The Philosophy of Science
This is the seventh post in a series I’ve been writing about science and Christianity. The others were:
In my last post, I raised the question of the reliability of science. The culture of science is a basically atheistic one. The books on evolution I’m listing in my sources get rave reviews by prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens (author of God Is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion). Isn’t it possible that the consistent story I see as evidence of the great age of the universe is simply a myth perpetuated by a group of people set against God and the Bible? After all, if a scientist came forward with evidence that the Earth was really only 10,000 years old, he would be rejected and ridiculed, wouldn’t he?
To answer this question, we have to address the question of what science is, and what it isn’t. Science is a philosophy. We need to consider if that philosophy is, at its root, consistent with Christianity. What does “science” believe about truth and how to discover it? How does that fit in with a Christian worldview?
The philosophy of science claims that the way to know if something is true is to subject it to a set of consistent and repeatable tests. It seeks to determine truth independent of the bias of the experimenters. Instead of relying on the authority of other writers, or the interpretation of a religious text, or what seems to be obvious to everyone, science seeks to establish truth through experiment and logic. This philosophy is based on certain presuppositions, such as the reliability of logic and the consistent orderliness of the universe.
Of course, scientists have biases just like everyone else, and widely held beliefs are hard to overthrow. This is why a critical piece of the philosophy is repeatability. Not only do individual scientists perform their experiments again and again, but no claim is considered valid until it is confirmed, independently, by someone else repeating the experiment in a different lab. Once it is repeated consistently, however, the result is considered valid regardless of how bizarre or unexpected the results are. (Just look at quantum mechanics for a case in point.) Perhaps the greatest invention that modern science has brought to the world is the system of publication and peer review. The system has flaws, as anyone whose paper has been rejected by a jealous or petty reviewer can tell you. The underlying principle, however, which began with letters mailed between members of the Royal Society in the 17th century, is that nothing counts unless it is written down in enough detail that someone else can repeat your experiment on the other side of the English Channel and get the same results. Through this system, truth can be discovered, proven, and built upon.
But does it work? Or does the scientific community simply reject all results that challenge their own predetermined, atheistic beliefs?
It is difficult to deny that the system works on some level. No previous culture of knowledge has built on itself so effectively, as the technology that surrounds us every day bears witness. Our homes are electrified and air-conditioned, we fly through the air in metal contraptions, we talk to people on the other side of the world, we cure disease, we visit the moon. All of these accomplishments were built on the foundation of the scientific philosophy. As new evidence comes in, old models are refined and revised, with resistance at first, but eventually with flexibility and acceptance. No other philosophy so readily accepts changes to its knowledge base, because no other philosophy has the continuous search for knowledge at the core of its tenets.
But doesn’t this mean that science never gives us any certain knowledge? Yes, in a sense. If you perform 1000 experiments that support your theory, there is always the chance that experiment #1001 will disprove it. Science never really proves something to be true; it provides models of the universe that fit all of the available data discovered so far. Sometimes those models are overthrown with new models when more data comes to light. For instance, Einstein’s papers proposed a new model for motion that replaced the one previously established by Newton. Newton’s model was not wrong; it simply didn’t apply to objects that were very small or moving very fast. Within its proper sphere, the experimental data that confirmed Newton’s model were still valid, and his conclusions are still taught in every high school in the world.
However, this assumption–that something is only true if it is testable and repeatable–is where Christianity and science so easily come into conflict, and why science is often so closely tied to atheism. Despite its accomplishments, science only goes so far. It’s concerned only with the material world. The mistake many people make is to reason that, since only the material world is subject to repeatable tests, that proves that the material world is all that exists. This is a circular argument: it defines reality as that which can be materially tested, and then concludes on that basis that only the material world is real. This is a rejection of God on philosophical grounds, not scientific ones. Atheists have not used science to prove the non-existence of God; they have assumed it in their first principles.
Ultimately, science is not an atheistic philosophy, but a Christian one. This may seem a surprising claim when so many well-meaning Christians undermine the scientific philosophy by trying to force the available evidence to fit a six-day or Young Earth model. This is unfortunate, and it occurs because many Christians think the Bible requires them to believe the Earth is young, and thus to interpret the evidence according to this presupposition.
However, if Christians can be freed from reading such assumptions into the Biblical text, as I argued in my last two posts, then we can see science, not just as an acceptable pursuit, but as fulfilling one of the chief purposes of mankind. In Genesis 1, we see God bringing order out of chaos. He separates time into day and night; he organizes the world into sea and land and sky. Finally, he creates man in his own likeness, as his agents, to continue his work of claiming order out of chaos. The job of creation is not done. Outside the garden of Eden, chaos still reigns, and man is given the job, as an agent of God, to multiply and subdue it and establish order. By “chaos,” in this context, I don’t mean the disorder introduced by sin, which perverts the creation and man’s role in it. This is simply a lack of order, the work that God left for man to accomplish to continue his work of creation.
This role to bring order can be accomplished in many ways. Art and music bring order. Educating children brings order. Cleaning toilets and picking up trash brings order. All honorable vocations fulfill this role, but science does so in a special way. The scientific philosophy has taken to a new level the concept of bringing order to the world God made. It allows us to systematically understand the laws of nature, to conquer natural forces and bend them to our will, to uncover God’s creation layer by layer and bring it under submission to our intellect. Science takes the vast material creation of God and brings it into functional order.
The study of science is the worship of God. Not that we worship nature itself, or confuse the creation with the Creator. However, the study of the remarkable processes by which the world grows, changes, and forms is a testament to the creativity, orderliness, and predictability of God. God granted us the privilege of discovering and establishing order in his world, and to do so is to act as God’s agent, in his likeness, fulfilling the original purpose for which we were made.