Science in Review: A Theology of Science

brown cow photo

“Actually, we perceived the image of what we refer to as a cow, one side of which was brown.” Photo by rumolay

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’).

ice cream photo

Does the existence of something as good as ice cream imply the existence of a good God? Does it imply the existence of a cow? Photo by KLMircea

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.

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Andy Walsh

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 elementary school students, 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.

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    Tyler Josephson commented on September 30, 2015 Reply

    Science prioritizes seeing before believing; experience (through controlled experiments) is used to falsify beliefs in the form of hypotheses. Belief before seeing isn’t entirely absent in science, for example the need for a working hypothesis, the need for creativity as you mention, and assumptions about the uniformity of nature. So some believing without seeing is unavoidable in science, but the general preference is to be able to see, to hold strongly beliefs with much evidence, and hold weakly beliefs with scant evidence. Whether a belief (hypothesis) comes through my own head or through revelation, a scientist would use experience to test it.

    In Jesus’ interaction with Thomas, Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus seems to indicate a preference of belief over experience, of hypothesis over experiment, even saying that belief without experience is superior to belief with experience. Does this piece of revealed insight into God’s character undermine your proposition to learn about God through experience? Perhaps you still could learn something, but it’s not what God would want you to do. Then again, this isn’t explicitly a command to obey, so much as a statement about who is blessed and who isn’t. How do you interpret this passage?

    Or consider 1 John 4:1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” This seems scientific at first, but the test of which he is speaking is not an experimental test. It is instead more of a “belief” test – does the new message agree with the message “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Rather than test the message against experience, test the message against another hypothesis. The literal application is that if I see a new message, even one that is backed up by experience and evidence, if it denies that Jesus came in the flesh, then it still must be rejected – sound theology, but a rather unscientific process. On the other hand, their culture didn’t have the scientific method, yet, so are we supposed to learn the principle of “testing” and apply it in our culture, using the scientific method, along the lines that you propose?

    How do you interact with this tension as a Christian and a scientist?

      Andy Walsh commented on September 30, 2015 Reply

      Great questions, Tyler. Thanks for raising them!

      There is definitely a prevalent narrative about science and religion that science is all about seeing in order to believe, while religion is all about believing to see (i.e. having faith). And to be sure, empiricism is a foundational feature of science. At the same time, there is a lot of believing involved in the practice of individual scientists. We rely on the testimony of others for most results; no one can verify all scientific claims for themselves. This happens on all scales, from trusting the observations/measurements reported by our lab mates as we collaborate on a paper to taking medication developed, tested and certified by countless scientists we have never met. In some disciplines, we trust the “testimony” of fossils, ice core samples and genomes about specific events in the past. And that’s before we get into metaphysical and epistemological issues, like needing to believe that seeing is a reliable way of accessing truth, or that truth exists at all.

      Again, that’s not to deny the importance of empiricism to science. And there are plenty of phenomena that are verified empirically on a regular basis in a variety of formal and informal ways. Physicists regularly find new ways to demonstrate the counter-intuitive features of quantum physics. Everyone experiences the fact that they stay near Earth and don’t float away into space, even if they aren’t checking the specific mathematics of general relativity. I just think believing and seeing are more closely entwined in science than is acknowledged in the standard narratives.

      Likewise, I think believing and seeing both play a role in a Biblical faith. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” “Test everything; hold onto what is good.” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” All of these verses and more speak to an objective reality that we can experience. Gideon ran experiments with negative controls as he sought to know God. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and the disciples all performed miracles to provide empirical demonstrations of God’s authority. None of these people would have used our modern scientific terms or concepts to describe what they were doing, but I think it is helpful to current audiences to experiment with applying those kinds of categories to see where they fit and don’t fit. And questioning evidence that doesn’t fit the current model happens all the time in science. Another philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhns, talks about how the science community as a whole can be slow to reject a widely-held model/hypothesis even when it is contradicted by evidence.

      Now, we can’t repeatedly experience the miracles of Jesus; we rely on the testimony of others. We also rely on indirect observations from which we can infer certain things. Most notably – we can all observe Christians attending church on Sundays. Why Sundays and not Saturdays? The early Christians included many Jews who apparently wished to maintain the practice of circumcision but had no objection to gathering on Sunday instead of the traditional Sabbath. Something must have motivated that change; the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday is one possible explanation. Is that sort of reasoning much different from how we infer common descent, or the details of how the dinosaurs went extinct, or other singular matters of natural history?

      As for the story of Thomas, I take Jesus’ commentary to be descriptive rather than normative. Practically speaking, most followers of Jesus wouldn’t have the chance to interact with him in the flesh. Providing such a chance would be antithetical to the idea that he was God incarnate as man; no other man gets to walk this Earth for 2,000 years. Believing without seeing does require greater trust, and Jesus wishes to commend that trust. But it is still believing because of the testimony of those who have seen, which is not held against them. Jesus is not requiring that we believe in contradiction of what we have seen. That would create real tension with science, but I am not aware of anywhere in the Bible where that is expected.

  • Gerry Rau commented on October 5, 2015 Reply

    I think you are correct that most working scientists lean heavily on Popper’s idea of falsifiability. It would be good to mention, however, that most philosophers of science have long since moved beyond this, realizing that it does not work for many areas of science. It works relatively well for lab-based experimental science, where you are testing a single hypothesis, but that is only a very small segment of the way science is actually conducted. I talk about this briefly in relation to origins in Mapping the Orgins Debate (IVP). Del Ratzsch has a nice summary in Science and its Limits (IVP) p 33-37.

      Andy Walsh commented on October 5, 2015 Reply

      That’s a helpful point. I was hesitant to even introduce philosophy of science, knowing that I could only scratch the surface and also that I am not myself a philosopher of science. Still, I wanted to acknowledge the role that philosophy of science can play in bridging science and theology. And I thought a specific point of reference was better than some weak generalizations.

      I’m not even sure that working scientists always behave as if science is defined by falsifiability. For example, when looking to demonstrate scientific knowledge, we ask people about what science has proved rather than what it has ruled out. Still, Popper and falsifiability definitely dominate the conversation when scientists and science enthusiasts do articulate a philosophy of science, especially when trying to differentiate science from (or “prove” it superior to) faith/religion/theology. So I decided to opt for starting from a place that I thought a lot of folks would find familiar.

      Still, I am not at all surprised that philosophers of science have moved on, and I appreciate the reading suggestions to help me get up to speed.

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