Hypothesizing Faith

By Dr. John Coroneus

The Strength of Science

A key aspect of scientific thinking is the close tie that it has to observation.  This close tie cannot be emphasized sufficiently, especially when science and the scientific method are discussed with non-scientists.  Science begins and grows only with observations.  However, when people consider science and faith, they rarely have observations in mind.  Instead, people contrast faith with theories from the physical and life sciences.  Science makes the connection between observation and theory through the scientific method.  It is so important that I’ll take a few lines to describe it – please bear with me, it is worth the trouble!

1. An observation: The sky is blue

2. A question: Why is the sky blue?

3. A hypothesis: The sky is blue because the sun makes us squint

(Note: a hypothesis is an educated guess)

4. A prediction: If we stand in the shade, we won’t squint and the sky will not be blue

5. Test/experiment: Go out and stand in the shade

6. Conclusion: Well, the sky is still blue, even without squinting. Maybe we need more tests or there is a mistake in our hypothesis

In fact, you can be stuck in steps five and six for a while as you perform different experiments and continue analysis.  In the end, however, you will likely find that the sky is not blue and that you need a different hypothesis.  Once a hypothesis has been borne out by a very large number of experiments it becomes the basis of an overarching theory that is capable of making new predictions.  Challenging a theory is not simply a matter of philosophical argumentation.  Instead, theories are challenged by experiments.  For example, a study last year proposed that certain bacteria are capable of using the poisonous element arsenic in their DNA in place of the well established element phosphorus.  This paper challenged current understanding of DNA.  However, one experiment is not sufficient to overthrow our understanding of DNA composition.  The paper challenging the status quo has had numerous technical comments arguing for and against the authors’ conclusions.  Now, independent experiments have been performed that refute the findings completely.  Perhaps bacteria can live on arsenic or perhaps not, we will only know as more evidence is accumulated.  As you can see, there is a deep link between scientific theories and experiment.

The Revealed God

Scientists, with their regard for observable data; however, are sometimes confused by people of faith.  The notion that knowledge is revealed instead of concluded is exactly at odds with the scientific method.  Take a look at our Orthodox Christian Faith: we see a revealed Trinitarian God.  An examination of the scriptures, in fact, depicts human efforts to know God as leading to misunderstanding of God.  Instead, God is shown as working to find a way to communicate with (mostly) ignorant followers.  Whether it is the Judeans’ thinking that God could never leave the temple (and allow Jerusalem to fall) in Ezekiel or that the Christ could appear to be such a failure on the Cross (that is, a non-military leader Christ), there is a consistent effort on God’s part to be God and not fit into human beings’ conception of Him.  From this perspective, there is little difference between an idol made of stone and one made of human ideas: both fail to properly represent the transcendent God whose, “ways are not [human] ways.” (Is 55:8)

Any useful and honest attempt to reconcile science and faith does well to take into account science’s foundation in observation and the scientific method, as well as the faith’s grounding in the revelation of God.  As soon as we confuse or forget these ideas we start to get into a lot of trouble.

Christ revealed in the breaking of Bread

The Problem with Religion

Religion attacked science at least as far back as Galileo’s time, when the Roman Catholic Church arrested him for his statements about a heliocentric solar system.  In effect, the church leaders at that time and place “derived” their ideas from philosophical assumptions, while Galileo constructed his ideas from direct observations.  Each side had different, fundamental assumptions that led to serious problems, first for Galileo and later for the Roman church when Galileo’s ideas were found to be correct.

Think back to my example of the scientific method.  I postulated a testable hypothesis that was pretty easy to disprove by observation.  That’s the framework under which Galileo and other scientists work.  Asking a scientist to accept an explanation in opposition to observation is in effect asking them to be intellectually dishonest.  That’s not a position that anyone would appreciate!  In effect, scientists accept observation and testability as the means to verify an idea, a hypothesis or a theory.  Einstein famously said of his own theory, which had had great success, that, “no amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Owing to the success of science to explain natural phenomena, some some Christians thought they could use the scientific method and give evidence for faith.  This approach actually worked in reverse, opening faith to scientific inquiry: where is the observation of God, where are the repeatable experiments, what is the test we can perform to determine the existence of God?  The evidence given to answer such questions has difficulty standing up to scientific scrutiny.  Sometimes, people submit their personal experience.  For example, an individual might claim that they were delayed by a red light while late to a meeting, only to observe an accident occur had they made the light.  The interpretation is that God acted and delayed the driver, and this salvation proves God’s existence.  However, can this God-as-actor hypothesis be put to the test?  Isn’t such a test exactly what Jesus refused to do in the desert when tempted by the devil?

Alternately, one might claim that since the tomb of Caiphas was found, this verifies the Bible.  If that is the case, then we’d have to accept that the French Revolution verifies Les Miserables.  The point here is not that the Bible is a work of historical fiction, just that the evidence given does not establish it as historical fact.  Even worse, Orthodox theology tells us that God is ultimately free, so there is an expectation that any test we make for the existence of God will fail.  ”˜If we do not stand by faith, we will not stand at all.’

Such approaches, to establish the faith on scientific grounds, however well intentioned, leave the faith in worse shape than before.  In an attempt to convince people to believe in God, God becomes subject to logic and scientific inquiry.  When logic and scientific inquiry instead show that God cannot be verified by experiment, we are left with the conclusion that God does not exist.  Disaster.

“Intelligent” Design?

A not so new idea, of some god (which one, I don’t know) as a designer has become popular.  The basic idea is to say that there are phenomena science cannot explain, so we need “god the explainer” to fill in the gaps of our knowledge.  Of course, what happens when scientific knowledge increases and we start explaining things that used to be explained by the explainer god?  In that case, god becomes unnecessary, unneeded.  So, off we go, droping that old, archaic God like we did medieval superstitions, Greek gods and the earth-centered view of the solar system.

Earth-Centered Universe

The explainer god does not sound anything like the eternal, revealed, creator God of the scripture.  The explainer god has no need to send his son into the world to die.  This is the greatest difficulty of all “intelligent design” arguments. At the end of the day, the arguments are a lot of work, don’t make an impact for most scientists (at least they don’t to me or any scientist I know), and the only real conclusion of them is that there is some creative power who may or may not be the Father of Jesus Christ.  The inability to focus on Christ is a complete loss, we may as well, “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (I Cor 15:32)

Hanging on a Word

So, where does all this leave us?  I’ve given some idea how science does a poor job of helping us know God.  In that case, how do we come to know God?  Do we need evidence?  A quick look at Thomas in John’s Gospel helps (Jn 20).  The Risen Jesus appears to the disciples, who tell Thomas about the appearance.  Thomas refuses to believe without evidence.  The Risen Lord appears again and Thomas gets his evidence proclaiming, “my Lord and my God.”  What we forget is Jesus’ response to this proclamation, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Those who hear about the Risen Christ and believe are blessed, not those that get evidence!

The Belief of Thomas

St. Paul speaks similarly in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you…of the good news that I proclaimed to you…that Christ died for our sins…and that he was raised on the third day…”  We are given a proclamation, and we are left to accept or reject it.  In my own estimation, it is by the work of the Holy Spirit that the proclamation, the word about God speaks to us.  I can’t prove that, but I do try to believe as best I can.  If I do believe, I even give God the credit for giving me the ability to believe!  In the end, faith is an action of the free God of the scripture and falls far outside the purview of the scientific method.  Until we start taking the Scripture more seriously than our philosophical assumptions, difficulties between science and faith will never end.  Science, instead of leading us toward a greater appreciation of nature and of the God who we believe created, will instead expose our idols leaving us with no god at all.