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Where Angels Cannot Tread: Science in a Fallen World by Jason E. Summers

English poet Alexander Pope wrote “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” as a warning to the careless critics of his day, implying that angels have wisdom beyond that which human beings can obtain. Yet, in a recently translated essay on common grace in science, Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper wrote that angels “desire to see into things they do not understand,” while human beings, having been created according to the image of God and having received holiness, righteousness, and wisdom, are uniquely able to comprehend the integrated revelation of God’s thoughts “embedded and embodied” in creation. That is to say, in Kuyper’s view, human beings are uniquely able among created beings to engage in science.

In view of this great privilege and responsibility, I believe that we Christians especially should listen to what wise men say, and proceed thoughtfully and with prudence where angels cannot tread. In our efforts to study and learn from the creation and in our critiques of others’ efforts to do the same, we should seek to reflect and embody a right understanding of the theology of science, the nature of scientific practice in a pluralistic society, and the role and authority of institutions of science within that society.

A Theology of Science

Because creation is an embodiment of God’s thoughts, science can be understood as the process of “reflecting the thoughts of God from the creation” through the collective work of humanity. And, for Kuyper, it is inherent in the original created order, rather than a consequence of the fall. The doing of science is an integral part of God’s plan for creation.

However, true to his Calvinist roots, Kuyper recognized that sin has a corrupting affect on the unique human capacity for science just as it does on all human faculties. Whereas Adam could easily and intuitively perceive the thoughts of God as expressed in creation and, as in naming the animals, put effectual expression to the deep character of the natural world he perceived, scientists today must labor to understand the true nature of the world, working together within formal structures so that, through common grace, their efforts can uncover something of God’s thoughts.

Science is a means of obtaining real knowledge about deep truths that God has revealed in creation. In a fallen world, our scientific efforts are clouded and confounded by sin, but through the grace of God, it remains possible to, through them, learn something of God’s working in creation. As Ted Davis has previously written, “Our knowledge of nature and its laws is possible because of our status as creatures bearing the divine image, but it is also limited by our status as creatures–and by the freedom of God to act in both wonderful and mysterious ways.”

One of the most enduring myths of science in the modern world is a belief that the process through which scientists work is neutral and objective, and indeed, must be in order to arrive at valid results. But, just as Bob Dylan correctly observed that we all “Gotta Serve Somebody,” reformed thinkers in the tradition of Calvin affirm that this truth extends to our thoughts. All of our thinking ultimately is based in and relies upon the foundation of those basic beliefs we hold. Among these basic beliefs we hold are those about that which is unconditional, independent reality, which is to say, our religious beliefs. Because these basic religious beliefs govern theoretical thought, Roy Clouser has argued that religious neutrality is not just impractical or difficult, but is a myth.

Like all human enterprises, science is not neutral. It is grounded in and shaped by religious beliefs. Because of this, idealized objective science cannot exist and there will always be an intimate entanglement between science and faith. Yet, while it is impossible for any scientist to be objective in the sense of operating from a basis of neutral beliefs, scientists need not be objective in order for the results of science to convey real information about the world. By tying theory to the self-evident truths of sense perception, the process of science ensures the universal validity of its findings.

The Practice of Science

Kuyper recognized the basic principle that Clouser would later detail and proposed to address the influence of religious thought on theorizing by creating a plurality of scientific institutions. Most particularly Kuyper was concerned with the establishment of distinctly Christian institutions to counteract what he saw in the early twentieth century as a rising tide of secularism within the European academy.

While Kuyper’s proposed course of action seems reasonable in view of Clouser’s contention that, more than simply providing the basis for unprovable assumptions inherent to all theories, religious presuppositions alter the actual content of theories, taking that as true appears to quickly dim any hopes for meaningful collaboration between individuals with different beliefs. But here experience seems to contradict theory. Practicing scientists know well that they are able to carry on their work quite productively in pluralistic institutions made up of individuals having widely varying religious beliefs.

This seeming contradiction illustrates the dynamic tension between two of the foundational themes within Kuyper’s thought: antithesis and common grace. As Vincent E. Bacote has described, antithesis characterizes Kuyper’s view of Christian distinctiveness in which “regeneration yields a distinct epistemological difference that ultimately leads Christians to interpret reality differently (and with better precision) than non-Christians.” This is balanced by common grace, which is “God’s restraint of the full effects of sin after the Fall, preservation and maintenance of the created order, and distribution of talents to human beings.” Working together, these two principles allow Kuyper to both affirm Christian participation in science while acknowledging that there will be disagreement between Christians and non-Christians at what Bacote terms “the level of ultimate explanation.”

However, this leaves open several obvious but necessary questions: (1) What constitutes the practice of science? and (2) How is it that scientists holding diverse views work together?

Science, like all epistemic approaches, has agreed upon methodological practices and norms, which is why it coheres as a body of knowledge. These norms are consistent with, and often were developed out of, an appropriate theological understanding of science. Davis describes the “modern scientific method of rational empiricism” as matched to “the fact that nature is a contingent order, created by a free and rational God.”

Approaches that look first to physical explanations (though not necessarily ruling out other causes by fiat) are sometimes termed methodological atheism, but this is a misnomer. Assuming that observations of the physical world can be explained in terms of physical laws relies on one of various possible sets of religious beliefs, many of which are not naturalistic, and among which is Christianity.

In the course of their regular work, scientists observe nature, build mathematical and other types of models of what they observe, test those models by additional observation, make new predictions using the models, test the new predictions, then discard, refine, or develop new models—a process that continues ad infinitum. In so doing, scientists agree that observation is the way to test models. The greater the predictive ability with respect to observations, the more confidence is afforded to the model.

These practices comprise, in essence, the methodological norms of science, with some variation and augmentation in various domains of inquiry. Through this process science develops theories, modifies and adapts them, bounds their limits of validity, and sometimes discards them.

Remarkably, this modest set of methodological norms enables scientists to work together effectively while allowing that, having distinct and sometimes conflicting basic beliefs, they can and do disagree about the ontological status of their findings and the epistemological basis for their work. Multiple epistemological viewpoints are compatible with the practice of science; therefore scientists only must agree upon a modest set of methodological norms and there is no necessity that scientists adhere to naturalism or materialism. As Kuyper wrote, “to the extent that results are governed by factual observation,” religious beliefs do not affect the practice of science. Rather, antithesis becomes manifest only in the “philosophical framework for the natural sciences.”

Our Call

Taking seriously our uniquely human role as practitioners of science, Christians must approach science with a deep grounding in theology and proper understanding of its practice in society. The most significant questions about how science is to be practiced in a fallen world will be settled on the field that spans the two poles of antithesis and common grace. But, if we are to have meaningful input in answering these questions we must heed Pope’s admonition to “check yourself before you wreck yourself” (as a more recent poet has phrased it). Overemphasis of common grace in the practice of science diminishes the unique epistemic perspective of Christians to the extent that faith is made private. In contrast, an overemphasis of antithesis magnifies issues of “ultimate explanation” to the extent that artificial barriers are created to use of valid theoretical constructs. Both distortions are barriers to creating a God honoring culture of science within a society that is pluralistic and fallen, but redeemed and image-bearing.

All unattributed views expressed here are those of the author alone.

Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.