Science in Christian Perspective



Fact, Faith and Philosophy: 
One Step Toward Understanding the Conflict 
Between Science and Christianity

James Patton Clark

145 Essex Drive
Longwood, FL 32779

From: PSCF 46 (December 1994): 242-252.                                               Response: Olson

Many contemporary scientists have adopted the philosophical position of naturalism as their personal view of the cosmos, thereby excluding the truth of Christiantiy definitionally. However, the impression is frequently given that science itself has provided the justification for such a world view. The author argues that recognizing the presence and influence of philosophical presuppositions is basic to understanding how Christianity remains intellectually credible in the modern world and compatible with modern science. He employs the work of Thomas Kuhn as well as taking a look at the interaction between philosophical and scientific thought since the inception of the modern era.

p. 242

When modern science emerged approximately 500 years ago, it did so in harmony with a Christian view of what the world was ultimately like. It was not problematic for the leading scientists of that day to believe that God existed and that he had created the physical world they studied. In the centuries that have since lapsed, a radical reversal has taken place. This has had serious ramifications for the Christian believer for the last 200 years. Currently, any discrepancy between the claims of science and the claims of Christianity tends to be settled by default in favor of science. Science is fact. Christianity is faith. And if science is always fact, then Christianity, at many of its central points, is also false. Or so it seems to many.

Critics of Christianity put forth many charges that share the common theme of the conflict between some areas of modern science and traditional Christian faith. "Hasn't science explained the things that used to be explained by invoking God?" "Since we now know how the universe works through modern science, isn't it true that there is no room left in the picture for God?" "Even if there is a God, hasn't science proven that miracles are not possible?" Assertions like these are all too familiar. It is commonly believed that traditional faith in God (if it is even allowed that he exists) is incompatible with the findings of modern science. For the Christian to hang onto his or her faith, then, supposedly requires an act of "intellectual schizophrenia."

How does the Christian who wants to retain both his faith and his intellectual integrity respond? Is it even possible? Can the theist escape the crushing weight of the proclamations of modern science? Christian philosopher and apologist J.P. Moreland states:

Undoubtedly the most important influence shaping the modern world is science ... If the church is to speak to the modern world and interact with it responsibly, it must interact with modern science.1

p. 243

This paper will be limited to working toward taking an initial, yet fundamental, step in the direction of understanding the mutually exclusive truth claims of science and Christianity. That step involves an analysis of the relationship between science and philosophy. More specifically, it is my contention that the philosophical presuppositions that are embraced by modern science are the source of many (though not all) of science's irreconcilable differences with Christianity. I will seek to make the following points:

1. Science can never be completely separated from, but is inextricably interdependent upon, philosophical assumptions.

2. Modern science is currently dedicated to the particular philosophical world view of naturalism.

3. Naturalism constrains and restricts the scientist's thinking. It can dramatically affect the way scientists perceive and interpret data.

I will then briefly illustrate, before concluding, how these points might be applied to some of the actual areas of conflict.

The Role of Philosophical Presuppositions

The most important key to understanding the conflict between some areas of modern science and Christianity is to be found in the sphere of philosophical presuppositions. When seen in their proper light, presuppositions profoundly account for a great deal of that conflict. However, many scientists mistakenly deny that science must rely upon anything in order to function, even philosophy. The average scientist seems to think that science can operate in an objective box, totally self-contained and untainted by elements of subjectivity that hamper other disciplines.

But this is simply not the case. Walter M. Pitch is one scientist who sees this. He not only sees this necessary dependence of science, but calls upon his colleagues to acknowledge it, too. Writing in Evolution magazine, he says:

By a metaphysical construct I mean any unproved or unprovable assumption that we all make and tend to take for granted. One example is the doctrine of uniformitarianism that asserts that the laws of nature, such as gravity and thermodynamics, have always been true in the past and will always be true in the future. It is the belief in that doctrine that permits scientists to demand repeatability in experiments. I like the word doctrine in this case because it makes clear that matters of faith are not restricted to creationists and that in the intellectual struggle for citizen enlightenment we need to be very clear just where the fundamental differences between science and theology lie. It is not, as many scientists would like to believe, in the absence of metaphysical underpinnings in science.2

Significantly, he declares that we must recognize a line of distinction between science and theology (or philosophy) that isn't often seen by the scientific community. That line involves the presence of "metaphysical underpinnings" in all that scientists do. This idea can be illustrated as follows in the diagram below. Science never operates in a box. It always rests upon one philosophical foundation or another.


The import of this observation, as we will shortly see, would be hard to over-emphasize. When the line of distinction between science and philosophy, between fact and faith, goes unnoticed, it becomes much easier for a theory to be defended sincerely yet erroneously as fact. If a pivotal presupposition turns out to be false, any theory or theories which rest upon that presupposition will also be affected.

p. 244

The Prevailing Philosophy: Naturalism

But if science must rely upon philosophical assumptions, what are they? They have been different at different times. Today, overwhelmingly, the philosophical metaphysic subscribed to by the scientific establishment is that of naturalism. Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer explains:

What we have to realize is that early modern science was started by those who lived in the consensus and setting of Christianity.... The early scientists believed in the uniformity of natural causes. What they did not believe in was the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. That little phrase makes all the difference in the world. It makes the difference between natural science and a science that is rooted in naturalistic philosophy. It makes all the difference between what I would call modern science and what I would call modern modern science. It is important to notice that this is not a failing of science as science, but rather that the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system has become the dominant philosophy among scientists.... This shift did not come because of newly discovered facts, but because of a shift in their presuppositions ó a shift to the world view of materialism or naturalism.3

We can, therefore, amend our previous diagram from its generic formulation to describe the condition of "modern modern" science as follows:


But what exactly is naturalism? Dr. Schaeffer hinted at it, but let us look more closely. There is an element of naturalism that says nature cannot be influenced by any outside force. Webster's dictionary highlights this element by defining naturalism this way:

A theory denying that an event or object has a supernatural significance; specifically: the doctrine that scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena.4

Another, and I believe more helpful, explanation of naturalism is given by philosopher Ronald H. Nash. His presentation and summary makes the ramifications of naturalism easier to see.

 The touchstone proposition or basic presupposition of naturalism states: "Nothing exists outside the material, mechanical (that is, nonpurposeful), natural order." ... For a naturalist, the universe is analogous to a box. Everything that happens inside the box (the natural order) is caused by or is explicable in terms of other things that exist within the box. Nothing (including God) exists outside the box; therefore, nothing outside the box we call the universe or nature can have any causal effect within the box.5

Nash summarizes the beliefs that flow from a consistent philosophy of naturalism as follows:

1. Only nature exists.

2. Nature has always existed.

3. Nature is characterized by total uniformity.

4. Nature is a deterministic system.

5. Nature is a materialistic system.

6. Nature is a self-explanatory system.6

In contrast to naturalism's metaphysical assertions, the Christian world view says:

1. God exists outside the box.

2. God created the box.

3. God acts causally within the box.7

The rival systems are helpfully illustrated by Nash in the following way.8



       The Natural Order   


A "Kuhnian" Hermeneutic

The work of Thomas S. Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, will be helpful at this time in dissecting the issue of how philosophy (i.e., presuppositions) and science interrelate. Several important points in his thought dovetail very well with my allegation that presuppositions play a fundamental role in sorting out the conflicts between Christianity and some areas of modern science. By mentally inserting naturalism into Kuhn's model, we can apply his teachings to the controversy between some areas of science and Christianity.

p. 245

The focus of Kuhn's book is the question of how science develops or progresses through time. It is ordinarily assumed that science progresses via "development-by-accumulation."9 In other words, science is believed to progress slowly and smoothly by adding one new discovery upon former discoveries in a unified, coherent stream. Kuhn says that this isn't so. Instead, he argues, it progresses that way for a while, but invariably will need to radically shift gears and head in a new direction under what he terms a new "paradigm." A paradigm, for many practical purposes, has synonymous parallels to the way I have been using the term "presupposition." When a shift in paradigms takes place, it can alter the assumptions, rules, expectations, and interpretations of scientists at a fundamental level as they study the world.

What Is a Paradigm?

Basic to Kuhn's presentation are several specific terms. By "paradigm," mentioned earlier, Kuhn refers to a model for actual scientific practice which includes law, theory, application, and instrumentation, among other things. It is within the guidelines of a given paradigm that particular traditions of scientific research operate.10 There is also an element within every paradigm that Kuhn says is "arbitrary." When this element is seen in past periods of science, it is called "myth." However, it is no doubt present within contemporary paradigms without being recognized as mythical or erroneous. In his words:

The more carefully [historians of science] study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today.... Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded.11

It is this arbitrary element of a paradigm that most closely resembles philosophical presuppositions.

What Is "Normal Science"?

Another basic term which Kuhn uses is "normal science," by which he means:

...research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.12

One of the most well known examples Kuhn uses throughout his book is the switch that took place as a result of Nicholas Copernicus. Until Copernicus's day, the Ptolemaic conception of the universe, in which the earth was believed to be the physical center, reigned supreme. (The Ptolemaic view is an example of what we have seen as "myth" contained in former periods as well as an example of what is meant by "paradigm.") But when the Copernican revolution was finalized by Galileo's confirmation, the science of astronomy was never the same.

"Normal science," in this example, is the exploring and the discovering that took place after the paradigm shift of the Copernican revolution. With the new paradigm in place, research was conducted and discoveries made, but all within the new and guiding view developed by Copernicus and Galileo. Scientists then knew that the earth revolved around the sun and that the stars did not revolve around the earth or the sun, but there was still a tremendous amount they did not know. The research that followed was normal science. For this reason, Kuhn likens normal science to puzzle-solving. Normal science seeks to answer unsolved questions, but only within the limits of the paradigm.13

Science Is Committed to Naturalism

Defined this way, it is easy to understand why Kuhn says that a "commitment" to a paradigm is a pre-requisite for normal science. There can be scientific research without paradigms, but not within a mature field.14 And in speaking of the arbitrary element, he says:

Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.15

This is what I have claimed in saying that science does not operate in objective factual isolation, but rests upon certain assumptions. Notice also the clear metaphysical nature of those assumptions.

What effect does this "commitment" of science to an unproven and unprovable philosophical position have?

p. 246

 Kuhn continues:

Much of the success of the enterprise [of science] derives from the community's willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost. Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.16

Further illustrating the distinction between fact and philosophy are his comments concerning the early stages of development within a particular field of science.

If [an initial paradigm] is not already implicit in the collection of factsóin which case more than "mere facts" are at handóit must be externally supplied, perhaps by a current metaphysic, by another science, or by personal and historical accident.17

So, normal science operates solely within the confines of the arbitrary metaphysical parameters included in its adopted paradigm. Normal science is also committed to that paradigm. We could move from Kuhn's generic statement to say that some areas of today's normal science are committed to a belief that ultimate reality is accurately represented by the naturalistic model.

We are now in a better position to appreciate some of the ramifications of the presuppositions that undergird science. For the one who sees that science rests upon a foundation of naturalism, and who objects to the naturalistic pronouncements of science, the following observation by Kuhn holds significant explanatory force.

Closely examined, whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory, [normal science] seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.18

...many of the best scientists work their whole lives 
without ever seriously questioning the truth of the 
presuppositions their work rests upon.

Also suggestive is that the solving of puzzles via normal science occupies "even the very best scientists"19 and that "many of the greatest scientific minds have devoted all of their professional attention to" this sort of work.20 In other words, many of the best scientists work their whole lives without ever seriously questioning the truth of the presuppositions their work rests upon. This must certainly be part of the reason why so many scientists insist dogmatically upon the truth of a naturalistic worldview while that worldview remains nothing more than a philosophical position outside the reach of scientific verification or falsification.

But if paradigms are held on to so tenaciously by scientists, why, in the past, have they given them up over time? Isn't the allegation of dogmatism on the part of scientists contradicted by the historical fact that paradigms have been forsaken for newer, more helpful ones? The answer is an unequivocal No, and the explanation is found in another principal element in Kuhn's thesis.

Normal science is unable to solve some of its most significant puzzles.

Remember that the overriding focus of Kuhn's book is to take issue with the conventional idea that science progresses slowly, gradually and cumulatively. Kuhn contends, instead, that science advances cumulatively only within normal science.21 Eventually, however, whether sooner or later, anomalies arise. Normal science is unable to solve some of its most significant puzzles. When these anomalies remain problematic and defy resolution long enough, and when those problems are fundamental to the truth of the paradigm, they begin to transform the scientific community to a state that can be accurately described as one of crisis.

Crises can be resolved in one of three ways. In the first scenario, normal science ends up being able, at long last, to solve the puzzle. Second, the problem is set aside for future generations with the assumption that they will be better prepared to resolve the issue. Third, a new paradigm emerges to replace the old.22

There is a reason why Kuhn treats resolution through normal science as something completely different than resolution through a new paradigm. If the old paradigm were slightly altered, this would merely be the refining work included in the operations of normal science. However, what takes place is more than slight modification to the old paradigm.

p. 247

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field's most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications.23

It is precisely this type of "shift of professional commitments" which he describes as a "scientific revolution."24 When a paradigm shift occurs, the paradigmatic components that are left behind come to be known by later scientists as the myths and errors we discussed earlier.

So these paradigms, or commitments, are not left behind easily. They are clung to dogmatically. The anomaly or anomalies which bring about crisis do so only after the scientific community has wrestled with them long and hard enough to bloody their heads, as it were, against an impenetrable wall. Then, and only then, are they willing and able to let go of the former paradigm, and even then not until a more acceptable replacement has been furnished.25

It is also revealing to observe that periods of crisis produce a greater level of humility within the scientific community with respect to the certainty of their cherished paradigmatic presuppositions. The transition to crisis is also the transition from normal to extraordinary science.26 It is during these periods that the heaviest concentration of speculative theories (theories that go beyond the paradigm) are produced and proposed.27

Most significantly:

It is, I think, particularly in periods of acknowledged crisis that scientists have turned to philosophical analysis as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field. Scientists have not generally needed or wanted to be philosophers. Indeed, normal science usually holds creative philosophy at arm's length, and probably for good reasons.28

We see once again that philosophy is inextricably related to science. But unless a crisis forces them to think differently, many scientists fail (or refuse) to realize that fact.

The Power of a Paradigm

Let us turn our attention now to what is possibly the most significant aspect of this analysis. Is it possible that this "commitment" to a paradigm, this firm belief in its legitimacy, including the unscientific metaphysical elements it includes, can affect the perception of the scientist as he makes observations of the physical world? Specifically, can an unreserved belief in naturalism exert a blinding effect upon a scientist as he interprets the physical world he observes? Can it drive him forcefully to the conviction that there is no God, or if there is, that he has no on-going affiliation to the operating of the physical world and its laws?

Can an unreserved belief in naturalism exert a blinding effect 
upon a scientist as he interprets the physical world he observes?

Consider the following experiments taken from what Kuhn says is only a sampling of a "rich body of psychological literature":

An experimental subject who puts on goggles fitted with inverting lenses initially sees the entire world upside down. At the start his perceptual apparatus functions as it had been trained to function in the absence of the goggles, and the result is extreme disorientation, an acute personal crisis. But after the subject has begun to learn to deal with his new world, his entire visual field flips over, usually after an intervening period in which vision is simply confused. Thereafter, objects are again seen as they had been before the goggles were put on.... Literally as well as metaphorically, the man accustomed to inverting lenses has undergone a revolutionary transformation of vision.29

I find it quite fascinating that anyone could adjust to such a disorienting influence as these goggles. And yet, the experiment proves that it is done. It was a problem of perception, not vision. It wasn't a case where the subjects could not see the true world. It was a problem of their being able to interpret properly what they saw.

In another experiment, subjects were asked:

to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal, but some were made anomalous, e.g., a red six of spades and a black four of hearts.... After each exposure the subject was asked what he had seen ... For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience.30

p. 248

It was only after continued exposure that most subjects began to see the problem cards and a few of them were never able to figure out exactly what was wrong.31

What does this tell us? These experiments show that "what a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see."32 Kuhn draws a direct parallel to the way a paradigm influences the views of scientists, not in their perception of the physical world, but in their conceptual interpretations of those observations.33

Is it really so ludicrous to suggest that naturalism can blind scientists to equally plausible interpretations of the brute facts of science? I think not. When asked to conceive of the existence of God, the scientist who is controlled by a naturalistic worldview feels a conceptual disorientation similar to the experimental subject who was given the special goggles. He just can't conceive of it. On top of that, however, is the fact that he's convinced his opinion is rooted in a "scientific" and factual view of the universe while in reality it is the fruit of his philosophical beliefs.

"Systematic Deception"

There is yet one more dimension to the work of Kuhn that we need to explore. Why is it that a much larger percentage of the scientific world seems to embrace naturalism than that which is found in the rest of the population? Doesn't this suggest that there is something that scientific research reveals about the nature of the world that drives many of its practitioners to accept naturalism as true? How can this be explained away?

In reply, the real reason why naturalism is the prevailing metaphysic of the scientific sub-culture is to be found, not in the practice of science, but in the preparation for a career in science. Once again, while making a different point altogether, Kuhn helps to establish one of my own. He is addressing the reason why so many, including scientists, think that science has progressed solely through accumulation and why the revolutions he argues for are not so readily seen. His explanation is riveting.

Textbooks of science together with both the popularizations and the philosophical works modeled on them ... All three record the stable outcome of past revolutions and thus display the bases of the current normal-scientific tradition. To fulfill their function they need not provide authentic information about the way in which those bases were first recognized and then embraced by the profession. In the case of textbooks, at least, there are good reasons why, in these matters, they should be systematically misleading.34

... the real reason why naturalism is the prevailing metaphysic 
of the scientific sub-culture is to be found, not in the practice of science, 
but in the preparation for a career in science.

In other words, the reason why scientists don't realize how radical things have deviated from time to time as a result of paradigm shifts is because it is not the purpose of the text to explain it. The text aims simply to bring the students up-to-date as quickly as possible with everything relevant for them to continue the quest for knowledge under today's paradigm. As a result, the true nature of development through revolution is made "invisible."

He adds:

For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks ... refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the texts' paradigm problems.... The depreciation of historical fact is deeply, and probably functionally, ingrained in the ideology of the scientific profession, the same profession that places the highest of all values upon details of other sorts.35

Elsewhere, he explains how the rigorous and rigid educational process comes "to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind."36

But, you may object, "That's the ingraining of a false view of scientific progression. You've gone beyond that to imply an indoctrination of naturalism to the point that it `blinds' the scientist's judgement. You're stretching that point for more than it's worth." Let's consider one more piece of illuminating testimony. In explaining how changes in paradigms affect the way that scientists in different periods interpret the same phenomena in different ways, Kuhn writes:

Looking at a contour map, the student sees lines on paper, the cartographer a picture of a terrain. Looking at a bubble-chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientist's world, seeing what the scientist sees and responding as the scientist does. The world that the student then enters is not, however, fixed once and for all by the nature of the environment, on the one hand, and the science, on the other. Rather, it is determined jointly by the environment and the particular normal-scientific tradition that the student has been trained to pursue.37

p. 249

We can see from this that what takes place in the training of scientists is a very thorough conditioning process ó a process that conditions them to see and interpret the data through the contemporary paradigm. And the over-arching metaphysical aspect of today's paradigm is hands down that of naturalism. It is impossible to conceive that that conditioning process does not result in a tremendous amount of absorption of naturalistic thinking by the scientists in training. This would be especially so for those students who are not consciously aware of the role of presuppositions as they receive their training. But even for those who are, and who seek to exercise discernment as they study, I can't imagine that the force of this presupposition upon their thinking can be easily avoided.

Philosophy as a Molder of Science

It will be helpful at this juncture to briefly sketch the role of the developments in the world of philosophy in shaping the presuppositional foundations of scientists. This will reinforce the contentions offered so far as well as provide fresh insights. It has been mentioned that in the early days of modern science, theism and scientific thought co-existed harmoniously. However, it did not remain so for very long. The turning point can be located generally around the middle of the seventeenth century.38 Historian of science, Sir William Dampier, writes:

Descartes [1596-1650], who was accused by his opponents of having devised so effective a cosmic mechanism that it left no room for Providential control, held that the mathematical laws of nature had been established by God.39

So we see that with Descartes an important, though unintended, step was taken toward a mechanical or naturalistic view of the universe. But it is important to see that this was not a necessary ramification of his thought. A rigidly ordered universe did not mean there was no God to create it or maintain it.

Soon afterward came the monumental work of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). With Newton came a "change in mental outlook" in the world of science.40 This change in outlook is explained by Dampier:

Newton's work was assailed ... because he offered no explanation of the ultimate cause of gravitational attraction. Newton was the first to see clearly that an attempt at an explanation, if necessary or possible at all, comes at a later stage ... It was not necessary to know the cause of the attraction; Newton regarded that as a secondary and independent problem, as yet only in the stage suitable for speculation.... It is a testimony to the wisdom of Newton's true scientific spirit of caution that, since his day, in spite of many attempts, no satisfactory mechanical explanation of gravitational attraction has been given...41

...the important distinction we have noted between 
the observations of science and the metaphysical interpretation 
of what is observed ... is the difference between fact and faith

Newton distinguished between what was observed in nature and why it behaved the way it did. This is the important distinction we have noted between the observations of science and the metaphysical interpretation of what is observed. It is the difference between fact and faith. The former is knowledge, the latter is speculation. Dampier reminds us that, even today, explanations for why the laws of nature behave the way they do is not a matter that has been established by science. In other words, he is helping us to keep clear that important line of demarcation between fact and philosophy.

But if Newton made the proper distinction between facts and speculation, how is it that we don't clearly see that distinction today? The explanation is found in two phases. Science first influenced philosophy. Then philosophy influenced science. More specifically, philosophy erroneously interpreted the Newtonian method concerning its metaphysical implications. Then, science later adopted (without necessary scientific justification), the new philosophical outlook.

p. 250

In explaining why Newton made the distinction he did, Dampier writes:

It was not that he had no philosophical or theological interests: quite the contrary. He was a philosopher and a deeply religious man, but he regarded these subjects as a vision to be seen from the topmost pinnacles of human knowledge, and not as the foundation on which it must be built: the end and not the beginning of science ... All that Newton thought could fairly be written in such a work on the metaphysical import of his physical discoveries [is contained in seven pages at the end of his book Principia]. It is expressed in the natural theological language of the time. Its sense is that of the argument from design. "This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets," he wrote, "could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being..."42

Clearly, Newton did not understand the meticulous natural order of the universe to mean that God was not immanently involved in it.43 But those who came after him believed that it did. Dampier continues:

It must be allowed that, at a later date, Newton's science was taken by others as the basis of a mechanical philosophy, but that was not the fault of Newton or his friends. They did their best, in the theological language which was natural to them, to make clear their belief that Newtonian dynamics did not controvert, rather indeed strengthened, a spiritual view of reality ... To them theism was fundamental and unquestioned, and they had no fear in accepting fully and entirely the new science ... The "most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets," which to Newton could only proceed from a beneficent Creator, was used in the eighteenth century as the basis for a mechanical philosophy, and replaced the atomism of the ancients as the starting point of an atheistic materialism [i.e., naturalism].44

Theism to Deism to Atheism

Before Newton, and contemporaneous to both Galileo and Descartes, was the birth of deism.45 Deism took the philosophical baton from theism and handed it to naturalism in the western world. Deism was not absolutely necessary for the transition from theism to naturalism to take place, but it no doubt accommodated that transition by making it smoother and by stretching it over a longer period of time.

But what exactly is deism? In contrast to theism, Norman Geisler describes deism in this manner:

Theism is the belief that there is a God both beyond and within the world, a Creator and Sustainer who sovereignly controls the world and supernaturally intervenes in it. Deism holds with theism that God created the world but denies his supernatural intervention in it on the grounds that the world operates by natural and self-sustaining laws of the Creator. In short, God is beyond the world but he is not active in the world in a supernatural way.46

By referring again to Nash's diagrams which depicted theism and naturalism, and by introducing a third diagram of our own, we can see how deism served as a kind of stepping stone between theism and naturalism.


The Natural Order


From this we can see that deism agrees with theism that there is a God who created the box. However, deism agrees with naturalism that nothing can interfere with the workings of the box, including the God deists believe created the box. Rather than the huge step from theism to the atheistic outlook of naturalism, deism allows for two shorter steps. First, deism retains God's existence while maintaining that he no longer interacts with his creation. From there, atheistic naturalism eliminates the existence of God altogether. Significantly, since this second step involves no difference in how people believe the world functions in relation to God, only a difference in what is believed to be beyond the world, the step to atheism was made notably more palatable to a culture which had previously been steeped in a theistic view of the world.

As time went on, a more and more rigid naturalism took shape within the logic of deism.47 This found one of its most celebrated expressions in the classic essay by Hume where he attacked the probability of miracles.48

p. 251

Dampier summarizes the waning of deism and the waxing of naturalism as follows:

Newton and his immediate disciples used the new dynamical science to demonstrate the wisdom and goodness of an all-powerful Creator. In Locke's philosophy this tendency was less vigorous, and it was ruled out altogether in Hume's separation of reason and faith ... The astonishing success of the Newtonian theory in explaining the mechanism of the heavens led to an overestimate of the power of mechanical conceptions to give an ultimate account of the whole Universe.49

While all this was taking place, he writes:

[A] more popular current of thought was setting strongly in the direction of materialism, a word first used in the eighteenth century.... Materialism [naturalism] takes the phenomenal world as real, naively and dogmatically. Its attempt to explain consciousness, like those made by other philosophers, is an obvious failure, for how can the motion of senseless particles produce consciousness...50

With a final reference to Dampier we can see both the attraction that naturalism holds for the scientific community as well as the inherent risk of naturalism being esteemed more highly than science can justify. He says:

For rough, everyday use, it has its advantages, indeed it is necessary for each detail of science, but there is always the danger that it should be taken as the necessary philosophy of science as a whole, and, as a philosophy, gain the prestige which the success of detailed science inevitably gives.51

With this statement we come back to where we started. Science operates on naturalistic presuppositions. But many, including scientists, are not aware of the line of demarcation between the true discoveries of science and the assumed truth of naturalism. And with the blurring of that line comes the misguided tribute to naturalism as though it were in the same category as, say, the discovery of the polio vaccine. If there is to be any legitimate harmonization in the modern debate between science and theology, we need to understand and be aware of the difference between what is fact, what is faith and what is philosophy.

The Proposal Applied

Before we conclude, it will be beneficial to briefly demonstrate how this proposal might be applied to an actual instance of disagreement between science and theology. The most well-known and visible debate is undoubtedly that between naturalistic evolution and the Biblical account of man's creation by the direct work of God. How might the suggestion of philosophical presuppositions be applied to this particular controversy?

An initial observation we could make is that history plainly records that Darwin's theory of evolution was not a discovery made from observing nature, but a preconceived and prevalent idea (philosophy?) brought to his observations of nature. It is believed by some scientists that the fossil record supplies virtually incontrovertible evidence for the truth of the theory of evolution.52 However, not only was this not true in Darwin's time, as he himself admits in his The Origin of Species,53 but it is not true today after the evidence has been hard sought for over a hundred years by an army of paleontologists. Dr. David Raup, one of the world's most respected paleontologists explains:

Darwin predicted that the fossil record should show a reasonably smooth continuum of ancestor-descendent pairs with a satisfactory number of intermediaries between major groups. Darwin even went so far as to say that if this were not found in the fossil record, his general theory of evolution would be in serious jeopardy. Such smooth transitions were not found in Darwin's time, and he explained this in part on the basis of an incomplete geologic record and in part on the lack of study of that record. We are now more than a hundred years after Darwin and the situation is little changed. Since Darwin a tremendous expansion of paleontological knowledge has taken place, and we know much more about the fossil record than was known in his time, but the basic situation is not much different. We actually may have fewer examples of smooth transitions than we had in Darwin's time, because some of the old examples have turned out to be invalid when studied in more detail. To be sure, some new intermediate or transitional forms have been found, particularly among land vertebrates. But if Darwin were writing today, he would still have to cite a disturbing lack of missing links or transitional forms between major groups of organisms.54

Until the line of separation between facts and philosophy
 is candidly acknowledged and carefully considered, 
there can be no meaningful harmonization 
of Christian faith with modern science.

What does all this tell us? We can see that the philosophy of naturalism had been adopted by some of the scientific community before Darwin came along. It was the framework, "paradigm," in which his own thinking operated. Further, the philosophy was applied to observations of nature as opposed to nature determining the philosophy. The most important body of evidence pointed to by science for the substantiation of evolution is the fossil record. And yet, instead of being unequivocal and conclusive, the evidence provided by the fossil record remains a controversial issue even among non-theistic, evolutionary paleontologists.

p. 252

Many of these scientists, no longer able to hold to a traditional Darwinian view of slow, continuous evolution, have formulated a new theory known as punctuated equilibrium. This version involves an amendment to the traditional view at a fundamental level. It sees evolution taking place in momentous growth spurts involving relatively short periods of time with no change thereafter for long periods until another sudden surge takes place. This modification has been seen by many (on different sides of the debate) as a significant move toward a view of the fossil record that resembles what one might expect to find based on a view that espouses creation.

It will probably be decades, if not longer, before a consensus is reached concerning the fossil record. But assuming that the traditional evolutionary view will continue to lose supporters, even among those who would like to see it established, the parallels between some of Kuhn's observations and the actual developments in this area of science over the last hundred years are rather interesting. And in light of these developments, is the theist really without justification when he or she says that the traditional evolutionist, when it comes to the fossil record, may be "forcing nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that" naturalism has supplied? It would seem not.

This example is necessarily an extremely superficial examination of the larger conflict between some areas of science and theology. Nevertheless, it enables us to see at least one application of what has been set forth in this paper. Its application would seem even more reasonable when considered against the thinking of contemporary social sciences. By starting out with naturalistic assumptions (i.e., there is no God and everything can be explained according to natural causes), these disciplines have systematically rewritten major fields of study. The formulation of comparative religion by anthropologists is one prime example. And the list could go on.

Admittedly, the disagreements between scientists and traditional Christian theologians cannot be fully resolved solely by an appeal to presuppositional biases. Nevertheless, the significance that those biases play has, more often than not, been disregarded by even well-meaning scientists and laymen alike. Until the line of separation between facts and philosophy is candidly acknowledged and carefully considered, there can be no meaningful harmonization of Christian faith with modern science. Philosophical presuppositions are a first step, but a fundamental one.




1J.P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989), page 11.

2Walter M. Pitch, "The Challenges to Darwinism Since the Last Centennial and the Impact of Molecular Studies," Evolution 36, no. 6 (1982): 1138-1139.

3Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982), Complete Works edition, Volume 1, pages 225, 229-230.

4Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981.

5Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), pages 116-118.

6Ibid., pages 119-120.

7Ibid., page 121.<P7MJ247>

8Ibid., pages 118, 120.<P7MJ247>

9Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, 2nd ed.), page 2.

10Ibid., page 10.

11Ibid., pages 2-3.

12Ibid., page 10.

13Ibid., page 35.

14Ibid., page 11.

15Ibid., page 5.

16Ibid., page 5.

17Ibid., page 17.

18Ibid., page 24.

19Ibid., page 34.

20Ibid., page 38.

21Ibid., page 52.

22Ibid., page 84.

23Ibid., pages 84-85.

24Ibid., page 6.

25Ibid., pages 77-79.

26Ibid., page 82.

27Ibid., page 61.

28Ibid., page 88.

29Ibid., page 112.

30Ibid., page 63.

31Ibid., page 63.

32Ibid., page 113.

33Ibid., pages 64, 113.

34Ibid., pages 136-137.

35Ibid., page 138.

36Ibid., page 5.

37Ibid., pages 111-112.

38Sir William Cecil Dampier, A History of Science, (Cambridge: The University Press, 1968), page 148.

39Ibid., page 148.

40Ibid., page 148.

41Ibid., pages 170-171.

42Ibid., page 174.

43Ibid., page 174.

44Ibid., pages 173 and 175.

45Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1976), pages 152-153.

46Ibid., page 151.

47Ibid., page 161.

48Ibid., pages 163-164.

49Dampier, page 196.

50Ibid., page 198.

51Ibid., page 199.

52Ibid., page 278.

53Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, (New York: Mentor Books, 1859, 1958), page 293.

54Laurie R. Godfrey, editor, Scientists Confront Creationism, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1983), page 156.