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Monday, April 6, 2020

GUEST COLUMN: Science and Christianity

This guest column was contributed by Western Front reporter Kjell Redal

Earlier this month, two California Institute of Technology scientists identified evidence for a new planet in our solar system. The discovery by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown happened through careful observation of features in an ice-laden field of debris lying just beyond Neptune — a zone astronomers refer to as the Kuiper Belt. After their mathematical models and computer simulations consistently confirmed the planet’s orbital alignments, Batygin and Brown went public with their landmark findings.

Breakthroughs like this solidify the deep admiration I hold for the principles of scientific inquiry. Hypothesizing, experimenting and incessantly testing in order to find empirical evidence that researchers from varied social and cultural backgrounds can agree upon is imperative for testing truth in our increasingly polarized society.

Unfortunately, however, science is used in twisted ways to push certain agendas outside of discovery itself. I have seen this effort displayed full bore in secular academic culture, where many students and some professors attempt to use science as a tool to discredit religious belief.

I’ve heard stories from Western students about the antagonistic environment they’ve found in some biology classrooms towards people of faith. I’ve also heard in in my own history classes the various stories surrounding the Catholic Church’s “relentless persecution of scientific endeavors.”

A common claim among these campus voices is that because we know so much about the universe and how it functions, there is no room or need for God. Or that the randomness inherent in evolution means there is no purpose behind it as a process – a position I think is amusing, as biologists themselves use random sampling in experiments to reach very purposeful ends.

As a practicing Christian who is proud of my Presbyterian denomination’s intellectual roots, I find this pushback puzzling, especially after studying scientists who have led their respective scientific fields while proclaiming their Christian faith. Researchers like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Gregor Mendel, Werner Heisenberg, Theodosius Dobzhansky, John Eccles, John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins, all practicing Christians, must have experienced a different social context than the antagonistic discourse that dominates the press today, assuming an inherent incompatibility between science and faith.

I do understand, however, the protest against certain forms of conservative, evangelical Christianity that question or seek to severely limit scientific pursuits. Acknowledging this, I will seek to outline a more constructive way to view the relationship between science and religion, and Christianity in particular, as that seems to dominate the public debate.

A key baseline assumption scientists make is that they can trust logic as a cognitive process. It cannot be merely epiphenomenal, something that has arisen as the result of sheer and utter luck over the course of billions of years based on the purposeless collocations of atoms via the laws of physics and chemistry. If it were, why would scientists trust this specific cognitive faculty over others in the brain, to tell them something about objective truth? In some atheists’ very arguments for humanity’s non-significance, they undermine themselves by proclaiming the power of their own cognition.

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford professor and preeminent Christian thinker of the 20th century, put it well: “Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.”

I think there is a more reliable, alternate worldview to solve this existential and epistemological problem than that provided by a purely materialistic view of the universe. That worldview is monotheism in its various varieties. And I posit, crazy as it may sound to anyone raised in a culture where the two are often pitted against each other, that Christianity lays the best philosophical foundation for scientific enterprise.

Science is based on observations regarding consistent, immutable natural laws. These laws don’t explain themselves, though. There’s no reason the gravitational constant or Newton’s Laws of Motion should remain the same today as they did billions of years ago, but they do. What undergirds this consistency? Without natural constraints, what makes a law a law? Christians have historically had an explanation for this. They believe in a creation that reflects the very character of its creator. This creator, God, is unchanging and also wants humans to know and be in relationship with him. Under that premise, then, natural laws make sense, as well as the fact that human beings understand them.

Galileo spoke to this when he said, “The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics.” 

Operating under this framework, scientific discovery is not limited by religious belief, but rather furthered by it. New theories and more complete understandings about the way the natural world functions are a form of worship for many Christian scientists.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project, said, I believe God did intend, in giving us intelligence, to give us the opportunity to investigate and appreciate the wonders of His creation. He is not threatened by our scientific adventures.”

This approach — using our God-given intellectual faculties for inquiry into a knowable universe – is not only compatible with science, but indeed furthers its mission.

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