Believing and understanding

Yesterday I wrote about 3000 words on the limitations of the scientific approach as a tool for discerning truth. Today I’d like to focus on just 3 words:

Credo ut Intelligam

“I believe so that I may understand”

As I discussed in the last two posts, scientific inquiry is limited by definition to the material universe. Supernatural influence on the material, or events limited entirely to the supernatural sphere, are in principle inaccessible to science (thanks to its assumption of materialism). But because of what I observe, what I experience, and what my reason tells me, I cannot endorse materialism as a worldview. I accept its usefulness as a scientific premise, but I do not accept its truthfulness.

The Latin motto above was written by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), who is regarded as the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. He held that belief in God is the only way to make sense of what we observe. Reason can expand on faith, but faith must precede reason.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, described the correct perspective of inquiry thus:

“Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the Author of good and Father of light.” (Novum Organum)

As a contrast, let’s see how far materialism can take us. Peter Atkins, Oxford chemist and caustic-tongued atheist, believes that, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Bertrand Russell described a common materialist position when he said:

“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

It is worth noting, however, that this extreme scientism is logically incoherent. It is itself not a statement of science but an article of blind faith. Thus by its own assertion we cannot know if it is true. (Note: I use the term “blind faith” because I believe that this statement describes a belief held in spite of evidence).

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, observes that scientism even denies the validity of any non-scientific fields such as philosophy, ethics, literature, poetry, art and music. He continues:

“Science can tell you that if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill her, but it cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea in order to get your hands on her property.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

I would suggest that it is possible to have such knowledge of right and wrong, even though it is beyond the scope of science.

We must also note the difference in confidence which can be attributed to the findings of various scientific disciplines, because the scientific methodology relies on repeatability. Experimental sciences can often confidently deduce what is likely to happen under certain controlled conditions. Sciences which deal with unrepeatable phenomena (such as palaeontology and cosmology) are more deductive, and their conclusions must necessarily be less authoritative.

Even amongst these “historical” sciences, we can only proceed scientifically by simulating repeatability: we compare several independent fossil progressions; we draw analogues to living animals. We study hundreds of galaxies, trying to find common trends. We look at the operation of physics on an experimentable scale and extrapolate the findings to a cosmological scale. The philosophy is the same, although there are greater practical limitations to the experimental possibilities.

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Natural law (and order)

C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Grand Miracle, gives a striking illustration of the conditional status of “laws of Nature”. As Nature is the field studied by science, this also illustrates the impossibility of using scientific inquiry to address the supernatural. In the passage, Lewis is in conversation with a materialist:

“Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the Laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them … I think the Laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.”

“Half a moment,” said I. “Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?”

“Of course,” said he, “provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.”

“Ah, but that’s the whole point,” said I. “The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the Laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted.”

“No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey tricks like that.”

“Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.”

Note that I do not wish to undermine the value of scientific inquiry into Nature: I believe that it has great power to give insight into the natural order. But I think it should be obvious that science has important limitations in what questions it can reasonably address.

Once we head into the realm of the truly unrepeatable, we are studying history. And now we are truly off the scientific map.

Is it possible to have knowledge of historical events? Of course.

There are even ways to assess the relative confidence of historical knowledge, such as the extent and concordance of contemporaneous records, literary criticism of written accounts, archaeological confirmation of records and forensic examination of evidence.

Miraculous events are unique. That’s what marks them as miracles – they defy the natural order. But they do not contradict science, because as we have seen, science deals explicitly with the normal workings of Nature in the absence of super-Natural interference.

Lewis elaborates:

“This point of scientific method merely shows (what no one to my knowledge ever denied) that if miracles did occur, science, as science, could not prove, or disprove, their occurrence. What cannot be trusted to recur is not material for science: that is why history is not one of the sciences. You cannot find out what Napoleon did at the battle of Austerlitz by asking him to come and fight it again in a laboratory with the same combatants, the same terrain, the same weather, and in the same age. You have to go to the records. We have not, in fact, proved that science excludes miracles: we have only proved that the question of miracles, like innumerable other questions, excludes laboratory treatment.” (The Grand Miracle)

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Overlap in the Magisterium?

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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Seeing the gardener

Douglas Adams, in a line oft-quoted by atheists, wrote once:

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

The suggestion is that this accurately portrays the relationship between observation of nature and belief in a creator God. In fact, it is a useless and highly misleading straw man argument.

A belief in fairies would be akin to believing in Bertrand Russell’s flying teapot – we don’t have any proof that there isn’t a teapot orbiting Mars, so why don’t we believe in that too? Again, this is an atheist straw man which grossly misrepresents the Christian belief in God.

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As John Lennox has pointed out, you are welcome to dismiss the idea of fairies, but it would be ridiculous to look at a beautiful garden and dismiss the idea of a gardener. And that is a more accurate reflection of the relationship between the God of the Christian faith and the created universe.

Sure, it’s possible that all the trees and flowers grew up from seeds that just randomly fell into perfectly arranged rows and patterns.

Maybe blind chance directed all the azaleas into one flower bed and all the petunias into another.

Perhaps it was purely mechanistic geological forces which directed the stones into a pattern which just happens to resemble a path.

We know that cows eat grass – maybe there was a herd of very light-footed cows that came and mowed the lawns – and just happened to nibble every blade to the same height. (After all, evolution seems to work on the micro scale, why not take it on blind faith that it works on the macro scale?)

Maybe all the apparent design is just an illusion.

But would this be reasonable?

My understanding of God makes sense of the universe that I see around me. The created order, to me, bears unmistakable hallmarks of its Creator.

Acknowledging the gardener makes sense of the beautiful garden that he has fashioned. Acknowledging the creator and sustainer of the Universe gives us insight into everything else we see. C. S. Lewis illustrated this perfectly when he wrote:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

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Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

On reading both books

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Children of God?

Note: In response to some comments that have come in, I should clarify that in this post I am not referring to agnosticism or even “passive” atheism. I am not talking about someone who is earnestly evaluating the evidence, but is unconvinced that faith in God is justified.

I am rather referring to an angry and aggressive denial of the Divine, which may bear more than a passing resemblance to a teenager slamming the door and screaming that they hate their parents.

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I recently read an article on “Motives for Atheism” by David Carlin. Among the various motives suggested (libertinism, intellectual laziness, etc) I was struck by one in particular:

Conspicuous Nonconformity

Some people like to be “different.” If they are teenage girls, they may color their hair orange or wear a ring through their nose. Prior to the sexual revolution, a teenage girl could differentiate herself from her peers by losing her virginity at an early age, an age at which almost nobody else would think of doing such a thing. But losing one’s virginity at an early age is too common an event to make a girl different nowadays … If they are teenage boys, they may talk very loud in inappropriate places or freely use obscenities in public. The point is to give offense to respectable opinion. In a cultural milieu in which everyone, or at least nearly everyone, takes it for granted that God exists, you can shock respectable opinion by openly announcing your atheism.

I find this interesting in light of the stage of life at which several prominent figures among the more militant atheists made their commitments to their creed:

  • Richard Dawkins rebelled against his “normal Anglican upbringing” as a teenager, and decided that God didn’t exist.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche dropped out of his theology studies at age 20 and became an atheist.
  • Bertrand Russell discarded his Christian faith at 18.

As Vox Day points out:

“The idea that there is any rational basis for atheism is further damaged by the way in which so many atheists become atheists during adolescence, an age that combines a tendency toward mindless rebellion as well as the onset of sexual desires that collide with religious strictures on their satisfaction.” (The Irrational Atheist)

I present, as food for thought, accounts of three men who went the same direction in their teenage years, but later changed their views:

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Francis Collins was formerly head of the Human Genome Project, and now serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health. A brillinat geneticist, he has been described as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. Collins was brought up as a “nominal Christian” but regarded himself as an atheist by graduate school. He came to Christianity aged 27, after mature reflection and an investigation of several faiths.

He described his experiences in an interview for Salon.com :

“I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn’t see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself. But then I went to medical school, and I watched people who were suffering from terrible diseases. And one of my patients, after telling me about her faith and how it supported her through her terrible heart pain, turned to me and said, “What about you? What do you believe?” And I stuttered and stammered and felt the color rise in my face, and said, “Well, I don’t think I believe in anything.” But it suddenly seemed like a very thin answer. And that was unsettling. I was a scientist who was supposed to draw conclusions from the evidence and I realized at that moment that I’d never really looked at the evidence for and against the possibility of God.

“… So I set about reading about the various world religions, but I didn’t understand their concepts and their various dogmas. So I went down the street and met with a Methodist minister in this little town in North Carolina and asked him a number of blasphemous questions. And he smiled and answered a few them but said, “You know, I think you’d learn a lot if you’d read this book on my shelf. It was written by somebody who has traveled the same path — a scholar who was an atheist at Oxford and tried to figure out whether there was truth or not to religion.” The book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. And within the first three pages, I realized that my arguments against faith were those of a schoolboy.

“… As I read his arguments about the Moral Law — the knowledge of right and wrong, which makes no sense from the perspective of basic evolution and biology but makes great sense as a signpost to God — I began to realize the truth of what he was saying. Ultimately, I realized I couldn’t go back to where I was. I could never again say atheism is the only logical choice for a scientifically trained person.

“After I had struggled with this for a couple of years … I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”

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C. S. Lewis also departed from his Christian upbringing in his rebellious teenage years. Born into a church-going family in Belfast, he became an atheist at the age of 15, mostly due to his struggles to reconcile a benevolent Creator God with the broken and wicked Creation which he saw. He was fond of quoting Lucretius (De rerum natura, 5.198–9):

“Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.”

But by 31, after years of wrestling with his philosophical demons, he described his acceptance of God in Surprised by Joy:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Lewis was possibly the greatest Christian writer of the 20th century. In addition to his masterpiece of apologetics, Mere Christianity, he continued to contend with the existence of evil. The Problem of Pain ranks among the finest works ever written on this difficult issue.

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Augustine of Hippo (aka St. Augustine) was born in 354 in Thagaste (in what is now Algeria). Although raised as a Christian, Augustine left the Church (much to the despair of his mother) and spent most of his teenage years as a wild and reckless delinquent. He hung around with the the euersores (or “wreckers”), who encouraged extreme sexual promiscuity (and were thus understandably popular with teenage boys).

In 384, at age 30, Augustine was awarded the most prestigious academic position in the Roman world, the Professor of Rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan. Three years later he underwent a profound personal transformation and converted to Christianity:

“Eagerly then I returned to the place where … I laid the volume of the Apostle … I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (Confessions, Book VIII)

More than 1600 years later his astoundingly deep understanding of the Christian faith and the nature of human psychology remains just as relevant. He was among the first to clearly articulate the interpretation of Genesis as a logical framework rather than a scientific treatise, and also a profound writer on the doctrines of Grace and of human frailty.

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Christopher Hitchens abandoned religion aged 9. His brother Peter recalls burning his own Bible at 15, but Peter returned to faith when he was 30.

We are all children of God, and we all go through our rebellious teenage years. Thank God that some of us grow out of them.