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Science, Faith and Control

August 15, 2011

Recent articles (like this one) have once again raised the question of whether the dominant views of the origins of humanity are compatible with Christian faith. It has certain instigated a fresh wave of conversations among some students and graduates of the University of Aberdeen, our academic home here at Out of Bounds. Not having a significant dog in this fight, as my mind is largely unmade on the question of whether Paul’s juxtaposition of Christ and Adam in Romans 5 necessitates a historical Adam, I’d like to use this post to lay out some preliminary observations that may help orient a careful Christian approach to the current fracas.

To begin with, it is often said among Christians that science and revelation don’t really contradict each other, despite the cultural tensions between the laboratory and the church; it is usually promoted as a proper Christian conviction that science and Scripture speak in stereo of the same reality from different angles. But this is actually imprecise in a few important ways. The truth behind this conviction is the unitary nature of reality, that the universe we experience with our bodies and senses is the same universe God spoke into existence and thus nature cannot be one thing in our experience and an entirely different unrelated or contradictory thing in its relation to its Creator. A unified understand of the world as we observe and experience it and the world as revelation makes it known to us must be possible. So far so good.

We do have to make an important differentiation here between science and the world. The world is mute; it stands before us and around us and conditions our existence but it does not speak to us of itself. It presents us with innumerable phenomena set alongside each other that we approach with a desire, and I would even say an obligation, to understand and articulate the relationship between and underlying logic behind, but it doesn’t connect these dots for us. Humanity, therefore, seeks to speak as a part of the world on the mute world’s behalf, to bring to articulation the rationality of the world which the world itself is unable to utter. We are the mouthpiece of the universe.

Of course this human task of articulating the coherence of reality through rational concepts can be at times merely imperfect and at other times given to wild fancy. Science arises in recognition of this situation, that humanity is not an infallible mouthpiece of the universe but is entirely capable of uttering complete nonsense about the world. Science seeks to discipline the human knower, to establish self-control in our thinking about the world so that fanciful projections of our self-conscious onto reality are avoided and the inherent rationality of the universe is enabled to make itself known to us out of itself.

Here we are at a place where we can say that though there is no necessary contradiction between science and Christian faith – we ought always to reject any presentation of a dichotomous choice we must make between scientific/rational thinking and Christian faith – there is nonetheless a significant different between natural science and Christian faith as types of thinking. The difference here has to do with the role and kind of control at play in each. Both require the development of a rigorous self-control so that our thinking is conformed to the nature of the reality we investigate rather than simply nurturing our untrained assumptions. But in natural science, since the objects we investigate are mute, we must take a significant measure of control over them (or at least over the instruments of our observation in fields like astronomy) to make them answer our questions. We conduct experiments of control and observation. Doing so in cases of natural science works in tandem with our self-controlled thinking about the results – there is no tension between controlled experiment and self-controlled thinking in this sphere.

Between this sphere of natural science (by which I have things like chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc in mind) and Christian faith there is the realm of our knowing of people or even animals, which in their rigorous scientific forms are represented by psychology, sociology, history and various forms of biology in the case of animals. Here the place of control in experimentation runs up against a limiting factor, namely ethics; though certain kinds of experimentation on animals and humans may yield fruitful insights, it is unacceptable to take control of the other in a way that violates their dignity. Self-control and controlled experimentation run into a certain tension here that we must work through. We find ways of experimenting that abide by ethical standards, though the scientific results may be limited. Moreover, in the realm of psychology or even the more basic level of interpersonal knowledge, attempts to establish a manipulative control over the other person in the interest of gaining a better knowledge them is actually self-defeating; knowledge of the other is only possible through respect for their equal dignity to our own. This actually applies in all realms of science – science must resist damaging methods of investigation that do more harm than its findings are worth. Science must operate within a matrix of values which both establish and limit its own value.

In Christian faith, we pass from the natural sciences where self-controlled thinking means conducting controlled experiments within acceptable ethical boundaries to the realm of our relation to God where self-control means yielding and repenting from all attempts to control the One we seek to know. To seek to control God or the conditions of our knowledge of him is both to display a radical ignorance of his identity and to further the alienation from him that causes such ignorance. To know God we can only appeal to his grace of self-revelation, his desire and action to make himself known to us.  In fact, to know God we must be reconciled to him. As John Webster has put it, “Revelation is therefore reconciliation; reconciliation is the more comprehensive concept for what is being talked of by revelation” (Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon” in Word and Church, p. 27). Control here is one-dimensional, God controlling our knowledge of him. Self-control in faith has to do with faithful hearing and response to the Word rather than establishing the conditions by which what we know is made demonstrable in a repeatable way; such manipulation of God is utterly impossible.

Though what I have said here does nothing to settle the debates about human origins and the questions of how to interpret Genesis 1-3 in light of New Testament passages like Romans 5, I do think it enables us to be aware of some temptations on both sides of the debate. On one side, there is the temptation to deploy the resources of scientific thinking to answer questions about the origin and even meaning (or lack thereof) of our existence. Here we stretch science beyond its own boundaries and through it seek to establish ourselves as the masters of our existence, possessing certain knowledge and control of the foundations and meanings of our lives. Here science oversteps the bounds which Christian faith can allow for it because here we seek through science to be our own gods.

On the other side, there is the temptation to appropriate the teachings of Scripture about our nature as creatures created by God as data put under our control with which we can do battle against scientific naturalism. Certainly Christian faith must resist and counter such naturalism, but it does so by resisting the control naturalism seeks to wield over humanity’s knowledge of itself and the universe. It does so by hearing the Word of God in faith and laying down its attempts to control more than it ought, not by appropriating biblical teaching to secure its own position of control over against the claims of natural science.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2011 11:55 pm

    Nice orienting post, Adam. You must have just been reading Theological Science or something 😉 .

    It seems to me that what you are describing, on either side of this typical coin, could be called the Fundamentalist fallacy; where binary thinking reigns, and aliens and bible belts have an uncanny relationship.

  2. ken oakes permalink
    August 18, 2011 10:36 am

    I’ve always thought this conversation to be an important one as well, and I’m glad to hear that it’s going on at Aberdeen (clearly my loss that I’ve already peaced out). Hope to see some more posts on what the conversation over there looks like.

  3. August 18, 2011 1:08 pm

    First – I like your stuff on our lack of control over revelation and how that differs from certain views of science.

    Second – I still fail to see what sort of stake you Torrancians have in digging your heels in about the “inherent rationality” (or “underlying logic”) of the world. Granted, this seems to be functionally helpful for getting stuff done (e.g., building rockets), but I don’t know why we’d want to elevate this epistemological claim to a literal description about the way the world really is. As you imply, viewing the world rationally has to do with the way *we* perceive things (since the goal is ultimately to “speak for the world” – which I take to mean, “speak to ourselves about the world”). That’s fine – we are meaning makers – and the world submits itself to be observed by knowers such as ourselves. But why make this a descriptive claim about “creation,” particularly when creation supposedly popped out of thin air at the mere word of God? What’s the benefit? Apologetics? Public theology?

  4. August 18, 2011 9:27 pm

    Bobby, SHHHHHH! Don’t give away what I’ve been reading – I’m trying to sound original here!

    Ken, bug Ben Rhodes or Scott Prather – they’ll get you up to speed on all the facebook debates.

    Justin, I’ll update my Latin dictionary to define nihilo as “thin air”. So you don’t like critical realism. The area really isn’t my specialty, but I think its an accurate depiction of our situation as knowing subjects in the face of world of objectivities of which knowledge is possible but not inevitable. It seems to lie between poles where we either entirely construct our knowledge in such a way that its relation to what we know is totally arbitrary and meaningless, or an overly simplistic common sense realism where we just unproblematically know things as they are. Torrance puts things the way he does because of his interactions with the philosophy of science, Michael Polanyi in particular – he sees the development from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics where visual models and static geometry had to be replaced by an understanding of dynamic relations to be a helpful illustration of the kind of move theology needs to make, one from static ontology and historicist hermeneutics to an emphasis on God’s Trinitarian relational ontology and self-communication.

  5. September 7, 2011 11:09 pm

    Preach it my brother.

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