place over origins science, such as cosmology and evolution, where theory outweighs experiment and extrapolative interpretation of unrepeatable events is the only approach in such studies. Theories of natural history stand or fall on the basis of the accuracy of interpretation of the historical evidence. This attitude is equally shared in the biblically-based community from whence it came. Consequently, it is possible to argue over alternative interpretations of history and its meaning for us.
Empirical reference alone is insufficient to distinguish science from non-science.
Astrology relies upon observance of the heavenly bodies. Phrenology relies upon observation of the shape of the head to determine intelligence. How theory and data interact is also essential. Some distinguishing factors between science and non-science are:
Some religious claims can be studied scientifically. Prayer could be (and has been) tested but control of such experiments involves, in part, control of God’s will, which a biblical understanding of God largely precludes. Tests of a theory must be in conformance to the assumptions inherent in the theory.
A healthy skepticism of one’s theory requires a reflective maturity.
This attitude of openness to self-correction was popularized in the West by Augustine, a prominent Church figure, and was a typical feature of the character of the early scientists (and of their successors). Such eagerness to doubt the truth of one’s own ideas is characteristically absent or highly attenuated among pseudoscientists and demagogues, who sometimes can develop sophisticated defenses against contrary positions.
Distinction must be made between failed scientific theories and non-science.
Alchemy was heavily experimental but was based on a false hypothesis. What makes astrology non-science and not merely a false scientific hypothesis is that its presuppositions are incompatible with those of science. Presuppositions are not scientifically determined but are prescientific and are rooted in elements of a worldview. Astrology is rooted in an ancient pagan understanding of the world. The regions of nature, including the stars, are gods who manipulate human destiny. The Christian milieu of early science discounted such views of nature and any theories of nature based on them because of their inconsistency with the biblical alternative. Science and religion are most profoundly related, or not, by the worldview assumptions they share, or not.
Is science defined by who studies?
For science, the ideal answer is "no." The truth about the physical or social worlds is not dependent upon who studies them. Yet, in practice, the authority of assertions about the subject-matter of science varies between Nobel Prize winners and witch doctors. Science is not merely an impersonal set of methods but the activity of humans who are scientists. If scientists were not human, they would perhaps not compete over theories, race to discover or invent first or seek recognition among their peers. Rather than reducing science to human subjective preference, these human factors instead tend to motivate a more passionate search for the best theory or the key observation that could be shared or similarly appreciated by others.
Like other truth-based enterprises, science has a tradition, a history of development and even characteristic attitudes and personality tendencies accepted and approved among scientists. It has an established set of arguments for its tradition. The established beliefs of scientists are enshrined in textbooks as a kind of preliminary dogma which must be mastered before more advanced participation in the community is recognized. Mastery of this body of dogma is certified in various academic degrees and industrial titles. A common set of presuppositions must be demonstrably shared (or "confessed") to participate as an accepted member of the scientific community.
Science can be defined as what scientists know and do to the extent that contemporary scientists share their predecessors’ beliefs about what they are doing, in historic continuity with the originators of science. One of science’s strengths has been a unity of vision and purpose. Over the last century, scientists could merely go about doing science with general societal acceptance, but now it is common to hear members of the scientific community speaking out in defense and encouragement of the values of science itself.
Like the Church or Western civilization, the scientific community has been wildly successful in accomplishing its purpose, and has thereby become established and accepted. We have succeeded from the early times of Copernicus, Galileo or Harvey, and the tradition of science has evolved to where (like other institutions of our culture) seeds of self-doubt are now evident within it. Some causes of this self-doubt are: undesirable social and ecological effects of technology, dishonesty in doing and reporting research, claiming too much in the name of science (premature Theories of Everything, claiming as explanations what are instead hypotheses, unverified extrapolations from established principles or scientifically-couched religious pronouncements advancing a worldview), and a lack of good judgment in choice of research topics (but a grant is available), motivated more by politics or money that by a passion to know the truth.
The unifying factor in this self-doubt is the incursion of beliefs about science that were foreign to the earlier spirit of the enterprise. Some of these beliefs have resulted in degradation of good character among the scientific community. Harmful or irrelevant technology often results from a desire to exploit market opportunities instead of contribute to better living. Dishonesty and grandiose theorizing result from acquiescence to the temptation to acclaim for one’s self what one has not, in fact, achieved. And scientists and engineers are not immune from the temptation to use the success and authority of science to advance their own forms of social power and control. These reasons, however, are not basic. People rarely abandon moral principles in practice unless their belief in why they should practice them is itself inadequate.
At the root of these failures in character is the advancement of the self over that which is far greater than any self.
By compromising a passion for truth and goodness to achieve personal fortune and glory, the reason for any worthwhile personal attainment is denigrated. The accreditation of objectivity to the scientist of an earlier era was partly in admiration of good character, of displaying a credible desire to seek truth rather than advance a personal agenda. In a parallel way, when too many Church members began losing their good character, the Church entered into self-doubt. Good character arises from basic motivations rooted in one’s worldview, as shown by one’s religion. Before we became scientists or engineers, we grew up in a setting that provided this basic orientation and our positive response to science was in the context of our preexisting, formative worldview.
It is therefore not surprising that self-doubt in the scientific community is coincident with the fragmentation in worldviews of its members. Until this century, most scientists were either explicitly Christian or quasi-Christian, operating implicitly on a generic Christian worldview but without the supporting theoretical structure. This religious consensus provided a common foundation within the scientific enterprise that shaped its basic motivations, values and interests. Even secular empiricists such as Ernst Mach believed in the central importance of objectivity, of keeping the "self" of the scientist out of his work. The truth about nature is not revealed to those who are unwilling to abandon their emotionally self-satisfied ideas about it. In time, this essentially Christian teaching of the need to take into account our creaturely finiteness and fallibility was itself abandoned as merely another cherished idea standing in the way of "scientific objectivity." In distorting an otherwise reliable principle by stretching it too far, some in science have cut the ground out from under themselves in attempting to remove even those beliefs necessary to do science.
The early scientists were humble about what they could accomplish, while expressing a strong commitment - even a devotion - to it. They could do so because they already had these character qualities; they acquired them from their more basic foundation in life. The Scottish Presbyterian, James Clerk Maxwell studied philosophy every Thursday and knew he wasn’t wasting his time as a scientist in doing so. But many contemporary scientists would not share his view. Yet it is contemporary scientists who must sometimes defend themselves from their own hubris. While the scientific community has not yet split into major, incompatible sects (though psychology has had six "schools" for some time), the increasing divergence in worldviews among its members could result in multiple, incompatible versions of "science" based on differing premises.
Consequently, defining science is like defending a given sect of the Church as authentically Christian by showing how it stands in continuity of belief and practice with the seminal movement. Protestant Christians emphasize their faithfulness to the biblical text while Roman Catholics argue from a continuity of tradition. Just as Christianity and Christians (or the Church or Christendom) show variation, the scientific community is not itself "science." Following this line of thinking, science might best be defined based on what made it "science" in the beginning:
science: the human activity of attempting to achieve a greater understanding of nature in the tradition of the early scientists.
Those who have a credible commitment to this activity and who actually do it comprise the scientific community. To the extent that we participate in the presuppositions of the early scientists and investigate nature in the same general way, we are also scientific. A tradition is a way of thinking and doing what is passed on by participation in the community of those who do it. The doctorate is an obvious example of the importance of tradition in the scientific community.
The extent to which one can deviate from the scientific tradition and still be considered a scientist is a matter of judgment. This makes the above definition a bit "loose" but there is no option. Rigorous definitions of science by equally established members of its community will differ because the presuppositions of science cannot be precisely enumerated. Science has some fuzzy boundaries. But because of clear examples of non-science - Eastern mysticism or astrology or art - science does have bounds, though they are not everywhere well-established or formally articulated.
Much of the subject-matter of religion cannot be studied by the methods of science.
Religious alternatives vary greatly in the extent to which this applies to them. The subject-matter of materialist religion is indistinguishable from that of science. For the biblical alternative, God cannot be subjected to experiments under our control. But neither can the universe as a whole, or black holes or the origin of life. Consequently, there is no clear-cut demarcation of science and religion, in subject-matter or methods. Yet they are not the same, and both scientists and theologians have, at times, attempted to either demolish the other as a threat or capture it to use its power. Because of the Christian origin of major presuppositions of science, at one time theology was referred to as the "queen of the sciences." That it is no longer demonstrates a narrowing of the definition of science in time.
Nature, the Universe and God
Words familiar in both science and theology are often used in different ways.To discuss nature, we need a single definition.
nature:matter/energy which is not artificial (not an artifact, a product of human effort).
Trees (unless bioengineered) are a part of nature and are natural. Trees and computers are physical because they are made of what nature consists of: matter and energy in space-time. Theories and ideas originating in human minds are artificial and nonphysical. Computers are made of naturally-occurring materials but their organization is artificial. Trees planted in an otherwise treeless desert are natural but locating them there is artificial. The act of human will is the distinguishing factor. The human body and even the human mind are natural because neither are produced by human effort (other than to get the process going). The content of one’s mind, however, is to some significant extent artificial, but not its existence.
Science departs from both pagan and medieval thought by placing importance on the distinction between nature and human ideas about it.
What makes nature interesting and science possible is the structure or organization of matter/energy and how we can understand this structure through the use of our human cognitive and perceptual abilities. Science depends upon both the observation of nature (data) and our ability to rationally regard this data in a coherent and truth-revealing way. Because these dual aspects of science can become confused, it is useful to explicitly distinguish between them, as in the next definition.
world:that which is the concern of humanity; etymologically, "the age of man."
For example, the physical world is all that is known to us about physical reality. World intentionally has the human mind as its reference-frame so that our world is but a subset of all of reality. It is an epistemological concept, not an ontological one; that is, it refers to reality as we conceive it. And our worlds individually differ from the worlds of others. A central scientific motivation is the enlargement of our world relative to nature.
This distinction between what we know and what is known is crucial and deserves being set out as definitions of the adjectives used in making this distinction:
epistemic:having to do with what we know.
ontological:having to do with (or the nature of) what is known.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with how we know what we know ("What is truth?"), and ontology has to do with what things are in themselves. It is a branch of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy asking "What is real?" Science differs from philosophy in that it assumes a particular approach to metaphysics and epistemology and does not concern itself as such with the study of the alternatives. This is left to the philosophers. Meanwhile, convinced that the scientific approach is of value, scientists apply it, though we often expand the scope of our thought and enter into philosophy when expounding upon science in a wider context.
While we are distinguishing between the epistemic and ontological, it would help to also include the following important definition of a word used earlier:
objective:that which is known but is ontologically independent of the knower.
If something is objective, it is "out there" and not "in here," in my mind, though I might have a mental conception of it. For a statement to be objective, it must refer to that which is independent of the mind of whomever is asserting it and must be more generally true than for its asserter alone.
The validity of objective statements does not depend on the state of my mind unless they are statements about my mind. A statement such as "The scene is beautiful" depends in its truth-value upon the state of mind of the asserter and is not objective. "I am happy" could be an objective statement if, from any point of inquiry, it could be ascertained that I am, in fact, happy. But the scene is only objectively beautiful if it could not be otherwise for any other mind. Such statements say more about the mind of the asserter than about the scene (and are usually intended to, though only implicitly).
Returning to ontology, and following from world is the definition of universe:
universe:our physical world of space-time and matter-energy.
Nature and the physical artifacts of humanity together constitute the universe. All the universes of the many-universe interpretation of quantum mechanics are subsumed under universe, but the definition is not so broad that beyond our universe must be "nothing at all." There could be a "higher-order" realm beyond our present physical conception of reality that evokes the following definition.
eternity:the rest of reality, besides our universe.
Eternity and the universe are distinguished here to avoid the implicit assumption that the universe is all there ever was, is, or will be. This point of view, which is materialism, assumes that the physical universe (nature plus selves and their artifacts) is the only reality. These assumptions go beyond anything science has established and are examples of religious affirmations. It is difficult to imagine how such assumptions could be subjected to scientific investigation.
In the biblical view, God has created everything else. This includes humanity, nature, and even whatever else may be in eternity.
(An alternative approach to defining universe is to give it the above definition of eternity and then define eternity as an aspect of the universe. Either approach would do, but my preference for limiting universe comes from the usual way it is used, referring to our space-time. In contrast, eternity, a word found more often in theology than science, suggests something beyond the familiar or arbitrarily accessible. Implicit biases underlying the choice of these definitions are found in descriptions of how the two concepts are related. But by merely defining either eternity or universe as I have, their objective existence is not thereby established, of course. My concern is that these words share the same meanings in our minds.)
Eternity can be envisioned as a larger universe in which the whole of our space-time exists as a given fact. For such an eternity, all of our space-time is immediately accessible. We have clues to eternity within our universe. Einstein's special theory of relativity supposes a multiplicity of time-frames. The various theories of cosmology, with their many dimensions, illustrate attempts to relate our ordinary experience of the universe to a larger reality. So does the realm outside our light cone on a Minkowski diagram – in the realm of the faster than light.
The distinction between eternity and the universe draws attention to those aspects of reality that transcend the universe as such. In the biblical worldview, we have concrete access to nature; we are physically part of it. This relationship is one of immanence. Our access to eternity is through our minds and the relationship we can have with what transcends nature alone, such as God. Our ability to abstract makes it possible for us to even wonder about a transcendent reality. Furthermore, God in eternity, for whom the limitations of our physical world do not apply, is believed to interact with both the human mind and nature. When interactions with nature are intended to underwrite a message of God to humanity, they are called miracles.
Both universe and eternity are epistemically defined here, and change with human knowledge, though they refer to objective reality. Newton envisioned space as a kind of container for matter/energy. The Einsteinian universe has no absolute "place" called space; it is generated by matter/energy itself.
As our world expands, it is likely to include more of eternity. In the limit, eternity is completely subsumed by the universe as we approach omniscience. So we might think of eternity as the "world" of ourselves in the limit, as gods, if such a world were possible. Eastern religions (and possibly Mormonism) affirm it; historic, biblical religions deny it. In this limit, science itself becomes a religion, a fulfilled scientism.
In attempting to define science, one of the questions that must be answered is: Is science defined by its present limitations or is it what it could conceivably become? Scientism prefers the latter, so that all knowledge of reality is scientific knowledge. But none of us really knows what such an "ultimate science" would be; belief in it is a tenuous leap of faith. Assumptions must be made and premises accepted. A more conservative approach is to regard science according to what it is rather than what some might think it ultimately could (or should) be.
A concept related to eternity is:
spiritual:that which relates to eternity.
Spiritual is not the same as mystical.Mysticism is an epistemological approach to either eternity or some aspect of nature by which intuition is considered the way to achieve the knowledge being sought. Mysticism can be considered an abuse of intuition through an overextended sense of mystery. One can be spiritual (by relating in some way with eternity) and even mystical (having a sense of mystery) without engaging in mysticism. By the definition given above, a materialist (for whom there is no eternity) would conclude that spirituality is a superfluous concept, with no objective reference. The issue is whether there is more to reality than the material universe, and this difference of assumptions has a bearing on whether eternity and spiritual have any objective meaning. Either way, the concepts can be approached rationally without recourse to mysticism.
The tradition of science is a conservative one, of going cautiously beyond that which has been well-established, of building carefully on certitude.
Taking this approach, science as we know it is indeed limited, and thereby requires fewer epistemic risks (assumptions) than scientism or any other religion must make. But we take such risks nevertheless. The existence of this document tacitly accepts such risk-taking, assuming that science in its usual limited sense does not capture all that we assume or experience of life. And the fact that you are reading it implies that you are at least willing to entertain the notion of taking such risks. Before you ever clicked on this webpage, you were already taking risks and your willingness to access it is evidence that you are at least somewhat practiced in such risks. After all, the astrologers just might be right, though we believe it is unlikely. But we think that way because we are willing to take the risk of believing a scientific alternative instead.
The conservatism of science occurs entirely within the already-taken risk of accepting the scientific approach to understanding nature. But it is fueled by a sense of mystery of the unknown to be discovered. Scientists are typically open to new possibilities and ideas, but are also attuned to the need to discern their validity. By scientific criteria, the spiritual is inaccessible, for the most part, and on scientific grounds, cannot even be said to be real. But if science is necessarily limited in both scope and method, a different kind of epistemic risk is required to know that which is scientifically undiscoverable and unknowable.
It is useful at this point to introduce the general concept of god.
god:the ultimate basis for everything else.
The key to understanding a worldview is to identify its god.
Some scientists are materialists: matter-energy and space-time are the ultimate reality. By this definition, material reality is god. Eternity for materialism is identical to the universe. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the biblical religions) an independent creator (denoted as God) is god, and eternity is that aspect of reality through which we relate to God. In Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, matter or the self is god. In Shintoism, the Japanese emperor is god. In existentialism and much contemporary television programming, the self (and especially its desires) is god. In general, Xism has X as god. Reason is the god of rationalism; science is the god of scientism. The key to understanding others is to identify their god.
Surprisingly, there are few kinds of gods.
While polytheistic religions can have literally millions of gods, these gods are easily classified as various regions of physical or human nature. All the gods of ancient paganism are in this category. And paganism shares nature as god (or Nature, to name this god) with scientism, though the characteristics attributed to Nature by each are radically different. Francis Crick talks of Nature in some of his writing this way (with a capital N) but he is not exactly an Eastern mystic. Consequently, mere symbolic identification of a god is not usually as important as the characteristics ascribed to the god. (In the Bible, to know the name of a god is to have insight into the god’s essential characteristics, much more than merely attaching a symbolic label. Israel always wanted to know Yahweh's name; the best they got was a tautology: "I am being who I am being.") And to use the same name (Nature) to refer to these very different gods is obfuscating (though common in the literature). If there is any possibility of such confusion, the corresponding religion (or god) need be identified, or named in its essential, distinguishing characteristics.
Philosophy and Theology
Philosophy(philo = love, sophia = wisdom) is, etymologically, the "love of wisdom." The Ionian and Socratic Greek traditions in philosophy established this field of discourse. It largely has become an effort to clarify, categorize and make sense (or nonsense) of worldviews and questions about them. It consists of three or four major branches: metaphysics (What is real?), epistemology (What is true?), ethics (What is good?) and aesthetics (What is beauty?). The role of philosophy is to sharpen the questions, reveal the issues and critique worldviews. Where worldviews come from is beyond philosophy as such.
Efforts to formulate as complete and consistent a worldview as is reasonably possible is the work of theology.
The use of the word has biblical origins though it is Greek (theos = god, logos = the logic of, or "word"). Any attempt to make sense of one’s worldview, to explicitly identify and rationally systematize the underlying premises of one’s beliefs, attitudes and practices is an attempt to develop a theology. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. People vary greatly in the extent to which such examination satisfies them but nearly everyone seeks some overall view of life and reality, even if it is only so that they can understand themselves or others better. Such examination is philosophical but quickly leads to the question of which worldview one should operate by. At this point, a philosophical quest becomes theological. And everyone lives by something; everyone has some kind of theology.
theology:the study of god; etymologically, the "logic of god."
Theology is defined widely here as the study of the god of a given religion, though the word arose in the traditional study of biblical religion and of God.
Given the definitions of god and religion, the interaction involving god and humanity might seem to exclude basic beliefs about nature. But the god-humanity overlap includes basic beliefs about everything in our world. Our relationship to what we consider most fundamental (god) is the basis for our beliefs about anything else in particular. In other words, our choice of a god specifies our religion.
One’s god is not one’s religion, but one's relationship with one’s god is the basis of it. A god can (but need not be) objective to the believer in the god. For religions for which god is one’s self (or some aspect, such as one’s will), such a god is obviously not objective. Both scientism and paganism have gods identified with nature, but the gods have opposing characteristics. Such characteristics are critical for the categories of the corresponding theology. For Christianity, God is objective; the god-humanity intersection subsumes neither God nor humanity. Whether God exists is another issue, but if so, then he is constrained in such existence to differ from ourselves (or "he" is a different god).
The manifestation of eternity in nature is sometimes referred to as supernatural. This word is of ancient Greek origins and belongs to a category from paganism that distinguishes between what nature does (natural) and what the gods do in relation to nature, which is supernatural. Part of the confusion in understanding the biblical description of the God-nature interaction is the use of this category. In the biblical view, nature depends upon God for its existence and God reveals himself in nature. The natural-supernatural dichotomy merely obfuscates understanding of biblical theory. This has occurred because Greek thought has been influential at times in the development of biblical theology and this categorical distinction continues to be used in theological discussion.
Supernatural is often meant to include eternity - what pertains to the gods, as the Greeks seemed to mean, when the gods acted within nature. The biblical view of interaction of God and the creation is that he sustains the whole of its existence. However, the particular interactions of God with humanity in which God is bringing about his purposes through a particular strand of human history is accompanied by his message to humanity through chosen individuals (prophets) and authenticated through physical events called miracles.
Because biblical accounts of miracles are based on alleged historic events, we are largely dependent upon the records of history for our data about them. This is a central issue in what we are willing to believe, because extant records have come to us from another time, another culture. It is a data interpretation problem. The assumption that such records are able to offer us reliable information is crucial for biblical religion, for such religion necessarily depends upon both critical historic events and their interpretation. This can at first appear to be a tenuous assumption for conservative risk-takers.
The biblical worldview necessarily depends upon events of history, a history that is largely inaccessible to us. Consequently, the historical basis of Christianity is not directly testable. The problem has a parallel in the historical basis of scientific data. Just as no one has directly "seen" God so no one has "seen" an electron. Yet the data, seen through a given theoretical framework, leads to conclusions about what does and does not exist or occur. The relative merits of the supporting theory must be assessed first in order to evaluate its empirical claims.
Neither the scientific community nor Christendom is without a sense of confidence about how to assess historical events. Data are the records of past events, of history. We accept them as such if plausible accounts can be given about their past - who recorded the data, how they did the experiment, the assumptions of the experimenters, the detailed circumstances - and whether the details of these accounts are consistent with our experience of similar events.
Theological assessment of the biblical accounts are essentially no different except that some significant events lie outside our ordinary experience.
If we regard our own experience (whether individually or as a community with a shared experience) as normative for assessing any experience, we tend to discount events unusual to us. Yet most of us - especially scientists seeking the unknown - realize that our experience alone is too limited in some respects to be reliable in assessing unfamiliar events. Physicists seek the advice of a physician when ill. But in the case of the resurrection of Christ, for example, even theologians have not experienced such an event – yet.
The event of the resurrection, however, is not presented to us in isolation of surrounding details by which we can assess it. These additional factors, such as the reason for Jesus’ death itself, have consequences as extraordinary as his resurrection. Christianity (and related biblical religions) offers a larger framework of understanding of the world in which the resurrection of Jesus is quite plausible, and even somewhat predictable. Significant consequences of this framework are empirically testable within our own experience, thus providing the link of credibility back to the recorded events themselves.
Our interpretive framework of physics leads us to believe in the existence of electrons and the data supports such a belief. Physicists would be hard put to satisfy the persistent critic who says, "But all I ask is that you show me one!" The answer is: study physics and do some experiments (such as the Millikan oil drop experiment or experiments with cathode-ray tubes with electrical or magnetic deflection systems). Then you will be better prepared to evaluate our claims about the existence of electrons. It is the integrated experience of nature within a rationally consistent theoretical framework that leads the physicist to conclude that electrons must exist. Such belief makes great sense of electron experiments. A similar argument applies to the biblical data and a biblical knowledge of God.
Two complications in establishing credibility of belief in the existence of electrons are the language and experimental techniques of physics. For a really good understanding of electrons, one must master advanced calculus (at least "grad, div and curl") and differential equations (that is, the mathematical language) and gain a sense of how nature behaves generally (such as particle and wave mechanics). And one must even suspend beliefs derived from common experience to accept the principles of quantum mechanics, for it is essential to a deeper understanding of electrons. Such a "leap of faith," in going beyond familiar experience and thought-forms, is less risky when the lines of reasoning and evidence leading to the seemingly weird conclusions of electron physics are followed. But coming to believe in electrons (as described by physics) is not an experience unique to them.
Similar complications in coming to a belief in biblical theology include understanding of the ancient and non-Western biblical texts (the language), due to the different forms of thought they are expressed in. Often, the cognitive value of these texts is undermined by the cultural gap between us and their authors, causing the texts to appear to lack substantive content. The primary work of Christian theology is historical, in uncovering the meaning of the texts in their historic setting and what they consequently mean in ours. The problem of putting these fragments of determined textual meaning (the work of exegesis) together into a coherent overall picture is central to theology. Consequently, whatever biblical religion and its God is can only be found out by establishing its datum in the definitive historical clues found in the Bible and related historical literature. This approach parallels scientific objectivity in that the datum is claimed to come from outside the minds of the persons seeking to know it.
One factor that tends to make some parts of these texts appear less intellectually robust is the expression of ideas in the form of stories or other analogies that we have tended to avoid in the formal expression of scientific concepts. Some theologians refer to such forms of expression as myth. The popular use (and one dictionary definition) of myth is: to label an untruth. Another meaning is: ancient ways of preserving the history of a culture. Myth is also a technical term among some contemporary theologians, but because of the strong ambiguity in its meaning generally, its use will be avoided here. The literary form less ambiguously referred to, and lacking in connotations of myth, is parable.
parable:a story used to illustrate an idea.
A tradition among scientists is to avoid imprecise means of communication. While the logic of rational thought provides a rigorous conceptual structure for explaining scientific data, new ideas about nature are often not the result of deduction. Some of the best scientific minds have described their creativity in much the same way that artists describe their work. Such description is often in the form of parables. A general picture is painted; a framework is given to provide a context for detail. The purpose of such stories is not to elaborate on the details justifying the framework but to emphasize the point of it - what is significant about it and what its wider consequences are. The arguments supporting it fit within this framework.
These illustrative ideas sometimes function in the sense of "prototheories" that have yet to be fully worked out. Many good ideas, however, turn out to be false or so distorted as to be misleading. Hence the necessity of empirical testing. Parables are a means of expression used in both science and theology.
Biblical parables also offer a framework of understanding about more foundational subject-matter than science usually addresses per se: the whys and hows of human life itself. Life is complex; there are so many individual circumstances and details. Parables are a way of illustrating general principles that are applicable to a wide range of situations. A wide range of applicability is not the same as imprecision. Some statements are clear in meaning, though they are quite general.
In practice, the empirical test of the generic biblical worldview is like testing a scientific theory. If the theory is true, certain consequences should follow. To live by the basic beliefs and way of life of Christianity constitutes an empirical test of it. The totality of our experience of Christianity’s empirical consequences are the basis for its acceptance or rejection. This must necessarily be the case for any religious or scientific theory, for the ultimate basis for any claim of any kind has no direct means of verification or falsification. We subject scientific theories to a wide range of controlled experience (experiment) by which theories gain or lose credibility relative to our rational framework of beliefs. How one believes (or disbelieves) the biblical theory is essentially no different.
The Split Picture
A key assumption of the scientific enterprise is that our prolific human imaginations can readily devise false views of nature. Instead of emanating from the human mind (individually or collectively), the universe has an existence of its own and for us is given. For all we might have known, the universe could have turned out to be incomprehensible and chaotic (in the metaphysical sense), or even nonexistent, but instead its structure has a supremely appealing quality to the rational mind.
This view is equally shared by biblical religion but by hardly any other. To both ancient and modern paganism, the gods of nature are fickle and hard to appease; they do not act rationally and are not faithful to any laws. Scientism shares with both science and Christianity the view that nature has a rationally comprehensible structure and moreover, it is simple and elegant. Energy minimization principles in physics, for example, suggest that we live in a minimalist universe. Causality is an instance of logical necessity. Scientism and Christianity largely differ over whether these characteristics are the expression of a creative mind that accounts for nature or are inherent in matter-energy itself. Christianity affirms the former, scientism the latter.
Under the biblical worldview, it is possible to trace everything back to God. Even evil is indirectly traceable in the sense that God created the kind of world that allows its creatures freedom to digress from his intentions. In some significant way, our freedom of action is allowed by God’s intentional self-limitation to provide us with it. This worldview is unified in that it has both a basis for science and for a meaningful life generally. This is not true, however, of the modern worldview, as we shall see later.
The presuppositions of science largely reflect biblical attributes of God.
For example, belief in the reliability of natural law follows from God’s faithfulness to his creation and its creatures. The ancient Hebrews celebrated God’s covenant-faithfulness extensively (with more holidays than we have on our calendars). They recognized it in his lawful holding-in-being of nature and in his faithful way of dealing with his covenant people. The Hebrews knew where they stood with Yahweh on the basis of his revealed covenant with them.
In contrast, the relationship of the surrounding pagans to their deities, whether they were Egyptians, Hittites, Philistines, Assyrians or Babylonians, was one of continually having to appease temperamental gods. The concept of law or a covenantal basis for relating to the gods was foreign to them and unique to the Hebrews. Because the pagan gods did not transcend nature as the Hebrew Creator did but were, in essence, regions of it, the behavior of nature itself was understood in personal terms – and these persons had unreliable personalities. This remarkable uniqueness of the Hebraic worldview led, in time, to a Western culture that, not unsurprisingly, was also the unique birthplace of modern science.
But Western civilization has moved beyond a time when the biblical view was the motivating basis of the culture. When modern science arose in the late Middle Ages, the idea of truth was still unified on the basis of the biblical view. But by the Enlightenment, self-doubt about these beliefs was evident. No longer could the whole of one’s life be lived on the same set of presuppositions. Meaning in life was no longer sought on the same basis as what one did in the laboratory.
This fragmentation or split view of reality, is now well-entrenched and is a closing circle of beliefs. It has its root historically in the rejection of the biblical God as the basis for meaning and for absolutes. Two gods are now required, one for each fragment. The first god is the material universe. This god provides a basis for affirming that the final reality is matter/energy. Consequently, for the religion of such a god, science is theology, for in this case, science is the study of Nature. This is the god of scientism.
But this god is not sufficient for all that we expect in life. Because Nature is ultimately impersonal, and at its depth is nothing but subatomic particles mediated by various forces, it is not a god that relates to us as persons. Even scientists eventually leave the lab, go home to their family and friends and wonder about their place in the big picture. They have political opinions and make judgments about other people. The god of Nature not only is of no help in more general activities of life, but contrarily reminds its followers that whatever meaning they find in life, whatever pleasures they derive from it, are ultimately meaningless.
Since the 19th century, this message has been driven home more poignantly by the oft-believed wider interpretation of Darwinian evolution, that (to quote a popular high-school biology textbook), we came into existence "without plan or purpose." But nobody lives consistently on the basis that their life is devoid of purpose, if only they would take it to heart. Those who are most consistent live with it only long enough to pull the trigger of the gun at their heads. To truly believe that one’s life is ultimately meaningless is to experience the despair that the god, Nature, offers its adherents. It fails to offer all that we need to not merely exist but to live fully.
Clearly, a supplementary deity is required that attempts to provide what Nature cannot deliver of meaning in life. This second god must have an apparent advantage over the biblical god to be preferred, a god that does not stand in the way of human aspiration but embodies it. Philosophically, the religion in which the self is god is existentialism. If meaning in life can be founded on the self, then it becomes the standard for human behavior, and all morality and truth in social affairs ultimately traces back to the opinions and attitudes of the self. The twin gods of Nature and Self characterize where many of our generation find themselves in their worldview. This is the secular alternative. It is a worldview, has identifiable gods and is exercised in practice as a religion, though its adherents often view it as the anti-religion. Yet as an alternative to Buddhism or the biblical worldview, it is in the same category as any religion.
The central problem with secularism is that the twin gods are incompatible, causing a fragmented worldview and corresponding split life. While the existential self seeks meaning in a material world, Nature keeps telling it that such an effort is ultimately futile. While the results of science are interpreted according to Nature as leaving no room for a Creator behind Nature to give it meaning (by definition, Nature as god is the ultimate basis for everything else, so nothing antecedent to Nature can exist), the secularist is caught in a closed universe with nothing but the Self as an alternative to render it meaningful. But Nature will not allow that because human beings are also a part of it, and Nature "has no plan or purpose." Nature says we are merely accidental while the Self attributes meaning to the rational structure it finds in Nature, justifying the reasonableness of Nature’s claim to our ultimate insignificance. The worship of the twin gods of secularism can only lead to profound self-contradiction and despair. This pressure will, in the long run, drive one to resolve it, either by a return to a consistent foundation of belief in the Creator, or by surrendering to paganism and its affirmation of the Self at the expense of an objective view of reality.
The Dilemma of Knowing
Most philosophers and historians trace our epistemological difficulties to Rene Descartes’ separation of the knower from what he knows.
Descartes wondered about how he knew anything with any certainty at all. His famous statement "I think, therefore I am" clinched for him at least the certitude of his own existence. The thought he was reflecting upon at least required a thinker. But he could better have said (after Donald M. MacKay’s suggestion), "I doubt, therefore I am" because if this statement were called into question, one need only ask who is doubting it!
In grounding the certitude of all his knowledge on the starting point of his own existence instead of the givenness of the universe, Descartes became the "father of existentialism." That is, Descartes grounded all knowledge in the self. While scientific knowledge is, for each of us, our knowledge (it is we individually who know it), that is not what makes us value it. This knowledge is valuable scientifically because it is true; it has some significant relationship to the world outside our minds.
Today, philosophy is split largely into two opposing schools. The "analytic" or "positivist" school pursues reason at the expense of meaning, hoping to find ultimate objectivity in formal, rational structures or in data itself because it is "fact." This effort has, in our day, largely degenerated into linguistic analysis and the attempt to make meanings of words so precise that no content is left in them. It is the attempt to eliminate the risk of an interpretive framework and the assumptions they bring to (and discover in) data. In the end, it is knowledge without commitment to it by the knower. It is the quest for objectivity apart from knowers.
At the other end of the spectrum, existentialists opt for meaning at the expense of objectivity and logical rigor, starting from Descartes’ conclusion about the inescapability of the self in knowing. Modern existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus (or much of cutting-edge society) extend this notion and seek ultimate fulfillment in the assertion of the self. Acts of the self are the experiential quest for life’s meaning. But the self is limited and subject to error. (At least most of us have empirically observed this about both ourselves and others.) This clash is sometimes expressed as a tension between fact and value, between science and the humanities, between Star Trek’s Doctor McCoy and its Science Officer, Mr. Spock. Beyond mere acts must be a discernment of their meaning and value.
Sometime after Descartes, Immanuel Kant argued that our knowledge has two aspects to it. Experience provides the content while reason provides the form. Experimental raw data of itself says nothing. But when interpreted in a given framework of thought, it is capable of tending to confirm or deny hypotheses about it. Experiments are designed to test a priori hypotheses; they are not accidental. Even accidents, such as Goodyear’s kitchen-stove discovery of sulfur as a vulcanizing agent for rubber, are interpreted in the larger framework of what is intended to be achieved, in a setting already understood in terms of current scientific theory. In general, life has meaning because of the interpretive structure our minds impose in our experience of it. The scientific quest is to expand and deepen the meaning of nature for us. We want to know nature better. The religious quest takes this motivation further and seeks greater meaning for our life generally by pursuing an interpretive structure that provides such meaning. We want to experience life better.
In our time, it is no longer common for these two quests to be unified within one comprehensive worldview. The Enlightenment rejection of the biblical answer about the self and nature has left us with a dilemma. On the one hand, science gives us a reliable understanding of the universe but does not tell us what our place in it is. Science is not religion and does not tell us who we are. Some scientists, speaking as though it were a conclusion of science and not their own religious beliefs, tell us that there is no objective meaning to human existence, that it is accidental. But simple observation shows that no one, not even the high priests of scientism, live as though this were true. It is merely a self-contradictory statement. Any scientist who, on the basis of science, were to make such a claim would destroy the basis on which it were made. It is said that Charles Darwin reputedly understood this accidentalist interpretation of his theory when he said he knew in his mind that Darwinism was true, but "my mind is only a monkey’s mind, and who can trust a mind like that?" Apart from the question of how life developed, to equate accident with chance is to undercut the meaningfulness of Darwinian theory itself. The claim that we are cosmic accidents must itself be but the consequence of a cosmic accident.
One need not interpret chance as accident. In science, it usually means a lack of knowledge of causal precursors to an event or that events are causally unrelated, not that the event is necessarily meaningless. Ignorance or unrelatedness is not the same as meaninglessness. Such a view, however, seemed necessary once the biblical view was denied.
To explain human existence in terms of accident is to abandon hope in a rational worldview. It is to arrive by a longer route at where the existentialists had always been. We are left with the quintessential dilemma of secularism: on the basis of reason and science, we can only know about the particulars of the universe. No integrated picture holding all the particulars of life can be found on the basis of science alone. But we do not live without a worldview which gives life meaning. The desperate consequence is the abandonment of reason for a kind of existentialism, a leap of faith in something that, without reasonable grounds, will give life meaning. The dilemma of the modern scientist or engineer without the biblical kind of answer is the tension between believing a "science" which tells him that he is an accident of nature, and the inability to live as a human being only on the basis of this "science."
One way to resolve the fragmentation between science and religion is to deny the legitimacy of one or the other. In the twentieth century, this approach has worked largely in favor of those within science who were interested in dismissing Christianity. Popular culture has been receptive. But the spirit of the times has shifted and both science and Christianity are challenged by the resurgence of ancient paganism in the form of neo-pagan or New Age views. We now have not two but three prominent schools of thought:
Science differs from these basic religious alternatives in that it is not explicitly concerned with ultimate questions, at least not until cosmologists recently began to talk in ultimate terms. Such exceptions aside, science is essentially a "nuts and bolts" enterprise, and appeals to those who want to get at the essential facts and leave philosophizing to others less empirically inclined.
Scientism, S, is more generally manifested in society as secularism, whether secularists are scientific or not. Thinking secularists commonly appeal to science as an authority in rejecting X or P. Secular beliefs not explicitly involving science usually come implicitly from either X or P. Secularism is thereby a kind of eclectic alternative and scientism is a particular manifestation of it. Modern secularism is largely a reaction to (and rejection of) our society’s Christian heritage, though ancient Greek secularists, such as the Pythagoreans, were atheists with no apparent reactionary past.
Some religious alternatives have a better empirical base than others, and the biblical religions (alternative X) depend for their validity upon the data of historical events. Little to nothing of the holy books of Eastern religions requires that they be grounded in historical events in space-time. The stories of the Upanishads, as a typical example, are written as sequences of historic events, but the crucial point is that such an interpretation of them is entirely unnecessary. At best, they are fictional and intended to teach some lesson.
The biblical alternatives require historicity, though the Bible expresses some history in the literary style of parables, figures of speech or as somewhat abstracted descriptions. Much of the essential biblical data are observer-based descriptions of historic events. If these events did not occur, or their interpretations are too wide of the mark relative to the actual events, then X falls apart. Whether this kind of falsification is any easier to demonstrate than the difficulty some recognize in its verification is yet another issue. At the outset, biblical religion is, in principle, falsifiable. If not, it would be an epistemic variant of New Age and Eastern thought, of alternative P.
In our era, much of what passes as "Christianity" falls in category P, typically found in large, mainline Protestant denominations or nominally Roman Catholic groups. The emphasis among these groups is on the meaning of the biblical text to you, the reader of it. But if you are scientifically inclined, the meaning of interest is its objective, space-time meaning, if such a meaning can be plausibly adduced. But that meaning is not the motivation of such existentialists. Instead, personal experience is ultimate, though expressed in the language of Christianity. Eastern religion more consistently makes no bones over declaring the self as god and self-realization (actually, self-unrealization) its goal.
The subjectivity of New Age, Eastern and "existential Christian" religions make it virtually impossible to accept and yet retain basic scientific attitudes about truth. Recent books have been written attempting to show congruence between such attitudes and science. And scientific theories are sometimes given a New Age spin, such as the Gaia hypothesis. As older scientism (such as positivism) in its various expressions wanes, a religious vacuum has opened that is often filled by a revived paganism.
Most scientists readily recognize that paganism in its many forms, including New Age, Eastern and "existential Christian," is a long way from their basic beliefs about truth and reality.
Most religious alternatives follow what seems like a reasonable path that leads to some form of existentialism, where the self is, in some sense, god.For ancient paganism, nature in its various manifestations were its gods. The character of its gods said more about the ancient pagan mind than about nature, and the self was reflected in them. What we consider a scientific understanding of nature did not result.
For P as Eastern religions, the self is explicitly god, reality is the self and the goal is self-realization. Such a god is, of course, no bigger than the self. The god of modern Western materialism, including scientism, is also Nature, though envisioned differently than in paganism. However, scientism does not provide a comprehensive theory for life beyond scientific issues. For the more reflective, arguments for particular viewpoints are worked out with some logical consistency, and occasionally even a systematic account for all of life is attempted.
For X, neither nature nor the self is god. This is a major distinction. Its "unnatural" insight is that both the self and nature must owe their existence and basic form to a factor transcending either in order to adequately account for both. This "factor" of course is the creator of both. By positing the source of all meaning in either the self or nature, such meaning is limited to the self or to nature. But God, though self-limiting, is sufficiently "big" to be a real source of meaning and an explanation for both. By letting God be god, the overwhelming obligations or inabilities of lesser gods is resolved.
X attributes this insight and its far-reaching consequences consistently to God as its revealed source. That is, such an insight is not "natural" in the sense that we tend to discover it on our own. In this sense, both S and P are natural religions. If nature and humanity are all there is, any views of them must also arise out of them. X is, in its essence, given or revealed through historic events by God. It claims thereby to not be a human-made religion, and thereby offers the possibility of overcoming the inherent limitations of S and P.
If the world is but a projection of the self, as in Eastern belief, then the awesome responsibility for the whole world falls on the self. You are responsible for everything. The accidental is your fault and you deserve all that happens to you; after all, you are its origin; you create reality. This extreme form of the self as god is rejected by most modern secularists because it is apparent that the whole world is more complex than any self, yet the conclusions hold whenever one’s god is (however it is) the self.
Moral relativism is also consistent with this view in that what is right or wrong comes from the self. When multiple selves differ on such issues, there is no bigger source to which to appeal. The Greek philosophers had the same problem of finiteness with their gods, who were a kind of amplified humanity. It was never clear whether the gods were controlling nature or whether the Fates (Nature) were controlling the gods. This problem is inherent in all of paganism. The basic problem with both S and P is the attempt to build a sufficient worldview on too limited of a foundation. The dilemma in constructing a worldview based on humanity (or the self) or nature suggests the need for a third way.
The approach of X rejects the limited starting-point (or gods) of S and P in favor of revelation from God. Crucial insights we do not have from ourselves or nature provide a solution to the basic limitations of S and P in that they transcend any basis for explanation in humanity or nature. X considers the attempt to explain the universe by nothing but the universe to be self-defeating, an attempt at logical bootstrapping. Of course, God must be adequately described relative to the problems that the approach of X solves. That is, merely introducing some third factor in itself does not solve the problem. Mystics have been doing that for centuries. The issue boils down to demonstration of a superior god. Therefore, description of God is essential to the task.
A second "unnatural" insight of X follows from the first: humanity (or the self) is neither god nor insignificant. In Buddhist thought, humans are insignificant, like the wind in an ink drawing. Societies that consistently believe this treat themselves accordingly. Not surprisingly, the practice of individual rights and representative forms of government based on law are consequences of X in Western Europe. Even less natural is the basic recognition within X of not only human finiteness, but also human fallibility, or sin. This is not a view of ourselves that we are inclined to accept readily and is naturally troubling. We naturally shy away from it in embarrassment, preferring instead the self-affirming road to godhood. For those who come to see this "natural" approach as a deep-seated illusion, a biased misconception of ourselves, then a qualitatively new insight into humanity and our own nature is possible.
A third "unnatural" insight of X is that a solution to the human predicament (or salvation) is achieved on our behalf by God rather than by ourselves. The natural approach, with the self as god, consistently affirms the ability of humanity (individually or collectively) to achieve salvation. X affirms that our predicament is more serious than we tend to realize, that the solution is bigger than we can provide and that it has been accomplished by another on our behalf. Human will raised to an absolute is a deep human self-deception and lies at the core of our fallibility. At the same time, we are significant - neither infinite nor zero, but merely finite.
The starting point or the datum of X is simply the biblical record, illuminated as to its meaning by extra-biblical historical research. New data comes largely from Mideast archeological finds, which have been immense in the last 150 years, from continuing investigations of the rather voluminous extant historic material rediscovered in museum vaults, from scientific work (such as flood geology or investigation of the origins of the Shroud of Turin) and from the cultural continuity of understanding passed down in the tradition of Christendom, in the historic church.
Pure theology might be regarded as doing this basic work, and then in unraveling a clearer, more exacting meaning of the seminal theory from this datum. In contrast, applied theology, like engineering relative to pure science, makes use of these results for human benefit: a clearer overall comprehension of life and reality, and the significance of our place within it.
This datum differs somewhat from that in science. Nature is open and seemingly inexhaustible in the possible future insights it has to reveal. The Bible is a fixed set of literary works (collected as a single "book" as its Phoenician name, bible, suggests). Furthermore, scientific questions or controversies can be settled by the results of experiments whenever such experiments or observations can be made. At least for empirical science, there is a kind of accessibility to the answers that is lacking for theology in that its empirical data are that of historical events.
If we could travel back in time and observe these events ourselves, then the empirical certitude sought in empirical science could perhaps be achieved. Instead, we have to interpret reports of these alleged events. Much of what we conclude depends on how well the different biblical reports agree in describing what happened, how well they are corroborated by external historical evidence and, not least, what we make of the character of the reporters. Are they reliable? What are their biases and motives? To do this, we have to apply a kind of transformation - like a similarity transform - to understand their writings relative to their historical settings.
As for the cultural gap, it is not insignificant. Misunderstanding of the biblical writings drives many science/religion controversies today. For example, one faction in the creation/evolution controversy insists on interpreting the early part of the book of Genesis as a modern scientific document. Scientifically-minded hearers of these theories, lacking any further theological understanding, usually conclude that Genesis is asserting false theories about nature. It is then easier to generalize that the Bible is un- (if not anti-) scientific and unreliable. Another example is the clause, in passing, in a parable told by Jesus that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. In fact, it is not. Here we have, on the face of it, a direct contradiction between scientific fact and a biblical assertion.
These kinds of linguistic-cultural difficulties are frequently encountered in the biblical text, thus goading antibiblical axe-grinders into slam-dunk arguments against biblically-derived belief-systems. What is needed, however, is to do the proper work of theology: find out first, as well as possible, what these writers meant by their writings. Then we can ruminate over what to make of it. The ostensible meanings of the translated words in our minds and the probable meaning in the authors’ life-setting are often like ships passing in the night.
Doing this work is a branch of scholarship called hermeneutics. Though the authors are all long gone, there is a body of knowledge about their cultures, their use of language, how people thought in their various times, and how it differed from other contemporary cultures. From this information, much light can be cast on what the authors most probably meant. In most cases, it is clear, but a few portions of text are controversial as to their basic meaning. The biblical text, or scripture as it has come to be called, was written as script in the oldest available documents, on parchment or papyri. While some preachers popularly embellish scripture to make a point, the issue for hermeneuticists is not what others do with this text but what it meant to the authors. Merely determining the most plausible meaning for the raw Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in which various parts of scripture are written resolves many misunderstandings. (See the references for further study of this issue.)
A prior problem is that of textual analysis: determining the text of the scriptures themselves. This is not as large a problem as it may seem for such ancient material. Numerous manuscripts from different sources and datings exist.
Finally, our means of accessing data is not exhausted after the historical work has been done, for though the biblical worldview was set forth long ago, its claims are not limited to the biblical life-settings of its authors. We would expect this of any objective claims, requiring universal assent by rational minds. We can test the claims in our own setting. These tests produce new data by which the original truth-claims can be assessed.
This empirical aspect of the biblical worldview is critical, for few who are seriously testing it themselves have become convinced of it on the basis of the essential historical events alone. Without such events, there would be neither a theory to test nor a basis for it, but if these events did not have a meaning pointing beyond to our situation, they would not have for us the sweeping consequences that the theory sets forth. In the end, what leads to a compelling motivation to test the biblical alternative to S or P is agreement between an account of biblical theory and the totality of one’s experience of life - of the empirical data one has.
Basic Overview of X
The Bible is divided into two parts labeled Old and New Testaments. Testaments or covenants are legal agreements. In this case, the particular covenants are those defining the relationship between God and his people. In the early 1950s, archaeologist George E. Mendenhall discovered that the form of the covenant given in Exodus, in which the Ten Commandments stand out as a prominent feature (Ex. 20), is the same as the king-vassal (or suzerainty) covenants found on recently unearthed clay tablets in the Mideast.
These covenants are central to an understanding of biblical thought, so much so that the two parts of the Bible are named after them. The time-span of the writing of this 36-document collection is at least a thousand years, and though dating is an ongoing area of study, some scholars of the ancient Mideast would place early writings, such as that of Job’s, several thousand years before the last writing in the New Testament (NT), John’s Revelation. The only common thread in the 36 documents is the continuity in worldview among the authors and their extraordinarily resilient Hebraic subculture, which persists to this day.
The unique history of the Israelis, who according to the OT accounts were a people established in an explicit way by God, is itself a historical anomaly worthy of attention. In particular, the formative events of Israel (especially in their exodus from Egypt) embedded deeply in their cultural consciousness a unique non-pagan worldview that appears nowhere else in recorded history. One essential feature of this view is that a single god created the universe. For a brief time, an Egyptian pharaoh held a personalized monotheistic view which could hardly be compared to Israel’s. Elsewhere, among the Hittites, Babylonians, peoples-of-the-sea (such as the Phoenicians), Assyrians, Greeks and lesser cultures of the ancient world, polytheistic paganism uniformly prevailed, differing only in the genealogical details of the gods.
The Hebrews (possibly from hapiru, meaning those peoples who were not a settled part of established Mideast civilization) later became the Israelites or Israelis (after Israel, son of Abraham, the first Hebrew). The OT largely consists of accounts of Hebrew history, with some literature (such as Proverbs or Psalms) and writings of their prophets, who were not so much crystal-ball gazers as prosecuting attorneys, taking up God’s case against Israel for breach of the covenant. This unique aspect of the Hebrew worldview, foreign to paganism, established a rational basis for relating to their god. The law of the covenant not only spelled out the obligations of Israel but also those of God. OT history is summarized simply as one of Israel repeatedly failing the agreement and God remaining faithful to it. After centuries, it was clear that this wasn’t going to work; something else was needed.
The OT people looked forward to a time when the covenant would be renewed by a faithful Israel, never to need yet another reinstatement. Given human nature, that wasn’t about to happen with Israel per se. The Christian assertion (and shared Jewish future hope) is that God himself took the initiative to provide a faithful covenant partner, one who would fulfill its obligations and thereby obtain its promised benefits. He would do this as a representative not only of Israel but of all humanity. Israel was the trace through history leading to this wider development. This messiah, the one who would bring this about, was, the NT proclaims, none other than God himself, as seen in the cross-section of reality that is our space-time, and appearing as a human being, in order to represent humanity.
The events in the short duration of about three years involving Jesus of Nazareth, who is identified as this messiah by the NT writers, has been a (if not the) major influence on history until our time, and brought an end to the ancient world dominated by paganism. Whatever one might make of these events, they have played a central role in bringing about the world as we know it. The influence of other individuals, such as Buddha, have perhaps affected the lives of more people than Jesus. But the effect on history as a whole, led by the influence of the Christian West, has never been greater. While this proves nothing as to the NT claims, it is suggestive of something extraordinary, something deserving of further investigation. A minor thread of a culture unique in the ancient world leads to a minor stretch of Palestinian history that changes the course of humanity. And one important aspect of this course has been science.
Christian Roots of Early Science: Reason and Observation
The influence of Christianity in its social and historical consequences is unprecedented in recorded history. Much of what we value about our civilization was instituted as a consequence of Christian belief, developing in a Christian milieu. Science is no exception.
Human beings are curious about the world, and this interest reaches back to the earliest times of human record. Science differs from earlier approaches to understanding and manipulating nature because of its different assumptions about both nature and knowing. In ancient paganism, appeasement of the gods of nature through magic was the means to success. While the methods of magic or pagan ritual have a kind of internal logic, they characteristically fail to offer a systematically consistent account of observed phenomena and have weak predictive powers.
Ancient Greeks (Aristotle, Plato, the Pythagoreans) took a step forward in that a more advanced reason combined with crude but quantitative observation (measurement) allowed the Pythagorean, Thales, to deduce the circumference of the earth from measurements of the sun’s shadow in a well. Plato’s dualism between the imperfect observable world and the eternal world of Ideals from which it was patterned led to the belief that since the human mind had access to the Ideals, it could deduce observable reality from such knowledge. (For example, we can only envision ideal circles in our minds; real "circles" are but imperfect copies of the idea of a circle.) Why observe the imperfect when one could reason from the perfect? So reasons the "armchair philosophy" of rationalism.
This newly-developed power of reason was so influential that it eclipsed the importance of observation, and by the Middle Ages it was commonly (though by no means universally) believed that human reason alone was able to deduce facts about nature from first principles (usually those of Aristotle). The mysteries of nature could be reasoned out, it seemed.
Another strand of medieval thought was nominalism. A remembered nominalist is William of Ockham (or Occam), whose maxim is familiar in science:
In other words, the simplest theory, with fewest assumptions, should be preferred in accounting for the phenomena.
For nominalists, theories served merely as a convenient way to account for observations of nature, or "save the appearances." This view of theory later reappeared in the 19th century as logical positivism, advanced by Ernst Mach and his colleagues in the Vienna Circle. Positivism has diminished greatly in influence in the latter half of the 20th century but is still widespread. To positivists, theories merely account for observations, like directories account for club members. Because theories are constructs of human reason, in their attempts to remove the unreliable human factor in science (the bias of the scientist), positivists minimized the significance of theory. They were empiricists, those who emphasize observation (data) over reason.
The medieval university scholars (or schoolmen) were impressed by the Greek philosophers. They were rationalists. They believed that truth was ultimately rational and could be expressed in the form of rational theories. By this time, Plato’s world of Ideals was given a Christian spin, involving a hierarchy of realities, with God at the top. The schoolmen differed from the early scientists of the late Middle Ages in their belief that reason was sufficient to understand nature because God had given humanity rational powers by which we could know him and his creation.
Reason was necessary, the medieval Church argued, but not sufficient. Even so, medieval theologians tended to be rationalistic (such as Thomas Aquinas and even Bonaventure), biased by the spirit of their age. Nevertheless, the Church did not go so far as to opt for Greek rationalism. But some schoolmen did.
The strand of medieval thought most closely associated with the emergence of science was realism. Realists agreed with nominalists that the rationality of theories was no guarantee of their truth, but unlike the nominalists, they believed that the rational content of theories was a reflection of the structure of nature. Theory was not only a convenient way of cataloguing observation but described the way the world really was.
Though many early scientists considered themselves in the nominalist tradition, the realist strand of medieval thought was neither rationalist nor nominalist, though it included insights from each. It was dominant by the 17th century and its emergence spelled the end of medievalism and brought in the age of science. Realism is also most closely associated with Christianity during the Middle Ages. The late medieval Church and its foremost scholar, Thomas Aquinas, was impressed by the Socratic Greeks (mainly Aristotle), but differed from the schoolmen, whose more extreme form of rationalism led to the Galileo affair. The Pope at the time, once a friend of Galileo’s, was eventually persuaded by the schoolmen to denounce Galileo’s theory, though a Church condemnation a couple of centuries earlier (in 1277 AD), issued by the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned Aristotelian assertions, with their consequential stagnation of ideas in natural philosophy (as science was then called). The university Aristotelians used the Church as political leverage in opposing Galileo, though on principle the Church should have been opposing the schoolmen. Only recently has the Pope corrected the error.
Christian Roots of Early Science: Necessity and Contingency
The tension between reason and observation and their isms (rationalism and empiricism) is also expressible in terms of necessity and contingency. The early scientists opposed rational necessity in favor of contingency, the idea that the universe does not necessarily have to be the way it is. Consequently, nature is not a product of logical deduction. Robert Boyle emphasized this point; God did not have to create the universe as it is, as though there were a higher god of Necessity behind the Creator. As freely created, the only way we can know nature is to observe it so that we can judge which of the many rationally appealing theories actually correspond to it. In this belief, the scientists departed from the rationalists. However, unlike the nominalists, they also believed that it was possible to express truth about nature as theories because nature was created by a rational mind.
Since its start nearly four centuries ago, the scientific community has remained remarkably cohesive in this approach. While science has always had its cranks, in more recent times, it has been strained by tendencies to revert to either a pure rationalism or empiricism. The positivist influence on science was a foray into empiricism that reflected the spirit of the 19th century, of British empiricists David Hume and John Locke.
Science in our time has largely recovered but now the pendulum has swung the other way. Scientific interest in largely nonexperimental subjects, such as the origin of the universe or life involve events of the past, requiring time machines to conclusively investigate. Scientific clues about the past are our only data from which to inferentially extrapolate likely histories. This activity of scientific extrapolation is of a different kind than chemistry, physics or genetics because the rational aspect (theories of origins) must take precedence in the absence of sufficient data. How much data is sufficient is a prime motivator of origins controversies.
Christianity is epistemologically similar to such sciences. No direct, overwhelming evidence can be offered as "brute fact" to lay to rest doubts about historically-rooted theory and achieve the kind of certitude Descartes sought. What results instead is a dynamic activity in which the theory is tested by subjecting it to those experiments within our power to control which reflect on its truth-claims. For origins science, digging up fossils, for example, provides such data. Doubts can lead to unbelief, by which a theory or hypothesis is abandoned. Doubts can also fuel the search for truth, and are an inescapable aspect of belief of any kind. To believe at all is to take an intellectual risk, and risk involves the possibility of failure. Doubt is but a realization of the risk.
Christianity also has truth-claims testable by us in the course of living, but such testing also involves risk, with possible adverse social, intellectual or physical consequences. If wrong, we may simply waste a major portion of our life. (But if right, we otherwise do so anyway!) Our accumulated set of skills and experience in appraising truth-claims, risks and ventures of any kind are critical in such decision-making.
Science and Christianity are not as far apart as it often seems.Though a warfare view of the relationship of the two enterprises has been popular in the twentieth century, science shares with historic Christianity similar views of the universe and of how we can know it. In its historical development, science is uniquely related to Christianity and these underlying similarities are not coincidental. However, today the relationship is obfuscated by a deteriorating church, a shallow understanding of intellectual history of ideas and their development, and the misuse of scientific prestige to advance alternative worldviews in the name of science. Once these (and other) hindrances to understanding the relationship of science and Christianity are resolved, the belief-distance between historic scientific and Christian beliefs is not insurmountable. Thousands of Christians in science attest to the fundamental harmony in exploring nature scientifically within the larger framework of understanding provided by the biblical worldview.
References and Further Reading
American Scientific Affiliation
ASA Washington-Baltimore Local Section
New Testament History, F. F. Bruce, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1969.
The Biblical Archaeologist Reader 3, E. F. Campbell, Jr, David Noel Freedman, Eds, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1970.
Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, F. F. Bruce, Eerdmans, 1974.
The Stones and the Scriptures: An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology, Edwin Yamauchi, Baker House, 1972.
I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, George Eldon Ladd, Eerdmans, 1975.
Knowing in Science and Christianity
Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Michael Polanyi, U. of Chicago Press, 1962, or Harper Torchbooks, 1964.
Escape from Reason, Francis A. Schaeffer, IVP, 1968.
He is there and he is not silent, Francis A. Schaeffer, Tyndale, 1972.
"The Spiritual Dimensions of Science," Walter R. Thorson, in Horizons of Science, Carl F. H. Henry, Ed., Harper & Row, 1978.
Philosophy of Science
Science, Chance and Providence, Donald M. MacKay, Oxford U., 1978.
The Clockwork Image, Donald M. MacKay, IVP, 1974.
Issues in Science and Religion, Ian G. Barbour, Harper, 1966.
Putting It All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith, Richard H. Bube, University Press, 1995.
God Did It, But How?, 2nd Ed., Robert B. Fischer, ASA Press, 1997.
The Soul of Science, Nancy R. Pearcey, Charles B. Thaxton, Crossway Books, 1994.