The heavens declare the glory of God
by Daniel Selvaratnam, Wesley S. Farrell, and Dorian S. Abbot
“A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion.” -Francis Bacon
A child walks along the seashore with his mother and asks, “Why is the sea blue?”
“The sea is blue, son, because it reflects the sky.”
“Why is the sky blue?” he persists. “God made it blue”, she replies.
The next day, he asks his science teacher the same question, who explains that the sky is blue because the molecules in the atmosphere scatter short wavelength blue light much more efficiently than the other wavelengths. The boy finds this a far more stimulating response that provokes a tantalizing array of new questions. What is a wavelength? And why are the blue ones scattered so efficiently? Inspired, he resolves to study science. He starts with basic optics and learns the principles that relate the wavelength of a light ray to its angle of refraction. But what precisely is waving, and why must it refract at all? This takes some time to answer, but when he finally encounters the work of Maxwell, those five equations seem to him the Holy Grail. Until, that is, he perceives their full implications. A speed that does not depend on the reference frame? Impossible! Onwards to Einstein he goes, studying relativity and the photoelectric effect, but the nature of light remains elusive. Undeterred, he plunges into the inevitable morass of quantum mechanics. He never stops asking why.
But one day, it dawns on the grown man that he is no closer to answering his original question. Could even a theory of everything tell him why? Sure, the sky is blue because the laws of physics require it to be so. But why are the laws this way and not another? And what compels the entire universe to obey them? What wisdom must be contained within those laws, that they enable him to exist, to ask these questions and search for the answers, and in so doing, to discover the laws themselves. Who could think up such a set of equations? Can he simply take their timeless existence for granted, without asking where they came from? To do so would seem disturbingly similar to accepting the religious dogmas he had been trained to scorn. Science and atheism had seemed like firm allies as long as he carefully limited the range of his questioning, but not so much anymore. Could his mother have been right after all?
At a fundamental level, science is a methodology for the discovery of knowledge about the natural world designed to answer the question, “how?,” which is the true question the young boy on the beach was asking. But science cannot, even in principle, answer the deeper question of the grown man: “why?.” As Bishop Robert Barron has argued, “though the sciences may be able to understand the chemical compounds that make up paper and ink, the sciences will never understand the meaning of a book.” We can investigate the physical properties of the book using science, but the ideas within it, the meaning of the symbols, the eternal truths or errors that may be held within those pages, simply cannot be reduced to an arrangement of molecules. The same is true for art. We can explain with basic physics how the violin makes noise of a certain pitch, but are completely at a loss when we attempt to explain why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is beautiful using the scientific method. Nor can science provide us with a framework to tell the difference between right and wrong. Consider Fritz Haber. A German scientist, Haber won the Nobel Prize for his role in the development of industrial synthesis of ammonia, a revolution that has saved billions from starvation. Yet this same invention was used to manufacture munitions, and Haber also used his scientific talents to develop poisonous gasses that led to the slow and painful deaths of hundreds of thousands in the First World War. Science did not provide an ethical or moral framework for Haber because it cannot: it is merely an amoral method we can use to increase our knowledge about nature.
Some believe that science is a superior alternative to faith. But if we peer a little deeper, we see that the scientific method actually requires a great deal of faith before it can even get off the ground. For example, here are five axioms that every scientist (often unconsciously) believes:
The entire physical universe obeys certain laws and these laws do not change with time.
Our observations provide accurate information about reality.
The laws of logic yield truth.
The human mind recognizes the laws of logic and can apply them correctly.
Truth ought to be pursued.
None of these can be proved by science; they must be assumed in order to do any science at all. They are articles of faith. The fourth point especially bears elaboration. Our ability to think rationally must be assumed before any of our thought processes can be trusted. Without this assumption, we can get absolutely nowhere. Though every human must make it, critically, not all worldviews are capable of supporting it. Consider that no other rational species exists on Earth or has yet been found in the entire universe. Clearly evolution cannot be relied on, or even expected, to produce rational beings. Moreover, if all our thoughts are simply the product of chemical reactions, governed solely by the laws of physics, then there is no reason for them to have any correspondence with the truth. Assuming that we can think rationally, the atheist’s account of our origins offers us compelling reasons to doubt the validity of that very assumption.
Christianity, on the other hand, provides a different starting point. The Bible makes two profound claims that are relevant to science. First, that the universe was created by a good, powerful, and wise Creator, who endowed it with structure and beauty, and constantly upholds it by his power. The assumption that God’s creation is not random and chaotic, but rather orderly and rational, was necessary for scholars to begin to pursue knowledge via what is now known as the scientific method (see Theology and the Scientific Imagination by Amos Funkenstein). Even atheists today implicitly make use of this fundamental assumption. And it also explains why so many deeply religious people have been among the most important scientists historically. For example, Galileo, despite his differences with the Church, was a pious Catholic. Newton, although certainly not an orthodox Christian, was nevertheless a believer. James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin were both devout Presbyterians, with Kelvin commenting that “[t]he more thoroughly I conduct scientific research, the more I believe science excludes atheism. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all religion.” Gregor Mendel made some of the most important contributions to the theory of genetics, and was also an Augustinian friar. The Big Bang was first theorized by Belgian priest Georges Lamaitre. Examples abound. The view that science and Christianity are incompatible is not only incorrect, it is disproven by history. The second Scriptural claim is that man is both flesh and spirit. We are flesh, and so our bodies are subject to the laws of physics. But we are not only flesh. As spirits, we have a God-given ability to reason, to search for truth, and to discover the God who made us in his image. This worldview provides truly fertile ground for robust scientific inquiry. Within it, our five axioms are no longer arbitrary. Science has flourished in the West, not in spite of its Christian foundation, but precisely because of it.
All of this is to say that, not only is there no inherent conflict between science and Christianity, but the Christian worldview actually motivates and supports the scientific enterprise. Both science and Christianity are systems of thought based on logic, reason, and evidence which complement and build off each other. How much greater is the believer’s wonder at creation given its tremendous magnitude and complexity that have been revealed by modern science? How could science work without the axioms that flow naturally from Christianity, and what ultimate motivation could we have for doing it? Whereas science excels at answering “how?” questions and has dramatically improved the physical conditions under which we exist, Christianity deals with “why?” questions, motivates the fundamental assumptions necessary to do science, and provides us with a reason to continue existing at all.