Puritan Gems

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Science And Wisdom Part III

Natural Law: Providence Or Brute Fact?
"...he upholds the universe by the word of his power..." (Hebrews 1:3)
The "laws of nature" seem to be so consistent and universal that we tend to take them for granted.  When driving our vehicles, we don't stop and wonder if the laws of fluid dynamics and friction that caused our brakes to slow down and stop our cars in the past will still operate in the same manner the next time we need to stop.  Due to our oblivious approach to nature and our consideration of it's laws as merely brute fact, we seldom reflect upon the basis for such laws, or in the manner in which they are "discovered".  In addition, the idea of a miraculous event in which one of these laws could be changed or suspended goes against the tide of everyday observation.  Consider David Hume's objection to miraculous events.
"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as could possibly be imagined." (David Hume - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Of Miracles, Part I, 12)
This is the next point in which there is a considerable metaphysical distinction between the Christian and the Naturalistic worldview.  Naturalism not only tends to view the laws of nature as purely mechanical, but as brute facts that existed before and outside of the created order.
"Ignorance of nature’s ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life....with Thales of Miletus (ca. 624 BC– ca. 546 BC) about 2,600 years ago, that began to change. The idea arose that nature follows consistent principles that could be deciphered. And so began the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of gods with the concept of a universe that is governed by laws of nature, and created according to a blueprint we could someday learn to read." (Stephen Hawking - "The Grand Design", pp.86-92)
Hawking never explores the underlying basis for the "consistent principles" that nature follows, nor does he seek to explain how they "could be deciphered" given his view of the nature and origins of the human mind.  For the naturalist, these types of questions don't seem to matter.  Metaphysical discussions are to be avoided in science at all costs.  Yet these are very the points that Albert Einstein, himself no friend of Christianity, referred to as the "weakness of positivists and professional atheists".
"You may find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world to the degree that we may speak of such comprehensibility as a miracle or an eternal mystery. Well, a priori one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be in any way grasped through thought... The kind of order created, for example, by Newton's theory of gravity is of quite a different kind. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by a human being, the success of such an enterprise presupposes an order in the objective world of a high degree, which one has no a priori right to expect. That is the miracle which grows increasingly persuasive with the increasing development of knowledge." (Albert Einstein, 1956, Lettres a Maurice Solovine).
Oddly enough, it was Hume himself who undermined any sort of inductive reasoning by concluding that "causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by experience", since we have no way of proving that the future will be like the past.
“...all the laws of nature, and all the operations of bodies without exception, are known only by experience… The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it… Why then should we give the preference to one [effect], which is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us any foundation for this preference.  In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary. And even after it is suggested, the conjunction of it with the cause must appear equally arbitrary; since there are always many other effects, which, to reason, must seem fully as consistent and natural. In vain, therefore, should we pretend to determine any single event, or infer any cause or effect, without the assistance of observation and experience.” (David Hume - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: Sceptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding, Part I, 9)
This is an insurmountable obstacle for the naturalist, since induction is an a priori requirement for the establishment of any universal law, and induction assumes nature to be uniform. But on what basis will an atheist make such an assumption?  Empiricism cannot account for inference, since any establishment of a universal law in an empiricist’s worldview would require universal sense experience. Omniscience can only be attributed to God, and our understanding of inference can only be revealed to us by an omniscient and omnipotent God.  Without God’s creative attributes and his providence, natural laws would be impossible, not to mention the ability of the human mind to comprehend such laws. Thus we must conclude that materialism has no basis for proving a natural law to be valid, much less provide a rational argument against miracles.  The fact that scientists use inference without hesitation is proof that they know God and his attributes.
"Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word!" (Psalm 148:3-8).
All to often, Christians tend to view the laws of nature in the same way, as an independent mechanism set up by God in which He occasionally intervenes in order to perform a "miracle".  Such a view establishes a false dualism between the natural and supernatural worlds.  Scripture teaches no such distinction between the natural and supernatural worlds, nor does it allow for any part of the created order to operate outside of God's Providence.  God establishes "ordinances of the heavens" and "rule on the earth" (Job 38:33), and upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:3).  He decrees seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, (Genesis 8:22; Jeremiah 31:35-36; Psalm 74:16-17), makes his sun rise and sends rain (Matthew 5:45).  He makes Himself clearly known by the created order (Romans 1:20).  God sovereignly rules over the visible and invisible realms of creation as "...he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth;" (Daniel 4:35).  "...In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

It is God's creative attributes and Providence that give the laws of nature their law-like character.  The laws of nature are not simply mechanistic forces that operate outside of God's domain, but are an outworking of His sovereign rule.  Thus a miracle is merely an act of God which differs normal human experience, but is no more irrational than the laws of nature themselves.  Physicist and popular science writer Paul Davies offers this observation:
"In the ensuing three hundred years the theological dimension of science faded. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature – the laws of physics – are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview."
The laws of nature, and thus science itself, are dependent upon the creative attribute and Providence of the Christian God.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Science and Wisdom Part II

Natural Revelation

“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalms 19:1)

Natural revelation is the way in which God has made himself known to all men, without exception.  As was established earlier, all men know God.  This is proven as a matter of common observation.  All men live and breathe and have their being in God's universe (Acts 17:28), and as such, cannot even function without acknowledging Him in some way.  God's invisible attributes and eternal power are clearly seen in the created order (Romans 1:20).

Natural revelation serves two purposes. For the saint, it serves to build faith and produce an attitude of worship.  Who can miss the wonder of a sunset over a watery horizon, the vastness of the universe, or the intricate design of the human body?  For the nonbeliever, however, natural revelation renders men to be "without excuse", and that is essentially all that it does.  Man, in his fallen state, is unable to acquire sufficient knowledge of God unto salvation through natural revelation.

The metaphysical conflicts between the Christian and the non-Christian worldviews begin with this fundamental disagreement concerning man's natural state.  Regardless of what version of unbelief one may adopt, it will be based on the assumption that the human mind is autonomous, that it can function outside the creative attributes and providence of God, and that man is basically OK in his current condition.  The Christian, on the other hand, sees man as a fallen creature, and sees the world, his mind, and everything that exists as being totally dependent on God.  This has obvious bearings upon how science is approached, as well as how one deals with "evidence".  The fact that science itself is dependent on God's natural revelation cannot be dismissed, and thus the approach to science will be contingent upon one's metaphysical worldview.

Unfortunately, the naturalistic worldview has become the default for many scientists today, even for those who profess Christ.  God is often seen as another hypothesis by which our infallible minds may or may not justify.  Indeed, there is something attractive about using "scientific apologetics" to defend the faith.  Just a cursory glance at the natural world shows overwhelming evidence for design.  Consider the impressive display of order in the human body, the solar system, the cell, etc.

As obvious as this is without even digging into science, it becomes even more impressive when we do.  There is an astounding amount of scientific evidence that the universe that we live in was purposed for human life.  Physicists refer to this as The Strong Anthropic Principle.  Volumes of material have been written, and continue to be written, on the amazing precision to which so many properties of our universe have been fined tuned, such that even the minutest deviation in any of these properties would make the universe uninhabitable for life as we know it. (See "Design And The Anthropic Principle").

“Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth - the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient "coincidences" and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal. Fred Hoyle, the distinguished cosmologist, once said it was as if "a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics". - physicist Paul Davies (cited in David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion).

As impressive as this evidence is, it is a mistake to assume that unbelief is the result of a lack of information about the natural world.  In fact, the unbeliever has the same evidence for God as the believer has.  Per Romans 1:18, the unbeliever suppresses the truth, not in ignorance, but in unrighteousness.  His problem is not intellectual, it is ethical.  In rebellion against God, the unbeliever has adopted a position of intellectual autonomy, and needs to acquire a new way of thinking, subjecting himself to the commandment to love God with his mind (Luke10:27) through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.  In short, science, particularly in a materialistic worldview, cannot provide any useful knowledge of God unto salvation.

This is due to the fact that natural revelation has built in limitations when it comes to persuading fallen men.  Well meaning scientific apologists often fail to understand the supernatural basis for salvation.  Unbelievers already know God through natural revelation (Romans 1:18-22), and yet do not have a knowledge of God sufficient for conversion (1 Corinthians 2:14).  By adopting a naturalistic worldview, the evidential apologist implicitly denies the Lordship of Christ over the human mind.  This approach is disobedient to God's commandment for apologists to "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy" (1 Peter 3:15), even if one were to somehow vindicate God in the process.  The man-made construct of "science" simply has no authority to rule on the subject of God.

Finally, appealing to "science" in order to prove God’s existence to the unbeliever results in the inability to prove anything.  Instead, we are left with what unbelievers refer to as the“God of the Gaps” fallacy – ie., using God as a stop gap for what we otherwise cannot explain given strict materialistic presuppositions.  Dietrich Bonheoffer pointed out the biggest problem with the “God of the Gaps” approach to apologetics:

" wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know.“ (Dietrich Bonheoffer - Letters and papers from Prison 1997, p. 311)

What then, is the correct approach to the scientifically literate unbeliever?  Instead of trying to justify God via science, we need to point out that science cannot be justified apart from God, who is the ultimate standard of truth and knowledge.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Science And Wisdom Part I


The role of science and technology in modern life, particularly in western culture, cannot be slighted.  Science has changed (and keeps changing) virtually every facet of our lives, from entertainment to national defense.  Even the way we "socialize" today has been altered, be it for good or for bad, by technological advances brought about by science.  It should come as no surprise that science has earned highest regard among the disciplines, even by those who have little knowledge of or care about science themselves, but would rather just reap the benefits. 

Science is the one discipline today that seems to be seen as a safe-haven for unbelief.  Due to the advances brought about by science, it is tempting for many to demand a blind adherence to a strictly materialistic worldview.  After all, if science has the answers to how the universe operates, what need is there of any other discipline?  Would we not expect science to to provide an answer to any conceivable issue?  Some materialists have suggested such.

Bertrand Russell stated that, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”  Oxford Professor Peter Atkins reiterates Russell's point. “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.”  Atkins adds, “There is certainly no justification for asserting that the powers of science are circumscribed and that beyond the boundary the only recourse to comprehension is God.” (Chemistry and Industry - January 20 1997).  Not to be outdone, mathematician Karl Pearson explains that "...modern science does much more than demand that it shall be left in undisturbed possession of what the theologian and metaphysician please to term its 'legitimate field'. It claims that the whole range of phenomena, mental as well as physical-the entire universe-is its field. It asserts that the scientific method is the sole gateway to the whole region of knowledge." (The Grammar of Science (1892), 29-30.)

The case is clear.  Advocates of materialism want more than just to have science be a useful tool to tell us about the world we live in.  For them, science is absolute in its authority and unlimited in its scope.  It is the "sole gateway to the whole region of knowledge" and any challenge to strict materialism must be impugned and placed in the category of mythology.  There can be no room for Divine Revelation.  One of the most brazen admissions concerning the metaphysical commitment to materialism can be found in this statement by Biologist Richard Lewontin.

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a priori commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” (Richard Lewontin, “Billions and billions of demons,” The New York Review (January 9, 1997), 31.)

Of all the criticisms leveled against Christendom today, the charge of being "unscientific" seems to invoke more dread than any other.  Does science have the absolute final word to all truth claims?  If one were, for the sake of argument, accept materialistic presuppositions, a hosts of questions naturally arise.  A brief glance at the history of science shows that a variety of scientific paradigms have existed in past ages.  If science demands absolute authority, we need to decide which paradigm should be granted such authority.  Would it be Aristotle's Dynamics, Newton's Mechanism, Einstein's Relativity, Modern Quantum Theory, or the next scientific revolution that is sure to take place within the next 200 years?  In attempting to answer that question, we are faced with what is referred to as the Demarcation Problem.  What do we accept as scientific truth, and what is myth?

"If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.  If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today."  (Thomas Kuhn - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 2)

If the scientific method can produce either myth or contradictory beliefs, then what are we to make of this "sole gateway to the whole region of knowledge"? One may object to this problem by suggesting that science is "self-correcting", but not only does that not solve the problem, it introduces a whole new set of problems.  For one, how can one verify that something is "self-correcting" without some standard of truth by which to compare it?  Moreover, something that is constantly "self-correcting" must needs also be constantly false.  That which is true needs no correction.

In addition to the fact that science seems to change paradigms quite often, more foundational issues arise.  Can science operate in any type of worldview? If not, what are the metaphysical requirements needed for science to function?  Can science itself be justified among those who demand human autonomy in terms of natural reason or materialism?  What exactly are the laws of nature?  Are they universal?  Are scientific laws "discovered" or are they "selected"?  What type of role, if any, does science plays in establishing truth?  And what of the scientific method itself?  Is it really "the sole gateway to the whole region of knowledge", or merely a useful tool?  Can it really prove anything as being objectively true?  And most important of all, what, if anything, does science have to say about God?