Thursday, December 3, 2009

Making Sense of the World

In my last series of posts (on the faulty analogy central to the arguments of New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), I mentioned in passing that atheism (in the form of scientific naturalism) does not provide a logical justification for doing science, whereas Christian theism does. I want in this post to flesh that out just a bit.

The fact of the matter is that modern science arose and flourished within a Christian understanding of the world. And this was not mere historical coincidence but precisely because Judeo-Christianity uniquely provides the set of assumptions that make science a worthwhile endeavor.

A short list of such assumptions includes... the existence of the universe, the order in the universe, the fact that the laws of mathematics apply to the universe, the fact that the laws of logic apply to the universe, the reliability of our senses in discovering the order in the universe, the reliability of human reasoning in drawing accurate conclusions about the universe, the necessity of honesty and integrity in conducting and reporting research...

Science depends upon these assumptions, and Christianity has a reasonable explanation for each and every one. Naturalism, not so much. In the case of most of these assumptions, scientific naturalism does not deny them, but accepts them as unexplained, unexplainable, brute (and fortuitous) facts. For others, naturalism would seem to fare even more poorly. As just one example, if naturalistic evolution is true, and human consciousness and reason are merely the purposeless results of undirected interactions of biochemicals, there seems no reason to accept that human reasoning should lead to meaningful and accurate conclusions about the world.

This problem has been recognized in recent years by a variety of thinkers from across the theological spectrum. Agnostic physicist Paul Davies, for example, wrote
People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature—the laws of physics—are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least not in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it this way:
Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.
Some of my readers will be familiar with a famous sentence of C.S. Lewis':
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.
What some may not realize, however, is the context of this quote. It is the final statement of a paper titled "Is theology poetry?" (which can be found in the compilation of essays The Weight of Glory). And what Lewis is dealing with is exactly what I've been writing about, how scientific naturalism (what Lewis calls the "mythical cosmology derived from science") cannot explain things nearly so well as Christian theism can. So, although it's lengthy, here's the final paragraph of Lewis' argument:
I was taught at school, when I had done a sum, to "prove my answer." The proof or verification of my Christian answer to the cosmic sum is this. When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. 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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sending me on a journey to explore CS Lewis and evolution. I enjoyed his "myth of evolution. And his contrast between dreams and the real world works as a metaphor about evolution in the dream world and Christianity in the real world.

David Dore'

Richard said...


Glad you liked it. Lewis never grows old, possibly because he (like Francis schaeffer) understood well ahead of time where the thinking of his day would lead.

Thanks for reading!