Thursday, 13 February 2014

So Let’s Be Trendy and Talk About Science and the Bible: How Postmodernity Might Save Our Skins

I don’t write about science often. It’s not one of my strengths. But with the recent buzz over the Ham-Nye debate, and yesterday being Charles Darwin’s birthday – I feel obliged.

From redeye on Flickr
It is common for Christian thinkers, and pastors, to critique the onset of postmodernity. And there are good reasons to do so – Western civilization has met a point of futility and utter disaster in its abandonment of God. Yet it is important to remember that ‘Postmodernity’ is not a life philosophy. It is not a ‘religion,’ per se. I do certainly believe that humans are inherently religious beings who will make gods out of anything they can get their hands on. But postmodernity does not have a central core of doctrines or philosophical claims to bind it together. It is, most fundamentally, a critique of modernity. And there are many aspects of modernity worth critiquing, and many of these critiques that we Christians can give some tentative, nuanced, endorsements to.

One of the central features of modernity was its elevation of scientific knowledge. Science was the cool kid on the street. It was the field of study that provided certainty and clarity to our universe. Human reason was elevated, even worshiped in the Enlightenment, and science was the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement.

Very quickly, the elevation of reason began to be criticized – by Kant, and those who followed him. In these first steps of the betrayal of the age of reason, science was still granted a privileged status. Perhaps certainty in ‘subjective’ fields of knowledge is not all its chalked up to be, but science is an ‘objective’ field of study. It is assured. It is clean.

The early stages of postmodernity began, and we started to realize that all sorts of things get in the way of our capacities for reason. Bias, privilege, emotion, history,  experience - the utter smallness of humanity in a big, complicated world, all gets in the way of our thinking. Dark gothic literature began to explore the horror and the mystery of that which is still unknown. Novels like Frankenstein considered the potential of science untamed and unfettered by morality. But for most of the world, science remained the privileged category of certainty. It, at least, is objective. It is uncomplicated by history or morality or culture. An atom is an atom whether you are a 2nd century peasant, or a 21st century biologist. The earth revolves around the sun whether the Church lets you believe it or not.
And then along came Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), a philosopher of science who would coin the phrase ‘paradigm shift,’ in his attempt to trace the way scientific knowledge changes, morphs, and develops over time. He obliterated the myth that science deserves to be in a special category of certainty.  We have assumptions that we bring to the ‘data.’ We conduct experiments and analyze empirical data through the lens of the assumptions we have developed within our historical context and within our point in the history of science. For example, the theory of relativity changed the way we interpreted data and the way we conducted experiments. Someday we may stumble on enough empirical evidences to force us to reshape the paradigm, but the conceptual framework remains behind our data-gathering. It’s a theory-driven field of study, just like anything else, and theories change as time changes. As new discoveries are made, cultural attitudes transform, and as intellectual climates ebb and flow. It's by no means useless or doomed to failure - absolutely not. But it is not a clean, objective, process. 

Science was now brought into the postmodern critique of certainty. Scientific reasoning changes and morphs with transitions in cultural values and other historical contingencies, just like other fields of knowledge. It can be driven by bias, self-interest, emotion, etc., just like anything else. Including religion. The science obsession of the Nazi regime and the related eugenics movement has jaded us - realizing what happens when science replaces morality or religion as the arbiter of truth and ethics. 

Science was pitted against religion all throughout the scientific age. It brought confident, clear, testable, truths while religion was supposedly subjective and human-driven.  Yet, since the work of Kuhn, no reputable theorist or philosopher treats science as deserving a privileged position. It is subjective, theoretical, and human, as well. 

The exceptions might be the ‘New Atheists,’ like Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins – people who are remarkably ‘behind the times’ in terms of scientific thought and philosophy.

The postmodern critique of science has in many ways rescued us from the intractable conflict between science and religion. Apologetically, we felt long inclined to defend Christianity on the basis of science, in response to our scientific age which had so smugly thought it had found ‘real knowledge’ unlike had been found in religion. That’s not a worthless endeavor, but it often missed the bigger picture – and assumed the rest of the world’s perspective that science is the only sure field of knowledge. Postmodernity has made these debates largely irrelevant, and has handed us an apologetic ‘golden goose,’ as it were. Scientific data need not be a stumbling block to faith – science is (at least to some degree) just as subjective as any other field of study. It changes and morphs with time. Evolutionary theory might be discarded 200 years from now, and a new paradigm will govern how we theorize and analyze data. Although we got stuck in ruts of arguing over minutia of science and missing the big picture, at least we have been progressive enough be willing to question the Enlightenment-western arrogance that led to the assumption that whatever we now believe about science is certain and unquestionable.

Yet, we must stand our ground that scientific data does not provide comprehensive knowledge. It is a limited field. It can’t really tell us much about the validity or invalidity of Scripture, much less the existence or non-existence of God. It is not a specially privileged field of knowledge.

And so, the trick up our sleeve in contemporary apologetics is that we demand more from the secular world. We need not be on the defensive. You have tight arguments and hefty evidence for evolutionary theory? So what? What does that prove? That’s supposed to challenge my belief in God or my belief in the Bible? We should certainly not approach such conversations with arrogance - quick, impersonal, intellectually dishonest answers has demolished many a'faith. But in the big apologetic picture, we need not be on the defensive against science. The world has, at least somewhat, moved on - and we have that on our side. 

We must be clear with ourselves that this goes both ways. The phenomenon of ‘Creation Science,’ bothers me a bit. And it’s not because I necessarily have a problem with people believing evolution isn’t true or that the earth is young. How dare I think it worthwhile to tell the little old lady at church who has loved the Lord her whole life that she's wrong about the age of the earth. I personally don’t think a young earth reading of Genesis is exegetically defensible – I think it is a gross anachronistic misreading of the text to think the text gives an exact chronology or time frame (or excludes the possibility of evolution). But that’s neither here nor there.

What I have a problem with is filling our kids with scientific data and arguments to ground their faith in. This assumes the very modern-enlightenment idea that the battle for faith must take place in the scientific realm. You can never prepare a child for every bit of data they will read, or every argument they will encounter. As soon as one's creation-science artifice has been chipped away at college by something they were not prepared for and no creation scientist has yet written an article about, the whole faith comes crumbling down because their faith has really been in science. Not in the Bible, much less in Christ. I believe the more healthy thing to do is to help our kids have a faith grounded in something much deeper than the whims of science – that human, subjective, privilege-driven field. Tomorrow, half the arguments for a young earth will be proven wrong. And the day after, half the arguments for evolutionary theory will be proven wrong. This cannot, and should not, be the battle-ground of our faith. It’s too uncertain, too subjective. 

I will clarify: I’m not a complete relativist in terms of scientific knowledge (any more than Kuhn was). After all, I take antibiotics and I get better. I get on planes and they stay in the air. We certainly know things now that generations before us did not. I’m all for scientific endeavor and what it can discover and what it can accomplish.  And I personally lean towards an old earth and some form of theistic-evolutionary theory, because – from the best we can do – that this makes the most sense to me (and I certainly don’t think it contradicts Scripture). But at the end of the day, I don’t put much stock in it all; at least not as far as my faith is concerned. My faith is in something deeper. The confidence I have is from my personal encounter with Jesus, and the sustenance of the Church and the power of the Spirit. I proclaim what has been proclaimed by the Church from the beginning: That Christ died and rose again and that we must depend upon Him for salvation.

Science isn’t going to tell me much about the validity or invalidity of that belief. Its parameters are too small.