Science in Christian Perspective

 

 

 

Myth: Science is in Conflict with Christian Faith1

J. Richard Arndt
Director of Advising, Orientation & Testing
California State University
Fresno, CA 93740-0066

From: PSCF 40 (June 1988): 100-103.

Prologue

Imagine yourself living 3500 years ago. It is night. Look up at the stars and at the moon. Remember that you don't have a telescope, electric lights or flashlight, nor have you had basic courses in chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy, geography or geology. Notice the movement of the stars and moon during the next two hours. You already know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

I now tell you that the earth is a sphere, that it is spinning very rapidly on its axis, that the moon is revolving around the earth which, in turn, is revolving around the sun, and the sun itself is moving rapidly, revolving around a point in space, and is actually a small star. Would you believe me? Pronounce me crazy? Or, burn me at the stake?

Actually, there are two extremes in explaining or coping with the unknown: investigation and natural explanation, or attributing phenomena to God's intervention and specific activity with no further investigation necessary. The middle ground is occupied by many people and groups, including the ASA.

Seven Propositions

I - Genesis 1: I tells us who created (God), what He created (the heavens and the earth) but not when or how (by what mechanism) He created. Note that God's existence, power and intelligence are presupposed.

2. Religion deals with meaning and purpose, and the past, present and future (beyond death). Science deals with explanation of observable phenomena (past and present) and prediction of future events, but not meaning and purpose. Note that some phenomena cannot be observed directly; e.g., subatomic particles. Since both religion and science attempt to explain origins, but from different premises (supernaturalism vs. naturalism), one must know and understand the assumptions and limits of both religion and science. Consider this illustration regarding "meaning and purpose": A scientist can describe a book in meticulous detail by age, weight, size, shape, spectrographic analysis, number of pages, frequency and shape of symbols (letters, numerals), etc., and yet miss the whole meaning and purpose of the book if he/she cannot read and understand the author's language.

Is it not possible that the same illustration applies to human beings in relation to God and the universe?

3. Creation and evolution need not be diametrically opposed and mutual exclusive. Many highly qualified scientists who are devoutly Christian believe that evolution is a process that God used to create different life forms.

I believe that creation vs. evolution is a false dichotomy, because one can legitimately hypothesize that God used both creative means and evolutionary mechanisms (in ways that I don't understand) to produce the physical universe and life as we know it. In fact, God seems to me to display much more creative genius by devising a simple, four-letter alphabetic code (DNA-deoxyribonucleic acid) and a few basic life forms to bring about, through evolutionary processes, the amazing, complex and innumerable varieties of life as we know it, than to require Him to create millions of different animal and plant species individually.

4. Many outstanding scientists in the last three centuries were Christians, or at least theists, and all scientists since the 1600's have believed in an orderly, rational universe.

Science cannot tell us whv such a real and rational universe exists; it simply makes these assumptions in order to carry on its investigations. The dependence of such beliefs, both historically and philosophically, on the biblical doctrine of creation leads directlv to the rise of Christianity in the scientific revolution. ... Those four leaders of the scientific revolution [Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton] were Christians, as were many others such as Bacon, Boyle, Pascal, and Ray. It never occurred to them that their scientific research and its results could be at odds with their Christian faith.2

5. Knowledge is not necessarily equal to "Truth.' I ("You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free " John 8:32. This quotation, taken out of context-and often carved across a library entrance erroneously equates knowledge with truth.)

Many Christians believe that all "Truth" is God's truth, wherever it is found and whoever states it.

One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been ve t t that aim is unattainable.... There is no absolute nowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.... Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.3

The question of the ultimate source of information is not trivial. In fact it is the basic and central philosophical and theoretical problem. The essence of the theory of Divine Creation is that the ultimate source of information has a separate, independent existence beyond and before the material system, this being the main point of the johannine Prologue.4 [cf. John 1:1-5]

6. The creation/evolution controversy is actually one manifestation of larger, age-old conflicts.

Thaxton et al. recently wrote: "Very often the debate between theism and naturalism is cast as a conflict between religion (i.e., the supernatural) and science."5 However, as Ian Barbour has pointed out, this is a mistake: "It is a conflict between two metaphysical interpretations of the nature of reality and the significance of human life."6

More recently, Hummel described two "major areas of misunderstanding regarding biblical creation and biological evolution." The first area concerns "the nature of modern science and the status of its laws," and the second is proper interpretation of the Bible. Hummel explained how naturalism and the scientific method have come to be, for many, "the only valid approach to understanding reality." He further stated that no scholar or scientist is ever completely objective, because each brings his/her own set of values and point of view into play when studying anything.7

I believe also that the problem/conflict is one of authority: The Church's view of reality vs. that of empirical science. For example, the Ptolemaic view of the universe (as held for centuries by the Church) conflicted with the Copernican as defended by Galileo (in the early 1600's). "Galileo thought that all he had to do was to show that Copernicus was right, and everybody would listen...8 We must never forget that Galileo defied the holy establishment in 1616 and in 1633 in defense of a theory not his own, but a dead man's, because he believed it true."9 Note: Galileo believed Copernicus based on his own direct observations.

Few episodes in the history of science have generated more intense debate than the ecclesiastical condemnation of Copernicus' astronomy in 1616 and the trial of Galileo in 1633. In one form or another that controversy continues unabated almost four centuries later."10

[However] ... Galileo's trial of 1633 was not the simple conflict between science and religion so commonly pictured. It was a complex power struggle of personal and professional pride, envy and ambition, affected by pressures of bureaucratic politics.11

Two other examples of this conflict are seen in a newly elected abbot (c. 1884) who burned all of Mendel's papers on genetic research, 12 and Christian zealots who destroyed original manuscripts in the great library of Alexandria (Egypt) in A.D. 389.13

Dr. Richard Bube, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Stanford University, long-time member and Fellow of the ASA, suggested one of the main reasons biblical Christians disagree among themselves (besides fallibility and ethnic/cultural/political/economic differences) is the "a priori choice of one of two hermeneutical perspectives to the exclusion of the other: a deductive perspective as contrasted with an inductive perspective."14 He maintained both approaches need to be integrated and balanced. Bronowski also commented on the importance of understanding perspectives on reality, and having "fresh eyes."15

Bube stated that differences among Christians regarding creation vs. evolution are primarily due to a conflict based on inductive vs. deductive reasoning.

Traditional conservative Christianity has often been based heavily on a deductive approach to Scripture. In this sense such Christianity has followed the pattern of science before Galileo and Newton. It has emphasized specific passages in the Bible, assumed to give a clear and easily understood teaching on the matter; all other descriptions and events, whether biblical or extra-biblical, must then be interpreted to fit the deductions made from the selected passages.16

I further believe Christians have erred for centuries-and still do-by drawing battle lines in the wrong places: e.g., marine fossils on mountaintops prove the Genesis Flood; -the earth is the center of the universe; evolution is a false theory; etc. When such erroneous propositions are proven wrong, non-Christians often "throw the baby out with the bathwater" by incorrectly assuming that Christians are wrong about everything else in which they believe strongly, including essential doctrines of the Faith; e.g., Christ's Virgin Birth, Deity, and Vicarious Atonement.

One of the main reasons I reject "creation-science" as espoused by Dr. Henry Morris is that he and his colleagues/ followers impose their view of what God had to do not only on us, but on God! Note that Dr. Morris' conclusions about God's creative activity are deduced from his belief about God's character and nature.

Surely an omniscient God could devise a better process of creation than the random, wasteful, inefficient trial-and-error charade of the so-called geological ages, and certainly a loving, merciful God would never be guilty of a creative process that would involve the suffering and death of multitudes of innocent animals in the process of arriving at man millions of years later.17

I also object to Dr. Morris requiring that belief in a recent, special creation of the universe, earth, and man, be a vital part of being a biblical Christian. In other words, to be a Christian you must subscribe to his interpretation of recent creationism.

7. In summary, I believe that scientific endeavor, properly understood and conducted, and Christian faith are not in conflict. However, controversies and conflicts have occurred and continue to occur because of misunderstandings regarding both the scientific enterprise and Christianity, as described in the body of this paper.

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The following scripture and definitions are relevant and important if one is to understand the reasons for conflicts and misunderstandings between science and Christianity.
                                                    
Relevant Scripture

I . "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)

2. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1: 1)

3. "By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." (Hebrews 11:3, NIV)

4. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10; see also Proverbs 1:7)

Definitions

(from Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980)

1. A priori: "based on theory instead of experience or experiment; before examination or analysis."

2. Christian: "a person professing belief in Jesus as the Christ" ("the Messiah whose appearance is prophesied in The Old Testament").

3. Deduction: "Logic the act or process of ... reasoning from a known principle to an unknown, from the general to the specific, of from a premise to a logical conclusion."

4. Empirical: "relying or based solely on experiment and observation rather than theory

5. Epistemology: "the study or theory of the origin, nature, methods, and limits of knowledge."

6. Falsify: "to prove or show to be untrue or unfounded."

7. Hypothesis: "an unproved theory, proposition, supposition, etc., tentatively accepted to explain certain facts or ... to provide a basis for further investigation

8. Induction: " . . . a bringing forward of separate facts or instances, especially so as to prove a general statement; ... Logic reasoning from particular facts or individual cases to a general conclusion

9. Law (scientific): "a sequence of events in nature ... that has been observed to occur with unvarying uniformity under the same conditions" (e.g., the law of gravity).

10. Naturalism: "Philosophy the belief that the natural world, known and experienced scientifically, is all that exists and that there is no supernatural or spiritual creation, control, or significance."

11. Religion: belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe ... any specific system of belief, worship

12. Science: "...systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied."

13. Scientific (Method): designating the method of research in which a hypothesis, formulated after systematic, objective collection of data, is tested empirically."

14. Scientism: "the techniques, beliefs, or attitudes characteristic of scientists; the principle that scientific methods can and should be applied in all fields of investigation; often a disparaging usage."

15. Suppose (re: assumption/premise/presupposition in scientific investigation): "to'assume to be true, as for the sake of argument or to illustrate a proof."

16. Theory: "a formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observed phenomena which has been verified to some degree." (Too often incorrectly used instead of "assume guess hypothesize," "speculate," etc.)

1988

NOTES

1Carkner, Gordon, Herbert J. Gruning, Richard Middleton and Bruce Toombs, Ten Myths A"t y (Ontario, Canada: InterVarsity Press, 1984).

a. Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher.

b. Christianity stifles personal freedom.

c. Christianity is just a catch for the weak and helpless.

d. Conversion and religious experience are the result of social conditioning.

e. Christians are other-wordly and irrelevant to life in the 20th century.

f. Science is in with the Christian faith.

g. The Bible is an set of documents and cannot be trusted.

h. There is no that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

i. The presence of evil and suffering in the world proves there is no God.

j. It doesn't matter what you believe, because all religions are basically the same.

2Hummel, Charles E., The Galileo Connection. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 159-160.

3Bronowski, Jacob, The Ascent of Man. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973), P. 353.

4Fong, P., "Thermodynamic and Statistical Theory of Life: An Outline," in Biogenesis, Evolution, Hotmostwk, edited by A. Locker. (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1973), p. 105.

5Thaxton, Charles B. Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessng Current Theories. (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1984), p. 208.

6Barbour, Ian C., "The Methods of Science and Religion," in Science Ponders Science and Religion, edited by Harlow Shapley. (New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, Inc., 1960), p. 200.

7Hummel, pp. 14-15.

8Bronowski, p. 205.

9Bronowski, p. 211.

10Hummel, p. 82.

11Hummel, p. 116.

12Bronowski, p. 387.

13Bronowski, p. 164.

14Bube, Richard H., "Deduction vs. Induction: Understanding Differences Between Biblical Christians" The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 37, No. 4, December 1985, p. 196.

15Bronowski,  pp176,180,196,200, 255, passim.

16Bube, p 203.

17Henry M. Morris, " Number 132. Recent Creation is a Vital Doctrine," Impact, June 1984.