Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Christian Basis for Science

In the latest Booth College Apologetics student presentation, Patsy Shadbolt engages with a co-worker about the relationship between Christian faith and science.

"I work with a 30 year old Community Outreach Worker, whose background is in science. I have known her for five years and for the past seven months we have shared an office. We speak about a lot of things, mainly her work and what she is doing with the women and families she works with. The following are questions she typed up for me especially for this presentation. Captain Karen, the Chaplain, has given her a variety of books and I have given her an NIV Bible, with a daily devotion ‘Everyday with Jesus,’ and invited her to attend church with me at Christmas. She opted to go to her local Anglican Service. She applied to go on a three day Partially Silent Retreat with other employees, turning up to every session with the expectation that she had to get everything she could out of the time, but coming away feeling exhausted. I pray everyday about her but sometimes I feel that I am failing miserably. I resign myself to the fact that it is God, through His Holy Spirit who will do the prompting I just need to live out my love of Christ before her and God will do the rest. He has already begun. Here are the questions she supplied:

My questions that prevent me from fully accepting God into my life:

I really need proof. I have a science background and I find it very hard to change how I perceive the world. I am fact-based, I believe in evolution and Darwinism - survival of the fittest.

I WANT to believe that there is life after death but find it hard when I see that most literature is based around animal instincts, behaviours, the differences between animals and humans and how it can be explained through science. I believe that human beings came from apes until we learnt to use our (opposable) thumb to make tools after standing upright and walking on two legs instead of our four limbs.

I really want to believe. I see how spiritual Christians are and the majority are giving and loving. That’s why I keep trying, even though I find it exhausting and frustrating. Why can’t God show himself to those that find it hard to rely soley on faith?

I find it difficult to believe that someone came back from the dead. I have read a few books and I just can’t get it. I love the values of Christianity, I just find religion hard.

I would like to reply to her questions in the form of a letter.

Dear ______,

In reading your questions I first just want to express my excitement that you 'want to believe.’ I'd like to try to respond to your questions by quoting material from Nicky Gumbel's book Is God a Delusion: What is the Evidence? London: Alpha Interactual, 2008.

"For a long time Christianity and scientific study have been allies, not opponents. It was the belief that one God created the world that led scientists to expect a world that was ordered, intelligible, rational and uniform. History shows that religion was the driving force behind science. If you believe that God created the universe, then by investigating the world in a scientific way, you discover more about God through the revelation of himself in creation.

The following is a list of some of the most prominent [believing] scientists of the past. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) laid the foundations for modern astronomy and the scientific revolution by suggesting, on mathematical grounds, that the earth travelled around the sun. He held office in the Polish Church as a Canon of Frauenburg Cathedral and described God as ‘the best and most orderly workman of all’. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the mathematician, physicist and astronomer was the founder of modern mechanics and experimental physics. He argued that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Although persecuted by the church, he was a devout Catholic and once said, ‘There are two big books, the book of nature and the book of super nature, the Bible’. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a brilliant early astronomer and mathematician. He was also a deeply sincere Lutheran and said that he was ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who was a Christian, is renowned as one of the forerunners of the modern chemistry and gave his name to ‘Boyle’s Law’. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, wrote theological as well as scientific books and he regarded his theological books as more important. He felt that no sciences were better attested than the religion of the Bible. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) Austrian botanist whose research into the laws of heredity formed the basis of the modern science of genetics, was a priest, a monk and the Abbott of a monastery, where he did much of his research. Joseph Lister (1927-1912) Pioneered antiseptic surgery, which saved thousands of lives, throughout his life believed himself to be directed by God. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) The Scottish physicist, best known for his formulation of electro-magnetic theory, is often ranked with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein for the [importance of] his contribution to science. All these people were scientists who held strong Christian beliefs.

In 1916, researchers in the USA asked biologists, physicists and mathematicians whether they believed in a God who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer. About 40% answered yes. The same survey was carried out in 1997, with the same result. Francis Collins, a scientist who is a Christian, led a team of over two thousand scientists to determine the three billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. At the 2007 National Prayer Breakfast where Collins was a guest speaker he ended his talk by inviting those attending to sing the following song with him.

Praise the source of faith and learning
That has sparked and stoked the mind
With a passion for discerning
How the world has been designed.

Let the sense of wonder flowing
from the wonders we survey
Keep our faith forever growing
and renew our need to pray.

God of wisdom, we acknowledge
That our science and our art
And the breadth of human knowledge
Only partial truth impart.

Far beyond our calculation
Lies a depth we cannot sound
Where your purpose for creation
And the pulse of life are found
As two currents in a river
Fight each other’s undertow
Till converging they deliver
One coherent steady flow;

Blend, oh God, our faith and learning
Till they carve a steady course.
Till they join as one, returning
Praise and thanks to You, their source.

In almost every area of life, faith is an essential part of knowledge, and science itself is a venture of faith. On the alleged conflict between evolution and the biblical account of Creation, Professor Stephen Hawking (pictured), one of the most brilliant scientists of this generation pointed out that any physical theory is only provisional, in the sense that it is only an hypothesis. There are different interpretations of Genesis held by sincere Christians. Some Christians believe in a literal six-day creation, other Christians interpret Genesis 1 differently. They point out that the Hebrew word for ‘day’ (yom) has many different meanings, even within Scripture. Since the sun did not appear until day four, the writer probably did not mean literal 24 hour days. The word yom can mean ‘a long period of time’. Therefore it is not in conflict with the scientific view of the vast age of the universe, nor is it in conflict with the gradual evolution in which God not only started the process, but also worked within it to produce a system that culminated in human life.

The main point of Genesis 1 is not to answer the questions ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ (the scientific questions) but to answer the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘Who?’ (the theological questions). The Bible is not primarily a scientific book, but a theological one. It offers a personal explanation more than a scientific one. The scientific explanation does not prove or disprove the personal one, but is complementary. Even Stephen Hawking has admitted that ‘science may solve the problem of how the universe began, but it cannot answer the question: why does the universe bother to exist?

Dr John Lennox uses this illustration: 'Suppose I wheel in the most magnificent cake ever seen and I had in front of me various fellows of every academic and learned society in the world and I picked the top people and I tell them to analyse the cake for me. So out steps the world famous nutritionist and he talks about the balance of the various foods that for this cake. Then the leading bio-chemist analyses the cake at the bio-chemical level. Then the chemist says, ‘Well, yes, of course, but now we need to get down to the electrons and the protons and the quarks’. And last of all the stage is occupied by the mathematician. And he says, ‘Ultimately you need to understand the fundamental equations governing the motion of all the electrons and protons in this cake’. And they finish and it is a magnificent analysis of the cake. And then I turn round to them and I say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve just got one more question for you. Tell me why the cake was made.’ And there in front of them stands Aunt Matilda who made the cake. It is only when the person who made the cake is prepared to disclose why she has made it that they will ever understand why. No amount of scientific analysis, however exhaustive and detailed, can answer that question.

Stephen J. Gould wrote: Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it, we simply can’t comment on it as scientists… Darwin himself was agnostic. The great American botanist Asa Gray was a devout Christian. Charles D. Walcott was an equally firm Christian. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs and equally compatible with atheism.

Francis Collins writes that, ‘There is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in God' and concludes that, ‘Those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking that position. Evolution won’t do it.’ Albert Einstein said, ‘A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist.’

As I said, I am not an expert when it comes to answering science and evolution questions, but I think writers such as Nicky Gumbel, Alister McGrath and C. S. Lewis can help you to consider the questions you have, and bring you to a place where you will be able to weigh up the evidence and enable you to make a decision for Christ.

Your friend Patsy.


Ross said...

That's all very abstract and theoretical. Reading this almost did my head in.

Glen O'Brien said...

Really Ross? That surprises me. I wouldn't have thought you'd have found this particularly challenging.

Glen O'Brien said...

Really Ross? That surprises me. I wouldn't have thought you'd have found this particularly challenging.

JD Curtis said...

Let's see here, I can only name the following....

"Antiseptic surgery, Joseph Lister

Bacteriology, Louis Pastuer

Calculus, Dynamics, Isaac Newton

Celestial Mechanics, Johannes Kepler

Chemistry, Gas Dynamics, Robert Boyle

Comparative Anatomy, Georges Cuvier

Computer Science, Charles Babbage

Dimensional Analysis, Model Analysis, Lord Rayleigh

Electronics, John Ambrose Fleming

Electrodynamics, James Clark Maxwell

Electromagnetics, Field Theory, Michael Faraday

Energetics, Lord Kelvin

Entomology of Living Insects, Henri Fabre

Field Mechanics, George Stokes

Galactic Astronomy, Sir William Herschel

Genetics, Gregor Mendel

Glacial Geology, Ichthyology, Louis Agassiz

Gynecology, James Simpson

Hydrography, Oceanography, Matthew Maury

Hydrostatics, Blaise Pascal

Isotropic Chemistry, Willam Ramsey

Natural History, John Ray

Non-Euclidean Geometry, Bernard Riemann

Optical Mineralogy, David Brewster

And on it goes. All of these founders were Bible believers...."

Kennedy, D. James and Jerry Newcombe: WHAT IF JESUS HAD NEVER BEEN BORN, pg 101, Thomas Nelson Publishers

Sing Chee said...

I really enjoyed reading this post - thanks Glen.

It comes at a good time, as I've been working through Hawking's latest book (The Grand Design) - a fascinating read, mainly for the way he describes the latest discoveries in Quantum Mechanics with such clarity (he does seem to overindulge himself a little here and there though, with brief spiels on how you can add an infinite string of numbers to get a finite sum). Patsy gave a pretty fair representation of Hawkings' interesting views (he did say that science cannot answer the question of why, but he does argue that it's a moot point as quantum theory supports a self creating universe)

The quote from Gould referred to what I feel is the fundamental reason why many scientists feel comfortable with the idea of God: the term "scientific evidence for God" is a meaningless one.

Scientific methods have, by definition, to assume a closed environment within which study can occur in a predictable manner - this for us has to be the empirical world. The very concept of "God" implies something beyond this closed environment, which places Him beyond the means of our scientific methodology, and hence beyond any form of "evidence". Thus, I say that one would be hard pressed to find direct scientific evidence of God (we could go the more roundabout way of providing historical evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and see that event as evidence of God). But then again, how many of us believe our parents are our parents, on the basis of "scientific evidence"?

My 2c.


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