Category Archives: The Limits of Natural Science

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Two)

Why can’t we feel what Paul and the Athenians felt: that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)? In Part One of this series I argued that modern natural science beginning with Galileo and Bacon teaches us to view the entire world of nature as bits of matter related in space. Nature has no soul, no nonmaterial aspect, and no internal goal. No wonder we cannot feel that we live and move and have our being surrounded and indwelt by God’s presence and activity! Instead we live and move and have our being inside a giant material machine! And if God is anywhere at all, God is outside the machine in another dimension. We’ve been taught a model of reality that makes us blind to God’s activity and presence; we’re all deists now! Or atheists or materialists.

In my view a wholly materialist understanding of nature will lead eventually to metaphysical materialism and atheism. That is to say, if we exclude formal and final causality, we will not be able to imagine divine causality and activity. If we cannot imagine created, nonmaterial causes acting within the world, we will not be able to imagine how God is present and active in the world.

Sense Experience and Materialism

A common argument for atheistic materialism begins with sense experience, which supposedly reveals the nature of reality for our immediate inspection. Through our senses we perceive the world as consisting of external, opaque and impenetrable physical objects.  Our senses are activated by our body’s physical contact with external bodies. Using this common experience of the world as an analogy, the materialist constructs a model of reality in which purely material bits (atoms) are accidentally related to each other to form the order we experience in the world. Matter itself possesses no order. The materialist perspective assumes that since we can destroy the ordered physical things we meet in everyday experience but cannot destroy the material substance of which they are composed, the material substance must be the only reality that endures throughout all change. The order itself is nothing and can be wholly reduced to spatial relationships of material bits. Everything other than unordered matter, including our minds and all intelligible properties, is simply a pattern in collected bits of matter. And the existence of the particular sets of spatial arrangements of matter that constitute the present order of nature can be explained as the result of pure chance. The world merely falls into place. It is not put or held in place.

A Different Beginning Point

But what if we begin our thinking about reality at a different point, not with perception of the external world through the senses, but with the mind’s perception of itself and its experience of its contents and powers? After all, we know our minds better than we know any other thing. Indeed, our minds are the only things we know from the inside. We are our minds! We experience our minds as intelligent, creative, unified, transparent and internal. In contrast, matter is defined by its impenetrability, externality, lack of order and unintelligibility. It is spatial, mindless and massive. The materialist model of reality as bits matter in spatial relationship is derived from an external view of things. But why rely on an external view of reality when we have an internal view! We have an internal perspective on ourselves completely inaccessable to an external point of view. Why not assume that other things do as well? Hence we are not being irrational or arbitrary when we make inner experience of our minds and their contents the beginning point for constructing a model of reality that includes minds, ideas and purposes.

From Inside Out

Let’s see what the world looks like when we begin with an internal view of the mind. Here is the path we will follow: (1) We will move from the mind and its inner world to our bodies; then (2) we reflect on our experience of the physical world not merely as external surfaces but as intelligible and information rich; then (3) we will ask about the significance of our encounter other minds like our own; and (4) finally we raise the question of an all-inclusive and universally operative mind in whom the whole world lives and moves and has its being.

Inside the Mind

Internal experience teaches us that our minds are real, free, creative, nonmaterial powers. Hence we know that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces.

Mind In and Over Body

We find also that our minds have causal power over our bodies. We can move them as we will and through them move and reshape the external physical world to resemble the images we have created in our minds. Our own experience of our bodies demonstrates the power of mind to impose its internal order, its ideas, on the physical world. But what about the natural physical objects we encounter? Is the order they display the product of a mind?

Part 3 coming tomorrow



Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part One)?

Something has been bothering me for years, and I am obsessed with getting clear on it: why does living in modern culture rob us of a sense of God’s presence? When Paul spoke to the Athenians he could assume that they shared his vivid sense of a divine presence in human life and in nature. He was sure that they would agree with the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Epimenides whom he quoted: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). For the Athenians and nearly all the ancients it seemed obvious that nature was moved and ordered and directed by the divine spirit and mind. Why isn’t it obvious for us? Perhaps there are many reasons, but I want to focus on one: the impact of the model of reality generated by early modern science.

Modern science began in the early seventeenth century with Francis Bacon’s and Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy of science, especially their exclusion of formal and final causality from the study of nature. A formal cause is the design plan or blue print that makes a thing what it is as opposed to something else. It is the unifying center of a thing that integrates all its components into one whole. It is the foundation of its properties. Clearly a design plan is not a physical thing and does not exercise causality in a physical way. It can be comprehended only obscurely, as imperfect image. For these reasons, Bacon and Galileo excluded it from their new empirical/mathematical science.

A final cause is the reason for which a thing is made. It is the aim at which its entire development and activity is aimed. Like a formal cause, a final cause is not a physical thing and cannot exercise physical causality. It exists only in the mind of the maker of the thing. Bacon and Galileo saw no way of studying final causes empirically. How can you study the mind that made a natural object or the inner striving of the thing toward a goal? Those things, if they are factors at all, are hidden from the practitioner of empirical science who always views things from an external point of view.

Bacon and Galileo redesigned natural science so that it deals only with empirically observable phenomena, which it comprehends exclusively in mathematical terms. In other words, the task of natural science is to figure out the mathematical relationships of things that are capable of activating one of our five senses. What sorts of things activate our senses? The impacts of material objects! Hence, for Bacon and Galileo, natural science envisions reality as bits of matter related in space in ways that can be understood truly only in mathematical terms!

Natural science and the technology it has made possible have been decisive in forming modern culture. Modern science’s way of explaining empirical phenomena and the model of reality that has guided its investigations have so shaped our understanding of nature that we unthinkingly assume that it describes the way things truly are: everything in nature really is just bits of matter related in space. There is no formal causality operative in nature and no final causality that directs it toward a goal. Hence we cannot immediately experience nature as the result of design and in movement toward an end. And this is why we cannot feel what Paul assumed the Athenians felt, that “in him we live and move and have our being.”

In my view one of the most urgent needs of modern culture is to rediscover formal and final causality in nature and ourselves. I am not a professional philosopher or a scientist, but I want to do something to help people see the world through a different lens. What follows is not highly systematic. But I hope it can nevertheless cause us to question the materialistic model that robs us of the feeling of living in the flow of the divine life and thought as it manifests itself in the forms and flow of nature.

To Be Continued: Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

Science Marches On…In the Streets

My Sunday morning newspaper placed on the front page a picture of Saturday’s “march for science” in downtown Los Angeles. As I read the story I said to myself, “There is something strange about people protesting in the name of science.” Science presents itself as a disinterested search for truth. But protest is a political act for the sake of justice; this is a march for science. What does that mean? While I am a great lover of modern natural science I am somewhat suspicious of taking its cause to the streets. It raises the question of the nature and limits of science and its enmeshment within culture and politics. Since I wrote about this in The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (pp. 166-168), allow me to respond to the march for science by quoting myself:

“Modern natural science is greatly valued in our culture and scientists are held in high esteem. Why? Clearly, the main reason for science’s social prestige is that science has produced technology that people desire. Human beings want to enjoy health and long life, wealth, exciting entertainment, comfort and leisure, and, of course, military power. Some people are curious about the world and for that reason are interested in what science discovers. Others mistakenly think science will confirm their metaphysical or religious beliefs. But overwhelmingly science is valued for its material benefits. In their most idealistic moments, scientists may attempt to convince themselves that they pursue science for knowledge alone. Whatever the scientist thinks, however, the culture has another end in mind. There is no other way to account for the vast sums of money governments and businesses spend on research and development and individuals spend on technology. People today do not crave salvation or concern themselves with their God-relation. For many people science has replaced God as the source of well-being and the scientist has replaced the priest as the means of access to the source of good. A kind of mindless worldliness and thoughtless sensuality pervades the consumer culture the scientist serves.

“Natural science possesses no natural birthright to the cultural power it holds today. As I indicated, science is held in esteem because people want the things science provides. But science cannot provide everything people need. Science cannot tell you what is right or wrong or make you wise or good. Science cannot endow your life with meaning or make you happy. It cannot give you love or show you how to love. Science cannot forgive your sins or give you hope for eternal life. It cannot give you contentment in life. It cannot give you a genuine identity. It can’t tell you whether there is a God or what God thinks of you or what God wants of you. It has no comforting words to prepare you for death. It cannot change the laws of nature or control the future. Science must remain silent or speak foolishly in relation to the existential dimension of humanity. Science is not God. Science is human through and through; it derives from the power of our reason to figure out the laws of nature and use them for our ends. It gives the impression of being superhuman for the same reason that governments give that impression: it is a communal undertaking transcending the individual in power and longevity, but it does not transcend humanity as such. Science possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of humanity in an exaggerated form. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of science, it must be said that natural science cannot answer a single one of the top five or ten most important questions we ask or achieve anything of lasting significance. At the end of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant gave his list of three most important questions pressing on human existence: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” One could extend that list a long way before one gets to “What is the atomic weight of Iron?” Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) concluded, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ).

“We must consider one more extra scientific factor when evaluating science. The scientist is an existing human being. The scientist is not a machine completely absorbed in the objective world of nature. She/he is a subject, a body, an individual, fallible, mortal and needy, anxious, jealous, hopeful or despairing, optimistic or pessimistic. Science exists only in the minds of scientists. Science can’t do scientific research. In addition to being founded on metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions and directed toward social and political ends, science is conditioned by the subjectivity scientists bring to their task. A person can be driven to engage in science by curiosity, love of discovery, love of beauty, desire to serve God, desire to benefit humanity, adherence to a philosophy of nature, desire for wealth or fame, hatred and envy, pride or shame, and many other human motivations. Scientists can be virtuous or vicious, honest or dishonest, caring or cruel. This is true not only because scientists sometimes falsify data or take short cuts or plagiarize but because these subjective factors affect what presuppositions they favor and to what ends they direct their research. Even at the levels of observation and interpretation subjective factors play a part, for good or ill.

“As these observations make clear, even if the inner workings and the material findings of modern natural science are strictly limited to the empirical, these empirical findings do not stand alone or interpret themselves or put themselves to use. Because science is nestled between epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions and cultural ends and is conducted by subjects, there is plenty of room for conflict and dialogue between what scientists claim as the significance of their empirical findings and other interpretations of reality.”

Ten Things Natural Science Cannot Do

One of the most insidious falsehoods perpetuated in contemporary culture is the idea that natural science is final arbiter of truth and the ultimate hope of human salvation. Below I have listed ten things natural science cannot do. This list demonstrates that human beings cannot live a human life by natural science alone. It’s far too narrow, and it aims way too low. We need access to a truth science cannot supply and contact with a reality science cannot touch.

  1. Natural Science cannot answer a single important question—not even one. Science cannot establish the worthiness of anything it does.
  1. Natural Science cannot establish the validity of its methods or the truth of its theories. Science cannot demonstrate that it is doing anything more than organizing our empirical experience into meaningful patterns.
  1. Natural Science cannot prove the rightness or goodness or beauty of its activities.
  1. Natural Science cannot give you a reason to become a scientist or even to live another day.
  1. Natural Science cannot make a single moral, aesthetic, metaphysical or theological statement. Science is limited to describing, explaining and predicting the empirical structure and behavior of things in terms of physical causes, spatial and temporal relations, quantitative relations, organic functions, etc.
  1. Natural Science possesses no competence speak about existential meaning or purpose.
  1. Natural Science has nothing to say about to you as a person. It cannot tell you who you are, why you are here or what you are supposed to do.
  1. Natural Science cannot guide itself toward ends. Science has no mind or heart or soul; it cannot love or hate or feel. It cannot do anything or feel anything or think anything. It cannot read or write or speak. Science exists solely in the minds of scientists and is a wholly human enterprise subject to the same error and sin as are such other human enterprises as politics and economics. If human reason is limited, science is correspondingly limited. If human goodness is limited, science is limited accordingly.
  1. Natural Science cannot give you hope for the future or reason to love others or others reason to love you.
  1. Natural Science cannot forgive your sins, raise you from the dead or give you eternal life. It cannot tell you God loves you. It cannot give you the power to live a good life. It cannot comfort you at the graveside of your loved one or in your own dying hours.