I was wandering around when I came across a sentiment that I had heard before. Someone pointed out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. The story, for those not familiar with it, is roughly as follows: Elijah was the last prophet of God in Israel during his time, with the rest of the country worshiping the god Baal instead. One day God tells Elijah to go and challenge the priests of Baal to a competition of sorts. They’ll make an alter with a sacrifice, and Elijah will make an altar with a sacrifice. Then they will each pray to their god to light the sacrifice on fire, without human intervention. This would prove which god was real and worthy of being worshipped. Long story short, Baal could not deliver and God sent a fireball down moments after Elijah asked for one.
Having recounted the tale the person in question brought up a challenge to the world in general. If God is real, and has performed such acts in the past, then why doesn’t he prove himself now? The Bible sets a precedent here for testing the legitimacy of various gods. If God is real then he should be able to prove his existence to the skeptics through a miracle. Since he hasn’t we can dismiss him as another Baal.
An excellent point, and a powerful indictment against the existence of God. But something about his argument gnawed at me. It wasn’t until later, after reflection, that I realized what it was. The problem with his argument is that none of what occurred in the story was Elijah’s idea. God told Elijah exactly what to do. He commanded Elijah to challenge the priests, laid out exactly how to build the altar (which was thoroughly doused with water until the wood was soaked, as an insurance against false positives), and promised Elijah that when he prayed the fire would come.
Now when a skeptic tells me that if God exists I should be able to replicate such a miracle the situation is entirely different. God has given me no such assurance that He will choose to answer my request. It would be one thing if I claimed to have heard from God and was assured that a miracle would occur. Then we could test my claim by observing whether the miracle in question actually happens. But if a skeptic comes and asks me out of a blue for an example of God’s power, what is a Christian to do? God is not my pet. He is not some genie who must answer my commands. He is the Lord.
Now of course I can pray and ask that God perform a miracle. But if I do and no such miracle occurs than that cannot be taken as proof that God does not exist. Imagine some faraway land that is ruled by a mighty emperor. This emperor is powerful indeed, but chooses to remain hidden in his palace most days, ruling from afar. One day a loyal subject of the emperor is confronted by a skeptic who believes the whole emperor story is a myth, and that there is no king in the castle. When the loyal subject objects, the skeptic challenges him, saying “If he exists then show him to me. Have him come before me with a grand parade of courtiers, generals, advisors, and horsemen. Show me his gilded coach and his ranks of servants. If he exists and is as grand and powerful as you claim than it would be a simple thing indeed for him to do this.” Now the loyal subject wants very much indeed to prove that the emperor is real. But could anyone blame him for being hesitant to demand that his liege drop whatever he’s doing and have a parade for his sake? Such a servant could go to the palace and ask, politely and humbly, for the emperor to hold such a procession. But if the emperor chooses not to can the loyal subject really be blamed? The argument of the skeptic fails because if such an emperor did exist we have no reason to expect him to do everything (or anything, really) we ask of him. To be sure such a grand procession would prove without a doubt (at least to that one skeptic) that the emperor exists. But the lack of one does not provide a proof that the emperor does not exist.
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 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.