Sunday, June 17, 2007

Can Non-Christians Do Good Science?

In a previous post, I discussed strategies for choosing a science curriculum. I said that one of the keys is to first decide whether you will use a secular curriculum and teach around the biological evolution, or whether you plan to use a creationist curriculum and teach around the problemmatic science.

I want to continue this series by discussing the ten most common scientific errors in young earth creationist curriculum. (It really doesn't matter which one you are using - A Beka, Bob Jones, etc. - they all have the same ten errors.) If you master this list, then you will know how to flag an error in your child's textbook, should you decide to go this route.

Error #1: Non-Christian scientists cannot do truly good science because they don't interpret the record of nature through the "lens" of the Bible.

Because young-earth creationism maintains that the record of nature is reliable only when interpreted through the lens of Scripture, students are frequently taught to distrust the findings of secular science. For example, one science textbook says:
As we can see, scientific work is fallible and prone to error. Scientists often make mistakes because their senses are limited. Perhaps you have experienced some of the optical illusions that are published in books. Or perhaps you have been fooled by some "brain teaser" that took advantage of the tendency of the human mind to be distracted by irrelevant data. These shortcomings of the human being make science fallible, and this is another reason science changes. As strange as it may seem, science is limited by the fact that it is often forced to deal with models rather than with reality. What a scientist dreams up in his mind is not necessarily what really exists. Remember, his senses are fallible, and he cannot understand God's creation fully or correctly. He sees everything through a clouded glass (1 Cor. 13:12)." (Earth Science for Christian Schools, p. x; bold type added)

This brainteaser concept is a frequent young-earth analogy used to cast doubt on the ability of sinful humans to accurately interpret the physical world. The problem with this analogy is that optical illusions only provide examples of selected experiences when the first perception of a particular phenomenon turns out not to be reliable. These exercises don't prove anything about an original perception or whether sense perceptions can be corroborated with other information. Neither does such an experiment account for the fact that sense perceptions are correct the vast majority of the time.

Even so, young-earth creationists repeatedly use optical illusions to cast doubt on the non-Christian's ability to accurately apprehend the natural world. The correction for this problem, according to young-earth creationists, is that the natural world must be studied through the "lens" of the Bible. This is why it is fairly common for young-earth textbooks to assert that creation scientists founded all, or most, of the major scientific disciplines. While an argument can be made that many of the philosophical tenets on which modern science rests rise out of the Christian worldview, to suggest that Leonardo DaVinci or Isaac Newton were creation scientists in the modern sense of the word (Biology: God's Living Creation, A Beka Publishing, p. 349) takes speculation too far.

Also, if the non-Christians' perception of the world is as profoundly vulnerable to deception as creation science textbooks suggest, it seems like the problem wouldn't be limited to scientists. Every working profession, from doctors to the guy who slaps labels on soup cans, requires reasonably reliable sense perceptions in order to function in their jobs. This faulty reasoning could lead to a conclusion that Christians ought to take over the entire workforce.

The key support for young-earth skepticism about secular science rests in their interpretation of Genesis 3:17-18. They assert that God's curse on the ground means creation has become a broken and unreliable revelation of God. It was spoiled by humanity's sin. However, several scripture references that describe the post-fall creation draw this idea into question:

- Creation reveals the power of God: Job 36:30, 36:32, 37:3, 37:11, 38:35; Romans 1:20.
- Creation is a testimony of God's love: Psalms 33:5, 136:6-9; Acts 14:17.
- Creation reveals certain characteristics of God: Psalms 19:1-6, 19:29, 96:6, 68:32-35, Romans 1:18-25.
- God compares His covenant faithfulness to creation: Jeremiah 33:20-21, 25-26; Psalm 89:35-37.

Based on these passages, a fuller understanding of God's words in Genesis 3 begins to emerge. Whatever the curse on the ground means, it cannot mean that the creation has been so spoiled that it is no longer capable of proclaiming the glory of God. Moreover, nature continues to provide real knowledge about the existence and attributes of God to the unbeliever.

Another key young-earth claim, based on their interpretation of Genesis 3, is that nonbelievers are incapable of accurately studying the natural world because humanity has been cursed through Adam's sin. But once again, scriptural support for this claim seems marginal. Although the effects of Adam's sin resulted in spiritual death and potentially eternal separation from a holy God (apart from salvation in Christ), it doesn't follow that the Fall was intellectually debilitating. In fact, the Bible indicates that unbelievers are able to classify the physical realm with satisfactory accuracy. Matthew 7:9-10 shows how Jesus recognized the ability of unbelievers to distinguish between bread and stones, between a fish and a snake. Elsewhere unbelievers built civilizations, such as the cities of Cain, Nineveh, Sodom, Gomorrah, and Babylon. These feats suggest that
unbelievers utilized basic principles of physics and engineering. In another instance, the pagan king of Tyre sends cedar logs, carpenters, and stonemasons to David to help build his palace (2 Samuel 5:11). Nonbelievers classified the trees correctly and employed basic engineering principles.

Everyday experience buttresses this understanding. The very process of scientific discovery depends on objective knowledge based on universally applicable principles used by all humankind. For example, ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes calculated the circumference and diameter of the earth by studying the angle of the sun in different cities. Today, students
all over the world duplicate his experiment. Another ancient Greek scholar, Euclid, wrote the textbook Elements, which provided the basics of geometry. Ancient Hindus implemented the number "0" in the number system, an integral part of mathematics. Chemists from all religious perspectives use the periodic table of the elements successfully and can duplicate reactions that produce everything from simple compounds to complex polymers. Secular scientists discovered DNA.

Summary: Biblical examples, as well as common experience, indicate that in the natural ordering of things unbelievers experience the world the same way Christians do. And they are capable of making unique and reliable discoveries about the natural world apart from any knowledge of the Bible.

Ok, so what's the solution? How should Christians think about secular science?

Unbelievers are described in Scripture as having a sin problem, not a perception problem. Astronomers can understand that stars exist and categorize them correctly by type. How they form, their various burning cycles, and their purpose in the natural world can also be discerned. Atheist scientists can even detect that there is design in how the universe has been put together. The only question for them is, Is the design real or apparent? They "resist the truth in unrightousness" when they do not give glory to the Creator.

The other key proof-text that young-earth people use to cast doubt on the findings of secular science is to say that non-Christians see the world "through a clouded glass" (see quote above). This reference is an allusion to 1 Cor. 13:12. When interpreting any verse of Scripture, it's important to first consider the context. Looking back a few verses provides a clearer view of what this "clouded glass" imagery refers to. The verse falls at the end of Paul's famous description of Christian love. He sums it up by saying, "Love never fails." Then he continues:
But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I
spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor. 13:8b-12; emphasis added, KJV).

The near context is about the love Christians ought to have for one another based on the love of Christ. The text implies that
the ability to love one another with the full capacity described in 1 Cor. 13 won't be perfected until people are in heaven. The reference to seeing "through a glass, darkly" appears to allude to our earthly struggle to love others in the ways that we should. This verse has no bearing on the ability of non-Christians to accurately study the natural world. The passage isn't about non-Christians, much less their ability to do good science.

All of that being said, should Christians trust all of the finds of secular science? Obviously not. If I were to quantify it, however, I would say that Christians can trust about 99% of the data coming out of the mainstream scientific community. Christians just need to get more sophisticated in our understanding of the data so we can better differentiate between the data and what the press says and which interpretations are more motivated by worldview-presuppositions to exclude God. I wish I could say that there is some easy formula non-scientifically inclined people could follow and know the truth. But there just isn't. These issues are highly nuanced and complicated at times. But I have listed many resources on this blog written by reliable experts and I will continue to try and distill them down here for you.

Although the young-earth approach to science ought to be applauded for its effort to exalt the Bible to the highest level of knowledge, scriptural support for the application of this stance on every topic seems thin. Special revelation (the Bible) instructs readers to take the knowledge gained from general revelation (nature) seriously. For this reason, a dual revelation approach seems better able to account for the whole counsel of God. This approach preserves the integrity of Scripture and frees Christians to embrace many of the findings of modern science, without biblical compromise.

What Christians should not do is paint with a broad brush saying that all secular science is bad. That's just silly. Truth is truth no matter where it is found or who finds it.

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