An Important Distinction
If you are trying to grasp the core issues dealing with Christianity’s relationship to science, it can be challenging. Of course, this is because there are so many details which are involved and many competing voices. It is especially difficult if you are a non-scientist and are not acquainted with much of the terminology. However, it is certainly not impossible to have a well-informed understanding of science and Christianity as a lay person. If you are to have such an understanding, you must (at the very least) know how to make a very important distinction. This is the distinction between science and a philosophy of science called materialism.
Perhaps the easiest way to begin thinking about this distinction is to ask yourself what people mean when they use the word “science”. Are they referring to the scientific method (the process of observation, forming a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis)? Are they referring to the body of knowledge which scientific discoveries have illuminated over the centuries? Are they referring to a particular sub-discipline within science? All of these are important questions. While all of these are possible referents of the word “science”, there is another which contributes to the image that Christianity and science are “at war.”
How Philosophy Drives Science
When thinkers of all backgrounds approach the discipline of science, it is important to understand that they have a philosophy of science. This means people will think about and practice science with foundational assumptions in place. In other words, people approach science with certain presuppositions in place about what is and is not scientific. At the risk of oversimplification, here is one example: some have argued that the activity and existence of God cannot be used as an explanation in scientific reasoning. Why is this so? God is a supernatural being and the supernatural is not science (so the argument goes). The idea is that God is not a material being and science is concerned with material explanations only. But this itself represents a philosophy called methodological naturalism. It is “methodological” because it is prescribing a method for doing science. It is “naturalism” because it says scientists can only consider material explanations for cause and effect relationships in the universe.
The reason this strikes many people as a reasonable approach to science is for two main reasons. One is that the discipline of science has been very successful in providing material explanations for cause and effect relationships in the world. It has allowed humanity to fly to the moon, explore more of space, develop better approaches to healthcare, and much more. This success, in part, has made it plausible in people’s minds to think that the only proper scientific explanations are material. It has supported the claim that we no longer need God to explain things because science keeps providing material explanations for phenomena that were once explained by the supernatural (or again, so the argument goes).
The second reason for the widespread acceptance of methodological naturalism as a philosophy of science is the assumption of philosophical materialism as a worldview. At bottom, materialism is a metaphysical view which says the material is all that exists. If this is true, then it means everything in the universe (including its origin) can be fully explained by sole reference to material causes. It is obvious that if this is your metaphysical starting point, then by definition, there can be no non-material explanations in science since the material is all that exists.
Is God Necessary?
Now, it is certainly the case that we do not need to appeal to God to explain the cause and effect relationships in experimental science. This is because the universe operates according to natural laws which are regular and repeatable. For example, an atheist and a Christian can run experiments in a chemistry lab and explain the chemical reactions as a result of material processes. The point is that belief or disbelief in God does not affect such an experiment. However, it seems that the order in the natural world (described by scientific laws) requires an explanation. There is a good argument to be made that God provides an explanation for this order, but that is for another time. For now, it is important to understand that experimental science is not the only kind of science. There is also historical science.
In the practice of historical science, scientists (such as archeologists, paleontologists, forensic investigators) must try to formulate the best explanation for some event which occurred in the past. The field of origin of life studies is a perfect example of this. Scientists researching the question of life’s origin are looking at the evidence we have from the beginning of the universe and biology. They are searching for an explanation which makes the most sense of the evidence. Researchers in this field cannot recreate the big bang in a laboratory. They must look at the best evidence we currently have and then formulate hypotheses about the origin of the universe and the origin of life. Then, they must choose the best explanation from among competing hypotheses.
Scientific reasoning then consists in just this process. But what happens when evidence from the origin of the universe and the origin of life resist a materialist explanation? What happens when there is positive evidence which points towards a non-material explanation (such as an intelligence)? Well, it is here that the rigid requirement of only material explanations is challenged by science itself. I can’t cover it in detail here, but there is powerful evidence from the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the fine tuning of the universe which points towards an intelligence (a Mind) as the best explanation. And if this is the case, then we must not equate a philosophy of materialism with the practice of science. If we do, we will blind ourselves from the truth about where the scientific evidence leads.
What’s the Point?
The upshot of all this is to be alert to the fact that, many times, people use the word “science”, but they are expressing the philosophy of materialism. The discipline of science is not equal to the philosophy of materialism. If you can make this distinction, it will prove helpful in seeing why science and belief in God are not opposed, but that they actually support one another. A more robust philosophy of science is one which is open to the best explanation justified by the evidence, not one which rules out an entire class of explanations from the beginning.