Christianity and Science: Are They Compatible?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2005

Is there a conflict between faith and science? I think not. Rather, I think the current quarrel between the two has been contrived. A specific error—an arbitrary definition of science—is holding science hostage. I’d like to suggest a solution.

One book serves as a helpful launching point for reflection on this error. Though published in 1988, it remains a useful foil for a discussion on the issue.

Science Held Hostage1 is an attempt to quiet the ongoing hostilities between evolutionists and scientific creationists and bring some order to the debate about origins. Authors Van Till, Young, and Menninga argue that this is not a conflict between theology and science, but a conflict arising from a misunderstanding of the different roles theology and science play. Science and religion are not enemies, but partners complimenting each other. Put simply, religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.

Understanding the unique goals of the two fields, the different questions they seek to answer, and the different arenas they address, will put the issue in its proper perspective and quiet the conflict, the authors argue.

Two Complimentary Realms

According to Van Till,2 the goal of natural science is simple: to study the physical universe, no more and no less. Non-physical systems are, by definition, excluded. As such, the modern notion of natural science is necessarily wedded to empiricism.

When scientists attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from physical data, they’ve stepped out of line. Natural science can explain the “what,” but not the “why.” It answers questions about physical properties, physical behavior, and the formative history of the observable universe. That’s all.

The non-physical realm, on the other hand, is the object of a different sort of inquiry. Science cannot tell us of the ultimate origin of the universe. Since science uses empirical data—that known by the five senses—something must exist first for science to examine. Questions regarding an immaterial “something” that might have produced the material realm can’t, even in principle, be answered by science.

Neither can science answer questions about the governance of the universe, though it’s quite capable of drawing conclusions about its behavior. Even the so-called laws of nature are not truly laws. They don’t compel behavior; they merely describe it. That which is behind this behavior is not natural, but supra-natural, outside the proper domain of science.

“Questions of origin and governance—important questions both—must be directed toward whatever serves as the source of answers to one’s religious questions,” Van Till says.

He wags his finger at both evolutionists and creationists. Serious problems arise when either science or theology step out of its respective domain. The result is folk science, in Van Till’s terms, science held hostage by ideology, either by the creationists or the evolutionists.

The book ends with two stern warnings. The first is to creationists who promote their folk science despite the inadequacy of their research. The second is to evolutionists who promulgate the folk science of reductive materialism and evolutionary naturalism.

When either group draws metaphysical conclusions from scientific evidence, they’ve violated the rules. “The choice between an autonomous or a theonomous perspective on the governance of physical behavior cannot be settled on the basis of scientific investigation.”3 “On such matters,” he adds, “the natural sciences have nothing to contribute”4 [emphasis mine].

What is Science?

At first glance, the two-realms view is inviting. There does appear to be a difference between scientific claims and theological ones. Keeping them distinct seems to eliminate the confusion and also deals with the problem of bias. On closer investigation, though, it is unconvincing.

Van Till’s principal error is his restrictive definition of science. It falls short on two counts. First, it is arbitrary and unhelpful. Second, it destroys Christianity.

The author argues that science should be king in the area of the empirical, that theology should reign in the area of the non-empirical, and never the twain shall meet. But why should we accept Van Till’s modern view of science? Such a definition ignores a long history of fruitful scientific inquiry that was not marked by this distinction.

For millennia science was viewed differently. The older tradition had one aim: to identify ideas worth believing. According to Aristotle something was scientific if it was assured or certain, regardless of which realm it referred to. The important thing was whether or not a view was properly justified. It was also distinguished by its “know-why”—its comprehension of first causes—as opposed to its “know-how.”

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance this view began to change. The emphasis switched to methodology. Instead of starting with directly intuited first principles, scientists offered ad hoc theories to predict events (e.g. planetary motion) and then tested them by observation.

The shift in science from a general methodology aimed at determining truth to one that was solely empirical was complete by the modern era. Scientific empiricism became scientific imperialism: science as the final measure of all truth. This view is called scientism. Science deals with fact. All else, including morality and theology, is mere opinion, personal preference, and private fantasy.

Though Van Till vigorously opposes the modern notion of scientism, his definition of science opens the door to it. Even though he admits reality beyond the physical realm, he is unwilling to admit any discoverable relationship between the two. Anyone who starts with empirical science, then, must end with empirical, physicalistic conclusions.

To say that science alone deals with formative history is begging the question because it disallows God's intervention in the process by very definition. The author solves the conflict between science and theology by merely defining it away and then upbraiding those who don't honor his boundaries.

The most glaring example is Van Till’s representation of creation science as “creation folk science.” Why the pejorative label? Because creation science “strives to warrant its belief in a particular concept of divine creation by means of unconventional interpretations of selected empirical data”5 [emphasis mine]. But why must interpretations be conventional (in Van Till’s sense of the word) to be valid? Only if one has decided beforehand—by definition—that certain interpretations of the data cannot be considered.

Van Till errs in that he makes an absolute of his definition of science and then cites examples of those that violate his perimeters. The author baldly asserts that his view is science and then criticizes others for deviating from this canon. This is unfair.

Three Errors

The view that “religious” theories should not intrude in science is guilty of several logical errors.

First, it commits the either/or fallacy by asserting that a view is either scientific or religious. Metaphysical issues, however, might have some empirical support. We see the blending, for example, in near-death experience research, or conclusions on the existence of a Creator based on Big Bang cosmology.

Second, it commits the straw-man fallacy by assuming that creationists make no legitimate use of scientific methods. This is not the case. Creationists are happy to present an abundance of properly gathered scientific evidence for their point of view if they’re allowed. This evidence needs to be addressed instead of summarily disqualified.

Third, it assumes that the reigning scientific view—materialistic macroevolution—does not have religious significance. This is false. All cosmological views have metaphysical ramifications. If evolutionary naturalism is a true description of biological development on Earth, then the only place for God is in the imagination of the faithful.6

The Death of Christianity

The approach in Science Held Hostage creates another difficulty that’s hard to avoid. Though all the authors are professing Christians7, their definition of science eviscerates their own faith.

Christianity is, by definition, wedded to the physical world. The Bible indicates in many places that theological truth is so manifest in nature that man is guilty before God for not recognizing it (e.g., Romans 1:18ff).

If Van Till is correct that nature has “nothing to contribute” to our knowledge of God, then the claims of Christianity are relegated to the arena of philosophic speculation. Miracles—if possible at all—would be devoid of any theological significance. If the resurrection of Jesus really happened, it would only mean that a man, once dead, now lives. Nothing more.

What happens, then, when a religious “authority” like the Bible makes statements about the empirical realm, including both science and history? If the Scripture errs when it repeatedly enjoins us to draw theological conclusions from the empirical data, it loses its claim to authority. Why trust a theology that’s grounded on unreliable data?

This approach is an example of what the Dr. Francis Schaeffer called an “upper story leap.”8 In Schaeffer’s view, modern man has divorced nature—the particulars—from grace—the universals. Nature inhabits the “lower story” and is accessed by science and reason. It’s governed by cause and effect and is therefore mechanistic and determined. The transcendent realities—meaning, value, and free will—are in the “upper story” where grace resides. These are known by faith.

The key here is that there is no interaction between the upper story and lower story. (Recall Van Till’s bold comment, “On such matters [as origin and governance of the universe] the natural sciences have nothing to contribute.”)

In the lower story human dignity and purpose are crushed in the gears of nature’s determinism. So, Schaeffer suggests, man must take a leap apart from reason into the upper story of meaning and significance. Man restores his own sense of innate value, but the price he pays is schizophrenia and loss of rationality.

Van Till’s own upper story leap allows him to make this rather daring statement: “The oft-heard claims that natural science either confirms or discredits a theistic concept of divine governance or validates some particular concept of the status of the physical universe in a relationship to deity is careless talk that exposes a failure to honor the boundaries of the scientific domain.”9

I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s comment to the Corinthians10 that Christians of all people are most to be pitied if the resurrection is not an historical (read “scientific,” “empirical”) fact. Van Till would have little respect, it seems, for such “careless talk.”

A “New” Idea

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Restore to the scientific process the classical emphasis on truth. This is where the issue of bias takes on a completely new light.

Philosopher J.P. Moreland points out that when a Christian deals with issues like science and faith, it’s fair to say he’s biased in that he brings certain assumptions to the process, just like everyone else. A Christian’s bias, though, doesn’t inform his conclusions in the same way that biases inform the conclusions of a scientist restricted by Van Till’s definition.

The current bias of science arbitrarily eliminates certain answers before the game even gets started. Scientists must come up with conclusions that leave God out of the picture because their definition of science demands it.

A Christian is not so encumbered. She believes in the laws of nature, but is also open to the possibility of supernatural intervention. Both are consistent with her worldview. She can judge the evidence on its own merits, not hindered by a definition of science that automatically eliminates supernatural options before the evidence is viewed.

As a result, the Christian’s bias broadens her categories making her more open-minded. She has a greater chance of discovering truth, because she can follow the evidence wherever it leads. That’s the critical distinction.

Two Interacting Realms

This approach streamlines the quest for truth without destroying legitimate distinctions between science and theology. There is nothing wrong with the idea that each has its separate domain. The problem comes only when they are arbitrarily isolated from one another, as Van Till advocates.

In practice, science does not merely study the physical universe. It also posits causes to physical effects. Van Till’s view forces us to accept that all physical effects have prior physical causes. This is unnecessarily restrictive. Where does one get the idea that physical phenomenon cannot be caused by an agent?

The object and domain of science should be the physical world, but it’s goal should be truth, not merely physical explanations. Though science is restricted to examining physical effects, when causes are inferred, there should be no such limitation.

A simple example makes this point. We use our faculties to explore the world around us. Mine, for the moment, are exploring the words on this page. As I write I choose specific physical objects as symbols that convey meaning to a reader. The reader has seen empirical symbols like these in his environment for years and, through induction, has learned the “language” of the symbols, the invisible meaning behind them. Through a process that includes empirical factors, a transaction takes place between two minds and those minds meet.

Note that part of this process is phenomenal, but not all of it. There is a relationship between the empirical and that which cannot be measured by the senses. An examination of the natural world (“science”) is helping to give information—meaning—about that which is supra-natural. But Van Till seems to think this is an illegitimate relationship.

Ironically, he uses this very example to come to the opposite conclusion. He says that, when examining words on a page, science is “wholly incapable of discovering its meaning.”11 He should have added the phrase, “on its own.” It certainly can be used in conjunction with other methods, as the example above shows.

To make the point another way, if we saw a vase levitate and move in a non-random fashion around the room, would it be reasonable to infer the possibility of a metaphysical reality from this evidence in the physical universe? I think so. At least it shouldn’t be excluded by very definition.

Those who believe in intelligent design claim that issues like origin and governance can be properly inferred using empirical methods. Consider forensic medicine. Medical examiners use scientific methods to determine if an individual died of natural causes or by foul play. Was it a heart attack or was an intelligent agent involved? In the same way, scientific evidence could, in principle, indicate that creation was the result of an agent rather than chance physical factors.

Philosopher and mathematician William Dembski puts it in perspective when he writes, “It is the empirical detectability of intelligent causes that renders Intelligent Design a fully scientific theory.”12 Consider the SETI project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Here is an especially noteworthy example of using scientific research methods to infer intelligent causes, as the movie Contact demonstrated.

I conclude, therefore, that there is no good reason why science—the “what,” the empirical—can’t help us understand the meaning—the “why,” including the theological “why”—behind all that is.

Methodology or Theology?

Ultimately, authors Van Till, Young, and Menninga don't solve the problem they set out to remedy in Science Held Hostage. Their definition of science is too restrictive. It takes into consideration neither the history of science nor the Scriptural teaching on natural theology, both of which are friendly to an integration of theology and science.

Science examines the physical world, fair enough. But it need not be limited to material explanations for what it finds. When truth is at issue, our goal should be to find the best explanation, not just one that fits our arbitrary definitions or our naturalistic philosophy.

Putting Your Knowledge into Action

  • When the issue of science and religion come up, always ask this question: What is most important for science, finding the right answers (the truth), or finding the right kind of answers (materialistic ones)? The current definition of science favors the second, not the first.
  • When the issue of bias comes up, point out that not all bias is equal. It depends on how the bias informs the search for truth. Naturalistic bias eliminates certain answers before the evidence is in. Christian bias, however, allows science to follow the evidence where it leads.
  • Don’t take the restricted definition of science lying down. The goal of science should be truth, not merely physical explanations. Be prepared to argue that empirical methods can lead to non-empirical conclusions—i.e., intelligent agency—by giving some examples (e.g., forensic science, Big Bang cosmology, SETI, etc.). In fact, essential elements of Christianity (the creation of the universe and the resurrection of Christ, for example) depend on it.

In the current rift between science and religion, a single error in thinking has created the gap.