Thoughts on Perspective, Science and Faith

As finite beings, We have no choice put to adopt our fundamental principles on faith. We do not have the requisite perspective to have more certainty than that.

I have two blogs I maintain currently: Perspective and Navigating by Faith. Perspective and faith loosely characterize my journey over many years: trying to find perspective and understanding the value, the necessity, and the integrity of a faith grounded in reality, both observable and unseen.

Many people believe that faith is the opposite of fact and at odds with science and reason. I strongly disagree. I have come to believe that faith is inescapable for finite beings – both religious ones and non-religious ones alike – and faith lies at the core of everything we believe to be true.

I was listening to a podcast discussion recently when one of the participants said something like this: When we approach any evidence, we approach it with a perspective. This is a non-pejorative way of saying that we are all “biased”.

As finite beings we are all necessarily “biased” by our own perspective, our own experiences, our own knowledge, understanding and ability to grasp, synthesize and categorize what we know and understand. Our perspective is influenced and filtered through our location in the world, our place in the culture and society in which we live, the history that we remember, and too many other things to summarize them adequately in a short blog article.

The discussion in the podcast that prompts this writing focused briefly on the fact that we all bring assumptions to the table when we consider anything. Those assumptions, however intentionally or surreptitiously developed, are the bedrock of each of our worldviews. They are the foundations on which we stand. They are the filters through which we see the world.

Those assumptions are developed, to a greater or lesser degree, by some combination of our external influences, our internal leanings and reactions to those external influences, and our consciously or unconsciously chosen compass points we use to guide ourselves in sorting out the information we encounter.

At the most basic level, those assumptions are axiomatic. They are truths we take for granted. We cannot prove them, and we rarely question them without crisis. We are fortunate if they hold us in good stead, if they are well-enough grounded in reality and fact to be of benefit to us in our dealings with the circumstances of our lives.

If those basic assumptions are not well considered and well-grounded, we can be blown about by every wind. If they are not based in fact and an accurate grasp of the nuance of reality, they can prove little consolation or comfort in times of crisis. If they are not well-anchored in timeless truth, they can leave us adrift when we need to count on them most.

The unique perspectives in light of which finite beings approach any evidence is necessarily limited and biased because we are limited and finite beings. At best, we can only hope to orientate ourselves in the direction of truth. We don’t define truth. We don’t establish truth. We don’t’ generate truth.

This is necessarily the case with finite beings who can only approach reality from a particular location at a particular time in the context of a particular cultural, historical, and philosophical point of view.

If I was omniscient and all seeing, I could have ultimate confidence in my perspective. My perspective would be objective and factual. My perspective would be the measure of all reality.

But no human being can validly make that claim (though we may and often do think and act like we can). In all honesty and humility, we must each admit that we come at evidence from a perspective with bias born out of our own experience, cultural context, limited knowledge and limited understanding.

We don’t know what we don’t know.

As a necessary corollary to these things, which I believe with all the certainty that I can possibly ascribe to these things, we are creatures of faith. All of us. We have no choice put to adopt our fundamental principles on faith. We do not have the requisite perspective to have more certainty than that.

My conclusion in this regard is based on fact (that humans are finite beings) and “logic” or philosophy, which reasons from the fact that we are finite to conclude that our perspective is limited thereby. Because our perspective is limited, we must rely on faith in making our conclusions which, themselves, derive from the fundamental assumptions we also take on faith. We can’t escape these limitations because they are inherent in finite creatures such as ourselves.

Some people even in this modern age, however, have boldly claimed that science is the study of all the reality that exists. Further, they say, therefore, we no longer need philosophy or theology. (I have heard Neil deGrasse Tyson say this very thing.) I am going to push back on that idea in this blog post.

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Christianity’s Ties to the Scientific Method

Christianity was the fertile soil in which scientific method and modern science began to grow

History of science, Isaac Newton and physics. The science of light, optics. Light refraction and scientific research in physics.

I have heard a number of people assert that Christianity gave birth to the scientific method. Perhaps, the first time I heard that claim was from John Lennox, the famous Oxford University professor of mathematics. I was intrigued, but I didn’t take the time to research his claim at the time.

I have heard the claim repeated multiple times, most recently by Dr. Michael Guillen the astrophysicist, former Harvard professor and TV personality. In fact, he devoted a podcast to the subject, so I took my opportunity to learn more.

I did some of my own research as well. Wikipedia, for instance, has a page on scientific method. It begins with Aristotle and focuses on rationalism as the basis for scientific method.

Properly speaking, rationalism is not a method. It is a philosophy, a way to approach the world. Rationalism and Aristotelian though seem to have helped led the way to the development of the scientific method.

Aristotle’s inductive-deductive method that depended on axiomatic truths and the “self-evident concepts” developed by Epicurus would would be jettisoned for something more like the modern scientific method beginning around the 16th Century. Perhaps, this is why Guillen doesn’t mention them.

After those early pioneers, Wikipedia mentions some great Muslim thinkers who were influenced by Aristotle, but placed “greater emphasis on combining theory with practice” and “the use of experiment as a source of knowledge”. Guillen starts with these early “flashes” of scientific method in the Muslim world, including and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) Averroes (Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd)

These men of the Islamic Golden Age pioneered a form of scientific method, but the inertia did not continue. Likewise, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), the great Jewish theologian, physician, and astronomer displayed a flash of scientific light. He urged “that man should believe only what can be supported either by rational proof, by the evidence of the senses, or by trustworthy authority”, foreshadowing a future scientific posture, but is prescience did not yet take hold.

Dr. Guillen credits Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon with the formation of principles of scientific method that “caught fire” in Christian Europe beginning in the 1200’s. “Concluding from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again, from universal laws to prediction of particulars”, Grosseteste emphasized confirmation “through experimentation to verify the principles” in both directions.

Roger Bacon, Grosseteste’s pupil, “described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and the need for independent verification”, including the recording of the way experiments were conducted in precise detail so that outcomes could be replicated independently by others. This became the foundation for the importance of peer-review in science, says Guillen.

Wikipedia mentions Francis Bacon and Descartes, who Guillen skips to get to Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. Bacon and Descartes emphasized the importance of skepticism and rigid experimentation, eliminating the Aristotelean dependence on first (axiomatic) principles.

Galileo Galilei introduced mathematical proof into the process and continued to distance science from reliance on Aristotelean first principles. Galileo and Newton formulated the terms of scientific method that would inform modern scientists ever afterward.

That the two latter men were men of faith, along with Grosseteste (Catholic Bishop) and Roger Bacon, his student, is significant. So were Maimonides and the Islamic thinkers before him men of faith.

Guillen emphasizes the fact that these men who pioneered the way to modern science were devout religious believers at the same time. Guillen also observes that science did not really take off until the 17th Century. The trailblazers of the modern scientific method were religious men, and the scientific method caught fire in Christian Europe during that time, lead, chiefly, by men of faith.

Why did science catch fire in Christian Europe and not in other parts of the world? Why not in the Islamic or Jewish world? Or the world of the eastern religions? This is question Guillen poses, and he provides a possible answer.

Continue reading “Christianity’s Ties to the Scientific Method”

Drinking Living Water & Embracing the Unseen: of Science and Faith

My inspiration this morning comes from “the woman at the well” and Galileo. They are separated by about 1500 years, but their stories resonate together for me this morning.

The theme is inspired by the question: “How should we read Scripture?” A closely related question is, “How should we understand science and faith?” Those questions were relevant over 2000 years ago; they were relevant 500 years ago; and still they are relevant today.

Michael Guillen, in his book, Believing is Seeing, reveals how logical and trans logical thinking are different tools, and each have a place in the intellectual toolbox. Logic is necessary to understand simple, “trivial” truths, but “profound” truths require trans logical thinking.

We err to apply logic to every problem. Simple matters are the province of logic, but complex matters require trans logic. As much as we might want to keep complex matters simple, we cannot gain insight into more complex matters without a willingness to go beyond the familiar confines of simple logic.

For Guillen, the necessity to stretch beyond simple logic to more complex trans logical thinking was understood, among other things, in the realization that dark matter and dark energy make up 95% of the entire universe. In other words, 95% of the universe is invisible to us! (p. 9)

If we insist on limiting ourselves to things that we can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear, we must give up on 95% of the universe!

If we are not willing to give up on 95% of reality, we must be willing to adapt. We must let go of our insistence that everything be reduced to what we can affirm with our senses and to what will fit into simple formulas and logical constraints.

Guillen sees a parallel in “stretching” that scientists must do to grapple with the unseen world at the edges of simple science and the Bible that teaches on more “spiritual” things:

“’What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’ —
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.”

1 Corinthians 2:9

What the Spirit of God can reveal to us is somewhat similar to the stretching the scientist must do in his thinking to understand things like dark matter and dark energy, quarks, quantum entanglement and other mysteries of science that defy Aristotelian logic and conventional principals. For those people who like to live with their feet planted solidly on the ground and with certainty anchoring their beliefs, the prospect of revelation by God’s Holy Spirit is like a black hole. We dare not venture too close for fear of being sucked in to the eternal unknown.

Yet, God not only invites us in; He insists that we venture close to understand Him.

“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”

1 Corinthians 2:10-13

The difference between logic and trans logic in science and the study of the edges of the physical world have application to the metaphysical world in the encounter of the woman at the well with Jesus. I will lay out the similarities I see below.

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Is Intelligent Design a Science Stopper?

Is intelligent design more of a science stopper than the evolutionary paradigm?

I listened to an episode of the Unbelievable! podcast from 2011 that was rebroadcast recently. Stephen C. Meyer was on with Keith R. Fox MA, MPhil, PhD, professor of Biochemistry, Principal Investigator (Nucleic Acids) at University of Southampton in the UK and Associate Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. The topic was Meyer’s groundbreaking book, Signature in the Cell, and the origin of life.

Keith Fox and Stephen Meyer are both professing Christians. Fox holds dogmatically to the evolutionary paradigm and does not believe intelligent design is an appropriate framework for scientific inquiry. Meyer maintains that intelligent design is a better explanation and is warranted by the science.

I will not attempt to explain everything they discussed, as I would require much more space than a blog article and more time than my schedule might allow at the moment. I encourage you to listen to the whole discussion if this article piques your interest. (You could also read the book.)

I want to focus on one point Steven Fox made about the intelligent design argument. Fox objected that intelligent design is a “science stopper”.

He explained that he believes the promotion of intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of life would stop further scientific inquiry and frustrate science. It will effectively inhibit further inquiry as to how the origin life occurred, says Fox, if we conclude that “intelligence did it”. (A kind of God of the gaps argument)

Meyer didn’t address the point immediately or directly. The discussion went off in a different direction, but I found myself unwilling to let it go.

“Why would intelligent design be a science stopper?” The statement begs for a response.

Fox claims that invoking the intelligent design explanation stops the process of asking questions, but he didn’t explain why. I have heard the statement before, but the statement is conclusory. Does it really follow?

I understand the anecdotal evidence of certain people who have advocated a kind of blind faith approach to Bible and science issues, but that’s only a segment of the population of people who call themselves Christians. It’s not the majority, and they don’t have any influence over people who do science (Christian or non-Christian).

Implicit in that response is, perhaps, the thinking that we have done biological science very well on the evolutionary paradigm for about 150 years. It works. Let’s not mess it up. I can appreciate that.

A person might also observe, correctly, that the focus of science narrowed many years ago purely on natural processes, eliminating divine agency from consideration in science. Let theologians think about God, but the scientists should focus on the science (the “non-overlapping magisterium” approach).

I understand that science is limited to the study of nature and natural processes. Science has nothing to do with theology (though theology was once considered the Queen of the sciences). Science has nothing to do with philosophy (though many scientists don’t appear to know the difference).

I am only speculating that these kinds of thoughts are behind the resistance against considering intelligent design as a competing paradigm to evolution. I understand them, but I would like to push back.

The objection to intelligent design seems to be an extension of the “God of the gaps” argument.

It incorporates the same assumption – that belief in God stifles and stymies science, but I don’t believe it’s a good assumption, and I don’t believe that the evidence warrants that conclusion.

Continue reading “Is Intelligent Design a Science Stopper?”

10 Fundamental Truths about Creation on which Christians Can Agree

Science and faith have been at odds with each other in the United States since before the Scopes Trial. Rather, should I say that people of science and people of faith have been at odds. I don’t believe there should be (or is) any real tension between science and faith.

Issues arise in the way people integrate or separate the two areas of discipline. Issues arise in the assumptions and presumptions people make about science and faith and how people interact (or don’t interact) with them.

The subject of creation among people of faith has also been fraught with much tension in the last 10-20 years (at least). People separate broadly into young earth and old earth camps. People separate into groups informed by creationism, theistic evolution or a third way defined as “intelligent design”.

Many people just don’t know where to fall on the spectrum of possibilities. Not many of us are so well-informed on the science and expert in our biblical exegesis that we can sort it out confidently for ourselves. We might wonder to God, “Is this going to be on the test?”

Of course, there is no test to get into heaven. Jesus took the test and passed it for all of us. The only test to get into heaven is what we do with Jesus. Do we embrace the gift of salvation that God offered us in Christ? Or do we reject it?

Still, the tension over how we should view creation, evolution, science and faith is real. It can cause quite a bit of consternation and doubt.

In a recent presentation that Krista Bontrager gave to the Chicago Chapter of Reasons to Believe with which I am affiliated, she reminded us of the call to unity in faith: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” I think she is exactly right that we should be mindful of these things.

More practical and helpful than that, though, she introduced to us ten (10) foundational points on the subject of creation on which all Christians should be able to agree. By focusing on the points of agreement, we can put our differences into better (more manageable) perspective.

Following are the ten (10) fundamental beliefs that unite Christians on the subject of creation:

Continue reading “10 Fundamental Truths about Creation on which Christians Can Agree”