What is the Role of Science in a Christian Life?

January 2019 Feature

Carl Sagan once mentioned that “Science is more than a body of knowledge”. In Sagan’s view, science is a way of thinking by humans, a way of sceptically interrogating the Universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

We can think of science as a process through which we arrive at a certain conclusion based on a theoretical framework. In the case of the physical sciences, this process is augmented by the language of mathematics. Specifically, science is fundamentally a process for proposing (a statement, hypothesis or theory), testing and refining ideas (paradigms) for natural occurring phenomena in our universe. Science’s most fundamental value – and probably its most important benefit for mankind – is the idea that knowledge comes from experience, rational thought and emerges from rigorous experimentation.

The Concept of Falsifiability in Science

Statements are only considered scientific statements (such as hypotheses or theories) if they are falsifiable or refutable, i.e. if there is the possibility of showing that the statement is false, by checking the results of experiments. A statement is falsifiable if and only if we can imagine that there is an empirical observation that can “prove” the statement false. For instance, the statement “All swans are black” will be refuted when one can find a swan that is not black.

The concept of falsifiability was first introduced by Karl Popper. He emphasized that the distinguishing mark between the scientific and the unscientific lies in the criterion of falsifiability or refutability. What is not falsifiable is considered unscientific. Additionally, when an un-falsifiable theory is declared to be scientifically true, this is considered pseudoscience. Also Pseudoscience tends to reverse the scientific process by assuming a desired conclusion (i.e. the hypotheses or theories are already believed to be true) and then look for evidence that may support that conclusion (hypothesis or theory) while ignoring (or cherry-picking) evidence and arguments that may contradict the desired conclusion.

For instance, an astrologer could claim that “if you are a Virgo, you will suffer bad luck this week”. However, this statement is too broad to be proven wrong – one could cherry pick evidence of “bad luck”, anything from breaking a plate to getting into a car accident – many instances of “bad luck” could happen over a week. As such, a huge range of events could be taken to support the astrologer’s statement; so it cannot be scientifically true.

There are two more subtle aspects to the concept of falsifiability in science. Let us return to the example of the black swan. What happens if one finds a black swan? Does that prove the statement “All swans are black” is true? Not so, because this person has only verified one case. Similarly, scientific statements (theories) cannot be proved for all instances and they are not final, absolute, everlasting truths that will always remain unrefuted. Even if we generalize from a scientific statement and confer it the status of a “The Law” (e.g. Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation), this “Law” is still not final. It is just that humans have yet to disprove the statement.

The above observations beg another question: if scientific statements are not everlasting truths, then can scientific truth – any objects that do not change – exist at all? What is closest to “truth” is the set of experimental facts and data thrown up by Mother Nature which does not change. However, the conclusions we draw from these data points – which are our scientific theories – are only possible interpretations of a set of data. For instance, Newton’s gravitation law “explain” the experimental facts we observe when masses move at low velocities and in low gravitational fields, but cannot explain the “wobbling” of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. So, we know that Newton’s law cannot be the final truth since it cannot describe the observational data.

A more robust interpretation of the same set of the data, that can explain more, is Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is able to explain all current known facts of the world that Newton’s law is able to, and more (e.g. predict other phenomena). For instance, one additional fact it (Relativity Theory) can explain is that Mercury’s peculiar orbit is due to the significant curvature of space-time as a result of the Sun’s mass.

The notion that science is not absolute truth was reiterated by Max Born (1954 Noble Laureate for the Quantum Theory) who remarked “I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc. are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science … this loosening of thinking seems to me to be the greatest blessing which modern science has given us.”

The Role of Science in a Christian Life

Now that the main gist of scientific thought has been presented, let us address the question in the title: What is the possible role of science in a Christian life, and how should a Christian regard science, especially in seeking out God’s design for the universe and mankind?

Some Christians might feel that science and Christian faith are incompatible and should be kept separate; unlike the answers offered by faith, science fails to offer the assurance that our knowledge of the universe is final and absolute. This might compel Christians among us to wholly reject the scientific approach, and in doing so, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, as argued in this essay, science should not be thought of as final and absolute. Scientific statements are only ways of thinking at a point of time – approximations of truth which can be falsified but never definitively proven – that could be replaced by better interpretations of data and more accurate experimental observations. As such, we should think of scientific discoveries and theories as complementary (but not as a mechanism offering definitive proof) to the Bible and our Christian lives. Both are mutually supportive approaches to finding out about God’s creation. Science is a human understanding of natural world while the Bible (with the Holy Spirit working through us as we study it) describes supernatural world. There are limits to what science can “prove” (or “attempt to explain”) about the existence of God, and we should acknowledge the possibility that our best scientific theories today still have their limitations.

With this attitude, a Christian need not feel that science and our Christian faith are incompatible or always in conflict. Many people are surprised to find out that physicists in the past and present believe in our God. Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell (of Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism fame) and Lord Kelvin (who played a role in formulating the first and second laws of thermodynamics) were Christians.

Scientific thought has provided the impetus for tremendous human advancement. The approach adopted by science – the Socratic approach of reason and question – is grounded in the Greek historical tradition. However, as Christians, we should not neglect the Hebrew way of thinking espoused by Apostle Paul who encouraged us to trace our Judea-Christian faith to the Hebrew olive root “… have been grafted in among the others to share in the nourishment of the olive root (Romans 11:23).

 How to Approach Scholarship

It is important to note that followers of the Socratic and Hebrew traditions of scholarship have different motivations towards learning about the Universe. While Greeks learned through the powerful method of interrogating facts of nature in order to comprehend, Hebrews interrogated critically and sought knowledge (about nature and the Bible) in order to revere God.

Another difference between the two traditions is in how the Greeks, when conducting inquiries, proceed from man’s knowledge as a starting point. The rational mind seeks to comprehend nature and the ways of God through human knowledge and reason. In contrast, the Hebrew way of acquiring knowledge begins with the belief in God by faith and nature being created by Him. The only true wisdom is knowledge of God; the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). To the Hebrews, man must acknowledge that he can never really know himself, who he is, and his relation to the universe, unless he first learns to revere God and be submissive to God’s sovereign will, just as how Abraham grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God. (Romans 4:20).

Our Christian Response

The scientific process is a creative human activity. As creatures created in the image of a creative God who is infinite in knowledge, it is not surprising that humans possess the ability and motivation to create. This scientific activity in creating new knowledge (and re-creation) will go on indefinitely. Especially for the physical sciences, humans can only claim to construct theories to describe the data from natural phenomena as approximate truths that best explain these phenomena based on a (mathematical) theory.

However, we should note that science and even theological works are still a function of human experiences and cultures at each epoch of time. MIT trained theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss asserts that “physics is a human creative intellectual activity, like art and music. Physics has helped forge our cultural experience. I am not sure what will be most influential in the legacy we pass on, but I am sure that it is a grave mistake to ignore the cultural aspect of our scientific tradition”.

They are endeavours which are subject to various human interpretations. Thus no one should claim that he or she has arrived at a “final interpretation”, given our human susceptibility to confirmation bias, fallibility in the form of ambition and overconfidence, serendipitous discoveries and the like. 1 Cor. 13:8 reminds us … where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

There is a saying that “War is too important to be left to the military generals”. Science is also too important to be left to the scientists. Where the careful study of God’s design of the universe is concerned, no one can definitively claim that there is one interpretation of a given text, including the Bible. Thus, the power of science demands great responsibility from us.

To circumvent biases, we need genuine Christian love and fellowship amongst believers to be open to rigorous debate, honest discussion and careful evaluation of arguments and peer challenges. Above all, we should endeavour to build each other up in love. According to Apostle Paul, we all only know in part (1 Cor. 13: 9, 12) and will not possess full knowledge till we meet the Lord.

To sum up, we can only disprove a scientific theory and not prove it as the final, unwavering truth. R. Feynman (Nobel Prize 1965 for Quantum Electrodynamics) reminds us that “… All scientific knowledge is uncertain.” We as practising Christian scientists should therefore be modest and mindful of this attitude as we seek to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6: 8). After all, science can only complement the Bible; all knowledge will eventually pass away and only God’s love is permanent.

Dr Phil Chan supports Christian discipleship in the Cru-Singapore ministry and worships at EL Assembly. He is a high energy particle physics professor, deputy head at NUS physics department and was the Chair for General Education (Provost Office) for the last 6 years.