“Science opens new wonders to our view; she soars high and explores new depths; but she brings nothing from her research those conflicts with divine revelation. Ignorance may seek to support false views of God by appeals to science; but the book of nature and the written Word do not disagree; each sheds light on the other.”
- Ellen White, Signs of the Times, March 20, 1884
Science is carried out largely as a systematic approach to the establishment of facts. These facts, considered as constituents of a larger reality, lead to the knowledge of truth. In this way science reaches out from the level of the empirically factual to the philosophically true.
As a systematic approach, it relies on a well-known methodology, the scientific method. This methodology aims at the confirmation or refutation of a testable hypothesis. The hypothesis is testable in that it is falsifiable, meaning that it can be shown by observation or experimentation to be false if indeed it is. The specific approach of observation or experimentation must be a replicable one, such that there is a consistency of outcome under the same conditions across multiple experimental instances.
It goes without saying that this approach has led to decades of valuable scientific discovery. It also goes without saying that it has produced a scientific practice that seldom agrees with the religious thought world. Particularly as relates to the Bible, science and scripture have become rather estranged to each other. The happy union suggested by Ellen White as shown above has proven an elusive dream, by and large.
The Root of the Problem
It will not be disputed that the reason why science is set at variance with scripture from the outset lies in a difference in philosophy. Both make initial assumptions about the search for truth that are incompatible with each other. Science assumes on the one hand that natural observation alone is sufficient to explain natural phenomena. The Bible maintains that it is not, that non-naturalistic or supernatural agents and factors are involved in the creation and persistence of reality.
On the surface of things, the scientific position seems reasonable. Why appeal to factors that are not accountable or observable to explain facts that are fully observable and natural? Why assume there is a supernatural, when all that is ever empirically observed is the natural? Yet is it indeed scientific to exclude the possibility of the supernatural as an explanation for natural phenomena?
The Two Wizards
The idea that supernatural explanations are not necessary in the pursuit of science is not a naturalistic observation. Nothing in nature suggests that there is nothing beyond. Nature is, empirically speaking, silent on the matter. Therefore we have to accept that science premises itself precariously on a non-naturalistic, even metaphysical assertion. In running away from the supernatural it unwittingly embraces it.
Methodological naturalism is the idea that in all steps of the scientific process, inferences and conclusions should always remain in keeping with what is empirically observed, and that the methods themselves should be naturally derived and driven. Indeed, all scientific work should be limited to the study of natural causes.
It is instructive that in itself methodological naturalism does not claim that there are no natural causes. It only claims that it cannot investigate them, or be intelligently aided by them, if they exist.
A Harmonizing Step
The two worldviews, as Ellen White has suggested, need not be mutually exclusive of each other. Unlike Stephen Jay Gould has argued, science and religion must not necessarily constitute Nonoverlapping Magisteria. Similarly, Theodosius Dobhzansky, the eminent evolutionary biologist, is not necessarily correct in his assertion that biology can only make sense in light of evolution.
In order to more closely harmonize scientific practice with the Bible, we must seriously question the place of both philosophical and methodological naturalism in the scientific method. We may want to approach the naturalistic evidence with an open mind. This is not only sound, but it is indeed more faithful to nature, which never decides in favour of or against supernatural causes.
Open Now the Floodgates?
The scientific method, then, can be helped by a toning down of the metaphysical dogmatism of unbelief. Yet are we to utterly destroy the wall of methodological naturalism? No. I believe that any such modification of the scientific method be carried out wisely. Methodological naturalism has kept out many a nonsensical fantasy from the body of human knowledge. If we suddenly admitted that all causes, natural or supernatural, are as likely as each other, we would have a deluge of irresolvable conflict from various religious claims on every investigable subject. This would be chaos, and possibly the very suicide of science.
So how are we to go about it? My personal proposition is that it may be more faithful to nature to follow the lead of natural probability. Things that are of higher probability tend to occur, and be observed, more frequently. As a result it is not out of place to insist that since natural things occur more frequently, then they are more probable than supernatural ones. We should only look for supernatural causes when either:
- Observations in nature suggest them (hence the need for a persistently open-minded interpreter), or
- Naturalistic explanations are exhausted without a solution to the problem.
Additionally, any such admittance of non-naturalistic explanations must be religiously neutral, and such explanations must be derived from scientific research rather than from any specific religious, cultic or denominational theologies. In the end, the Bible will not need the developed theologies of the church to be borne out and justified by the science. Truth will out without their help.
One may object that there is no science to figure out the supernatural. This is to be expected, as we have spent centuries developing and perfecting a naturalistic science. Once we embrace an open-minded approach, the systems and rudiments of science will grow to accommodate it in time.
Galileo was right: if there is any book that philosophers need to read (scientists and theologians alike), it is the book of nature. Yet while in his day it was heretical to extend naturalistic observation into the realm of interpretation of scripture, Ellen White is wholly accepting of its role in precisely that regard. Science can tell us what scripture means in many instances, and scripture can tell us what nature means. In the modern – and post-modern – pursuit of truth, each should be allowed, as she has said, to “sheds light on the other.”
Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The American Biology Teacher, March 1973
Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22; Reprinted here with permission from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 269-283. Accessed form http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html
John Perry. 10 Christians Everyone Should Know. Thomas Nelson Inc. 2012.