Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Theology of Science, Part II

Any system of thought requires certain axioms, or presuppositions, which cannot be proven within that system. Last time we saw that science originally rested on a set of presuppositions that arose from the Christian worldview. God is a personal, rational Being. He is the Creator of all things. We were created in his image as personal, rational beings. From this picture emerges the idea that nature is something which can be studied and understood by rational processes without fear of God’s wrath. Natural events can be described and predicted by natural laws which were ordained by the Creator. He pronounced his creation good and commanded us to exercise dominion over it, so he is pleased when we learn to understand and manipulate it.

These ideas about nature have been so thoroughly integrated into Western thought that few are aware of their Christian origins, or that there are other ways to look at the world. But about two hundred years ago a very different presupposition took root in science: everything that happens is presumed to have a purely natural cause which can, in principle, be explained scientifically. In other words, there is no such thing as a miracle. This is called methodological materialism.

It is important to realize that methodological materialism is an assumption. Popular opinion has it that science has proven miracles don’t happen, but the truth is just the opposite: science assumes miracles don’t happen. This assumption is so deeply entrenched among secular scientists today that most would say science is, by definition, the search for purely natural causes of every phenomenon. But this need not be how science is defined, and for most of the history of modern science it was not defined this way. This is not a small matter, because if our assumptions are wrong our conclusions will be wrong.

What is almost always completely overlooked is that methodological materialism is a purely theological concept. It is more a statement about the nature of God than about the nature of the universe. It says that God, if he exists, has never intervened in our world in any significant way. It should be obvious that if there actually is a God who has intervened in nature then methodological materialism will yield the wrong conclusions. The more striking the Divine intervention is, the more striking the error.

I am not saying that methodological materialism is always a bad assumption in every situation. Its applicability is directly proportional to our confidence that God will not somehow intervene and skew the results. In many cases we can be quite confident about that. For instance, even if you believe that God still works miracles to heal the sick, it seems likely this does not occur with sufficient frequency to skew cancer mortality statistics. And in the laboratory, scientists can readily repeat an experiment many times to verify the result, so one can be confident no miracle has occurred.

On the other hand, in the historical sciences such as geology, cosmology and evolutionary biology there is no way to repeat the experiment. We were not there to observe the past events we study. We have only the physical evidence which remains. In this situation the scientist must extrapolate backward using the physical laws we observe today. This extrapolation is based on the assumption that God has not intervened significantly in those events. I believe this assumption is completely unwarranted when extended all the way back to the origin of the world. Naturally, this belief is based on my own theological and philosophical understanding. An atheist would disagree. But that is a religious dispute, not a scientific one, and must be approached as such.

It is clear that science and religion are not separate spheres of human knowledge and thought. In fact, they are inseparably linked. Scientists must make explicit assumptions about religion in order to pursue their study of the natural world. These assumptions are not arbitrary. If they are wrong then the conclusions drawn from them may be profoundly wrong. There will always be a faith perspective implicit in the pursuit of science, especially in the historical sciences.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Theology of Science

Creationists are fond of saying that evolution requires just as much faith to believe as creation. I don’t need to tell you how much scorn is heaped on such statements by evolutionists. I think creationists miss the point with this remark because secular scientists try very hard to be guided only by the evidence. On the other hand, I think many scientists fail to realize the extent to which science depends on a set of philosophical assumptions that are themselves unprovable scientifically. These include the idea that nature is objectively real, that it exhibits a dependable regularity, that it is understandable to the human mind, that it is worth investigating, and that it is accessible by the human senses. These ideas must exist prior to science and are the foundation on which it stands.

Logical deduction proceeds from premises to conclusions. There must always be a starting point which is not proved but simply assumed. Naturally, these axioms must be well chosen because the entire system depends on them being true. Since axioms cannot be proven, the best ones will be obviously true. The problem is that what seems obviously true to us is strongly influenced by the culture in which we were raised.

Modern science first arose in Christian Europe in the late Middle Ages. Those who study the history of science are in fair agreement that this was no accident. The Christian worldview provided the philosophical and theological framework for the scientific method. Pantheists (e.g., Buddhists and Hindus) believe that the Universe and God are one. Everything is part of the Divine. Individuality is an illusion. The material world is an illusion. In this view the workings of the world are mysterious. There is no expectation that they would be subject to logical analysis and experimentation. The spirits which inhabit rocks and trees and lightning might not appreciate our meddling in their affairs. Furthermore, pantheists see the Universe as eternal and all history as an endless cycle. Nothing ever really changes; there is no sense of progress in history or culture. There is only the individual quest to achieve Nirvana (extinction of self through oneness with the Divine) through countless cycles of death and rebirth.

Christianity is quite different. God is the Creator and he is separate from his creation. Since creation is not divine, it is not blasphemous to seek to understand and manipulate it. God has in fact commanded us to exercise dominion over his creation (Gen. 1:28). This world that God created had a beginning and will have an end. Therefore history is progressing toward a goal and the choices we make affect that future. Furthermore, since the Creator of all things is a personal, rational Being and we are made in his image, we can expect that creation is both orderly and understandable to us. Since we are finite we would not expect to completely comprehend all that God has made, but we trust that he has given us the faculties to carry out his dominion mandate. It is this Christian worldview that gave birth to modern science and nurtured it for centuries.

Ironically, about two hundred years ago the idea arose that science can stand completely on its own. Science has been so successful as a means of understanding and controlling the world around us that it is now seen as self-justifying. The Christian view of creation has been so thoroughly incorporated into scientific thinking that its origins are no longer recognized. But every building must rest on a firm foundation, and every system of thought must rest on a set of presuppositions that cannot be proven within that system. Science is no different. It rests on a set of assumptions that are philosophical and theological, not scientific. They arise naturally from a Christian worldview.

Of course, assumptions such as the regularity and rationality of nature are not particularly controversial. As I said earlier, these ideas have been so thoroughly adopted in Western culture we tend not even to realize there are other ways of looking at the world. But the secularization of science in the past two centuries has seen the introduction of another presupposition that is still controversial in some quarters. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mind vs. Matter

We’ve been talking lately about the Apostle Paul’s contention that Creation reveals the existence of God. In my previous post I argued that the existence of the universe and the existence of life are both good reasons to believe in God. Now I want to talk about another reason to believe in God that I find even more compelling, although it is much more subtle and easy to miss. This evidence can be seen by looking inward: the fact that I exist as a thinking, feeling, volitional and self-aware being. To paraphrase Descartes, “I think, therefore God is.” Cogito, ergo Deus est.

I mentioned earlier that we are so steeped in the secular scientific worldview we can look right at the evidence and not see it. But scientific naturalism, the philosophy of secular science, has a huge problem. It requires us to suppose that all our thoughts, ideas, feelings and choices are just an illusion. What’s real is the intricate arrangement of molecules in my brain interacting in complex, but purely deterministic ways. You and I, as individuals, don’t really exist. The life of mind is an illusion. We are nothing but chemistry. A temporary pattern of atoms that evolves and persists for a few years, then dissipates.

If you grew up going to public school, or watching PBS and Discovery Channel, or reading National Geographic, you’re probably saying right now, “So what?” You’re so used to this worldview being stated as fact that you can’t see what a breathtaking leap beyond the evidence it is. But stop and think about this for a moment. The most real, persistent, and intimate experience of reality I have is my own thoughts and feelings. When I talk about “I” it is not usually my protoplasm I’m referring to; it’s my mind. I experience this inner self in a different way than I experience anyone or anything else in the world. Everything else I experience through my senses as they respond to physical stimuli. But my mind is something different altogether. It is self-aware. It seems, at least, to have an independent existence apart from neural substrate that supports it.

Neural scientists are excited today because they feel they are finally beginning to “unlock the secrets of the mind” – to gain some insight into how physical brain function relates to mental processes. But just because a certain part of your brain lights up when you experience anger doesn’t give me any insight into what anger is. Even if I knew every tiny detail of what happens electrochemically inside your skull when you get angry, it would tell me nothing about how you feel. I only understand what anger is because I experience it myself in my own mind. It may correlate with certain brain activity. You may even be able to provoke me to anger by stimulating a certain part of my brain. But I believe it is a category mistake to talk about this mental feeling we call anger as being equivalent to the physical processes of the brain.

In a similar way, we all know what it is like to make a decision. We make decisions almost continuously every day. But the scientific naturalist must insist that my sense of free will is an illusion. Consider also our sense of right and wrong. If I am nothing but a deterministic physical system, then morality is just another illusion. The physical laws that govern the biochemical processes of my body are deterministic. There is nothing intrinsically different in applying those laws to my brain chemistry compared to a high school chemistry experiment.

What I am trying to help you understand is how utterly counterintuitive it is to suggest that our thoughts, our feelings, and our choices are an illusion. Some would argue that our intuition is simply wrong. It is true, of course, that science has discovered many counterintuitive theories, such as relativity and quantum mechanics. It’s easy to see how our intuition can be wrong when it comes to physical realms far outside our experience. When it comes to a theory of mind, however, we are all intimately familiar with the data.

But this theory is not just counterintuitive, it is illogical as well. It’s fine for me to contemplate the possibility that your mind is an illusion. But it is self-refuting for me to contemplate the idea that my own mind is an illusion. The problem is that we have been so completely indoctrinated into scientific naturalism that we fail to see the contradiction.

How does this relate to the existence of God? The connection is this: physical processes can only give rise to other physical processes. But my mind is a different type of thing, and it must arise from something different than a physical process. The source of my existence is a personal Creator God, who made me in his image as a thinking, feeling, self-aware and morally responsible being.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Hath God Wrought?

In my last post I talked about Paul’s famous statement in Romans that unbelievers are “without excuse” because God’s eternal power and divine nature can be clearly seen from looking at his Creation. The evidence for God is right before our eyes, so that he is justified in condemning us for rejecting him.

But some will object that we simply see what we want to see. You and I are watching a beautiful sunset. I believe in God; I see God’s glory in the sunset. You don’t believe in God; you see Nature’s glory. So how does nature prove God exists?

The short answer is, it doesn’t. If you’re looking for an airtight mathematical proof you will be disappointed, because we’re not dealing with mathematical concepts here. Very few things are actually provable in a formal, mathematical sense. Yet, there are still good reasons to believe in God.

The first reason is simply the fact that the universe exists at all. There is no reason to believe that the universe has to exist, but it obviously does. It makes sense that there would be a being whose existence is necessary, eternal and unchanging to explain the existence of a universe that is contingent, temporal and mutable.

An entire discipline of science, called cosmology, is devoted to studying the origins of the universe. It is fascinating that despite the triumph of secularism in academia, modern cosmologists came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the universe has not always existed and is in the process of “winding down” over the eons. This very inconvenient truth has caused many scientists to work hard at finding a new theory to avoid this conclusion. But to date there is absolutely no evidence for any of these new theories. The motivation for many of these scientists is pretty transparently to avoid the theistic implications of the current theory.

Another good reason to believe in God is the existence of life. There is currently no good scientific theory of abiogenesis, or how life formed from non-living matter by purely natural processes. You will no doubt caution me to avoid a “God of the gaps” mistake. Just because no good theory exists today doesn’t mean we won’t find one in the future. While that’s certainly true, in this case the gap appears to be pretty formidable.

The problem is that random processes would take essentially forever to produce something as complex as a single living cell. The simplest bacterium has about 500 genes. This is far less than humans or fruit flies, but it’s still a dern sight more than the goo at the bottom of Stanley Miller’s Erlenmeyer flask. Evolution doesn’t help you bridge this gap because mutation and natural selection can’t happen until a self-replicating organism exists on which they can operate.

Just as some scientists are busy looking for a new cosmology that avoids the need for a Creator, others are energetically seeking to prove that life will form spontaneously wherever the appropriate conditions exist. It may surprise you to learn that this is one of the main motivations and justifications for the U.S. space program. NASA spends billions of dollars looking for evidence of life, or even complex organic chemicals, in our solar system and beyond. That is the main goal of all the recent robotic probes and landers we have sent to Mars.

The irony is that, even if we find evidence of life on another world, it really doesn’t prove anything about whether God created life or it developed by natural processes. We would still be lacking a good theory to explain how you can get from a prebiotic soup of amino acids to a living organism without the intervention of deity.

There is yet another reason to believe in God that I find even more compelling than these two, but I will save that discussion for my next post.