This article is the fourth in a series by Paul Arnold on the relationship between Science and Christianity. Paul received his Masters of Science in Physiology before recently completing his Masters of Christian Studies at Regent College where he focused on Christianity & Culture. Paul’s final comprehensive paper was on modern science and divine providence, which forms the basis for this series. He is currently living with his wife, Krista, in rural Uganda where they are working with a community development organization. Paul also works as a writer and editor for Converge Magazine.
So far in this series, we have seen that modern science is a powerful tool that has allowed humanity to understand many things that were once a mystery to previous generations. However, the power of modern science to solve the mysteries of creation has in some ways fostered a naturalistic worldview that encourages the removal of God from creation. Although the acceptance of a naturalistic worldview is not a necessary outworking of modern science, many individuals accept such a worldview as a result of an inability or unwillingness to critically engage with the presuppositions of modern science.
Logically, the next question we must ask is why so many individuals have accepted a purely naturalistic explanation of life. Why are individuals unable or unwilling to critically engage with modern science? In this article, I will present five reasons for why the modern period so often uncritically accepts a naturalistic worldview. First, historically speaking, a naturalistic worldview merely stepped into a space created by an unfulfilling natural theology. Second, a naturalistic worldview carries significant power of explanation and predictability. Third, a naturalistic worldview emphasizes the previously under-emphasized role of experience. Fourth, a naturalistic worldview is powerfully parsimonious. And fifth, a naturalistic framework promises objectivity. The combination of these five reasons makes a compelling case for why a naturalistic worldview has become so prevalent.
The Decline of Natural Theology
In the early 19th century, natural theology was still a dominant force in science. One of its key proponents was William Paley, who held a static understanding of creation based on the principle of contrivance—the idea that natural things were designed in a specific way for a specific purpose. By the time Charles Darwin published his work On the Origin of Species in 1859, however, the dominant natural theology of William Paley was already losing its appeal. Though Darwin was not the first to suggest a process of evolution or a history of change in the natural world, Darwin’s theory of descent with modification through natural selection was fatal for Paley’s natural theology; Paley’s understanding of creation rested upon “the evidence of complexity.” When scientific explanations become more and more capable of handling the complexity of the contingent world, as was the case with Darwin, any natural theology or inference to a Creator that is based on the evidence of complexity will be easily discarded.
The Explanatory Power of Science
Second, the explanatory power of science encourages a naturalistic framework by promising to predict truths about reality. One aspect from which a framework draws power is its ability to predict further truth. This is cleverly drawn out by Lesslie Newbigin through the work of Michael Polanyi who he describes as saying “that the truth of the claim either will or will not be validated depending on whether or not it leads to further truth.” Since science is based on the presupposition that there is a contingent rationality within creation (as we saw in Part 3) there is a certain measure of predictability that is associated with the rational laws of nature. Therefore, if these predictions serve to discover further truth that is useful, there will be little incentive to reflect on the metaphysical reasons why such a truth can be considered true. Why question something that has proved so effective?
It should be noted, however, that science can only possess a limited amount of predictive power due to creation’s contingent nature. There will always be the chance that new discoveries will challenge the predictive power of old systems of beliefs. But this does not mean that new discoveries need to destabilize old or currently held beliefs. As Polanyi explains, science has the ability to establish new truths about nature because there exist “reserves” in which hypotheses can be made and discarded without destabilizing currently held beliefs.
An Emphasis on Experience
Third, science encourages a naturalistic worldview because it emphasizes the role of experience in gaining knowledge. In the early modern period, the rise of modern science depended on the pronouncement of a contingent rationality regarding the created order. Today, we simply experience a contingent rationality. As Herbert Odom points out:
What has happened, perhaps, is a change in attitude towards data: it is no longer a question of phenomena, but of ‘givens’ in a logical derivation. And the question of God, which must be logically prior to all others in a strictly deductive system, does not arise at all if the first principle of the derivation is taken posterior to God.
Science therefore allows knowledge to be separated from God. This means that while knowledge is necessary to maintain a belief in the supernatural, knowledge of God is not needed to maintain an empirically evident belief.
The Power of Parsimony
The fourth reason for the broad acceptance of a naturalistic worldview is the principle of parsimony, which argues that a simple explanation is better than a complex one. This principle encourages the acceptance of a naturalistic interpretive framework because it is simpler to explain natural phenomena in natural terms. Simplicity is a good thing, to be sure, as it is necessary for both basic human understanding and scientific endeavours. As Alvin Plantinga notes:
Simplicity, therefore, is a crucially important part of our intellectual or cognitive architecture—or rather, preference for simplicity is. That the world be relevantly simple is also required, of course, for the success of science.
The problem with parsimony, however, is that it has close ties to nominalism—the denial of universals in favour of particulars. The principle of parsimony leans towards reductionism in its explanations of reality. When the denial of universals is taken to the extreme, particulars lose their necessary relationships to other particulars and are reduced to nothing but the particular itself. This can lead to ontological reductionism if we allow science to hamper our metaphysical reflections and assume that all of reality is that which we experience.
The Promise of Objectivity
Fifth and finally, the scientific promise of objectivity encourages a naturalistic worldview because it denies the need for metaphysical knowledge, undermining any belief that cannot be empirically verified using the scientific method. As Polanyi explains:
Modern man has set up as the ideal of knowledge the conception of natural science as a set of statements which is ‘objective’ in the sense that its substance is entirely determined by observation, even while its presentation may be shaped by convention.
Here Polanyi is arguing that the modern pursuit for objective scientific truth is false because all knowledge is shaped in part by tacit things like convention or tradition, which are neither empirically definable nor verifiable by the methods of science. In essence, Polanyi is reminding us that the practice of science cannot be proven scientifically.
As we saw in Part 2, and as Polanyi explains in his influential book Personal Knowledge, all knowledge is inescapably personal. Thus, the impossibility of removing the personal or subjective element from scientific knowledge means that it is impossible for science to produce objectively certain knowledge that a naturalistic worldview depends on. As a result, it is important that we not allow science to capture our metaphysical imaginations or accept a naturalistic worldview uncritically. We are free to accept the truths of science, but—as with everything else in life—we should only do so with a critical posture.
So then, if science does not necessarily encourage a naturalistic worldview that removes God from creation, how are Christians able to affirm the idea that God acts in creation when the empirical data appears to say otherwise? We will turn to this question in Part 5, “The Opening of Natural Science: Including God in Creation."
- Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)93.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)43.
- David Hume’s denial of miracles is of particular importance here because it rests on the predictability or reproducibility of science. Despite what is commonly understood, Hume does not deny the possibility of a miracle. He denies the verification of miracles because they are not empirically reproducible and therefore must rely on fallible and insufficient human testimony. John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991)180-189.
- Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1962)292.
- Herbert H. Odom, "The Estrangement of Celestial Mechanics and Religion," Journal of the History of Ideas 27, no. 4 (1966)546.
- To this effect, Craig Gay argues that science has effectively hampered our ability to think beyond our “engineered” experiences: “The impact of science and technology upon the modern imagination is such that it has effectively stripped us of the ability to apprehend the reality of any other meaning and any other purpose in the world save those which we have managed to ‘engineer’ for ourselves.” Craig Gay, "The Irrelevance of God in the Technological Society," in The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live as If God Doesn't Exist (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 100.
- An important question to ask here is whether all natural phenomena can be explained in natural terms. The theist will obviously say no, and is quick to point to things like human consciousness or human relations for examples of things that science cannot reduce to naturalistic terms. However, the naturalist will also be quick to point out that science carries the assumption that all things will eventually be explained in naturalistic terms. In other words, there are never-ending “epicyclical reserves” from which the naturalist can draw hypotheses for new understandings about things that were once thought to be beyond the reach of science (Polanyi, 292). I do not think the hope of the naturalist is realistic, as this series hopes to show, but it is nevertheless an issue that will only become more difficult as scientific explanation is increasingly able to handle more complex problems.
- Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011)298.
- Gunton sees this ontological reductionism as a key problem: “Historically, as we have seen, the problematic step was moving from the metaphor of mechanism – of mechanism as a heuristic device – to a view that the universe is literally and only a mechanism.” Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 137.
- Polanyi, 16.
- Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991
- Gay, Craig. "The Irrelevance of God in the Technological Society." In The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live as If God Doesn't Exist. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998
- Gunton, Colin E. The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998
- McGrath, Alister E. Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
- Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995
- Odom, Herbert H. "The Estrangement of Celestial Mechanics and Religion." Journal of the History of Ideas 27, no. 4 (1966): 533-548
- Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011
- Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1962
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