Natural Science and the Christian Faith: Pt. 4 of 4—Why this Discussion Matters
March 17, 2014 richardstevenpark

Natural Science and the Christian Faith: Pt. 4 of 4—Why this Discussion Matters

Posted in Forum Post

In the final post of this blog series on natural science and the Christian faith, I suggest three reasons that we as followers of Christ ought to familiarize ourselves with the “science-religion dialogue.” These are: first, to dispel the myth of NOMA, “nonoverlapping magisteria” (cf. Stephen Jay Gould); secondly, to clarify the notion of “levels of description”; and thirdly, to commend the Christian worldview in the public square. Let us begin with the first.

To dispel the myth of NOMA. The idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria” comes from the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould believed that where science deals strictly with facts, faith was in the business of mere opinions and feelings; and that these two domains—science and faith—ought, therefore, be considered “nonoverlapping magisterial” each with its proper and mutually exclusive sets of issues. In a journal article where he coined the phrase, Gould writes: “[S]cience covers the empirical universe . . . religion extends over questions of moral[ity]. These two magisteria do not overlap . . . To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven” (Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History Magazine, 106 (March 1997): 16-22).

As eloquent as it may sound, the question begs: Is this view sound? A couple of simple counterexamples should suggest otherwise. Consider the status of moral beliefs. If, as is recently being considered, morality is reducible merely to an evolutionary story of human biology and a neurological account of its being merely a set of brain states, then science does have something to say about what Gould suggests is in the realm of religion. Conversely, since faith—the Christian faith at least—builds its case on (among other things) historical facts such as the resurrection of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15), then Gould’s “religion” too draws on facts which allegedly is in the realm of science. The story told by Gould that science and religion occupy different and nonoverlapping magisterial is just that: a mere untrue myth.

The second reason I suggest that we study the science-religion dialogue is to clarify the insight which the world renown physicist-priest John Polkinghone calls “levels of description” (see John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology, 2nd ed. (London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2007 [1986]), pp. 115-16; cf. Donald MacKay, “‘Complementarity’ in Theology and Science,” Zygon 9, no. 3 (1974): 225-44). Returning to the illustration of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, one could see that while there is an entirely consistent way of describing the painting in terms of CMYK color codes and oxidation—one level of description—it is also entirely consistent to speak in terms of sheer artistry. There are different levels of description—e.g., aesthetic, ethical, neurological, natural scientific—and each may have a role to play in describing a given phenomenon. These levels are not mutually exclusive but jointly exhaustive. In other words, describing something at one level (say, natural scientific) does not negate or nullify description at an entirely different level (say, theological or moral).

A final reason I suggest that we as followers of Christ ought to familiarize ourselves with the issues surrounding the science-religion dialogue is to commend the Christian worldview. The richness of the Christian theological tradition, of which we have only begun to scratch the surface in this series of blogs, is one which holds that all truth is God’s truth. And as such, God’s truth can be found in the deliverances of natural science as it can be at other levels of description. We need not fear that there be any conflict between natural science (or any other science for that matter) and the Christian worldview. Since God is the author of all truth, wherever any truth is found it will necessarily cohere with every other piece of truth. Much in the same vein as Robert Jastrow, founder NASA’s Goddard Institute and director of Mount Wilson Institute, we would do well to recognize along with this secular thinker that:

“This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth… [But] for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; [and] as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries” (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978), pp. 115-16).

We would do well to draw on the grand tradition of Christian thought, and to take up the baton of past theologians in order to explore and explain with confidence and kindness the wonders of our Creator and the veracity of our faith.

In closing, not only is there no conflict between miracles and modern science – they are comfortably compatible. Furthermore, because of the mutually reinforcing character of science and the Christian faith, we are encouraged to take up the mantle of the light of the knowledge of God, seeking creative ways to illumine God’s truth in every area of knowledge and to everyone for whom Christ died – to the glory of God and the witness of His name.


Comments (7)

    Todd 4 years ago

    “There are different levels of description—e.g., aesthetic, ethical, neurological, natural scientific—and each may have a role to play in describing a given phenomenon.”

    To make sense of levels of description, as opposed to just different modes of description, something must be said about what makes them *levels*, and what makes one level lower or higher than another. Consider three descriptions. Philosophically, the current way to do this is by speaking of supervenience. If, for example, the aesthetic properties of “The Jewish Bride” supervene upon its physical properties, then there can be no change in the aesthetic properties without a change in the physical properties, but not vice versa. That puts the physical properties at a lower level of description. There’s also the principle of generality. All biological properties of organisms supervene on chemical properties, but not all chemical properties in the universe are associated with biological properties, since inanimate substances have chemical properties too. Thus, chemical properties are more general than biological ones, and thus at a lower level of description.

    I would say there is a conflict between miracles and science. Science is in the business of discovering natural laws and using them to explain what we observe. Laws are mathematically expressible regularities. Miracles are, by definition, not regular and not lawlike. They are singularities, not regularities.

    If miracles happen it’s because there is a lower level of description than the physical: the level of divine will. If so, physical laws supervene on divine will, but divine will is more general, more extensive, than the physical, making miracles manifestations of divine will that are external to physical laws. As such, they must always remain beyond the reach of science. This also means that, from within the domain of scientific explanation, miracles are always deniable.

  2. Hi Todd, thanks so much for taking the time to engage with me on this blog.

    Just a couple of quick comments in response: First, while I generally agree with your take on supervenience, the problem I see is how you define miracles in your second paragraph. This blog is a four-part series, the second part of which addresses what it means to ‘define’ a miracle in one way or another. If you consider Plantinga’s approach of considering miracles as ‘special divine action’, and the laws of nature as describing the ways in which divine action customarily occurs, then perhaps there is no problem with my view that miracles and modern science do not conflict.

    Secondly, at one point you suggest that ‘there is a conflict between miracles and science’, and at another point suggest that ‘[miracles] must always remain beyond the reach of science’, making conflict impossible. I think this second problem is related to the first.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write.

    Todd 4 years ago

    Hi Richard, and thanks for putting this material out there for me to mull over. Yes, I think “conflict” is the wrong word, now that you call my attention to it. Perhaps “disconnect” would be better. If an occurrence can be subsumed under a law, it’s not a miracle. If it can’t be subsumed under a law, the most science can say about it is, well, that it can’t be subsumed under any *known* law. That makes it an anomaly.
    Part of the definition of miracle (Plantinga’s, for example) is that the occurrence is a divine action, not just an anomaly. Others might say that it takes place in a context fraught with religious significance or expectation. Regardless of the wording we choose, this aspect of the miraculous goes beyond the merely anomalous and pertains to the meaning of what is going on. Science has no criteria for such things, so science can’t confirm any miracle claim. At best, it can confirm that there was an anomaly.

    One can, of course, insist that any anomaly is subsumed under a yet to be discovered law, but that’s scientism, not science. It’s a faith commitment that one may or may not find compelling. It’s a naturalistic interpretation of the anomaly.

    I’d just like to add another point, not in direct response to your blog entry but as a general observation. Many naturalists will fall back on a kind of “metascientific induction” at this point. They’ll point to past successes of science in discovering laws as evidence that science will eventually discover the relevant laws that govern these anomalies too. The trouble with that “induction” is that induction itself presupposes the operation of laws. Induction works because there are laws of nature. But *there are no laws of scientific discovery* in the sense needed by this naturalistic argument. Therefore this naturalistic move actually rests on a pseudo-induction.

  4. Hi Todd, I think the problem of induction you point out is spot on. I will also say that I think you have a good grasp of philosophy (and possibly even theology!) of science — you’re putting that to good use I hope! Thanks again for the feedback and engagement. Best, RSP

    Todd 4 years ago

    I’ve been teaching philosophy a long time, but I’m deeply ignorant of theology. But the point about how *laws* are essential to naturalism is often missed, even by its critics. Too often, the focus is on the ontology of naturalism, aka materialism/physicalism. But that’s not the whole of it. There is also usually the unstated assumption that *all causation is lawlike*. That is, for anything to be said to cause anything, there must be a repeatable/on-demand regularity at work, mathematically expressible. Mathematics is the language of laws. If naturalism is true, everything that occurs anywhere, anytime is subsumed under one or more laws, and science can, in principle discover those laws how they describe all occurrences.

    But are there laws of thought and action? Never mind divine thought and action; are there even laws of human thought and action? There are logical laws, of course, but they are not descriptive in the way laws of nature are. They are prescriptive, or normative. They describe how we ought to make inferences, not how we inevitably do make them. If they described how we invariably do think (the way natural laws describe physical interactions), no one would ever need to be taught logic, and no one would ever fail to make a logical inference. And despite our casual use of terms such as “compelling reasons” or “compelling evidence”, reasons and evidence don’t really compel. When we explain natural phenomena in terms of causal laws, we show how a given occurrence was inevitable. When we explain personal phenomena in terms of reasons and intentions, we show how a given occurrence was *intelligible*, and no one has yet shown that the intelligible is inevitable.

    Personal, or as it’s often called, *agent* causation, is, I believe, metaphysically different from natural causation. For this reason, my preferred version of the Cosmological Argument is something like this: The natural order (i.e., the “universe” according to naturalism) is either uncaused or agent-caused, because there’s nothing else for it to be. Any natural cause is, by definition, part of the natural order itself. There are reasons to think it’s not uncaused–the Kalam argument–but I don’t think those reasons are decisive. There are also reasons to think it’s agent-caused, i.e., fine-tuning. I don’t think those reasons are decisive either, but on balance, both sets of reasons (a) tip the scale toward an agent-caused natural order, aka theism; and (b) leave room for plausible deniability, if you need it.

    And given all that, it’s not a problem, for me anyway, to accept further agent-caused intrusions into the natural order in the form of miracles. On the human scale, we are very familiar with personal interactions that are at once meaningful yet unpredictable. If we live in an agent-caused universe, miracles that are at once meaningful yet unpredictable are just what we should expect.

    Gordon Reid 4 years ago

    I cannot see that you have made the case for your closing that “not only is there no conflict between miracles and modern science – they are comfortably compatible.” Modern science assumes methodological naturalism and makes no claim about whether the supernatural exists. Rather, it argues that natural entities and causes are the only ones we can know or investigate. All scientists, including those who are Christians, consider experimental data to have a natural cause and not a miraculous cause. Scientists search for anomalies in the experimental data, especially experimentally repeatable anomalies, because this is often an indicator of the need to refine/update a scientific model.

    Miracles are anomalies but these anomalies are of no interest to science. Assume that walking on water was a miracle. Science has no interest in studying walking on water. The event is not reproducible except by the will of a supernatural agent so science cannot even begin to examine this type of miracle. Science can only say walking on water seems to be inconsistent with the natural law, as we know it.

    You claim miracles and modern science are comfortably compatible. It seems a better description of miracles and modern science is that of feuding relatives. These relatives never show up at the same event. Both of these relatives ignore the existence of the other. No one would ever describe these relatives as comfortably compatible.

  7. Hello again, Reid. Thanks for this. I think you may be right that I have overstated my case. Of course, there is much more I could (and perhaps should) have said to suggest that Christianity and modern science are ‘comfortably compatible’ — such as the fine-tuning of the universe, the recent (just last week!) discoveries which comport well with the classical cosmological argument, the rise of modern science as a function of the Christian worldview, etc. But, this is (after all) just a simple blog post. But thanks for taking the time to have a read-through and to leave a comment.

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