The City Summer 2016

Science and Faith

By John Bloom

Perhaps the biggest problem today in the area of “science and faith” is that discussions of this topic quickly turn into a “science OR faith” standoff.  Certainly this is the attitude conveyed by the popular media, which a century ago adopted and still perpetuates the so-called “warfare model” for the relationship between Christianity and science, even though this idea’s validity has been questioned by generations of historians of science.  Instead of finding a perpetual battle waging between science and faith, historians and philosophers observe a much more collegial relationship:  the Christian worldview laid the foundation for modern science by seeing the world as impersonal material (rather than embodied gods) which is governed by fixed laws (rather than the whims of a committee of squabbling gods) that are intelligible to us because we are made in the Creator’s image (thus we have some ability to think God’s thoughts after Him).  Unfortunately, the Enlightenment movement began pushing this theistic view aside, arguing that matter and physical laws alone are sufficient to explain everything, and so God was unnecessary baggage.[1]

Now, it’s not that the approach of giving priority to material cause and effect when doing science is problematic:  most of science and engineering focuses on the “nuts and bolts” work of understanding and using the fixed natural laws and physical properties of materials to make our world safer, healthier, and more comfortable.  But there are two areas where this materialistic approach falls drastically short: questions related to origins, and those related to ethics.

Presuming a materialistic answer to origins questions like “Where did the material world come from?” is, well, presuming a particular religious answer.  It’s one thing to study physical cause and effect, and to prefer physical cause and effect explanations, but to require only unguided physical cause-and-effect explanations adds a faith commitment to science:  we’re having faith that the world actually does run only by unguided physical causes.  Of course there are many situations where you can repeat carefully controlled experiments thousands of times in the laboratory, until you have teased out all of the detailed cause-and-effect relationships and can conclude that they appear to be unguided; but it’s quite another thing to analyze a one-time event in the distant past (such as the origin of the universe, of life, etc.) and presume that it occurred solely because of unguided physical causes.  One’s “science” here has shifted from good, repeatable bench science to forensics, where cause-and-effect relationships are much harder to determine.  In forensics we cannot assume that every death is an accident: we must be alert to the possibility of intentional causes, such as murder or suicide.  Similarly in origins questions, we cannot ignore other causal options, such as an intelligent designer.  For example, the Genetic Code, which translates the information stored on DNA over to the specific amino acid sequences found in proteins, is very similar among all living organisms.  While it seems simple to conclude that the Code must be a “frozen accident” that arose by chance, and it then got passed on to all living organisms by common descent, these conclusions assume that only unguided processes were at work.  With the recent discovery that our Genetic Code has the rare feature of minimizing the effect of mutations that degrade protein function, a designer becomes a much more plausible explanation for this tremendous benefit than an unguided, extremely lucky accident.[2]

Besides origins questions, ethical issues are exceptionally difficult for science to address:  Technology has always been a Pandora’s Box of mixed blessings and consequences, since knowledge does not come with instructions for how best to use it.  About all that science can argue is, “If we can do it, we should.”  But if this be our guide, then there’s no good scientific reason why we should not mass-produce weapons of mass destruction and sell them at Walmart.  More generally, we can only observe what “is” in nature, and it does not follow from “is” that we can deduce “ought.”  To compare human behavior to that of chimps or ants may be interesting, but the “monkey see, monkey do” proverb should be applied to fools, not evoked by professors to explain, or worse, to justify human behavior.[3]   Science cannot answer ethical questions like, “Is it wrong to torture babies?” although we have developed medical technology which conveniently allows us to torture and kill fetuses before we define them as babies.  This shows that cultural norms define ethics; science cannot tell good from evil.

But back to the common “Science OR Faith” standoff with which I began:  a moment’s reflection shows that this dichotomy is mistaken, because science needs faith at many levels.  A scientist must have faith in the reliability of his senses and instruments, must have faith in the applicability of mathematics to the physical world, must have faith in the regularities of nature, must have faith in his ability to think and reason, and must have faith in the trustworthiness of his colleagues, to name a few.  All of these faith commitments are fully compatible with Christianity, which provides a solid basis for this faith.  Absent theism, these faith commitments become risky assumptions:  Darwin himself wondered why he should trust his own thoughts if he had evolved from a lower animal;[4] that “math works” at all is just magic; and that the world might turn into green cheese fifteen minutes from now becomes a possibility in some parallel multiverse out there… and how do we know it won’t be ours?  Without faith, it is impossible to do science.  To dismiss this dilemma with a shoulder shrug, saying “well, that’s just the way the world is,” leaves only an ad hoc basis to practice science.

And there is more:  the maverick theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said it well: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”[5]  For science to make progress, you have to question the textbook.  This is why I cringe at appeals to “consensus science”:  sure, there are many things on which most scientists agree, but to evoke consensus in order to shut down debate and inquiry into a better understanding of the world than the current consensus, is one of the fastest ways to stop genuine scientific inquiry that I can think of.  And if prestige, money, and politics get involved, we need to be especially skeptical.  When “anthropogenic climate change” is used to tax energy sources, and scientists who doubt it are professionally skewered, and the raw data which apparently justify it will not be released publically for critical review, what we see happening is a great embarrassment to true science.  When anyone who doubts Darwinism is branded a “creationist” and presumed to have a religious motive for their skepticism, and may forfeit their academic and professional career, what we see happening is a great embarrassment to true science.  True science carries with it a sense of humility and self-doubt, recognizes that science is a work-in-progress, and that many of the paradigms we accept today were anathemas in the past.  After all, there was once a time when anyone who doubted Aristotle was branded a heretic (Exhibit A: Galileo).  Of course it is true that we know some things with more certainty than others:  I’m not advocating that we should doubt atomic theory or heliocentrism.  But this does bring us back to my main theme:  we need to watch out for where religious commitments may be blinding us to possible valid scientific conclusions.  Modern science’s commitment to unguided material processes just may be one of these religious entanglements.

When “science and faith” turns into “science OR faith,” many believe that the primary cause is this religious tension:  it’s not the ‘scientific method’ or ‘scientific data’ that generates the conflict with the Christian faith, but the ‘naturalistic worldview’ which is competing with a theistic worldview.  It’s tough to reconcile an approach which sees God as active in the world with one that does not.  Even atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse and Thomas Nagel recognize this resulting “faith OR faith” situation as problematic.  Nagel has argued:

“The claim that ID is bad science or dead science may depend, almost as much as the claim that it is not science, on the assumption that divine intervention in the natural order is not a serious possibility. That is not a scientific belief but a belief about a religious question: it amounts to the assumption that either there is no god, or if there is, he certainly does not intervene in the natural order to guide the world in certain directions.” [6]

Ruse has famously remarked:

“Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion – a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. I am an ardent evolutionist and an ex-Christian, but I must admit that in this one complaint – and Mr. Gish is but one of many to make it – the literalists are absolutely right. Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.”[7]

It’s significant to see atheists writing disapprovingly that science (specifically Darwinism) carries with it religious assumptions which dictate what “scientific” conclusions are considered culturally acceptable, and arguing that science should not entangle itself with such religious questions.  This “faith vs. faith” dilemma also plagues many Christian scientists, who seek to follow the scientific convention of explaining our origins solely via unguided naturalistic processes, but who try to retain some notion of an invisible, undetectable God hiding behind the curtain.[8]  I must admit that it took me years to fully see and comprehend the significance of this “naturalistic faith vs. theistic faith” dichotomy, and that the perceived tension between “science and faith” is fundamentally not a scientific problem, but a religious one.

I appreciate the candor of Ruse and Nagel, who recognize that much of the problem with “science and faith” today is actually this “faith vs. faith” issue.  For example, if mainstream science were to grant that evolutionary processes could even possibly be guided by some supernatural influence (as Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, came to accept, to the dismay of Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley), most of the tension would evaporate.  There still would be questions as to whether this guidance was through directed, specific mutations happening in precursor organisms or was through the de novo creation of new lifeforms without ancestors, but this is an ‘interdenominational’ discussion rather than a ‘naturalism vs. theism’ struggle.  But it is not likely that this hypothesis would be tolerated, since for many (including Darwin), the whole point of Darwinism is not any specific evolutionary mechanism as much as the assertion that whatever happened, it was an unguided and undirected process.  As Nagel notes, Darwinism is fundamentally a faith commitment to the belief that no one acted.

There is one other dimension to the “science OR faith” topic which concerns Christian believers more than scientists.  Despite all of the warnings in Scripture that “God’s ways are not our ways,” (Isaiah 55:8) and that “a thousand years are like a day to the Lord,” (2 Peter 3:8; Psalm 90:4) sometimes we try to limit God’s actions to align with our simple understanding of the Bible.  While the insights and parallels between the Bible and the universe are incredible, as we might expect because there is a common author to both, if our study of God’s creation suggests that we may need to change our interpretation of a word or a passage in the Bible, we should consider this, rather than create a “science OR faith” tension ourselves as Christians.  Theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have wrestled over the centuries with this concordance question: “How does one square one’s best current understanding of the world with one’s best current understanding of the Bible?” and concluded that humility and tentativeness need to guide our interpretations of both the text and the Creation.  Not that we abandon the resurrection because biochemists say that dead bodies can’t come back to life, but that we recognize where biblical descriptions of nature may be worded in the culturally universal and timeless language of appearance, and that we may err if we understand things “too literally” (for example, insisting that the “windows of heaven” refers to literal openings in the sky, instead of clouds).  Whereas naturalists don’t want to let God into the box of their understanding; some Christians may fail to let God out of the box of their understanding.  Both parties need to expand their boxes!

What advantage is there to having “science and faith” work together, rather than squaring off against each other as “science OR faith”?  Great in every way: our faith commitments provide a foundation for the regularities we observe in nature; we have an expectation that the universe is intelligible because it was created by a rational Being; and we have a clear goal for our scientific knowledge – we want to use it to help others.  Moreover, many scientific mysteries – like why we see increasing complexity over time in the biosphere – make sense if there’s a God behind it, who creates, directs, cares for, and guides life to produce a beautiful habitat for the ultimate beings which He creates in His image, who can glorify Him.  Our study of nature (science) becomes the fascinating project of reverse engineering the universe, to discover how and why God did it, and to apply that knowledge to bless others.  Rather than seeing ourselves as the fluke of unguided processes that somehow washed up rational beings on the shore of a grain of sand somewhere on the infinite beach of the universe, we are co-creators with God in caring for and building upon His handiwork.  This is such a higher motivation than chasing illusive fame and fortune in an ultimately meaningless world, and it should drive Christians to be the best scientists of all:  they, after all, are studying the very handiwork of God.


About the Author
John Bloom, PhDJOHN BLOOM PhD,  is a Professor of Physics at Biola University where he is the chair of the Chemistry, Physics and Engineering Department and the academic director of the MA in Science and Religion, which he founded in 2004.  Dr. Bloom also holds an M.Div. and a second Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. He is the author of The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2015) and a number of articles which address apologetics and the relationship between faith and science.


[1] For more details, see John A. Bloom, The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide, Crossway (2015).

[2] Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design, Baker Books (2008), pp. 170-182.

[3] See for example, A Natural History of Rape, by Thornhill and Palmer, who argue that “rape is not a pathology but an evolutionary adaptation – a strategy for maximizing reproductive success.” Nancy Pearcey, “Darwin’s Dirty Secret,” http://www.discovery.org/a/164.

[4] Charles Darwin, Letter to William Graham, July 3, 1881. “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” DCP-LETT-13230 www.darwinproject.ac.uk

[5] Richard P. Feynman, “What is Science,” The Physics Teacher, volume 7, issue 6 (1969), p. 313-320.

[6] Thomas Nagel, “Public Education and Intelligent Design,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 36, no. 2 (2008), p.198

[7] Michael Ruse, “How Evolution became a Religion,” National Post, pp. B1, B3, B7, May 13, 2000.  http://www.nationalpost.com/artslife.asp?f=000513/288424 See more recently “Is Darwinism a Religion,” Huffington Post, July 21, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-ruse/is-darwinism-a-religion_b_904828.html.

[8] See Wayne D. Rossiter, Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God, Pickwick (2015), for a critique of this approach.  Despite the common media portrayal of science as atheistic, surveys show that a significant fraction of scientists are theists (see http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/). Yet many seem content with the “science cannot see God” approach.

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