One of the many areas of overlap between science and Christianity is that they are both seeking the Truth.
The attainment of truth is often likened to climbing a mountain, and any hiker or climber can immediately understand why. Not only is it hard to do, but once you’re at the top you can suddenly see everything. What was previously obscured is now laid out clearly; what you saw in part from the plains you see in full from the heights. It’s a powerful metaphor, so let’s extend it a bit.
How exactly should we go about scaling a mountain? We know that we want to reach the top, but we have never climbed this mountain before and we can’t see a route to the top – or even the top itself – clearly from where we stand.
Well, one method could be to employ an algorithm. If we examine the ground at our feet , we will notice that it is inclined in a particular direction. If we head off in the direction of steepest incline for a little bit, we will have a different patch of ground higher up. Again, examine the ground, find the steepest incline, and go in that direction. Keep doing this and you should slowly tend towards the summit of the mountain.
In many ways, this is how Science seeks the truth.
We look at the known, the previous discoveries, we hypothesise, we test, we repeat. Slowly, incrementally, we rise.
There are a few potential problems, though. We may find that we reach a minor peak, or what mathematicians would call a “local maximum”, which is not truly the top of the mountain. The ground slopes down in all directions, but we aren’t yet at the true summit. We know this because there is still a part of the mountain higher than us: our current theory can explain much, but some things are still above us and beyond our understanding. By this we know that our theory is incomplete; it needs revision. At this point, we need to retrace our steps back down into a valley and try again.
Alternatively, we may run into an incline that is too great, an impassable cliff. Our algorithm points us up the rock face, but the limitations of observation, or of experimental possibility, or whatever, make it impossible to proceed in that direction.
So the scientific mountaineering method is useful, and allows us to build on previous experience, but it clearly has limits. It may take us to false peaks first, it may get stuck, but in theory it should bring us closer to the summit with every iteration.
Of course, as any mountaineer knows, this isn’t how we actually climb. So let’s think about some alternatives.
What about a path? Not every path is guaranteed to lead to the summit, but some might. What if there are signposts? What if we meet someone who says he has been to the top, and tells you which path he took? What if other people have gone before us, and drawn a map for those who follow?
Should we not investigate those alternative, indirect, less rigorously scientific methods of reaching the summit?