Intro by Brad: Loren Haarsma is husband of Deb Haarsma (BioLogos president) and co-author of the groundbreaking book Origins. He’s also an ECF grantee who has studied the intersection of science and Christian theology in depth, particularly as it relates to the doctrine of original sin. Loren is the classic example of a polymath, being an expert in a dizzying number of scientific and theological topics (for starters, he’s got a physics doctorate from Harvard). Thus, he is incredibly well qualified to speak to the ways in which science and Scripture interact, and address the thorny issues at the intersection. I’m very excited to host a three-part series of essays by Loren on my blog, starting today. In this series, Dr. Haarsma tries to confront the common misunderstandings he has encountered about how Scripture and science can inform (and even critique) each other. It’s a foundational subject for the origins discussion.
“Why does it always seems to be science telling us that we need to change our interpretation of Scripture? Shouldn’t it be the other way around sometimes? Shouldn’t Scripture provide the lenses through which we look at the world?” I’ve been asked those questions by students, by pastors, and even by seminary professors. Sometimes the question has been even more pointed: “Has there ever been a scientific theory that you didn’t believe because it contradicted Scripture?”
I understand the frustration behind those questions, and I take them seriously. When we focus only on those historical cases where our interpretation of Scripture changed because of science (for instance, Galileo and the motion of the earth), it can feel like a one-way relationship in which science steps in from time and to time and dictates a new interpretation of some scriptural passages. But the relationship is not so one-sided. There are many ways in which, for Christians, Scripture provides the lenses through which we look at the natural world that we study scientifically.
Scripture and the foundational assumptions of science
Philosophers note that modern science has some foundational presuppositions which are supported by the success of science, but which originate beyond science. Historians of science have noted that many early scientists not only were Christians, but also explicitly justified their use of scientific methods in studying the natural world from their biblical beliefs about God and the natural world. Nearly all scientists today, regardless of their religious beliefs, believe a certain set of foundational principles which make it possible for them to do science. Some of these common basic beliefs include:
- Human beings can understand the natural world at least in part.
- Nature typically operates with regular, repeatable, universal patterns of cause and effect so things that we learn in the lab here today will also hold true half way around the world a week from now.
- It’s not enough to sit and theorize how the world ought to work, we actually have to test our theories; science is a worthwhile pursuit.
These beliefs seem obvious today, but for most of human history, many people did not hold all those beliefs. For example, animists who believe that gods or spirits inhabit many aspect of the physical world might doubt that nature operates on regular, repeatable, universal patterns of cause and effect; instead they would believe that nature is controlled by gods and spirits who need to be appeased or manipulated by ritual. Or for a very different example, some of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world did not see the need to do experiments because they thought it was possible to derive from logic and first principles how the world ought to behave.
Some early scientists justified their belief in those foundational principles based on what the Bible teaches. We are made in God’s image and that is the reason why we have the ability to partially understand how the natural world works. God has given us the gifts to study his creation. Nature operates on regular, repeatable, universal patterns of cause and effect because nature is not filled by capricious gods, but ruled by one God in a faithful and consistent manner. God could have created in any way God chose consistent with his nature, but we humans are limited and sinful, so we need to test our theories with experiments. Science is worth doing because we are studying God’s handiwork.
All of this does not imply that only Christians can do science. As part of God’s general grace, Christians and non-Christians can work together to do science. But the first important idea here is that Christians find in Scripture not only a motivation to study God’s creation, but also teachings about God and the natural world which support the foundational assumptions of science.
Scripture and scientific hypotheses
Therefore, it should not surprise us if there are relatively few historical examples of genuine scientific hypothesis being at odds with what Scripture teaches. I can, however, think of a few examples. One might be Radical Behaviorism. This scientific hypothesis became popular after the discovery of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behavior is modified through reinforcement and punishment. It was made famous by experiments by B.F. Skinner in which animals were trained to perform complex behaviors by a gradual build-up from simpler behaviors which were learned through reinforcement or punishment. The hypothesis of radical behaviorism was that all human learning and all human decision-making was ultimately built up from operant conditioning, and all human behavior was determined by this conditioning. This is a far reaching scientific hypothesis. It could be argued that the theory of radical behaviorism was never really a scientific hypothesis; it was only a grandiose philosophical addition to science, but that’s probably not a fair criticism. Radical behaviorism probably does deserve the status as a genuine scientific hypothesis that made testable predictions and was seriously considered by many scientists for several decades. Ultimately, additional research over the decades led most scientists to conclude radical behaviorism wasn’t true. Most scientists today conclude that, while operant conditioning does exist, it is not the case that all behavior is determined by operant conditioning.
What would Scripture say about this theory? It seems difficult to reconcile Christian theology with the scientific hypothesis of radical behaviorism. Most Christians would conclude that Scripture teaches against it. Several decades ago, when radical behaviorism was a more prevalent scientific hypothesis, it would have been appropriate for a Christian scientist to say, “Partly for scientific reasons, but also because of my biblical beliefs about God and the natural world, I think radical behaviorism is probably a false scientific hypothesis.”
Scripture and philosophical extrapolations of science
Perhaps the most common way that Scripture affects the way we look at the natural world, in relation to science, is in the philosophical and religious extrapolations which are added to scientific results. Very often, Christians and non-Christians look at the same scientific results, agree about the scientific theories which best explain the data, but draw very different conclusions based on their religious and philosophical beliefs. For example, Christians and non-Christians agree that planets orbit around the sun in stable, repeatable patterns which we can model with natural laws of gravity and motion. A deist might interpret this as saying that the solar system was set up by God, but God is now distant and no longer involved. A Christian could look at the same scientific data and theories through the lens of Scripture and come to a different interpretation. God is not absent from events which we can explain scientifically; rather, God continually sustains creation, and natural laws describe how God usually governs creation.
Similarly, Christians and non-Christians together can conclude scientifically that many events in the natural world have outcomes which include an element of randomness. The final outcomes cannot be completely predicted in terms of initial conditions and natural laws, but must be modeled probabilistically. An atheist might look at randomness in the natural world and conclude that random events are fundamentally uncaused and undirected. A Christian can look at the same randomness in the natural world and conclude that this is another means that God can use in governing the natural world. In fact, a Christian might quote Proverbs 16:33, “the lot is cast in the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord,” to say that God can directly influence the outcome of events that appear random to human beings.
There are many examples—most notably the theory of evolution—where Christians and non-Christians can agree on which scientific theory best fits the data but disagree about the philosophical and religious implications of the theory. For Christians who are scientists, Scripture provides a lens by which we see the natural world as God’s handiwork and something for which God continually cares. Scripture helps us take scientific data and theories and fit them into a larger theological framework of God as Creator and humanity as God’s image bearers.
What do you think of Dr. Haarsma’s proposals about Scripture and science? Let’s talk about it in the comments. Stay tuned next week for part 2, when he considers the cases when science can appropriately challenge our understanding of Scripture.