In this excerpt from his latest Stand to Reason University course, Tim Barnett explains the difference between scientific methodology and scientific philosophy and shares how this key distinction impacts how we view evidence for Christianity.
Science was birthed out of a Christian worldview, but what is science? Rather than trying to define it here, what I want to do is draw your attention to two ways that the word “science” is being used.
“Science” is often referred to as a methodology. This is how scientists actually do science. The methodology entails the scientific method. The scientific method has been instrumental in huge advances in knowledge. But science is also being defined philosophically. In some instances, it refers to what conclusions are permissible. The conclusions, according to some, must comport with naturalism.
Naturalism is succinctly described by Carl Sagan in his TV show, Cosmos, with the statement “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” In other words, there is nothing beyond nature. Obviously, this rules out the supernatural. Just so I have all my cards on the table, I readily admit that many things can be explained naturalistically, but not everything can be explained naturalistically.
Here is an illustration to help flesh out the difference between science as a methodology and science as a philosophy. Imagine Greg Koukl, my beloved boss, is found murdered in this classroom, and the chief of police and the forensic detectives—I’m looking at you J. Warner Wallace—all show up. The chief of police turns to his detectives and says, “This case is your top priority. I want you to use your best forensic methodology to find the killer.” As the detectives are turning to leave the room, the chief adds, “By the way, you can’t implicate or charge anyone taller than six feet.” Now, what question should immediately come to the detective’s mind? What if someone taller than six feet did it? Do you see what’s happening in our illustration? Don’t miss this. There’s an outside authority or philosophy limiting what conclusions are allowed before even looking at the evidence.
In our case, the philosophy limiting certain conclusions is sometimes called “scientific naturalism”—only material or natural explanations are allowed. This is really happening, but don’t take my word for it. Check out this candid quote from former Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin: “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.... Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Ask yourself, does this sound like objective scientists pursuing truth wherever it leads? Of course not. And, just as a side note, when you hear things like “Intelligent design isn’t science,” they’re not talking about the methodology. They’re excluding it from science because it’s giving the wrong conclusions, just like you can’t implicate someone over six feet.
Remember, I said most of the time scientists come to natural conclusions about the world because these are the best explanations of the available evidence for those circumstances. Consequently, this has caused many to believe that science can and will explain everything naturalistically. As science slowly advances, natural explanations increase and supernatural explanations decrease.
It’s often put something like this: Years ago, superstitious people thought that lightning came from the lightning god and thunder came from the thunder god. However, using the methods of science, we have come to believe that lightning can be explained as an electrical discharge and thunder as the expansion of rapidly heated air molecules. Material causes slowly eliminate any need for the supernatural. This relegates God to simply a “God of the gaps.” Whenever you have a gap in your knowledge, you just insert God until you find a natural explanation. This is an argument from ignorance. It sounds like this: We can’t explain it, therefore God did it.
Though some have used God-of-the-gaps arguments, there are strong positive evidences for God being the best explanation of the available evidence. In fact, there has never been a more exciting time in human history to be a Christian and a scientist. Some of the most exciting scientific discoveries from the 20th and 21st centuries all have positive theological implications.
Here’s why philosopher Antony Flew came to believe in God. Flew writes, “I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this Universe’s intrinsic laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than half a century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.” Notice, Antony Flew isn’t positing a God of the gaps. Rather, he’s positing a God of the best explanation. He’s saying these scientific discoveries persuasively point to something beyond matter—to a mind.