Christians, Scientific Methodology and Evolution Part 1

christians_scientific_methodology_and_evolution2The theory of evolution has sparked much controversy among Christians. Some might even argue that this idea has done more to undermine the authority of Scripture than any other modern concept. On the other hand, many Christians have apparently found ways to reconcile their faith with the theory and have insisted that, to be taken seriously by the secular public, the rest of Christendom must follow suit.

One thing is certain: The scientific community and the educated secular public alike have fully accepted evolution, and if the church hopes to have any further access to this important segment of the population with the gospel, an adequate response is indispensable.

However, up to this point, the Christian response has been anything but adequate. At first, Christians tried to argue with science by showing that evolution contradicted the plain reading of Scripture. When that didn’t work, scientific Creationism was developed, which attempted to destroy evolution by pointing out flaws in the theory. But since scientists will always choose an imperfect theory over not having a theory at all, that did not work either.

Next came an attempt to make a break from Creationism by choosing a less religious-sounding label like Intelligent Design and appealing to civil courts for equal access to the science classroom in order to compete for the next generation. But these efforts failed as well. Today, evolution seems stronger than ever, and there is relative silence from the opposition, except from people who are unqualified and generally do more to embarrass than help. Some creationists have stopped fighting evolution altogether and are now just trying to hang on to the religious crowds by misleading them into thinking that mainstream scientists are losing faith in evolution.

At the other end of the spectrum we have theistic evolutionists, who in their attempt to reconcile the Bible with science have failed in convincing both the Christian and the scientific communities (although scientists are much more willing to tolerate this second group, at least for the time being). Finally, there is an ever-growing third group of people who, in order to protect their own faith, have become anti-science, anti-education, and anti-intellectualism altogether, not realizing that this only serves to give Christianity a bad name.

What Christians Need to Do First

Overall, the Christian world seems to be out of ideas on how to deal with this difficult question, even though most are aware that it is eating away at the very foundations of the faith and is especially damaging to the youth. Creation scientists from all over the world continue to meet regularly to exchange ideas and strategies and to share their findings. Nonetheless, there is no viable solution in sight.

Meanwhile churches are frustrated that evolution is making inroads into their own private schools and is being promoted even by denominational employees. Church leaders as well as lay members are feeling pressed to take a firm stance either for or against the theory that is splitting the church before our very eyes.

And yet, I am going to argue in this paper that there is something else Christians should be doing first.

There are several things to keep in mind as you read this essay:

  1. The article is written for theists and therefore works under the assumption that the reader does believe a personal god exists.
  2. In the article I am addressing theists who accept evolution, since this is the group that is most likely to disagree with what I have to say, but the material is relevant to all theists.
  3. Since this particular group I am addressing differs in their view of Biblical inspiration, I will be writing this without taking into consideration the Bible, theology, or Christian tradition at all, but simply following logically the relationship between the existence of God and scientific methodology.
  4. The essay is also written so as to hopefully make sense to people without a science background.

My argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. Scientific methodology works under an assumption of naturalism.
  2. The lack of alternative scientific models affects the level of certainty regarding evolution.
  3. It is possible to study supernatural phenomena using methodological naturalism.
  4. Therefore, it is premature for Christians/theists to accept evolution.

Naturalism in Science

Naturalism is the philosophical viewpoint that everything arises from natural properties and causes and that the supernatural (gods, angels, demons, miracles, magic, etc.) does not exist.

Methodological naturalism, in contrast, is not a claim regarding the nature of reality but simply a tool or a protocol to be followed when doing science. In essence it is saying, “We don’t know if the supernatural exists or not, but we’re going to work under the assumption that it does not. We’re going to pretend for the time being to know for a fact that there is no God, etc., and we’re going to look for natural explanations for everything that happens or that exists.”

Misconceptions About Naturalism

In general, I run into two misconceptions when it comes to the role of naturalism in science. First, some people underestimate the extent of that role. They have a hard time believing that science really does have a bias toward naturalism and against God.

To this group I recommend a thorough study of the scientific method and of how methodological naturalism applies. Read these two articles written by prominent scientists on the topic. One of the authors, Barbara Forrest, is at the forefront of the fight against Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Another group recognizes the naturalistic bias of science but considers this a flaw in the scientific process when, in fact, this is actually its strength. While there isn’t enough time to explain just why in this essay, consider that humanity has, for millennia, used many different methods in trying to understand the natural world with little success. Science, on the other hand, has taken us from the stone age to the space age in just 300 years. The success of the scientific process is so evident that the only recourse for people who disagree with it is to come up with a better methodology and then take several years or decades to demonstrate to the scientific community and the world that this new methodology produces better results than the current scientific method.

Implications of a Naturalistic Approach

However, as effective as the scientific method is, we need to consider the implications of working under a naturalistic paradigm. Scientists apply this methodology not only to the development of living organisms but to every aspect of our universe. Christians/theists who accept evolution because they feel the need to harmonize their theology with science are not going far enough. The only kind of god that is compatible with the scientific process is a god that has had no involvement whatsoever in the development of our universe and has never performed any kind of miracles or interacted with humanity in any way. And if that’s the god that exists, why would we even care that he exists?

Yes, more is known about the development of living things than some aspects of physics or cosmology, but the same process that has led to the present conclusions regarding life on earth will inevitably lead to similar conclusions regarding the universe as a whole.

But if the scientific process is so biased against God, how can it be so effective? After all, if God did play a crucial role in the formation of our universe, and science assumes He did not, science is simply wrong.

Well, not exactly; at least not in theory. Let’s imagine, hypothetically speaking, that object A has a 50/50 chance of being of supernatural origin. Scientists would undertake its study ignoring that 50 percent possibility and just assuming that its origins are natural. They would develop a naturalistic hypothesis, form predictions based on that hypothesis, and conduct research to determine if those predictions are correct.

In essence they would say something like this: “If object A resulted from natural causes, how would that have happened?” Once they come up with a naturalistic mechanism for the development of that object, they would ask again, “If this mechanism is correct and the object did develop in this particular way, what should we expect to find when further studying the object?”

If as the data comes in their predictions are confirmed, then chances are that the causes of object A were in fact natural. The more predictions that are confirmed, the more likely that this is true.

If, however, the data does not line up with expectations, then the hypothesis must have been incorrect, and a new naturalistic hypothesis has to be formulated. If every naturalistic hypothesis we can think of fails, then it starts becoming more and more likely that object A did not have a natural origin (although science never actually comes right out and admits this).

A Process of Elimination

But why go about things in this roundabout way? Why not just use a hypothesis that assumes supernatural origin from the start?

The answer is that we don’t really have a choice. If we assume supernatural involvement, then we wouldn’t know what predictions to make, since we have no idea how the supernatural works.

So in a sense the naturalistic methodology of science is not fully anti-God. The initial naturalistic bias should correct itself over time and potentially lead someone to supernaturalistic conclusions through a process of elimination. But, as I’ve said, this is true more in theory than in practice for the following reasons:

  1. Just because we can’t think of a good naturalistic hypothesis now does not mean we won’t be able to think of one in the future when science advances. So scientists are perfectly comfortable putting questions on hold and revisiting them later, all the while assuming natural causes.
  2. If we try several hypotheses that don’t work, we can always come up with more.
  3. It often happens that eventually scientists do come up with a hypothesis that, at least for the time being, seems to line up with the data. In such a case it could take years, decades, or even centuries for sufficient data to come in before that hypothesis is finally demonstrated to be false.
  4. In a situation where you have one working hypothesis dominating the field for an extended period of time with no alternative hypotheses even coming close, that monopoly in itself becomes additional confirmation for that hypothesis. (I will come back to this in part 3.)
  5. The chance is slim to none that science will ever advance far enough to know with confidence that it has in fact ruled out all possible naturalistic hypotheses.

Those with a science background might bring up the self-correcting nature of science. After all, Newtonian physics was eventually superseded by relativistic physics as additional data came in. But Newtonian physics and relativistic physics were both naturalistic ideas. It would take much more than that to rule out all possible naturalistic options before reaching a supernaturalistic conclusion.

Consequently, theists have to be aware of these limitations of science and cannot unquestioningly accept every conclusion that scientists put forth.

The Uncertainty Period

But does this mean we can’t be certain of any scientific conclusion?

I mentioned previously that as predictions are repeatedly confirmed, the likelihood increases that scientists are on the right track. A hypothesis starts out as mere intuition and, as data lines up with expectations, we become more and more certain that the hypothesis is correct, although in science we can never be 100-percent certain. So given any specific question, as science progresses, there is a period of relative uncertainty and a period of relative certainty.

The question we need to ask regarding any specific issue is, at what stage in the process are scientists?

Some will say here that at least as far as evolution is concerned, the theory has definitely passed into the certainty phase. Except that evolution is not one concept that either passes or fails but many different elements that must be evaluated on an individual basis.

Degrees of Intervention

But would science advance this far while frequently attributing God-acts to natural causes? Would it be this successful if it was so often wrong? Maybe science’s naturalistic assumptions are correct after all.

Just because a God creates a universe does not mean that everything in this universe occurs supernaturally. And, if something occurs naturally, then the scientific method will work even in a God created universe. The best way to think about this question is to look at how we as human beings create things. People have, over the centuries, come up with all kinds of inventions and developed all kinds of devices. So we can draw some lessons about how a god might create the universe based on our own experience with the creative process.

There are several ways in which devices are built:

  1. Assemble and Assist. Some devices are built to require continual effort on our part to work. A bicycle, for example, to take us from point A to point B, requires that we pedal constantly.
  2. Assembly Only. Other devices, once built, can continue to function on their own. A car does not require constant physical effort from us to keep running.
  3. Self-Assembly. Still other devices don’t even need us to build them since they were designed to assemble as well as run themselves. You can double-click a setup file on a computer and the program automatically installs itself.

Similarly, there are different ways in which God could have created the universe. He could have, for example, made it such that He would need to constantly tinker with it for it to run properly. He would have to perform a miracle to cause rain, to cause the sun to rise and set each day, etc. (A). If all these things functioned on a supernatural basis, the scientific method would not have worked very well at all.

But there is no reason to assume that God would create the universe this way. If we can create devices that assemble and run themselves, why would we expect God to micromanage every minor aspect of creation and continuously intervene supernaturally to keep the universe running?

Therefore, because as theists we expect that a creator would put together a well-engineered universe that doesn’t need constant attention to work, we also expect that the naturalistic methodology of science will be effective in the majority of cases. We expect that any phenomenon occurring today is occurring naturally, and that even when it comes to creation, God put in place various natural mechanisms to at least partly help with that creation process. Unlike the atheist, however, we are not philosophically obligated to assume naturalism in all cases.

Worldview Shifts

But aren’t scientists just scientists regardless of philosophy?

They should be; but in reality that isn’t exactly the case. Historically, the majority of scientists were theists. They believed God created the universe but expected creation to be a well-engineered one. They fully accepted methodological naturalism, understanding the usefulness of such an approach but all the while expecting that the methodology would eventually break down if they went far enough.

Over time, however, the makeup of the scientific community has changed. The majority of those who use methodological naturalism today happen to be themselves naturalists. There are several possible reasons for this:

  1. A higher percentage of atheists/naturalists have gone into the sciences.
  2. Society is more secular, so people go in uncommitted and easily adopt naturalism.
  3. Some theists have been converted to naturalism as students under naturalist professors.
  4. Still others became convinced of naturalism during their scientific career because they went in expecting to find an “assemble and assist” type of universe that just isn’t there.
  5. Some theists are able to exist within a state of cognitive dissonance where they fully embrace both naturalism and theism at the same time.
  6. Other theists who might otherwise be interested in the sciences recognize the naturalistic bias and either choose other fields or go into healthcare instead.
  7. Theists who do pursue science tend to keep their worldview to themselves to avoid friction.
  8. Those who are vocal are often marginalized.

Now I am not saying this as an accusation or to claim that there is some sort of conspiracy, but simply to point out that not only is there an intrinsic anti-god/anti-supernatural bias in the scientific method itself, but the scientists using this methodology resonate with this bias as well. What this should tell us as theists is that we have a responsibility to evaluate all scientific conclusions carefully and to look for ways to balance out this bias. Having an alternative point of view will only be a benefit to science in the long run.

(Read Part 2)

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