II. Are we talking science or philosophy?
Now, this argument will not impress the non-Christian or “secularized Christian” for whom science, not Holy Scripture, is the final authority and for whom Nobel prize winners, not Church Fathers, offer the best answers to the cosmogonic questions. So it is not enough for us to have a good grasp of Scripture and the way the Fathers interpret it. We must also understand science and the built-in limitations of its methods and the knowledge it affords.
It seems to me that the confusion in the popular debate between science and religion results as much from an imperfect understanding of science as it does from an uninformed interpretation of Scripture.
Of course, it is in the interests of those trying to discredit religious belief and the Genesis account of Creation to make it appear that religion, not science, is on trial, but in truth both are perpetually on trial, although not in the same courtroom. Let’s be honest. The trial of faith goes on within the human heart. It hinges, in the final analysis, on a subjective verdict. “When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?’ So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?'” (Matthew 16:13-15)
There are many theories about who Jesus is, but the verdict ultimately rests with the hearer of the Word and is something both accepted and continually put to the test, both acknowledged and willed. Christians pray: “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.” Of course, persuasive arguments, compelling proofs and brilliant apologias are advanced by those who believe and in His light have seen Light, but for the skeptic living in darkness and looking for a clinching argument or a scientific proof, there is nothing. Only, as Paul admits in his letter to the Corinthians, “foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)
Science, on the other hand, stands trial in another courtroom. This is a courtroom in which non-material evidence is inadmissible. Let’s make sure we understand what this means. The rules of order in this courtroom are strict and unbending. If it contradicts the laws of nature as science today understands them, it is inadmissible as evidence. Miracles are out. An appeal to anything outside our material universe is out. Anything subjective is out.
The idea is to limit the defense only to what is objective and provable by scientific means. It posed a grave threat to traditional science when Heisenberg and others demonstrated that objectivity is a theoretical goal beyond the reach of the scientific observer.
Moreover, in the courtroom of science, you can’t defend a theory based on the say-so of an authoritative text or person, although, of course, the popular media violates this rule all the time. In the press, it only takes a Nobel prize-winner to espouse a theory to make it credible. This is the secular equivalent of “the Bible says . . . .” In fact, science doesn’t care whether you or I accept the truth of a theory or idea. Nor does it care whether a majority vote of the members of the National Academy of Sciences accepts the theory. It matters only that the theory or idea can be verified in accordance with the methods of science and is consistent with all known laws of science. But here’s the tricky bit you seldom hear about: no theory or idea is ever regarded as absolutely, 100% true.
The trial will continue. More evidence will be brought forward to condemn or defend the theory, and the verdict will always be rendered conditionally and probabilistically. That’s science. So when you hear a scientist making dogmatic claims on behalf of science, be assured that he is not talking science, but philosophy, and he is conflating the two to advance his point of view. Just over a century ago, the scientific community held that the universe was without beginning or end, for science could see neither.
The biblical narrative with its naive linear conception of time, with its once-upon-a-time beginning and apocalyptic ending, seemed foolish and ridiculously anthropocentric.
What happened? Now science with its deep space telescopes and theories of an expanding and eventually collapsing universe appears to support the biblical narrative, or at least the broad outline thereof. For the past century and a half, scientists have searched exhaustively for fossil and geological evidence that man evolved, through gradual and random processes, from a single cell springing spontaneously from primeval soup 3.5 billion years ago. What they have found (so far) is that species change did not occur gradually, and that the oldest humanlike fossil ever found (that of a 12-year-old boy who lived in Kenya some 1.6 million years ago) could probably walk through Times Square dressed like a rapper without drawing attention.
Moreover, mathematicians have proven to be pesky naysayers by claiming that even in the 4.5-billion-year age of the earth the chances of man springing from a single cell through random processes are too great to calculate with any hope of approximation. The odds of life beginning on earth in so short a time from its formation are so remote that Nobel laureates Arrhenius and Crick and the famed British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle have proposed that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe planted the single cell here. Well, being Nobel prize-winners, they must know . . .
My purpose is not to ridicule scientists or disprove their nineteenth-century theories. Science has already done that, and that, by the way, is its job. Its job is not to discredit the biblical narrative or to provide proofs for those who want to believe in a naturalistic cause of the universe or life. That all belongs to philosophy, not science, and those who attempt to co-opt science for this purpose are largely ignoring what is happening inside the science courtroom. I wish merely to point out that science does not (yet) have a narrative for the origin of the universe or life that holds up in its own courtroom. And if anything, the mounting body of evidence suggests that the biblical narrative, still ridiculed by the popular press, is looking far more credible than it did a hundred years ago when regarded through a scientific lens. Science does not speak of miracles.
Instead, it assigns probabilities to events that are infinitesimally small. In layman’s terms, these fantastically improbable events are called miracles. What are the chances, for example, that prayer can cure third stage Multiple Sclerosis over a weekend monastic retreat? Exceedingly remote. Yet I know a woman with clinically diagnosed and MRI-confirmed evidence of MS who returned from a prayer retreat entirely cured and free from every sign of MS. Science assigns a fantastically small probability to this event. Religion calls it a miracle. So let’s be honest about this. Both the atheist and the believer have put their faith in cosmogonic myths describing the miracle of creation and the subsequent miracle of life. Neither can give a scientifically satisfying explanation for how the universe or life on earth originated or how it evolved. One asserts that God formed life out of elements He created out of nothing. The other asserts that life evolved gradually through random processes after the primal elements emerged spontaneously from a big bang that cannot yet be accounted for — in spite of the fact that neither the extensive fossil record nor modern probability theory supports this narrative. This is fine. Let each choose his premise. But let’s not pretend that science sides with the atheist and opposes the believer. If anything, the opposite would appear, for the time being, to be the case. Science and its language of numbers may not be able to prove Genesis’ account of Creation, but it has gone a long way in discounting the atheist’s cosmogonic myth de jour, and we are left, as we are when we read the Fathers, with an overwhelming sense of mastery, meaning and mystery.
In Part 3: Basil and the Hexaemeron