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.


Rob said...

The idea that truth is based on an assumption I make is very disturbing. I know that's not quite what you're saying, but perhaps that's the reason we want science to be based on something proven not assumed.

I intellectually accept the notion that every system of reasoning must start from some unprovable assumption. I'm repelled by the idea that what I believe to be "Truth" might be derived from such a thing.

How can I be sure of anything if truth comes from some arbitrarily assumed basis?

Bill Hensley said...

Well, you're right, I wasn't exactly claiming that all truth is based on an assumption. If you start with some things you know are true, reason can help you uncover other things that are true. But where does the initial deposit of truth come from? Does everything have to be proven to us before we know it is true?

There are a couple of possibilities. Knowledge might be inborn. Or it might be received as revelation from God. But in practice much of what we "know" we simply receive by authority. Based on context and prior experience we judge certain sources to be reliable.

In the particular topic at hand, I would say that the fundamental truths on which science was originally based were received by revelation: the Bible. Today most people, especially secular scientists, would argue pragmatically that science is true because it works. I don't find pragmatism very satisfying intellectually, because the fact that something works seems a necessary but not sufficient reason for believing it is true. On the other hand, you can turn the argument around and say that the stunning success of modern science in understanding and manipulating material things is a pragmatic argument for the truth of the Christian doctrines on which it is based.