Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 3)

Our hosts have migrated from the study to the den to enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Plush armchairs sit among priceless works of art and the room is filled with the smoky haze of expensive foreign cigars. The scene is set for the conversation to continue.

David: We left off talking about the role of scientific theories and the consecutive building up of scientific ideas over time.  But surely group consensus isn’t the whole story in terms of determining scientific truth, what else can you tell me about the ideology behind how assertions are verified?

Brett: Your question about assertions is a good one to follow the previous, because even some basic assertions have turned out to be false. For example, until quantum mechanics came along everyone assumed that if you take a bunch of particles, and you write down their positions, their masses, and their velocities at a given time, then you will know what the system of particles is doing at any other time. (That’s a long-winded version of “particles behave in a deterministic way.”) Thus you could figure out the future of any physical system if you had enough information. But then, because of some completely unrelated phenomena, quantum mechanics arose as the dominant theory of particles. It took a few years for scientists to realize it, but the deterministic assumption was completely incompatible with quantum mechanics. And new precise experiments continue to support this: systems of particles just don’t behave in a deterministic way. So what was once thought of as a certainty, turned out to be an assumption, and an incorrect one at that. (Well, as far as we know right now.)

Furthermore, I want to talk about one assumption that’s built into all scientific theories. I’ll call it the Fundamental Assumption, because that gives it heft. The Fundamental Assumption is this: God isn’t doing it. That is, if God exists, he doesn’t move things around to make the events I’m examining occur. He isn’t pushing and prodding the universe. The universe has its own functional integrity–with respect to the events I’m examining. Why is this essential? Because science doesn’t work otherwise. A scientific theory which invoked God’s hand at any step of the way would fail to be testable. The causal chain of “A always leads to B always leads to C” breaks down the moment we say that B was done by God; this is because God, by *my* definition at least, is the un-caused being. A can’t cause him to do B every time.

This sounds pretty sweeping. How can I live as a Christian with such an assumption built into my daily work? Because I don’t believe it’s true of all events. I believe there are plenty of events that are caused by God (namely the crazy happenings bookending Jesus’ life, the creation of the universe, and who knows what else, maybe gamma ray bursts). So The Fundamental Assumption may be entirely wrong about the types of events described by the theory of quantum mechanics, or those described by evolution.

But let me point out the remarkable fact that the Fundamental Assumption seems to work most of the time. (I say most of the time because there are lots of unexplainable events littering the field, that’s what keeps science going.) It’s an extremely powerful assumption. It has produced a rich sphere of knowledge about our world and ourselves. Despite all this, it’s also the achilles heel of scientific knowledge. Because of the assumption, scientific knowledge is essentially limited. This is what a lot of scientists (really a lot of modern people) miss. Scientific knowledge can’t speak to God’s existence, it can’t speak to God-events (if he exists and does things in the world). Because of the Fundamental Assumption, scientific knowledge is properly defined as the sphere of knowledge that has to do with naturally explainable events. Science cannot speak to other types of events. Notice I do not say it cannot speak to God’s nature or to our meaning or purpose. A little boy’s birthday toy says something limited about the mother who gave it to him. Just so, I think, the scientific knowledge describing our physical world can tell us some limited things about God.

David: Your description of the Fundamental Assumption was extremely helpful and it has helped me better understand a possible relationship between God and science. Our scientific construct does indeed rely on consistent cause and effect. Without that we can’t really be sure of anything, I wouldn’t trust the food I eat or the time of day or even dare to get in an airplane.

The concern now is that we’re potentially talking about deism. As you know, the view of deism is the clockmaker illustration wherein God made our world, set it into motion and stepped away. Therefore, according to this theory God is either absent or impotent, or perhaps even non-existent. The Fundamental Assumption sounds very much like deism, but the way you described it makes it seem as if the clockmaker is still present. If God were poking and prodding the clock constantly then we would have no stability and indeed no way of verifying anything about our existence.

Brett: This is tricky for me. I agree, the Fundamental Assumption coupled with belief in God leaves one with no other choice than Deism. That is, if the Fundamental Assumption becomes a philosophical stance. But I suppose I’m encouraging Christians who read science and scientists themselves to think of the Fundamental Assumption as a tool applied to a very local project: figuring out what causes this repeated event here in front of us. For example, a scientist appropriately applies the Fundamental assumption when examining the natural causes of birth & inheritance, lightning, supernovae, etc., but inappropriately applies it when examining the existence or characteristics of God. Perhaps you see me dancing here, but that’s because it’s a very subtle thing, and I am always wrestling with it.

David: I see the distinction you made there and that makes good sense. Allow me to go back to this deism idea. In my mind, we have God, an uncaused being, watching over an isolated bubble in which there are set rules and assumptions that we can test and rely on. This allows science as we know it to function, since our cause and effect model is one step removed from the uncaused element. The created order that we observe and interact with functions based on rules and constants, whether it be gravity, time, or gamma ray bursts. God CAN intervene and adjust things, but it seems that that is more the exception than the rule. As an analogy, it’s like if I were to give my son a very fancy mechanical toy. He plays with it, experiments with it, dissects it, etc. It would be cruel of me to take the toy every night while he sleeps and dramatically alter how it functions, because then all of his exploratory work the previous day would mean nothing. God’s creation is a giant, constant toy. We can learn from it and manipulate it and God will as a general rule, NOT change the rules on us.

Brett: I will stipulate that to me there seems to be more at stake here than whether or not science works. We’re discussing how God interacts with and sustains his creation. I see in this question the idea of free will and therefore also the idea of love at stake. I also want to assert that you and I didn’t get here through scientific reasoning. Science can say nothing to this hypothesis. We got here from religious/traditional reasoning, and that seems to me to be the valid route.

David You speak truly, good sir. If you notice, I’m still leaving room for God to fiddle with things in this illustration and I’m sure that makes a scientist nervous.

Brett: No, not at all! That’s precisely what I want to do too. I want to clarify the limits of scientific knowledge so that it doesn’t overstep its bounds to speak authoritatively (and incorrectly) about religious knowledge.

David: That is a wise approach to this topic and any conversation concerning God must inherently also deal with the idea of relationship with the person of God. I want to emphasize that, using the above illustration, I am more concerned with my son than I am with the toy, just as God is more concerned with us than creation. God has set us over creation and we are above it as he meant it to be. While he will not change the rules of science in his creation, he will change us. I believe in a relational God and as far as science is concerned, the material world is just a toy that God has provided for us. It’s like you pointed out, the toy says something about the one who gave it,  just as science tells us something about God.

Science can and should focus on learning about the world, but I have a difficult time seeing how scientific findings are by nature opposed to the existence of God. Just because we learn everything about the toy doesn’t mean that we can make generalized assumptions about what exists outside the toy. It’s like we focus on the toy and deny it’s creator while the creator of both us and the toy are standing by trying to get our attention.

Perhaps this is my therapist people-focused side coming out, but I believe that God created us for His joy and created everything else for our joy (but not to be enjoyed above him, that’s where idolatry comes in, but that’s a different conversation entirely). We should be more concerned with taking joy in the gift-giver rather than the gift. I don’t want us to become that bratty kid in Wal-Mart who screams at his caring parent just because he doesn’t get the toy he wants.

Brett: I like your analogy. I agree with part of your conclusion from it, that the father is more concerned with relating to the boy than with any toy he made to teach him about himself. But I find it difficult to draw clear lines between boy and toy, us and creation. Is there an us separate from creation? Can we imagine a human life severed entirely from the rest of the natural world? I can’t. Breathing plants’ oxygen, eating animals, firing electrons neuron to neuron: creation and humans are inextricably tied together. Conversely can we imagine a natural world without humans which is still precious to God, to whom God desires to relate? I can. I imagine the universe’s first 14 billion years like this, during which the Universe nevertheless somehow ‘explored’ its possibilities of cosmic evolution and ‘knew’ God and his love. I can’t really formulate how this might look outside of consciousness. But then we arrived on the scene, tied to the rest of creation. Are we humans members of a very complex creature, the universe, which God loves, cares for, sustains, and withholds from manipulating or coercing? I don’t know. I think along those lines. What do you think of the analogy if we say that we are the boy AND the toy? By the way, I also agree with another part of your conclusion: that we are set over creation. This is a theme throughout scripture, the theme of hierarchy. And it’s a very angsty one to modern minds like mine. But I think we lose something very essential and good when we throw it away. It’s just that one part of creation being placed over another part of creation (human over beast, priest over congregation, parent over child, husband over wife) doesn’t imply a hierarchy of value but of responsibility.

David: Well put, good sir. At this juncture we will break to allow for reader comments and a brief break. Until next time, good day to you.

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One thought on “Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 3)

  1. Heady stuff, sirs! CS Lewis wrote something brilliant in the Problem of Pain, which I have been trying to find without success since you mentioned “Fundamental Assumptions”. I’m going to butcher it, but basically he lays out a compelling case for why God interferes so rarely in Creation, explaining that the steadiness of the world (the Fundamental Assumptions we all make about life and earth and material things) is the only way to be fair to us – that a game played with changing rules and a changing board is not a game at all.

    I don’t know that that answers the “watchmaker vs artist” debate, or even if it says anything about an origin story – but it’s compelling to me when I want to demand God’s goodness when I want it, when I see injustice or unfairness carried out.

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