Tag Archives: Science

Science of the gaps

There’s a long-standing criticism of Christians that goes like this: whenever there’s something humans can’t explain, you say ‘See! That’s God at work’.

And fair enough too. What a silly argument. How does ignorance on the part of Person Y (me!) provide evidence for the existence of Person X (God)? All it proves is that there’s a hole in human knowledge – and that is not breaking news.

Honestly, though, I have only heard this argument for God a couple of times. The places it has come up have been informal chats among church folk. It’s is usually followed by an uneasy polite silence as everyone else considers how to change the subject.

Mind the gapIn contrast, I hear essentially the same argument more frequently against God.

Like this: there are holes in scientific knowledge, but we know that science has capacity to provide the answers. It’s science of the gaps. There’s a strong faith that the ‘scientific method’ is the single method capable of finding truth and certainty.

In my experience, the fields in which this mantra tends to appear are: ethics and society; the nature of mind, consciousness and personhood; questions of ultimate reality and purpose.

The weaknesses of Science of the gaps are many. Here are three:

  • Lack of knowledge is empirical evidence that science doesn’t (yet) know everything. It’s against evidence to counter by saying, ‘But science can know everything.’
  • It doe not allow for complementary true explanations. When a family wants to know why a car accident happened, the laws of physics don’t help. Yes, physics gives a true picture of momentum, force, etc. But the family wants to know about drunk drivers, blinding sun or illegal mobile phone use.
  • It’s impossible to prove the basic assumption. We only prove that science can know all things after science knows all things. In other words, the starting assumption is itself non-scientific.

In science (as in Christianity) it pays to ‘Mind the gap’.

 


 

Genetics & ethics

Alcohol dehydrogenase

This beautiful picture represents the three-dimensional structure of a human enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase.

There are a few types of this class of enzyme. And their biochemistry is way beyond me. In simple terms, they all do something in the body with chemicals which include an alcohol group (-OH).

As such, this enzyme becomes quite busy when we drink beer, wine or spirits. Without this enzyme, drinking alcohol would likely be impossible.

As with all proteins, alcohol dehydrogenase is formed in the body from the information in DNA – there is a link between our genes and the amount/types of alcohol dehydrogenase produced.

There is variation in the activity of alcohol in different human populations. Some people have more activity, some have less. It seems that these differences link to age, sex, and race.

On that basis, here’s my Dorothy Dix question: if I have a different level of active alcohol dehydrogenase, does that justify me getting drunk? After all, ‘it’s genetic’!

Of course not! The level of enzyme in my body does not justify anti-social behaviour. The genetic subtypes present in my DNA do not excuse loss of self-control. If I get beaten up by a drunk, I won’t buy the excuse, ‘Sorry mister, I have low levels of class 1 alcohol dehydrogenase.’

In short, genetics does not prescribe ethics.

Except when we’re asked about sexual ethics, it seems. There are two main versions. The heterosexual: “You can’t try to stop me sleeping with other women – thought I’m married, it’s natural to have the urge to procreate.” The homosexual: “A high proportion of scientists say this is normal and natural.”

These arguments are examples of genetics used (badly) to justify ethics. They are ethical conclusions seeking a veneer of scientific kudos.

I think we need put a stop to the dodgy use of genetic-ethical arguments. If someone tries to justify adultery and all its associated lies, perhaps this is what we should say: “It’s not your genes, it’s what you want. Tell us why we should so highly value your desires.”

 


 

Science & the gospel, vi

This series is to consider how faith in Christ transforms our view of science.

I’m using Two Ways To Live (TWTL) to shape the series: six TWTL points – six posts on science. Each point has an image in addition to short summary statements.

The sixth and final part of TWTL is:

The two ways to live

A. Our way:
Reject the ruler-God
Try to run life our own way
B. God’s new way:
Submit to Jesus as our ruler
Rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection
Result:
Condemned by God
Facing death and judgement
Result:
Forgiven by God
Given eternal life

 

Which of these represents the way you want to live? 

The gospel outline of Two Ways to Live finishes with a question. This is as it should be, for the gospel is a call and an invitation. The gospel declares God’s work. The declaration is serious, and rightly includes fearful aspects, but it is also loving. God desires to give life to sinners stuck on the path of death (Ezekiel 18:32).

To put this slightly differently, the gospel is the king’s authority proclaimed, but the king is not merely conservative. A conservative kingship faces rebellion by re-asserting power and retreating to a prior situation (‘the good old days’ when everything was rosy). Such a king does not aim for a new kingdom, but restoration of the old kingdom.

God, in contrast, does something new. God confronts sinners with their evil, demonstrates his justice, then invites sinners into his own family. God could simply wipe away all evil – punishment without forgiveness. Instead, through the cross and resurrection, God completes justice with forgiveness. The Bible does not end with a second Garden of Eden, but with a new heavens and earth and heavenly Jerusalem where righteousness dwells and countless multitudes rejoice eternally.

In short, the gospel calls for decision (trust Jesus) and the gospel effects change (you are forgiven & freed to serve).

Science cannot do this. Science describes, science does not prescribe. Science does not care about what to do next.

This gives a very important warning for the use of science. Scientific understanding of the world is never an ethical argument. Science has wonderful insight into what is. This does not, however, translate into what ought to be. Between is and ought there lies the changes we desire and the decisions we require.

In a simple example, consider research into infectious diseases. There are so many: some are well-known (AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, measles); some I can only name because I searched the internet (paragoniamiasis, anyone?). In light of limited research budgets, and a finite supply of skilled researchers, which diseases should have priority? Science cannot tell us – other criteria must come into play.

Science can tell us which infective agents are responsible for the diseases, or that the agent is unknown. Science can tell us which people groups are most affected by infection, and compare the population sizes of those affected directly and indirectly. Science can even estimate the financial burden of the disease (OK, I’m being generous in calling economics a science!). But science cannot tell us that ebola is more worthy than measles for grant funding.

For a more pointed example, think of research into sex. Science can note and seek to explain the reproductive benefits of monogamy in birds. It can also note the promiscuity of bonobos. But it’s not a scientific argument to follow up either set of observation with, ‘Therefore, humans should do the same.’ If you come across an argument like this – usually in favour of promiscuity or homosexuality, not monogamy – you know that the ethical decision was made well before any science came into view.

When people argue about environmental science, it is usually the case that the science is irrelevant. At the extreme ends of the spectrum of views, proponents cherry pick the most relevant factoids to support their case. The ‘science’ they use convinces no one, because the decisions made were not based on science.

‘What do we do next?’ is a good question. It looks for change and to make a good decision. The answer can be informed by good science, but should be understood as a decision made before the God who will one day call us to account.

It is no argument to say, ‘I was born this way – let me be.’ Or to say, ‘Environmental science insists on a target for atmospheric CO2.’ Or to say, ‘We should do the genetic manipulation because we can do the manipulation.’

It is an argument to say, ‘Created, fallen and redeemed from judgement, we are to practice repentance and faith in self identity/environmental care/experimental design. The gospel tells us so.’

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him
John 3:36

Science & the gospel, v

This series is to consider how faith in Christ transforms our view of science.

I’m using Two Ways To Live (TWTL) to shape the series: six TWTL points – six posts on science. Each point has an image in addition to short summary statements.

The fifth part of TWTL is:

 

God raised Jesus to life again as ruler of the world.

Jesus has conquered death, now gives new life, and will return to judge.

Well, where does that leave us?

 

Jesus’ death was an astounding sacrifice. It is unique in all history. Yet the uniqueness of Jesus’ death is not in its death, for death afflicts all people. Historically, many others also have died unjustly, bravely, with love for friend and foe alike. The uniqueness of Jesus’ death is not historical, it is theological – that God was active through the cross. (God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sin against them, 2 Corinthians 5:19).

Jesus’ resurrection, on the other hand, is unique historically and theologically. No one else – yet – has been given new life by God after death, never to die again (that’s historically unique). And no one else can be the firstborn from the dead, appointed as judge and ruler (theological uniqueness).

This history touches a Christian view of science.

Christians know Jesus is alive, not dead. The tomb is empty because tombs are for corpses. Jesus is fully alive – if he’s not alive, Christians are wasting our time and pitiable (1 Corinthians 15:14-20). Amongst other things, the resurrection of Jesus was an event of the natural world. A corpse, duly readied for entombment and entering the phase of putrefaction, returned to life. The moment of resurrection was potentially observable. There were witnesses who saw Jesus in his post-resurrection life.

For science, this means there are natural events beyond the investigation of science.

Please don’t summarise that statement as ‘miracles are beyond science’, for that’s not my claim. There are wonders of the Bible given an explanation simultaneously natural/scientific and theological. Notably, God sending the strong east wind to clear a path though the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Presumably a team of meteorologists and hydrologists in the right place could have determined that the dry water-course was caused by hot easterly wind. It was a miracle in the natural world, and open to science. It’s no big deal that God can use nature – he made it! My point here is simply that some truly ‘natural’ events are impenetrable to science. Perhaps the resurrection is the only example, who knows?

In an earlier post I made the point that science cannot explain everything. There are matters outside of the realm of science (I mentioned justice, both human and divine). Now I am saying more, that there are matters inside the realm of science that science cannot explain. I reach this conclusion by the gospel, specifically the gospel-proclaimed resurrection of Jesus.

This leads to another gospel-driven reflection on science: history is bigger than science. This may sound  unconnected, but that’s not so. For just as science cannot tell us about Jesus’ resurrection, history can and does tell us. The empty tomb of Easter is a message with witnesses, not an experiment with technicians. It is possible to test the message of Jesus as we test any claim: we ask historical questions. (Who said this? Do we have a good record of their claims? What did they mean? What is their agenda? What corroborating evidence is there? etc.)

(Let me throw in a speculative, but related, idea: I think that science may be best seen as a subset of history. Experimental observations are what happened (‘the pressure was 745 mmHg’). Scientists interpret the data to make sense of what happened. Theoretical scientists, I think, work hard on teasing out the implications of the history of ideas. Historians and scientists both make predictions of the future, and do so on the basis of the past.)

Back to the main point … If history is bigger then science, and the gospel tells us this, I expect the biggest challenges to Christian faith to be from historians rather than scientists. When science attacks Christianity it gets more attention, I believe, but we should listen more closely to historians.

The theology of the resurrection also touches science.

In the resurrection, Jesus is declared to be in complete dominion and rule (Acts 17:30-31). At creation, dominion was granted to people. After years of sin’s rule, dominion was declared to reside in The Person – Jesus Christ is the true man who rules. Humanity is restored to its place in God’s order, in the person of Jesus. All authority is his, meaning that all rule in this world is a gift of Jesus. All who exercise any kind of rule are answerable to Jesus for their use of authority.

What is this to do with science? To state the obvious – as I love to do – the ruler is a person. Dominion is personal, not impersonal. Thus, science is not dominion.

We frequently use language that suggests otherwise. ‘Technology tames the wilderness.’ ‘Bio-medical science defeats disease.’ Effectively we hear the message, ‘Science rules the world.’ This is not true. On the largest scale, Jesus rules the world. In local situations, people exercise dominion. We must never be compliant with claims that science means we must … For science never claims anything, people do. The resurrection of Jesus allows us to step back from such claims and enquire who really is ruling.

I’ve written plenty already on the resurrection and science. And could say more. When I started the series, this was the one point where I wondered if I had anything to say! It appears I had nothing to fear about content. My remaining fear is that this longer post lacks clarity. Please help me in this – I love any feedback, comments or questions. Jump right in to the comments section below.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
1 Peter 1:3

 

Science & the gospel, iv

This series is to consider how faith in Christ transforms our view of science.

I’m using Two Ways To Live (TWTL) to shape the series: six TWTL points – six posts on science. Each point has an image in addition to short summary statements.

The fourth part of TWTL is:

Because of his love, God sent his Son into the world: the man Jesus Christ.

Jesus always lived under God’s rule.

Yet by dying in our place he took our punishment and brought forgiveness.

But that’s not all ….

 

 

The picture above is almost the same as the picture of point one, concerning creation. The difference being that Jesus alone stands where all humanity was created to stand, in perfect relationship with God. Jesus the Son of God was also the perfectly obedient man. That’s relevant to science – and to all aspects of culture – for it validates the continuing application of creation patterns. We know creation’s order is still important to God, because Jesus’ incarnation adopted and redeemed creation’s order.

And yet …

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God
1 Peter 3:18

Jesus’ death equally demonstrates that the creation is in tremendous need, and only the cross meets that need. God did answer Jesus’ thrice-repeated prayer to not go the cross (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44). The answer was no. The fact that Jesus indeed was crucified tells that there was no other possible way to save the world.

Therefore science cannot redeem the world. The cross alone redeems the world, there was no other way. No moral improvement programme. No universal education initiative. No religious practice. And no science either. Only the sacrificial death of Jesus makes any difference to the reign of sin, to the human heart of evil, to freedom from judgement.

So, while it’s perfectly acceptable to dream about the exciting advances of science and technology, we must be wary. No science will ever change the human condition. There may be a multitude of devices beginning with ‘i’. There could be cures for cancer. We hope for new and clean sources of energy. Perhaps one day science will explain the importance of that dangly bit at the back of the mouth. But humans will still be the same. There’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Taking this point one step further, we see that scientists and science need redeeming. We should not exalt science as the epitome of everything good. We have seen the caricatured positive view of science in advertising. A man in white lab coat testifies ‘lab tests prove this sheep dip will change your life.’ Such a naive view of science is long past, even in circles not interested in Jesus. We’ve realised (too late) that ‘good science’ is used to make a better bomb, an more polluting factory, and a toxic drug whose side effects are worse than the original disease.

Christians should talk to scientists, and to the fan-boys for science, with brutal honesty about the evil done in the name of science. Maybe someone could write a book. (Perhaps Science is not great: how science poisons everything or The science delusion.) We should explain the straightforward offer of forgiveness for sin, for all who trust Jesus. In the worlds of high-tech and of abstract thought and of experimentation, it’s the cross that works.

Finally, for this posting, a positive suggestion for science. Science should be gracious and compassionate. God’s saving intervention into this needy world shows his great love and compassion. Science is not effective like the cross, yet still can learn from the cross. Science can help ameliorate some of sin’s effects in this world.

Of course there are many scientific fields, as there should be, and not all are directly compassionate. In this age of results and monetisation of discovery, we still need to have room for pure research (asking questions that appear to have no practical use, asking for the sake of enquiry itself). Yet, I believe, there should always be a number of fields that help this needy world: disease prevention, improving agricultural yield, developing communication technologies for the isolated, etc. A cross-inspired science will care for diseases of the poor, not only diseases of the rich[*].

To wrap up: science is part of the world that needs saving, and only Jesus’ death is able to save. Though science can not claim the power to forgive and truly change people, scientists are like all people – able to share the benefits of Jesus’ death. Also, like all people, science can learn compassion from the God whose love is perfectly known in Jesus’ death for us while we were still sinners.

 

*(Confession: ‘diseases of the rich’ is a term plagiarised from a song introduction of Tom Lehrer.)

Science & the gospel, iii

This series is to consider how faith in Christ transforms our view of science.

I’m using Two Ways To Live (TWTL) to shape the series: six TWTL points – six posts on science. Each point has an image in addition to short summary statements.

The third part of TWTL is:

God won’t let us rebel forever.

God’s punishment for rebellion is death and judgement.

God’s justice sounds hard, but ….

 

 

Did you know there are two types of death that science investigates? There’s necrosis (for example, when blood supply is cut off from part of the brain). And there’s apoptosis, also called ‘programmed cell death’ (the common example is the disappearance of a tadpole’s tail as the tadpole transforms into a frog).

This third point in our gospel outline concerns a type of death that science cannot investigate. This is death before God, death as punishment for sin, eternal death. Eternal death is not defined by biology – it has a cause more profound than the end of cellular process. This death is God’s just judgement.

it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement
Hebrews 9:27

The reality of God’s judgement is a sobering message, for science as much as for the rest of human culture. There are at least three consequences for science.

Firstly, we see that science has a limit. In the simple sense, this is because science is not the right tool for every investigation. Science is not the way to determine human justice systems, much less is science able to comprehend God’s justice.

More significant by far is the reality that, at the end of all things, science itself will be tested. Science and scientists will be judged by God. Science is not equivalent to ‘knowledge’, or ‘truth’. Science does forward some small part of total knowledge, but is itself subject to the One who truly knows. The One who truly knows is also the One who truly decides and judges and establishes eternal outcomes.

Good science, therefore, shows some humility as it recognises its limits.

Secondly, the certainty of judgement means that experiments are moral actions. Each experiment proceeds because the investigator thinks it an acceptable experiment. This is, to me, quite obvious. Yet it becomes important at times when scientists try to side-step ethical assessment, or speak as if moral questions have no place in the lab.

For example, some labs use human embryos for experiments. You might hear, ‘These cells were excess to requirement – other embryos had been successfully implanted into the mother – so they were going to waste.’ Such an attempt to sound outside the reach of ethical judgement only hides the ethical decisions already made. In this case, someone has already decided to form more embryos than will be implanted. This decision is ‘in case’ something goes wrong with the first implantation – but it actively hopes that a number of embryos will be excess. It hopes for some ‘embryo wastage’.

Ethics does already feature in science, of course. While I was a lab worker, my boss made it very clear that I had a very important task: to ensure that every single animal cage had an ethics approval number attached at all times. If we were subject to a random check – as could happen at any time – having animals not covered by existing approvals would cause us serious trouble. What’s important is that science applies ethics everywhere.

Thirdly, there is no such beast as neutral science or a neutral scientist. All scientists have a personal stake in what they do, and one indication of this is the future judgement that God will deliver.

Interestingly, this is seen in the broader philosophy of science. In the last 50 years or so, those who ask the question ‘What is science?’ have demolished the idea of scientists as being disinterested. (Please note, disinterested is different from uninterested.) We understand that observation is ‘theory-laden': the scientific team start with the idea, they do not discover the idea out of neutral data. Other point out that taking a reading changes the experimental conditions (feel free to read about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or the observer’s paradox in linguistics). Theologically, this this lack of scientific neutrality extends beyond the experiment and into the realm of our life before God.

To conclude, God’s future judgement may, at first, appear  to be disconnected from science. This is not the case at all. Rather, people who diligently seek out knowledge would be well advised to understand where their knowledge fits within the largest knowledge of all – the knowledge that God holds of all reality, the knowledge that he will employ at the final judgement.

 

A false syllogism

Here’s a false syllogism I keep seeing assumed behind various comments (usually, comments from those who concur with what is being called New Atheism).

  1. Science has discovered many truths about reality
  2. Science will discover many more truths about reality
  3. Therefore science alone is sufficient to explain all reality

1. and 2. are true. Still, 3. does not follow. The conclusion, statement 3, introduces ideas not at all part of the two initial statements – science alone, and all reality – and therefore not valid logical inferences.

This is not a new mistake: witness the logical positivists (brief & free definition here). This blog suggests it’s a mistake that will recur, and then be followed by the obvious rebuttals.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Even in anti-God rhetoric.

 


 

Science is …?

They Might Be Giants. Yay! (Which when translated means, ‘I’m a fan.’)

We recently received their new kids’ album, Here Comes Science. Recommended – though they should have included Mammal, a song from an earlier album that perfectly fits the theme of the new one.

But I wonder about one song, Science is Real. Especially these lyrics:

I like the stories
About angels, unicorns and elves
Now I like those stories
As much as anybody else
But when I’m seeking knowledge
Either simple or abstract
The facts are with science
The facts are with science

What on earth? Shakespeare gives no knowledge? No knowledge from Aesop’s funny little stories? Nothing abstract to help us live if we reflect on Lord of the Rings? These guys need to read Aristotle on poetics – the power of fiction is when we read what’s made-up and are struck by reality (‘Aha!, that’s true love/hate/forgiveness/real life/whatever.’)

Perhaps John & John are acolytes of the empty Richard Dawkins view – science is the only knowledge, and anything not open to investigation by scientific method is ipso facto not knowledge.

This view is both vacuous and impossible to sustain – but that’s for another time. (Except I can’t resist this – TMBG are career musicians, who have devoted themselves to an art form that can’t be reduced to scientific formulae. Come on guys, wake up!)

But the thing that troubles me is putting such a loaded, argumentative piece in a collection of kids’ music. Oh well, the positive is a good chance to talk about this with our little ones.

PS I think my favourite track is The Elements. I know you were wondering.