Science and Christianity

We have a terrible habit of forgetting that science is only the step-child of the enlightenment. Science is actually, first of all, the progeny of Christianity (via Christendom). Historians of science are well aware, for the most part, of just how peculiarly Christian are the commitments of the scientific enterprise, at least classically construed (that is to say, at least scientific realism is under-girded by peculiarly Christian theological and metaphysical commitments). I want, here, to briefly explore the relationship of Christianity and Science, and argue that their relationship is characterized by what Alvin Plantinga has called superficial discord and deep concord.

We should not take for granted, nor treat as insignificant, that it was out of Christianity that Science arose. As a historical fact this is hardly controversial, as we are well aware in the west that Science as we understand it today was a peculiarly western and Christian project. It arose out of an intellectual climate which was unambiguously Christian. However, the way in which science arose out of Christianity not only obviates how closely knit the two are ideologically, but how peculiarly Christian is the scientific enterprise itself. Christianity involves a number of commitments, including metaphysical commitments, many of which are the necessary commitments which allow for the possibility of Science as an activity aiming to understand the world. What is surprising is that these commitments are not all shared by any other religious worldview. Moreover these commitments, although they translate to metaphysical convictions, are first of all theological convictions predicated on the Christian worldview.

We can illustrate this easily by turning to a few examples of the kinds of commitments I’m talking about. First, there is the commitment to their being an external world, in the sense of being a mind-independently existent world which we encounter in our experiences. If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody there to hear it, it does still make a sound (in the sense of moving the air in such a way that were a non-deaf human person in the vicinity the sound of a tree crashing to the ground would be heard by them). This commitment is not shared by everybody: for instance in Hinduism the world is regularly referred to as Māyā, meaning illusion. The world is not something to be rationally approached and studied, nor is the project of science thought to illuminate the mind of man insofar as his search for ultimate truth is concerned – rather, the world is something to be seen through rather than looked along (like an icon). So, it seems that the commitment which many westerners take for granted, concerning realism about the external world, is an idea inherited by the Christian intellectual tradition, and cannot so easily be found everywhere else. Second, there is the commitment to the world being rationally ordered, such that its activities are regular (things do not simply happen, but have causal antecedents, and there is a natural order). In other words, that nature operates (at least ceteris paribus) according to laws. Even in Islam, whose concept of the world and of God are closer to Christianity than many other worldviews, it is not accepted as commonplace, and is even rejected by many, that the world operates according to set Laws. For example the great Islamic Theologian Al-Ghazali, who is among the greatest authorities in the entire Islamic tradition, explicitly rejected this idea that nature is ordered such that it follows set laws (‘natural’ laws), and instead articulated a theory of occasionalism. Third, and a corollary of the previous point, we must point out that Christianity also provides the commitment to the capacity of the human mind to accurately (and not just precisely) comprehend reality, precisely because God, who created the world and ordered it rationally, also created man with a rational capacity and an appetite for understanding. This is given expression in the Theological formula that man was made in the image of God.

I have argued for the closeness of Science and Christianity, but not (yet) the indissolubility of Science and Christianity. I should at this point try to anticipate some immediate objections to what I have proposed, and I’ll spend the rest of my time in this short post trying to do just that.

First, somebody may object to this suggestion of a close-knit relationship between science and Christianity by pointing out that Atheism, or at least the throwing off of Christian belief, grew naturally out of science. In other words that Naturalism grew out of science. Evidence for this may be found in the testimony of Scientists themselves, most of whom seem to be either Atheists of some variety or other, or else at least not Christians. First, I would want to argue that Naturalism is less consonant with Science, and particularly with Scientific realism, than is Christianity. However, apart from the strictly abstract metaphysical point about which worldview has better resources for supporting scientific realism (which I will not here bother to make), at least it can’t be the case that Science is antithetical to Christianity in principle, nor vice-versa. Moreover, we have empirical evidence to suggest that there is at least not a clear correlation between science and naturalism (or even science and the lack of fervent Christian belief).

It isn’t as though the science of the 17th or 18th centuries tended towards Atheism. On the contrary, the scientists throughout this period often understood their work qua scientists to connect intimately with their Christian beliefs. They would even say that their scientific discoveries illustrated God’s glory and the truth and reliability of Christian convictions about the world. It is only really in the latter part of the 19th century, and perhaps the 20th century, which saw the correlation of science and naturalism (understood as a kind of scientistic metaphysics). I am tempted, therefore, to agree with Dr. W.L. Craig when he suggests that this shift or rapprochement between science and naturalism is best explained by appeal to a kind of sociology of science, which is inimical to religious belief. Because the enlightenment worked out so well for the scientific enterprise, the scientific community is more likely to take the enlightenment uncritically to have been wholly good, and along with the enlightenment came a commitment to radical empiricism (which is opposed to realism), if not rejection of the Christian tradition altogether (at least latent in the enlightenment was a rejection of that tradition).

In addition, perhaps there are some features of the scientific profession which might tend to make practitioners of the discipline more easily (if naively) accepting of naturalism. For example, the fact that science generally operates with the methodological prescription of naturalism; in other words, science (meaning the natural sciences) operates with methodological naturalism, which is a methodological principle which excludes any non-naturalistic explanation from being part of scientific explanation. However, even if one accepts uncritically the claim that science must adopt methodological naturalism (which I am not here conceding), it would not follow that science entails naturalism. Indeed, I think that the principle problem with Science in the 20th century, as an academic discipline, is that scientists have not been adequately educated with respect to critical thinking, philosophy of language, logic, and philosophy of science. Perhaps a scientist doesn’t need to take a class in existential philosophy, or have a background in ethics or philosophy of religion, but it seems to me that a scientist should at least be aware of the philosophy of science. Otherwise what you end up with is a kind of clumsy scientistic attitude among scientists. For example, scientists, without having thought much about the issue at all, are almost across the board naive knee-jerk realists about the external world and science itself. Scientists commonly slip-up when they affirm that science is an omniscient discipline (that it exhaustively describes reality), and on the other hand admits that there are philosophical presuppositions which may not be self-evidently true and which under-gird science such that they are not amenable to scientific adjudication.

In other words, the correlation of naturalism and science can be adequately accounted for, and perhaps better accounted for, without appealing to a relation between science and naturalism such that given science, naturalism naturally (no pun intended) follows. Indeed, if it did, it would be odd that the 17th 18th and most of the 19th centuries featured great scientists who saw their work as illustrating the handiwork of the creator. Their Christianity did not just live alongside their science, but rather their scientific work flowed out of their Christianity.

Second one could object by saying that some other hypothetical religion, Christianity2, which was relevantly similar to Christianity, could also have provided the intellectual soil in which science grew up. In other words that if we simply rewound the clock of world history backwards and played the same story again (and, in case of determinism: had some things been different) some other religion could have birthed Science. Now, there are two points to make against this objection. First, whatever religion could have birthed science, it would have to, it seems to me, have been relevantly similar to Christianity in just those respects I outlined above. Science would not naturally grow out of any old worldview, it could only have grown out of a worldview which shared Christianity’s commitments concerning a mind-independent reality, which is rationally ordered, and which we as human cognizers have the ability to rationally comprehend. However, since Christianity, at least among those long-standing revered religious traditions we call ‘world religions’ (of which Christianity is both the largest and arguably the most impressive), is the only religion with these commitments, the success of science seems to argue for the truth of the Christian religion. In other words, if any religious worldview were true, one of the things we might expect to find about it is that its commitments are curiously and especially successful – and this is true about Science which itself is predicated on historically Christian convictions. The fact that one could object by appealing to some hypothetical religion, call it Christianity2, and argue that since some such other religion might have given birth to science just as easily as Christianity did, there is nothing especially surprising about the historical fact that science arose out of a Christian intellectual culture, itself highlights the point that Christianity is actually peculiar: it is the only actual world religion which provides the necessary commitments for science to get underway. The very fact that Christianity is peculiar with respect to maintaining all the necessary and collectively sufficient commitments which make science possible argues in favor of Christian particularism.

This article is not comprehensive, but is meant to wet one’s appetite for looking into the relation of Christianity and Science while asking whether Plantinga’s characterization isn’t accurate after all: that there is superficial discord between Science and Christianity, but deep concord between them, and that Christianity is perhaps even more congenial to Science (or at least scientific realism) than are Naturalism or any other worldview.  For further information, I recommend this video on Science and Religion.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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