Does doing science make a person less likely to believe in God?

Q. It would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than “methodological naturalism” (a commitment to work only from empirical data) in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena, they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement, which would definitely be unproductive. But do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages “metaphysical naturalism” (the presupposition that there is no supernatural, and that natural causation can explain everything)?

This is the second part of a detailed question that I’ve posted in its full form here.  (The terms “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” come from a book by Brian Alters.)

In response to this part of the question, I’d have to say no, I don’t believe that the discipline of working only from observable, measurable data and seeking the most reasonable explanation for one’s observations necessarily encourages disbelief in the supernatural.  I can imagine a scientist who was also a person of faith saying, “Let’s see how much we can account for this way,” but still expecting that in the end there would be many things that could only be regarded with reverent wonder.

The lives of scientists throughout the centuries who have also been people of deep faith provide abundant anecdotal evidence that methodological naturalism does not inevitably lead to metaphysical naturalism.  Such scientists include Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Mendel, Pasteur, and, more recently, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project.  Numerous further examples could be given.  Many of these scientists have written about the compatibility of faith with scientific endeavor.  (See, for example, Collins’ book The Language of God.)

Along those lines, in my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey (himself a widely published scientific researcher), I cite the example of King Solomon, who was noted for his natural-scientific investigations, and paraphrase one of his proverbs this way:  “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.”  I go on to say that “when we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes.  So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm.”

In other words, we can adopt the discipline of “methodological naturalism” for the purposes of science without worrying that it will lead to “metaphysical naturalism.”

(The entire text of Paradigms on Pilgrimage is now available free online.)

Sir Isaac Newton, scientist and believer (portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689, courtesy Wikipedia)

Dialogue between science and miracle

Q. Although it seems intellectually satisfying to isolate religion and science into separate domains, that doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture. Though religion typically answers questions of who and why, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science. For example, Jesus either physically died and rotted somewhere or he was brought to heaven. If the spiritual world is real, there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that science can never explain. Is it accurate to maintain that the two domains of science and religion really are so separate, or is that more of an ideological goal to strive for to achieve clarity in thinking?

This is the essence of the first part of a long and thoughtful question that was recently posed to this blog.  (You can read the full text of the question here.)  In response to this part, I would say that there is indeed some overlap between the otherwise separate domains of religion and science, in that science (the discipline of drawing reasoned conclusions from empirical observations) can disprove the claim of a miracle by providing contradictory evidence.

Gustave Dore, “Elijah Ascends to Heaven”

In fact, we see this process of dialogue between miracle and science within the Bible itself.  When Elisha comes back from across the Jordan to report that Elijah has been taken up alive into heaven by a whirlwind, the company of prophets in Jericho isn’t so sure. “Look,” they tell Elisha, “we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.”

In other words, “Maybe that whirlwind wasn’t a miraculous transport to heaven after all.  Maybe it was an ordinary whirlwind that has left Elijah stranded somewhere out in the desert, where he needs our help!”  Elisha is sure of the miracle and tells the prophets not to go.  They go out anyway and search in the desert for three days, but find nothing.

So did this empirical search that turned up no body prove that Elijah was taken up alive into heaven?  Not quite.  It just didn’t prove that he wasn’t.

In other words, when science investigates a miracle, the most that can be said on the side of the miracle is that there is no scientific proof that it didn’t happen.  But by definition (since science properly limits itself to the non-miraculous), there is also no scientific proof that a miracle did happen.

The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus.  If his body had ever turned up, that would have disproved the resurrection.  We know that his body never turned up because of what historians call the “criterion of embarrassment,” in which a hostile source needs to offer some explanation for an embarrassing detail. The gospels record how opponents claimed that Jesus’ early followers had stolen his body–an admission that it was missing.

A strong historical case can be made that it was not just unlikely, but virtually impossible, for Jesus’ body to have been stolen. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, if we do not rule out the miraculous, the most likely explanation of the events of that first Easter morning is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.  That is not a scientific conclusion, because it allows for miraculous possibilities.  But I do consider it a reasonable conclusion.

So the respective fields of investigation of science and religion do overlap in that science can falsify certain religious claims that should (or should not) leave real-world evidence.  But science does not validate religious claims when it cannot falsify them.  That is still the role of faith.

A question about science and religion

The following question about science and religion was recently submitted to this blog. Even though the writer invites me to “edit the length . . . for space considerations,” I find the whole question so thoughtful and articulate that I’d like to run it in its entirety here, and address its three points in a series of posts.

Q.  In your book Paradigms on Pilgrimage you state that “science, in seeking to explain origins, answers questions of what, when, and how, but responsibly remains silent on questions of who and why, which are instead the purview of religion and philosophy”. When you discuss Brian Alters’ book Defending Evolution, you speak sympathetically of his view that in its pursuit of knowledge science is properly “methodically naturalistic,” limiting itself to what can be observed and measured, as opposed to being “metaphysically naturalistic” and denying the existence of God or the supernatural.

These views seem to be held by many modern intellectuals including S. J. Gould who wrote that the “net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work that way (theory)…[while the] net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

In light of the above, I have a few questions that you might be able to answer through a couple of posts.

First, although it seems intellectually satisfying to isolate religion and science into separate domains with a shared border, it doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture. Though religion typically answers questions of who and why, it would seem to transgress into the realm of science in many areas. Considering that science looks at the empirical realm, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science. Jesus either had a human father or he didn’t. He also either physically died and rotted somewhere or he was brought to heaven. Either way though, those are measurable phenomena in the empirical realm that the Bible answers supernaturally. Of course, miracles are merely a suspension of the way the world normally operates but that is the point, if the spiritual world is real there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that science can never explain. Is it accurate to maintain that the two domains of science and religion really are so separate or is it more of an ideological goal to strive for to achieve clarity in thinking?

This part of the question is answered here.

Secondly, I would agree that it would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than methodological naturalism in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement which would definitely be unproductive. However, isn’t it possible that in being methodically naturalistic scientists might be blinding themselves to certain physical facts that don’t fit their paradigm which would in turn lead to wrong conclusions and theories about the physical world? For example, in the case of origins, in one direction, I don’t think that scientists would rightly ever conclude that God exists because they were unable to explain the origin of the universe or of life. Appealing to the supernatural is off limits in science and is usually viewed as lazy investigation. In the other direction though, assuming that God did create the universe and life, there will come a time when scientists, because they are methodologically naturalistic will be looking for something that isn’t there. They will be trying to explain in physical terms something that can only be explained supernaturally. Beyond just origins though, isn’t it possible that scientists have already constructed theories that aren’t getting the full picture because they are methodically naturalistic? Do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages metaphysical naturalism or is that only a “straw man” constructed by modern creationists?

I respond to this part of the question in this post.

Finally, this is more of a question that is posed along the border of religion and science, “from the middle of the lake” (assuming there is a middle). If God did use evolution and at some point along the line injected a soul into prehistoric humans as the Catholic Church maintains, wouldn’t that mean that there would have potentially existed simultaneously on the earth a mixture of “soul-possessing” hominids and “soulless” hominids separated by some small evolutionary difference (or maybe just geography)?

I answer this last part of the question here.

Feel free to edit the length or format of my questions for space considerations.

Thank you!

Was Noah’s flood a worldwide event or a local one?

Q. In your Genesis study guide you seem to take for granted that Noah’s flood was a worldwide event. You write, “God must have used some extraordinary means to cause a flood of this magnitude, since ordinary rainfall, even a downpour of forty days, wouldn’t be sufficient to cover all the mountains on earth.”  But I’ve heard some people claim instead that this flood was a local event.  How would you respond?

Floodwater

You’re right, one school of interpretation does hold that Noah’s flood was a local event in which the waters rose 15 cubits (22 feet) above their usual height, or else this far above their flood stage.  This would still be a tremendous flood, but local one.  However, the statement in Genesis that the high hills (or mountains) were all covered with water would seem to rule this out.

The statement is actually made within a poetic couplet that’s based on the repetition of meaning, whose second line provides greater focus, as is typical of Hebrew poetry.  The couplet can be translated this way:

And the waters were great, exceedingly, exceedingly, upon the earth
and they covered all the high hills that were under the skies;
Five and ten cubits upwards were the waters great
and they covered the high hills.

“All the high hills that were under the skies” are in view, and the claim is that these were covered to a height of 15 cubits, so I think the writer’s intention is to describe a worldwide event.

However, it’s important to remember that all of this is written from an observational perspective. The author of the flood account is reporting that all of the high hills out to the visible horizon (“under the skies”) were covered by the waters.  So this would conceivably still allow for a local flood, although it’s being envisioned as a worldwide event.

In either case, however, this would still be a flood of such magnitude that the problem of its mechanism remains. Some extraordinary means must have been responsible, because as I go on to say in the guide, the description of the flood in Genesis, no matter how we interpret it, “doesn’t line up with our modern cosmology.  Much of the universe is described here by analogy to things in human experience, so that there are ‘floodgates’ in the sky and ‘springs’ in the ‘great deep.'”  So it’s a real challenge to get from the way the author envisioned the created world to the way we understand it today.

I think it’s more profitable to realize that the Genesis account here is describing a wrestling match between the waters and the earth.  The waters “were great” or “prevailed” over the earth: “Prevail” in Hebrew is the root GBR, while the adjective “high” applied to the mountains or hills is GBH. Both roots convey the sense of strength and might. In other words, the greatest strength that the earth can muster—supposedly immovable mountains—cannot resist the force that God raises against it.

The flood was sent because almost the entire human race had turned away from God into violence and wickedness, but if they felt nothing could stop them from taking that path, their false sense of security has now been exposed.  The story ultimately has a moral lesson, so if the only thing we take away from it is a conclusion about how widespread the flood was, or about how it happened, we’ve missed the point.

For a further discussion of the flood in light of the way the biblical authors envisioned the created world, see this related post.

Did the earth’s atmosphere become translucent and then transparent, allowing light and then the sun to become visible on earth?

sun_4ae1db4b5688c

The following is a comment on my earlier post on the question of how there could have been light on the first day of creation when the sun was only created on the fourth day.  Because of its length and detail, the comment is printed here and my response follows.

What a great question. Whilst I don’t believe that Genesis was written as a science textbook, I believe that there should be harmony between what we see in the Bible and what we observe in science. This is because God is the author of both.

One of the most important things one needs to do in scientific research and in Biblical hermeneutics is to determine the frame of reference. I think that it is important that readers of Genesis 1 understand that the days of Genesis come from the Hebrew word “yom” which can mean a very long indeterminate length of time . . . an age.

Furthermore, a change in the frame of reference takes place between Gen. 1:1 [“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”} and Gen. 1:2 [“Now the earth was formless and empty”]. It moves from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth.

The text does not say that light was created in Gen. 1:3 [“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”]. The actual Hebrew word is “hayah” which means to “appear” or to “cause to appear”. According to the best planetary theory the primordial earth had a dense and opaque atmosphere. This is exactly what the Scriptures say. Planetary models describe how the atmosphere slowly cleared and day and night were distinguishable . . . they “appeared”. Later on the atmosphere becomes translucent and then transparent. This explains the sun and moon “appearing” only on creation Day 4. This scientific model is in harmony with what the best science describes.

The rest of Genesis is also completely consistent with science. The establishment of a stable water cycle, the appearance of continents and plants, the clearing of the atmosphere, the appearance of sea animals and birds, followed by land animals and humans. Science tells us that this is the order that these things happened. But the Bible said it first! For an ancient writer to just get one of these creation events correct would be something. But to get them all correct and in the correct order is truly remarkable. The probability of an ancient writer getting the order of the 13 creation events correct is 13 factorial or 1 chance in 6.227 billion.

Don D. Wallar, M.Sc.
President, Toronto Chapter
Reasons to Believe
http://www.reasons.org

Don, thanks so much for sharing your own reflections on the Genesis account.  It’s great to engage these questions with you.

It seems to me that we are approaching the account with different expectations.  You’re expecting that it will be possible to match up its narrative details with the facts of natural history. I’m not necessarily expecting this; rather, I think we need to try to understand the account as a whole from its own perspective and then ask how it speaks to us today.

But this difference in approaches doesn’t mean we can’t talk.  In the Genesis study guide in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series, I invite small group members to state their opinions briefly about how the Genesis creation account  relates to science, but then “leave them at the door” and not debate them, so that the group can explore the text on a literary level. And that’s what you’ve allowed the two of us to do by your references to its literary structure and vocabulary.  Let me then engage each of the points you made.

The meaning of the word “yom.” The basic and most common meaning of the Hebrew word yom is “day.”  In most cases this is an ordinary day.  It’s true that the term can also be used figuratively to mean a longer, even an indeterminate, length of time.  In Deuteronomy, for example, Moses tells the people of Israel to celebrate Passover so that they will always remember “the day of your going forth from the land of Egypt.” The NIV translates this as “the time of your departure,” recognizing that a longer period of time is in view.  The prophets, to give another example, often begin their oracles by saying “In that day,” referring to an indefinite future period.  And so forth.  So how can we tell whether yom means a simple day, or a longer time period?  We have to depend on the context.  And the Genesis account says that for each “day,” “there was evening, and there was morning.”  I take this as an indication from the author that we’re meant to understand these as ordinary days, which the Hebrews considered to begin at sunset.  From the author’s observational perspective, creation looks like six days’ work:  realms are created on the first three days (day vs. night, sky vs. sea, sea vs. land), and these realms are populated on the next three days.  “A place for everything, and everything in its place”:  the account communicates the original order, beauty, and harmony of God’s creation.  But it doesn’t necessarily say that creation took place over a long period covering many ages.

•  Change in reference after the start of the account. Our English translations give us the impression that there is a change in the frame of reference after the opening sentence of the creation account, a change “from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth,” as you put it.  We hear about God creating “the heavens and the earth,” and then the action apparently shifts to the waters of the sea, grass on the ground, etc.  But the words used for “heaven” (shemayim) and “earth” (‘erets) in the opening sentence are actually the very same words used for the “sky” and the “land” everywhere else in the account, for example, “God made lights for the expanse of the sky (shemayim),” “The land (‘erets) produced vegetation,” etc.  So it would be more accurate to translate the opening line of the account this way:  “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  We would then realize that this is a summary of what follows, in the characteristic Hebrew narrative style.  (For example, later in the book of Genesis we’re told in summary, “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.”  Then we get the details.)  So as I see it, there is no change in the frame of reference.  An earthbound observer is describing “the sky and the land” throughout the whole account.

•  The meaning of the word “hayah.” The Hebrew word for “to appear” is actually ra’ah, “to see,” in the Niphal or reflexive stem meaning “to be seen” or “to appear.”  That’s the word that’s used in the creation account when God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”  The word hayah means “to be.”  It can also mean “to become,” that is, “to come into existence,” and that’s what I understand the term to mean with regard to the light of the first day:  “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and the light was (hayah),” that is, light came into existence.  This is not a case of a previously created entity becoming visible.

Even though these considerations related to the vocabulary and structure of the account leave me convinced that it is literally intended but written from an observational perspective, I share your belief that there is an ultimate coherence between scientific discoveries of the wonder and beauty of the created universe and the Bible’s revelation to us of God as Creator.  I happen to believe that these operate on two different levels, while it seems you believe they operate on the same level.  But we both agree that we can learn much about God from what are often called the “two books” of God’s revelation, nature and Scripture.  The fine organization you work with, Reasons to Believe, encourages believers and seekers to reflect with wonder and respect on the universe that God created, and I feel that the Genesis author is doing exactly the same thing, speaking out of an ancient culture to readers down through the ages.

How was there light on the first day of creation when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

I have a question about the creation account in Genesis:  How could there have been light on the first day when the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day?

SAMSUNGThis is an excellent question that has long puzzled readers of the book of Genesis.  In response to it, some have asserted that the “light” created on the first day was not the light we now see from the sun, but rather something like newly-created matter, or electromagnetic radiation, static electricity, or even a divine light that no longer exists.

But in my view, the simplest explanation is that the light of the first day is the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises and which remains in the sky after the sun sets, finally fading away until it can be seen no more.  We now know that this light comes from our sun, but the Genesis author apparently believed, writing from an observational perspective, that it was an independent entity that was present before the sun existed, and which appears even on those days when the sun is absent.  This light defined the realm of “day,” just as the dome above the earth defined the realm of “sky” and the gathering together of the waters below constituted the realm of “sea.”  As the Genesis study guide points out, this creation account is about realms and their rulers, and light is introduced as the essential defining characteristic of the first realm to be set off from the primordial darkness and chaos.

When I was in grade school we used to tell this joke:
Q. “Which is brighter, the sun or the moon?”
A.  “The moon, because it shines at night when it’s dark.  The sun only shines during the day, when it’s light anyway!”
In a simple but profound way, this joke captures the naïve observational cosmology of the Genesis account (although it admittedly does not also capture its reverential spirit).

It actually makes good sense, from the perspective of ancient readers, that the “days” of Genesis should be defined on the basis of this light, rather than on the appearance or non-appearance of the sun.  After all, this first light is more reliable than the sun; it always appears in the sky even when the sun does not (due to complete cloud cover, or to dust storms, sand storms, volcanic ash, or something similar).  This obscuring of the sun may, in fact, be what Job was referring to when he said of God, “He commands the sun, and it does not rise” (Job 9:7).  When we don’t understand that the light in the sky comes from the sun, we can picture God having the sun take a “day off” like this from time to time, because even when it’s not visible in the sky, there is always light.

For some readers of the Bible, however, this explanation may solve one problem only to create another.  Light before there was a sun makes sense from an observational perspective, but were the inspired Scriptural writers really writing from such a perspective?  Wasn’t the omniscient God making sure that everything they wrote was fully accurate scientifically and historically?  I’ll address this concern in my next post.

See here for a detailed comment on this post and a reply.