Science as true worship, Part I

Part I: The Christian roots of the philosophy of science

When I was a grad student, I had a brief conversation with a biology grad at another university. We talked about evolution, and when I brought up some criticisms of Darwinism, I expected him to push back. Instead, he told me that biologists were well aware of its deficiencies. I was taken aback by this, because we certainly don’t hear about them in the popular news, let alone in classrooms. I asked him why biologists weren’t publicly acknowledging these deficiencies, and he said, “We don’t want to hand a victory to Christians.” I was floored by this response, because it was one of the most unscientific things I’d ever heard anyone say.

Unfortunately, this sort of dogmatic and unscientific approach to science is becoming more prevalent the more science becomes divorced from its Christian roots. It also trickles down to the popular level, especially with the “I f—ing love science” crowd. These are the people who neither understand how science works nor respect its limitations. You can often recognize them by the way they declare “evolution is a fact” or say that the science of climate change is “settled” or refer to anyone who is skeptical of popular opinion as a “denier.”

But it’s not just the science fetishizers; many people, even some who practice science, fail to understand that science is not merely a body of facts and explanations, but that it’s a system of knowledge held together by a particular worldview. This is what’s referred to as the philosophy of science. From Wikipedia:

Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions concern what counts as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the purpose of science.

However, we can express it more simply:

  • The purpose of science is the search for truth about our material universe.
  • Any discipline or process that follows all of the available evidence counts as science.
  • The scientific pursuit of truth is based on the faith that our universe (including our own minds) operates according to natural laws.
  • Everything else is elaboration and details.

Recently, I discussed the Christian foundation of modern science, which consists of three core principles:

  1. Christian belief: the utterly counterintuitive biblical notion of linear time.
  2. Christian faith: faith in a deliberately ordered and knowable universe created by a rational being.
  3. Christian purpose: the obligation to test every claim; an obligation to understand God through study of the natural world.

There would be no modern science without #1 and #2. I said in a previous post that it could perhaps be argued, in principle, that while #3 did in fact play a significant role in the development of modern science, it was not absolutely necessary. In practice, however, I believe #3 is as essential as the first two.

newton

It is an undeniable fact that the great pioneers of modern science were Christians who wanted to know the mind of God. From Mitch Stokes’ biography of Isaac Newton:

For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians.

I am not saying a person has to be Christian in order to be a good scientist. Just as you can have moral individuals who aren’t religious, you can have good scientists who aren’t Christians. But by the same token, just as you can’t have a moral society without religion, you can’t have a thriving scientific culture without Christianity.

As with any institution, the continued survival of science depends, not on the beliefs and conduct of a few individuals, but rather on the overall vigor of its culture. Science that is mostly practiced by people who believe what they are doing is a form of true worship is less susceptible to corruption than science that is mostly practiced by people who are motivated by other considerations.

There are many reasons science can go off the rails, but history and human nature tell us that the two greatest corrupting influences on science are:

  1. the desire for approval. Sometimes this is to gain social acceptance or accolades, but it is also sometimes necessary to maintain employment or funding.
  2. the desire to cling to a cherished idea or worldview.

Christians are not immune to these corrupting influences. We are all fallen and we live in a fallen world, after all. But the point is, a sincere desire to understand the mind of God is far less likely to lead to corruption than a desire to win someone’s approval or to get a lot of money. Christianity is necessary to resist this corrupting influence, not because Christians are inherently better people, but because the struggle against the desire for worldly things is coded into the Christian way of life.

But how do Christians guard themselves against the desire to cling to a cherished idea? No matter how principled you might be, it is still possible to fall into the trap of ignoring uncomfortable facts and conclusions because they seem to contradict your favorite interpretation of scripture. However, not surprisingly, all it takes is faith to avoid this trap.

In Part II, we’ll look at a lesson on good science from an unlikely source, some of the great Christian revolutionaries in science, and where science is falling into corruption.

16 thoughts on “Science as true worship, Part I

  1. I am currently in my 5th year of study at a university, I worked alongside a biologist for a year, I lived with two doctors, and although I don’t mean to imply that you are lying, I have never met a single person who claimed to know a deficiency in evolution that kept quiet about.
    I’ve never met a scientist who thought they could disprove another scientist, who didn’t take the opportunity and the pay for the paper they published.
    ‘Science’ is a collection of scientists in different universities in different countries publishing in different journal articles. I’m not sure they have the structure to keep such a conspiracy going.
    None of this makes biologists right about evolution. But it does mean I am very sceptical of your opening story about a scientist who not only claims to know the deficiencies in evolution, but also thinks everyone else knows but everyone is just a part of a big global conspiracy.

  2. because scientific inquiry was ‘founded by christians, (even if true, excluding scientifically minded people from other religious backgrounds thru the ages… muslim for instance) does that necessarily mean that christianity was the foundation for scientific inquiry? i think your premise is flawed.
    scientific inquiry is not predicated nor is it dependant of a christian foundation. they may have gotten the ball rolling (or more likely, they are the ones we remember whilst not considering other people of other faiths and even no faith), but that doesn’t mean it was due to christianity.
    your argument assumes and asserts too much, while excluding and minimizing the contributions of others. -KIA

  3. Before you effectively call me a liar, you’d do well to check that I actually made the claim you think I did.

    I did not claim there is some global conspiracy, I said this information does not filter down to the popular level. If a person actually reads up on the research going on in biology — stuff like evo devo — he not only realizes that Darwinism is out, but that the research is pointing to something far more interesting. All a person would have to do is read some recent popular-level biology books and apply a little thought to understand this. But the vast majority of people don’t read popular science books, and this information doesn’t make it down to the high school level, which is why your average person still thinks evolution is something that it hasn’t been for decades.

    Biologists are forthright about the work they’re doing, just not about the conclusions. Part of the reason is that, astonishingly, sometimes these biologists do not even realize that their own work is undermining Darwinism. The other reason is, just as the biology grad told me, they don’t want to make a fanfare out of this, because they think Christians will crow victory over it. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. Ask a biologist to publicly say the words “Darwin was wrong about some things” and see what happens.

  4. Did you even read the article or the one I referenced? Go back and read them, and dispute the key points of the arguments instead of making broad, unsupported assertions that my premise is wrong.

  5. Point me in the direction of a theme of research that points out Darwin was wrong.
    Evo-devo, by the way, does not. Evolutionary development doesn’t talk about think Darwin talked about and no discoveries I’ve found there have shown Darwin’s theory to be wrong.

    Alternatively, show me what Darwin was wrong about. I suspect there’s a good chance that Darwin says something in one of his books that is wrong, but I bet it has no bearing on the theory itself. I’m willing to be proved wrong.

  6. I’m not going to walk into the biology faculty at university and walk up to a lecturer and say ‘Hey, was Darwin wrong?’
    This is how I expect such a conversation to go:
    ‘Hey, was Darwin wrong?’
    Wrong about what?
    ‘I don’t know, someone on the internet told me to come and ask’
    Well, Darwin married his cousin and was a racist. He was morally wrong. Is that the kind of thing you’re thinking about?
    ‘No. I think this person was talking about the theory of evolution. Was Darwin wrong about the theory of evolution?’
    No.
    ‘But, this person say current research is undermining Darwinnism’
    Well, I don’t know what they’ve read, but it isn’t. Current research in that area isn’t dealing with the truth of evolution. Evolution is such a profoundly robust theory that biologists are currently using evolution and other phenomena like embryology to see if we can inform or improve the phylogenetic tree of life. The principles of evolution are being used in computing, by using a sequencing randomiser. The reach and utility of evolution far exceeds what Darwin wrote about, and current research is in some of these areas. I hope that’s helpful…

    I’ve Googled it and I can’t find peer reviewed research that agrees with you. I’ve worked with biologists and I’ve not heard of this. If you now want me to go an embarrass myself in front of professors of biology at least equip me with something other than “Evo-devo”.

  7. There’s a great narrative in Creationist rhetoric at the moment. The narrative is to admit that Darwin was a great scientist and his ideas were well-founded on the data that he had.
    However, modern discoveries have disproved Darwinnism.
    That narrative assumes that Creationists between On Origin of Species and the last 5 or 6 years (about 150 years) have actually been clinging to a cherished idea, and that only in the last few years have they been vindicated.
    I’m not saying you support that narrative, but I will say that narrative undermines what you are saying here about Christians being the impartial researchers.

  8. I am not an expert in biology, but the flaws seem pretty obvious.

    Darwin’s evolution hypothesis is constructed of four parts that are related to each other the way the four parts of a stool fit together. Darwinism is based on three core ideas:

    – The common descent of all life

    – Random mutations: very small changes in life forms occurring completely by chance and for no purpose

    – Natural selection: a continuous biological process in which all species have been locked in a desperate struggle and competition for survival ever since the first life formed

    These are the legs of the stool that give Darwinism stability and are necessary to make the idea of evolution work.

    The fourth part of Darwin’s hypothesis is the concept of ‘gradualism’ which connects and rests on the three legs like the seat of a stool. Gradualism is the idea that the great diversification of life throughout the ages of the Earth is the result of a multitude of minute changes over very great periods of time rather than sudden large changes. Darwin was adamant about the principle of natura non facit saltum, which means “nature does not make jumps.” Darwin combined these four basic ideas into a coherent explanation of what he believed was a slow and generally smooth process of diversification from simple to complex life forms over a very long period of time. Everything else in Darwinism and evolutionary science rests on this idea.

    For Darwinian evolution to be true, all four parts must be true. The obvious problem is gradualism. The evidence does not support it, and biologists have resorted to things like relying on faith (we’ll eventually find the missing fossils) and punctuated equilibrium to account for the lack of it.

    Mathematicians have been telling biologists for decades that the math of random mutation, natural selection, and gradualism does not work. Wald’s idea that “time is the hero” and makes the “impossibility” of Darwinism possible betrays a distinct naivety when it comes to the way probabilities work.

    As for Evo Devo, I think you do not understand its implications, because it completely undermines the role of natural selection in macroevolution. According to the best and latest evidence, the tool box genes necessary for the formation of eyes, hearts, limbs, and many other complex structures must have predated the Cambrian explosion by at least 50 million years. But, it is during the Cambrian Age when all of these things are first observed in the fossil record. What this evidence means in terms of Darwinian evolution is that some very primitive, as yet undiscovered animal form, must have possessed all of the genes necessary for the Cambrian explosion even though it didn’t have any complex structures itself. In other words, a primitive organism had these vital genes even though no advantage had been gained from them and, therefore, natural selection had no chance to work.

    The only component of the Darwinian stool that has survived is the notion of common descent, but it is not sufficient to save Darwinian evolution. The evidence is clearly pointing to some other model.

  9. Again, you are attributing things to me that I did not say. Nowhere do I say that Christians are impartial researchers. In fact, I quite clearly stated that Christians are not immune to the two corrupting influences in science, and are susceptible to clinging to cherished ideas.

    You are now required to reread everything I have said and think about it before you can comment again. If you misattribute something to me again, I am going to spam your comments.

  10. So you did not say:
    “But how do Christians guard themselves against the desire to cling to a cherished idea? No matter how principled you might be, it is still possible to fall into the trap of ignoring uncomfortable facts and conclusions because they seem to contradict your favorite interpretation of scripture. However, not surprisingly, all it takes is faith to avoid this trap.”?

  11. Of everything you mention in that comment, the only debate I can really find any real evidence for it punctuated equilibrium vs gradualism. And then it is a debate, not the falsification of gradualism. (Although, it does seem that punctuated equilibrium better explains the evidence, but that’s only a cursor glance.)
    No one seems to be questioning variation or natural selection or common descent.
    As for what you say about evo-devo and natural selection, do you care to cite a source?
    As for mathematicians claiming they have proven mutation and variation don’t account for evolution, again, source? Because I can only find creationist websites, and they lost credibility a long time ago.

  12. I can’t figure out if you’re deliberately obtuse or if you’re just incapable of understanding my point, but either way, this conversation is over.

  13. You are not equipped to debate this. Among other things, your tendency to respond to criticisms of Darwinism with references to creationism indicate that you are a binary thinker.

  14. Seems this debate is always on repeat.

    16 scientists met at Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria in July 2008. That conference became known as the Altenberg 16. During that conference they ended up rejecting the remaining vestiges of Darwin’s original theory that had survived.

    From “The Extended Synthesis”:

    “The overcoming of gradualism, externalism, and gene centrism are the general hallmarks of the Extended Synthesis, whether in the forms presented here or in the various other accounts to a similar effect published since the late 1990’s.”

    That takes out the last three points.

    But what about the first point?

    Doolittle WF and Bapteste E. “Pattern pluralism and the Tree of Life hypothesis.” Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 104(7):2043-2049, January 29, 2007 posits not a single common ancestor:
    “Darwin claimed that a unique inclusively hierarchical pattern of relationships between all organisms based on their similarities and differences [the Tree of Life (TOL)] was a fact of nature, for which evolution, and in particular a branching process of descent with modification, was the explanation. However, there is no independent evidence that the natural order is an inclusive hierarchy, and incorporation of prokaryotes into the TOL is especially problematic. The only data sets from which we might construct a universal hierarchy including prokaryotes, the sequences of genes, often disagree and can seldom be proven to agree. Hierarchical structure can always be imposed on or extracted from such data sets by algorithms designed to do so, but at its base the universal TOL rests on an unproven assumption about pattern that, given what we know about process, is unlikely to be broadly true. This is not to say that similarities and differences between organisms are not to be accounted for by evolutionary mechanisms, but descent with modification is only one of these mechanisms, and a single tree-like pattern is not the necessary (or expected) result of their collective operation. Pattern pluralism (the recognition that different evolutionary models and representations of relationships will be appropriate, and true, for different taxa or at different scales or for different purposes) is an attractive alternative to the quixotic pursuit of a single true TOL.”

    Darwin’s common descent argument is non-testable, non-falsifiable, ergo it is not empirical science.

    There is nothing remaining of Darwin’s original theory in modern biology at this point.

    Yet the name is retained and his original theory is taught in high schools as fact.

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