Until the later half of the nineteenth century, the intellectual community was dominated by religious thinking. In intellectual pursuits men were expected to espouse a belief in God. Alternate views were automatically viewed with suspicion. Science existed, but it was cloaked in a shroud of superstition.
Early in this century, however, the actors on the intellectual stage exchanged roles. God became a mere “extra.” Superstition was cast as the villain. Science emerged to replace religion in the leading role. In the final act many expected science to explain all mysteries, dissolve all superstition and leave nothing to the realm of the supernatural.
But will it? Is this its responsibility? Should we expect science to replace God and religion as significant forces in the intellectual world? Will all knowledge finally succumb to the defining scrutiny of empirical investigation? And will scientists and other educated men who today believe in God eventually cease to believe? Or is there more to the question of God and science than is commonly assumed?
A careful analysis is in order for anyone seeking an intelligent perspective of reality. Science is neither anti-God, nor does it disprove Him. There is no reason to be confused by the belief that God can or even should be done away with by science. Here is why.
What Is Science?
The English word “science” comes from the Latin scientia, which simply means “knowledge.” On the surface it would seem, then, that knowledge of God ought to be a scientific issue. Some religious groups even hold this idea as a basic doctrine of faith. They state that science is not really “true” science unless it includes God and a knowledge of things supernatural. Yet if one is really precise in his definitions, and wishes to avoid inaccurate logic in his quest for factual knowledge of God, this simple definition must be refined.
Science in its proper modern usage is the pursuit of only a limited type of knowledge. “At no time does science claim to be in possession of the whole truth; in fact, science is quite clear in insisting that it is never able to be in possession of the whole truth …” (Richard H. Bube, ed., The Encounter Between Christianity and Science [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968], p. 35). “Science gives us only a partial, even though ever expanding, picture of the universe. To assume that its descriptions cover the whole of reality is folly indeed!” (Ibid., p. 265.)
Science by definition is confined to establishing general truths by the means of empirical evidence available through the five senses. It originates exclusively in physical observation, experience or experimentation. Therefore, “Science is concerned only with the natural world. Unless a phenomenon can be described within the framework of space and time, it is not properly within the domain of science …
The human senses are the tools of science in studying the natural world. If you can’t see it, hear it, feel, taste, or smell it, then science can’t work with it …” (ibid., p. 18). “Its very nature is such that it cannot deal with unobservable phenomena …” (ibid., p. 265). “Science as such cannot either affirm or deny the truth of statements that lie beyond the limits of that which is empirically verifiable and observable” (ibid., p. 280).
In fact, had not scientists confined their investigations to repeatable, testable evidence — the realm of the physical — many of science’s greatest discoveries might still be covered by a cloak of irrational superstition.
One does, though, sometimes hear the term “science” used in less specific ways. Take the term “religious science,” for example. Here the term “science” really ought to be understood as merely meaning “knowledge” — in that religion is not within the scope of science in its exact sense. Therefore, it would seem that the term “religious knowledge” might be more appropriate when used in critical discussions.
“… We must always recognize the limitations of science. Its very nature is such that it cannot deal with unobservable phenomena, including those that are supernatural …” (ibid., p. 265). “Supernatural phenomena which are not thus observable [by use of the senses, etc.] are outside the scope of science” (ibid., p. 263).
Philosophy, Not Fact
Nevertheless, many do forget the distinction. In fact, much of the skepticism, agnosticism and atheism in the civilized world can no doubt be traced to a disregard of the implicit limits of science. In such a case, scientific methodology is universally applied to everything outside the laboratory. One ceases to deal with science, but enters the realm of philosophy, called empiricism or scientism. Such a concept is not scientific; it is merely the highly restrictive view that anything nonscientific is unreal or untrustworthy.
As the dictionary defines it, empiricism is “a theory that all knowledge originates in experience” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary). I am sure that many thinking men would reject the validity of this philosophy. But in an age when science has done so many wonderful things for mankind, it is difficult to reject the idea that science does not hold the keys to all mysteries. But conclusive knowledge of God is patently a bigger issue than science alone. God is not antiscientific. He is not even unscientific. He is simply extra-scientific, or largely beyond the testability of empirical methods.
“An awareness of these limits can help us avoid many inappropriate controversies. For example, does the idea of God lend itself to scientific scrutiny? … If our hypothesis is correct, God would indeed exist everywhere … and we would never be able to devise a situation in which God is not present … But if our hypothesis is wrong, He would not exist and would therefore be absent from any test we could possibly make … Yet we would need such a situation for a controlled experiment. Right or wrong, our hypothesis is untestable … and science cannot legitimately say anything about Him. It should be carefully noted that this is a far cry from saying ‘science disproves God,’ or ‘scientists must be godless … ‘ Science commits you to nothing more … than adherence to the ground rules of proper scientific inquiry” (Paul B. Weisz, The Science of Biology, 4th ed. [New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1971], p. 8).
Thus we see that a scientist, when speaking as a scientist, should confine his comments to the limits of his discipline. Unless properly qualified, he should avoid philosophic extrapolations into fields which empirical techniques do not permit him to venture. To require this is not to criticize. It is a mere statement of definition. “The supernatural is not excluded from science because of a bias on the part of scientists; the supernatural is excluded by definition” (Bube, op. cit., p. 19).
Many great scientists, particularly of the last century, did also possess experience that qualified them to speak on topics other than science. Two notable examples are Isaac Newton, who had a well-developed love for poetry, and Samuel B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and a recognized painter in his day. In fact, most educated men of that day felt an obligation to gain a broad-based educational experience before venturing into specialized fields. Like classical Greek scholars, they felt it poor intellectual wisdom to theorize in areas where they lacked a foundation of basic knowledge.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to attempt, as did nineteenth century scholars, competence in all fields of learning. The sheer mass of information available to a student today makes the task impractical. Yet the need to respect the value and existence of knowledge other than empirical knowledge is still obvious. Many have not, however, and have fallen into the quicksands of empiricism.
I have no objection to a scientist expressing an opinion. Anyone has that right. But a thinking person must object to the man’s reputation as a scientist being used as authority to express non-scientific opinions. Knowledge of science does not qualify one to make authoritative statements about God.
And yet it surprises me how many people trust anything that comes from a scientific authority without asking if it is scientific fact or mere extra-scientific, personal opinion wrapped in a technical-sounding package. Such is the problem today of many who have some education in the field of science and who otherwise want to know about God. They respect science, but they also feel that God might also make sense. But they have been lulled into an acceptance of the philosophy of empiricism by an educational system largely devoted to materialistic goals.
Science is very important to our modern world. To look down on such benefits would be foolish. But to forget the limits of science is even poorer thinking. Science is useful and productive, but it is not the final authority on knowledge. Much truth lies beyond the investigation of empirical observation and experiment. The existence of God, for example, lies within that realm.
But how does one come to grips with truth beyond science? In science, the facts are real and tangible. Beyond it, whatever truth might exist seems unworkable. This surely is the next logical question in the God/science controversy.
To properly understand how one can work with all truth, and not just the variety we see, smell or taste, the meaning of the word “truth” itself must be comprehended. In fact, three concepts commonly tossed about in discussions of God and science must be brought to sharp focus. They are: truth, proof and evidence.
Truth is defined as “that which conforms to fact or reality; that which is … has been, or must be.” Anything which intrinsically and absolutely exists is embodied in the term “truth.” As the dictionary states, “truth” is “that which is,” whether scientifically testable or not. Truth is truth even if no human minds perceive that it exists; and all truth, visible or not, is equally real.
Evidence is, as the dictionary defines it, “Clearness: an outward sign; indication ….” It is that which makes truth visible and clear to the human mind. The truth of electricity, for example, may not be clear and visible to a human mind until it can see, through the eye, the effect of the electricity on a physical object like a light bulb. That is evidence of electricity.
The real difference between scientific and supernatural truth lies not in the degree of validity of one truth over another, but in the inability of the human mind to see all truth with equal ease. We are physical beings, and our thinking mechanism receives its raw material only via the five physical senses. Therefore scientific truth is naturally seen. Supernatural evidence is just as real; but we simply do not have the senses to detect it automatically as we do physical fact.
Some truth, like many basic physical truths, can be so easily demonstrated that scientists call it scientific law. For others, the evidence is less available. Albert Einstein, for example, long sensed the truth of relativity before other scientists were able to provide empirical observational evidence.
Thus we see that man’s overall view of reality is naturally limited. Where the evidence is abundant, truth can be defined with considerable certainty. But in many cases it cannot. God is the supreme example. The truth of His existence clearly does not abound with physical evidence, at least not the irrefutable, objective type. Theoretically (and as the Bible does say), God’s handiwork as the Creator of the universe is physically visible. But as the long history of serious, sincere and conscientious scholars shows, physical evidence alone is inadequate. If one chooses to exclude from his thinking everything but empirical evidence, then he must intellectually recognize the well-established fact that there is no ladder by which a man can climb to a sure knowledge of God. Final proof must depend on the assistance we have received in God’s revelation.
Even if one finds this fact disappointing, revelation is a necessity to make the picture complete. It provides the basic dimension of certainty lacking in physical scientific evidence alone. Frankly, it is God’s responsibility to make His revelation both adequate and believable.
“But I Want Solid Proof!”
But of what value is revelation? Some say they can only trust something they can “prove” — like scientific evidence. And here we meet with a surprise. Revealed evidence can be proved exactly as scientific evidence can. There is no difference when one properly understands the real meaning of “proof.”
Most dictionaries have defined proof as, “The degree of cogency, arising from evidence, which convinces the mind of any truth or fact and produces belief.”
Proof is not absolute or intrinsic. It is entirely personal. It is in the “mind”; it “convinces”; it produces “belief.” And the key is “cogency.” Proof is the mental acceptance that something is sensible, reasonable, logical; in other words, cogent. Therefore it is completely subjective.
It is narrow-minded thinking to insist that proof to you “must” be proof to someone else. But it just can’t be. What may constitute “proof’ to one person may be woefully inadequate to another. Absolute proof simply does not exist. That is why science does not deal with absolute proof. It only seeks out and systematizes evidence that leads to an increasing level of probability.
But viewed as a personal matter, it is not difficult to realize why scientific evidence is no better at proving (producing a belief in) truth than is supernatural evidence. Whichever is the more cogent, logical, reasonable or sensible to an individual’s mind, provides the best “proof.” Some people accept meager evidence as solid proof, while others seem to have the capacity to remain unmoved in the presence of the very best evidence!
Some, as we have seen, resist the cogency of anything but physical, scientific evidence. But whether the evidence is empirical or not does not matter!
Cogency is the criterion, but for it to make sense, one must intelligently accept proof as a relative issue and reject science as the final authority in all knowledge. These are surely basic steps to philosophic stability.
Source: The Good News, January 1974