First, of course, we should ask why anyone should embrace science*.
It’s not because:
- Science is perfect
- Scientists are without biases and always produce objective truth
- The results of science are never in error
- Science can decide everything for us
I’m reminded of the quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Frequently people object to science on the basis that it isn’t perfect. A history of discovery of new things can also be portrayed as a history of error. Obviously, if you discover something a new, better theory, it means that something you believed before was wrong. The interesting thing, the critical thing, is that it is science that corrects the errors of previous science.
So the reason I suggest for embracing science is this: It works.
You are reading this on an electronic device that is the result of applying scientific theories. Those scientific theories replaced other, less robust theories, and thereby enabled the invention of new technology. Life expectancy is increasing because, however often medical science may be in error, it’s much better today than it has ever been before.
I was interviewing my 98-year-old mother two years ago regarding her experiences as a nurse. She graduated from nursing school early in World War II. When we discussed vaccinations she got very emotional. “How could anyone want to go back to the time before these vaccinations were invented/discovered?” she asked. I tell this because we have people who think that science has made errors in the formation of vaccinations that have caused very negative side effects. I actually believe these ideas are wrong, and that vaccinations are safe, but even if there were problems, we would still be far ahead because of those vaccinations. People simply have no concept of what things were like before.
But this also illustrates a simple issue with science. If a scientific theory is wrong, it is more scientific study that will demonstrate the problems and potentially point the way to better solutions. That’s how progress has been made over the years. Unfortunately when people perceive problems with the scientific consensus, even imaginary problems, they often decide that since science isn’t perfect, as far as they can tell, they might as well go for something else—anything else—that might promise a solution.
These solutions are invariably more dangerous than the status quo. Unless, of course, they are generated and tested by valid scientific study. Science is not perfect, but it is the best means of finding better solutions than it has already found.
If you don’t believe that, simply ask yourself if, arriving at an airport, you were given the opportunity to fly on an aircraft designed according to the consensus of the best aircraft design, or one designed by someone who rejected aeronautical science, and which had not been tested by methods standard in the industry.
Even a test pilot would definitely want an explanation of why he should expect the second aircraft to fly.
Yet we choose the second option in many cases regarding our health and also regarding public policy.
Now I’m not proposing that we stick with consensus science despite the evidence. There’s a good way to challenge a scientific theory, and that is to gather good data and challenge it. Yes, scientists are people like the rest of us and may resist change to a cherished or simply comfortable position, but unlike theologians (sort of like me), they do have a history of moving en masse to a new position based on the evidence.
As an aside, there is the great illustration of a philosopher (or metaphysician, etc, see this) who is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. The punch line? Under the same circumstances, the theologian will locate the cat. Science demands the actual cat, as it should.
And that’s why we should embrace it. Science is good at studying actual black cats and determining when they aren’t there.
But what does this have to do specifically with Christians embracing science? Well, I could again say, “It works!” That’s a good reason. If you want to live a long time, you should pay attention to science and its results.
Speaking from the perspective of theology, though my field is biblical studies, we have the simple and repeated statements of scripture, such as Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8: 3-4, Psalm 19:1-6, and Psalm 33:6-9. These form a foundation of much of scripture. The idea that God is the creator underlies pretty much all theology. How creation was accomplished is much more a subject of debate, though I actually think it is not something for theologians to debate based on the Bible (or other sacred texts) and religious tradition. Rather, how creation occurs is a scientific question and should be investigated as such.
Why do I say this? One of the principles I try to teach regarding studying the Bible (or any text, for that matter) is that if you ask it questions it is not trying to address you will likely get skewed answers, if not totally false ones. How far your question is separated from the intention of the text is going to determine how far you are from understanding what the text conveys.
Let’s take the Samuel-Kings books (2 of each), for example. There’s a rather simple historiography behind these books. If you obey God you will be blessed while if you rebel, you will fail. So the story of these kings, while it contains a variety of additional data, is focused generally on displaying this theme. Occasionally the history gets in the way of the theme, such as in 2 Kings 14:23-29, where Jeroboam II is described as one who did evil, yet the author must explain the upswing in Israel’s fortunes during his reign.
Modern historians are very interested in precise chronology, but other than general lengths of reigns, the author lacks this perspective. Many efforts have been made to work out the chronology based on the numbers provided, but efforts have somewhat questionable results. The reason is simple. It’s not that the writer is careless in general; it’s that this isn’t his main concern.
To get a bit further off track, let’s consider 1 Kings 7:23, in which the “bronze sea” is described as having a diameter of 10 cubits but a circumference of 30 cubits. This would result in a value for Π (pi) of 3.0. Now we all know it’s 3.1416. Well, not so much. I just punched it into Google and I got 3.14159. So far as I know, nobody has calculated an exact value for pi. You just round it somewhere that works. Lots of arguments have resulted from 1 Kings 7:23. How could God make such a mistake? Well, God didn’t. The author of Kings, collecting his data from various sources, used a very loose round figure. He had no intention of passing on the value of pi.
For a Bible student, this is only a problem if you’re expecting the text to tell you things that the authors didn’t know and didn’t particularly intend to convey. There’s another lesson, however. The Bible isn’t a mathematics text. If you want to know the value of pi, you go where the knowledge is, and that’s the physical universe. I recall being instructed in math class to measure some circles with a flexible measuring tape and calculate the relationships. I didn’t get it right, but I got it close enough for the purpose. The value of pi is not a revelation needed in scripture; it’s there in the physical world.
Theologians refer to this as “general revelation” as opposed to “special revelation,” such as what we get in scripture. Christians often tend to think of special revelation, the Bible, as somehow more reliable. But the fact is that we have many interpretive steps between the text and the resulting doctrine, and this difference has resulted in many different denominations and even different faiths. Yet I hear Christians complain about medical science not getting its act together and agreeing on the details of healthful living in all cases (though they’re very good, we want to demand perfect), while at the same time being totally comfortable with the massive variety of Christian doctrine, all claiming to be based in the same scripture.
But special revelation, scripture, suggests that God breathed both it and also the physical world. The scientist studies God’s word as truly (or even more so) as does the theologian or biblical scholar. If we don’t believe that, we don’t really believe the scriptures. The real issue is not which is better but what each variety of revelation actually is intended to do.
So, if you want the value of pi, please measure some circles, or just go to a math text. If you want to meditate on God’s activities in human lives, read scripture. And/or take the time to encounter some of God’s creations we call people.
* I use “science” throughout as a general term for the study of the natural world with an intention to produce repeatable and objective results.