The Limits of Science and the Transcendence of God
March 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
Since the Enlightenment, many have tried to position science and the Christian faith (or Theistic religion in general) as two mutually exclusive worldviews. Many thought, and still think today, that advancements in science have replaced our need for God or His miracles. How should Christians think about science? Are science and faith in God at odds?
Sometimes categories are just convenient ways of maligning one idea and exalting another. The truth is, science done scientifically is good and true just as teaching the Bible Biblically is good and true. Both can be distorted and misapplied. To understand both better, including their compatibility, we should first look at what both science and the Bible say about themselves.
RESPECTING THE BOUNDARIES
How do we do science scientifically? Science is a systematic process by which we explore the natural universe through observation and experimentation. The Scientific Method pioneered by Sir Francis Bacon (a man of both science and Christian faith) in the 17th century, involves making observations, asking questions, forming a hypothesis, testing it through experimentation, and coming to a conclusion, or repeating and refining as necessary.
Stephen Jay Gould rightly recognized science and religion as separate areas of inquiry, but he strictly defines science as “fact” and religion as “values”, which is a limited perspective of both. Gould maintains that these separate “magisteria” do not overlap(1), but when it comes to science and Biblical Christianity, that’s only partly true.
Science cannot explain God because of its self-imposed limitation to inquiry about the natural and physical world. God falls in the category of supernatural, which means outside of nature. Science by definition is not qualified to examine God.
Science cannot explain science because the foundations of science are not scientific but philosophical. Science deals with how, not why. So when we ask why do science in the first place, we can’t offer scientific evidence or reasons to support it. Science has no adequate explanation for itself.
J. Warner Wallace, a Christian apologist and retired homicide detective, applies his investigative experience by following the evidence “outside the room”, as described in the premise of his book, ‘God’s Crime Scene’: “Can everything we see in the universe be explained solely from causes found within the natural realm, or is there evidence of an outside ‘intruder’? Is the universe a ‘scene’ that can be explained by natural ‘internal’ forces, or is an external ‘intruder’ a better explanation?”(2) Just as nature itself can’t explain nature, science, the limits of which is nature, points to something “outside the room.”
God CAN explain science. God’s word in fact lays the foundations for scientific endeavor and the natural universe we explore with it. Among other realities, the Bible accounts for the origins of nature, the laws of nature, and the exploration of nature.
The origins of nature are explained in the Genesis creation account. When we observe our world and consider its possible beginnings, the evidence points “outside the room.” As the Kalam Cosmological Argument for Classical Theism presents: Everything that began to exist has a cause, and since the universe began to exist, the universe has a cause. Logically, the first cause of the universe must be uncaused, and the eternal, personal, all-powerful Creator God of the Bible is a sufficient cause.
The laws of nature broadly encompass physical/scientific laws (like gravity and uniformity), natural law (morality and human rights), and the basic rules that govern logic (like the law of non-contradiction). These are called “laws” because they are consistent and reliable observed patterns in nature (including human nature and how we think) that are not conceived or established by us, but thought to be inherent or transcendent. In other words, they come to us from “outside the room.” The Bible accounts for these laws with accounts of God establishing order and uniformity in nature (Genesis 8:22)(3), writing moral law on our hearts (Romans 2:15)(4) and creating us in His image as beings who also think morally and employ logic (Isaiah 1:18)(5).
The exploration of nature is a fundamental part of human flourishing since the beginning, or at least since God scattered the nations at Babel (Genesis 11). Our scientific endeavor is fueled by a hunger to expand our territory and a thirst for knowledge about ourselves and our world. But why do science? Why do we spend billions launching exploratory spacecraft and searching for signals from aliens on the outside chance that we might not be alone in the universe?(6)
We can deduce from Scripture that we are made to ultimately encounter God through scientific exploration. Paul, in Acts 17:24-27, told the intellectuals of his day: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and… gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him…”. And in Romans 1:20, Paul makes it clear that we are “without excuse” for atheism and ought to logically infer a Creator, as most do, by observing creation.(7)
TRANSCENDING THE BOUNDARIES
If we take science “outside the room” to assess the supernatural, we are giving it a scope and authority it is not meant to have. Granting science such ultimate authority is one of the tenets of a religion called Scientism.
While science can’t transcend the boundaries of nature and the physical universe, God is by nature transcendent. God is infinite and limitless in His presence, power, knowledge and love, so boundaries are nothing to Him.
Nature can’t logically create itself. God transcended nature, first, when He created it (Genesis 1:1). As Deism would suggest, God could have created the universe and then left us alone, but Colossians 1:17 puts Him “in all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (The so-dubbed “strong forces” that hold atomic particles together are interactions that physicists don’t fully understand). God could have left His creation to perish completely in their sin, but instead God loves us, cares for us, and is active in and author of our story.
This love led Him to absolutely transcend our world in the sending of His Son (John 3:16-17)(8). Jesus Christ was born in the flesh, living a perfectly sinless life as fully man, but died as an atonement for our sins, a payment He could only make if He was also fully God(9). After defeating sin and death on the cross and through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus ascended back to the Father, leaving us His Holy Spirit.
Our sin cemented a barrier between man and God. Through Christ, God, who is no respecter of barriers, broke it down. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes (or transcends) to the Father except by Me.” (John 14:6) If not for God’s transcendence into our world, especially through Christ, we could never realize transcendence into His—but that’s exactly what He offers through faith in Christ alone. Jesus is the only “Way” we can truly get “outside the room.”
SCIENCE AND FAITH
Some claim that “science says” this or that. But outside of the definition and parameters we’ve given it, does science itself actually say things? Or is it more accurate to say that science is a process by which scientists say things? Scientists are people with individual worldviews and the choice to either use science correctly or make it do things it’s not supposed to do when they say things.
Does “science say” that our universe created itself, or that life originated from non-living matter, was seeded on earth from another part of the universe, or diversified by natural and undirected processes over billions of years? Actually, people with Naturalistic or Materialistic worldviews come to such conclusions in the name of science (or Scientism)—without observation, without testing, and without the aid of actual science. They are starting with a certain assumption dictated by their worldview and working to prove it using science.
If we prop up science with worldview assumptions or take it outside its self-imposed limitations, we are anti-science. If we assume that God is only a conceptual crutch to explain natural phenomena until science replaces Him, we are anti-theology. People who consider themselves Christians should evaluate science on the basis of what science teaches about itself. Likewise, people who consider themselves scientifically minded should evaluate Christianity on the basis of what Christianity teaches about itself.
In another act of transcendence, God has given us His word, and the Bible understood Biblically does not contradict science understood scientifically, but instead supports and even explains science. When we see, do, and define both science and the Christian faith correctly and honestly, the two are in harmony.