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Why science needs God: Analyzing the religion and science conflict

Photo: Unsplash/Alexander Andrews
Photo: Unsplash/Alexander Andrews | Photo: Unsplash/Alexander Andrews

As our culture becomes more secularized it has become fashionable to see “science” as one of the engines of this secularization.  As science advances, religion must retreat—so the theory goes.  This viewpoint draws much of its continuing inspiration from two books in the late nineteenth century.  John William Draper wrote History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874 and Andrew Dickson White penned A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in 1896.  Both books came to exemplify what became known as the “warfare thesis” in the history of the relationship between science and religion.  Contemporary historians recognize that the “warfare thesis” is much too simplistic and that Draper and White’s arguments are not well supported.

“Today historians of science generally no longer favor a conflict model.  Colin Russell, formerly the president of Christians in Science, criticized the conflict model noting that, ‘Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study.  The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship’.”

Although the “warfare thesis” has suffered at the hands of historians who recognize a more interactive approach, the view continues to find expression in our culture.  Since this is the case it may be prudent to consider more fully another way of challenging this thesis.

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Naturalism: Definition and Challenges

For many the pursuit of science is thought to require a belief in naturalism.  Naturalism can be defined in various ways but atheistic philosopher Kai Nielson captures the main core of naturalism in the following manner:

“Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no good ground for believing that there could be such realities… It is the view that anything that exists is ultimately composed of physical components.”

Naturalism, as a worldview, is not without its own philosophical difficulties.  In its denial of any supernatural reality and its affirmation of the merely physical naturalism has difficulty accounting for objective morality and ultimate meaning in life.  For those who are more convinced of objective moral realism and ultimate meaning in life these items become reason to reject naturalism.  However, some naturalists are simply willing to jettison objective morality and meaning as a necessary consequence of their belief in naturalism.  The late William Provine of Cornell never tired of speaking of this reality.  He argued, “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exist; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.”  Philosophers Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg come to the same conclusions:

“Darwinism thus puts the capstone on a process which since Newton’s time has driven teleology to the explanatory sidelines. In short it has made Darwinians into metaphysical nihilists denying that there is any meaning or purpose to the universe its contents and its cosmic history. But in making Darwinians into metaphysical nihilists, the solvent algorithm [random variation acted on by natural selection--rjk] should have made them into ethical nihilists too. For intrinsic values and obligations make sense only against the background of purposes, goals, and ends which are not merely instrumental.”

If the reasoning of these thinkers is to be accepted then it seems as if a naturalistic pursuit of science leads to the loss of both morality and meaning—at least in any objective sense.  But what if naturalism entails the loss of something more?  What if naturalism leads to the undermining of the scientific enterprise itself?

Proverbs 21.22 elegantly states, “A wise man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust.”  Those who would scale the walls of the secular city must bring down the stronghold of science in which they trust.  This is done by showing that on the basis of the naturalistic worldview science is problematic.  In short, naturalism cannot account for science itself.

Naturalism, Science, and Scientism

In attempting to show the incompatibility of naturalism and science there are two related issues to consider.  Since naturalism’s approach to science seems to entail a version of “scientism,” the first thesis to consider is that scientism is fundamentally irrational.  Second, it can be shown that science itself rests upon philosophical commitments that do not comport well with naturalism.

In his book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, J. P. Moreland articulates and, then, critiques two versions of scientism.

Strong Scientism: “Strong scientism claims that some proposition is true and/or rational to believe if and only if it is a well-established scientific proposition—that is, if and only if it is a well-established scientific proposition that, in turn depends on its having been successfully formed, tested, and used according to appropriate scientific methodology.  There are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.”

Weak Scientism: “Advocates of weak scientism allow for truths apart from science and even grant that they have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science.  But those advocates still hold that science is the most authoritative sector of human learning.  Every other intellectual activity is inferior to science.  Further, there are virtually no limits to science.  There is no field into which scientific research cannot shed light.  To the degree that some issue outside science can be given scientific support or can be reduced to science, to that degree the issue becomes rationally acceptable.”

It is not hard to find scientists and philosophers who operate with some version of scientism.  Consider this short litany of quotations as illustrative of scientism:

“The great questions—‘Who are we?’ ‘Where did we come from?’ Why are we here?’—can be answered only, if ever, in the light of scientifically based evolutionary thought.”    —E. O. Wilson

“A Darwinian fundamentalist is one who recognizes that either you shun Darwinian evolution altogether, or you turn the traditional universe upside down and you accept that mind, meaning, and purpose are not the cause but the fairly recent effects of the mechanistic mill of Darwinian algorithms.  Many have tried to find a compromise position [but]… [i]t cannot be done.”  —Daniel Dennett

“We seem to be reaching a point at which science can wrest morality from the hands of the philosophers.”    —Frans de Waal

All the above are examples of philosophical commitments masquerading as empirical science.  As J. Daryl Charles notes, “Seemingly at work here are distinctly metaphysical—over against strictly physical or material—assumptions, which, nevertheless, are touted as science.”  Charles goes on to conclude:

“[O]ne is justified, I think, in questioning whether individuals in the hard sciences, where theories and hypotheses are measured and tested on the basis of empirical evidence, should be making moral-philosophical and metaethical claims.  Is this really science?  What is particularly questionable is to extrapolate from the physical realm and make authoritative metaphysical pronouncements about material and nonmaterial reality and to do so in the name of science.”

So when Charles asks, “Is this really science?” the answer is “no.”  This is scientism—and scientism has some very big problems.

Problems with Scientism

Strong scientism can be briefly summarized in this way: Only scientific assertions can be true and known.  But this overly stringent conception of scientism is actually self-contradictory.  The claim of strong scientism is not open to scientific verification or falsification.  It is a philosophical claim; not an empirical, scientific claim.  As J. P. Moreland argues,

“The irony is that strong scientism is a philosophical statement expressing an epistemological viewpoint about science; it is not a statement of science, like ‘water is H2O’ or ‘cats are mammals.’  Strong scientism is a philosophical assertion that claims that philosophical assertions are neither true nor can be known; only scientific assertions can be true and known.”

Strong scientism is, in more technical language, “self-referentially incoherent” and cannot possibly be true.

Weak scientism fares no better.  Advocates of weak scientism assume that science is “the most authoritative sector of human learning.”  But this is to implicitly deny the intellectual integrity of other fields of knowledge.  Moreland succinctly states the objection:

“In sum, the first problem with weak (and strong) scientism is that it diminishes the intellectual authority of other important fields, especially biblical studies and theology.  This is not because the arguments are better, but simply because it is assumed that science by definition has more plausibility and inherent authority.”

In chapter seven of Scientism and Secularism—“The Availability of Nonscientific Knowledge”—Moreland examines three areas in which one is rationally justified in affirming propositions without scientific support.  These three areas are: (1) the rational certainty of the laws of logic and mathematics, (2) the greater epistemic authority for knowledge one’s own conscious states, and (3) the greater epistemic weight of self-evident moral claims.  Indeed, according to Moreland, these areas are actually more certain as knowledge claims than scientific ones.  Moreland is, thus, able to conclude, “These points individually, but especially collectively, show that the claims of scientism are simply false.”

Thus, both strong and weak scientism fail.  Furthermore, both versions fail to properly note that the scientific endeavor rests upon philosophical assumptions and that the conclusions of science can only be as certain as those assumptions.  In fact, the philosophical assumptions needed for science do not fit well within a naturalistic framework but, rather, make more sense in a theistic context.

The Presuppositions of Science and Worldview Analysis

Consider just a few of the philosophical presuppositions upon which science relies.  Moreland offers the following list of presuppositions that are utilized by scientists to undergird the scientific methodology.

  1. The existence of the external world.
  2. The orderly nature of the external world and its knowability.
  3. The uniformity of nature and induction.
  4. The laws of logic, epistemology, and truth.
  5. The reliability of the senses and the mind.
  6. The adequacy of language to describe the world.
  7. The applicability of mathematics and the existence of numbers.
  8. The existence of values.

In light of these fundamental philosophical presuppositions needed by science the question becomes, “Which worldview best makes sense of these presuppositions?”  In other words, can naturalism provide the preconditions needed to account for these philosophical presuppositions or does a theistic worldview provide a better answer?  Moreland argues that theism with its transcendent God provides a better explanatory context.

“The nature of the assumptions of science do not prove the existence of a God very much like the God of the Bible, but in my view, they provide reasons for preferring theism over scientistic naturalism.  The assumptions are at home in a theistic worldview; they fit quite naturally.  If God is himself a rational being, then it stands to reason that he would create a rational, orderly universe.  If he created us, then it naturally follows that he would give us the proper faculties to know and appreciate the inner workings of his world by ‘thinking his thoughts after him.’  The existence of objective values makes far more sense if there is an objective Lawgiver than if there is not.

“If we begin with ‘In the beginning there was the Logos,’ then we have reasonable explanations for these assumptions.  But if we begin with “In the beginning were the particles (or plasma, strings, etc.),’ it is hard to see how these assumptions could have obtained.”

It is, therefore, argued that science rests upon philosophical assumptions and those assumptions fit more adequately in a theistic context rather than a naturalistic system.  Looking specifically at a few of the presuppositions listed above may help elucidate the argument.

Three Specific Philosophical Presuppositions

Space constraints rule out an exhaustive analysis but a few details can be spelled out regarding three of the presuppositions listed above.  Consider (2) “The orderly nature of the external world and its knowability.”  It is helpful to distinguish two types of order.  One is the order of objects and the other is the order of processes and patterns.  A classic example of the order of objects is the human eye.  The order and design is manifest in the object.  This kind of order is important and modern examples, like the bacterial flagellum, play an important part in the current debates about evolution.  It is, however, the other kind of order—the order of processes and patterns—which is at issue here.  Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne refers to this type of order when he writes the following:

“The orderliness of the universe to which I draw attention here is its conformity to formula, to simple formulable, scientific laws.  The orderliness of the universe in this respect is a very striking fact about it.  The universe might naturally have been chaotic, but it is not—it is very orderly.”

This “formulable orderliness” exists across space and time.  Arizona State University astrophysicist Paul Davies further describes this reality:

“There exists a deep and elegant underlying mathematical unity that links everything together in an abstract conceptual scheme.  There is thus an underlying rational order of which the fall of an apple is but one example.  We could never get at that type of deep mathematical unity other than by using science, and it’s an astonishing thing that we can get at it at all because it seems to have no survival value.”

J. P. Moreland asks, “So, how do we explain the existence and nature of these laws?  Where did they come from?”

“There are two major options here: (1) take them as unexplainable, brute entities, or (2) provide a theistic explanation.  For many thinkers, myself included, the ‘unexplainable-brute-entity’ option is not a good one.  Since the actual brute entity might not have existed, we naturally seek an explanation as to why the contingent entity exists instead of not existing.  And the fundamental laws of nature are contingent realities—after all, it is easy to conceive of worlds that have different fundamental laws of nature.  So why does our world contain certain fundamental laws instead of others.”

Thus, presupposition (2)—““The orderly nature of the external world and its knowability”—better fits a theistic context.

Consider, also, presupposition (5) from above: “The reliability of the senses and the mind.”  Evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby give a naturalistic explanation of the brain as a physical system:

“The brain is a physical system whose operation is governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics.  What does this mean?  It means that all of your thoughts and hopes and dreams and feelings are produced by chemical reactions going on in your head.”

But if Cosmides and Tooby are correct about all of our thoughts being merely the result of chemical reactions then a number of questions clamor for answer: “Why should we trust these thoughts to be true?  What is about these chemical reactions that guarantees truth?” Moreland penetrates to the core of the issue:

“If mind emerged from matter without the direction of a superior Intelligence, two problems arise immediately.  First, why should we trust the deliverances of the mind as being rational or true, especially in the mind’s more theoretical activities?  …  Second, if thinking involves having abstract entities (propositions, laws of logic, and the like) instanced in one’s mind, then it seems to be incredibly unlikely that a property which emerged from matter in a struggle for survival would be the sort of thing that could have thoughts in the first place.  Why this emergent property would be such that it could contain abstract entities would be a mystery.”

Again, the existence of the reliability of the senses and the mind fits better within a theistic context that has “the direction of a superior Intelligence” that both creates and correlates the human mind for knowledge.

Lastly, consider presupposition (8): “The existence of values.”  Naturalism has problems explaining the existence of values and objective morality.  Paul Copan summarizes the issue when he writes:

“How do we move from a universe that originates from no prior matter into a universe of valueless matter and energy, eventually arriving at moral values, including human rights, human dignity, and moral obligation?  It is hard to see how the naturalist could bridge this chasm.  Matter just does not have moral properties, let alone mental ones.”

In light of naturalism’s failure to properly ground moral value Copan concludes:

“A moral universe and human dignity are best explained in the context of a morally excellent, worship-worthy Being as their metaphysical foundation, as opposed to nontheistic alternatives, and naturalism in particular. If objective moral values and human dignity and rights are a reality (and there is very good reason to think they are), then it is extremely likely that some intrinsically valuable Being and Creator exists.”

The presupposition of moral value fits better within a theistic worldview rather than in the worldview of naturalism.

Science Needs God!

Although science is seen by many to be antithetical to belief in God, in actuality it is the existence of God that best provides the philosophical context for the presuppositions needed for science to flourish.  Naturalism as a philosophical worldview cannot adequately account for fundamental features needed for the scientific endeavor to succeed.  As one scales the secular city and critically probes the foundations of science it becomes apparent that naturalism’s scientism is flawed and the worldview cannot sustain itself in its use of science.  Ultimately, science itself needs God to make sense of itself.

This piece is a development of a presentation at Glendale Community College (AZ) and their annual “God & Truth” series entitled Is There Meaning in the World? Religion or Secular Humanism: That Is the Question?

Richard Klaus is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary and is currently the Ratio Christi Chapter Director for the campus of Glendale Community College (AZ).  He blogs at White Rose Review.

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