Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.
One of the main themes that runs through discussions on college campuses and in academia is that faith/theology and science are diametrically opposed to one another. Since science tests the observable, is this the correct way to approach the existence of God?
Science or Scientism: Philosophical Errors and Presuppositions
Science is a method of gaining knowledge of the natural world by inference through observation, experimentation, and making predictions, based upon cause and effect relationships. Scientism is an epistemology (theory of knowledge) which reduces all knowledge to the aforementioned scientific method; this means that the only way to know things are true is through the natural sciences. This approach is illegitimate. That is because it reduces humanity’s knowledge of all of reality to this one area alone, and it argues in a circle. The assertion “All truth claims must be scientifically verifiable” makes a philosophical assumption: the very statement itself is not scientifically verifiable.
What needs to be remembered is that science is dependent upon certain philosophical presuppositions such as:
1. The existence of a theory- independent, external world 2. The orderly nature of the external world 3. The knowability of the external world 4. The existence of truth 5. The laws of logic 6. The reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth-gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment. 7. The adequacy of language to describe the real world 8. The existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”) 9. The uniformity of nature and induction 10. The existence of numbers (1)
Paul Copan says something similar here:
“ Those who consider science authoritative still assume and appropriate a lot of other philosophical ideas and assumptions—ones that can’t be scientifically proven. Though they don’t always recognize it, scientists will load themselves up philosophically before they engage in their scientific endeavors. So what kinds of philosophical ideas do they take for granted?
Here’s a start:
Realism: The physical, mind-independent world exists and isn’t an illusion, though admittedly some scientists would qualify this.
Logic: Logical laws should be used to guide scientific work and theorizing. As Dallas Willard noted: “Logical results have a universality and necessity to them
Math: Mathematics is important for making sense of the natural world and its processes.
Beauty: Beauty or elegance is a criterion scientists take for granted when assessing scientific theories.
Mental: The mental is required to understand the physical; without the existence of minds, we wouldn’t be able to understand our world.
Other minds: We can’t prove other minds exist, but we take their existence for granted. Those minds can critically examine and assess the outcomes of scientific studies.
Personal trust: Scientists trust the work of others in the scientific community and build on that research. Reliable reason: The workings of our minds are generally trustworthy and aren’t systematically deceiving us.
Reliable senses: We assume our senses are reliable and not systematically deceiving us.
Natural laws: We count on the consistent natural laws and uniform workings of natural processes.
Mind-world correspondence: The natural world and its workings are capable of being studied and understood by human minds.
Inferential knowledge: What we observe in nature can provide clues and indicators of unobservable processes and patterns (e.g., subatomic particles).
Materialism (for some scientists): Scientism takes for granted the sole reality of the physical realm. But how can one scientifically prove this? This is an unverified philosophical assumption (2)
A theist asserts that the physical universe is not all there is. There is an infinite, personal God who created it, sustains it and can act within it in a natural and non-natural way. As I can say without hesitation that I am ignorant about many things, I generally find that many people are generally ignorant about the history between theism and science. In the words of physicist Paul Davies, “Science began as an outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists…..accept an essentially theological worldview.” (3)
In John Haught’s book Science and Faith: A New Introduction, he says there are three current models about the relationship between faith and science:
1.Conflict Model: Faith is rooted in fantasy, whereas science is based on observable, empirically available data. Faith is highly emotional and subjective, whereas science is dispassionate, impersonal, and objective.
2. Contrast: Science and faith are distinct but no conflict can exist between faith and science since they each respond to radically different questions. There is no real competition between them, so there can be no real conflict.
3. Convergence: Science and faith are distinct because they ask different kinds of questions, but they may still interact fruitfully. Convergence tries to move beyond both conflict and allow for an ongoing conversation between science and faith.
One thing to always ask is the following:
Which of the following branches of science should demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of God?
The natural or physical sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy?
The social sciences, such as linguistics, textual hermeneutics, anthropology, and sociology?
The mathematical and logical sciences such as engineering, computer science, and theoretical math?
Can Science Demonstrate the Supernatural Exists?
Atheists like to make the assertion, “Science has shown the supernatural does not exist.” Sadly, this displays an ignorance about the limits of science as well as how modern science is defined. Let’s look at a couple of definitions:
“Science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.” (4)
“Science the attempted objective study of the natural world/natural phenomena whose theories and explanations do not normally depart from the natural realm.” (5)
Or we could say: Science is limited to the following range of concerns:
1. Science only is concerned with the material aspects of the natural world.
2. Science restricts itself to the secondary/natural causes and would forgo consideration of a primary cause (such as a divine/intelligent primary cause) as part of the explanatory structure.
3. Science seeks to reduce the systems observed to their component parts as a way of simplifying observation and explaining the behavior of the higher levels of organization.
So if modern science is built on methodological naturalism which says science or history should seek only natural explanations and that attempts to find supernatural causes are ipso facto, not science, how would science be able to demonstrate the supernatural? Supernatural by definition means something that is outside nature, or something that is or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe. In contrast, metaphysical naturalism starts with the presupposition that all that exists is nature. Presupposing that all that exists is nature and then using methodological naturalism to prove this presupposition is arguing in a circle. In my experience, many atheists confuse metaphysical and methodological naturalism.
Of course, if one wants to use the scientific method to show there is evidence for a Mind behind features of the natural world, you can study the Intelligent Design debate. Steven Meyer just released his latest book on the topic.
Can Nature Explain Nature?
It is important to understand that science can explain nothing except in terms of the laws of nature. Science works by first discovering (by observation) laws that describe the workings of nature and then using this knowledge to seek out further explanations — beginning with hypotheses and then confirming these hypotheses by various tests, the chief of which must always be repeatable experimental verification. To offer a scientific explanation of anything one must always appeal to existing laws (or at very least plausible hypotheses). No laws, no science; it’s as simple as that.
To explain the origin of the universe scientifically, therefore, requires an appeal to laws of nature (established or hypothesized) that pre-existed the universe. But laws of nature are nothing more than descriptions of the way nature operates. No one has ever proposed a law of nature that does not involve existing natural entities, whether they be matter, energy, space-time or mathematical systems. (Note that mathematics are arguably philosophical rather than scientific in character and are only scientifically relevant when applied to natural realities — that is, the world as it exists).
This creates a dilemma; the laws of nature cannot exist without nature itself existing but the origin of nature cannot be explained scientifically without pre-existing laws. The logical conclusion is that science cannot, by its very nature, explain the origin of the universe.
The only alternative is that the laws of nature did pre-exist the universe but existed as a kind of blueprint in some non-material medium such as the “mind of God”.
This is why Physicist Paul Davies, who is not a Christian says the following:
“Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith—namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained god or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of universes too. for that reason, both the monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.” (6)
Does Science Prove Things with Absolute Certainty?
No, it does not. Here is why: Science relies on inferential reasoning. Inferential reasoning is drawing a conclusion or making a logical judgment based on indirect observation rather than based on direct observation. No scientist observed the start of the universe, or the beginnings of planet earth or how the first cell started. Much of history and science is based making inductive or abductive inferences. The goal is not absolute certainty. Induction is only based on probabilities and is always open to revision.
One Final Note on When Science Masquerades as Philosophy
In Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he attempts to demonstrate why science is “our exclusive guide to reality.” Here, Rosenberg attempts to provide a neat synopsis of life’s big questions, along with what he considers to be scientifically reliable answers. Here are some of life’s big questions that he thinks science can answer:
Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck . . . Is there free will? Not a chance. What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or something obligatory? Anything goes. (7)
Here, Rosenberg makes the assumption that what science reveals to us is all that is real. But as Edward Feser points out, Rosenberg is guilty of a reductionist view of reality. Feser illustrates:
Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.
Therefore, what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is probably all that is real. (8)
Anyone who came to this conclusion about metal detectors should visit a doctor, of course. The point is, Rosenberg and others who follow his lead should allow for additional ways besides science to explain reality along with life’s big questions. Metal detectors will always find metal and science will always find material/physical explanations to reality. We must ask what kinds of questions science can legitimately answer. Can science answer the “why” questions? Yes, it is true science can say why the universe exists. In other words, they can say the universe exists because of the Big Bang or some other scientific explanation. But, science is generally restricted to study how the mechanisms work behind several features of the natural or physical world. But once science attempts to answer whether or why the universe and several features of reality may have a deeper purpose, design, or an end goal, it enters the realm of philosophy.
1. Moreland, J.P. The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (Downers Grove ILL: InterVaristy Press, 1994), 16-17.
2. Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom: A Guide to Philosophy and Christian Faith, Kindle Version, 3852 to 3873.
3. Davies, P. Are We Alone? (New York: Basic, 1995), 96.
4. Teaching about evolution and the nature of science,” available at the national academies of sciences, engineering, medicine (1998), accessed October 14th, 2017, https://www.nap.edu/read/5787/chapter/11
5. Del Ratzsch, Philosophy of Science (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 15.
7. Alexander Rosenberg, A. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton. 2012), 2-3.
8. Feser, E. Five Proofs for The Existence of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 28