This is the last part in an informal series on “faith” and what Christians mean by it when talking about science. Part I and Part II set up the topic. In this final part, I think about living a rational life and what it means for a Christian.
What is it to be rational?
The alternatives to rationality are not good. If we must think, and it seems we must, then we better do it well. Christianity is comfortable with rationality and with tools like logic.
Logic is a tool that all good thinkers, including scientists, use. It is a system of thought organizing around valid arguments. An argument generally has two parts: premise(s) and conclusion. If all the premises (the assumptions of the argument) are true, then the conclusion cannot be false.
Is Christianity logical?
That is rather like asking if a sausage is a meat grinder.
Christianity presents the thinker with a series of premises. If the thinker uses logic on these premises, then he will get some more truth . . . assuming the premises are true.
Logic cannot tell a thinker anything about truth. If a man starts with false premises, then logic cannot guarantee anything about the truth of the conclusion. Logic deals with the form of the argument, but not the truth of the premises.
Christians use logic, but also recognize the limits of logic. Discussions of ethics today often turn into endless threads of brawling, because good thinkers on both sides do not recognize this limit of logic.
Start with bad (or unpersuasive) premises and you can end up anywhere.
Whenever a Christian says this sort of thing, atheists get frightened.
The Christian cosmos will end up orderly, but a Christian recognizes that he or she may be wrong. We live by faith: the logical product of our experience, scientific “facts,” and revelation.
The non-Christian would like to get rid of revelation as part of the premise of the argument. He claims that he will stick to more “certain things” such as “facts” given him by science.
If there is nothing else good about post-modernism, it has renewed the insight first found in Plato that “facts” by themselves are not interesting.15 It is rare for religious/scientific people and nonreligious/scientific people to disagree about “facts,” but it is not rare for them to disagree about interpreting facts.
This is not to make light of “theories of science.” Traditional Christians ought to take them very seriously. They are, in Plato’s words, the most “likely story” of the cosmos we have yet to tell. We might believe, based on other evidence, that there is a better theory out there, but we must do the best we can with the theories we have now.
A Christian uses the best theories as a carpenter uses his best tools, even if both know that better theories and better tools are coming. A Christian might think, though many Christians do not, that the Faith teaches a “young earth,” but still use beset modern theories that do not teach a young earth.
When doing physics, he uses the best physical theory he has. When doing metaphysics, the best metaphysical theory. Often the two will be the same, but when they are not, the Christian need not worry.
A good Christian is open to revising his understanding of theology or his understanding of scientific theories.
Towards an Open Philosophy of Science
Sadly, not everyone takes this approach to the world. Instead of realizing that a unified theory of everything is not yet, and may never be, they insist that everything cohere perfectly today.16
Naturalism, the belief that matter and energy are all, is guilty of this narrow minded approach. The naturalist knows based on his naturalism that nature is all there is, was, or ever will be. Any physical answer to a problem is better than any theological one.
If a miracle happened in front of this sort of scientist, he or she would never see it. He would wait forever for any naturalistic answer, because for him any naturalistic answer however improbable is better than any theological answer however probable.This person sees every miracle, however obvious, as a “research problem.”
Perhaps the naturalist is right, but if so it is not because of science. He is imposing his philosophy on science. Fortunately for him, if Christianity is true, then his imposition of falsehood is generally harmless.
Christianity asserts an all wise and all good God. Christianity teaches that the creation is a “cosmos” and not a “chaos.” Creation is “good” and functions by laws. God founded those laws and allows them to operate, but does not limit Himself by His own laws. I use a thermostat to keep my boiling Houston house cool in summer, but you cannot explain the reason my house is cool merely by referring to the thermostat.
My house is as cool as it is, because an intelligent (or somewhat intelligent!) agent acted: me.
If God exists and if He acts in space/time, then there will be times when science must postulate intelligent agency. This guess might be wrong, but the Christian is open to either “natural” or intelligent causes.17 A Christian need never say “intelligence did it,” but the Christian can say it.
There are very few miracles, mostly in Jesus life, that a Christian must defend, but a naturalist must attack all of them.
The naturalist never can: even human intelligence must be reduced to matter and energy in mindless motion. One can only pity the fool.18
The Christian faith allows the scientist to wonder about anything, including Christianity, but he must not stay at those first principles. If he wants to move from natural philosophy to science, he must start investigating the world.
Christianity provides a rational basis for looking for order, a reason maths work, and the security that the curve of history will be rational. Orthodoxy does not, therefore, limit, but empower: having done with first things, the scientist is free to look at secondary things with confidence.
Christians have been doing this job for centuries and do so still.19 Any person who does science well is to be commended for his or her science by Christians, because as scientists (if not as humans), they are doing God’s work.
Christians can change their minds about anything, including being Christians. Such open-minded examination of everything is the only way to live a rational and just life, but it should not lead to weakness or intellectual cowardice. The only maxim of battle: “you commit yourself and then you see” is true. The fog of battle prevents any plan from being perfect and fools have proven that nothing is proof against their folly, but a general still must act.
The rational person must humbly choose, commit himself to a worldview, and then see.
The just person lives by faith: he commits himself strongly. Generations of Christians have discovered that when they commit themselves strongly, then they see the cosmos as a cosmos, justice, moderation, and finally, we are told, God Himself.
Science can lead to God. Justice can lead to God. Suffering in this life can lead to God. Christians can do anything, science, politics, sport, because God, within Himself, is greater than all.
The love of God makes a Christian wish to know all about what God does out of love of God. We study the heavens, because at the deepest level we know it is Love that moves the Heavens and the furthest stars.
Notes from this section:
16 Paul Nelson and I argue agains this in our essay in Three Views of Creation and Evolution.
17 Phillip E. Johnson makes this point in his IVP book Reason in the Balance.
19 The best one volume book on this topic is by J.P. Moreland Christianity and the Nature of Science.