In my university teaching experience, my Chinese students often tell me, “From the very start of our elementary school, we have been taught to ‘believe in science.’” This is accepted even in the West. Many people adopt a view shared by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, among others, that natural science can bring about “definite knowledge.”
Natural science involves the human activities of interpreting empirical observations by reasoning through induction. However, in the realm of theology and metaphysics, there is a set of beliefs that the natural sciences cannot prove or disprove by simply applying scientific methodology. Therefore, science in itself is not neutral. Science has a set of beliefs on which its epistemic feasibility hinges that do not arise from within its own methodological system, and science as such cannot be an object of its own belief system. Even more, it has no right to call on people to believe in it.
Causality and “idols”
When natural science uses theoretical models to interpret and describe natural reality, it presupposes that every phenomenon or thing that comes into being has a cause of its existence and that nothing can arise out of nothing. The inability of physicists to explain the phenomena observed in the double-slit experiment led some scientists to wonder whether various natural phenomena happen outside the laws of natural causation. This, however, did not cause the scientific community in general to give up using scientific theories to explain the causal laws behind all phenomena.
Stephen Hawking’s interpretation of the Big Bang theory insisted that, strictly speaking, the universe did not arise from absolute nothing, but rather a certain natural “First Cause” created, so to speak, the point of singularity. If the universe could have come into being without a cause, then any natural phenomenon could also come into being without a cause. If that were the case, then scientific theories are equivalent to random shooting in the dark. This stands against the accepted view among scientists that all theoretical models assume rationally explainable laws of cause and effect.
Cause and effect, however, are not objects of sensory experience. We believe that everything in this world is governed by causality not because we have observed causation by our senses (e.g., every time an object is thrown from a certain height, it undergoes freefall at the same rate of acceleration) or because we have formed a habit of thought from such observations.
It is a fact that we experience many unexplainable phenomena in nearly countless events in real life. For example, my body may show symptoms, the causes of which the doctor cannot explain. My computer may malfunction, but professional technicians cannot find the cause. Even Hawking could not explain what the First Cause of the universe was. Nor could he argue that the Big Bang event was generated without cause. Why? Basic rationality. No one—Christian or non-Christian—can think rationally if he or she gives up causality. Even if the explanation fails, we still believe that everything that comes into existence must have a cause.
In addition to causality, natural science must accept some concept of God as “Being Itself” in a broad philosophical sense. This is because natural scientists believe that all flux and all becoming must rely on something immutable as their ultimate basis. Otherwise, natural phenomena can randomly occur for no reason. For example, although Hawking called himself an atheist, he was actually a pantheist in the strict sense of the word. He believed that nature is God and that God is nature. For him, the creator of the universe was the unintelligent law of nature.
None of these metaphysical and theological beliefs can be proved or falsified by scientific evidence. The scientific nature of scientific theories lies in the fact that they are falsifiable. Yet natural science itself must be based on unfalsifiable beliefs to be established. Christians believe that God created time; he created everything out of nothing and created male and female in his own image. These beliefs can be neither proved nor falsified by natural science.
Given such a case, then, should Christians “just believe”? From the Christian viewpoint, do numerical data, scientific data, or even theoretical models bear any significance? Natural science and any knowledge system must be based on some basic presuppositions of a certain worldview and thus have no factual neutrality. Does this mean that all the so-called knowledge systems are only different nonobjective “belief systems” that cannot communicate with one another?
In fact, the birth of natural science was based on the premises of the Christian worldview. Francis Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method, presented the method of induction for natural philosophy within the framework of the “creation-fall-redemption” worldview of Reformation theology (to borrow a concept from Albert Wolters). Bacon pointed out that when Adam was created, God commanded him to manage the garden, to study every creature according to its kind, and to name all kinds of creatures. After the Fall, humankind no longer regarded the natural revelation that God established in the experiential and sensible world as the basis of knowledge but rather chose to rely on its own reasoning to determine the truth, thus producing all kinds of intellectual idols.
Bacon proposed “four idols,” of which the idols of the marketplace and the theater particularly highlighted the ideas of the Reformation. By marketplace, he referred to the exchange of meanings through linguistic signs. Bacon pointed out that we use language to express our understanding of the world and that many symbols in language are concepts that are neither innate nor developed through sensory experience; our minds create them when we attempt to comprehend the world. When we use these fictional ideas (objects that are neither visible nor tangible, that are extraneous to the sensible world created by God) to interpret our experiences, we repeat Adam’s sin of eating the forbidden fruit.
The term theater refers to philosophical or cognitive systems, which, according to Bacon, are like plays written by playwrights. Theories in natural science, too, are devised by humans to explain the information we observe through experience. A scientific theory is not the truth of natural reality itself but a human interpretation of natural reality. We can bring our theories closer and closer to the truth of nature through induction, but if we believe that scientific theories themselves are truths, then we make an idol out of inductive reasoning.
Bacon insisted that the discipline of natural science consists of the activity of the redeemed mind performed in the process of sanctification. One who is born again in Christ seeks to exclude conceptual idols and seek the manifest glory of God in creation through the light of Scripture. Incidentally, Johannes Kepler, a pioneer of the scientific revolution, also coined the famous phrase that natural science is the activity of regenerate Christians to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”
Worldview and natural science
The Christian worldview is the foundation of the method and spirit of the natural sciences. Regenerate Christians should not restrict their reading to Scripture and forget that this is the Father’s world. Otherwise, they will fail to see the world in light of Scripture. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). The Creator has left all kinds of glorious evidences in all that He has created. No one can examine this evidence neutrally without any theological presuppositions: The methods of natural science themselves presuppose a biblical worldview.
Meanwhile, we must bear in mind that neutrality and objectivity are two different concepts. When a court declares that the prosecution wins or loses the case, the court no longer maintains neutrality between the prosecution and the defense as it did at the beginning. The court should move in the direction of objective judgment when it gets closer to the position of the prosecution or the defense. (Strictly speaking, under the rule of law, the principle of the presumption of innocence means that the court was never neutral to begin with.)
Of course, human beings must never pretend to be the judge or jury when facing the Lord, who judges all things. That is, while scientific research does not carry any neutrality, we should strive to be objective. The objectivity of scientific theories lies in excluding the idols of subjective reasoning so that our theoretical models can come closer and closer to the truth of natural reality, even though we can only arrive at an understanding of the finite and never attain to the absolute objectivity of God.
It is impossible for us to use scientific evidences to prove or disprove the existence of God or his creative work, because God and his actions are not within the scope of natural scientific inquiries. However, if scientists do not accept the biblical worldview, not only will scientific theories no longer be able to objectively explain scientific data and information, but the methods of science will also lose their metaphysical foundation.
If science becomes the object of “belief,” then it is no longer science but superstition. The object of faith proper to natural science must be the God self-revealed in Scripture. For this reason, natural science as such must always treat itself as the object of rational criticism. Only then can science be called science and succeed in bringing objective knowledge to the human race.
Shao Kai Tseng is a neo-Calvinist Taiwanese Canadian theologian specializing in studies on Karl Barth. He is the author of multiple books on theology and philosophy.
This article is translated from the preface of the Chinese book Above All Things: The Romance and War of Christianity and Scienceby Ji Dian and Xiao Zao, ©2022. Used by permission of ReFrame Ministries.
Translation by T. N. Ho