A relative latecomer on the scene of human intellectual history, modern science emerged in full form in Christian Europe around the middle of the seventeenth century. In the ensuing 400 years, it has risen to such great heights that it now enjoys unprecedented societal esteem and generates great expectations. For many of the world's intelligentsia, it is the supreme mode of acquiring knowledge. Science has been granted such a privileged status in modern society that we might say it has been placed on an intellectual pedestal.
Why has such honor been bestowed upon the scientific enterprise? There are two basic reasons: (1) science's perceived independence as a discipline or practice, and (2) the amazing results that have been produced through the scientific method. A brief exploration of these two factors will help determine whether science's lofty position is warranted. Also, in thinking about science, Christians can identify two extreme views to avoid.
Reason #1: Science Functions Apart from Belief Systems
Many people (including some scientists) seem to think that the scientific method functions independently of any formal, underlying beliefs. Because of this alleged independence, they think that rigorous application of the scientific method can be counted on to produce trustworthy results. In their view, the level of independence and objectivity that the scientific enterprise putatively enjoys leads to reliable knowledge that stands in stark contrast to the supposed knowledge that is rooted in religious and/or philosophical beliefs.
In fact, however, the scientific method depends on a number of critical underlying assumptions or beliefs that cannot be validated solely by science itself. If a scientist is to go about his work with any confidence, he must, for instance, believe in such profound presuppositions as:
• The objective reality of the cosmos
• The intelligibility of the cosmos
• The order, regularity, and uniformity of nature
• The validity of mathematics and logic
• The basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs
• The congruence between the human mind and physical reality
Successful engagement in scientific research is dependent upon belief in foundational truths like these, yet these truths cannot wholly be derived from scientific experiments. In other words, in order for science's empirical (experimental) venture to thrive, certain non-empirical assumptions about the world must be true. It takes a certain kind of world for science to even be possible, meaning that science cannot function apart from worldview considerations. In particular, the assumptions concomitant with the Christian worldview are what initially allowed science to emerge and ultimately to flourish.
Thus, we see that, instead of functioning independently of religious or philosophical beliefs, science has relied on such beliefs to nurture it at its foundation. The scientific method is not, and never has been, competent to stand alone as the only legitimate basis for believing something to be true.
Reason #2: Science Delivers Practical Results
Science's empirical testing method—involving observation, measurement, experimentation, and modification of hypotheses—has a proven track record for delivering truly amazing results. Advancements in such fields as technology and medicine have produced many changes for the good and greatly benefited mankind. And science continues to hold promise for the future as a powerful and reliable tool to help people understand and improve their world.
In light of the many benefits derived through the centuries from the scientific enterprise and the promise of even greater ones to come, it is no wonder that science has been granted such a privileged place in culture and society. Particularly for those who fail to recognize the philosophical preconditions that enable the scientific method to work so well—preconditions that cry out for an adequate metaphysical explanation—science appears to well deserve being placed on a pedestal.
Neither Deify nor Defy Science
In fact, some people are disposed to place science not simply on a pedestal but on a heavenly throne—that is, to deify it. Some secularists have adopted a philosophy of scientism, in which scientifically derived knowledge is viewed as the only or the highest form of knowledge and truth. Yet, as we have seen, the foundation of science rests on truths that cannot be discovered scientifically. Science has real limits, and the scientific enterprise cannot stand alone in providing comprehensive answers to life's ultimate issues. Hence, the edifice of scientism proves to be a structure without a foundation.
But there are also those who make the opposite mistake: they underestimate science's genuine power and think they can defy scientifically derived knowledge. Some religious people in particular, in reaction to exaggerated claims about science, tend to overreact themselves and fail to appreciate the depth of understanding that science provides about many aspects of the physical realm, from the tiniest components of the cell to the vast expanses of the universe.
Historic Christianity's Two Revelatory Books
Christians should recognize that it is a fundamental mistake either to deify or to defy science, for rooted deeply in Christian intellectual history is the "two-books" approach to understanding truth and revelation: the metaphorical book of nature (general revelation) and the literal book of the Bible (special revelation). Both of these revelatory books come from God's own hand. When both are properly understood and interpreted, they will—and, in fact, must—agree.
Historic Christianity's two-books approach safely navigates between the unfortunate extremes of overestimating the value of science and underestimating it. Bible believers and all good thinkers would do well to learn and embrace the findings of both books. •
If you enjoy Salvo, please consider giving an online donation! Thanks for your continued support.