A believer’s approach to the sciences

We are all believers. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, ecologists, terrorists--everyone believes in someone or something. A religious person believes in the existence of God; an atheist believes that nothing exists but matter and energy; and both may argue to the nth degree that one view is right and the other is wrong. To believe does not mean that our belief is true and verifiable. In fact, everyone approaches the study of nature with a certain amount of faith. It is essential to study with an open mind, admitting that we could be wrong, always searching for the truth.

Science prides itself on its objectivity. But, is genuine objectivity even possible? Let's be clear: "Science" involves interpreting the data found in the natural world. Once interpretation begins, we are introducing a subjective element, the basic set of beliefs every human holds about the way things are in this universe. No one studies the stars or the human body or the molecular genetics of the cell with a mind that is a "clean slate." Everyone, including scientists, brings basic assumptions to the table, and interprets data in light of those assumptions. Understanding this makes a powerful difference in how we view the scientific enterprise, and how we must see our own religious commitments.

It is generally accepted that what is in our mind powerfully affects what we perceive and how we interpret our observations. Indeed, this psychological concept helps us understand why one person gets angry at something while others may not be bothered by it at all; or why certain people keep on entering into destructive relationships; or why some are miserable even though they have a loving family and live in relative luxury. In each case, it has to do with how the individual perceives the given circumstances; that is, with what mind-set, or belief system he or she approaches the situation.

Philosophers often use the word worldview to describe the set of conceptions or basic assumptions with which human beings approach data--scientific, religious, political or whatever--, interpret it, and arrive at a conclusion. A worldview is a mental map of how the universe works. Many of our choices about how to interpret scientific evidence flow from an initial, all-important decision--whether to believe in a Higher Power. Consider two examples: Naturalists believe that there is no "Higher Power," that everything we see is the product of matter and energy, guided by law and chance. Christians believe that a Higher Power exists; some cosmic intelligence outside of what we perceive as the "natural" world. The choice is well summarized in two statements:

Statement 1: "In the beginning was the Word....all things were made by him and without him was not any thing made that was made."

Statement 2: "In the beginning were the particles, and the particles became man, and man imagined God."

The Apostle John wrote the first statement, which summarizes the biblical worldview. The second statement is how Philip Johnson describes Darwinism and it represents the secular worldview. In both cases, one begins with a belief that is not subject to testing or proof. Those who doubt the "believing" nature of the Darwinist system should listen to Richard Lewontin, the Harvard University geneticist: "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.... The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of....Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth."1

Scientists of materialistic persuasion should not be thought of as those who "do not believe." They are believers just like conventionally religious people; only they believe in something very different.

Science is not monolithic

When we speak of science, we often think of chemistry, physics, computers, etc.; or about the scientific method, facts, measurements, and so on. Many of us are not aware that the word science is used as an umbrella term to cover some very diverse activities. Consider this quote from Popular Science: "The consequences of [the] education gap in science and math are devastatingly apparent. Only 45 percent of adult Americans know that Earth goes around the sun once each year. A third believe that boiling radioactive milk makes it safe to drink. Some 40 percent firmly believe that aliens from space have visited Earth, and a stunning 54 percent reject the idea that humans evolved from earlier species."2

Here, the umbrella of "science" is used to cover two very different categories of knowledge! Recognizing these categories is the key to good science education, as well as to understanding much of the conflict between science and religion in today's world. How do we do this?

Different kinds of science

The passage quoted does not recognize the difference between empirical science and historical science. Empirical science is what most of us think of when we see the word science. It's what we're taught in school as physics and chemistry, where the scientific method is employed. This method of learning involves (1) making observations and asking a question; (2) formulating the hypothesis or "trial answer" that helps explain the observations; and (3) devising and carrying out an experiment that will test the hypothesis, to help determine whether our trial answer is correct. Note that we can never "prove" the hypothesis--proofs are found only in certain branches of mathematics.

Let's apply this test to the issues raised in the Popular Science quote above. The question of the radioactive milk is empirical science. Does boiling the milk remove the radioactivity? We can test it out in a laboratory. This question, and thousands like it, are not the subject of debate in the scientific community because they are empirical questions, and the answers come from the data generated by repeatable experiments in the laboratory.

The second type of science--historical science--is different in a fundamental and important way. Unlike physics, chemistry, and much of biology, historical scientists cannot go into the laboratory to test their hypotheses. Historical scientists collect data in the field, and use those data to reconstruct the past in ways that are as true as possible to the available evidence. In everyday language, scientists in historical fields look at the evidence and then "tell a story" that fits the data. No story can explain every single piece of evidence, and, equally important, there may be more than one story that explains the data satisfactorily. Since there is no way to apply a laboratory test to this type of story, it is often difficult to know if one story is correct and another is wrong. Even more importantly, our decision about which story is correct is powerfully influenced by our worldview.

Some may object that historical science isn't science at all, since it doesn't provide answers we can verify by experiment. However, archaeology is recognized as science, despite the fact that even using many repeatable laboratory procedures, this discipline has no empirical method to test archaeologists' hypotheses. Did David and Solomon's kingdoms exist as described in the Bible? Many archaeologists do not believe that they did, while others disagree. There are vigorous arguments about this story, due to lack of a definitive test for the historical hypotheses.

The same is true of paleoanthropology, the study of ancient humans and their alleged fossil ancestry. Because of numerous possible hypotheses, there are constant arguments within the field: arguments about which fossil is the "missing link," or about whether this or that fossil is part of human ancestral line or simply an extinct dead end, etc.

Historical science appears not only in archaeology and paleoanthropology, but also in the laboratory sciences; for instance, when astrophysicists argue about what happened during the first few seconds after the Big Bang. No one has a videotape of that event, so scientists must examine the "very limited" evidence available, and then use mathematical equations to explain a story of what may have happened as the universe was being born. Next, they compare their position to the observations being made, and finally, argue with those who see it differently.

Likewise, in chemistry, there is an ongoing attempt to model the atmosphere of the early Earth, in order to figure out how life got started through strictly physical processes. By examining the oldest rocks to be found, by gathering whatever clues they can find on early atmospheric conditions, and then, by combining these findings with current knowledge of chemical reactions, scientists have tried to simulate the early Earth's atmosphere. Obviously, there is no way to know how accurate these simulations may be. Origin-of-life research uses many scientific techniques, and is carried out in the science laboratory, but it is squarely in the category of historical science because the conclusions researchers come up can neither be confirmed nor refuted.

Darwinism: Historical science?

Perhaps the most controversial example of historical science is found in biology. The currently accepted scientific explanation for the origin of life and its phenomenal diversity is known as Darwinism, which tells us that life emerged as a result of chemical evolution, and that the first living cell eventually gave rise to every variety of life on Earth. According to this view, the origin of life, and the development of all its subsequent forms, was accomplished by the random interaction of chemicals. First, they formed the molecules necessary for a living cell (DNA), and thousands of proteins, including many enzymes essential to the cellular operations. Once this cell came into being, it gradually evolved into other types of cells, then into multi-cellular creatures, and finally into the millions of different species that have existed, including those reading this essay. This miraculous transformation was allegedly accomplished solely through mutations in the DNA molecules making up the genetic code--random changes in the arrangement of the four "letters" from which our DNA code words are formed. These were then acted on by the environment in a process that Darwin called "natural selection."

While a great deal of evidence can be rationally interpreted to support the Darwinian view (mainly in the area of the adaptation of existing organisms to better fit their environments), the story of the origin of life, of the genetic code, and of the different body plans in the living world, exists in the realm of historical science. This is because whatever the preferred scenario for explaining these things, none of them can be tested in the laboratory in such a way as to provide definitive proof or disproof. Darwinism, despite its current status as "scientific fact," is really no more than a story that is told to explain how we got here, incorporating as much of the evidence as possible. It does a good job in some areas, but there is significant difficulty in other areas. There is no way to test Darwin's hypothesis by experiment, and other stories can be told to explain much of the same evidence. In fact, some of the alternative stories are more robustly supported by the newest evidence available.

Although the Darwinist story about origins is in a different category from the empirical science practiced in the laboratory, textbooks and popular media (such as the earlier quote) present it as a fact, in the same sense as the effects of gravity. Furthermore, any rival to the preferred story is resisted energetically. Often those representing the Darwinist position ignore the scientific issues involved, resorting to name-calling, an appeal to authority, and/or to constructing a straw man, which is then demolished.

In fact, prominent Darwinists in England recently attacked certain Christian schools (including one operated by Seventh-day Adventists) because their curriculum includes both Darwinian evolution and biblical creation. They argue that schools should present only Darwinism, and should not include any of the empirical evidence that supports other hypotheses about origins. The Darwinian worldview assumes that there was no design and no designer, and this vision of the naturalistic origin of life is accepted as a given by the mainstream scientific community, regardless of the evidence being gathered in the field and in laboratories. It is this fact that makes the scientific naturalists "believers" in much the same sense as creationists, although the object of belief is not the same for both.

Conclusion

Everyone believes in someone or something. Even scientists have a belief system. In view of this, Christian believers need not be apologetic about their faith system. Instead, when they approach sciences, they should do so with (1) thoughtful respect for the scientific enterprise when it deals with the strictly empirical; and (2) humility and tolerance for other views with evidentiary support in various areas of historical science. Meanwhile, Christian believers should develop a thorough understanding of the Intelligent Design perspective, so as not to be intimidated or silenced by those who insist that belief in the supernatural is unscientific. As we do this, we'll find that much of the current research in molecular biology and genetics undermines the Darwinist position, while robustly supporting the idea of a designer.3 A lot of the data is pointing in our direction.

Earl Aagaard (Ph.D., Colorado State University) teaches biology at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California. His e-mail address: aagaard@puc.edu

Notes and references

  1. The New York Times Review of Books (January 9, 1997).
  2. Popular Science (August 1992), p. 62.
  3. Many resources for this endeavor are available at http://www.discovery.org/crsc/ and at http://arn.org.