A couple years ago I was presented with an argument against theism that appealed to the trustworthiness of the scientific method. It goes like this:
1. The scientific method relies on the constancy of the natural laws for its trustworthiness
2. In order for God to create, He must act in a way that breaks the constancy of the natural laws
3. Therefore, God creating and the trustworthiness of the scientific method are incompatible
The atheist believed that he had me pinned down because I believe that the scientific method is trustworthy. I explained to him the problem with his argument and why I reject his conclusion (I'll explain that later). I haven't really heard this argument presented much lately. But I did come across it again a couple days ago, not from an atheist but a fellow Christian.
The Argument Hijacked
Many people are aware of the internal debate within the Christian Church about the age of the universe. This is the context in which the recent challenge arose. My friend believes that the universe is roughly 10,000 years old, while I hold the view that it is 13.7 billion years old. When he presented the challenge, he wasn't arguing against theism, but against my specific view on the age of the universe. He seemed to accept the conclusion provided by the atheist's argument above. But he qualifies it to being sound only during the time of creation- the first 144 hours of the history of the universe on his view (less than 1% of the universe's history) or 13.6 billion years of 13.7 billion years on my view (more than 99% of the universe's history). He stated that he preferred to believe the view that allows the scientific method to be compromised for the lesser amount of time (1% rather than 99% of the universe's history). He further stated that my view did great damage to science because it compromises the scientific method for the vast majority of the universe's history.
My friend stated that I can't accept that the universe is so old because of the fact that I trust the scientific method. He only took it to that point, but my mind immediately realized that if God's acts of creating do actually compromise the scientific method (by violating the laws of nature), then we cannot be certain of any measurements of the past (especially from astronomy). If the laws of nature were compromised over the past 13.6 billion years, then we can only gather information using the scientific method regarding the last 100,000 years (less than 1% of the history of the universe).
The Dire Implications Realized and Resisted
I go over those implications because I want fellow Christians who hold my view to understand what a young-earth (YE) creation scientist is facing if they accept that there is any level of soundness to the atheist's argument (and my YE friend's argument) above. With all scientists (young-earth, old-earth [OE], or naturalistic), one of their worst nightmares consists of the undermining of the scientific method- without it, they cannot gain knowledge. For the naturalist, knowledge is one of the highest pursuits. For the Christian, knowledge of the Creator is one the highest purposes. If the scientist is convinced that a certain worldview will undermine their respective endeavor (that undermining worldview is theism for the atheist, or OE creation for the YE creationist), they will resist that worldview with all they have.
Because of the potential implications of this challenge (from both atheist and YE scientist), it must be addressed. I will start with the atheist's presentation first, since the YE scientist's argument relies heavily upon it. Once done, I will address more specifics of the YE scientist's challenge.
My Response to the Atheist's Argument
Alvin Plantinga explains in an interview with NPR that natural laws are merely descriptions of phenomena that we witness in our world. These descriptions assume that the universe is a closed system (nothing going in or out), and God's interaction with the world (including creation and guiding natural events) does not break any actual rules. When we discover a phenomenon that does not behave according to our models of the universe, we search to modify that model to include the phenomenon. Any time that God interacts with creation, He must be taken into account in the model and included as a part of the descriptions. Plantinga goes into this in more depth in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.
I recently finished reading and reviewing the book by biochemist Fazale Rana "Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case For the Creator" (my review). The book outlines how scientists are running experiments to create life from the ground up. Rana explains that these scientists have to guide the processes intricately, because leaving them to nature will not produce the desired results.
I bring up both of these to address two unique implications of the atheist's challenge: God's special creation and God's continued interaction with creation.
From the Outside In
If we consider all of reality to be part of a system, then we must include God in that system. We must be willing to recognize that our planet is not a closed system, neither is our solar system, galaxy, local group of galaxies or even universe. If Christianity is true, then the universe is not closed off from God and our models must include His interaction. Of course, this would be challenged by claiming that we are appealing to a God-of-the-gaps argument. I address that in my post "Filling in the Gaps". Since we believe that God can interact with His creation, we do not believe that the universe is a closed system. The scientific method reliably gives us information that we must deal with, and that does include changing our scientific models as needed. If we take into account all parts of a closed system, then there is no need to say that one part of that system is incompatible with the rest. God is part of the system (all reality), so His interaction in the system ultimately does not break anything.
Many scientists today already recognized that the universe is not a closed system in itself. They posit that there is a multiverse that is the source of the creation of this universe. Many of these scientists believe that the multiverse can be detected by our instruments even though the multiverse is not a part of the universe. The only way for such a detection to take place is for the universe to not be a closed system in and of itself. So, any person who believes that we can make a positive or negative detection of the multiverse has already granted that scientists do have access to existence beyond the universe- thus they grant that the universe is not a closed system. If they grant that the universe is not a closed system, and there can be transfer between the inside and outside of the universe without breaking natural laws of this universe, then they grant that God (outside the universe) can also interact (bring in something new) with the universe without breaking any natural laws. For those who posit a multiverse, they have already undermined a key assumption of this argument against theism. (Find more on the multiverse from Reasons to Believe and Sententias.)
Interaction, Guidance, and Design
We also need to realize that scientists guide natural processes all the time in their experiments. If you are a scientist performing experiments, you control (guide) at minimum one variable- otherwise, the process is simply going to take place naturally and may not give you much useful data. Scientists are purposeful in their guiding of nature in their experiments. But we would never say that the guidance is violating or breaking any natural law, in virtue of their guidance. If they were breaking natural laws during the experiment, then they would not be able to make reliable measurements as they are guiding the process. I point this out to establish that guidance of natural events does not necessitate a breaking of a natural law. Guiding of natural events is actually necessary for scientists to formulate models of the universe.
In fact, without guidance of events, there would be no reliable, recorded knowledge of the universe. Through guidance of events, observation of results, and formulation of models, we discover how the universe acts without being guided by an intelligent agent- how it acts naturally. When we see something extremely peculiar, rare, or next-to-impossible, and it does not violate the natural law, then that allows us to identify possible further guidance (design) in nature. So, as with the scientist, God's guiding of natural events does not compromise the scientific method- in fact, His guidance gives us powerful evidence of His existence that can be ascertained via the scientific method.
But, God Cannot Be Controlled For In A Scientific Experiment
This is a challenge to my responses that I can see coming. I grant this point. I am also aware that scientists also grant that there are some variables that they do not have precise control over in their experiments. The lack of precise control over all aspects would require complete knowledge and understanding of our natural world. But if we had that, then there would be no need for the scientific enterprise.
Also, scientists control for what they currently know, and when anomalies or unexpected results show up, scientists develop new theories or adjust current ones and explore those by more experiments. That is how they discover how the universe works naturally, and the body of scientific knowledge expands. Not being able to control for everything is necessary for the scientific enterprise to continue to produce knowledge. If God can never be completely controlled for, the scientific endeavor will never end- knowledge will never be complete, and exploration will always be necessary. On the other hand, if the universe is all there is, then there will come a day when knowledge will be complete, and the scientific enterprise will come to an end.
My Response to the Young-Earth Creation Scientist
Even though I have shown above how the whole argument does not stand, there are additional problems that arise when a Christian attempts to take this view. The first two that come to my mind regard the idea that simply God's interaction with or guidance of creation undermines the scientific method. First, this challenge oddly does not take into account that Christianity grants that God was extremely active in miraculous ways throughout biblical history and even today. With the way the dichotomy in the challenge is set up, if we grant that the trustworthiness of the scientific method necessarily excludes God's interaction with creation, that means that God could not have entered creation as the God/man Jesus Christ- In other words, Jesus was not God, and God did not raise Jesus from the dead!
If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then there must be a naturalistic explanation for all the evidence that demonstrates otherwise. By accepting and putting forth the dichotomy between OE creationism and the reliability of the scientific method, the YE Christian is forced to naturalistically explain the evidence that is purported in other discussions to solidify the historical truth of Jesus' resurrection. We must be consistent in our defense of Christianity (see my post regarding the importance of consistency and consistency among disciplines of knowledge), we cannot allow one of our arguments to undermine another.
Not So Fast?
One response to that would be to say that God was interactive with creation through biblical times, but not today. It seems that this would allow the challenger to maintain the dichotomy and maintain the power of the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. That is true, but consistency must not only exist between two arguments, but among all arguments. There is a dire consequence of saying that God was only active during biblical times- God all of the sudden has turned deistic. He does not care about the pain and suffering of the modern person, and our prayers to Him fall on unloving ears or powerless ears. The logical problem of evil (God either does not have the power to eliminate evil, or He doesn't love us enough to do so) stands and devastates the case for Christianity.
Further, if God is deistic today but was not in biblical times, then that is powerful evidence (from the "Christian" worldview present in the dichotomy, mind you) that the writings in scripture are not for all people of all generations; they were only for the people of that day. The historical reliability of scripture is a non-issue, because even if it is reliable, it doesn't apply to us. Moral relativism and religious inclusivism/universalism are perfectly acceptable worldviews in a deistic universe (God doesn't care; and if he doesn't care, why should we fear judgment?). Last week, I posted regarding Lawrence Krauss' Wager. If the scientific method and God's interaction with the universe are necessarily incompatible, then Krauss' Wager is actually a good one to bet on.
The Implications Listed
On the surface the atheist's challenge seems quite persuasive, but it fails to truly understand how Christianity describes the universe and God's relationship to it. The challenge simply does not apply to Christianity properly understood. Further, when that argument is accepted by a Christian, it forces them to deny several of the central teachings of Christianity:
- The omni-benevolence of God
- Objective morality
- The justice of God
- The theistic nature of God
- The deity of Jesus
- The historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead
- The exclusivity of Christianity
Rather than blindly accepting such a dichotomy, the Christian needs to critically evaluate the atheist's argument and understand that it not only fails, but it is in their best interest to recognize that failure, no matter how much they think it will allow them to retain the view that the universe is only a few thousand years old. The price is too great. I'm not asking the young-earth scientist to change to my view of an old earth in this post (it is not the YE view that necessarily undermines Christianity; it is this particular argument against the OE view that does); I'm simply asking that they not use this argument against my view, encourage other YE believers to use it, or accept it in discussion with an atheist.
God and Science Do Mix- by Tom Gilson