Science & the Supernatural Part I – Ideas & Their Consequences

In my continuing debate with R P over at Why Things Are The Way They Are, his central criticism of creationism is that it simply does not qualify as science due to its appeal to a supernatural agent. R P sums it up this way in his recent post:

Finally, my criticism, which remains unanswered, was not that creationism (which is to say TRUE creationism, as Wombatty defines it) does or does not admit of certain kinds of evolutionary change. I appreciate the clarification, but the point of my “it sounds a lot like evolution” remark, which I inserted parenthetically, was simply to note the similarity. My criticism was that creationism ever could be a science (so defined), that allowing one class of supernatural appeals but not any others (like astrology) is at best arbitrary and at worst misleading, and therefore that referring to creationism and biology by the same label IS equivocating, and of the fallacious kind too.

This is the most common – and the most effective – objection to creationism raised by evolutionists. Creationism would just be the supernatural camel’s nose in the tent; before you know it, we would be overwhelmed with astrologers and all manner of hocus-pocus in the hallowed halls of science. The grand enterprise of modern science would be reduced to a heap of superstitious rubble. Science would be dead.

To begin with, R P’s concern about arbitrary appeals to super-natural explanations is valid – they can, and often are, ‘science-stoppers’. The history of modern science bears this out. But that same history also reveals the crucial, indispensable role that non-aribtrary – that is, justified – appeals to supernatural agency have played in the scientific enterprise. This will surely sound strange, if not heretical, to many, but it is the case nonetheless. How can one justify invoking that which is beyond nature to explain nature? History shows the way…

First, consider the cornerstones upon which the edifice of modern science is built:

  • The universe is real;
  • The universe is rational, logical and predictable;
  • The human mind is capable of logic and rationality;
  • Our senses (sight, hearing, etc.) give us a reliable and accurate ‘window’ into the universe.

These are the critical and necessary axioms – unproven and unprovable assumptions – without which modern science would wither into nothing. They are so fundamental, most people just take them for granted. But they are not to be taken for granted. These axioms were – and are – an organic outgrowth of a very specific belief system and it was only when and where that philosophy formed the dominant cultural zeitgeist that science could flourish. In his book, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, Oxford mathematician and philosopher John Lennox writes:

At the heart of science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly. Without this deep conviction science would not be possible. So we are entitled to ask: Where does the conviction come from? Melvin Calvin, Nobel Prize-winner in biochemistry, seems in little doubt about its provenance:

‘As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2.000 or 3,000 years ago, and enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.’

~Chemical Evolution, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969, p. 258

This is very striking in view of the fact that it is common in the literature first to trace the roots of contemporary science back to the Greeks of the sixth century BC and then to point out that , for science to proceed, the Greek worldview had to emptied of its polytheistic content. We shall return to the latter point below. We simply wish to point out here that, although the Greeks certainly were in many ways the first to do science in anything like the way we understand it today, the implication of what Melvin Calvin is saying is that the actual view of the universe that was of the greatest help to science, namely the Hebrew view that the universe is created and upheld by God, is much older than the worldview of the Greeks.

~p. 19

The singular and indispensable role that Christian monotheism played in the birth and rise of modern science is a theme that many historians of science have uncovered in their research*. In his book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery, Rodney Stark writes:

In this chapter, I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. In demonstration of this thesis [I show that] not only did religion not cause the “Dark Ages”; nothing else did either—the story that after the “fall” of Rome a long dark night of ignorance and superstition settled over Europe is as fictional as the Columbus story. In fact this was an era of profound and rapid technological progress by the end o which Europe had surpassed the rest of the world. Moreover, the so-called Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was the normal result of Scholastic scholars starting in the eleventh century… Why did real science develop in Europe … and not anywhere else? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christian theology.

~pp. 123

What are these ‘unique features of Christian theology?’ Stark elaborates:

My answer to [why science flourished in Western, Christian Europe] is as brief as it is unoriginal: Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as His personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.

As Nicole Oresme put it, God’s creation “is much like that of a man making a clock and letting it run and continue its own motion by itself.” Or, in the words of Psalm 119:89-90: “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven. Thy faithfulness is unto all generations: thou hast established the earth, and it abideth.” Among the scriptural passages most frequently quoted by medieval scholars is the line from Wisdom of Solomon (11:20) “[T]hou has ordered all things in measure and number and weight.”

~p. 147

Like Lennox, Stark proceeds to set this in the context of competing worldviews. The section is worth quoting at length (emphasis in original):

In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done. As Alfred North Whitehead..put it during one of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard in 1925, science arose in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science…derivative from medieval theology.” Whitehead’s pronouncement shocked…his audience. How could this great philosopher and mathematician…make such an outlandish claim? Did he not know that religion is the mortal enemy of scientific inquiry?

Whitehead knew better. He had grasped that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science in the West, just as surely as non-Christian theologies had stifled the scientific quest everywhere else. As  he explained:

I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: – that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind?

When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems to be one source of its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.

Whitehead ended with the remark that the images of God found in other religions, especially Asia, are too impersonal or too irrational to have sustained science. Any particular “occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot” God, or might be produced by “some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There is not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being.”

Indeed, most non-Christain religions do not posit a creation at all: the universe is eternal and, while it may pursue cycles, it is without beginning or purpose, and, most important of all, having never been created, it has no Creator. Consequently, the universe is thought to be a supreme mystery, inconsistent, unpredictable and arbitrary. For those holding these religious premises, the path to wisdom is through meditations and mystical insights, and there is no occasion to celebrate reason.

In contrast, many central aspects of Christian theology were produced by reasoning.

~pp. 147-148

John Lennox, cited above, in a 2o10 Daily Mail Online article, highlights the same theme in contrast to China’s failure to nourish science:

One of the fundamental themes of Christianity is that the universe was built according to a rational , intelligent design. Far from being at odds with science, the Christian faith actually makes perfect scientific sense.

Some years ago, the scientist Joseph Needham made an epic study of technological development in China. He wanted to find out why China, for all its early gifts of innovation, had fallen so far behind Europe in the advancement of science.

He reluctantly came to the conclusion that European science had been spurred on by the widespread belief in a rational creative force, known as God, which made all scientific laws comprehensible.

In his book, The Savior of Science, physicist and historian of science Stanley L. Jaki chronicles the many ‘stillbirths of science” throughout history. He writes:

Yet a special aspect of the paradoxical if not tragic perplexity of the present generation out not to be left unnoticed. That aspect is not so much a blind spot, as a plain unwillingness to look into the most distant scientific past and ask some searching questions about it. Startling should seem the scarcity of studies about a most curious feature of the evolutionary tree of science. The vista of dead branches (to say nothing of the innumerable dead twigs) in the evolutionary tree does not fail to provoke an ongoing debate. Not so in the case of the evolutionary tree of science, although it comprises several major dead branches. The ones with readily traceable records represent the history of science in China, India, and Egypt. They also for a class all the most instructive because there is little evidence that in their respective measure of scientific creativity  they were greatly influenced by one another. Therefore the fate and fortunes of science in those three cultures may be indicative of a pattern as plain as it is telling.

~p-.21-22

Jaki goes on to discuss the worldviews and belief systems of these cultures that, by their very nature, stifled scientific inquiry. Nor was it just China, India, and Egypt. Similar philosophical handicaps hobbled a nascent scientific enterprise in the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Greek cultures all the way through the Muslim/Arabian world. The case of the Muslim world having failed to sustain science highlights an important point – it was the distinctly Christian ‘brand’ of monotheism that was necessary for science to gain a foothold. Jaki explains:

The “pure” monotheism promoted by [Muhammad & Islam] was purism incarnate, in that the Creator-God (Allah) of the Koran was to remain free of any consistency which a world created freely might “impose” on Him. Orthodox Muslim scholars did their utmost to undermine the notion of a universe operating along consistent laws, calling it a taint on Allah’s absolute freedom to do whatever He wanted. The Mutakallimum, or the orthodox Muslim party, were willing to recognize in the laws of nature only some habits similar to the customary riding of the king of a city through its streets. Just as the king could break his riding habit any day, so could Allah change at any moment the pattern of any or all parts of the universe.

The Savior of Science, pp. 77-78

Whereas the Christian God is bound by his nature, character and word, Muslims regard such ‘restrictions’ on God as blasphemous. Robert R. Reilly explores this aspect of Muslim theology and history in depth in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

The point of all this is that ideas have consequences. It takes ideas of a specific cast to undergird science and allow it to flourish. Christian theology is the primary, if not sole, repository of such ideas. Other philosophical systems simply do not provide the proper ‘soil’ in which science can grow.

  • Some religions, like Hinduism, teach that all of reality is illusion (Maya), that to believe in distinctions (between, for instance, your self and your object of study) is to be unenlightened and that there is no ‘graspable’ truth.
  • Pantheism/ panentheism deifies nature, discouraging efforts to probe its secrets.
  • Polytheism with its many Gods of often conflicting characters and purposes frustrates expectations of consistency and predictability
  • An ‘unbound’ Deity like Allah similarly undermines grounds for expecting a reliably predictable universe.

To reiterate, the concern over supernaturalism as a ‘science-stopper’ that R P and other evolutionists commonly express is valid. Many supernatural belief systems have, as seen above, stymied science. But one of them – Christian monothesim – in fact underwrote the scientific enterprise.

What, then, of atheism and anti-supernaturalism? Lennox, in the above linked article, points out that such a worldview doesn’t fare much better:

Despite this, Hawking, like so many other critics of religion, wants us to believe we are nothing but a random collection of molecules, the end product of a mindless process.

This, if true, would undermine the very rationality we need to study science. If the brain were really the result of an unguided process, then there is no reason to believe in its capacity to tell us the truth.

C.S. Lewis made much the same point in his book The Business of Heaven:

‘If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts—i.e. of materialism and astronomy—are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milkjug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.’

~p. 97

Darwin was himself haunted by similar doubts:

“You have expressed my inward conviction that the universe is not a result of chance . But the with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or are at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

~  Charles Darwin in a letter to Mr. Graham

In short, the atheist/anti-supernaturalsit has no grounds for assuming the axioms that undergird science**. This is not to say that atheists cannot ‘do science’; many do and they do it very well. It is to say that atheists, like Hindus, Muslims and others must ‘borrow’ from the Christian worldview what their own framework lacks – a rationale for assuming a predictable, rational universe perceived with reliable human senses and minds. Thus, it is no accident of mere correlation that the giants of scientific history were overwhelmingly bible-believing Christian creationists – men like Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Joule, Maxwell, Mendel, Pasteur, Carver and Von Braun. Scott Locklin put it succinctly in his recent article When Man Invented Science:

Pope Benedict’s trip to Ole Blighty is over, and that sanctimonious gasbag Dawkins didn’t manage to arrest him in the name of secular humanism. While I’m not a believer myself, I often wonder at such professional atheists who cover themselves in the mantle of “science.” Don’t they know any history?

What we refer to today as “science” is something which was invented by humans, rather than springing forth from Jove’s forehead in some ancient time before time. There is a definite date before which there was no science and a date after which there was science. This isn’t controversial or mysterious: We know exactly when it happened, and some of the original manuscripts which invented science and modern thought still exist.

[…]

Modern atheists with no sense of history like to think of the Church and religious people as the forces of darkness, but in reality, the Catholic Church was the birth of the light of reason. Those religious people are the ultimate heroes of reason; without them, no science would have come into being.

In the next post, I’ll briefly address R P’s claim that ‘referring to creationism and biology by the same label IS equivocating, and of the fallacious kind too,’ and then I’ll make the case that atheists/anti-supernaturalists fail to measure up to their own vaunted standard of eschewing appeals to the supernatural in science.

*For further reading, see:

For a dissenting view, see:

**Alvin Plantinga has formulated an argument along similar lines- his Evolutionary Argument against Naturalsim:

For a good overview of the history of modern science and thumbnail biographies of pivotal figures in that history see:


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Published in: on March 11, 2011 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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