Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 19: Science & Theology: Partners in Truth

Ben Stein’s documentary, EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed, questions the truth-seeking motivation of some in the scientific community who attempt to debunk the overwhelming evidence of intelligent design in the observable universe. Everywhere you look, from sub-atomic particles, to the far reaches of space, to the flowers in your garden, to the functionality of your thumb, there is a complexity and sophistication that defies the explanation that the universe came about by chance without intelligent input.

EXPELLED also explores how secular scientists have applied a “strawman fallacy” in their attempt to debunk Christian faith by assuming that such faith is nothing more than an irrational, mental assent to some proposition, without any way to collect evidence one way or the other. A strawman fallacy consists of an opponent misrepresenting your position so that it is easier to attack. In this case, secular scientists claim that intelligent design theory is only the result of a religious faith that they define as irrational mental assent. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. For example, Christian faith is based on eons of physical evidence of a benevolent, Supreme Being who has interacted with the physical universe and left us myriad of physical, measurable evidences upon which we put our trust. Christian faith is not a blind faith, but a eyes-wide-open, truth-seeking, evidence-based faith.

Empirical Challenge

It was a fine Spring morning as I jaunted across the campus of Greenville College, in Southern Illinois. I was a senior majoring in Physics on my way to give a lecture in an Introduction to Philosophy class taught by Dr. Royal Mulholland. I had been asked to play the role of an empiricist and challenge the faith of Christianity. An empiricist is a scientist who relies heavily on quantitative evidence (i.e. numerical measures) and, of course, the scientific method as the preferred method of discovering truth. (There are also social scientists who rely on qualitative evidence (i.e. psychological measures) to do their science.

Yes, I was a Christian, as were Professor Mulholland (see Chapter 18), and most of the students in the class, including the wonderful young lady I was dating and would later marry. The uniqueness of the situation undoubtedly had something to do with my outspoken advocacy of the explicit harmony between science and the Christian faith, as opposed to the often-ballyhooed conflict between science and religion. In my junior Physics Seminar I had been asked to write an essay that defended Christianity in the face of supposed contradictory discoveries in science. I didn’t see the contradictions. I saw incomplete theories on the part of scientists, and I saw arrogance on the part of theologians.

Later, in my understanding of how to explain truth, I would come to understand the relationship between nature and the Bible, and between science and theology. Cosmologist and Christian apologist Hugh Ross (evangelical) writes about how the conflict is not between physical nature and God’s Word, but between the disciplines that interpret those two sources of knowledge — science and theology. The proper Christian assumption is that physical nature and God’s Word both come from The Almighty, so they must agree, even if we cannot understand how. Rather than call apparent disagreements between science and religion “contradictions,” it would be more accurate to label them “paradoxes” — i.e. “apparent contradictions” about which we simply don’t know enough to explain.

Thus, science is the interpretation of nature (i.e. natural revelation), and theology is the interpretation of God’s Word (i.e. supernatural revelation). Where the interpretive tool in both disciplines involve humans (sometimes without the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit), we can expect misinterpretation and error.

The Truth Seeking Principle

Now let me jump back a moment and remind us that this series of articles seeks to explain how reason must be used responsibly in the discovery of truth. Faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio). Truth does not come to us by faith alone, nor does it come by scientific experimentation alone. To rely on one to the exclusion of the other is to fly blind with only one wing, mostly in circles, before you crash and burn in a pile of irrational assumptions — as Ben Stein sees “big science” doing today.

This particular chapter (19), along with the previous (18), is about T. Edward Damer’s The Truth Seeking Principle, the 2nd principle from his “Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion.” This principle encourages all the participants in a discussion to earnestly seek out the truth at all costs, regardless of discipline, presuppositions, perceived values, emotions, time, hurt feelings, — did I leave anything out?… oh, yeah — politics and religion. The Truth Seeking Principle demands that we listen humbly to opposing viewpoints with respect and diligence. Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 11:7-8 suggests: “Before investigating, find no fault; examine first, then criticize… Interrupt no one in the middle of his speech.”

Christianity Is Scientific

For several years following college with my major in physics, I was a test engineer in NASA’s space program. My job was to take particular theories of the engineer-scientists I worked for, and test them in the labs. I was involved in the heart of practical science and the scientific method. What I was doing in NASA’s labs was pretty much what I was doing in Bible studies and my spiritual walk with Christ. I was testing the theories proposed by Christian theology. The more my testing showed them to be true, the more I trusted them.

As a Protestant I studied the Bible fanatically (I didn’t have the security of the Church’s 2,000 years of magisterial engineering) and was taught week after week that it was by spiritual faith alone that we were saved and not by our physical actions. But the way we were taught to define faith as opposed to science and work became a disconnect or paradox. While the doctrinal explanations emphasized mental assent of faith alone, the emphasis on sermons focused on the mechanical, causal nature of Christian obedience. That is, when we studied the Bible or applied it to our lives we discovered how our thoughts and their resulting actions affected and effected our spiritual standing with God. There was a cause and effect, the heart of science. It was one thing to think something (as in the mental assent of faith), but it was an entirely different thing to do it (as in the physical action of works).

The Scientific Method

The new pagans and anti-Christian segments of our society would have the world believe that Christianity is not interested in truth, but only in blind embrace of an irrational faith. Just the opposite is true, and it can be easily shown that it is the pagans and atheists who are embracing irrationality. It is Christianity that relentlessly seeks truth, even if you consider the interaction between Copernicus, Galileo and a few Catholic prelates — a discussion I’ll save for another time. For it is out of the Catholic Church that the scientific method was devised.

051508_lead_new.jpgThe Scientific Method can be generally described as a sophisticated and somewhat controlled discovery of the relationship between certain causes and their effects. Specifically, the scientific method can be described by these seven (7) steps: (1) Curiosity and Presuppositions, (2) Observation, (3) Hypothesis, (4) Experiment, (5) Theory, (6) Test, (7) Law. In spite of what many may think (even theologians, I dare say), that is exactly what the Christian Church has done from the time of Christ; and it is how Catholicism approaches the seeking of truth even today. (Yes, I admit, I’m a Christian empiricist.) Is that heresy? Hardly, because it fully embraces faith and supernatural revelation, in the same way that John Paul II tells us that reason reinforces faith and, in turn, faith advances reason.

How can all this be true? Very simply, and in thousands of ways. [Ed: “thousands”? SW: Well, yeah…thousands. My hidden assumption here is that there is quantitative evidence for every human life that has ever graced the planet and how that life has, does, and will interact with nature and with God. Think of the many parameters, ways, and elements that a human being interacts with the physical world. It’s myriad, just in a single life. And so, okay — I guess I have erred. In keeping with what I’m about to explain, I should not have said there are thousands of ways my premise can be proved, but billions upon billions upon billions. Stick with me and do a little interpolation on your own. This is cool stuff. So — let me start again.]

How can all this be true? Very simply, and in xillions upon xillions of ways. Take the seven steps I listed above and lay them next to the history of man and the development of Christian doctrine. While there is definitely mystery, there is no magic, no sleight of hand, or hocus pocus. What follows is the process of seeking truth you will find in both science and theology. (Notice that I have not included politics in that short list.)

Now, to briefly explore the relationship between Christianity and the Scientific Method here is an overview of each of the above steps with an explanation of how they apply to the development of Christian theology.

(1) Curiosity and Presuppositions.

Supernatural faith plays a role in each of these steps, but it is in this step that the correlation is most obvious. It is also in this step that even pagan scientists (unknowingly) access Christian faith to do their work of science. In fact, we could probably replace the words “curiosity and presuppositions” with “faith” and “supernatural revelation.” It is our curiosity that reaches out beyond ourselves and looks for answers and a structure or order to the universe. It is curiosity that asks “Why?” and “How?” Faith presupposes there is a God that can answer the prayer, “Why did that happen?” and “How can I better understand it?”

For example, if we ask, “Why does water run downhill?” we will discover that science helps to answer a theological question. Water runs downhill because of gravity, which pulls water into the ground and thus waters plants, that allows food to grow, which sustains life. Gravity also pulls water down through many layers of sediment, which remove impurities, and then allows the cleaned water to collect in underground basins and in wells for people to drink, thus sustaining life. In fact, every scientific discovery throughout time points to something called the Anthrophic Principle — a theologically significant concept that everything in the universe (from far away galaxies to subatomic particles) was finely tuned to do one thing — sustain human life.

Science has also discovered that if a closed system is left alone without the intelligent input of energy, it will degrade and cease to function. This is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics or entropy. A car left outside without care will not just cease to run, but will eventually end up as a pile of rust. A garden left untended will be overrun with weeds. A baby left alone without care will die. But when continual, intelligent care (in the form of an intelligently controlled energy) is put into the system, sustained life and beauty result. “The heavens declare the glory of God…” (Ps 19:1-6).

It is only because of an ordered universe, cared for continually by a benevolent God, that the world does not do as the car did. Even secular environmentalists are confounded when a major oil spill or a volcanic eruption threatens to destroy a corner of the earth and after a few years the area recovers and brings forth new life. What we see in all this is physical evidence, scientific evidence, of what supernatural revelation of our faith proclaims. There is an intelligent order, and sustenance at work to give life and maintain it. Science assumes this; that is, it is an act of faith in an ordered (not random) universe that supercedes knowledge. Science, by its “nature”, requires faith in a principle that itself cannot be proven by science. My editor, Dave Armstrong, says: “Belief that the universe is orderly and uniformitarian is a non-scientific premise that is required to do science. Science reduces in the end to philosophy, which in turn requires axioms, and in many ways is not unlike theology.”

Now, space is limited, so we must move on. Notice how faith in what is not seen or understood is ubiquitous to each of the remaining steps. The secular scientist will not call it “faith” but rather a “wonder” or “awe” of what is there. I contend that the secular scientist’s wonder is a near equivalent to a Christian’s faith, if not the preliminary and necessary steps to it.

So, with that basis, let’s move quickly through the remaining steps of the scientific method.

(2) Observations. The Israelites and early Christians observed God’s behavior through physical signs, physical miracles and the physical words and actions of Jesus and the prophets. Note that these observations and experiences are a mixture of reason (observations in nature) and faith (prophetic proclamations).

(3) Hypothesis. The observers form hypotheses about what can be learned from the observations and what they have been told, e.g. “Obey God and you will live. Disobey and you will die.” Or, “Have faith in God and you will be healed, and your sins be forgiven.”

(4) Experiment. Experiments are run to test the hypotheses. These are not always controlled experiments, although science loves such things. But science cannot always run controlled experiments. When an earthquake occurs there is nothing that we can control. Yet we learn from such events.  In Joshua 7, Achan buries forbidden loot in the floor of his tent when he was told to destroy it. In Numbers 20, Moses angrily strikes the rock twice to produce water for the Israelites, rather than speaking to it in faith. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira lie about giving all their money to the Apostles. For all of these causes, there is an effect; and Christianity learns from such things. (As we should.)

(5) Theory. When Achan’s loot is miraculous discovered and his family stoned (with real rocks not street drugs), when Moses is prevented from entering the Promised Land because of his disobedience, and when Ananias and Sapphira drop dead — the hypothesis suddenly becomes trustworthy and we claim a theory exists. Scientists and theologians both look for patterns by which to predict future events. In both disciplines the theory is “developing.” Thus, there is both the development of scientific theory and the development of doctrine.

(6) Testing. But after centuries of testing, with the same results…

(7) Rules and Laws take the form of scientific predictability and theological doctrine and even dogma.

Yes, it is true that not all dogma can be tested. But what can be tested gives mighty good evidence that the extrapolations of prophetic utterances of Christ are fully trustworthy. Not everything is tested in science, but the extrapolation of rules and laws allows us to send men to the moon and back, having never done it before.

Mulholland’s Introduction to Philosophy

In Mulholland’s Introduction to Philosophy class I began my lecture, presented myself as an empirical scientist and argued that if God truly existed, and if Christianity was actually true, then the scientific method could be used to prove it. To my evangelical classmates, faith was not something that science could comment on — I must have sounded like a heretic (and perhaps I was). My future wife, who sat in the class, was unconvinced, and although everyone knew I was just play-acting, Pam says I was convincing enough to put our relationship on the rocks for a while.

I have a tendency to emphasize reason in these sorts of arguments, and at times I probably still sound like a heretic. I apologize. It’s an overreaction to the faith-as-mental-assent emphasis of my Evangelical upbringing, and in reaction today to the same (strawman) claim by atheists as secular scientists. The reason and evidence of an intelligent designer is everywhere, it’s the pink elephant in the room you’re pretending to ignore. Like King David, I take solace in Psalm 8:4-5: “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you set in place — what are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?”

As one of my graduate professors reminded me, “Stan, you cannot prove anything. All you can do is bring evidence to bear on the argument, and make sure it’s good evidence.” Theologians and mystics will claim that God has written the truth of his existence on the hearts of all men. I believe that the physical universe provides such a strong testimony of his Supreme Intelligent Design that we cannot discern the difference between what is innate on our hearts, and what our physical senses declare to be obvious. It is not an either/or argument, it is an and/both proposition. What is written on our hearts is one and the same with what we experience.

Someone once said, “I only know two things: First, there is a God. And second, I’m not him.” (And along comes God and says, simply: “I am”!) May that be our motivation to know God in our hearts, and in our minds, as we marvel at the evidence in creation of God’s Supreme Intelligent Design, and do our utmost, at all times, in all places, to seek the truth at all costs.

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