This is a question that will stick to the heels of your apologetic discussions with students like a hungry dog convinced that you’re hiding a dead pig in your pocket.
Our culture’s scientific zeitgeist is incredibly dogmatic because of a very specific philosophy of science that’s constantly alluded to in our education system.
In the West, science is seen as the ‘ultimate discipline’, the only true way to find verifiable facts. Bertrand Russell famously said, “Science is what we know, Philosophy is what we don’t know.” Putting this in it’s context, he continued with:
“We may say that, on its theoretical side, philosophy consists, at least in part, in the framing of large general hypotheses which science is not yet in a position to test; but when it becomes possible to test the hypotheses they become, if verified, a part of science, and cease to count as “philosophy.”” [Philosphy For The Layman]
Questions of science, he believed, would eventually replace much of philosophy. For instance ‘philosophy of mind’ would become purely psychology, and astrology would become astronomy.
This is the very particular and oddly peculiar context that our young people brew in every day.
The Definition and Limitations Of Science
Science is not religion’s enemy – far from it! Christians should love scientific research and seek it out. We should fund it, support it, read it and worship God in it. Its quest for discovery should lead us deeper into our understanding of God. This is worth nailing to the door from the off!
Science however, does need clearly defining and putting into it’s proper place if we are to step away from the cultish undertones of science in our culture.
If we go back to Russell for a moment we will find that he is passionate about challenging overly dogmatic philosophers who assert too much absolute certainty. He says:
“In order to judge of such attempts, it is necessary to take a survey of human knowledge, and to form an opinion as to its methods and its limitations. On such a subject it would be unwise to pronounce dogmatically.”
I think he is right – but that this also holds true for Science. We need to consider its limitations and methods too.
1. When we talk about Science, we are actually referring to The Scientific Method (observable, measurable and repeatable experiments with results expressed as ‘the best current hypothesis from the data collected to date’). The best hypothesis from this data once told us that the world was flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, and that humans couldn’t fly (enter Wright Brothers).
2. Many things we experience daily cannot be explored using The Scientific Method – such as the existence of abstract principles like mathematics or aesthetics; the assertion that you have a separate and independent mind to mine which is located on your person, and not somewhere behind Mars; or the idea that our memories exist, and that the universe isn’t just five minutes old created with the illusion of time.
3. The Scientific Method is limited to what we can experience with the five senses. If every one of us throughout humanity’s existence was born without the ability to see, what would that do to the idea of colour? It couldn’t categorically deny the existence of varying shades in reality, but we couldn’t prove or even test that hypothesis using The Scientific Method. If our senses form a box around us (or a Cave, courtesy of Plato), then all of our Science is limited to that box too.
Where Has This Come From?
Since the Scientific Revolution, there has been an underlying idea that smart people are science driven, and religious people are somewhat unintelligent or misinformed. This polarisation of worldviews and intelligence is sadly naive.
Considering the limitations of the scientific method, the highly naturalistic (and oftentimes atheistic) worldviews that flow out of it are incredibly faith based. So much everyday experience and phenomena cannot be sustained objectively using science – including the very basis for The Scientific Method itself.
The more recent renaissance in the atheistic agenda within the science worldview can be traced to the New Atheist movement, and most specifically to Richard Dawkins.
Responding To Richard Dawkins et al.
I always feel nervous in Dawkins conversations. On one hand, he is a scientist who hasn’t been involved in published research since the beginning or his career – and he seems to have a very loose grip (at best) on Philosophy, which (in fairness) is not his discipline.
If we are going to say ‘in fairness’ though, we should also point out that he is constantly talking about philosophy and making hugely sweeping and broadly fallacious philosophical statements to back up his – largely indefensible – claims.
On the other hand, though, he is a fantastic communicator and gifted writer who is incredibly good at distilling truths into easily digestible units for the public. As a science populariser, he has been incredibly effective at channeling funds and interest back into the struggling research arenas.
His arrogance and fallacy-ridden approach to questions of theology make me very grumpy(!) – however we need him to keep doing what he’s doing, which makes me feel very conflicted. Research is dependent on funding and public intrigue (far more than it used to be / than I think it should be). Science popularisers, like Dawkins are great PR people for the research effort.
I think Christians tend to use Dawkins as a strawman as his arguments are far too easy to dismantle. This makes us feel very comfortable responding to scientific arguments without knowing the whole lot about science itself.
I’d rather we were able to talk more intelligently about the limitations of The Scientific Method rather than waste our time and credibility taking down a strawman who just doesn’t have the legs for it. We need to make sure we can respond to the best possible versions of the arguments.
All this said, it is Dawkins rhetoric that we often hear in our conversations with young people.
Where Does This Leave Us?
In conversations about science, we should celebrate research and not make ourselves enemies of a fantastic method of finding truth. We don’t want to fall into the stereotype of ‘smart people are scientists, but dumb people are Christians’. Here are five specific takeaways:
1. We should be armed with knowledge of the limitations of The Scientific Method including a clear definition of what The Scientific Method is.
2. We should have a strategy of asking epistemological questions that help us to move away from the rhetoric to actual problems with God’s existence. I have a post on this here.
3. We should gracefully and generously remember that New Atheists like Dawkins are not the best versions of the argument, while holding in tension the rhetoric they have given to culture.
4. If it’s within our ability and delight to reason, then we should enjoy reading and researching science ourselves and marvel at the wonders of God contained within its grasp.
5. We should remember that God is not a scientist. A scientist has questions, not answers. A scientist looks for truth but has – at best – hypotheses and theories. God is the creator; He knows all truth, holds all truth and has all truth. God does not hypothesise; He knows and He reveals. We are the scientists. We study, search and inquire, but to be the best scientists, we must pray and listen to the leading of The Holy Spirit and the Word of God.