Christianity and the Nature of Science

Science and Christianity–are they at odds with each other? Is science the kingly road to knowledge, and is religion a matter of mere belief? Do they speak to each other, or do they occupy (as Gould said) non-overlapping magisteria? To the heart of the point: can a Christian really take her faith seriously in this scientific age? Can a scientifically-minded person take religion seriously?


I’m convinced the answers to these questions all point in positive directions for both Christianity and science, properly understood. My convictions come in large part from J.P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation. First published in 1989, it is the best non-specialist’s overview of these issues I have yet seen. There is a 1999 edition available, but my dog-eared earlier version–which though it predates the term “Intelligent Design” remains relevant to all today’s issues–has been my standby.

I run the risk of contradicting myself by my own actions here, for I want to persuade you to buy the book, study it, and absorb it; for a full, extended treatment is well worth your time. Yet I am also going to blog from the book, in a series beginning with this post. If I cannot convey the range and depth that the book can, I can at least raise some issues for discussion and whet your appetite for more.

Moreland begins by asking what is the definition of science. That’s certainly still relevant: Is Intelligent Design science? How would we know? What characteristics must it have to qualify as such? What is it about ID that causes so many to declare it is not science, and do these characteristics really disqualify it? Ideally, there would be some descriptors of science that, taken together, would clearly mark out what it is and does, and exclude other fields of study.

An early “creation science” trial, the McLean case in 1989, shows that the answer is more elusive than many think. Judge William R. Overton wrote in his opinion,

“More precisely, the essential characteristics of science are: 1) It is guided by natural law; 2) It has to be explanatory by natural law; 3) It is testable against the empirical world; 4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and 5) It is falsifiable.”

Presumably what meets these criteria is science, and what does not meet them is not. But the first one is ambiguous: does it mean that science seeks to explain by natural law? If so, it is redundant with (2). Does it mean “motivated by a desire to find a natural explanation”? Moreland reminds non-scientists may have the same goal, for example philosophers seeking to find a natural explanation in evolution or the brain for morality. On the other hand Carl Linnaeus’s (1707-1778) pioneering work in taxonomy, while clearly science, was “motivated and guided by his belief that no natural explanation was available for the existence and nature of living organisms.”

Mathematicians often refer to non-supernatural laws of mathematics and logic, yet their work is not science. And scientists often appeal to brute fact, not law, as explanations: the Big Bang and various physical constants being examples. (The discovery, after Moreland wrote this edition of the fine-tuning of these constants adds extra interest to that point.)

Do Overton’s points (1) and (2) mean that science only deals with “the world of physical things having only physical properties that are part of one spatio-temporal system?” If so, it’s not at all clear that psychology is a science. Whether it deals with just physical properties and events is a matter of considerable controversy. If it were someday settled that thoughts, feelings, morality, the unconscious, etc. are not just physical, would that mean that every psychologist in history had been a non-scientist? Hardly.

Overton says that science involves empirical testability, apparently meaning that theories may be subjected to observational confirmation or disconfirmation. But theories may be empirically equivalent, for example, certain competing views of quantum phenomena, or (some forms of) theistic evolution compared to naturalistic evolution. More crucially, there is no such thing as observation independent of theory, so testability just by observation alone is impossible. Further, other disciplines appeal to observation: history, literary scholarship, and philosophy.

Is science defined by being tentative? Since Moreland wrote this, we have been treated to the Michael Ruse’s terribly tentative shout that “Evolution is fact, FACT, FACT!” Apparently evolution is not science. Moreland asks, “Was Newton tentative about his belief in the existence of forces? Would any contemporary scientist seriously question the theory that blood circulates?” And is science the only discipline that uses a principle of tentativeness? “Christian theologians are often tentative, that is, open to new evidence about a number of issues ranging from interpretations of specific passages to the inerrancy of the Bible and the existence of God.”

Finally, is science necessarily falsifiable? Many of us are skeptical of evolution’s falsifiability. Evolutionists say that one good fossil anachronism would be sufficient to falsify it. But they remain impervious to failed predictions, like Darwin’s prediction that the fossil record’s gaps would be largely filled in, or that there would be at least one observable instance of a new structure or function evolving under laboratory or field conditions. Moreland if extremely helpful on this.

The nature of falsifiability in science is often difficult to clarify. For example, seldom if ever are individual scientific propositions tested in isolation from other propositions or theories…. let H stand for [a given hypothesis], and let Ci – Cn be the various auxiliary assumptions involved. Then these are related to the experimental observations O in the following way:

(H & Ci & Cj & . . . Cn) –> O
___________Not – O__________
Therefore, Not – (H & Ci & Cj & . . . Cn)

The experiment shows that H or Ci or Cj or … Cn is mistaken. Which is it? Falsifiability is not always as simple as it seems. I learned in high school that the famed Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 proved that light does not propagate through an ether. In fact, the ether theory lasted a long time after Michelson-Morley as scientists adjusted their auxiliary hypotheses to fit. It took Einstein to finally settle the question; and it took several years before Einstein’s theories were observationally vindicated. They’re still working on the cosmological constant, in fact.

Other disciplines can point to falsifiability as part of their criteria. Historians’ theories can be falsified by new documents. Christianity could be falsified by the discovery of Jesus’ bones, though identifying them would be hugely problematic. Moreland clarifies,

Now, world views can be falsified in principle, at least some of them can . . . but doing so is very difficult, because their epistemic support is so multifaceted. Broad research programs in science are like this as well, and they are not unscientific for that reason.

All of Judge Overton’s criteria fall short. And so do several other definitions of science Moreland offers as examples. Now, lest you think this conclusion is just the anti-faith position of some Christian apologist, in fact Darwinist Michael Ruse came to the same conclusion in the 1996 edition of But Is It Science, the volume he edited in the wake of the McLean case. There is an updated edition of this book available, too, but it’s very new and I have not read it yet. It’s unlikely to say anything different, for philosophers have agreed that the demarcation problem–finding what clearly demarcates science from other disciplines–has no one simple solution.

In the end, Moreland, one of whose degrees is in chemistry, is not saying we can never tell science when we see it. He’s saying that the charge, “It’s not scientific” may not be as clear-cut as we have thought. More than that, though, he’s laying a careful groundwork to begin his investigation into Christianity and the nature of science. We’ll continue to follow him through that investigation in future blog posts. On the way, we’ll also take a short detour into a more recent court’s definition of science.

Related, February 26, 2008: On Blogging a Philosophy Book