God and “science”

There have been a few occurrences recently that have prompted people to ask me about various issues related to God and science, so I thought I’d take a moment or two outline some views here.

I think the only way to begin the discussion is with two simple points:

  1. The first point, I think, is summed up extraordinarily well by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness:

    [S]cience is one of those words that means too many things to too many people and is thus often at risk of meaning nothing at all. My father is an eminent biologist who, after pondering the matter for some decades, recently revealed to me that psychology can’t really be a science because science requires the use of electricity. Apparently shocks to your ankles don’t count. My own definition of science is a bit more eclectic, but one thing about which I, my dad, and most other scientists can agree is that if a thing cannot be measured, then it cannot be studied scientifically. It can be studied, and one might even argue that the study of such unquantifiables is more worthwhile than all the sciences laid end to end. But it is not science because science is about measurement, and if a thing cannot be measured – cannot be compared with a clock or a ruler or something other than itself – it is not a potential object of scientific inquiry.

  2. In addition to Gilbert’s point, I would also add that science must be repeatable. In 1989, two scientists from the University of Utah reported achieving nuclear fusion at room temperatures. The announcement was met with a great deal of excitement and energy. There was only one catch. Nobody else could get it to work. In order for something to be proven scientifically, it cannot be a one-off event. Science searches for answers to questions that are both empirical and repeatable. If you can’t repeat what happened, it isn’t science.

Taken together, these two prospects do not bode well for connecting God or creation with true science – and not for lack of effort to discover or suppress “evidence” on either side.

The prophet Isaiah writes:

To whom, then, will you compare God?
What image will you compare him to?

The very idea that – if God is all-powerful and “wholly other” like we claim he is – we could somehow observe, measure, or place him in some sort of “test tube” and experiment with him is quite frankly absurd. The problem is not that we haven’t gotten the right tools or haven’t looked in the right places – it’s that the very philosophy of doing so is bankrupt. As Gilbert argues, saying that we shouldn’t look at God scientifically isn’t saying that we shouldn’t study him, or that study of God in some sense isn’t valuable – rather it’s saying we should study “God” in a way that makes sense, and that way is not with lab coats, telescopes and microscopes.

The second point drops the underpinning from creation arguments (on both sides, incidentally) in a similar way because, by definition, they’re not repeatable. We know about star formation because we can observe millions of stars in various stages of their lives. We know about galaxies and black holes and supernovae because we can witness them across the universe. But we can’t roll back the clock and observe the creation of the universe, regardless of which side of the fence we’re on. We can’t see the big bang or ask God to do it over again – this is the one universe we have, and witnessing the creation of a second one isn’t really something that’s going to happen any time soon. As a result, we’ll be left with lots of questions, searching for answers, many of which we’ll never have ironclad answers to.

Finally, with regard to many creationist (including intelligent design) arguments, it is essential, in light of the two bullet points at the top, to consider the claim that is being made, and whether that claim makes any sense in the realm of science. The claim made by any creationist argument is as follows: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” Regardless of your belief on the validity of that statement, I hope you can see why it is not a scientific statement in any way. I firmly believe that the study of the origin of the universe is a tremendously interesting and important metaphysical question, but not one at all suited for scientific inquiry.

Ultimately, belief in God, as Scripture points out constantly, is about faith, not knowledge. For centuries, philosophers have struggled with philosophically proving and disproving the existence of a higher power, and each attempt ends with the conclusion that the question is “non-falsifiable” – it cannot be proved or disproved by observation or experiment. For generations, Christians glorified what they called “the Mysteries of Christ” – comfortable with a certain amount of “unknown”. While we continue to search for knowledge, my hope is we can become more comfortable with the Mysteries of Christ, and ultimately not feel the need to Q.E.D. prove something beyond our comprehension.

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