Continued from part 3 «
It is time to affirm the truth of God’s word. Your opponent’s intellectual stronghold has crumbled to dust. His foundational assumptions have been exposed as subjective opinions; his reasoning as irrational; his arguments as speculation; his worldview as fantasy. He has been disarmed, and evicted from his castle of sand; he has nothing with which to attack the truth, nor anything with which to replace it.
How you proceed from here is largely a matter of discernment. But, although at this stage you have recourse to affirm most any biblical truth, and direct the debate wherever you please (particularly toward anthropology and soteriology, so as to affirm the biblical command to repent and believe), the obvious question that your opponent will raise is: what is the biblical view on science?
Particularly, a non-Christian confronted with a refutation of science’s claims to knowledge will commonly jump to the faulty conclusion that Christians think there is no physical world and that all science is useless. This, as usual, is because his thinking ability is so impaired, so steeped in illegitimate reasoning, that he has simply done what is most familiar to him and made an invalid leap of inference without realizing it. What actual reasoning process could lead from the premise that secular, empirical science cannot yield any knowledge, to the conclusion that Christians do not believe in a physical world? What reasoning process can lead from the premise that induction cannot yield any certainty, to the conclusion that Christians don’t believe it is ever useful?
Only by trying to impose upon the Christian that same broken worldview to which he still clings is your opponent able to come to such fanciful conclusions. He desires to show that, whatever your reasoning, you do not act as if science is generally unreliable. By doing so, he hopes to perhaps salvage the situation by exposing that you yourself don’t even believe what you’re saying.
Of course, even if you don’t believe what you’re saying, or even if you believe it but act inconsistently with it, this has absolutely no bearing on its truth. It is simply a non-sequitur to think that the actions of anyone in regard to some logical propositions are able to alter the truth of those propositions. I may act as if truth and fiction are entirely interchangeable depending on point of view, as most non-Christians intermittently do, but that doesn’t make it so. So again, your man is muddied in his thinking, and his inference is embarrassingly incompetent.
But the Christian is not inconsistent in using sense experience, or in inductively reasoning about it. Unlike the secular scientist, the Christian is completely warranted in believing that the future will be like the past; that one event which scientists call “cause” and another event which they call “effect” will always be correlated (though we know better than to think that they are truly causal); that these events occur in a physical universe which actually exists; and that we are able to achieve some knowledge of this physical universe. This is because the Christian view of science is founded in biblical metaphysics, which affirms all these things.
That is, by adopting an understanding of the nature of reality as it is revealed in the Bible, Christians know that the future will resemble the past because both are providentially organized by God, who is not of confusion and disorder (1 Corinthians 14:33), but is consistent and orderly (as evidenced by Scripture itself, which is his consistent and orderly word). Similarly, we know that actions do not truly cause other reactions, but that God, who causes them both, ensures that when one happens the other will always follow. As Elihu says in Job 37:10-13:
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn around and around by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction or for his land
or for love, he causes it to happen.
Thus, Christians know that there could be no uniformity in nature, no effects proceeding from causes, and indeed no actions to cause reactions, without God bringing them about and tying them together by his continual providence. As John Calvin once so aptly summarized, “not even would abundance of bread be of the least avail were it not divinely converted into nourishment”.1
In short, the Christian metaphysic affirms a world which is entirely contingent upon God’s absolute sovereignty. Everything about our understanding of reality is predicated upon God himself, through his word—not upon the physical universe, through our observation of it. In a real sense it would make no difference to us whether there was a physical universe at all, because that universe is not absolute or necessary in any particular way, but holds together entirely in God himself. The physical and the mental are only correlated by merit of God’s action—the latter certainly does not rely upon the former! The only necessary aspect of the Christian worldview is God and his word—how he reveals it, and what necessarily follows from there, is merely incidental.
Nonetheless, we know that the physical world exists because it is explicitly affirmed by Scripture. Genesis 1:1 tells us that, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. It proceeds with a systematic account of this process in chapters 1 and 2, describing also how man was created to interact with this physical world, so as to be its steward and have dominion over it. Hebrews 11:3 ratifies that the world exists and can be known in a functional sense through our experience, saying that, “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” In saying this, it simultaneously affirms that, in coming to knowledge of reality, observation is subservient to faith—that is, to knowledge of Christ.
The whole of Scripture testifies to the ability of man to functionally know, through his senses, about the world in which he lives; and to communicate with other men (see, for example, 1 John 1:1-4). And since we know that all the particular occurrences of empirical knowledge-acquisition revealed in the Bible are part of God’s larger creation, and since we know that this creation is consistent and uniform, we need not infer invalidly via induction that empirical knowledge-acquisition can be considered generally reliable, because we can instead infer this validly—via deduction.
However, notice I said just before that scientific observation gives us knowledge in a functional sense. It would be insane to affirm that what we perceive perfectly correlates with what is—for really, when we describe something, we are not stating the objective nature of that thing (in fact we are quite detached from it); nor even are we stating some of its objective properties. Rather, we are describing the result of operations we have performed to interact with it. For example, length is just the conclusion of some operation of measurement which we find useful. In the most precise sense, it does not describe literal physical reality (though we often imprecisely think of it as doing so), but rather one way in which we interact with that reality.
So, when I say that we have knowledge of the world in a functional sense, what I mean is that, through our senses, we come to hold certain mental propositions which inform us about how to interact with the world in a way we find useful. We do not come to hold any propositions regarding the actual nature of the world. We gain a small amount of this knowledge through Scripture—particularly the knowledge of God who is the only and ultimate reality, and without which we could not affirm even the usefulness of our senses at all. But Scripture only shows that we are able to come to functional or operational knowledge of creation, which really is to say that we come to knowledge of how to interact with it. We should not suppose that our senses give us more power than this, as if by them we can come to knowledge of the objective nature of creation itself.
This may seem a little confusing or convoluted. Let me repeat for the sake of clarity. Again: our senses allow us to interact with the world, and we gain knowledge through them of how to do this. Through observation, we can say that a ruler is a foot long. But length itself is only a meaningful concept inasmuch as it is defined by certain operations we have performed. We find it useful to know that cars are so many feet or metres long—but what this really means is that we have performed a certain operation on them, like holding a measuring tape alongside, by which we have formulated (not found, if you recall) a certain property which is helpful in our attempts to manipulate the world. But when we want to find the length of the spot on Jupiter, a measuring tape is not of much avail, and so we perform a different operation. Thus, the length of Jupiter’s spot is really the conclusion of a different set of operations than the length of a 1968 Shelby GT500E—so, logically speaking, although we suspect that “length” means the same thing for both and is a description of the same objective property, the operations performed are different, and so the meaning of “length” (being defined by those operations) is different also.
A good and well-known example of this idea of operationalism is found in scientific descriptions of light. Once upon a time it was imagined that light must either consist of particles, or of waves. Newton proposed that light was corpuscular and would accelerate in a denser medium because of the effect of gravity. Other scientists believed that light was a wave and would thus decelerate in a denser medium. At the time, verifying this was beyond the capabilities of experimental equipment, and other experiments on light could be explained either way. So there was much debate over this until the 1800s. At that time, it was shown that light propagates more slowly in a denser medium, and so Newton’s particle theory was disproved and everybody accepted that light was a wave.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, though, certain other experiments had revealed that it simply could not be a wave. For example, measurements of light emitted from thermal radiators only made sense if it were actually a particle. The particle theory was revived because of these anomalies, but of course this caused strife given the other experiments which showed clearly that light was a wave. Eventually, physicists decided that light was a “wavicle” and started to talk about “particle-wave duality”. In other words, for scientists light is both a particle and a wave, depending on how they are interacting with it.
Obviously light cannot be both a particle and a wave in a real sense, since a particle is not a wave, and a wave is not a particle, and P cannot be not-P at the same time and in the same sense. So, in fact, light is neither a particle nor a wave. Both theories are wrong, and Einstein said as much. But it is useful to us to think of light as a particle sometimes, and as a wave at other times. Physics, correctly applied, does not concern itself with truth in the ultimate sense, but rather with usefully manipulating reality. It is only when physicists get above themselves and start to think that science is about discovering truth, rather than about fulfilling God’s command to have dominion over the world, that problems arise and quibbling starts over the obvious contradictions between theories. It is only when a model is considered to be the truth, rather than to be a wrong but useful description of the truth, that we start to have trouble.
So, we never come to knowledge of actual reality, but rather we discover specific ways of interacting with and describing it, as we find useful—and we then generalize from these descriptions. It seems strange that a false description can nonetheless be useful, but science is replete with examples of this, from Ptolemaic astronomy versus Copernican to particle-wave duality. Science is, in fact, always false. And this is exactly what we should expect. Our senses are not intended to be means of acquiring objective knowledge (that is what revelation is for), but rather tools by which we can interact with and manipulate the world.
Of course, they are pretty reliable for this purpose. But Scripture also warns us that they are not always reliable—particularly because our interpretation of them is often faulty. This ought to be obvious from the example of optical illusions of various sorts: our senses may deceive us; or, really, we may expect them to be more reliable than they actually are, and thus deceive ourselves. When we see a mirage, although we see it accurately, it is not really there. But because we suppose that accuracy of perception is all we need in order to know functionally about reality, we might interpret the mirage as something real. And, when we see the same shade of grey in disparate parts of a drawing with tricky lighting, we interpret one instance as being lighter than the other. Although they are the same color, our suppositions about the nature of reality lead us to believe that they are two different colors.
In fact, the unbeliever’s interpretation of his sense experience is so highly fallible that, although “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), he denies God’s existence altogether. This despite the fact that what can be known about God is plain to any person, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).
It should not surprise us, then, when in John 12:28-30 we find the event of a voice from heaven interpreted differently by various people present. Some “said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.'” This merely reiterates and confirms the biblical view of sense experience.
This is why Scripture says that we walk by faith, and not by sight. For if we were to give sense experience primacy over revelation, we could have no confidence, and no knowledge. But we have the mind of Christ, and by our reliance on his word we have a foundation for justifying our knowledge of the world, and for rightly interpreting our experiences.
We therefore—despite what your opponent may misconstrue—do not affirm that empirical investigation, in and of itself, is hopeless. Rather, we affirm that it is a tool which God has provided us so that we may fulfill his command to be fruitful and multiply, and to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). But it is a tool with a place and with limitations, and that place is in subservience to revelation, by which its limitations are defined, recognized, and acknowledged. Revelation is the foundation for knowledge; without it, science is useless.
This doesn’t mean that secular science will never yield useful results (by certain standards of usefulness). The discussion above should make this quite clear, since science is really all about having dominion over the world. The fact that unbelievers foolishly take dominion too far by thinking it is a means of discovering objective knowledge has no bearing on this. It is entirely possible and likely that, because of the general reliability of our senses, scientists will be able to learn to manipulate the physical world even despite their God-denying, knowledge-destroying worldviews. They won’t, of course, be able to explain why any of what they learn works, nor justify calling it knowledge—but they will not fail completely to interact successfully with the world. The important thing to note is that their success comes in spite of their philosophical failures, and because of God’s sovereign action, rather than vice versa. While they believe that science is reliable, the truth is that it is not: it is the God-directed universe itself, and the tools they are given to interact with it, which are reliable. Science, being their own understanding of things, is fatally and terminally flawed.
So we have no reason to expect reliability or accuracy from secular science. Scientists may muddle their way through learning about reality to the point that they’re able to describe with reasonable accuracy how it works in certain situations. They may, despite their intellectual incompetence, eventually produce things like computers and cars, which work relatively well and are useful to us in everyday life. But their success in one area gives us no reason to suppose that they will be successful in another: and wherever their conclusions contradict the truth of Scripture, we can be certain that they are wrong. Thus, we need not even bother to learn about the foolishness of evolutionary theory, let alone feel anxious or uneasy when confronted with it, let alone feel obliged to refute it. We should simply continue to use science correctly by comparing it always with Scripture, so as to develop our own understanding of the place of biology, geology, cosmology, and so on.
Indeed, this is my advice to Christian scientists—there is no need to waste time fighting secular scientists on their own ground by trying to disprove evolution. Evolution will fall apart all by itself sooner or later. Let us rather devote our resources to furthering Christian science, and leave the unbelievers in their foolishness. Science is not the place to engage them in apologetics anyway: philosophy is. Once we allow unbelievers to engage us using their own faulty presuppositions, we have already abandoned biblical apologetics and evangelism. We will still prevail, because their scientific theories are still wrong, but our victory is hollow. We do not demonstrate the necessary truth of Scripture by taking this approach; we merely demonstrate the falsehood of their existing ideas, leaving the door open for them to retreat into yet another invented fantasy-world. Therefore, let Christian scientists perform Christian science, and let Christian apologists perform Christian apologetics.
This, then, is the biblical view of science. It is a view founded upon what revelation tells us about reality: about its cause, in both the initial and continual sense. The universe was created by God (Genesis 1:1), and is upheld by him (Hebrews 1:3). Everything which occurs within it occurs by his agency (Colossians 1:17). By his providence and provision we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28) and are given the ability to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). It is through this lens that we interpret and apply our experiences and observations, and it is by this truth that we have justification for doing so.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf); p 558.