…or “at least you can rely on science.”
Materialism is the belief that only material entities and processes exist, and virtually all Evangelicals reject it, in principle. Nevertheless it’s now pretty well recognised, if only by readers of The Hump, that living in a materialist society makes it easy to take on board materialism’s assumptions even when opposing it.
There is an unconscious tendency for us to restrict the non-material in everyday life to the miraculous – in the worship-service if you’re a pentecostal, or in the distant past for the cessationist. But a truer test of our theism is if we pray for our daily bread, and give thanks for it as if God really did specifically provide it for us, or likewise if we pray about the weather, and give thanks rather than grumble even if it’s inclement.
A similar unconscious tendency, I suggest, exists regarding science. This is seen in society generally. This is from a paper about attitudes to biotechnology amongst scientifically “Lay” people in America:
Deference to scientific authority is a central value predisposition shaping support for agricultural biotechnology. Positively correlated with education, deference to scientific authority is the strongest influence on support for agricultural biotechnology in our model.
So Americans having no specific background in science accept the authority of scientists the more highly they are educated. You might expect education to produce a more questioning attitude to any source of authority, but it seems that actually through education you learn to accept the authority of scientists, rather than being able or willing to evaluate their arguments. Is that a good thing? Does it not suggest, rather than critical thinking, indoctrination with versions of the scientistic myth, and very little education in the history or philosophy of science? Is that not the secular equivalent of a mediaeval state in which the citizens know their catechism and accept priestly authority, without really having any grasp of how to acquire the meaning of the inspired text?
But Christians are by no means exempt. One obvious example is Creationist literalism, especially in the form of Creation Science. This opposes the materialists’ denial, by means of an evolutionary material account, of a seven-day miraculous creation, by constructing a new science that validates Genesis 1 as an equally material account of an equally material creation. Science still reveals the whole truth – it just has to be the right science.
But it is no less prevalent in the general traffic occurring on a science-faith site like BioLogos (but I use this example only, in this case, because it’s typical of most of us nowadays). BioLogos specifically rejects scientism, the belief that only science can lead to truth. But for most Christians that overtly naturalistic version of scientism isn’t the real danger: once more, it’s the unconscious version that has infiltrated our minds. We reveal it by defaulting to the myth of “science” as the gold standard by which other things are judged.
This is shown simply in the range of articles on BioLogos. When dealing with theology, the operative word is “exploration”: Do we have to accept a literal Adam and Eve? Is Genesis 1 to be interpreted as metaphorical, or relativized as ancient science, or simply sidelined as one of the errors of fallible human authors? Perhaps kenotic theology fits evolution better than traditional teaching? Maybe Paul was wrong about original sin?
When writing about science, however, the operative word is “explanation”. Inherited mutations demonstrate common descent. The state of play of human evolution. The role of chance in the immune system. “Thank you for your clear explanation of the facts.”
With notable exceptions, such as Ted Davis’ thought-provoking stuff on the history of science, current science is taken as a given. Even controversies within the current scientific paradigm are mostly viewed as examples of “anti-science” if they’re mentioned at all, and that includes a failure to “explore” (or even “explain”!) very relevant controversies with no link to the dreaded creationism, such as the prolonged wars between adaptationists and neutralists, or the disagreements between palaeontologists and geneticists. The very lack of mention of these aspects of science, given the bold challenging of theological assumptions at every turn, demonstrates that the complications are probably not even seen to exist. Worldviews always miss their own blindspots.
One recent comment struck me in particular, from someone having problems with faith not because of anything to do with “science v faith”, but because of the suffering in the world. In response to someone suggesting that many ways could be followed to find truth, his “security blanket” reply was:
I suppose then that my priority is modern science. Seeing as that is free from superstition and, when conducted properly, personal bias. I can trust that science reveals the one, true reality we live in. Therefore I suppose whatever I am to believe in the Bible must fit or somehow be reconciled to that.
I wouldn’t want to hold anyone to a remark made, at a time of difficulty, in a blog post. What struck me more was the lack of response from anybody else on the thread, on a site dedicated to the science-faith interface, to the effect that the “safe place” apparently sought in science was, in fact, not one whit safer than any other human situation, and certainly no more secure than theology.
You can indeed trust both theology and science utterly – provided they are done by angels. Only then would either be “done properly”. But since both are human, and not angelic, enterprises, both are heavily invested with the traditions, biases, prejudices and sins of those performing them. Everyone knows that about theology – in fact in America, in particular, they tend to give up all hope of finding truth even in the words of Scripture – written by fallible humans, you see. But for some reason, science gets a free pass, even though it was written by humans too.
Our friend’s remark assumes that all truth is secondary to scientific truth – even theology must echo, rather than challenge, its pronouncements, as if the subject matter of science were, indeed, actually “everything.” But the remark also shows a complete, but commonplace, ignorance of any of the qualifications to science’s purity and objectivity shown by even cursory reading in the history, philosophy or sociology of science. Or even by just sitting in the common-room of a laboratory, as I did for the few months I was a lowly assistant at a research lab.
Even geography shows up the mythic fiction of a pure, universal science gradually revealing more and more of the truth. David N Livingstone has the rare, if hardly world-shattering, distinction of having three books recommended on our booklist. I’ve just finished his Putting Science in its Place, which goes beyond the history and philosophy of science to show just how locality-dependent all science is. I discovered a little of that here through reading a book by Czech scientist, Stanislav Komárek, but Livingstone deals with it on a broader canvas. As he says near his conclusion:
Taking seriously the geography of science positions the local at the centre of scientific ways of knowing. It confirms that the authorized apportionment between “the natural order”, “social context”, and “scientific inquiry” is a rhetorical device that imposes clarity on ambiguity. It renders suspect the idea that there is some unified thing called “science”. That imagined singularity is the product of a historical project to present “science” as floating transcendent and disembodied above the messiness of human affairs.
Now this is not anti-science, any more than realising that theology too is affected by the historical and local is anti-theology. In both cases, in fact, the refusal to equate the source of knowledge with the acquisition of knowledge is helpful. If we place Aquinas, Calvin or Jurgen Moltmann in their context – and even more so attempt to do the same of ourselves – we will be more likely to learn truth from them, and discern their errors, than if we become “followers” of any of them. That is well-known – apart from the bit about recognising the problems of our own context: people now are adept at filtering even their theological heroes through their own modern worldview, rather than letting them question it.
But the difference between source and study is less well recognised within science, or in those looking at it admiringly from without. Priestley was “wrong” and Lavoisier “right” (once Lavoisier’s ideas are quietly edited to make them compatible with the science we have now). Structuralism, which was politically sidelined in western biology by the power-base of Neodarwinism, has simply been forgotten. The concept of “orthodoxy” in theology is fashionably flexible, but in science there is only “consensus science” and “pseudoscience”.
Science appears to many the one thing you can rely on. But of course, in Christian terms that makes it the idol that stops you depending only on God, and the gospel by which he may be found. That is the measure by which we would measure all things – even science – if we were wholehearted disciples of Jesus.
Christians, owing allegiance to a purer truth in God, albeit glimpsed only partially and provisionally in our theological understanding (we were warned from the start that we see “through a glass darkly”), ought to be at the forefront in demythologising science and restoring it to its proper place as just one of the many tools – fallible tools – God has given us for his service in the world. But I see few signs of that so far.