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Qualified Agreement: How Scientific Discoveries Support Theistic Belief

Image: Isaac Newton, by William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series of excerpts from chapters in the recent book, Science and Faith in Dialogue, edited by Frederik van Niekerk and Nico Vorster. You can download a full copy of the book for free by going here.

Alfred North Whitehead (1926) said that: 

[W]hen we consider what religion is for mankind and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.

Whitehead spoke early in the 20th century at a time when most elite intellectuals believed that science contradicted classical theism with its traditional belief in a divine creator, the uniqueness of humanity, and the immortality of the soul. 

For many intellectuals, a scientifically informed worldview was a materialistic worldview in which entities such as God, free will, mind, soul, or purpose could play no objective role. Scientific materialism denied evidence of any ID in nature and any ultimate purpose to human existence. As Whitehead’s contemporary Bertrand Russell put it, “man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving” and which predestine him “to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” (Conant 1953). 

Two Centuries of Science

It is not hard to see why many intellectuals held this opinion. Over the previous 200 years, Western science and philosophy had witnessed a profound shift away from its earlier Judeo-Christian orientation. Starting in the Enlightenment, many philosophers began to deny the validity of the classical proofs for God’s existence from nature. Philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant raised powerful objections to the design argument and the cosmological argument, the two most formidable theistic arguments of this kind. 

Furthermore, despite the now well-documented influence of Judeo-Christian thinking on the rise of modern science from the time of Robert Grosseteste and William of Ockham to Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton (see Butterfield 1967, pp. 16–17, 19; Eisley 1961, p. 62; Foster 1934; Hodgson 1974; Hooykaas 1972; Pearcy & Thaxton 1994, pp. 17–42, 43–56; Von Weizsacker 1964, p. 163; Whitehead 1926, pp. 3–4, 12–13), much of 19th-century science took a decidedly materialistic turn. Scientific origins theories in particular seemed to support the materialistic vision of an autonomous and self-creating natural world. In astronomy, the French mathematician Laplace offered an ingenious theory known as the nebular hypothesis to account for the origin of the solar system as the outcome of purely natural gravitational forces (Hetherington 1997). In geology, Charles Lyell explained the origin of the earth’s most dramatic topographical features — mountain ranges and canyons — as the result of slow, gradual, and completely naturalistic processes of change (Lyell 1830–1833). In astronomy and physics, a belief in the infinity of space and time obviated any need to consider the question of the ultimate origin of matter (Luminet 2016). Perhaps most significantly, Darwin’s evolutionary theory sought to show that the blind process of natural selection acting on random variations could and did account for the origin of new forms of life without any discernible guidance or design. According to Darwin, living organisms only appeared to be designed by an intelligent creator; nature itself was the real creator (Darwin 1985; see Meyer 2008). As Francisco Ayala (1994) has explained: 

The functional design of organisms and their features would […] seem to argue for the existence of a designer. It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent. 

Seamless or Nearly Seamless 

These theories, taken jointly, suggested that the whole history of the universe could be told as a seamless, or nearly seamless, unfolding of the potentiality of matter and energy. Thus, science seemed to support, if it could be said to support anything, a materialistic or naturalistic worldview, not a theistic one. Science no longer needed to invoke a pre-existent mind to shape matter in order to explain the evidence of nature. Matter had always existed and could — in effect — arrange itself without a pre-existent designer or creator. Thus, by the close of the 19th century, both the logical and evidential basis of theistic arguments from nature had seemingly evaporated. 

The demise of theistic arguments from nature and the corresponding rise of a scientifically based materialistic worldview fostered a profound shift in the way many scientists and scholars conceptualized the relationship between science and Christian faith or theistic belief. With the rise of scientific materialism or naturalism, many scientists, philosophers, and even theologians during the 20th century began to perceive science and theistic belief as standing in conflict with one another. Others, however, denied that science contradicts theistic or Christian beliefs. Nevertheless, they have typically done so by portraying science and religion as such totally distinct enterprises that their teachings do not intersect in significant ways. Some subscribed to a model of science and faith integration called “compartmentalism” or what Stephen J. Gould would later call NOMA (“non-overlapping magisteria”) (Gould 1999). Compartmentalism holds that science and religion describe completely different realities. In support of this view, proponents often quote an aphorism attributed to Galileo, “the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” (Galilei 1615). Others subscribed to a closely related idea called “complementarity” (Peterson 1989). Proponents of this view acknowledge that science and religion may sometimes describe the same realities, but they do so in complementary but ultimately incompatible or “non-commensurable” language (MacKay 1974; Van Till 1986; Van Till, Young and Menninga 1988). Both these models assumed the religious and metaphysical neutrality of scientific knowledge (MacKay 1974; Van Till 1986; Van Till et al. 1988).

Thus, some have seen the witness of science as hostile to theistic and Christian faith, while others have attempted to cast it as entirely neutral. Few, however, have thought — in contrast to the founders of early modern science such Kepler, Boyle and Newton — that the testimony of nature (i.e. science) actually supports important tenets of a theistic or Christian worldview. 

This chapter reasserts this classical view and argues that scientific evidence does provide epistemological support (though not proof) for the theistic worldview affirmed by biblical Christianity (see e.g. Ac 17, Col 1, Rm 1). It will develop a model of the relationship between science and theistic belief that I call “qualified agreement” or “mutual epistemic support.” This model maintains that, when correctly interpreted, scientific evidence and biblical teaching can and do support each other. While accepting some disagreement about details as inevitable given the limits of human knowledge, advocates of this model affirm a broad agreement between the testimony of the natural world and the propositional content of Judeo-Christian theism — between science and religion so defined. Although advocates of qualified agreement acknowledge (with compartmentalism and complementarity advocates) that much scientific research and theorizing does address metaphysically and religiously neutral topics, we do not agree that all scientific theories have this character. 

Worldview or Metaphysical Implications

Instead, the qualified agreement model, like the conflict model, asserts that some scientific theories do have a larger worldview or metaphysical implications. Nevertheless, unlike the conflict model, qualified agreement denies that the best or most truthful theories ultimately contradict a theistic or Christian worldview. Instead, it views theological and scientific truth as issuing from the same transcendent and rational source, namely God. Advocates of qualified agreement anticipate, therefore, that these two domains of knowledge, when rightly understood and interpreted, will come increasingly into the agreement as advances in science and theology eliminate real points of conflict that have sometimes existed. 

Because many of the founders of early modern science held this view (although with a less nuanced justification, perhaps), I will also refer to this model as the “classical” formulation of the relationship between science and religion. Indeed, from the late Middle Ages through the Scientific Revolution (roughly 1250–1750), scientists often affirmed the agreement between “the book of nature” and “the book of scripture,” both of which were understood to be mutually reinforcing revelations of the same God. 

This chapter will update the case for this view by giving examples of contemporary scientific evidence from three fields: (1) cosmology, (2) physics, and (3) biology that now supports a theistic worldview. It will also provide a more refined notion of epistemological support. Many thinkers, both theistic and naturalistic, have assumed that science supports a Christian or theistic worldview only if it can provide the basis for a deductively certain proof of God’s existence. I will argue that this demand expresses an unrealistically high epistemological standard for any empirically based enterprise, including the natural sciences. Even so, I will show how evidence from the natural sciences can and does provide epistemological support for Christianity or theism without having to underwrite such proofs. 

Read the rest by downloading a free copy of Science and Faith in Dialogue here.