Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedience, ye shall eat the good of the land.
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is God and science. I want to return to a theme that I addressed early on in the year in a series of talks concerning Orthodoxy and modern culture. Since the relationship between faith and science is a subject of perennial conflict in this country, I thought it a good idea to get a better handle on the subject.
Today I want to focus primarily on the definition and scope of science and, in particular, consider its relationship to the philosophical doctrine of materialism, which says that matter—or I suppose we would have to amend the formula slightly today and say “matter plus energy”—is the only reality. I bring this issue up because one of the most common criticisms of modern science coming from the evangelical world is that science is materialistic. That is apparently a bad thing. What is needed, so they say, is a scientific approach that is not wedded to materialism, one that is open to things like Intelligent Design and creation research.
However, such criticisms, which can be found in the works of Phillip Johnson, among others, tend to overlook the crucial distinction: there is a huge difference between materialism as a methodological presupposition and materialism as a metaphysical presupposition. Here’s what I mean. Science studies the material world. Its primary method is that of empirical observation. Now, reason and mathematics are brought in very early on to make sense of these observations, but that does not change the fact that the foundation of all modern science is observation. Science deals exclusively with what can be experienced and/or measured. Thus, science is methodologically materialistic, because it deals exclusively with the material world. When a material fact or event is observed, scientists try to find a material cause for it. That’s just what scientists do.
For this reason, creation science is nothing of the sort. Science has no way to evaluate the claim that something in nature, or nature herself, was caused by something outside of nature. Neither is Intelligent Design science. Now, I will admit that certain aspects of I.D. have philosophical implications: Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity, for example. But even this is not science. It is a philosophical critique of the scientific method itself. It argues that there are just certain things in our world for which natural selection simply cannot account—I agree with that, by the way—but it does not offer an alternative model. It cannot, because an Intelligent Designer is simply not testable.
But what if there is no materialistic answer to a problem? What then? Well, that is the point at which science ceases to operate. Because science is methodologically materialistic, it is, by definition, limited to the material universe. Science can ask, “How?” in the sense of what material circumstances and actions brought about this particular event, but it cannot ask, “Why?” in the ultimate philosophical sense.
We know, of course, however, that scientists are rarely content with such a limited horizon. For some, science must ask, “Why?” At this point, however, we have crossed over from genuine science to Scientism, and the demarcation point between the two is precisely the latter’s adoption of materialism as a metaphysical presupposition.
Folks such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins can be taken as poster children for this way of thinking. Their entire approach to science is shaped by their metaphysical assumption that the material world is all that exists or can exist—thus, the theory of natural selection, for example, does not merely describe the mechanical process by which organisms change and evolve: it is the key to understanding the meaning of all biological existence. Of course, it should go without saying that there is nothing remotely scientific about such an assumption. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was somewhat God-haunted himself, observed that if you draw a line and say, “Reality ends here,” you are making a metaphysical claim, even if you go on to claim that there is nothing on the other side of the line. Science, qua science, must be agnostic on all such questions, because all such questions are beyond its materialistic scope.
To illustrate a little further, let’s think back to Thomas Aquinas. Now, most of us learned in college about Aquinas’ Five Ways to prove the existence of God. The heart of his argument is something that we have come to call the cosmological argument for God’s existence. Although we associate this argument with Aquinas, the bones of the argument come entirely from Aristotle. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version. We know that a body at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force, so if a physical object is moved, it has to have been moved by another object or physical force.
Let’s take a domino for example. If a domino falls over, there must have been a reason or a cause: a rush of wind, that is, moving air, might have knocked it over, or it might have been toppled by another object, such as a different domino. But here’s the point: whatever moved the domino was itself moving; otherwise, it could not have set the domino into motion. So, we say that domino A fell, and that caused domino B to fall over, too. But that leaves us with a question: What made domino A fall?
We can go on like this forever, theoretically, although Aristotle said that we couldn’t. Aristotle said that motion had to have a beginning beyond which we cannot go. But the First Mover has to have a very special characteristic. The First Mover cannot itself be moved, otherwise we would have to ask, “What made it move?” So the First Mover is an Unmoved Mover, and this, Aquinas adds, a bit too glibly for my tastes, everyone knows to be God.
The major problem with this as a proof for God’s existence is that not everyone agrees with Aristotle that an infinite regress is impossible. Many modern cosmologists today posit an infinite universe, and that doesn’t seem to keep them up at night worrying. This argument does, however, does help us to clarify the topic under discussion. Most people overlook the fact that in the context of the disputation in which the Five Ways appears, the cosmological argument serves a very special purpose. Aquinas isn’t addressing the objection that the existence of God is unnecessary, because we can explain the world without reference to God. If you think about it, that is exactly what many modern atheists and devotees of Scientism say.
The real point of Aquinas’ argument is to demonstrate that no system is self-explanatory. The laws of physics may explain any given movement within the cosmos, but they cannot explain the existence of the cosmos itself. In other words, this argument raises the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? The point of the argument is to show that the question cannot be answered from within the system.
We are left, then, with a stark dichotomy: either the world had a beginning which lies outside of the world and is completely unlike anything within the world—a Mover that moves without being moved—or the cosmos has always existed in one form or another and always will. If the former is true, then we must search for the meaning of our existence outside of science. As Wittgenstein noted, if there is any meaning in the world, it must lie outside the world.” On the other hand, if the world has no beginning, then it can have no meaning either; it just is. The question, “Why?” is not merely irrelevant; it is meaningless. It cannot be asked.
So we’re back where we started. Science can answer the question, “How?”: How are hurricanes formed? How do organisms adapt to their environment? Etc. But science cannot even ask, much less answer, the ultimate questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of human life? I feel like living dangerously, so I’ll continue this talk next week, when I’ll broach the subject of evolution.
Now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who created the universe without any input from scientists or would-be theologians, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.