Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Science, Neutrality and the Antithesis

A few months ago Dr. Cornelis van Dam defended the Biblical view of origins against secular science. He argued that scientific theorizing depends heavily on worldview presuppositions, particularly with regards to origins. Hence we should reject those theories and conclusions that conflict with God’s word.

This has recently been challenged by Dr Jitse van der Meer at Reformed Academic. He contends that, although background beliefs may be needed for the construction of theories, these do not normally distort scientific knowledge. God created an objectively existing reality that resists distortion. Thus the background beliefs of scientists do not dictate the content of scientific knowledge and, conversely, scientific explanations do not dictate background beliefs. Since science is rooted in an objective reality, people with different beliefs, including Christians, can work together in scientific research, sharing both observations and explanations.

According to Dr van der Meer, background beliefs must be replaceable; they cannot be held dogmatically, for that would distort scientific knowledge. Also, God cannot be part of a scientific explanation: scientific explanation has the narrow goal of finding material causes in accounts of material phenomena.

Dr van der Meer grants that science has its limitations. Science cannot produce knowledge about things that are not perceivable, such as values and God. Hence he rejects materialism and naturalism as worldviews.

Operation Science and Historical Science

For proof of the reliability of secular science, Dr van der Meer points to practical successes such as airplanes, medicine and computers. This proof is, of course, fatally flawed. The point at issue is that of origins, not technology. The science used to build airplanes is of a rather different nature than the claim that man evolved from apes. To wit, we must distinguish between operation science and historical science:

1.Operation science is the basic science done in laboratories. It is concerned with repeatable events. This concerns most of physics, chemistry and biology, as well as observational geology, astronomy and the like. It gives us all the science needed for technology. It is concerned with the present material reality and how it normally functions. This part of science is largely worldview-neutral. It is not under dispute.

2. Historical science, on the other hand, is concerned with extrapolating from present observations to the distant, unobserved past. This includes various theories and explanations in geology, astronomy, paleontology, and so on. In particular, it includes the evolutionary theory of origins. This type of science is highly worldview-dependent.

The difference between these two types of science is discussed in some detail by Stephen Meyer in his recent (2009) book  Signature in the Cell (pp.150-172):
(1) For one, the objective of operational science is to determine the universal laws by which nature generally operates, whereas historical science aims to establish ancient conditions or past causes.

(2) Second, operational science explains present events by reference to general laws, whereas historical science explains present events in terms of presumed past events or causes.

(3) Third, operational science calculates forward, deducing effects from causes, whereas historical science calculates backwards, inferring past causes from present clues. One problem here is that more than one historical cause can give rise to the same effect.

(4) A further distinction concerns naturalism. Operational science functions under the assumption of methodological naturalism. Since operational science is concerned with what normally happens, in the absence of miracles, it is reasonable to consider only material causes. Historical science, on the other hand, is interested in what actually happened in the past. Constraining ourselves to material causes in this case amounts to metaphysical naturalism--the further assumption that no miracles have in fact happened in the past.

The Bible makes clear that there can be non-material causes (i.e., spiritual beings can cause physical effects) and that God's sovereignty over the world includes the possibility of miracles and changes in physical "laws" (e.g., perhaps during the creation week, after the Fall, at the time of the Flood, etc.). This in itself already negates the presumptions inherent in mainstream historical science.

Historical science is constrained also by observations. Our reconstruction of the past may not contradict reliable historical records of past events. Christians who accept the Bible as the inspired word of God will thus insist that suitable scientific explantions may not contradict the Biblical account of history. Hence, Christians in science should develop theories and explanations that are consistent with biblical givens.

Do presuppositions make science arbitrary?
According to Dr van der Meer, stressing the role of presuppositions in science allows people to
"arbitrarily to deny the truth of those parts of science that they believe are threatening to them and their community of faith”.
This he deems to be a costly move, since
“truth about nature is made to depend completely on the beliefs of the community with the most power”...“truth no longer depends on what exists as objectively created by God”.
But why should acknowledging the role of presuppositions in the historical sciences necessarily lead to arbitrariness and subjectivity?  First, whether we like it or not, presuppositions do play a large role in historical science. Second, the notion that science should submit to the authority of God's Word is hardly an arbitrary standard. Surely truth should depend both on our observations of God's created world and on what has been revealed by God in the Bible.

On the other hand, does not Dr van der Meer rather arbitrarily deny the truth of those parts of the Bible that he believes threatens secular science? Consider his limitation of science to material causes, his assertion that God has no place in scientific explanations, his effective denial of the historical content of the Bible, his claim that background beliefs may not be held dogmatically, etc.

Science and the Antithesis

The notion that Christian science should differ from secular science reflects a proper recognition of the antithesis. The antithesis concerns the global conflict between faith and unbelief, between Christian and non-Christian worldviews. It originates in Genesis, where God's authoritative Word is contrasted with Satan's deceptive "Did God really say...?" and results in God's declaration, “I will put enmity between your (Satan’s) seed and her seed” (Gen.3:15).

The antithesis is found in Tertullian's (160 - 220 AD) query, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" and Augustine's (354 - 430 AD) depiction of human history as dominated by a war between the City of God and the City of Man. Human culture is either God-glorifying or God-defying. C.S. Lewis (1898 - 1963) commented, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan”.

Religious antithesis was essential to the neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Basic to the Reformed worldview was the acceptance of the all-dominating authority of Scripture (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, p.56). Applying this to science, Kuyper asserted,

Not faith and science, but two scientific systems… Two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith” (p.133).

In science, Kuyper pitted the naturalists against the Christians. They might have a common pool of facts, but they interpreted these within different worldviews and hence drew different conclusions.

Dr van der Meer applies the antithesis only at  a deeper level. He claims that Christians and naturalists have in common both scientific data and explanations. The only difference is that Christians insist there is more to the world than matter and that God is in control. Thus, for example, both camps can accept biological evolution but Christians view evolution as somehow God-guided rather than random.

This was not the approach of Kuyper, who rejected theistic evolution because it contradicted Scripture.

The antithesis was emphasized also by Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), and through him, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), R. J. Rushdoony (1916-2001), Greg Bahsen (1948-1995) and others. For all of these, the authority of Scripture formed the basis of the Christian worldview.

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga distinguished between two types of science: Duhemian science, which is worldview-neutral, and Augustinian science, which is worldview-dependent.

1. Duhemian science is named after Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), a French physicist and philosopher of science. He maintained that science should be metaphysically and religiously neutral to the extent that believers and unbelievers can work together. It should contradict neither Christianity nor naturalism. In that sense, much of operation science can be considered Duhemian. Indeed, Duhem was thinking primarily of physics.

2. Augustinian science, on the other hand, is more strongly influenced by worldview presuppositions. Here Christians and naturalists will differ significantly. For example, much of historical science is Augustinian.

Plantinga suggests that, wherever mainstream science contradicts Christianity, Christians should develop their own Augustinian science, making suitable allowance for Christian views of metaphysics, causality and epistemology. This is sound advice. Creation science, to the extent that it seeks to find scientific explanations consistent with biblical givens, is a necessary step in this direction.

In sum, I deem the presuppositional approach of Dr van Dam to be more in line with the Reformed worldview--which upholds biblical authority and the necessarily resulting antithesis--than the compromising scientific neutrality of Dr van der Meer, which can only be detrimental to Christian faith.


Anonymous said...

Wow. It's strange to find someone in Western Canada talking openly about presuppositional issues, apparently cognizant of Kuyper, Van Til, Bahnsen, etc. I know plenty of self-proclaimed conservatives who are ardent creationists, but not too many who address these issues with an understanding of the presuppositional nature of the conflict.

I enjoyed this post, Dr. Byl. Definitely agree, and the Duhemian/Augustinian dichotomy was a helpful one that I had not encountered before.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Byl isn't the only one. I'm currently teaching presuppositional apologetics to a group of university/college students in Deroche, BC.

BTW, besides the books of Dr. Byl, there's another excellent work that takes a presuppositional approach to these issues: Jason Lisle's Ultimate Proof of Creation.

dean davis said...

This is a most helpful essay. I think it is especially important ever to keep in mind "the antithesis" and the powers behind it, lest we falter in our loyalty to Scripture and suddenly find ourselves fighting for the enemy!

What I would add is that coming to the observed facts of the world, the biblically loyal Christian, who does indeed presuppose metaphysical SUPERnaturalism, now has a model within which the facts make excellent sense. Indeed, the facts look FAR more compelling (coherent, rational) within the biblical framework than they do within the naturalistic/evolutionary.

In short, there plenty of room in Christian Apologetics for taking a hard look at the facts--whether astronomical, geological, or biological--and pointing out, in love, that our presuppositions make a whole lot more sense of those facts than theirs. In my experience, the common people hear this kind of thing gladly.

This is, of course, the burden of the creation scientists worldwide; may God increase their tribe!