Does God save Science?

In this piece, based on his ongoing research, Christophe de Ray argues that science and religion need not be in conflict.

[On April 22 a ‘March for Science’ occurred in cities around the world. The protest reflected the fact that the very credibility of science and scientific findings are under attack in certain circles. While many of those leading the attack on science are politically motivated, some come from a longer tradition which struggles to square the traditional religious teachings in which they have faith with findings that have emerged from the scientific community.]

Science must be one of our proudest achievements as humans. Through centuries of theorizing, observing and experimenting, we have acquired an unparalleled ability to predict and control nature. We build airplanes and spaceships, we cure diseases that once wiped out entire populations. And yet, as though this wasn’t enough, we like to think that science gives us more than material success. We want to believe that science also reveals that which is unobservable – atoms, molecules, genes, etc. That is, that science gives us a true picture of the parts of the world that we cannot see. This is scientific realism, the view that our best scientific theories are either true or approximately true.

Unfortunately for us, many philosophers have threatened scientific realism, deploying influential arguments against it. We acquire our scientific theories by considering all the possible explanations for the things we observe and choosing that which we take to be the ‘best’ of our theories (this method is known as ‘inference to the best explanation’). In light of this, Bas van Fraassen argued that even if a given scientific theory is the best of all the theories we have considered, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is true. For all we know, due to our own limitations, we just haven’t come up with the true theory, and hence the best of our theories is merely the “best of a bad lot”.

This problem is made worse by evolutionary theory. Darwinism tells us that our minds were formed in the process of evolution by natural selection – that is, they were selected naturally because they helped our prehistoric ancestors survive and reproduce. But if that’s right, then it follows that our minds evolved to help us acquire true beliefs about our immediate environment – knowledge of, say, which plants are edible and which animals are dangerous, things which would have been of relevance to our ancestors’ survival and reproductive success. What this natural selection would not have been concerned with is the acquisition of knowledge about the remote, unobservable and frankly bizarre objects that the sciences tell us about, such as the inner structure of the atom or the chemical composition of DNA. The consequence of this is that the capacity we now use to imagine possible scientific explanations for our observations was not shaped by evolution for scientific investigation. If this is so, then why think that we can arrive at scientific truth in the first place? Why think that our capacity to imagine what the unobservable world could contain yields anything more than useful fictions?

This is the evolutionary challenge to scientific realism: if evolution didn’t ‘design’ our cognitive faculties in general and our imaginative capacity in particular to uncover scientific truth, this gives us reason to distrust them. But if we can’t trust such faculties to reliably perform this function, we seem compelled to withhold the belief that our scientific theories are true.

I think this ‘evolutionary challenge’ is real but I don’t think it affects everyone to the same degree. Take two opposing worldviews: naturalism and traditional theism. Naturalists believe that there is nothing in reality beyond the natural order, i.e. that the world, at its simplest, is really just matter and energy, or something like it. Traditional theists, on the other hand, hold that the universe and everything in it were brought about by a good and powerful Creator. Crucially, on this view, human beings are not ‘just another animal’ but were made in the Creator’s image (this is called the doctrine of imago dei).

I argue that naturalists face the evolutionary challenge, whereas traditional theists do not, or at least not to the same extent. This is because, if you’re a traditional theist, you believe that you have been made in the Creator’s image. This means that you enjoy a privileged position with the respect to the rest of Creation, as a member of a species purposely made to rule over Nature, with God and on God’s behalf. Thus, you have reason to believe that you have special access to knowledge of the created order, which may allow you to trust that your cognitive faculties can deal with the unobservable world. But of course, if you’re a naturalist you can’t believe anything of the sort, since naturalism, by definition, rules out supernatural beings. You can’t believe that anything or anyone guided the evolutionary process towards scientifically capable minds. Hence I conclude that traditional theism has the resources to meet the evolutionary challenge to scientific realism, whereas naturalism does not.

Naturalists might answer that the incredible predictive success of our best scientific theories is best explained by their truth, or approximate truth; that it would be quite a miracle if the theories that allowed us to build airplanes and cure deadly diseases turned out to be false. However, appealing to the success of science does not eliminate the evolutionary challenge, since it assumes what the evolutionary challenge threatens to deny, an instance of what philosophers call ‘begging the question’. In other words, the naturalist would be assuming precisely what is under scrutiny, that is, that our best explanations are not merely the ‘best of a bad lot’.

Should my argument succeed, it would have the following implication for advocates of the ‘conflict thesis’. This theory, championed by members of the ‘New Atheist’ movement such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris and commonly assumed even by many theists, holds that science and religion are necessarily at odds with each other. In contrast, naturalism is generally perceived as the more ‘scientific’ of the two worldviews. If, however, opting for naturalism forces one to give up one’s scientific beliefs whereas opting for traditional theism does not, this suggests a very different picture: one where science, rather than competing with theism, depends on theistic, religious premises for its rationality. One where God effectively saves science.

See Christophe’s 3 Minute Thesis talk on his research.

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