The Science Delusion

The commonsense view of a scientist is the fictional assumption that she sits in her lab studying matter through her microscope, wholeheartedly and virtuously wed to a pursuit of truth, humble enough to admit where she is wrong and to follow the data wherever it should lead, wanting only, in the end, to benefit humanity.

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Who put together this PR campaign? Clearly, such a flawless depiction of a hero has to be an accretion of legendary stuff and myth-making. When I see depictions of medieval saints that look like this, I assume a relatively good amount of sweeping under the carpet happened long ago and the facts of history have been lost in the sands of time. For a reputation to be so pristine and so pure, it looks manufactured.

Here’s the real life of a scientist:

She is sitting in a lab that is being funded by someone else, someone with partisan interests tied specifically to making money. That group of people is standing next to the scientist, watching her work and putting a stream of money into her left pocket.

On the other side of her stands a person taking money out of her right pocket. Retailers take it, government takes it, family and friends take it. She has a passionate interest in keeping that river flowing, and that outflow is directly dependent on the inflow.

Over her left shoulder stands a crowd of people who are applauding for her. When she succeeds, makes money, gets published, and gets promoted, they cheer. Over the other shoulder is a group of people booing her. They point out her flaws and hold her up to expectations. People she knows switch back and forth between the two groups. This includes her spouse, children, parents (or their ghosts), employers, employees, peers, the public, and even her own conscience.

On the wall of her lab is a clock, but not a normal one. It is a countdown clock. It ticks down towards her own death, her retirement, her chances for advancement, towards the graduation of her children, towards the due date of the next utility bill. There’s a countdown for the time that she is due to publish her results, and that countdown is tied to a spigot that turns off the money flow into her pocket. That pressure never goes away. In fact, if she is, say, researching a crisis during the crisis, that countdown is shorter than is necessary to actually do circumspect work.

The microscope through which she is looking is cracked, that microscope being her own mind, which, through a series of evolutionary tricks, is riddled with cognitive biases. She (as with everyone) is more likely to believe what a vast majority believes, more likely to believe what is negative, more likely to choose her beliefs from a range of options that are available and proximate to her, more likely to believe that which confirms the things she is already committed to, and more likely to believe causation where she is actually only seeing correlation. The best magic trick ever performed was when the human brain evolved to assume its own power to distinguish between what seems right and what is right in front of it.

Undergirding her empirical work are two systems that do not answer to her empirical work – ethics and logic. Science does not create reason; it presumes it and depends on it. Where a person is not logical, or fails to be logical, empirical methods follow the leader. Likewise, science does not create ethics. Science alone cannot morally rule that a humanitarian researcher is doing what is right while a self-interested scientist is doing what is wrong. In fact, science as presented in its idealized form depends on a commitment to several moral virtues – humility, open-mindedness, honesty, and the like – none of which are created by scientific investigation. She walked into the lab with her ethics and sense of reason already in place, and they affect what she can do in the lab.

There are two other labs on the same street that are competing with her work. If the other two agree against her work, she is branded as an outlier who perhaps hasn’t done good research, and her work is branded with “most scientists feel otherwise.” If her work shows something normal and unremarkable, often her work is never even published. If the lab down the street comes out with something newsworthy, their money spigot is turned up higher, and hers is turned down. No one is rewarded for saying, “We just don’t know.”

“Hold on!” she protests, looking up for her work, thinking I’ve slipped into the booing crowd. “My work is peer reviewed.” It is, by a group of people who fall into all the same categories of the description I’ve named above.

Just a few notes from history: Isaac Newton was mocked as an occultist by other scientists when he said that objects could exert force on each other without touching each other; scientists believed in an “aether,” a substance that filled all space between objects, from Aristotle till Einstein; some scientists leapt to advocate for Piltdown Man as a missing link before it was shown to be a hoax; and many cosmologists now posit the existence of dark matter, a hypothesis for which there is absolutely no evidence, but which is required unless we’re willing to admit that we’ve been wrong about either gravity or inertia. I’ve heard a prominent scientist recently suggest that he believes in multiple universes, an idea that is borrowed from philosophy and which was created as a thought experiment, not as a description of reality. A lot of scientific peers agreed to all this at one time or another.

So what I mean to suggest is not that the empirical method of hypothesis, testing, observation, and conclusions doesn’t work. I only mean to suggest that science done with zeal and speed is far more prone to error than the Norman Rockwell painting of the scientist most of us carry around in our minds would let on. What’s the take-away? Stop telling me, “Well, science says….”

Science and Faith

monkeyThe Galileo Affair

There’s a little event that happened in 1633 which is an important conversation piece in Christianity today.  There was a guy named Galileo who studied the stars and who wanted the world to look through his new telescope.  Apparently, he said, we’ve got it wrong.  The earth goes around the sun and not vice versa.

The Catholic Church of his day was doing a little investigation called the Spanish Inquisition, in which they were forcing people to accept Christian doctrine or face torture.  They read the passage in the Bible, Joshua 10:13 that says that the sun stopped in the sky.  Well, the sun can’t very well stop if the sun isn’t the one that’s moving.  So they told Galileo to take back his doctrine, which he did.

To this day, that story is told to high school students to emphasize the fact that religious legends can be destructive tools that oppose the pursuit of truth.

One of the most destructive things a Christian can do is make decisions out of fear.  Fear doesn’t help you determine scientific facts.  And fear-based decisions will make your worldview look ridiculous to thoughtful people.

Darwin and the Church

Fast forward 220 years. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species,” in which he proposed that the history of the world doesn’t orbit around humanity.  In fact, the history is much longer, and humans are a late arrival.  Furthermore, we arrived by a long and strange route, through adaptation and survival.

This immediately sent shockwaves through Europe and America, first among the universities.  At Princeton Seminary, my alma mater, there was a division in the ranks.  One professor, Charles Hodge, wrote “What is Darwinism,” and in it said that evolution is atheistic.  He rejected it and spent his life arguing against it.  However, his colleague BB Warfield, a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, wrote that one did not have to give up the Christian faith to believe in Darwinism.  He wrote, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”

Atheists however quickly took up Darwinism as their rival creation story.  Thomas Huxley went around promoting Darwin before the scientific community had even weighed in.  He took to calling himself, “Darwin’s bulldog.”  Since then, atheists have continued to promote Darwinism for philosophical rather than scientific reasons.

I’m sort of the Forest Gump of Darwinism.  You remember how Forest Gump keeps showing up in the middle of huge, significant political events without realizing what was going on?

When I was in college, a friend of mine was an intern at the church.  He was staying at the house of a family in the congregation.  I used to go over to the house, and we would watch VHS tapes listening to Christian philosophers debate about important things.  The house was owned by a Berkeley professor.  That professor was upstairs writing a book about Darwinism, and I went to his initial book launch and signing.  The professor’s name was Philip Johnson, and he wrote the book Darwin on Trial, which launched a lot of the modern debate on Darwinism.  The intern was named Tom Crisp, and he’s now the chair of the philosophy department at Biola University.

Then I went to Princeton Seminary.  While I was there, I took part in a series of seminars on Christian apologetics, exploring a defense of the Christian faith in the modern world.  One of the other students setting those up was a guy who already had two PhD’s, a guy who was particularly interested in Darwinism.  His name is William Dembski, and he has written or edited many of the great books debating Darwinism in the last 20 years.

Creation Science

Some time ago, my friend Kyle invited me to give a lecture to high school students at Mariners Church, a megachurch down in Irvine. I talked about science and the story of faith.  There was, that evening, a kid sitting in the back row next to the door.  I always pay attention to the people in the back row looking like they want to get away, because they are usually the ones to whom God wants to speak most clearly.  Eventually the kid raised his hand and he asked, “I don’t get it.  Hasn’t Darwinism just disproven Christianity?”

“That’s an interesting impression,” I said. “But actually, I think that the Bible is full of science.” I was just stalling, because I didn’t know what I what to say.  But then I realized, I think the Bible really is full of science.

I said, “Look at Genesis 1 and the story of Creation.”

On Day 1 God created light.

On Day 2 God separated the sky from the land.

On Day 3 God created the plants.

On Day 4 God created the moon and the stars.

On Day 5 God created the animals.

On Day 6 God created humanity.

I asked him, “Do you see the science?”

On the first day, God created physics, brought the mysterious particles and waves that are the grounding of all things tangible into being.

It was good.

On the second day, God brought hydrogen and oxygen molecules into the bonded union that would give texture to the tangible.   On the second day, God created chemistry.

And it was good.

On the third day, God created geology and botany.

He created clay and rock and sand.  He grew palms and pineapples, cocoa and coffee beans.

So you know that day was good.

On the fourth day, God created astronomy.  He dressed Orion in a belt and admired Saturn and said, “If I like it then I better put a ring on it.”

And it was good.

On the fifth day God created zoology.  He made the majestic eagle, the prickly porcupine, and the misconstrued platypus (which is kind of like making lunch out of the whatever leftovers you find in the refrigerator.)

But it was still good.

On the 6th day, God created anthropology. He created little minds to contemplate the great mind, hearts to feel, fingers to reach out in need and in fear and in love.

And it was so good.

And on the 7th day he created philosophy, the mother of all sciences, a day on which to contemplate it all.

A thinking God created thinking beings to bear a thinking faith.  People of God, the world gains nothing from Christian cowards who turn off their brains when they hear ideas that scare them.

Evolution and God

If God wanted to bring about humanity through millions of years of evolution, who is the clay to tell the potter how to do his work? God can bring about his creation in any way he should do.  And Bible verses about the beginning of humanity shouldn’t silence scientists any more than Bible verses about the sun stopping in the sky.

If what the church offers to society is fear and ignorance, the church deserves to be ignored.

If evolution is wrong, that should be a scientific decision, and scientists should be open to all questions.  Scientists like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are making a case for why they think Darwinism is insufficient to explain the fossil record and the intricacies of biology.  Even atheist scholars like Thomas Nagel believe Darwinism is insufficient to explain life.  But let that be a debate for the learned, and if you want to be a part of the debate, study the issue before you speak, unlike so many Christians whose approach is “Panic first, ask questions later.” But the Bible doesn’t require a rejection of evolution, and fearful arguments to the contrary do not honor Jesus.

Hospitals and Schools

Look at how much good Christians have done when they have embraced empirical science as a tool to honor God.

The great universities of Europe and America, the Oxfords and the Harvards, were founded by Christians who believed that God’s fingerprints were all over the world, and the work of God was worth studying.  They believed that by advancing knowledge they were honoring the work of God and doing what God wanted.

The great hospitals and modern medicine were founded by Christians who wanted to heal broken bodies, believing that alongside prayer, and not instead of it, God had given us tools to understand and repair the physical world.

Furthermore, great scientists have embraced faith.

Isaac Newton, who postulated the gravitational constant, wrote more about Christianity than science.

Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, preached sermons at his church.

Louis Pasteur, who made milk drinkable, said that he prayed while he worked.

Lord Kelvin, who formulated the laws of thermodynamics, gave lectures defending the Christian faith.

Francis Collins, modern leader of the human genome mapping project, calls Jesus his Lord and Savior.

Faith has never flourished by hiding its head in the sand. People of faith ought to embrace the honest explorations of the scientific community, and the scientific community ought to be open towards honest exploration of the story of Jesus.

I remember going to a church camp when I was in high school, a fiery Baptist camp held in deep in the woods in the Texas hills, so that you could not get away.  And I remember asking a guest preacher a string of questions about faith and science.  Midway through my questions he got tired, and just scolded me, “Sometimes you just need to stop asking questions and believe.”

That’s a bunch of trash.  Pursuit of truth leads to Jesus, and if you stop asking questions, you won’t end up at Jesus, you’ll end up with an idol.

Believing Thomas

Look at how Jesus treated questions when they came from one of his own disciples.

JOHN 20

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas is not an enemy of the faith.  Thomas is merely a scientist.

Jesus’ message to Thomas isn’t scolding, it’s giving Thomas the empirical evidence that he’s asked for.   Stop doubting and believe – because I’ve now given you sufficient evidence to stop doubting.

Don’t be afraid of where the pursuit of truth will lead you if you believe in the guy who said, “I am the truth.” To pursue truth is to pursue Jesus.

If you want something to be afraid of, I’ll give you something to be afraid of.  If you raise your kids with a kind of fundamentalism that requires them to hide their heads in the sand, one day your kids will get out in the world, and they will listen to the news, they will talk to their peers, they may go to college, and they will realize that brilliant minds have come to believe in things that are different than what they’ve heard from you.  If you tell them that the Christian faith hangs on their rejection of the findings of science, you will put them in the position of holding onto ideas so rigidly that their ideas will one day break them.  Kids aren’t leaving the faith because of Darwinism.  They’re leaving the faith because parents, churches, and pastors are telling them that Christianity and science are opposed to one another, and they have to choose either science or Christianity.  They’re going to choose the one that is most serious about the pursuit of truth.

Shouldn’t that be the Church? Shouldn’t we be the ones who love truth more than our secular friends?

Let me remind you of a teaching of Jesus that he said was more important than all the rest – Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and you will be faithful.

Death by Explanation

ImageScientists can describe to you the project of finding a “universal theory,” something that explains the whole of existence in its most basic terms.  This generally involves some form of reductionism, usually collapsing the three great sciences into one another.  Biology is to be explained by chemistry, and chemistry is to be explained by physics.  In other words, the activity of our hearts and minds are the firings of neurons and the swirling of chemicals.  Those chemicals are fundamentally the interactions of molecules, which are the interactions of atoms, which are the interactions of protons, neutrons, electrons.  If you slice with a thinner razor, you come to quarks and leptons and bosons.  The universal theory aims at getting to the center of these Russian dolls and explaining how the little one, and the forces that hold them together, governs everything else.

This is a real effort in the sciences.  Darwinism is the greatest reductionist theory in existence, an alternative to a Designer.  Next, scientists are looking for a source for the big bang, trying to come up with a viable alternative to a Creator.  This is a real effort in the sciences – and it really isn’t going to work.

Renee Descartes tried to do the same thing with the mental world.  He tried to break thought down into its smallest, most basic parts.  If he imagined that the world around him didn’t exist, imagined even that the parts of his body didn’t exist, that with which he ultimately left was “I think therefore I am.” The criticism of his theory has always been, “Hey, where did this ‘I’ come from?  What’s the ‘I’ that’s doing the thinking?” In other words, you can’t really separate thinking from the person who is doing it, so it’s hard to say what the tiniest little atom is in the sequence of mental events.  You could try saying, “Thinking happens,” but that doesn’t really explain the fact that thinking is self-conscious.  Our thoughts are part of a bigger story, a narrative, and no one thought can be separated out by itself from the others.  Thoughts can’t be broken into atoms.

The same thing is true in the physical sciences.  The problem with atomistic theory is that nothing in the real world can be dissected down to constituent parts that are actually separated from one another.  The atoms are holding hands.  Physics is a narrative.  The fact that some atoms make up the point where my pencil ends and others make up the point where the paper begins constitutes a story about the atoms that the individual atoms can’t tell on their own.

Ultimately, materialistic, atheistic scientific efforts will keep hacking away at life looking for its smallest unit.  But science is trying to grab hold of mercury.  What it’s trying to contain will always slip away.  Atoms will never by themselves tell the story of existence.  The whole narrative is bigger than the sum of its parts.

The scientific reduction of biology into chemistry and physics tells us as much about life as dissection tells us about what it feels like to fall in love.