Citius, Altius, Fortius

Imagine you’re on a scientific grants committee (perhaps you are!). A young PhD comes to you and says, “I want a grant to investigate the physical explanation of the Babylonian theory of astrology.”

Discounting (or not knowing of) those few studies suggesting some validity to astrology, you huff and say, “You’re 3,000 years too late, Sonny – we know now there is no physical basis to astrology.”

“No, you misunderstand me,” he replies. “I don’t want to explain why it’s true – I want to explain why the theory exists.”

“I think you’re before the wrong committee, then: why the Babylonians believed what they did is a matter of history, sociology, religion – that kind of thing. Not the physical sciences.”

“But surely everything in the Universe resolves to the higher-order natural sciences? I don’t want to know why the theory arose in folk-psychology terms, but in terms of hard basic science. What’s the physics accounting for the theory?”

“Don’t waste my time – astrology is bunk, and I don’t see how you’re going to find a naturalistic theory for such a theory.”

“Well – OK. Then will you give me a grant for investigating the physical science explaining the existence of a legitimate theory, then? The RNA-world hypothesis, for instance?”

The point of that rather silly tale is to remind us that, in practice, we are very well aware that the natural sciences have limitations. There are questions it’s just inappropriate for them to ask, like what physical laws account for the existence of particular theories, whether true or false. The rankest materialists may deny voluntary human agency and say it all boils down to particles, but evolutionary psychology fantasies notwithstanding, nobody really expects to find that each theory is the result of specific emergent properties of matter which can, in principle, be elucidated.

So instead, explaining theories is left to philosophers and other students of the “illusion” called the mind. Which is a shame, because such fields of study are often mocked by scientists, who therefore don’t see the irreducible human subjectivity of their own pet theories.

This all arose from a thread started by (a theistic evolutionist, but not of the “valid” sort) on BioLogos, in which a couple of scientifically-minded Christians saw the claimed irreducible nature of the semiotic code of life to be a science-stopper. One said words to the effect: “What if you did show irrefutably that semiotic information in life could only arise from mind, what then? Would science just have to stop the search for the origin of life?”

My immediate response would be, “In that particular direction, maybe it would – and why would that be such an unthinkable thing?” We live, after all, in a finite Universe. And to believing scientists like those represented by BioLogos, it’s a finite Universe created by an infinite God who is outside the natural realm that science can study.

If we have the hubris to believe that we could actually achieve a scientific theory of everything, it is theoretically possible to discover everything within the Universe. Then science would have to accept that everything still unexplained would be a blank wall, or perhaps a swirling mist, between the heart of God and the existence of nature. It’s inescapably true. When we accept a Creator, we take on board, of necessity, that in whichever direction we look, ultimately we will encounter the inscrutable face of God’s act of creation. Poof!

In practice, we’re likely to be capable of discovering far less even of natural reality because of our human limitations, but we ought anyway, if we believe in God, to recognise that science must, ultimately, stop. It, unlike God, is big, rather than infinite. And God is what must stop it, because he is infinite, not big.

We don’t even have to hypothesise about discovering absolutely everything before this point: if we can leapfrog over vast astronomical distances and discover that the physical Universe began with a bang, then to look beyond that first physical event for physical causes is not courageous, but self-contradictory. One can, of course, dispute that the big bang happened, or that it produced the physical universe which was, instead, budded off from some prior physical universe. But that’s a different question – and it’s clear from the BioLogos thread that many don’t understand the difference.

Eddie suggested that when God is known to have acted beyond nature in a particular instance, further scientific investigation is foolish, and he instanced this by the example of the resurrection of Christ. But his interlocutor replied that, on the contrary, the true scientist was bound to ask how God did it. Remember here, we’re not talking about a skeptic, but a Christian. Yet he has failed to realise that the Resurrection, whatever else it was, is also revealed as the inbreaking of an entirely new act of creation, the firstfruits of the new heavens and the new earth, the spiritual that is to replace the material. It was not, by very definition, an event within nature, so how could natural scientists be daft enough to even ask what natural means God used to do it? It makes the physics of theory-making seem normal science in comparison.

The “soft scientistic” mindset seems to be tied in with some modern version of the old colonial “white man’s burden” – not only can we discover more about everything forever, but we must – we are “bound” to. Another commenter on the BL thread said, “It’s the duty of scientists to keep on looking for further natural causes.” Who gave them that duty, I wonder? God? Or is it just an obession, like fitness addiction?

The title of this piece is the Olympic motto, which is rhetorically emotive but scientifically naive. To say athletes have the “duty” to strive to be ever faster, higher and stronger is to ignore the fact that physiology and physics impose irreducible limits. There will never be a two-minute mile or a fifteen metre high jump, unless the Olympic ideal begins to make way for transhumanism. At some point, then, physical limits will be reached – maybe we’re close, given the ubiquity of doping to try and keep the motto alive.

When those limits arrive, will sports stop? Is physiology a “sports-stopper”? No, but the Olympic motto may need to be superceded by some more modest aim such as “achieving the limits of human possibility” – a bit less pithy in Latin, probably.

What is the equivalent motto, or duty, for the Christian scientist? Suggestions on a postcard, please. But it won’t be “To try and find the truth behind God,” unless Open Theism becomes even more Socinian that it is so far (after all, John Biddle in the 17th century used the same biblical methodology to prove that God is a body in a location in the heavens as he did to prove that God doesn’t know the future, which in turn is the exegetical methodology of Open Theism).

Rather such a “self-denying ordinance” has to involve ways of knowing where the world of nature meets the holy ground of God, and being wise enough to keep off the latter.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Citius, Altius, Fortius

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    For my modest contribution to this very important question, I would say that the duty of a Christian scientist is to continue to follow in the footsteps of Newton, Faraday, Boyle, Wallace, Heisenberg, Collins, and all the other previous Christian scientists – to understand how God’s creation works. Not with the aim of proving God’s existence, that is a foolish goal, but with the aim of proving that the best science is perfectly consistent with the best theology, and that no one need choose between the two truths of God’s word.

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