POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Why Science in a Theistic Universe Does Not Suck

In preparation for some Thoughts in Time (I am renaming a series called Tuesdays in Time, Thoughts in Time because sometimes I am just too busy on Tuesdays) I wanted to post overall on one of the current worldviews prevalent among Western intellectuals.  In this essay I want to do just a few things.  First, I want to lay out a worldview which I am calling naturalistic reductionism - what Richard Dawkins has described as "dancing to our DNA."  Second, I want to give an example from a recent wired magazine article, of how this leads to some rather absurd thinking.  The short article, Why Things Suck: Science, demonstrates well that while attempting to explain everything - this worldview  explains no-thing at all.  Third, I want to describe why the scientific enterprise, when engaged as a believer, in no wise sucks.  So let us begin our dance...maybe with more than just our DNA.

Over the course of time ideas develop and evolve.  Thinkers influence one another and create problems for systems of thoughts.  When problems emerge, other thinkers seek to solve those problems and rescue the system.  At times the system becomes so beaten and questioned that it is jettisoned altogether for other views.  Such is the history of ideas.  In our current situation we stand at an interesting point in Western ideas.  Many have rejected concepts such as supernatural entities, God, angels, human souls - in favor of a a world made up only of energy.  We are just bits of organized information, matter/space/time/energy rearranged ordered according to the laws of Physics.  Here is where it gets interesting.  The universe, so we are told, is a random occurrence of space/time/matter combined with chance.  There is no order to the order any longer in many people's thinkers we are in a random process which in no way had us in mind.  This view of life; that we are all but the result of nature and her laws can be called naturalism and it has ancient roots.

Interestingly enough, the study of nature and her laws had led to astounding blessings and profound burdens for human kind.  Science has brought us both vaccines and atomic bombs, modern sanitation and weapons of mass destruction.  Yet because of the success of the scientific enterprise it has been extended to literally explain everything; as if everything can be reduced by the word "JUST"

  • A human being is JUST a bundle of matter organized by law and DNA
  • Love is JUST an exchange of chemical signals by specialized apes
  • Ethics is JUST something our species created in order to pass on its genes and survive
  • God is JUST localized activity in a sector of your brain

Let me be clear.  Scientific investigation is a great gift to humanity.  The very fact that our thinking and the ways our universe functions correspond is a great clue to the design of God in us.  Yet when we take a good thing such as science and extend it to all every of knowledge we go much too far.   As the late British journalist Malcom Muggeridge once remarked we run great risk of simply educating ourselves into imbecility. 

In C.S. Lewis' book The Pilgrim's Regress, a man name John is in prison - captive as it were, to the spirit of the age.  In his pit he is brought things to eat at which the jailer would explain what they were eating.  He tells John that when eating meat they are just eating corpses, when partaking of milk they were just downing the secretions of a cow, and eggs were just the menstruum of a verminous fowl.  John finally rebels against this, calling out the madness of his jailer.  The reductionism of his jailer was far too much for his experience of eggs.  John's objection was that some things in life seem like gifts, others do not.  There is a difference he says between a cow's dung and a cow's milk.  One seems like Nature's gift, the other does not.  We know what an egg is scientifically, yet they are also pleasant food, gifts in creation...  The materialist of course will say at this point - nope, just an unfertilized ovum. The problem with reductionism is not that it says so much - but rather that it says too little.  There is more to life than just the fluctuations of quantum foam.  For human experience, human consciousness, human relations, human spirituality cannot be reduced to the simple, elegant laws of Physics. Yes, they are very much a part of who and what we are - but it is only a partial story...one that impoverishes the human experience and hinders flourishing.  My purpose here is not an argument against metaphysical naturalism, rigorous argument can be found elsewhere, my point is an existential one...that we are left with an impoverished reality when we say we are JUST a bucket of lucky DNA.

Now to our example.  Wired Magazine recently ran an article with a pithy little title - Why Things Suck - 33 Things that make us Crazy.  Interestingly enough, one of the things that sucked was Science - as one who studied in the hard sciences during my undergraduate work at UNC, this was of some interest to me.  Personally, I like science and think it sucketh not.  Upon reading the little segment by Thomas Hayden, I realized why it sucks for him.  Let me copy his entire piece in for you so you can read it in context - really, it is actually quite brief.

Morality, spirituality, the meaning of life — science doesn't handle those issues well at all. But that's cool. We have art and religion for that stuff. Science also assumes predictable cause and effect in a world that's a chaotic, bubbling stew of randomness. But that's OK, too. Our approximations are usually good enough. No, the real reason science sucks is that it makes us look bad. It makes us bit players in the Big Story of the universe, and it exposes some key limitations of the human brain.

Look at it this way: Before science, we humans had dominion over Earth, the center of the universe. Now we're just a bunch of hairless apes on a wet rock orbiting a minor star in a marginal galaxy.

Even worse, those same cortexes that invented science can't really embrace it. Science describes the world with numbers (ratio of circumference to diameter: pi) and abstractions (particles! waves! particles!). But our intractable brains evolved on a diet of campfire tales. Fantastical explanations (angry gods hurling lightning bolts) and rare events with dramatic outcomes (saber-toothed tiger attacks) make more of an impact on us than statistical norms. Evolution gave us brains that crave certainty, with irrational fears of crashing in an airplane and a built-in weakness for just-so stories about intelligent design. Meanwhile, the true wonders revealed by the scientific method — species that change into new species over time, continents that float around the planet, a quantum-mechanical world where nothing is for sure — are worse than counterintuitive. To a depressingly large number of us, they're downright threatening.

In other words, thanks to evolution, half of all Americans don't believe in evolution. That's the universe for you: impersonal, uncaring, and ironic.

Now, I hope you realize why science sucks for Hayden - for in its reductionistic forms it makes us idiots.  All can be explained by science, even those idiots who think that all inexperience cannot be explained or reduced to naturalistic understandings.  Hayden is locked inside a materialistic prison, with artists and priests around...and proponents of intelligent design.  Yet he cannot really hear them - it is as if his ears are tuned only to hear the dance of the DNA.  Scientific or naturalistic reductionism leaves us in a universe that is impersonal, uncaring and ironic.  In other words, it just sucks - so you better laugh about it.  Yet what if you are like John and are tired of the naturalistic jailer telling you HIS just so stories about eggs.  Perhaps there is another view in which science sucketh not.  To this view we now turn.

It is no coincidence that the achievements of science found their cradle in the academy of Christian Europe.  For in the Christian worldview you do not have an impersonal, irrational, uncaring universe - even if it is a bit ironic.  To have the rise of the scientific method you must have certain intellectual presuppositions to pursue the scientific quest.  First, you must believe that the universe is itself rational rather than random.  That it displays an intelligibility.  The Christians of Europe and their deist children understood the world to be the creation of a rational mind - the mind of God.  As such they expected it to be orderly and rational - available for study if you will. Second, you must think that our minds are capable, even made for, such a task.  In other words we must expect that Reason is reasonable - not chaotic - our minds must be able to function in such a matter to arrive at True truth.  Nancy Pearcy and Charles Thaxton explain the rise of science in western culture much more thoroughly in their work The Soul of Science.  Highly recommended. 

In this universe, the one seen by the eye of the Christian believer, the world and all that is in it cannot be reduced to its material fluctuations.  It is highly personal, rational universe, yet with mysteries and puzzles which require both thought and trust.  It is a universe where we can pursue science without ruining your scrambled eggs or saying that love between persons is an illusion which is JUST our beastly urge to simply mount the opposite sex.  This is a prison to which we need not to submit...for a worldview where science sucks seems to suck even more.  Perhaps we need a prison break of our own.