Imagining Science

As I mentioned previously, the fact that the world around us is comprehensible, both rationally and mathematically, is astounding. But it is even more astounding that we are capable of comprehending it, if the widely-held belief of our modern age is true.

The belief I am referring to is best summed up by the words of renowned scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins: “There is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural, creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe.” In fact, any belief in a supernatural (literally: “beyond the natural”) dimension to our existence is regarded by many in higher education as backward, superstitious, quaint, and — above all else — irrational.

The fact that the world around us is comprehensible, both rationally and mathematically, is astounding. But it is even more astounding that we are capable of comprehending it, if the widely-held belief of our modern age is true.

The reasoning behind such anti-supernatural sentiment seems to find its roots in the prevalence of scientific thought in our culture. The idea is that, since we have been doing this science thing for so long and have yet to find any evidence for the supernatural, belief in the supernatural is at best grossly unjustified. I have spoken elsewhere how science would come to no other conclusion, but let’s allow for the possibility of such a world that science (actually, scientific naturalism) envisions.

Imagine a world, as Dawkins describes, where there is nothing behind the material Universe. All that exists is matter and energy, operating according to the observable laws of nature, and nothing more.

Now imagine you are observing the Universe, particularly Earth, just before life began. You see a lifeless, turbulent planet where, at the microscopic level, molecules are interacting constantly. Suddenly,  by pure chance, a group of molecules find themselves arranged in such a manner that we would recognize as a building block of life. And, by further chance, that building block finds itself arranged with other by-chance building blocks in a way that we would recognize as the first primitive form of life. Now to be clear: It isn’t really life: It is simply a complex arrangement of molecules. For that is all there is. Life, after all, is a concept, merely a manner we use to describe lifeless matter arranged in a certain way and acted upon by unguided natural laws in a certain manner. That is, there is nothing beyond, or “out there,” making life what it is. Life is not real; matter is. Life is the term we simply use to describe some observable arrangements of matter. And so you recognize this by-chance arrangement of matter as fitting the description of what we call life.

So you  decide to keep your eye on this particular arrangement of matter. Over eons, you observe that, through a strange combination of ongoing chance and unguided processed, more arrangements appear like the first one, a phenomenon we have called “reproduction.” And further, with the same strange combination of chance and unguided processes, the exact configuration of the molecular arrangements begins to change, becoming more diverse, eventually finding itself in a state you recognize to be what we call complex life.

You marvel; you are elated! You are witnessing before your very eyes life evolve! But to be clear, you are not in actuality witnessing life evolve. You are not, because life does not exist, let alone evolve. All that exists is matter and energy acting according to observable scientific laws.

But you cannot help but watch, and as more eons pass, the arrangements change further, finding themselves by chance in ever-peculiar and diverse configurations, till eventually, as a whole, they take on a form that you, with shock, personally recognize: Human life. Thinking, Feeling, Rational Human Life.

But of course, it isn’t really  human life you are observing — nor, for that matter, is it thinking, or feeling or rational. For not only does life not really exist, neither does Thought or Emotion. Nor even, Rationality. These things do not exist because all that exists is matter and energy. Just as life is an illusion, the things we call thought, feelings, and rationality are as well. At best, they are mere descriptors for how molecules arrange themselves, or how they interact in a physical, natural world. And this must be so, for there is nothing beyond the physical, natural world, just as scientific naturalism claims.

And suddenly you realize with horror: You do not exist. Granted you, as simply a by-chance arrangement of molecules, do. But you — as a thinking, feeling, rational entity, who can achieve what we call understanding — do not. That does not mean of course you do not experience what we describe as thought, or feelings, or that you do not experience the belief in what you understand to be rationality. But that is the problem. If all that exists is the material universe, as scientific naturalism claims, that includes you. You therefore, on your very best day, are no more than a highly complex arrangement of molecules in constant interaction. Nor can you be otherwise. The part of you that thinks, feels, reasons, and has the capacity to understand — is an illusion.

No doubt, you struggle against such a realization (even if Dawkins does not). Not because you do not want it to be so, but because everything in you says it cannot be so — including the the you who affirms the claim of scientific naturalism. But the stark reality is that in order to possess understanding, you — at least the understanding part of you — must exist in a dimension beyond the material world, something which scientific naturalism denies.

Troubled by this dilemma, you decide to accept by faith that, although all that exists is confined to the natural, physical universe, your understanding does not. That it exists beyond the natural, and by definition, is super-natural. A supernatural reality you simultaneously deny.

And that, I argue, is faith in a miracle greater than Jesus rising from the dead.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Dawkins that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”? If so, what is the phenomenon we call understanding and rationality? And if you believe there is a supernatural dimension to our understanding, how far does it extend? I welcome your comments.

Faith: Truth by Relationship

Bertrand Russell, the late atheist and author of the book, “Why I am not a Christian,” is quoted as saying that though the claims of Christianity could be true, it lies outside the realm of knowledge to know for certain, and so is pointless to try. How different this is from my experience and those I know who have come into, and even now maintain, a personal relationship with Jesus.

But Russell should not be dismissed lightly, nor misunderstood. He is not glibly stating it is too much work to figure out if there is a God or not. Rather, he is saying it is impossible to know. That is, Russell is stating that knowledge of God, at best, could be no more than supposition.

From the standpoint of the rational mind, this is certainly true. There are many things we can know by our intellect, even regarding the possibility, even probability, of  God’s existence. Throughout history in fact many scholars have put forth compelling arguments for God’s existence. I love the following article by William Lane Craig that recaps the most popular of those here. These go a long way to establish the rational basis for a belief in God. But the point is, none of these arguments will bring you into a state of certainty concerning God’s existence. That is, they won’t get you from believing that there could be a God to knowing that there is a God. And this is Russell’s point.

But what Russell lacks is the imagination, or perhaps willingness, to consider that God may choose other means than man’s rational faculties to make Himself known. Let’s assume for a moment God exists and that He desires that man know this, even to the point that man’s ultimate happiness is at stake, as Christianity affirms: Does it make sense to assume that he would leave man to figure it out on his own? Is it reasonable to assume that man, and not God, would be the initiator of such knowledge? How then is the assumption that man’s intellectual ability is the only way to knowledge of God convincing? To be sure, if there is no God, then our reasoning faculty is all we have. But if there is a God, such an assumption is unwarranted. Russell’s declaration therefore is not a statement of fact but a decision.

From a Christian perspective, the notion that God would only be known by the powers of reason is not only not necessary but somewhat puzzling. For though the Christian may also determine the possibility of God through reason, ultimately his certainty in God’s existence is established through an entirely different faculty. It is called faith.

Now it is really important we be clear here as to what we mean by faith. Contrary to rampant misconception, faith is not a decision to affirm something as true without evidence (or even despite evidence to the contrary). In fact, it is not a decision at all. If it were, it would be no more than an arbitrary act of the will. In which case, we would have to agree with Russell here that such a decision would be meaningless.

In fact, I would go further and say that faith as mere decision is not only meaningless but impossible. I can say that I believe in unicorns, but that does not mean that I do. Even if I tell others that I believe in unicorns, start a bring-back-the-unicorns movement, seek out others who also believe in unicorns, or publish my statement of belief in unicorns, that will not change the facts about what I believe. This is because belief ultimately requires evidence. And when it comes to belief in God, that evidence must come from something beyond what the rational mind — or I would argue, even scientific discovery — can supply.

Imagine that someone came up with a logical proof for God that was airtight. Would we believe it?

Or, imagine for a moment that science proved the existence of God. Through empirical, airtight investigation, it was discovered with certainty that God existed, and he existed in the person of Molech, the ancient Semitic god, who requires child sacrifice. Would we believe it? Perhaps. But a more likely scenario is that the scientific findings would be discredited. The instruments used would be deemed faulty. If it was determined that the scientific instruments were without flaw and reliable, the underlying scientific principles of the experiment would be discounted. And even if the underlying scientific principles passed muster — that it was determined in order for the findings to be false, the basic laws of Newtonian/Quantum physics would have to be violated — we would most likely be reminded that science, despite its benefits to mankind, does not deal in absolute certainty. We might even go so far as to question the underlying philosophical assumptions of science and point out that its goal is to gain understanding of the material world concerning causal relationships and to make predictions, but is not necessarily able to determine what is ultimately true.

And who knows? We might even decide that science, after all, was not the best means of confirming the existence of God, and conclude that when it came to such matters, no one could be absolutely certain, and that it was nonsense even to talk about science being able to prove God in the first place. And we would go on with our lives.

The point is, when it comes to such weighty matters as God’s existence and the personal ramifications it might entail, even science is not sufficient to the task. It requires something beyond it. It requires not man trying to figure out God, but God reaching out to man. This is what the Christian calls faith. For the Christian, truth is not ultimately confirmed through analysis, but by relationship.

As a concluding thought: To our hypothetical scenario, someone may be quick to point out that it is preposterous to think that science would ever be able to confirm the existence of God in the manner described. And that, indirectly, is precisely the point: Of all the cognitive faculties in the heart of man, isn’t it interesting that in deciding a basis for what is ultimately true, we have chosen the one that guarantees us both the greatest autonomy, and least accountability.

Faith: Science and the Quest for Truth

In our last discussion, we looked at prominent scientist Stephen Hawking’s declaration that God is no longer necessary to explain the origin of the Universe. When we hear such things, it is easy to get the impression that God has somehow been declared dead, the idea being that if science were to explain all that there was to know, it would logically follow that God does not exist.

The ironic thing about such a line of reasoning is twofold. The first is that even if science has achieved, or were to achieve, such a feat, the discovery of such a world as we find that operates by consistent, predictable laws which can be reduced down to logic and mathematics, does more to suggest evidence for an Intelligence behind the Universe than it does to disprove it. But the second thing is that science, in managing to explain the world around us by purely natural processes, has merely done its job, and in so doing, has not so much dispelled the world of mystery as it has demonstrated its own limitations.

It seems elementary to point out that science is a discipline whose efforts are confined to the material world. This is its area of study, and further, it is also the area to which it is limited in attributing a cause. In other words, both the subject of study and the explanation must finds its roots in the material world. As an example, science can answer the question, “how does the biological cell function?” but it cannot answer the question, “Does God exist?” Likewise, in answer to the former question, science cannot say ,“God causes the cell the function.” The distinction here goes beyond capability and more to the definition of what we mean by cause: Science seeks to explain causal interrelationships: The interrelationship of objects to others (the cell functions in part by the actions of Mitochondria within the cell) and matter to governing principles (the apple falls because of the law of gravity). In this respect, science more closely explains to answer how the world around us functions, but not ultimately why.

As mentioned, this explanation of science is rather elementary, and it would be of little consequence, and hardly worth mentioning, except that in our day, science has been given a status of what seems the sole arbiter of truth, being placed in a position of confirming or denying all that we might know.

This was demonstrated well during an event while I was a freshman in college. A spontaneous debate took place in the middle of campus on the topic of abortion. At the moment I came upon the scene, a number of students in the crowd were challenging one woman and asking her, “How do you know abortion is wrong?” To which she responded, raising up a Bible in her hand, “Because of the Word of God!” This drew some negative responses. And one student in particular raised her hand to the sky and said, “Long live science!”

It was an interesting exchange and highlighted the near-sacred reverence science has been given in our academic culture. We no longer believe in the Bible; we believe in science.

I suppose by declaring, “Long live science,” my fellow university student was suggesting science was the only thing we really need to answer all questions of our existence, whether it be how the Universe was formed or whether aborting unborn children is an act of murder. But why would science be the best arbiter of right and wrong? How would it even determine a basis for morality? How, in fact, would it even confirm that there is such a thing?

In keeping with modern thought, the answer given is that science has proven, pretty much beyond any reasonable doubt, that there is nothing beyond the observable universe, and the sooner we all get over our personal notions of an imaginary world beyond it, the more suited we will be to have a serious discussion about morality (and every other topic, conceivably). But this is the very point we are making, namely, the current regard for science as the only reliable form of ascertaining truth is circular reasoning at its best, which goes as follows: There is nothing beyond the observable world because science, confined to confirming truth within the observable world, has not been able to confirm any reality beyond it.

But the skeptic might respond and say: “Okay, fine. A reality beyond what we observe could hypothetically exist. But even if we allow for that possibility, how could we know with any certainty? A reality that may exist but cannot be proven is hardly worth taking seriously.” This question is justified, but the conclusion is not. The error is to assume the same means of confirming truth in the observable world are the same as those for the metaphysical world. This clearly is not necessarily the case; in fact, considering the vast difference between the observable and metaphysical, there is good reason to believe this would not be the case.

Besides, I have never known someone to come to faith in Jesus Christ through a carefully orchestrated experiment. It’s something else entirely.