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A Few Thoughts about Science and Theology

A Few Thoughts about Science and Theology May 5, 2012

I did not get to hear Alvin Plantinga when he spoke at my university a couple weeks ago. His topic was theology and science. He has a new book about it that I plan to read (when I have a month to digest it!).

Several people have asked me here about what role I think science does play in theology. That’s because I rejected as invalid “Dear Abby’s” claim that modern science has made the Bible’s view of homosexuality invalid. I said that science can’t do that.

The argument is that if science proves (as some allege has happened) that sexual orientation is biological/genetic, then we have to believe that same sex sexual behavior is morally right. The usual caveat is that it must be mutual and not coercive. And, of course, that it must be between consenting adults.

The reason this doesn’t touch the traditional Christian stance about sex outside of heterosexual marriage is that traditional Christianity has always taught that we are all fallen and born with sinful inclinations (orientations). Science proving that homosexual desire is biological/genetic wouldn’t affect that belief any more than science proving that men are naturally inclined toward sexual promiscuity would force Christians to alter their belief about sexual promiscuity. (One could go on and talk about alcoholism and numerous other conditions that may very well be biological/genetic but not therefore morally good to act on.)

The larger issue, of course, is whether you can ever derive an “ought” (moral imperative positive or negative) from an “is.” Science deals ONLY with “is.” Ethics deals with “ought.” The latter cannot be based on the former in a causal relationship. Certainly what is the case may have some bearing on decisions about what ought to be the case, but what is the case can never determine what ought to be the case. By definition “ought” goes beyond “is.”

Oughtness requires something transcendent to nature. Attempting to derive ought from is is called the “naturalistic fallacy.” Whether a certain sexual behavior is right or wrong cannot be determined by observing nature–even by observing what people do that they cannot help.

Illustration: Let’s suppose that the day arrives when science demonstrates conclusively that pedophilia is biological/genetic. I do not know of anyone who would argue that that would result in our having to conclude that adults preying on children is okay.

I have been told by scientists that it is just as likely that, in some people, alcohol addiction is genetic as that homosexual orientation is genetic. Yet I know of no one who argues that abusing alcohol (or abusing oneself with it) is good or right or even neutral. It’s a bad thing that people ought not to do.

None of this speaks to other issues such as what ought our attitude toward people who do what they ought not to do be. That’s a secondary issue. Nor does any of this speak to issues of punishment or treatment or anything like that. Those are all secondary issues that come up AFTER it is decided that a certain behavior is wrong.

My point here is not about homosexuality or alcoholism or any other specific orientation or behavior. It is only about the relationship between science and morality/ethics. It is simply a logical fallacy to think that what science discovers determines the rightness or wrongness of anything. There is an unbridgeable gulf between science that sticks to its sphere of research and proper methods and ethics. You cannot get from one to the other.

Now, having said that, I qualify that I am NOT arguing that ethicists (or theologians) ought to ignore science or vice versa. Of course not. The disciplines can and should communicate. Science needs ethics to guide how it handles sentient subjects in research, for example. And ethics needs science to tell it what is possible which can be helpful in determining proper punishments or treatments for (for example) criminals who do what they cannot avoid doing.

But simply to leap from the “fact” (the jury is still out) that homosexuality is biological/genetic to that same sex intercourse, for example, is morally acceptable is logically fallacious. At most all one could conclude (if one is a naturalist, for example) is that it is normal for some people. To go anywhere in determining moral rightness or wrongness one has to transcend what is natural or normal.

Now, there’s much more to this subject than what I have said here. For example, to what extent should theology adjust its doctrines based on scientific inquiry and proven conclusions? There I will appeal to and agree with Charles Hodge (who agreed with Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina) that theology cannot and should not ignore facts. Whenever science (of any branch) proves something (i.e., it becomes undeniable fact), theology must adjust to that. However, theology does not have to adjust to theories. All of that assumes that science stays in its proper boundaries.  For example, that the earth revolves around the sun is fact and lies within the purview of science. Whether a certain behavior is right is not within science’s purview.

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