Science Held Hostage

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/16/2013

In the current rift between science and religion, two parallel errors have widened the gap. Science and religion can be compatible, but not unless both sides of the debate surrender some cherished ground.

Two parallel errors have plagued the efforts of Christians to close the gap between the claims of religion and the claims of science on the issue of origins. These are bad philosophy of science and bad practice of science.

One book serves as a helpful launching point for reflection on these two errors. Though published in 1988, it remains a useful foil for a discussion on both issues.

Science Held Hostage [1 Van Till, Young, and Menninga, Science Held Hostage (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988).] 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 the solution is not to be found in bringing more information to the battlefield, whether scientific or theological. To them, such an approach misses the point entirely.

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. 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 Complementary Realms

According to Van Till, [2 For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the authors collectively simply as “Van Till.”] 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 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 Van Till, 24.] “On such matters,” he adds, “the natural sciences have nothing to contribute.” [4 Ibid., 25.] [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’s 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 to determine 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 science, then, must end with 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 Ibid., 153.] [emphasis mine] But why must interpretations be conventional 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. Design models might have some empirical support, though. 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 views do 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 See Solid Ground, January/February, 1997, Stand to Reason.]

The Death of Christianity

The approach in Science Held Hostage creates another difficulty that’s hard to avoid. Though all of the authors are professing Christians [7 “Each of the authors of this wholly committed to the Christian faith, firmly believing that God and the physical universe are related in a way that is profoundly portrayed by the Creator-Creation metaphor.” Van Till, 174.] , 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.

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 Schaeffer, Francis A., Escape from Reason, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1968).] 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 relationship 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.”)

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 Van Till, 40.]

I can’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s comment to the Corinthians [10 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.] that Christians of all people are most to be pitied if the resurrection is not an historical (read “scientific”) fact. Van Till would have little respect, it seems, for such “careless talk.”

A “New” Idea

I’d like to suggest a “radical” alternative: Restore to the scientific process the classical emphasis on truth, on identifying ideas worth believing. 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. He believes in the laws of nature, but is also open to the possibility of supernatural intervention. Both are consistent with his world view. He 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 his categories making him more open-minded. He has a greater chance of discovering truth, because he 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 which 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. There is a relationship between the empirical and that which cannot be measured. 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 Van Till, 16.] 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.

Creationists 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.

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 William Dembski, “The Intelligent Design Movement,” Cosmic Pursuit, Spring, 1998, 24.] Consider the SETI project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Here is an especially noteworthy example of inferring intelligent causes from scientific research methods, as the movie Contact demonstrated.

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

Craft Incompetence: The Missing Moon Dust

Another major flaw in Van Till’s treatment also contains the book’s most redeeming contribution. He properly upbraids the poor science some creationists have been guilty of when seeking to defend their position. Van Till notes four examples of craft incompetence by creationists: the “missing” moon dust, the “shrinking” sun, the “mysterious” sea salt concentrations, and the “lost” geological strata. A closer look at just one of them—the missing moon dust—illustrates his point.

If the solar system is millions of years old, creationists argue, then there should be hundreds of feet of dust on the moon from lunar erosion and in-fall of intergalactic matter. Yet, when the astronauts landed they found only inches of loose dust, implying that millions of years had not elapsed as evolutionists claimed.

Even today this observation is touted by many creationists as a major victory for their view. The scientific community is portrayed as still befuddled, staggering under this blow to the evolutionist’s sacred belief in an ancient universe. This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts, as Van Till points out. [13 Van Till, 67-82.]

First, the “missing moon dust” did not catch NASA by surprise; they expected it. Prior to the moon launch there were many divergent estimations of the depth of the dust on the moon’s surface. All were based on certain assumptions about rates of erosion from large meteor impact and rates of micrometeor accretion on the moon. Without the aid of direct measurements, these rates were speculative. Differences in estimation varied sometimes by a factor of 1000.

As early as 1959, famed astronomer Fred Whipple noted that deep dust would not be a problem because climatic conditions would cause the particles to adhere together. Landings of Lunar IX and Surveyor I in 1966 confirmed his theory three years before the manned flight. NASA could have made deep-dust design choices for their landing pads, but were convinced that the surface would be firm.

Second, NASA was right. The first Apollo landing site had only a few inches of loose dust, true enough. However, most of the dust on the surface of the moon is not loose powder. Instead, moon dust coheres and packs down over time—the same as dust on earth—forming the more dense lunar soil.

Soil on the moon comes from two sources: micrometeor infall (intergalactic dust), and erosion of the lunar landscape due to collisions with large meteors. Actual measurements of meteorite bombardment on the lunar surface (the first source) demonstrates that the accumulation rate for micrometeor dust would be 500 tons per year or only one centimeter in four billion years. The balance of the material comes from lunar erosion.

Actual core samples of the moon “dust” layer (called lunar regolith) drilled out by the astronauts ranged from 8 ft. 10 in. to 9 ft. 8 in. deep. Further seismic tests by Apollo-17 crews showed a range of 20 feet to 120 feet in the area sampled.

These details seem to have escaped the notice of many creationists. Ignoring conflicting evidence, or simply being out of touch with the current published material on this subject, is unprofessional and inexcusable. It’s not good science. [14 In fairness, the most recent ICR publication I have in my possession ( The Modern Creation Trilogy, 1996) has abandoned the moon dust argument.]

Methodology or Theology?

Van Till’s point is a fair one, but here’s the flaw. This fine observation ironically discredits his own thesis. Creationists have erred in the craft of science, not in its definition. They may have been swayed by religious convictions, but neither religious bias nor a faulty view of science is the culprit. The creationists he cites are simply guilty of bad science.

Van Till invites the reader to evaluate for himself the “scientific adequacy of the evidence, arguments and conclusions offered by creation scientists.... Judged as natural science,” he says, “the evidences and models offered by the scientific-creationist community fail the test of scientific adequacy.” [15 Van Till, 173-4.] [emphasis added] Once again the key problem is methodology, not a wrong understanding of science.

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.

The authors do offer an excellent critique of the sometimes biased and poorly executed science of some creationists. This only shows, however, that in some cases the creationists’ methodology is flawed, not their integrated scientific model.

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.