Monthly Archives: January 2013
Last week I discussed whether Christianity is opposed to science because it depicts a world that is fundamentally unreasonable, and found that was not the case. Christianity and naturalism both pass the test of believing in a reasonable world. Now let’s look at the second belief that is required to perform science: the belief that humans are capable of understanding the world. As I pointed out in my first post, if humans are incapable of understanding truth then science is a waste of time on a practical level. There’s no point in trying to work out the laws of physics if we are doomed to failure. If we can’t understand the world around us then science will give us incorrect observations or nothing; and it is here that a belief in naturalism is inconsistent with a belief in the validity of science.
Remember, as we talked about in the second post, all philosophies which believe that the universe is reasonable must also believe in a First Cause that has always existed. Christians believe that this First Cause is God. He has always existed and he is the ultimate cause of everything that has come into existence. Naturalists believe that nature is the First Cause. Nature has always existed and everything that has come into existence has been caused by the laws of nature. There is nothing outside of nature. Everything comes down to atoms, energy, and the laws that regulate how atoms and energy behaves.
Now this belief leads to some very interesting inferences. If everything is made up of energy and matter behaving according to the laws of physics then everything that happens must happen by necessity. When a cue ball ricochets off a wall it doesn’t get to decide which direction it wants to go: where it goes is determined by the laws of physics. As long as the cue ball is hit in exactly the same way across exactly the same surface with all other variables being consistent it will always end up bouncing off the wall in the exact same direction. In the same way every atom, every molecule, and every photon of sunlight can only follow the path that the laws of nature demands it must follow. If a scientist had perfect knowledge about the variables involved then that scientist could predict exactly how any atom in the universe will react to any event. Since human beings (according to naturalism) are made up of nothing but atoms and energy then we are no different. We are nothing more than a very complicated chemical reaction, and everything we do or think is a result of the atoms in our body reacting with themselves and the atoms around us. If I meet you in the street it may feel as if I have a choice about how I react to you: I could shake your hand, or ignore you, or punch you in the nose. However I am only a collection of atoms, and all my thoughts and decisions come out of the reaction of neurons in my brain firing according the to the laws of nature. If I shake your hand instead of punching you in the nose it is only because all the events and reactions leading up to this moment have made it so that shaking your hand is the only possible thing that could have happened. You can never say “This event could have gone one way or the other” but instead you must say “There was no other way this event could have turned out, and if we were wise enough to see all the variables we could have predicted it.”
I will not delve into the philosophical or moral implications of this belief, though there are many. The question I set out to answer is not whether naturalism is a good or enjoyable philosophy. I did not even set out to particularly see if it was true or false. My only concern right now is whether naturalism is consistent with science, and it is here that naturalism fails. Science requires a belief that humans are capable of understanding the world around us: naturalism only allows us to react to it. For if my mind is nothing more than the byproduct of chemical reactions in my brain, and if those chemical reactions must follow a certain inevitable path due to the laws of nature, then I cannot really understand anything. My thoughts are not thoughts at all but reactions. It may seem that I come to my beliefs due to a careful consideration of the evidence and by reasoning things out logically: but in actuality I had no more choice about my beliefs than I had a choice about the color of my hair. It was inevitable that I would come to believe the way I do. Nature is ultimately non-rational in the sense that it does not reason. Apples and atoms behave the way they do because of the blind laws of nature necessitate that they do, not because the atoms reasoned out for themselves what the logical thing to do is. Now if I can explain a belief as being completely caused by non-rational forces then the belief itself is irrational and we have no reason to believe that it is true. That belief is just a chemical reaction like wood burning or acid corroding metal. Fire and corrosion isn’t about anything; it just is. In the same way our thoughts and understandings are about anything in particular; they just are.
This is a problem if you want to perform science because science depends on our thoughts and inferences to reflect physical truth about the world around us. A scientist must be able to say “Phenomenon X works in way Y because the experiments I have devised and performed show us results B and C and reason shows us that Y will logically give us B and C.” But if naturalism is true then the scientist actually came to conclusion Y not because of logic and observation but because of a reaction of blind and non-rational atoms in his brain. His theories are all the result of the laws of nature working on the atoms that make us his body and we can’t expect the laws of nature working on matter to result in insight into truth. C.S. Lewis said that believing unthinking forces can produce actual truthful information is “like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.”
So, in the end, naturalism fails at the second belief required for performing science: the belief that humans are capable of understanding the world around us. From a naturalistic point of view we are only capable of reacting to the world around us. Naturalism and science are incompatible; if naturalism is true then science should be impossible. This of course causes a problem for naturalists because science as we know it works very well. Scientists behave as if they really do have an understanding of truth about the universe, instead of merely carrying out the results a series of inevitable chemical reactions. Dr. Gregory A. Boyd put this more succinctly and completely then I ever could. In Letters from a Skeptic he wrote “If our minds are simply “chemicals in motion,” then any truth we think we may discover amounts to nothing more than brute chemical reaction, and thus can have no more truth than, say, a burp. Chemical reactions are all equal on this score, regardless of how complex they are. So Einstein was just giving a complex burp with all his theorizing. But why then does his theory work? The success of his formula, and all of science, confirms our instinctive assumptions about the mind: Our mind is more than a network of chemical reactions. (pg. 68-69)”
Now what about Christianity? Does it have the same problem as naturalism? To put it simply, no. How do Christians know that our own minds are rational and capable of understanding truth? Because Christians believe that God is rational, and that he created us in his image. The ultimate cause of everything is not unthinking nature but instead a thinking and rational mind. An effect cannot be greater than its cause; rationality can never come from a non-rational First Cause. But if the First Cause is itself rational then if follows that it can cause rational beings to come into existance. Christians believe that our minds are made up of more than our brains; that it partly consists of something outside of nature, namely a rational soul. Our minds are something outside of nature yet connected to it. It is similar to how an electronic signal traveling through the air is connected to a television that receives it. People argue that the brain and the mind must be the same thing because if we damage or manipulate the brain then the mind is affected as well. This is true, but it is also true that if I mess with the wiring in my television I will get an image that is a warped and corrupted version of the signal traveling to it. It’s true that if you give me alcohol my thinking will be impaired, and if you bash my brains to bits my thinking will disappear; it is equally true that if I change all the settings on my TV to something outside its normal bounds the image will change hue and perspective, and if you heave a brick though the television you won’t get any image at all. This is just a simple analogy for what Christians believe about the brain: that it is receiving and is affected by a rational soul outside of nature. I could write an entire post on that subject, but this one is long enough already and it would be off topic. The point is that the Christian worldview has no problem believing in the ability of humans to understand the world around us. We can take scientists at their word and really believe that there are thinking and rational minds behind their theories and statements, rather than non-thinking chemical reactions.
So, in the end, which philosophy is more hostile to science? Naturalism, or Christianity? I hold that if you are a naturalist then you cannot honestly believe in the validity of science, but if you are a Christian (or a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or believer of any other religion that acknowledges the existence of rational forces outside of nature) then you can believe in science without problem.
Now of course Christianity and “science” do come into conflict on some subjects such as the age of the Earth, the extent of evolution, etc. But I have found that if you look closely most (if not all) of the areas where Christians disagree with science is actually a conflict between Christianity and naturalism. As I said in my first post our culture often confuses the two. Christianity has no problem with theories that are provable with repeatable experiments, such as the potency of penicillin or the boiling point of water; it does have a problem with improvable and untestable theories that rely on the naturalistic assumption that there is no God who had a hand in creating the universe.
On Monday I laid out the reasons why believing in naturalism is not a requirement for believing in science. Today I want to take a look at some of the implications of that. There are a lot of ideas that we tend to label “scientific” or “unscientific” that actually have more to do with naturalism than science. I’d specifically like to focus on ideas about Christianity because a) I am most familiar with them and b) they seem to be particularly relevant to modern Western culture.
Christianity is, like most religions, generally considered to be “anti-science” in Western culture. We often hear about the war between “Faith and Science” and many scientists and religious leaders tell us to keep the two concepts well separated. But why should faith and science oppose each other? There is nothing specifically unchristian about the scientific method. As I talked about on Monday the only ideas you must necessarily believe in order to perform science is that the universe is reasonable (nothing happens without a reason) and that the universe is understandable (specifically by humans). Perhaps Christianity is in opposed to one of those beliefs; that would explain why so many consider it to be opposed to science. Let’s look to see whether this is the case.
First we’ll look at the belief that the universe is reasonable. I can understand why someone might disqualify Christianity on this front. Christians believe in many marvelous and unbelievable events: water turning to wine, multiplying bread, humans walking on water, and men coming back from the dead for a start. The Christian faith is full of and dependent on miracles that, we are told, are completely unreasonable. The laws of nature cannot be broken, and if they can then science is impossible. In a world where snakes talk and rivers turn to blood anything could happen.
At first glance this seems to be a convicting argument—but only at first glance. You see we are once again confusing “science” for “naturalism”. To explain let’s look closer at the requirement for a reasonable universe. A reasonable universe is, simply enough, one where everything happens for a reason. Every effect must have a cause: if something happens then something must have caused it to happen. If I hit a cue ball with a cue stick then it is reasonable for the ball to move across the table. If nothing hits it at all and if rolls across the table then there must be some explanation for it: perhaps the table isn’t level, or a gust of wind blew across it. It would be unreasonable (and thus unscientific) to say that it moved “just because”. Every effect has a cause.
However there is a logical problem to the idea that every effect has a cause. That is because the causes themselves are also effects and must thus be explained. What caused the cause to exist? If an earthquake caused a rock to fall down a hill, what caused the earthquake? If the earthquake was caused by the movement of seismic plates, then what caused the plate’s movement? But this chain cannot go on forever. Eventually we must reach something that is not an effect. There must be something that has no cause because it has no beginning; something that has always existed and is the ultimate cause of everything that comes into existence. Somewhere there must be a Fact that all other facts are based on. Naturalism claims that nature itself is this Fact. Nature has always existed. Nature with its immutable laws is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be. This, incidentally, is why so many naturalist scientists are eager to find an alternative theory to the Big Bang. Before Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was rapidly expanding naturalists could be content to say “We know that the universe has always existed, unlike the ignorant and backwards religious belief that it had a beginning.” Now we know that the universe must have begun at some point: and everything that begins must have a cause. Many naturalists today would say that the universe is cyclical in nature; expanding for eons and then contracting in on itself until it inevitably explodes outward again. Or they might claim that our universe is just a branch off of a mother universe in another dimension that has itself always existed. The former theory has yet to prove itself viable enough to dethrone the Big Bang and the latter is just as scientifically improvable as God Himself. Either way the point I’m trying to make is that naturalists believe, one way or another, that nature herself is the ultimate cause of everything. Christians on the other hand believe that nature is a created thing. Christianity claims that the ultimate timeless cause of everything is God. God has always existed and always will exist; nature and everything in it is his creation. Both the naturalist’s and the Christian’s beliefs are impossible to prove using science: the question now is whether either of these beliefs makes it impossible to be a scientist.
Now if naturalism is true then miracles are, indeed, unreasonable and impossible. Everything we have observed about nature tells us that water does not magically turn into wine just because somebody wants it to. The story must be false: if it did happen then it must have had a naturalistic explanation. Perhaps someone secretly dumped out the water and replaced it with wine, for example. Whatever the case something inside of nature must have made it happen or else it could not have happened at all.
However that only stands true if you believe that nature is the ultimate cause of everything. Of course miracles cannot occur if nature is all that exists: but if there is a God outside who created nature and exists apart from it than it is not unreasonable to believe that he could turn water into wine. Christians do not believe that miracles are events that happen without cause, but rather that they (like all things, ultimately) are caused by God. There is nothing unreasonable about believing that a God who created the universe could change water into wine if he chose.
Now some might object here that even if God existed he could not break the laws of nature. Even God cannot make one plus one equal three, and if he can then the universe is completely unreasonable and science is impossible. I think there is a great deal of merit to this argument but I also believe that it is a moot point. The laws of nature only tell us what will happen provided that nobody interferes with the experiment. The laws of nature tell us that water sitting in clay jars by itself will never turn into wine. However if a couple of con artists came along switched the water with wine they wouldn’t be breaking any laws of nature. Similarly if God choses to change the water he is breaking no law himself. C.S. Lewis puts it better than I ever could:
“The laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way—but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side—why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted…in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered—then the course of events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere.” (from God in the Dock)
So, ultimately, you can believe in miracles and believe that the universe is reasonable. Believing that there is something outside of nature does not disqualify you from studying nature—from being scientific in other words. Christians, like naturalists, believe that there is a reason behind everything.
So what about the second belief that is necessary to be a scientist? You must believe that the universe is ultimately understandable by humans before you can try to understand it. This post has already grown longer than I expected and I want to give the topic the attention it deserves. You’ll have to wait until next week to hear my thoughts about it, and why it is in this respect that naturalism, not Christianity, should be considered the truly unscientific philosophy.
I recently had the pleasure of having an intellectual conversation with a friend who I had a disagreement with. It’s a rare pleasure to be sure, and the fact that it is rare probably says more about me than anything else. Most of my friends agree with me on the matters I care most about, and if there is disagreement we would rather not bring up the subject. This is, I think, typical of most Americans (or perhaps I should say most white Americans; African-American culture is more accepting in general of honest conflict between friends and family which is to their credit). The only reason I came into open argument with this friend was the fact that he repeatedly aired his contrary views on Facebook and it is infinitely easier to get into an argument over the internet than it is in person. On the internet I have all the time in the world to spare, and I’m looking at words on a screen instead of a person. Face to face I often have better (read: easier) things to do and instead of words face a person with whom I’d much rather talk about video games or movies than anything that might cause a fight. Perhaps it is divine providence that just when the culture has produced a generation of meek creatures like myself the internet has come along to take away our inhibitions and make us bold again (though often bold fools). Whatever the case may be, I responded to my friend’s posts with my own rebuttals and after weeks of on and off fighting he finally suggested we sit down and talk things through civilly in person.
The principal disagreement we had been fighting about is a little hard to summarize neatly. I would say (though I am biased and don’t doubt that my friend would put it differently) that the problem was as follows: my friend believed that it was possible to be a Christian and an atheist at the same time (again, I must emphasize that I am probably butchering his thoughts; this is merely my own limited perspective). I replied, essentially, by saying that to be a Christian atheist was to be intellectually hypocritical: if you believe in God, then you cannot honestly be an atheist, and if you do not believe in God then you cannot honestly be a Christian. He responded (again, I’m summarizing) by saying that just as we do not use a hammer to brush our teeth we must use different tools for different aspects of our lives. We should answer scientific questions with scientific perspective, and answer spiritual questions with a spiritual one. This of course led to extended argument, which eventually landed us face to face in a quiet room. We had a fine discussion but didn’t seem to accomplish anything for quite some time. We seemed to be talking past each other without ever finding the heart of the issue. Finally, somehow, I stumbled onto the problem. We both meant very different things when we used the word “science”. I think this is a problem that is widespread in our culture so it merits a blog post or two.
I will have to define some terms. When I say “science” I mean the scientific method. Science is (as I’ve said in previous blog posts) organized and methodical learning. Science is about asking questions, performing experiments, and then asking more and better questions based on the results. Science is tool, and it is a tool that is open to anyone who can think. Whether you are Hindu, Christian, or an atheist you can perform science. A scientist only needs to believe two things on faith; that nature is reasonable and that nature is understandable.
If nature is not reasonable then it we do not have any reason to believe that it will behave the same way today that it did yesterday. If a scientist observes that something is behaving completely contradictory to everything that we have learned so far he must conclude that his knowledge is incomplete and that somewhere, hidden to him at this time, there is a perfectly reasonable and logical series of events behind the phenomenon he observed. He must not conclude that everything just works randomly and there are no principles behind anything in life. If everything has a reason then science as a concept will work; if everything just happens for no particular reason, if there are no “laws” defining how things work, then science is only an illusion.
A scientist must also believe that it is possible for humans to understand the reasons behind things. This does not mean that humans must be capable of understanding everything there is; it is possible to be a scientist and believe that there are some things that the human brain is not capable of comprehending. What it does mean is two different things. The first is that if a human mind is not capable of understanding something then it is not because that something is unreasonable or unknowable but only because we are not great enough to understand it. For example, I do not understand the forces that hold atoms together. However I believe that somewhere out there are scientists that do understand it; and if there are no scientists who truly understand it than I believe that God understands it. Now you can substitute God with “a higher mind” if you want: the essential concept is that the universe is understandable even if we do not personally understand it. Now the second thing that is meant by saying that the world must be understandable is that humans are capable of understanding anything at all. We humans must be capable of understanding truth if science is to have any meaning. In order to perform science you have to be able to reason correctly. If humans are incapable of reasoning correctly then science is useless to us.
These two beliefs are the only ones required to use science. To be a scientist you do not have follow any particular creed. That is why there are excellent scientists both past and present who are Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Muslims, Christians, etc. However this fact is not immediately apparent to all people. For many (and this was the case for my friend) if you are to be a scientist then you must also be a naturalist. Naturalism, summed up, is the belief that nature is all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be. A naturalist believes that nothing exists that it outside or independent of nature. Nature is the self-existent Fact on which all other facts are based. Naturalism is not necessarily opposed to the idea of a god existing; but only a god that can be explained as being produced by nature, a god with a clear beginning that came about through a series of logical events inside nature itself. Naturalism rejects the idea that there could be a God that is outside of nature, which created nature and is master over it.
Now it is understandable why so many people, if only unconsciously, believe that you must be a naturalist to be a scientist. That is because of the limits of science itself. Science can only tell us about things inside of nature; things we can observe and test. If there is a God outside of nature then science cannot prove his existence. You can’t do an experiment on something that can’t be observed and measured. That is its limitation, and it’s a fine limitation. As my friend aptly said, you cannot brush your teeth with a hammer. No tool can do everything. Science is a fantastic tool for explaining why water boils, what light is made of, and how to build a computer. It is a completely useless tool for telling us whether there is anything outside of or above nature. Since science can only understand nature we can see why naturalism and science has become conflated in people’s minds. Still we must understand that naturalism is a belief and science is a tool. Science is incapable of telling us whether naturalism is true or false. If there is something outside nature then science by definition cannot see it; just because science cannot see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
It is important to remember that you don’t have to be a naturalist to be a scientist, or to be a scientific person. Believing that naturalism is a prerequisite for science is the cause of much grief and doubt among those who are not naturalists. When my friend used the term “science” he meant (though he was not totally aware of this) “naturalism”. For him the two concepts were wedded together. To be scientific was to be naturalistic. Now science was obviously good, useful, and rational. On the other hand he is a Christian and his life has been greatly enriched by God. So God is also good. The only solution is to somehow find a way to be both a naturalist and a Christian; to be a “Christian atheist”. But this is a false choice. Science can tell us why water boils, its chemical composition, and why it is necessary for human life. Our beliefs tell us why water exists and all, and what meaning (if any) it has.
I recently had the pleasure of watching the newest movie adaptation of Les Miserables. It was an excellent film: in fact I’d have to rank it as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. However I feel that my love for it has more to do with the story that it is based on then the movie itself. I loved the movie because it told the story extremely well; why I love the story is something I’ve been reflecting about lately, as well as exactly why I thought the movie did a superb job of telling it.
I have said before that the question “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” is one of most reasonable questions a man can ask. However, too often in this case we treat suffering as an intellectual concept rather than a very real and terrible reality for people around the world. Les Miserables shows us human suffering in vivid and concrete terms that are hard to brush off or easily forget. The story captures the misery and injustice we find in the world around us and refuses to sugarcoat it.
And yet the story does not stop there. The film is not content to paint misery in hundred foot letters for the mere point of saying (as so many “dark and gritty” movies these days do) “Life sucks and then you die.” Les Miserables forces us to gaze upon the ugliness of suffering, but then it calls us to witness something far more beautiful: the love of God reaching down to touch those who suffer. The story gives us man’s capacity for deceit, cruelty, and indifference yet at the same time shows us our ability to forgive, show compassion, and love one another. I found myself tearing up at three points in the movie: once because I was moved by sadness, but twice because I was moved by love. This movie—this story, rather—hits a soft spot for me. I love to see evil struck down, innocents saved, and love overcoming hate.
Some would argue that (as far as the story goes) it is unnecessary to bring God into the equation. They would say that Jean Valjean is a good man and that his good actions do not need to be explained by some higher power. There is merit to this; all the same the movie would have been incomplete without God. If all there was to the story were the events that we can see with our eyes, if this world is all there is, then Les Miserables is nothing more than a farcical tragedy. Everywhere we see good and innocent people brought to ruin, despair, and death by the cruelty and conniving of evil men and the indifference of the respectable. When things start to go right sudden events bring catastrophe. Many die seemingly for nothing, having accomplished little by their sacrifice and changed less. Meanwhile evil men and women live to prey on the weak another day which gives us a profound sense of injustice. Les Miserables would be a sad tale indeed if this world was all there was. But Valjean has a better hope. At the end of his life he tells God he is ready to come home; to be released from the shackles and miseries of this world. His cry is not one of a fatalist but rather of one who is ready to leave this shadowy world in order to enter into the true one. He has carried his share of suffering and now it is time to be relieved of his burdens. It is time to come home.
And man does this movie deliver! Fantine, who despaired for living and died a penniless prostitute, appears to Valjean. No longer is she the sad, dirty, and pitiful thing we saw before. Now she is beautiful, clean, and full of joy. Her story did not end in that dark hospital nine years ago. Valjean’s will not end either. He dies and his daughter weeps for him, but Valjean does not weep for himself. Fontaine leads him on and there we see the other side of death. The loving priest who changed his life is here to welcome him; and outside the convent walls Valjean finds the brave men and women (and children!) who died bloodily in the streets during the revolution. These souls who we last saw suffering and dying for their ideals are now proud and grinning. Though in the world’s eyes their deaths accomplished nothing in God’s eyes they have accomplished everything. They fought valiantly and died for the good of others. Though others weep for them they do not weep for themselves. They are triumphant!
Les Miserables is ultimately a story of good’s triumph over evil, and it is a story framed in a way that we do not usually expect from a book or movie. The story stays true to what we see in life; the good die, often horribly and unjustly, while the evil live on and profit from their cruelty. This is not what we expect from a story of good triumphing over evil; in the same way that the disciples never expected Jesus to die on a cross. And yet that act of suffering and death became the ultimate victory over suffering and death everywhere. Whether a story has a happy ending depends on when you choose to stop reading. Often we close the book too early. We think that death is the final chapter. If it is then life is a tragedy. As a Christian I know that death is not the end. We cannot see how our own (or anyone else’s) story ends from this side of eternity; we are still in the middle of the book.