Reviewing #Creatorgate: Is God a Scientific Proposition?


If the question in the title of this column had its own Facebook page, its relationship status might be “it’s complicated.”At least, it’s probably more complicated for me to answer, as an historian, because the answer has not always been the same at every point in the history of science. A further complication is that the historical dimension of this question has not yet been explored very much. Although a group of scholars has recently begun to rectify that situation, it’s too early to state overall conclusions with much confidence.

The crux of the matter has been summed up effectively by a scientist, not an historian: biophysicist Loren Haarsma. His very thoughtful article is called, “Is Intelligent Design ‘Scientific’?” The entire article is on point, and readers are encouraged to comment on it (or on my own thoughts) below. Let me highlight his analysis of how “science” can have both a “broad” meaning and a “narrower” meaning (p. 56). For example, the things we learn by applying scientific methods to nature fall within the “narrower” meaning of science; they constitute “science” in the most commonly understood sense of that term. However, social and ethical implications of science fall under a “broad” definition of science, not the narrower one. As Haarsma goes on to say, “The demarcation lines between science and philosophy have shifted from time to time throughout the history of science.” In his opinion, conclusions about intelligent agency in nature do qualify as “science-defined-broadly,” but they “fall outside of science-defined-narrowly, as most people understand the term ‘science’ today” (p. 60). I think he’s right about all of this. If so, then conclusions about a “Creator” don’t belong in a scientific paper, but they might be appropriate for a paper about theological or philosophical implications of science—topics on which the opinions of individual scientists vary greatly, and which can’t be addressed properly by appealing to the scientific data alone.

I’ve not made this aspect of the history of science the focus of my own research, but I’ve had to think about it sometimes when it comes up in connection with other things. My impression of the larger picture is as follows.

When science first found a stable institutional home in the medieval universities, the Roman Catholic Church was its principal patron, and on the whole it proved to be very good for the development of science. It wasn’t possible then to obtain a doctorate in science; that would wait until the development of the modern PhD degree in Germany in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, the first American PhDs were not awarded until the 1860s, at Yale. Medieval scholars could earn doctorates in only three areas: medicine, law (either church law or civil law), or theology. The highest academic degree for a “scientist” (a word that wasn’t invented until the 1830s) was the Master of Arts. Recipients of the MA often taught science (which was mainly Aristotelian natural philosophy) to undergraduates, but they were expected to leave God and theology to the theologians.

In other words, even when science was thoroughly embedded in a Christian context, God wasn’t supposed to be mentioned by science professors! The umbrage recently expressed by some Christian commentators concerning #creatorgate is more than a little ironic. It also speaks volumes about the general lack of historical knowledge about science and religion among even highly educated people—this is the biggest reason why I write for BioLogos.

To offer just one very loud piece of evidence (to offer more would take us too far afield) supporting the picture I just painted, let’s read a passage from a letter written by Galileo to his very good friend Monsignor Piero Dini, a minor church official in Rome, shortly before a Vatican committee determined that Copernican astronomy was heretical: “Yet for all of me any discussion of the sacred Scripture might have lain dormant forever; no astronomer or scientist who remained within proper bounds has ever got into such things.” In context, Galileo was saying that he wouldn’t say anything at all about the Bible, if circumstances beyond his control hadn’t forced him to do so, because by doing so he was straying outside the proper boundaries of science.

Let’s compare this with a couple Protestant scientists from later in the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Revered by those who knew him for the depth of his faith, Boyle was among the most pious Christians in the history of science, and he did not take God or the Bible lightly. He even wrote a full-length treatise defending the language of Scripture against religious skeptics, in addition to numerous books about specific theological topics. However, he did not regard those works as belonging to “natural philosophy,” that is what we would call “science” today. To see more fully what I mean, consider the two very large books of experimental observations that he published in 1664-65, one of more than 400 pages about light and the other exceeding 800 pages about cold temperatures. In both works taken together, we find the word “God” only eight times, almost always in a trivial expression, such as “God permitting,” and never in a way that added substance to his scientific conclusions. He cited the Bible just twice, once in a long passage about God’s curse on Ham (Genesis 9:25), as part of a discussion of skin color among humans. He didn’t need God or the Bible in his experiments, so he left them out.

Likewise, Newton left God almost completely out of the first edition of his greatest work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), where the word appears just once. In the second edition, however, Newton added a short essay about God and nature, the famous “General Scholium,” wherein we find many references to God and the Bible (see image at top of article). What’s the difference? In the first edition, he stuck to the physics, whereas in later editions he wanted to tell readers what his physics meant, when larger philosophical and theological questions were placed on the table. Now, both Newton and Boyle believed that “natural philosophy” properly included those larger questions; that is, they accepted what Haarsma calls a “broad” understanding of science, as the very term “natural philosophy” suggests. At the same time, they also realized that the experiments and observations themselves did not answer the larger questions, and they knew full well that others might answer the same questions quite differently. Indeed, Boyle felt compelled to weigh in, precisely because he was worried that religious sceptics were already offering other opinions.

The larger questions gradually disappeared from scientific literature, mainly in the century following Newton’s death in 1727. By the mid-19th century they were almost completely absent from scientific papers, despite the fact that many scientists continued to talk about them in other places. The biggest factor here was the increasing professionalization of science, especially the growing presence of science at secular universities, where the institutional context did not require or expect any effort to relate science to God. This does not mean that scientists don’t write about God any more. Quite the contrary: many scientists, including some top-drawer scientists, still write books about God, including books that draw on certain parts of science to affirm or deny God’s existence. But books aren’t scientific papers; they are written for a very different audience, and they aren’t peer-reviewed by fellow scientists. Left to themselves, scientific facts and theories neither affirm nor deny God’s existence. Scientists as human beings may draw theological conclusions, but in doing so they are going well beyond the laboratory or the observatory—regardless of the specific conclusions they draw.

How should Christian believers feel about this? Does the absence of God in scientific papers make modern science—science defined according to Haarsma’s “narrower” meaning—an atheistic enterprise? Those who are deeply disturbed by this might benefit by asking themselves a different question. Suppose that the non-Western authors of the paper leading to #creatorgate had found evidence for the existence of Vishnu or Brahma, or support for the ethics of Confucius? Or, suppose they concluded that their experiments proved that no God or gods exist at all? Would any of these qualify as a proper scientific conclusion?

If we accept the reigning “narrower” meaning of science, the answer is clear and unambiguous: No. If it’s fair game for a scientist to say in the scientific literature that science means God (or some other god), then it’s just as fair for another scientist to say in the scientific literature that science means no God. You can’t have it just one way—it’s both, or neither.

I say neither.