Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Is science incompatible with God?

Having looked at the problem of evil, it's time to look at another objection frequently given as a reason to disbelieve Christianity. The objection is that science has disproved God or has in some way rendered belief in God obsolete. The reasons people give to support this objection can vary a fair bit. In this entry we'll look at one particular way in which people can believe that God and science are in conflict. We're gonna look at the claim that the scientific method is itself at odds with a theological outlook on life.

Medicine, cars, miracles, and God. They don't mix?

'House MD' is one of my very favourite TV shows. The lead character, Dr. Gregory House is an emotionally stunted medical genius and a pretty hardcore atheist. His atheism is not something he keeps secret and there are a number of episodes where he berates religious patients for their faith. For a short while in the show, House works with a colleague who happens to be a Mormon. House takes great delight in giving this colleague a hard time for his beliefs and in one particular episode he really gets aggressive. They're having a hard time diagnosing a tricky case and while the exact words escape me House asks something to the effect of, "I wonder what Joseph Smith [the Mormon prophet] would say? Doesn't the book of Mormon have all the answers?" The response he receives is that the book of Mormon gives answers to questions of morality and meaning, not science. House is not satisfied by the response (I think it was a fair response in the context but too simplistic to be taken as a rule of thumb) and calls the guy a hypocrit for believing in science and medicine alongside God. He seems to think it is unreasonable for one to take modern medicine, to drive to work, to use computers, AND to believe in God. And he's not alone in this belief.

People often claim that they believe in science rather than religion as if the two are mutually exclusive. Let's describe this belief as the claim not that some particular scientific theory is incompatible with a certain religious teaching, but as the claim that the scientific method itself is incompatible with a way of looking at the world that includes God. Let's see how someone might justify this claim...

Pip: I'm a scientist. I really love my science. Especially cutting edge physics. I can't wait till we understand more about the quantum world!
Benny: Yeah I'd love to learn about all that stuff.
Pip: Hang on, Benny, aren't you a theist?
Benny: Urm, yeah. So?
Pip: Well. I'm just a bit surprised. How can you believe in science and in superstitious stuff like God?
Benny: I don't think belief in God is superstitious but I'll let that slide. Why do you think I can't practise science and believe in God?
Pip: Because science is all about understanding the natural world. God is what primitive people used to explain what they couldn't understand.

The God of the gaps

Pip thinks that people only believe in God because they use him as an explanation when they are presented with some phenomena which cannot be explained by currently known regularities of nature (what we might call natural laws). There are a couple problems with this assumption that are worth noting.

Likely Pip considers that she has evidence for the claim she's making. She might point to an ancient polytheistic religion where natural occurrences were explained by a deity's whim - say, lightning bolts explained in terms of a god's anger. We can grant her that this explanation is false but that doesn't mean every religion is built on such false claims. In fact to discredit Christianity in the way she intends she would have to provide evidence that the Bible's claims resulted only from a misunderstanding of natural occurrences. This is a heavy evidential burden that I don't think anyone has ever carried.

In additions it ignores the fact that a theological view of the world accounts rather nicely for the necessary conditions that must be in place for science to work. What do I mean by the conditions of science? Well it may surprise you that whenever someone practices science they are making several assumptions about the world which cannot themselves by proven by science. For instance one must assume that the world is orderly, or there'd be no 'natural laws' to discover, everything would be a mess. One must assume that the future will resemble the past otherwise no past experiment would give us any bearing on how a future experiment will turn out. One must assume that the human mind can comprehend the world, otherwise they'd be no point in trying to understand the world. There may be others but these are certainly the key assumptions.

If we believe in God then we can understand that the world is orderly because it is the result of the creative act of a rational mind. We can understand that the future will resemble the past because God is consistent. We can understand that we are able to comprehend the universe because we were created with minds to do so. Scientific methodology fits quite nicely with God.

The God who sustains nature

Pip wouldn't actually just have skeptics as company in some of her ways of thinking. Some Christians might be worried that science might eventually find natural laws that describe essentially how everything works. The fear is that in such a scenario, God is left with nothing to do. But this is not a Biblical picture of God's relationship with creation. The Bible describes God as the being who puts nature's regularities in motion and who keeps them going. In Jeremiah 33:24-26 God declares that he has a fixed order of earth and heaven, and earlier in the chapter, declares that he has appointed times for the arrival of day and night. In Hebrews 1:1-4 Jesus is described as the God who upholds the universe by his word. The Christian then should not think that God is required to hide in the gaps of scientific understanding and should not base his/her beliefs on such gaps. The Christian ought to understand that God allows science to be possible by sustaining the universe with such regularity. Note: this isn't to say that God can't at times do unusual things (what we would normally call miracles).

In conclusion Pip's objection is not a very good one. We have a much trickier one to deal with next however, and that is the objection that some specific scientific theory discredits belief in God, namely, the general theory of evolution.

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