Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Logos, atheism and science

In a recent book review, Timothy J. Burbery described the popular view of the relationship between Christianity and science:
Once upon a time the Catholic Church dominated every area of life, particularly the life of the mind. Free thought was suppressed, and the West's precious Greek heritage was rejected. Miraculous explanations for natural events were routinely invoked, and belief in a flat earth was universal. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a few plucky thinkers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Bacon threw off the chains of church hierarchy and scripturalism to offer bold new interpretations of the cosmos. Thus modern science was born. While medieval theories about nature were often circular and religiously biased, the new discipline relied solely on impartial experimentation and inductive logic.

What I have rehearsed here is, of course, a reductive and erroneous version of one of Western culture's most influential narratives, that of the so-called Scientific Revolution. Though this version may continue to dominate the popular mind, 20th-century historians of science have disputed many of its claims. .... [more]
In fact, the relationship between Christianity and science ought to be quite comfortable. Responding to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Stephen M. Barr, a physicist, explains "How God and Science Mix." Excerpts:
My fellow particle physicist Lawrence Krauss has argued that “God and science don’t mix.” He began with an interesting statement of J.B.S. Haldane, an eminent biologist of the last century:
“My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course.”
Scientists are atheists in the lab, said Krauss, and so it is only logical that they should be atheists everywhere. .... For Haldane and Krauss, religion is about miracles, and miracles are about magic and the irrational, and therefore belief in God stands in opposition to the world revealed by science, a world intelligible by reason and governed by law.

For Jews and Christians, however, pitting God and the laws of nature against each other in this way is an absurd mistake; for it is the very lawfulness of nature that points to a divine Lawgiver. In the Bible, God gives laws not only to the people of Israel, but to the cosmos itself, as in Jeremiah 33:25, where he declares his fidelity to Israel in these terms: “When I have no covenant with day and night, and have given no laws to heaven and earth, then too will I reject the descendants of Jacob and of my servant David.”

In arguing against pagans for the existence of a creator God, ancient Christian writers pointed to the order and lawfulness of nature, not to the miraculous. The following passage from the second-century writer Minucius Felix is typical:
If upon entering some home you saw that everything there was well-tended, neat, and decorative, you would believe that some master was in charge of it, and that he was himself much superior to those good things. So too in the home of this world, when you see providence, order, and law in the heavens and on earth, believe that there is a Lord and Author of the universe, more beautiful than the stars themselves and the various parts of the whole world. ....
.... For Christians, this cosmic order is the work of the divine Logos or Reason: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. Through him all things were made.” (John 1:1-3)

Modern science was founded by men, such as Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, who were devoutly religious and saw themselves as uncovering these ordinances of divine reason. ....

.... Doesn’t belief in [miracles] make nonsense of everything I have just said? On the contrary; there is no logical contradiction in believing in both natural laws and miracles; for if the laws of nature are God’s ordinances to begin with, then what he has ordained he may also suspend. Indeed, to speak of a miracle in the absence of law would be meaningless. Nor is there a historical contradiction between the two ideas, as is shown by the fact that many of the fundamental laws of physics were discovered by and named after men who believed in miracles. ....

In the Christian view, miracles are not mere outbreaks of lawlessness in nature that happen in an utterly capricious way. Since only God can suspend his own laws, miracles are always divine acts, and serve a divine purpose. In the Bible and Christian tradition, that purpose is always to manifest God’s love and mercy, and to attest to the authority of singular figures who teach or act in his name. Miracles are thus exceedingly rare events, fraught with deeply symbolic religious significance. The idea that God would interfere in the scientific experiments of Haldane or anyone else, as if he were a mischievous imp or poltergeist, is utterly silly from a Christian point of view. And to consider the fact that he doesn’t do so an argument for atheism is on a par with Khrushchev’s triumphant announcement that the cosmonauts had not seen God in outer space. ....[more]
First Things - How God and Science Mix, Squaring God's Books - Books & Culture

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