July 16, 2005

Christianity and Science

I'm presently engaged in a dialog with a talented young musician. He's offered me some fair and open questions about Christianity, and in the process of responding I'm generating quite a bit content that may be of interest to others. What I intend to do is to edit it as needed and release it topically in separate posts. The first one relates to science, and the next two will relate to the reliability of Scripture and the fate of "devout" people of other religions.

The truth thing is often hard for me to understand. Like, if I was to just think of finding out things that were objectively true and unbiased, I would probably first look to science. I mean, having a scientific method and being ready to find out whatever might be. Science seems to have shed a lot of light on some really cloudy issues. So it seems to me that there are some contradictions between a few scientific discoveries and viewpoints and a few Christian ideas and fundamentals. But maybe there's a lot more to it?

Such a big topic; so many points I could make here. Let me do a shotgun approach and give you an overview of some of the kinds of things to be considered when thinking about "science." These can be fleshed out later as needed. First, a definition of terms. When I use the words "naturalism" or "materialism" I usually mean the idea that there is no God or spiritual realm and that matter/nature is all there is. At this point I can use these words interchangeably; the nuanced distinction is not yet important.

1) Science is not an unbiased venture. It is a fiction to think that scientists are influenced by agendas and worldviews any less than are other types of persons. In fact, modern science has succeeded in having certain biases built in to its very definition and methodologies. For example, the idea that there are no miracles, there is no purpose to nature, and there is nothing super-natural. As the late Carl Sagan use to say, "Nature is all there is, was, or ever will be." If there is a God, we shall not know it from the formal proclamations of science -- perhaps only from its commentators.

Harvard geneticist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin, said it best (and with great candor) in his NY Times review of one of Carl Sagan's books:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
2) Philosophy precedes science. The very definition of what science is and how it operates is based on what would be called the "philosophy of science." And some of the philosophical assumptions on which science depends are highly questionable outside of a theistic framework. For example, science relies on some of the following assumptions without any kind of prior justification as to why they must be so.
* That the world outside our minds is real and that truth actually exists to be discovered.
* The basic reliability of sense perception, i.e., that what we think we perceive actually fits the real world.
* That the law of cause and effect is valid and universal.
* That our minds are constructed in such a way that we can truly know and understand the complexities of nature.
* That the laws of logic and mathematics are objectively real tools that are adequate to the task of finding truth.

There are some postmodern thinkers who dispute most of these assumptions, but they do make perfect sense if the God of Christianity exists, and if we don't accept these assumptions then it is impossible to do science in the traditional sense.

3) Science is well grounded in a Christian worldview. It is no accident that modern science was birthed (and sustained) in Western civilization of all possible places. The Christian view of metaphysics lent itself well to the task, i.e., the idea that God has created an orderly and law-driven world and that it is designed for purpose, pleasure, and exploration. Christians have historically loved science with great passion because, as Kepler stated it, it allows them to "think God's thoughts after Him." It is only the modern banishment of "religion" from scientific discourse that would make it appear otherwise.

4) Scientific support for Christianity. In actuality, there are very few sustained discoveries that are hostile to Christianity. I say "sustained" because at certain points in time things were believed, but later found to be false, that ran contrary to Biblical teachings. For example, the Bible teaches of a beginning to creation, but in centuries past (prior to big bang cosmology) it was thought that the universe was eternal.

In the past 50 years the scientific discoveries supporting theism seem to have snowballed to a point where pure atheism in the "hard sciences" seems to be passé. There are many conversion stories at hand regarding individuals who were set on their spiritual journeys by their scientific education or discoveries. One of the most recent relates to the renowned atheist Antony Flew. While more of a philosopher, this fellow traffics in the scientific arguments for and against God. It turns out that these are the very things that brought him to ultimately rethink his atheism. Some of the modern scientific findings that I might mention are the following:

* Big Bang cosmology. Cosmologists and astrophysicists are now generally agreed that there is a point of origin of all space, time, and matter. As a result of this, astronomer Geoffrey Burbridge once lamented that his fellow scientists were rushing off to join the "First Church of Christ of the Big Bang."

* Fine-tuning of the laws of physics. The very laws of physics have been discovered to be "just right" for the support of complex chemistry and life itself. Some of the forces and constants I refer to are the weak and strong atomic forces, various atomic particle weights, electromagnetic force, gravitational force, the speed of light, and the expansion rate of the universe. If any of these constants were tweaked by even the slightest degree, the results would be disastrous. And I don't just mean disastrous for "life as we know it," I mean for the existence of complex matter or the universe itself. For example, it is said that the "cosmological constant" (which controls the expansion of the universe) is fine-tuned to 1 part in 10^124 power! (Yes, I confirmed this with non-Christian sources). If it were different in one way or the other the universe would either have been just a hiccup (exploding & recollapsing before anything interesting could happen), or it would have fled away too quickly to support the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies.

* Problem of abiogenesis. This is the issue that particularly drove Antony Flew out of his atheism. This relates to the question of how the first life form came into being out of raw chemistry. The simplest and earliest known organisms to be explained are equivalent to today's bacteria, and these have been found to be so complex (see my next point) that virtually no one continues to suggest that a bacteria could have popped into existence from an ocean full of any kind of chemistry at all. The problems are these: 1) there is nothing simpler than bacteria known to have existed, 2) there is no evidence in early earth history of the kind of atmosphere & oceans existing that would be needed to produce even just the building-blocks of life, 3) only a short amount of time occurred between the cooling/stabilization of the planet and the appearance of the first life-forms, and 4) there are no experimentally (or even theoretically) supportable propositions for what happened between the simple-chemistry stage of earth history and the appearance of complex biochemistry. These are some of the reasons why the panspermia theory (life-from-space) has gained such popularity, and even Nobel laureates are saying things like "maybe an alien ship dumped its waste tank in our ocean several billion years ago." It is also why Dean Kenyon, one of the pioneers in naturalistic origins of life theory, is now a Christian arguing against his prior flawed work.

* Biochemical complexity. Modern electron microscopes have dispelled Darwin's mistaken notion that the cell is a mere "blob of protoplasm." It has been discovered to be a "design" marvel, complex as a city, which is full of what may rightly be termed "molecular machines." These machines are quite sophisticated and efficient, and generally involve numerous independent, unique proteins. Besides explaining this kind of complexity, a naturalist must face the difficulty of how these things could come to exist in a step-by-step fashion (ala Darwinian evolution) given the fact that they are non-functional until all the proteins exist and are assembled correctly -- these machines are "irreducibly complex." Here is an example of such a molecular machine -- the bacterial flagellum, which is an acid-powered rotary motor that runs up to 20,000 rpm and can reverse direction in a quarter turn: http://www.arn.org/docs/mm/flag_labels.jpg

* Cambrian explosion (the biological big bang). Contrary to Darwin's expectations, paleontologists have discovered the fossil record not to be characterized by gradual change; rather, as evolutionists Steven J. Gould and Niles Eldridge pointed out, it is characterized by long periods of stasis punctuated by the sudden emergence of new species (usually in conjunction with extinctions of most of the old). In no place is this more profoundly demonstrated than at the start of the Cambrian period. Prior to this, all we have for nearly 3 billion years are bacteria and algae (and some hint of simple multi-cellular organism toward the end). However, in the Cambrian period we suddenly have complex and highly specialized creatures. In fact, every know Phylum (the major body plans) comes into existence at this point, and I understand that no new Phylum have come into existence since.

5) The fallibility of science. Science is only as infallible as the humans who apply it. Just as we believe Scripture to be reliable, so too is science when rightly applied and interpreted. And just as theologians can make unwarranted conclusions from Scripture, so too can scientists make significant errors regarding nature. Some errors have even endured for centuries before being corrected. I offer some examples here:
* The Ptolemaic model of the universe - the Greeks had the earth at center long before Christianity was around.
* Phlogiston theory - a rather curious theory regarding matter and combustion that reigned for most of the 18th century.
* Spontaneous generation - e.g., meat produces flies, grain produces mice, mud produces frogs, etc.
* Newtonian vs. quantum physics - modern physics seems to have overturned some of the assumptions of both Newton and Einstein.
* Steady-state and oscillating universe theories - some interesting theories that have been discredited in the wake of wide-scale acceptance of big bang cosmology. They seem to have been frantic attempts to find a means to sustain the idea of a universe without a beginning (which is much friendlier to atheism).

We must remain cautious of our understanding of nature, just as caution is warranted in regard to what we think the Bible is saying about it. If Christianity were to hang its fortunes on every turn of science (assuming it were theologically free to do so), then history would be riddled with "Galileo incidents."

6) Scientific thinking in the metaphysical realm. As I've tried to make clear, Christianity has no quarrel with science in general and the application of the scientific method to matters of truth. In fact, we would go so far as to say that "scientific" thinking (logic, reason, and systematics) should be equally applied to metaphysical claims. So often, people put on a whole different hat when thinking about religion, values, and morality, but there is no particular reason why logic should fail us in those matters if it serves us so well in all others. I commend your desire to apply reason in your quest for truth, but I would only ask that you hold your metaphysical thinking to the same standard of scrutiny.

And one final thing...

Perhaps when you are thinking of "contradictions between science and Christianity" you are referring to things like the supposed vast age of the universe vs. a 6-day creation, or evolution vs. God's direct acts of creation. These are the most common things that people cite as conflict. Without getting (more) long-winded, let me mention just two things for now.

The allowed interpretation of the Genesis creation account has been a matter of dispute well before the days of modern science. There are several interpretations that are considered "within the pale of orthodoxy." These are known by such names as the 6-Day Creation model, the Day-Age theory (sometimes called Progressive Creation), the Framework theory, and the Fiat Creation theory. There are many fine conservative Christian theologians who hold to something other than the 6-day model, essentially affirming an old universe with creation happening in long epochs or "ages." Personally, I currently hold to this view. I think the text of Genesis has several suggestions of longer-than-day timeframes (for example, we are still in the "seventh day"), and I think the evidence for an old universe is more compelling than for a young one (though I'm perfectly open-minded to the "young" view and I've seen some interesting counter-evidence). I'm something of an astronomy and general science buff, so this debate is of great interest to me, though it is an in-house Christian debate.

After I became a Christian I continued to believe in evolution for about a year. The belief was so drilled into me from mere cultural influences that I didn't even think to question it before then. Afterwards, I became open to hearing the counter-arguments. I came to realize that from all my schooling and private reading about nature and science I really had never been exposed to many empirical arguments FOR evolution. The strongest arguments I had were that the earth was old (and, of course, "anything can happen given enough time"), the fossil record showed a simple to complex biological strata, and that "all scientists" believed in evolution. However, what finally changed my mind was an even deeper knowledge of biology, paleontology, and the supposed mechanisms of Darwinian evolution. If I chose to now I could make an even better case FOR evolution than I could when I believed it, but I find the case against it vastly superior. I'm gambling that you buy into evolutionary theory yourself and haven't really been exposed to the counter arguments.

Here are some choice links I would recommend for some stimulating reading on issues of science and theism.

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