Monday, June 19, 2006

On Being a Christian and a Scientist part I

A few weeks ago, "Tom," who is probably also Steve the Troll, made the observation that one could not be both a Christian and a scientist, that the two were irreconcilable. Being both, I find the observation a bit amusing. Is this person either? I don't know, but I would find it quite ironic if someone was neither and was telling me I couldn't be both.

This is not to say that you can't make observations on something of which you are not a part. However, if you're going to do so, you need to bring more to the table than just, "You can't do both because that's stupid!"

I thought I would write a bit about being both a Christian and a scientist, and how there is no real conflict. To do this, I shall provide for you some material from Volume One of Thomas Oden's systematic theology, The Living God. The final chapter is an exploration of systematic theology, and he asks the question of whether or not theology can be considered a science.

A science is a branch of study concerned with the observation and classification of facts (especially with the establishment of verifiable general laws) chiefly through induction and hypothesis. A procedure such as science, widely regarded as useful, can hardly be completely inapplicable (even if inadequate) to Christian inquiry.

Insofar as it seeks to make accurate observations, test evidence, provide fit hypotheses, arrange facts in due order, and make reliable generalizations, the study of God may be called a science. It employs both inductive and deductive argument. It relies upon the same primary laws of thought and the same categories of reason upon which all scientific inquiry depends.


To be clear, theology requires many of the same intellectual tools that any science requires. Weight evidence and argument is necessary whether you are discussing philosophy, theology, history, or the latest evidence published in Science. The evidence that each of those fields examines is going to be different, but reason and logic are not tossed out the door when one leaves the Halls of Science.

The methods of inquiry into Christianity are held by many classical Christian writers to be a "science," according to the classical definition of scientia as an orderly knowing or knowledge, or a disciplina, as instruction or teaching or body of knowledge. But the facts into which Christian teaching inquires are brought from an arena that is thought by some to be blocked out from scientific investigation: religious consciousness, moral awareness, the life of the spirit, and the history of revelation.


This is an important distinction. There are some questions that natural science simply cannot answer. Science can tell you much about the growth and development of an unborn child, but it cannot answer the moral question of whether or not killing that child is wrong. For that matter, science cannot answer the question of whether killing anybody is wrong. Morality is not what natural science answers.

So then what of God? There are questions about God that natural science cannot answer. How can the natural examine the supernatural? Biology cannot examine God. He has no anatomy, no taxonomy. Chemistry cannot examine God. God has no magnetic moment, you cannot measure his pH, there is no conceivable way to procure an x-ray structure of the transcendent One. Physics? God has no mass, no dimensions, no measurable quantities. Sociology? Psychology? You can observe those who follow God, but those sciences study men. To try to compare the mind of men to the mind of God would be like trying to compare the mind of a dog to the mind of a man. There might be some minor similarities, but the differences are just too great.

No scientific inquiry proceeds without axioms and postulates that do not admit of empirical demonstration. Geometric inquiry, for instance, depends upon the postulate of parallels, but that postulate is far from being finally demonstrable. The view that scientific inquiry is independent of all authority is itself quite distorted. Theology is that sort of science that proceeds with a specific postulate: historical revelation.

Theology has a definite object to investigate, namely, the understanding of God as known in the Christian community. There is no doubt that such an understanding exists, and that it is capable of being inquired into. It is a historical fact that the modern university since the thirteenth century has been spawned in large part by the inductive and deductive methods developed by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian inquiry concerning God. There is no reason one cannot take as a subject of scientific investigation the modes of awareness of God that recur in Christian communities: the belief in God, that God exists, that God is triune, and that God pardons sin.


Of course, that truly depends on what type of scientific investigation you are referring to. Again, the natural sciences are inadequate to answer such questions.

There is another important observation here, that the modern university owes its existence to Christianity. A great number of scientists, until the time of the Enlightenment, were Christians. Even then, many still were. Many of the oldest universities in America began as seminaries for the training of clergy. To say that science and faith must be enemies is to be ignorant of history.

No botanist claims to provide the basic order by which plant life lives. Rather, the botanist ascertains an order that is already present in the nature of the facts themselves. Similarly the theologian is not the master of the facts, but their servent. The theologian cannot construct a system of Christian teaching to suit his or her fancy, any more than the geologist can rearrange the strata of rocks according to aesthetic whim or personal desire. Christian theology simply wishes to set forth that understanding of God that is known in the Christian community in a way that is fitting to its own proper order, harmonizing that wide body of facts and data so as to preserve their intrinsic relation to one another.


Some might observe that others do attempt to set up their own system of theology. However, there must be contrast between those disputes of theology that come from how to interpret the "evidence," such as history, tradition, and revelation, and those disputes that come from ignoring or fabricating such evidence.

A good analogy would be to compare string theory to, say, phlogiston theory. There are competing ideas of multiple dimensions and how to account for gravity and so on floating around, but they will center on how to interpret the evidence that is available to us and how to acquire new evidence. Phlogiston theory, on the other hand, may offer a way to interpret some of the evidence available, but holding to it requires ignoring great portions of evidence that is also present.

I have much more to say on these matters, but it shall have to wait for another posting. In the meantime, this is enough to consider.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Insofar as it seeks to make accurate observations, test evidence, provide fit hypotheses, arrange facts in due order, and make reliable generalizations, the study of God may be called a science."

I agree that you can study God in a scientific manner. That was never my issue.

When a scientist finds a dead end or fails to find evidence for something (i.e., the hypothesis is not supported), usually an adjustment is made. A scientist seeks evidence, and remains skeptical about things for which there is no hard evidence.

Let's compare the study of God to the study of gravity: there is more evidence for gravity than there is evidence against it. This does not hold true in regards to God. As a human being, I have observed gravity. I have never observed God. This is not to say that I do not want there to be a God...it is only to say that I have not seen any evidence.

Therefore, until somebody can provide evidence of God as others have provided evidence for gravity, there is no reason to accept it as so.

The only scientific response to God is agnosticism. Nobody has proven God yet, but that doesn't mean that God cannot be proven. The arguments for God are equally strong as arguments against God, and so it would not be scientific to accept the existence of God as true.

In short: you can think about God scientifcally, but you can't produce any results.

I would be thrilled, though, if you could provide some objective evidence that God exists. However, we both know that this is impossible, and I can only imagine how hard that must be.

There is probably more evidence that you believe in God because of your genes and your environment. When did you become religious? What if your parents would have never introduced you to church?

I think it is entirely wrong for adults to take children to church. Children are eager to please their parents, and in many cases they purport to believe in something just to gain approval from the people who provide for them. This is a terrible environment in which to raise a child.

I'm sorry if you were raised this way, Hal. At the time, you probably didn't dare to question your parents, and hence were not thinking scientifically. You set up your social life with other Christians, and now maybe you realize that you trapped yourself, and were too afraid to lose those around you because they were too shallow to accept you for anything other than a Christian. It was awkward, but more comfortable than having to take the scientific approach.

It's not too late.

PS At the very least the bible and the process by which it was assembled are anything but scientific. The formation of the canon was subjective if not arbitrary and as such the bible you read today is absolutely worthless. The process of translation was arcane and filled with errors. Many of the passages are forgeries. As a scientist, it infuriates me that anybody would take such a flawed text seriously.

Hal said...

Funny thing, Steve. My parents stopped taking me to church when I was around 7 or 8. I willingly chose to go back when I was 13 (or was that just residual brainwashing?). In fact, my parents began attending church again a few years later because I convinced them to do so.

And the whole "appeal to emotion" argument doesn't quite work. I'm quite comfortable with my decision to be a Christian.

And as for the formation and reliability of the NT canon, that's an entirely different issue. But I don't think there is anything "scientifically" wrong with it. The enormous body of Christian scholarship on the NT canon would otherwise have to be nothing but lies (which is a philosophical problem of incredible proportions).

Steve the Troll said...
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Steve the Troll said...
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Steve the Troll said...
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Steve the Troll said...

Science involves learning, which involves adjusting to new understanding.

When you believe in a book that was written for people 2000 years ago, you are doing exactly the opposite. You are not learning, you are not seeking new understanding. You are resiting both, because your system of beliefs would crumble underneath you.

When you respond to my posts, please don't get defensive. We're both scientists. Please just prove to me that God exists. You believe he/she/it does, and you're a scientist, so it can't be that hard!!!

steve the troll said...

If you are both a scientist and a Christian, than you must also believe in the Easter Bunny, because there is about the same amount of evidence for God as there is for the Easter Bunny. Same for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and whatever else you want to believe in.

Hal said...

Steve, you crack me up. If I decide to start calling you Shirley, are you going to take that name too?

Hal said...

Here's the thing Steve: I don't appreciate the profanity on my blog. If you think you can express yourself without that, I'll let your posts remain.

Shirley the Troll said...

Hey, it's your blog. Censor as you like. I wasn't aware certain words were not allowed. You could bleep them out, then re-post.

Shirley the steve said...

You know, Hitler was a man of immense faith who accepted Jesus Christ. You guys can hang out in heaven.

Hey, Hal, do you have evidence for the existence of heaven? Can you reconcile any discrepancies between the law of conservation of mass and heaven?

Hal said...

Steve, I doubt there's any answer I could give you to any of your questions that you'd accept. Do you believe, though, that your rather confrontational approach will cause any change in me?

Anyhow, to show that I'm a good sport, I am going to repost your comments with the naughty bits censored.

Comment 1
My real beef with you, Hal, is that you're a chemist who accepts the bible as some "innerant word of God" when scientists have proven that it is not.

Why do you people study religion. When you study something, you are admitting that there is more to know. Why are there scientists who start out as Christians, then actually study the bible, only to become agnostic or atheist? Shouldn't this tell you something?

It sounds to me like you should've chosen to go to a seminary, though I think you would've found it very frustrating to study religion in a scientific manner, which is probably why you never have.

It frustrates me that you can claim to be a scientist, and at the same time forget that a key to any experiment is to eliminate bias. You have failed to do this, Hal, and therefore you are not a scientist. You're also not a true Christian, because you do not follow the inerrant word of God, word-for-word. Keep pretending, though.

In chemistry, if you don't follow a procedure word-for-word, accidents can happen. **** blows up in your face. You know this.

If you want to be a Christian, quit half-***ing it. You should be reading the Bible right now, asking for forgiveness from God, and hating everyone except God. The Bible tells you to.

Quit being nothing. Be something. ****. You make me sick. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Why do I feel the burden to educate you silly people?


Comment 2
You should feel terrible about what you did to your parents. They should also feel terrible for ever introducing you to such bull**** as a little kid.

Comment 3
It's not very nice to force a child to do something. I hope you take a more scientific approach with your children. Or, better yet, just don't have children.

Your parents stopped taking you to church??? How ****ed up does that sound? Why didn't you argue with them to stay? Oh, right, because you didn't know any better!!! Maybe they should've let you figure stuff out for yourself.

Pathetic.

Shallow Steve said...

I don't imagine I could change you. You just seem to have figured out how to be a scientist and a Christian at the same time, and I was wondering if and how that's possible, and why you think it's possible.

You don't have to give me an answer that I would accept. I don't know why you feel the need to please me anyway. I'm just looking for your answers. We don't have to agree. I just very much enjoy discussing these things. The more I learn about the world, the less I understand, but the more I want to learn. It's insatiable.

I'm sorry if I come across as confrontational. I just get upset when people sidestep questions. Sometimes you don't seem to listen, and when I put effort into these comments in order to foster debate only to have you dance around the topic issues, it's frustrating.

If you don't want my comments, then either quit blogging or don't allow feedback. That would put an end to all of this right quick.

I enjoy reading your posts, because the topics are sometimes interesting, and I enjoy the dance that we call discourse, and I would enjoy an answer to all of my questions.

I'm sorry you've found it hard to explain (in your own words, without the use of books) your beliefs to this point. It's probably a good thing that you're thinking about them. Either way, my challenging you is healthy: you either learn to logically justify and defend your existence, or you learn a new approach. Ultimately, the choice is yours. The transition in either direction is a painful one, though.

Hal said...

Steve, I write this blog because I enjoy writing. I allow comments because I enjoy discussion and debate. I also ignore comments when I don't think it's worth responding to them.

I'm sorry if you're frustrated by that policy of mine, but understand that I have a hard time taking you seriously when you say things like, "Am I taking crazy pills?" That, to me, does not indicate that any sort of fruitful discussion is about to take place.

Now, some of your questions are worth answering. Don't mistake me for avoiding them completely. Some of them I actually planned on addressing in future postings. Some of them I didn't want to give glib answers to because they're complicated. If someone writes an entire book dedicated to some of those questions, a blurb in a comment seems inadequate.

And finally, I worked a 16 hour day in the lab yesterday. While I do find time in the day to hit up the blog, you have to understand that this is not my highest priority right now. Please be patient with me.

Just thought you should know.

Steve the Troll said...

No problem. I can sympathize.