Science in Christian Perspective
Limits of Testability of the Christian Faith
KENELL J. TOURYAN
Manager, Aerosciences Research
Albuquerque, New Mexico
From: JASA 29
(December 1977): 145-149.
In most realms of human activity tests are needed to distinguish what is good or acceptable from what is poor or unacceptable. Scientific endeavors are no exception to such a rule. Quite the opposite, the strength of a good scientific theory lies in its testability. The more stringent tests it undergoes, the more acceptable it becomes as it passes these tests. Few people, however, would admit that the same should hold true for a religious tenet. The fundamentally subjective nature of the latter may offer at best an experiential verification, with little hope for objective, or empirical evaluation of its claims.
Unlike most religions and philosophies, the Judeo-Christian tradition must be open to tests because of its claims to objective truth. In fact, it can be shown that these tests are not unlike the requirements placed on a scientific theory. In general, a scientific theory must pass some seven tests before it can be labeled good or valid. These seven are: 1 simplicity, generality, self-consistency, falsifiability, predictability, repeatability, and visualizability. These tests are of course interrelated and under some conditions, equivalent.
In this paper we examine each of the above seven
criteria as they apply to the Judeo-Christian tradition
and attempt to demonstrate that the Christian world
view possesses all the qualifications that are deemed
essential for a "good theory."2
Test 1: Simplicity
Given differing theories of apparently equal merit, the simplest is to be preferred. This is the Occam's razor of scientific ventures. Nature is exceedingly complex. The scientist, therefore, attempts to describe it via models which are conceptual frameworks that approximate reality, within which he attempts to correlate observable data and predict it. The success of a good model lies in its simplicity, i.e., it has the fewest assumptions, the fewest variables and the smallest number of adjustable parameters. Often the simplest theory is also the most elegant. This is especially true for theories that are not amenable to laboratory experimentation, as with astrophysical phenomena.
According to Popper, there is a more rigorous, epistemological concept of simplicity. "Simple statements," Popper states, "if knowledge is our object, are to be prized more highly than less simple ones (a) because they tell us more; (b) because their empirical content is greater; and (c) because they are better testable."3
We contend that salvation by grace through faith, proclaimed by the Christian message provides the simplest (in the Popper sense) avenue to God available to man. "Believe in the name of Jesus Christ and you will be saved"4 is truth that is simple enough for a child to comprehend but is profound enough that twenty centuries of theology have failed to exhaust its riches.
The good news of the Gospel tells us more about man's nature, God's character, and how the two interact than any other religious or philosophical system. Furthermore, the Gospel message has more empirical content and is better testable than any of the major religions. Compare, for example, the stringent requirements of Guatama Buddha's eight-fold way, or the crushing burden of asceticism imposed on the Hindu guru in search for salvation, with the full and complete salvation offered by Christ to the individual who, with a simple act of faith, puts his trust in Him. Even the Ten Commandments with their infinite Talmudic nuances constitute a formidable array of requirements for gaining salvation, with no assurances. It is significant that the "believe and you will be saved" message of the Gospel was often reflected in the Hebrew scriptures as precursors of God's ultimate act of reconciliation.5 As one compares the New Testament accounts of Jesus Christ with Guatama Buddha's teachings, the Bhagavad Gita or the Koran, it becomes evident that Christianity has empirical content and this empirical content, inherent in "experiencing Christ" is more substantial than anything Buddha, Krishna, or Mohammed can offer because of the sweeping claims of Jesus Christ over all aspects of human life.6 That the Christian faith is also more open to a falsifiability test is shown below.Test 2: Generality
The successful theory is able to account for a large variety of phenomena in a given system, or can correctly describe a particular phenomenon over a wide range of parameters. It is also independent of the state of the observer and his frame of reference. A good example of this is seen in the difference between Newtonian mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity. The latter is applicable to terrestrial as well as cosmic phenomena whereas the former is restricted to moderate force fields and speeds much less than the speed of light. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity can correctly account for phenomena, such as the 43 seconds of an are excess in the perihelion motion of Mercury or the bending of light rays in gravitational fields, neither of which Newtonian mechanics can predict. The general theory of relativity therefore contains the less general Newtonian mechanics as a sub-set, in the limit when gravitational attraction between bodies is small and speeds are much less than that of light.
Most religions satisfy some aspect of the generality criterion in that they are open to anyone who is willing to believe and accept its tenets (some exceptions are certain exclusive sects, Hindu caste system, etc.). Christianity through Christ, however, provides the most satisfactory and universally applicable solution to man's two most vexing problems: the nature of evil and the meaning of death. It is only in the Judeo-Christian tradition that one finds evil diagnosed as endemic to man (the concept of original sin). Irrespective of race, color or creed, man is depicted as suffering from a universal malaise exhibited in the form of a four-way alienation: alienation from God; alienation from self; alienation from fellow beings, and alienation from Nature.7 Physical death is described as the direct result of this spiritual malaise. The solution to this dilemma is provided by God's universal love for all mankind, uniquely demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son.8 Christ's substitutionary death on the cross (as the penalty for man's alienation) provides the individual with salvation (irrespective of race, color or creed) and Christ's resurrection heralds a final victory over death; a solution which is at once the most fundamental and the most general available to man.
It is interesting to note that the good news of the Gospel includes in it the Ten Commandments of Moses in a manner analogous to Einstein's theory of relativity including Newton's laws of motion as a subset. This is illustrated, for example, by God speaking *through Jeremiah, "I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it . . .";9 a promise that is accomplished whenever Christ is allowed to come and dwell in the heart of an individual.Test 3: Self-Consistency
In scientific research, it is a cardinal rule that a working theory must be consistent with the assumptions and presuppositions on which it is based. In other words, where logic is required it must be correct. For example, in analyzing the fluid flow over a given body, as a first approximation one may neglect viscous effects that occur very near the surf ace of the body. Let us assume the individual is able to solve the resulting equations on a computer. Even though, in principle, he can get numerical results very close to the body surface, it will be inconsistent with his original assumption to attach any significance to such results because he has neglected viscous effects in the formulation of the problem to start with.
Self -consistency is fundamental to the Christian faith. The following four arguments will serve to illustrate this point.
(a) There exists a mutual consistency between the two modes of revelation claimed by the Scriptures: general (Nature) and special (the Written Word). This is clearly demonstrated by the very nature of the biblical accounts that faithfully reflect the imperfect, problematic world around us with man's evil actions as well as his good intentions depicted in all its minutiae; a real Book in real life.
Self-consistency arguments appear in Psalm 19
where the sun is described as the source of physical life and an analogy is drawn between it and God's
Word, His Laws, as the source of spiritual life, both
emanating from the same ultimate source, the Creator.
When Christ summarized the Law,10 He too used a self -
consistency argument, "You shall love the Lord your
God with all your heart (emotions), soul (will),
strength (physical) and mind . . ."; an integrated approach that ties all aspects of man's existence into a
(b) The Christian can account for all physical phenomena in a self-consistent manner because the presupposition of a rational God gives a priori justification to the fundamental axioms of science.11 For example, without God there is no a priori justification for the applicability of mathematical logic to reality. The former is an accident of cerebral biochemistry-a reductionist view which even atheistic communism rejects. Of course the Marxist-Leninist attempts to resolve the self-consistency dilemma by invoking, in an ad hoc manner, qualitatively different laws governing biological phenomena that cannot be reduced to laws of chemistry and physics. Their whole structure, then, is
supported by the laws of dialectic materialism. It is interesting to note bow such attempts have appeared in
Western thought under the structuralist philosophy,12,13 in the wake of the positivist's failure to account for
transcendentals. The structuralist approach invokes the argument of phylogenetic development to explain the
dilemma of transcendental concepts.14
The case of biblical miracles could fall in the self consistency category as well. God interacts with nature in a very self-consistent manner (see C. S. Lewis, Miracles'15. For example, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, a miraculous fertilization of the ovum takes place, then the known natural laws take over and a child is born after nine months of pregnancy.
(c) An essential self-consistency exists between the claims, character and conduct of the central theme of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ. He claimed to be the Beginning and the End and everything in between, be
led a blameless life,16 and supported his claims by powerful deeds, the greatest and the most singular of which
was His bodily resurrection. The strength of this consistency is equivalent to that of a triangle (Figure 1) where each side is supported by the other two - the fundamental reason for the triangle's rigidity. Most religious leaders have failed the crucial test of consistency between words and works.
(d) The fourth evidence of self-consistency appears in the relationship that one finds between the Jesus of history, the written Scriptures and the living Christ manifested through the Holy Spirit. This feedback system can be represented by another triangle with arrows pointing at each apex (Figure 2). For example, at apex (1) we find the Hebrew Scriptures speaking of the coming Messiah (Isa. 9:6); Jesus Christ, as the Jewish Messiah fully supports the validity of Scriptures (Luke 4:21). At apex (2) we find Jesus speaking of
Unlike most religions and philosophies, the Judeo-Christian tradition must be open to tests because of its claims to objective truth
the Comforter who would confirm His continued presence as the Living Christ (John 16:14); conversely, the Holy Spirit dwelling today in the individual confirms the reality of the Jesus of history, experientially (Rom. 8:16,17). At apex (3) the Scriptures speak of the time when God's Holy Spirit and His laws will be written in the hearts of rnan;9 conversely, we find from experience that the in-dwelling Holy Spirit confirms the validity of God's written Word (I Cor. 2:12).
Test 4: Falsifiability
According to Popper17 the mark of success of a good scientific theory lies in its openness to -testability. The theory or hypothesis, in fact, should state how one can set out to disprove its consequences. The falsification principle is essential to all empirical sciences and is the Achilles heel of theories purported to be "scientific" in the empirical sense, such as Darwin's principle of natural selection.18 It is for this reason that the latter has been modified under the synthetic theory, to include genetic knowledge, which at least on the level of micro-evolution can be made empirical.
Through the falsifiability test, Popper17 poses a rather stringent criterion of demarcation which establishes an asymmetry between verifiability and falsifiability. Needless to say, setting out to perform a verification test is easier than to perform a falsification test because the former, by its very nature carries with it the bias of the observer, i.e., seeing in the data what one in fact wants or expects to see. Setting out to disprove a point and ending up with the opposite, or arriving at a result differing from that which the individual had set out to obtain, are powerful evidences for the validity of a scientific theory.
Now, by its very nature, a religious conviction or a metaphysical assertion cannot be falsified in Popper's sense as empirical science would. In fact, most religions do not claim to be capable of being put to a falsification test. Not quite so for the Judeo-Christian tradition. The consistency arguments posed above plus the fact that the Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in history and makes explicit claims to objectivity expose it to certain types of verification or even falsification tests. We suggest three possible verification/falsification tests, the first two of which are historical and the third quasi-empirical.
(a) Historical Tests-Speaking of God's redemptive act in human history, F. F. Bruce writes, ". . . whenever these events touch upon history they are open to scrutiny and objective evaluation."19 It is because of this openness to scrutiny that the Bible, unlike any other religious book, has been the object of relentless historical examination and textual criticism. Two types of verification/ falsification tests can be applied to the Bible:
(i) Extemal-Archeological-In this category Yamauchi places material remains and inscriptional or epigraphical evidence20 that cross-check numerous Old Testament accounts and a few New Testament events.
(ii) Internal-Biblical-These are eyewitness accounts and personal testimonies. Here the test is indirect and involves judgments concerning character and motivation of the witness. It also includes textual criticism. It is interesting to note that biblical accounts are replete with verification/ falsification tests. For example: Gideon's fleece;21 God's challenge through Malachi, . . . put me to the proof and see if I do not open windows ... ";22 the psalmist's declaration, "Thy promise has been tested through and through. . . ."23
(b) The Resurrection of Jesus Christ-Although this test belongs to category a-(ii) discussed above, it is of such immense significance it should be mentioned separately. The test that would probably come closest to being a genuine falsification test, in the historical sense, is the empty tomb.24 Among the 500 or more who witnessed His resurrection there were sophisticated and skeptical individuals not unlike a trained 20th century observer. They were surrounded by hostile communities and individuals who could have quickly produced the counter-evidence, the missing body, and proved the witnesses wrong. What's more significant, none of the disciples or followers were looking for a resurrected Christ. They expected a finality in death, but witnessed an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. It is also important to note that a good number of those witnesses offered the ultimate sacrifice to vouch for the veracity of their eye-witness accounts: their lives.
(c) Experiential Test-The Jesus of history who rose from the dead is claimed to be alive today and accessible to anyone willing to put his trust in Him. In one sense this kind of test is not strictly objective because it cannot be performed unless the individual is prepared to be involved in mind, heart, soul, and strength. However, very often it is clearly observable to outsiders by the positive changes it brings in the life of the individual. At times, these changes are dramatic, as with alcoholics or drug addicts who have encountered the living Christ and their lives have been literally transformed. A corollary to the above is the "falsification" test, suggested by the apostle James in the letter, in telling the difference between a true Christian (faith and works) and the one who claims to be but in fact is not (faith but no works).
To summarize, the falsification-verification criterion for the Christian faith is fulfilled in three interrelated parts that could be represented in the form of a triangle whose sides mutually support one another. Each
part is necessary to the ultimate validity and truth of its claims but neither is sufficient by itself.Test 5: Predictability
The usefulness of a scientific theory depends strongly on its ability to make predictions on the basis of a set of given initial conditions. The more precise these predictions are, the more practical will the theory be and the more exact will be the science. For example, accurate predictions of trajectories of a body moving in a force field make classical mechanics among the most utilitarian and precise sciences. On the other hand, Darwin's principle of natural selection fails in the prediction test. A true theory looks for confirmations which are the result of risky predictions.
It is uncanny how the Bible exposes itself to risky predictions with almost total abandon to the possible consequences-unless, that is, it contains the statements of a God who is fully cognizant of all future events. We can distinguish two types of predictions that are explicit in Scriptures.
(a) Biblical Prophecies-Over 100 specific predictions in the Hebrew scriptures have come true in the person of Jesus Christ. Even greater numbers of predictions speak of His second coming. The formation of a Jewish state after 1900 years of nonexistence clearly belongs to the category of risky predictions made by Ezekiel25 2600 years ago.26
(b) The second type of prediction is more in the spirit of criterion 4-c discussed above. The Scripture says that he who trusts God and believes on the name of His Son Jesus Christ will be filled by the Holy Spirit, his life will change and will produce fruit clearly visible and identifiable by the impartial observer. "By their fruits you shall know them"27 is at once a call to a verification test and is predictive as to the outcome of trust in Christ.Test 6: Repeatability
This criterion is similar to the generality test discussed above. A scientific theory must not only have general application and be falsifiable, but it should be repeatable when tested by anyone, any place, and any time, under the same controlled conditions.
The "controlled condition" for the Christian faith is
stated in Romans 10:9,10. "If you confess the Lord
Jesus with your mouth and believe in your heart that
God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved."28
Over the past 2000 years, whenever the above has been tried, by anyone, at any place, the basic results have been the same, indicating that the Holy Spirit, of whom Christ spoke, acts as a least common denominator to effect the transformation that validates the truth of the Christian faith.
Test 7: Visualizability
When discussing simplicity as an important test for a successful scientific theory, we made mention of the fact that a scientist attempts to model reality. Part of this modeling process is to construct visual examples to represent phenomena that are inaccessible to our senses in tangible or concrete forms. The Bohr atom with its central nucleus and orbiting electrons is the classic example of such a representation. The Feynman diagrams are used to depict interactions among submolecular particles. Streamlines in laminar flows or eddy structures for turbulent flows are attempts at visualizing ordered or chaotic motion. Visualizability is not essential to a scientific theory, but it provides a powerful tool for grasping it.
The Incarnation is God's master accomplishment in enabling finite men to visualize the infinite personal God.29 Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3 speak of Christ as the visible image of the invisible God, whereas John 1 speaks of God's Word, His abstract expression becoming flesh, thus accessible to the senses. This is eloquently articulated by the same author in his first letter I John 1:1-3 where he states, "Our eyes have seen him, we have looked upon him, we have felt him with our own hands. . . ." In answering Philip's request, "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied," Christ said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. "30
In discussing the testability of the Christian faith there always exists the danger of forcing a vast spiritual-metaphysical system into the confined mold of empirical science. As we mentioned in the introduction, the present discussion is more in the spirit of an analogy rather than a rigorous apologetic for Christianity. Yet we know that all truth is God's truth and the God of the Scriptures is a rational God, It should come as no surprise therefore that His manifestations in the physical world correlate with His self-disclosure in Jesus Christ and the Written Word. It is also clear from the above discussion that only Christianity, rooted in its Hebrew tradition (the Old Testament) satisfies all seven criteria to an acceptable degree. All other religious Systems fail one or more of the tests, and in particular the consistency and falsification tests. In fact, these two criteria are not even valid for those Eastern religions where the law of non-contradiction does not apply.
My attempt has therefore been to demonstrate to the skeptic that Tillich's assertion, "there is no criterion by which faith can be judged from outside the correlation of faith," does not apply to the Christian faith. Far from claiming immunity against criticism, Christianity is open to critical examination for intellectual integrity.