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Learning Science

September 26, 2013

My oldest daughter came home this year with her 7th grade science textbook.  It’s a Christian textbook, which I’m glad for: I send my kids to a Christian school so that they will be taught a Christian perspective on learning and life.  I’m pleased with a textbook that directly gives glory to God for creating the world, and that views the study of science in the light of observing God’s character in nature.  My love of science is founded on the same principles.

Unfortunately, the book falls prey to what I think of as a common misconception among Christians about what science is.  In its zeal to defend a Young Earth perspective, it objects to many current scientific models.  Its basis for these objections is either (1) that the model doesn’t explain everything, or (2) that the model has changed over time.  However, these points are not weaknesses of the scientific approach.  On the contrary: this is how science works.

Science is a logical process of making observations and creating a hypothetical model that explains them.  I might observe hippos and crocodiles and suggest, as a model, that living things breathe air.  If I observed a dolphin, it would fit within my model, and support for my model would be strengthened.  If I observed a fish, however, it would challenge my model, and my model would have to be revised.  No scientific model is ever sacrosanct, although good models gain a great deal of momentum as thousands of new observations continue to confirm their predictions.

Long-standing scientific models, therefore, are strengthened by millions of observations and are thus strongly-held.  Newer scientific models are less-strongly held and often compete with alternate theories as new data comes in.  Take the idea of dark matter, for instance.  Dark matter is an attempt to explain why the gravitational effects of clusters of galaxies on other galaxies seem to indicate a lot more mass than we can see directly (or explain with black holes or any other known configuration of normal matter).  This extra mass is consistent with current models of how galaxies are formed.  But what is the extra mass?  Nobody really knows, but the idea of “dark matter” has been invented to explain it.  Dark matter, then, is a model, a suggestion for how to take a set of observations and put them together into a consistent whole.

The textbook, however, objects to dark matter, calling the missing mass a “problem in the theory” of the Big Bang, dreamed up by scientists who are “desperate to explain Creation without the Creator.”  It implies that the scientists at the LHC who are studying dark matter are wasting their time, because “The Bible provides an adequate Cause for the creation of a universe that seems to be missing a large chunk of matter.  But most of the world’s scientists reject the Bible and the God Who made them.”

I find this statement problematic, not only because it misunderstands the nature of science, but because it seems to undermine the whole pursuit of it.  Science is a search for causes.  For every effect we observe, we expect there to be a cause in the natural world.  If the cause is correctly identified, then the effect can be predictably recreated.  The quote above, however, suggests that the right answer to “Why isn’t there enough matter?” is “Because God made it that way.”  I agree that God made it that way… but that is an answer to every question about the world.  Just because God made it doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a secondary cause.  God made the universe to be ordered, consistent, and predictable, which is why logic and rational observation is a reliable way to understand it.

As I’ve discussed before, I don’t believe that Genesis is incompatible with the theory of evolution or the Big Bang.  The authors of Earth Science do, but I respect their position: it’s not an easy issue, and I appreciate their desire to consider the Bible as having more weight than human logic.  What bothers me more is the suggestion that we should not expect to find consistency and predictability in the structure of the universe, and instead write off unexplained phenomena as “just the way God made it.”

God is infinite, reliable, everlasting.  His character and standards don’t change.  The world he created does change constantly, but the rules that govern it do not.  They are the same on Earth as they are in the farthest galaxy, the same for planets as they are for soccer balls, the same today as they were yesterday.  A Young Earth understanding always seems to require God to have changed the rules some time in the past.  Some even go so far as to say God did so as a test, a cosmic trick that gives a false appearance of consistency to mislead those who refuse to accept the Bible.  But the world of science fits the character of God better.  God is not a trickster, nor does he change the rules to catch the unwary.  Instead, as James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  Science, therefore, is based on the immutability of God’s nature, as seen in the wonderfully complex, consistent, and predictable world he has made.

 

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