Christianity and Science, 1: Scientific Method

Michael A. Covington Ė Beech Haven Baptist Church Ė 1999 October 23

Is there a conflict between Christianity and science?

Some people say there is.

Common 20th-century view: Only "scientific" knowledge is genuine knowledge. Everything else (including religion) is "prescientific myth."

Some people present a distorted view of history in order to make it appear that everybody before the 20th century was ignorant and stupid, and that the church has always been anti-science.

Example: They tell you Christopher Columbus discovered the earth was round. Actually, the roundness of the earth was well known to educated people since ancient Greek times.

Example: They tell you the church persecuted Galileo for his Copernican astronomy. That is only partly true. Galileo himself enjoyed provoking conflicts; a different person in the same situation would probably have won some support for this theories.

Example: The play "Inherit the Wind" describes Tennessee fundamentalists prosecuting a schoolteacher for teaching evolution. Actually, the Scopes trial was a carefully arranged publicity stunt (see Larson, Summer for the Gods).

Unfortunately, many Christians assume that Christianity is anti-science, and thus that they should be anti-science too!

In particular, Christians often tell each other to simply avoid certain areas of scientific investigation. (Why? All truth is Godís truth.) We need Christians to go into evolutionary biology, neuropsychology, and other fields that are often considered anti-Christian.

The scientific world-view descends directly from Judeo-Christian religion.

Science arose in only one part of the world. Thatís no accident.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in a Creator who made an orderly, understandable universe and authorized us to investigate and utilize it. Thus, science and technology are legitimate.

Animists, who believe that the rocks and the trees have souls, feel that they shouldnít tamper with nature for fear of offending the spirits.

Hindus and Buddhists generally believe that the physical world is a distraction that we should try to get free of.

Atheists canít explain why it is even possible for us to understand the universe around us.

What is the "scientific method"?

There is no single, fixed "scientific method" for distilling raw data into Truth. Instead, at the cutting edge of research, dealing with unfamiliar phenomena, scientists often disagree as to what methods are valid.

Most scientific investigation involves controlled experiments, where you compare one thing to another (e.g., to find out whether a chemical causes cancer). In astronomy and geology, controlled experiments generally arenít possible; you have to rely on observations instead, and there is less opportunity to test whether your interpretations are correct.

Scientific evidence must be available to all through reproducible experiments or, where possible, reproducible observations. Mystic enlightenment or ancient authority is not scientific evidence.

Scientific claims must be testable. If there is no way to tell whether a theory is true or not, it is not a scientific theory.

Why might a theory be untestable?

(1) Maybe the theory fits too many possible facts Ė doesnít actually rule anything out. Predictions made by fortunetellers often have this quality. Nothing could happen that would actually prove them false. Such theories are generally considered worthless.

(2) Maybe the theory is incomplete, so we canít tell how it actually applies to a test situation. In that case, it needs to be worked out further.

(3) Maybe the theory is outside the scope of science, so that testing by observation is not relevant to it. (Some other kind of testing may still be possible.) Theorems in mathematics fall into this class; we test them by logic, not by observation.

(4) Maybe the evidence we need is just not available, so we are never going to be able to do a controlled experiment. Theories about historical events are in this category. We have to follow the weight of the available evidence. (Courtroom arguments generally try to make the most of limited evidence, acknowledging that no further evidence can be obtained.)

An important distinction

It is one thing to say that something (e.g., God) is beyond the scope of scientific investigation (or that scientific investigation yields little information about it); itís quite another to say it doesnít exist. Yet many people who are trying to adopt a scientific world-view get confused about this. (Real scientists donít believe in poetry or music???)

Two points of logic

(1) Theories canít be proved true; at most they can be proved false. "Proof" is a technical term of mathematics, not science

(2) By making enough additional assumptions, you can believe (or disbelieve) anything you want to, regardless of the evidence. I can deny that New York exists if I want to believe thereís a massive hoax about New York...


-- The scientific evidence for evolution does not provide any evidence against the existence of God, the authority of the Bible, or any essential Christian doctrines.

-- Among Christians there is a wide spectrum of opinions about evolution. We need to acknowledge this and keep an open mind.

-- Christians have nothing to fear from any legitimate scientific investigation, since truth does not conflict with truth.

-- Evolution is a major field of science. The puzzle will not be solved with a few quick strokes by laymen or popular writers. (Including me!)

What is the theory of evolution?

Distinguish evolution as a scientific theory and evolution as a philosophy of life.

In the late 1800s people already wanted to believe that the universe was automatically self-improving.

They also wanted to make atheism feasible by eliminating the argument from design.

They thought Darwin's theory of evolution provided scientific evidence for their views, so they accepted it enthusiastically (C.S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," in Christian Reflections).

Today, many people see evolutionary science as an alternative to Christianity Ė evolution is, for many, a religion, or at least an explanation of the meaning and purpose of life. We need to address this on scientific as well as theological grounds.


Recommended reading:

Any philosophy-of-science textbook; R. Giere, Understanding Scientific Reasoning, is particularly good.

C. S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," in Christian Reflections.

Ed Larson, article in September 1999 Scientific American on the number of scientists who believe in God.

Ed Larson, Summer for the Gods (about the Scopes trial).