Christianity is Not at War with Science: Naturalism on Other Hand…
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.