I’m often asked, “can a scientist believe in miracles?” I meet people telling me stories of answers to prayer that defy science, hoping that these will convince scientists to believe in God. Miracles are of course part of the package for a Christian – we all believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. During one of our recent events on science and faith, the scientists in the congregation were prayed for, and I was delighted when one of those people (who had been feeling distinctly grotty) reported feeling much better. On the other hand, questions like this reveal some worries or ideas about science that need some unpacking. Continue reading
I was at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (the fellowship of Christians in Science in the USA) a couple of weeks ago. One of the talks that I heard was by Gregory Bennett, a geologist – and I’d be interested to hear what the theologians and philosophers think of it.
God’s providence – the way in which he acts in the universe – provides a basis for science and technology. The fact that an experiment gives the same result today and tomorrow has to be taken for granted or you couldn’t do science – it just happens, and that’s why we have ‘laws of nature’. But within a Christian worldview that makes perfect sense.
Gregory Bennett put forward a detailed analysis of providence:
- God constantly sustains the world so that the properties of things are preserved.
- God cooperates with created things, directing their distinctive properties to cause then to act as they do.
- God directs all things to accomplish his purposes.
So God is very hands on and ‘does’ everything – even making my pen fall to the ground when I drop it. This is a very active kind of sustaining, and is consistent with the language of God sustaining and providing rain, food and so on that occurs throughout the Bible.
I have sustained him with grain and new wine (Genesis 27:37)
He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. (Psalm 147:8)
He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147:9)
Bennett described ordinary providence – working through ‘secondary causes’ that we can understand scientifically in terms of the regular operation of things in the world, and extraordinary providence – where no secondary cause can be seen. Extraordinary providence would be a miracle (in my opinion not the only kind of miracle – I think miracles of timing also happen) – something that draws attention to God and his interaction with us.
You can listen to the whole talk here.
The philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has rejected the idea of law in nature. Instead she has proposed that we live in a ‘dappled world’. Philosopher and theologian Lydia Jaeger spent her PhD investigating how far certain philosophers of science were influenced by their personal worldviews. In reading Cartwright’s work Lydia was intrigued by the theological metaphors that she often used. A stray comment in an obscure book review suggested Cartwright thought that law-like behaviour in the world would imply the existence of a creator.
On meeting Cartwright and putting the question to her directly, Lydia discovered that she did indeed think that the existence of law-like behaviour in nature would point towards the existence of a creator. Because she did not believe in a creator, Cartwright rejected the idea of scientific laws. Since those meetings, Cartwright has become more explicit about her motivation for rejection of law in science.
Wouldn’t we all like to live in a dappled world? Despite her beautifully coined phrase, Cartwright’s claim that the laws of nature only apply in certain circumstances has not contributed to the ongoing development of modern science.
Certain areas of science – biology for example – are not apparently law-like in behaviour. But the early scientists believed that the universe would reveal its secrets on a deeper investigation, and it did. The world does not always appear to operate in regular ways, and it took faith for the first scientists to start investigating using the tools of science.
Last week I attended the European Leadership Forum in Hungary where I heard a lecture on ‘The Idea of Law in Science and Religion’ by Lydia Jaeger, a philosopher and theologian from the Institut Biblique de Nogent-sur-Marne near Paris. (A similar talk is available here.)
Until the seventeenth century it was thought that objects were ruled by their own intrinsic natures (substances and qualities– this was Aristotelian philosophy), but during the scientific revolution scientists such as Isaac Newton and Descartes began to reject the idea of natures and use the language of law, for several reasons.
The idea of laws that govern the movement of objects, chemical processes, and so on, came initially from the Bible. The Old Testament in particular has a strong emphasis on God sustaining the world in regular ways: day and night, cycles of the moon, birth and death, winter and summer.
Universal laws of ‘nature’* make the most sense if only one God created and reigns over the universe. If multiple gods existed, you would most likely have beings who could change and control the world in whatever way they pleased.
Finally, belief in a God who created the universe from scratch without being constrained by any external forces drove the early scientists to get their hands dirty in the lab. Prior to the seventeenth century it was thought that experiments were dirty and unnecessary. But the early scientists believed that if God was truly omnipotent he could create in any way he liked, and it was left to us to discover how he did that by going out and investigating for ourselves. Without monotheism would science have flourished in quite the same way?(*I dislike using the word nature because it harks back to the Greek philosophical idea of the separation between the natural and supernatural – the natural being somehow out of God’s reach – but it’s hard to avoid using it completely…)