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Miracles and Science, Part 2

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July 3, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
Miracles and Science, Part 2

Today's entry was written by Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the second blog in a series (see Part 1 here) by physicist Ard Louis, taken from his recently-posted scholarly essay.

Science as a tapestry

Rather than attempt to come up with a careful and precise definition of science or scientific practice, I will instead resort to a favorite metaphor of mine. It originates with one of my former teachers at Cornell, the physicist David Mermin, who describes science as a “tapestry” woven together from many threads (experimental results, interpretations, explanations, etc.). It is only when one examines the tapestry as a whole that it will (or will not) make a convincing pattern.

Creating scientific tapestries is a collective endeavor building on mutual trust and the communal experience of what kinds of arguments and evidence are likely to stand the test of time. In part because the skill of weaving reliable scientific tapestries relies on subtle judgements, a young scientist may work for years as an apprentice of older and more experienced practitioners before branching out on his own. In this process there are many parallels with the guilds of old. I am fond of this metaphor because it describes what I think I experience from the inside as a scientist. Moreover, it also emphasizes the importance of coherence and consistency when I weave together arguments and data to make an “inference to a best explanation.”

The strong communal element inherent in scientific practice has at times been seized upon by sociologists of science to argue that scientific knowledge is just one more type of human construct with no greater claim on reality than any other form of knowledge. But scientists as a whole have reacted to this proposition in a negative way. Although they agree that all kinds of economic, historical and social factors do play a role in the formation of scientific theories, they would argue that, in the long run, the scientific process does lead to reliable knowledge about the world.

The view of nature embraced by most scientists whom I know could be described as critical realism. They are realists because they believe that there is a world out there that is independent of our making. The adjective “critical” is added because they recognize that extracting knowledge about that world is not always straightforward. Thus, the primary role of the collective nature of the scientific process is to provide a network of error-correcting mechanisms that prevent us from fooling ourselves. The continual testing against nature refines and filters out competing scientific theories, leading to advances in the strength and reliability of our scientific knowledge tapestries.

Culture matters in science

Although there are many commonalities in the ways that scientists in distinct fields assemble their tapestry arguments, there can also be subtle differences. These differences are foisted on us in part by the types of problems that each field attempts to address. For example, as a theoretical physicist I’ve been trained in a tradition of what the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics:”

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

We believe, based on a history of spectacular success, that mathematical consistency among threads is a key indicator of strong tapestries. These days, I spend much of my time interacting with biologists who tend to view my confidence in the ability of theoretical models to extract knowledge about the physical world with great suspicion. I, on the other hand, am often instinctively sceptical of the huge error bars that can afflict their data.

To a large degree, these cultural differences are forced on us by the kinds of questions we study. My reaction above arises because physics is self-limiting. As a community we simply don’t deal with problems of the same level of complexity that biology does. If an experiment is too messy we will often define it away by declaring “that isn’t physics,” and move on. Similarly, molecular biologists can afford to be more selective about their data than medical scientists or psychologists can.

But, despite these cultural differences, which can lead to heated and sometimes frustrating discussion, we do agree on a number of ground rules for defining what makes a tapestry strong. For example, what we either predict or measure should be repeatable. If I claim to see an effect in an experiment, someone else in a different lab should be able to reliably measure the same effect. That simple requirement has many ramifications for the types of problems we are able to address.

The limits of science

There are many questions that simply are not amenable to purely scientific analysis. A very lucid discussion of this issue can be found in the book The Limits of Science by Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) Sir Peter Medawar, who wrote:

That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer… It is not to science, therefore but to metaphysics, imaginative literature or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.


Science is a great and glorious enterprise - the most successful, I argue, that human beings have ever engaged in. To reproach it for its inability to answer all the questions we should like to put to it is no more sensible than to reproach a railway locomotive for not flying or, in general, not performing any other operation for which it was not designed.

Science’s great power derives from its self-imposed limits. It is wrong to ask it to pronounce on issues outside its jurisdiction. In fact, the most important decisions in life cannot be addressed solely by the scientific method, nor do people really live as if they can. In the words of Sir John Polkinghorne, former professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and Anglican priest:

We are entitled to require a consistency between what people write in their studies and the way in which they live their lives. I submit that no-one lives as if science were enough. Our account of the world must be rich enough – have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality – to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality.

“Unscientific” doesn’t mean irrational

But just because we don’t live life by the scientific method doesn’t mean that the only alternative is irrationality. For example, if I were to decide to get married, a truly irrational approach would be to pick a random woman off the street. Instead, assuming I find a potentially willing partner, it is wise to go through a period of courtship during which we get to know each other. We may also ask for the opinion of wise friends. There are helpful counseling programs with compatibility lists, etc. that, in fact, often use knowledge that scientific techniques have extracted from our collective experience and wisdom. But at the end of the day I can’t demand scientific certainty before deciding to marry someone. Nor is it wise to perform repeatable experiments! I need to make a volitional step because there are aspects of marriage that I can only see from the inside. (There are interesting analogies here to making a religious commitment. Christians would argue that important aspects of the Christian life can only be understood and experienced from within a relationship with Christ. That is not to say that a step of faith is just a blind leap in the dark. It should be a decision that is informed by careful thinking and weighing of evidence. But it is more than just that.)

Another example of a method used to obtain knowledge is the legal process which, although it is a tightly organized system, is not strictly scientific. Similarly, a historian will use a combination of evidence (e.g. manuscripts) and understanding about the thinking patterns of a particular era to make informed judgements about what happened in the past. Clearly, this big question of how to extract reliable information about the world, how to separate fact from mere opinion, is indeed a very difficult and important one.

Next time we’ll examine how the Bible talks about miracles and God’s regular working through the laws of nature.

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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beaglelady - #20314

July 3rd 2010

That was an excellent post.

btw, while John Polkinghorne has a knighthood, his is not called “Sir John Polkinghorne” because he is a clergyman, and therefore does not bear arms.

sy g. - #20328

July 3rd 2010

A very interesting post. As for the limits of science, I believe we might add, within the scientifc domain, the questions of origins. By that I mean the emergence of totally new phenomena, such as the physical universe, life, information, human consiousness, and the appearance of God in the form of a man. Perhaps you will cover this in your next post, to which I am looking forward.

Merv - #20329

July 3rd 2010

I think the notion of an inherent limit to science is one message that needs to be pushed strongly both to those who dwell in ‘Scientism’ and also, ironically, to modern creationists who bought into something they shouldn’t have (the false claim that well-grounded science can ever be an arbiter of all truth) when they decided to chase the ‘mantle of scientific respectability’.  The 19th century Huxleys of the world dangled it provocatively shouting their taunts, and we creationists swallowed their underlying assumptions hook, line, & sinker.  Payload delivered.  Mission accomplished.  Now we’re spending decades, even centuries trying to undo the damage—both to science and to Christianity.


HornSpiel - #20429

July 3rd 2010

I think your phrase “purely  scientific analysis” needs emphasized. Often people take an unjustified either or approach. Theology is not scientific, but science can inform our theological understandings.

I would be interested in your views on methodological naturalism as essential to scientific endeavors. I have been discussing this with other bloggers here, here, here ff., and here..

Bilbo - #20454

July 4th 2010

Hi Hornspiel,

Were you asking for Ard"s input?

Tim - #20478

July 4th 2010

I love this article, but I’m left with a nagging worry about this tapestry idea:-

‘Creating scientific tapestries is a collective endeavor building on mutual trust and the communal experience…the skill of weaving reliable scientific tapestries relies on subtle judgements, a young scientist may work for years as an apprentice of older and more experienced practitioners before branching out on his own.’

Every now and then we pull out a false thread, a bad theory, some duff data (phlogisten, aether, nothing smaller than atoms etc.).  What about the ones we never find?  What about the effects of the fall on our tapestry?  And I guess they could make a big difference to the tapestry (like not having electrons).

In this website we want to see both science and faith (the Bible) as being ways to truth.  But surely we must weight it with the Bible?  Or do people see the Bible as a tapestry of truth and error too?

I’m wary of trusting modern science too much.  The track record is variable.

Merv - #20483

July 4th 2010

Tim, to me it would make sense from a critical realism perspective to see nature as a hard objective reality the tapestry would more represent *our understanding* of it.  To carry the analogy to the theology side:  God’s Word (Scriptural truth) teaches objective trans-cultural immutable truths (objective reality), but *our understanding* of those teachings could also be likened to a tapestry of its own, I suppose. 


HornSpiel - #20500

July 5th 2010

Yes. Ard discusses the Limits of science in this article yet does not mention methodological naturalism, which is IMHO one, if not the key limit on science. I was also hoping he might comment on any differences in terms of how that would apply to the social sciences.

Tim - #20505

July 5th 2010

Merv, I can live with that idea.  In fact it is remarkably appropriate given much debate on this site.  Thanks.

Charlie - #20658

July 6th 2010

I find the unscientific doesn’t mean irrational section interesting, especially the usage of the term “scientific certainty”.  What is scientific certainty and can anyone give me an example?  As a scientist I cannot see one theory that is absolutely 100% certain.  Breaking down the marriage metaphor, friends’ opinions and getting to know the person is gathering evidence, a scientific process.  By learning about a person, the more safe your conclusions are whether or not that person is compatible for you.  With regard to the legal system, they acknowledge there is no 100% certainty, which is why they developed the vague statement “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  Remember that scientists also do not take conclusions with 100% confidence, that why us Biologist show those huge error bars, to show probabilities about a certain conclusion being accurate or not.  With science, the legal system, and in many cases at the individual level, we all use the scientific method to some extent, regardless of if we get “scientific certainty”.  Can someone give me an example of something rational that does not follow the process of gathering evidence and reaching a conclusion based on that evidence?

Papalinton - #20869

July 7th 2010

Why is it that theism clicks in only where science meets its ‘event horizon’?  It seems Dr Louis is invoking Steven J Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ [NOMA] argument.  If this is the case,  it seems science and religion possess little if any substantive commonality that would make for any development toward a biologos relationship other than at the very margins of either science or religion.  Switching to theology at the limits of science simply has little academic merit or weight as a field for purposive academic conversation.  I am curious as to how one defines, or where one would draw, the boundary between religion and science.  Or is it simply one of those inexplicable occasions, dependent on one’s own person experience?


Greg Myers - #21287

July 10th 2010

Papalinton, for me, religion is based on revelation.  Critical information about the world is only available from outside the natural world, through axioms that allow the initiated to properly understand reality.

Science is based on the idea that through observation and experiment, we can understand the natural world.  Over time, we have also added a working assumption that no supernatural explanation is needed to explain the workings of the world.  This is not so much foundational to science, as something that has come about through experience - so far, no supernatural explanation has been identified or required to understand the world.

It could have been different.  The earth could have turned out to be flat, and the sky a hard dome with water above.  Kepler could have turned his telescope on the heavens, and spied the throne of God.  Genetics could have demonstrated that all humans came from a single mating pair some 6,000 years ago.  Creatures could have genes or structures in common.  We could have the ark in a museum somewhere.

The boundary?  I don’t think there is one.  I think they are competing approaches to explaining the world and how it works.  Religion makes statements about how we should live.  Science does not.

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