If I’m not interested in science, why take a science class?
This was the first question I received from my reader survey. Technically, it came from Tom while testing the form, but I thought it offered a convenient entry into a theology of science. Science is a worthwhile pursuit as an end unto itself; there are also plenty of practical and pragmatic reasons to have a professional or amateur interest in science. To get to theology, though, we need to wander beyond the boundaries of science; why not start there and work our way inside instead? In doing so, we’ll see that science can help refine the subject of our theology while also broadening its language.
We’ll start our journey with a philosophical question: How does science actually work? That’s tricky to answer from within science; it’s more coherent to have a robust philosophy of science. That field has evolved over time. In current practice, most scientists lean heavily on Karl Popper and his idea of falsifiability. To understand falsifiability, let’s take a train ride to Scotland with an economist, a logician and a mathematician. Upon spying a brown cow outside the window, the economist says “Oh, the cows in Scotland are brown!” The logician corrects her: “No, there are cows in Scotland, at least one of which is brown.” “Hold on,” adds the mathematician. “There is at least one cow in Scotland, at least one side of which is brown.”
What the mathematician understands is that making a generalization about all cows is thorny. To be certain your statement is true, you’d have to examine every cow, which seems practically if not theoretically impossible. Humans could never prove such a statement, although we could disprove it by finding a black cow. Science is thus the process of falsifying hypotheses by finding observations that contradict them, and any statement that can be falsified in this way is within the bounds of science. “All Scottish cows are brown” is a scientific hypothesis even if it cannot be proved conclusively in the positive; “All true Scottish cows are brown” is not scientific if one is sufficiently vague about what makes a cow truly Scottish such that some reason can always be found to exclude any non-brown cows as they are discovered.
What if a theologian had also been on the train? She might conclude that the statement “God exists” cannot be conclusively rejected by science (there are always more places to look, so to speak), but certain specific notions of God might be falsifiable. “God only allows things to be pink” is directly contradicted by observation. “God will provide ice cream for everyone whenever they want” is routinely ruled out at my house. These are trivial examples, but the infamous problem of pain can also be formulated in this fashion. “God is omnipotent and will use his power to make sure nothing bad ever happens.” We might wish that were true, but most people agree that bad things have happened. Thus either God is not omnipotent in the way we suppose him to be, or he sometimes allows bad things to happen (for most definitions of ‘bad things’).
This relationship between science and theology may not be exactly what we want; we might prefer a definitive proof of God’s existence from science. But I think it’s actually quite a valuable contribution. What’s the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.” If science can keep us from worshiping false gods by telling us who God isn’t, then we can do a much better job of obeying this commandment. Or if you prefer a more relational theology oriented around loving God with your head, heart, and hands, then think about the challenge of loving someone you don’t know. In order to love my wife, I have to love the woman she actually is and not the woman I imagine her to be. If I believe “My wife enjoys kung-fu films as much as I do” and ignore all the empirical evidence to the contrary — falling asleep during kung-fu films, making obtuse statements like “I do not enjoy kung-fu films as much as you do” — then my wife will not feel loved when I give her a DVD of Legendary Weapons of China no matter how much I believe my statement or how amazing Lau Kar-leung’s choreography is. Knowing who God isn’t gets us closer to knowing who God is.
Science can also contribute positively to knowing God, even if it can’t offer definitive proofs. There is another side of science; those falsifiable statements — hypotheses, models, theories — to test have to come from somewhere. That’s where the creative aspect of science comes in. Likewise, theology requires creativity to come up with ideas about who God is. To be sure, the Bible has a lot to offer in that respect, yet as a finite document it has its limits. Our ideas about God’s omnipotence or Trinitarian nature, for example, are informed by the Bible, but most traditions express those ideas in terms that are not explicitly stated there.
Science can provide additional language for expressing theological ideas. In fact, the Bible regularly takes advantage of science in this way, using ideas from the world around us to help us come to terms with God. David and Solomon, Peter and Paul, even Jesus himself all use ideas from the natural world to express various facets of God’s character and his kingdom. As we continue to understand that world better and develop a richer language for describing it — the creative work of science — we will be able to express ideas about God in new ways as well. They will need to be consistent with the Bible and with observation of creation, but I think those criteria can be met.
And so to answer the original question, I think there are a couple of theological reasons to learn something new about science even if it won’t apply it practically. The first is to expand what you know about the world that God created so you can rule out ever more false conceptions of God that could lead you astray. The second is to enrich the language you use to express who God is (and who he isn’t) and thus come to know him more deeply.
- Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne: A compact book on the similarities between how theology and science are practiced.
- The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology by Alister McGrath: A more in-depth exploration of what we can and cannot expect from theology and science. (Some of the main ideas are touched on in this blog post.)
- Tom Ingebritsen wrote a blog series on Christianity and Science that provides a broader overview of different perspectives.
- The American Scientific Affiliation recently compiled a number of their resources into topical groups; there’s likely to be something on just about any science & theology topic you might want to explore.
- The James Gregory Public Lectures on Science and Theology has a number of thought-provoking talks on their website and podcast. A recent talk by Tom McLeish was about a theology of science.
- The Behemoth is an online magazine with regular science features on topics ranging from the physics of baseball to plankton to the exponential growth of plants (by yours truly).
- I gave a talk earlier this year expanding on the potential for science to enrich the creative aspect of theology. It also touches briefly on a missiology of science.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.