Dealing With Doubters: A Series on Defending Your Faith
If You Cannot Scientifically Prove Your Belief, Is It Meaningless?
What is science? How should Christians respond to scientism? Are God and science really opposed to each other?
By Paul Copan
Science or Scientism?
In 1956, C.P. Snow wrote of “two cultures” — the declining literary culture and the expanding scientific culture. Scientists are the “new men,” the “directing class of a new society.”1 Those clipboard-carrying, lab-coat-clad scientists are, to many, the new high priests of our culture — the ones who provide definitive answers where theology and philosophy cannot. In this vein, zoologist Richard Dawkins declares,“Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”2 Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin calls science “the only begetter of truth.”3 Science, then, is the only reasonable, safe road to travel. God and science, we are told, are opposed to each other. After all, didn’t the Catholic Church oppose Galileo?
This kind of criticism, however, is not science. Instead, it is a philosophical view of reality and a purported path to knowledge called scientism. Scientism comes in two versions: strong (science is the only path to knowledge) and weak (science is the best path to knowledge, even if some other disciplines like philosophy may help).
Cambridge physicist and best-selling author, Stephen Hawking, takes the strong view: science can help us answer “why we are here and where we came from. … And the goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”4 That is, you should only believe what is scientifically testable or part of an accepted scientific theory. If a belief is not “scientific,” then it is meaningless or even false.
Scientism, particularly its strong form, is a worldview or philosophy of life that affirms two things: the material world is all that there is, and science is the (only) means of verifying truth claims. All claims of knowledge have to be scientifically verifiable; otherwise, they are meaningless.
We encounter scientism in the film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The kangaroo opposing Horton insists that life cannot exist on a tiny speck of dust. The reason he gives turns out to be the mantra of strong scientism: “If you cannot see, hear, or feel something, it does not exist!” This is a view Christians commonly encounter: “Can you prove it scientifically?”
What isscience? How should Christians respond to scientism — especially its strong form? Are God and science really opposed to each other?
What Is Science?
What is science? This is a tricky term to define, but we can put forward this working definition: Science the attempted objective study of the natural world/natural phenomena whose theories and explanations do not normally depart from the natural realm.5 Good science will study the natural world as objectively as possible (though, for whatever the reason, scientists do not always achieve this).
Furthermore, theories of/explanations for various natural processes or phenomena do not normallydepart from the natural world. This is where some will disagree, but the word normally allows for explanations outside of nature. For example, if God created the universe from nothing (think, Big Bang), then all naturalistic attempts to explain the universe’s beginning are ultimately doomed. Why is it scientifically immodest to suggest that the evidence points to something independent of the universe? If God created and designed the universe, then we could expect theology and science to intersect at critical points.
Problems With Scientism
In the classic story, A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley, appears in Scrooge’s home on Christmas Eve. Wondering what is going on, Scrooge at first refuses to believe a ghost is visiting. He tries to explain away his visitation by some purely naturalistic cause that has affected his senses:“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
But Scrooge cannot deny Marley’s presence any longer: “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
“Man of the worldly mind,” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” Scrooge is forced to admit. “I must. …”6
Within the walls of the academy are persons “of the worldly mind” who refuse to acknowledge anything nonphysical or supernatural. They claim that “science” enables us to understand all that is knowable. New York University philosopher Paul Horwich has written: “It is now widely believed that the sciences exhaust what can be known, and the promise of metaphysics [the study of ultimate reality] is an intellectually dangerous illusion.”7
Philosopher John Post claims that there cannot be a cause of the origin of the universe, since “by definition the universe contains everything there is or ever was or will be.”8 (This tactic called question-begging sets the boundaries of the conversation before it has begun.)
Centuries earlier, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76) scorned special revelation or nonnaturalistic explanations. Any volume of “divinity or school metaphysics” should be consigned to the flames since “it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”9 Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin insists that we must commit ourselves to an absolute materialism. Only “material causes” and “material explanations” are allowed. The reason he gives is this: “We cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”10 Indeed, many scientists and philosophers will claim that the world of reality is contained within the universe — end of story.
Though scientism is quite common, it is also problematic for several reasons. First, it is arbitrary. Horwich’s claim that the sciences exhaust what can be known is not the result of a widespread scientific observation; it is an arbitrary philosophical pronouncement, making the reality-claim that the physical world is the only reality there is, no questions asked. God, objective moral values, the soul, and free will — these are outside the realm of “science”; so they are not real. But why should we agree to this? After all, science does not have the capability of telling us whether free will, right and wrong, or the soul exists, yet these thinkers tell us that they just do not exist because science cannot “prove” them. It’s another one of those “because I said so” reasons.
There is another problem: Scientism is self-refuting. That is, the demand that “all truth claims must be scientifically verifiable to count as knowledge” cannot itself be empirically verified. It is a self-refuting view since it does not measure up to its own standards. The very articulation of the statement actually undermines the statement — like saying, “I cannot speak a word of English” or “I do not exist.”
Those who say “if you cannot scientifically prove something, then it is not true” are saying something that cannot be scientifically proven. In other words, how can you scientifically prove that all claims must be scientifically provable?
So we cannot validate science by appealing to science. Philosophers have severely discredited the notion that all genuine knowledge is scientifically verifiable, since this view is nothing more than an incoherent philosophical assumption.
Someone might ask: But is there not something important about checking out claims rather than believing just anything? Certainly. In fact, the Scriptures have a place for verifying and falsifying. We are called to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The New Testament graciously provides signs and wonders to encourage belief: “Though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38; cp. John 20:30,31). Jesus’ deeds give evidence to or offer empirical support for His authoritative claims.
The apostle Paul also claimed that if Christ was not bodily resurrected from the dead, then the Christian faith is worthless and pathetic (1 Corinthians 15:14,17,19). He suggests that if people could show that Christ has not been raised (say, by asking some of the 500 then-living witnesses about it), then they could falsify and undermine Christian faith. So far so good. The problem comes when we lean too heavily on criteria like verification or falsification. When we absolutize verification or falsification, they then cannot live up to their own demands. For example, how can we verify/falsify the demand that all truth claims must be verifiable/falsifiable?The standard itself cannot be verified/falsified.
A third problem with scientism is that any acceptable scientific approach must begin with unavoidable philosophical assumptions. Scientists take for granted certain unquestioned philosophical perspectives before their scientific research can get off the ground. What are some of these? Scientists tend to believe the following: (a) a physical, mind-independent world exists —it is not an illusion; (b) laws of logic are inescapable and necessary for scientific theorizing (as philosopher Dallas Willard notes: “Logical results have a universality and necessity to them which no inspection of facts can provide”);11 (c) the human mind can understand the natural world; (d) there are important criteria that make for a decent hypothesis; (e) nature is, generally speaking, uniform and therefore capable of being observed and studied; (f) what we observe in nature can provide clues and indicators of unobservable processes and patterns (e.g., unobservable subatomic particles); (g) we can trust our reasoning and sensory abilities, believing that they do not regularly deceive us. We do not prove these first; we assume them in doing science.
Are God and Science at Odds?
1. Warfare? The alleged warfare between science and belief in God is actually a relatively recent fabrication that historians of science today acknowledge. And if there has been conflict, it has been the result of incidental historical events, not because God and science inherently clash. After all, modern science came about through Bible-believers such as Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, Faraday, and so on. The biblical worldview — with its assumptions about the universe’s orderliness or the ability of the human mind to grasp the world — helped shape modern science. Noted physicist Paul Davies talks about the inescapable influence of theology on science — whether atheists acknowledge it or not: “Science began as an outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists … accept an essentially theological worldview.”12 And for all the fuss about Galileo, the controversy was more political and philosophical than scientific. He himself wrote in 1615 that “Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped.”
2. Evolution? What about the question of evolution? Dawkins defines biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”13 Another atheist biologist, Francis Crick, advised fellow biologists to “constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”14
Many claim that Charles Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis removed any need for a Creator. Not so. Toward the end of his Origin of Species (1859), he speaks of “laws impressed on matter by the Creator.” He goes on to affirm, “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” If evolution is true, then it turns out to support the idea of a Designer. If Dawkins and Crick detect apparent design in nature, then why think this is not genuine (divine) design? Evolution turns out to be a secondary question. The fundamental issue is not creation vs. evolution but God vs. no God.
No scientific discipline rules out God’s existence. The leading contender — biology — certainly does not. Neither does astronomy, chemistry, physics, or geology. So why think that stacking up all of these disciplines (totaling “Science” with a capital “S”) would therefore rule out God’s existence? It is hard to see how that leap could be made.
3. God of the gaps? It is not unusual for critics to bring up the “God of the gaps” argument. That is, when theists cannot explain something in nature, they will conveniently say, “God did it.” God plugs the gaps of our ignorance; but, as science continues to provide answers, God appears less and less relevant. In response, the believer needs to remember the following points. (a) This charge assumes a Deistic approach to nature (a detached God winds up the universe and lets it go), ignoring God’s/Christ’s continual sustenance of creation in its very being (Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:3) and being present within creation. The cosmos cannot get along just fine without God. God does not “intervene” so much as “act within” creation. (b) Believers should not insert “God did it” explanations for whatever they do not understand in nature (“God must have caused that chemical reaction”), but only when we have good theological or philosophical reasons for such “gaps” in nature.
We have theologically justified signs of God’s fingerprints in nature at various points: the initial creation and remarkable fine-tuning of the universe, the emergence of first life, the emergence of consciousness (whether animal or human), morally responsible humans having dignity and worth, the existence of abundant beauty in the world, and so on. (c) The explanatory power of God’s existence and action in the world could lead to more fruitful lines of scientific research and actually save time and money. If God created and designed the universe, then many naturalistic scientific explanations or scenarios will ultimately prove futile (e.g., trying to find a naturalistic explanation for the universe’s beginning). The “God hypothesis” will prove the more fruitful. (d) Two of the 20th-century’s greatest scientific discoveries — the universe’s beginning (Big Bang) and its delicately balanced, bio-friendly cosmic constants — actually invite God to fill an important explanatory gap. (e) Many naturalists complaining about the God-of-the-gaps are guilty of an opposite and equal reaction — a naturalism of the gaps. They assume: “One day (naturalistic) science will give us the answer to our questions.” Ironically, many naturalists tell believers who find evidences for God’s existence in nature, “Science is always changing; we have to be careful about drawing positive theological conclusions from it.” But their naturalism-of-the-gaps implies so great a confidence in scientism that ultimately no evidence for God can ever emerge, no matter how strong. But should we not be open to looking for the best explanation, not simply the best naturalistic explanation?
We have good reason for taking seriously the intersecting of God and science. If the self-revealing, creating, designing triune God exists, then integration of theology and science is not only possible; it is essential.
Even though a Christian does not have a science background, he can still discuss important philosophical and theological issues with nonbelievers having this background. For example, the universe began to exist from no pre-existing matter or energy a finite time ago. (The evidence for this includes an expanding universe and the fact the universe is winding down — i.e., energy is dissipating.) This implies that something independent of the universe exists, which means that science simply cannot explain everything about reality. We can also point out some of the philosophical assumptions unbelieving scientists make even before their scientific work can get started: Why think the universe should be rational, understandable to human minds, and remarkably biofriendly?
The following article on the “days” of Genesis 1,2 can help believers interact with those who have a scientific background. To read this article, visit: http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/revised-genesis-science.pdf.
Ask yourself, what are the implications of interpreting the “days” of Genesis as possibly something different from 24-hour days? How might this interpretive flexibility be helpful in communicating with the scientifically minded unbeliever?
For further reading on God and science,see the relevant chapters in my books: When God Goes to Starbucks, That’s Just Your Interpretation (Baker); How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? (Baker), andLoving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (Chalice).
1. C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures,” in Timothy Ferris, ed., The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1991), 742.
2. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: BasicBooks, 1995), 33.
3. See Richard Lewontin’s article “Billions and Billions of Demons,” New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997, 28–32, from which this quotation is taken.
4. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), 13.
5. Del Ratzsch, Philosophy of Science (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 15.
6. Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. URL: http://www.classicbookshelf.com/library/charles_dickens/a_christmas_carol/0/.
7. Paul Horwich, Review of J.R. Lucas, The Future, in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (1993): 579.
8. John Post, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Paragon House, 1991), 85.
9. David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951 repr.) 7.3, 165.
10. Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” 28,31.
11. Dallas Willard, “Space, Color, Sense Perception and the Epistemology of Logic,” in Monist 72 (Jan. 1989): 122.
12. Paul Davies, Are We Alone? (New York: Basic, 1995), 96.
13. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986), 1.
14. Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit (New York: BasicBooks, 1988), 138.