On the “autonomy” of science

It wasn’t too long ago (like, say, last week) that I would have said that a scientist should do his science biblically. I’m starting to see problems with that, and related ways, of expressing the issue.

I’m not giving up six-day creation or anything here. I’m just wanting to find a way to raise fewer ambiguities in the way I express what I think faithfulness to the Bible demands.

First some questions and then a hypothetical question with a scenario.

Questions: What does the Bible have to say about hairdressing? Are home perms scriptural. How does a beautician give a customer highlights to the glory of God?

Scenario: a wine connoisseur and a botanist happened to be walking by a marriage feast some two thousand years ago at Cana. They both hear an excited hullaballoo and stop by to investigate.

Long story short, the wine connoisseur identifies the wine as originating from a high-quality vineyard in a region famous for wine during a famously good year for wine in that region.  The scientist takes out his pocket lab and determines by chemical analysis that the liquid originated from juice from grapes fermenting.

They are both wrong.

When told where the wine came from, they are, at first, incredulous.  But the eyewitness testimony of onlookers, along with their own witness of Jesus doing a few healings leads them both to change their minds. They both change their positions and state that the wine came from water.

Well and good.  They made the right evaluation.  But nothing about this opinion counts as the expert opinion of either a wine connoisseur or a scientist.  Neither of those skill sets/knowledge bases had anything to do with their trust in Jesus and his account of what happened.

Science is simply a set a disciplines.  With regard to accounting present phenomena, it is really mostly a sophisticated practice for extrapolating backward.  This limits its usefulness, because one can’t extrapolate backwards accurately if miracles have occurred.

But neither is “science” as a discipline ordinarily going to be in a position to confirm these things.

5 thoughts on “On the “autonomy” of science

  1. joel hunter

    Mark, have you read any of Stephen Matheson’s work? He’s a biology prof at Calvin College and blogs at Quintessence of Dust. He not only engages with both atheists and creationists in an irenic way, his posts are often chock-full of specifics about evolution and the plethora of empirical details.

    Secondly, interpreting creation under the species of miracle doesn’t work, I don’t think. In the case of the miracle at Cana, the alternative explanations offered by the wine connoisseur and the botanist are plausible to the non-specialist precisely because of everyone’s familiarity with how wine comes to be (the details notwithstanding). Jesus’ miraculous transformation of the water into wine intervenes in the natural order of already existing things (the water in the pots) and processes (stagnation, etc.). The reason such miracles are disanalogous with creation (say, the birth and death of stars, the processes of geological stratification, the emergence of new species, etc.), is that the alternative plausible explanations have implications for many branches of learning. If our theories are constructed on such radically defective inferences from the evidence we have available, then science ceases to be an explanatory enterprise. It would be relegated to the role of Nature-manipulator and -user.

    But knowledge obtained through wine judging and botany are still the background situation that holds both before and after the miracle at Cana (and, for that matter, during the miracle, for the miraculous transformation only occurred to a miniscule fraction of the water present in Judea at the moment the miracle happened). If creation is analogous to or a species of miracle, then the consequences for our knowledge are radical and dire. Biblical miracles are local, temporary and finite; they do not permanently alter universal laws nor undermine our general understanding of things.


  2. joel hunter

    Hmm, my thinking isn’t very linear tonight. Let me just be a bit more explicit about my point. What is significantly different about the miracle at Cana and the conception of creation as a miracle is this: the miracle at Cana would not alter the wine connoisseur’s judgment about the taste and texture of a fine wine, nor her ability to detect the quality of the grape and the vintage. Similarly, the scientist does not have to change his understanding about the ingredients essential to wine nor the process of fermentation. All of that knowledge holds both before and after the miracle. However, the same cannot be said if Genesis provides a scientific account (or the basis for a scientific account) of how things have come to be (and how new creatures as cosmological bodies come to be today and tomorrow). The miracle at Cana is the exception to a rule; is there not a similar rule for how things come to be? Isn’t it disastrous for our understanding of reality if *everything* we see in the sky and on the earth, and the processes we observe these things subjected to, including the origin of the chemicals in wine, are exceptions to the laws of science we have derived from the appearances? Wouldn’t that degree of falsity render the universe unintelligible, and for all practical purposes, random? What would be the point of pursuing scientific discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics if the ever-expanding web of beliefs is going further off-track?

    It seems to me that your definition of science as “simply a set of disciplines” relegates its findings and explanations to relativism. And it seems odd, given the involvement of Christians historically as contributors in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and its foundational theoretical descriptions, to now retreat into instrumentalism or operationalism. Is that what faithfulness to the Bible demands? I’m certainly not advocating uncritical acceptance of the decrees of a scientific establishment, so I’d be interested to hear more about what you believe a faith-governed science looks like and accomplishes.

  3. Scott Moonen

    Hi Mark. I wonder if we just have to evaluate the effects of unbelief on a case by case basis. There are certainly believing and idolatrous ways to do science, but that divide isn’t unique to science. And unbelief will always make its way into all the corners, but its visible effects may range from small to large depending on the situation.

    Van Til acknowledged this, didn’t he? Believers and unbelievers can cooperate side by side, obtain the same observations, and develop the same models, and yet end up making different ultimate interpretations (seeing and praising, or denying and cursing God’s hand) based on their belief or unbelief. On the one hand, we might say this ability to cooperate is because science is a neutral discipline. On the other hand, I think Van Til attributed it to common grace; i.e., saying that there is nothing neutral, and seeing science as a gift from God.

    I’ve been wanting to read Poythress for awhile, but haven’t found the time. Did you know that Redeeming Science is available for reading online? See http://www.frame-poythress.org/poythress_books.htm

    There is one test case I have in mind where I think belief actually circumscribes conclusions that I draw that on the face of it appear to be nothing more than basic applications of the discipline of science. The quantum decoherence model explains the appearance of quantum waveform collapse far more elegantly and comprehensively than the original “Copenhagen” model of a brute waveform collapse. There is even experimental verification of it at some levels, demonstrating that larger and larger systems participate in the superposition of states. So at one level I think quantum decoherence seems to be the way things are. But at another level, quantum decoherence really is “many-worlds theory.” So at a macro level I have a lot of discomfort with this, since the idea of an entire universe that exists in a superposition of all possible states, none of which is more privileged than the next, doesn’t square with my ideas of who God is, his personal nature, the fixed nature of his decrees (are you not elect in some of these superpositions?), etc.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not many-worlds theory. If anyone has insight on this I’m eager to hear!


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