Friday, March 16, 2012

Science, History and the Bible

A recent post by Arnold Sikkema at ReformedAcademic defends the validity of mainstream science against the "pseudo-science" of creation science. In particular, he argues against those who distinguish between origin science and operation science.

Sikkema writes:
"All human knowledge relies upon past experiences... The idea that we must remain agnostic about the past from a scientific point of view is inconsistent with the God-given confidence we as humans can have in assessing anything at all. The origin-vs.-operation approach when taken consistently endorses a radical skepticism and extreme doubt. Instead, we can trust that God has created and sustains this world as a true reality of which he graciously and faithfully allows us to have true experiences...

"We at Reformed Academic are not interested in re-interpreting Scripture on the basis of modern science. But scientific discoveries can lead us to ask whether we have placed upon Scripture, perhaps due to earlier scientific or philosophical ideas, an interpretation which is not warranted by Scripture itself and which was not possible for its authors or first hearers. It is troubling that in our own Canadian Reformed community there are growing voices that adopt scientific creationism (and/or its methods, outlook, and conclusions) as if it is the stance required by Reformed Christianity; that approach gives false hope as it dangerously makes what is often pseudo-science the reason for confidence in Scripture."

Sikkema's main target is myself, apparently a dangerous voice that he deems to be "very influential in our circles". He takes issue with my brief discussion of origin science and operation science in my book God and Cosmos (2001). Sikkema writes:

"Claims that “origin science” is “little better than an amusing intellectual parlour game” and that the “prime aim [of ‘operation science’ is] developing useful technology” (p. 214) are central to Byl’s book."

What I actually wrote was,
"In the absence of absence of objective, valid epistemological criteria that would enable us to detect true theories of origins, origin science can be rated little better than an amusing intellectual parlour game."

The central point of my book was that scientific theory--particularly in origin (or historical) science--is highly subjective and driven by worldview considerations. A Christian epistemology should thus give prime weight to Scripture, logic and observation. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are fallible human constructs that should be evaluated in the light of the former.

Sikkema claims that the distinction between operation science and historical science entails that we cannot even trust our past observations or memories.

Not so. I place high value on observations and memories. Nor do I reject all historical science. I merely insist that historical science should not contradict Scripture.

My views on the distinction between operation science and historical science have been elaborated in two recent posts, where I critiqued ReformedAcademic on this issue. Since Sikkema does not interact with these, let me cite some relevant portions of those posts:

Scripture, Science and History
(from Is the Church Anti-Science?)

First, since the issue centers on origins, it is crucial to note this really concerns history more than science as such.

Regarding science, Christians do not dispute operation science, the basic science done in laboratories, needed for medicine and technology. What is questioned are those theories and claims of historical science that challenge Biblical history. Historical science, such as evolutionary biology or geology, tries to explain the observed data in terms of presumed past events or processes. Because the data can be explained via various historical schemes, historical science is much more speculative than operation science. It is highly worldview-dependent.

This raises a crucial question. Should historical science be done within a Biblical worldview—where scientific theories are bounded by Biblical truths—or in terms of a naturalist worldview—where miracles are banned?

In science, reliable observational data always trumps theories. After all, theories are constructed to explain reality. Therefore, good theories may not contradict historical facts. Hence, if the Bible--God's inerrant Word--gives us indubitable, eye-witness historical facts, then such facts must surely constrain any viable theory of historical science.

Further, scientific accounts of the past necessarily presume only known physical laws and natural causes. Hence, if supernatural causes or unknown laws have in fact operated in the past, any scientific account may well be erroneous.

In short, Christianity is no more anti-science than it is anti-history. The question is--whose version of science or history do we accept as valid? For consistent Christians, Biblical truth always trumps fallible, human, scientific theorizing, with all its assumptions and constraints.

Operation Science and Historical Science
(from Science, Neutrality and the Antithesis)

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) 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) 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) 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 possible historical cause can give rise to the same effect.

(4) 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, after the return of Christ, 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 explanations may not contradict the Biblical account of history. Hence, Christians in science should develop theories and explanations that are consistent with biblical givens.


The central issue is clear: should our view of history be constrained by Biblical givens or by naturalist science? It boils down to a question of epistemology--God's inerrant Word versus fallible human theories.

My ongoing concern with ReformedAcademic is its uncritical acceptance of mainstream historical science, with its corresponding reduction in Biblical authority and its introduction of a new hermeneutic that avoids contradictions with mainstream science. Sikkema continues in this vein. He contends:
" does have significant validity particularly because of its systematic way of self-correcting through peer review and because of the worldwide community’s involvement, with scientists of all religions and cultures represented."

The implication is that mainstream science is worldview-neutral because it includes scientists of all religions and cultures. The reality, however, is that religious scientists can partake only if they leave their Bibles behind and adhere to naturalist rules. The "self-correction through peer review" entails that scientific validity is determined by a majority of peers, who enforce naturalist standards.

Arnold Sikkema advocates the validity of mainstream historical science over the traditional reading of Gen.1-11. This entails accepting the validity of an evolutionary view of the past. Of particular concern here is the consensus of mainstream historical science that man evolved from animal ancestors and that there never was a human population less than several thousand people. This is clearly contrary to both Biblical teaching and the Reformed Confessions.

Thus Sikkema faces a dilemma:

1. If he upholds mainstream historical science, what does he do with the Biblical Adam and Eve? Were they symbolic or metaphorical? If we cannot trust the Bible here, why should we trust it elsewhere? And how would Sikkema square this with his vow, as elder in the Canadian Reformed Church at Langley, to diligently defend the Reformed Confessions and to oppose and refute any errors conflicting with them?

2. If he upholds the Biblical Adam, on what grounds does he reject mainstream science on this point? If mainstream science errs here, why could it not err elsewhere? And if we should uphold the plain reading of the Bible on this point, why not elsewhere? What are the criteria?

So, Arnold, please clarify your stance regarding Adam--which is it to be?


eklektos said...

"Peer-reviewed" science once held to an earth-centered universe, and engaged the church to enforce thier view. Majority opinion does not establish facts. I'll hold to God's word thank you very much.

Steve Drake said...

Hi John,
I am confused by the link to Triablogue. Are they in support of your post, or against it?

John said...

Steve Drake,

The Triablogue link is a track back. In other words, it shows Triablogue because Triablogue linked to Byl's post. Byl had nothing to do with posting it, it's automatic.

While I can't speak on behalf of the Triablogue persons, I get the impression that they agree with Byl or at least think he makes points worth consideration.

Ben Vandergugten said...

Dr. Byl, why do you mention that Arnold is an elder in the Canadian Reformed Church at Langley? Are you concerned about his faith?

Steve Drake said...

Thanks Jonathan,
I have had issues with Triablogue and Steve Hays monitoring and not posting my comments in the present and past, and thus my question.

Steve Drake said...

For example, I asked Hays a question today 3/17 on his post "Byl's Dangerous Idea," whether he is pro Sikkema or contra Sikkema in regards to John's post. My comment does not appear on his website.

Steve Drake said...

The graphic he puts up about 'Zombie Attack Notification' would seem to argue against your statement ' I get the impression that they agree with Byl or at least think he makes points worth consideration.'


dutchmin said...

I believe its right in the article Ben

THEOparadox said...

One of my favorite questions related to this topic: if we need to agree with mainstream science regarding origins, how can we turn around and disagree with its conclusions regarding the resurrection of Christ? The distinction between operational science and historical science is well made, and Byl's development of it is helpful. Thanks for the fine work.

Steve Drake said...

From the Sikkema post:
'But scientific discoveries can lead us to ask whether we have placed upon Scripture, perhaps due to earlier scientific or philosophical ideas, an interpretation which is not warranted by Scripture itself and which was not possible for its authors or first hearers.'

This type of rationalization is the epitome of the arguments used by the new churchmen pushing the theistic evolutionary paradigm as God's means of creation. No consideration is given for the tradition of the church for 1800 years to the almost universal belief in a young universe, young earth not more than 6000 years old, or if there is, it is brushed aside in light of 'supposedly' modern scientific 'enlightenment' and the 'new' knowledge.

A proper response by the Christian holding a high view of Scripture would be to ask how this 'new' knowledge is 'interpreted'. A point Sikkema fails to see.

Reformed Academic said...

For the information of readers of this blog, we have published a brief reply by Arnold & a followup post by Jitse on our blog.

Anonymous said...


Jim Jordan answers T Bordow's use of Jer 4:23, (meaning of tohu and bohu and an uninhatable wasteland) quite excellently, in pp 40-43 of Creation in 6 Days

Steve Drake said...

Thanks for your kind comments. I was trying to be deferential to him as a Pastor with seminary training, yet I as a layperson have studied the phrase 'tohu wah bohu' quite extensively. It really only makes sense if one is a Gap Theorist who wishes to place billions of years between Gen. 1:1 and Gen. 1:2. This is not his position I think, so I was trying to get to that point with him when Psalmodyguy608 posted an excellent answer to the question.

Thanks for your encouragement! It's nice to know of the community of brothers and sisters out there in the ether who are supporting each other with their efforts. Blessings to you!

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