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The Philosophy of Science

November 26, 2012

This is the seventh post in a series I’ve been writing about science and Christianity.  The others were:

1. How Can A Christian Write Science Fiction?
2. The Age of the Stars
3. The Age of the Rocks
4. Random Chance vs. Design
5. Science and Genesis 1
6. Science and Adam

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.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2012 8:10 am

    I wish that more religious people would view science the way you do. Great post.

  2. December 11, 2012 5:23 pm

    Just caught up on your series of articles here – good stuff. I’ve gone through the same conflictions and come to the same conclusions since our high school days (although I didn’t even remember that old Biology book until you mentioned it a few articles ago!), and some of the arguments you’ve laid out make it all make even more sense now. With your kids going to Christian school, how have you handled (or are you planning to handle) the creation vs. evolution faceoff that’s sure to come up? (Again, mostly because I’ve been contemplating how I’ll handle it when we get there myself.) You want to explain things to them as you see them, but at the same time you don’t want them landing in detention or failing a test because they contradict the teacher, I’d imagine.

    • davidwaltonfiction permalink*
      December 13, 2012 12:57 pm

      This has already come up a number of times. A few years ago, my 2nd grade daughter came home and told my preschool son that dinosaurs and humans had lived at the same time, and he set her straight in no uncertain terms. My kids know where I stand on the science, but they also know why other people at school or church might disagree. My 6th grade daughter had to write a short assignment on the subject, and I thought she did a good job. We haven’t had any trouble, but none of them are in high school yet. We’ll see how it goes.

  3. Deanna permalink
    January 17, 2013 12:07 pm

    “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.”

    Perhaps you could suggest a better method than science by which the non-material world can be investigated and understood? Because if all you have is personal revelation and an ancient book, then all you really have is wishful thinking.

    • davidwaltonfiction permalink*
      January 26, 2013 4:07 am

      The Bible is not personal revelation, but public revelation. It’s a revelation from God to anyone who reads it. The way to investigate and understand the non-material world, then, is to read the Bible. Was it written by various ancient humans over thousands of years, in their own literary styles and context? Certainly. But it is also a coherent whole that God has guided to communicate things we would be unable to understand simply by studying the material world. I recognize that many people disagree with this claim, but it’s not something that can be proven experimentally, any more than you can prove that I love my children. It’s something proven by time and experience and relationship, not scientific test. The only way to know what I’m talking about is to read the Bible yourself and ask God to show you the truth of it.

      • Deanna permalink
        January 29, 2013 1:21 pm

        So indeed all you have is (1) an ancient book (“public revelation”) and (2) personal revelation (God showed you “the truth of it”). The problem with (1) is that it’s not at all a coherent whole considering its internal contradictions and its inconsistencies with historical fact. It looks exactly like a book written by various ancient humans and nothing more.
        The problem with (2) is that no two Christians agree with “the truth of it”, which puts into question whether these “truths” come from a higher being. It looks exactly like wishful thinking.
        BTW, I have and I did, back in my youth, and in return I got a rather unexpected SILENCE. Now I know why.

      • davidwaltonfiction permalink*
        February 4, 2013 3:22 am

        To clarify: the Bible is sufficient to tell you about Christ. I don’t expect you to hear a voice in your head. That said, for you to refer to the Bible’s “internal contradictions” sounds to me like someone objecting to evolution because there aren’t any “missing links”. Christians disagree about many things, to be sure (evolution among them!), but the gospel is clear enough. I hope you will continue whatever studies you began in your youth, and discover there is much more to the Christian faith than you credit.

  4. March 16, 2013 12:21 am

    As both a devout Christian and a neuroscientist who teaches research methods to college students, I appreciate this series of posts, especially this last one. If Christians and scientists would stop attacking each other and be a little more open-minded, we could move forward with our study and understanding of God’s creation.

    The initial fault lies with vocal Christians who come to the table thinking that scientists are atheists (so many of us are not!) and are unwilling to consider that their own understanding may be incorrect. It’s no wonder that scientists treat Christians as if they’re idiots when Christians automatically and thoughtlessly dismiss any scientific evidence they don’t like. When we do that, we DO look like idiots and we don’t help our case.

    The primary goal of science is to discover truth, and the scientific method and peer review process is set up to make sure that truth eventually comes out (though that can be a long arduous, but exciting, process). Christians also desire truth above all else and, therefore, should have no fear of what science will discover about our Earth and our origins. Instead, we should embrace that knowledge because it tells us more about our Creator. As you say, it’s an act of worship.

  5. Kay Kaye permalink
    February 13, 2017 11:40 am

    When I first began reading your posts I immediately thought, “Oh no, another Scientist claiming he can disprove God.” Forgive me. Your posts are well presented, thought out and wholly Christian in view. I especially like your response to Deanna above. You didn’t get into the dispensations of the Bible, or the proofs of how God does speak to us or even expounded on the “written by a bunch of lonely old Jewish men with an agenda to sedate the masses” theory that frequently arises. You simply told her just what the Bible is – a road map to the King Himself. The one who offers salvation for all eternity for anyone who believes. From Genesis to Revelation, that’s the whole crux of the book… HIM for you. I often think it’s the utter simplicity of it all that keeps people away….something for basically nothing..only belief. Eternal life can’t be bought or earned or bartered or shelved until you’re ready for it; it’s there for the taking for anyone who responds to the simple message. Great info here, David. I am glad I found your site.

    • davidwaltonfiction permalink*
      February 16, 2017 4:15 am

      I’m so glad you found it helpful!

      On Mon, Feb 13, 2017 at 6:40 AM, David Walton’s Fiction wrote:

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