November 22, 2017

Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 2)

Kings Canyon, Watarrka National Park, Australia

Kings Canyon, Watarrka National Park, Australia

Science and the Bible Lesson 2
by Mike McCann

In the last essay I asserted that all truth is God’s truth.  Therefore the revelation of God through nature and the revelation of God through the bible cannot contradict; they are in perfect harmony.  However, because of our fallible human understanding of both science and scripture there are inevitably going to be conflicts in our interpretation of natural phenomena or in our interpretation of scripture.  We should neither be surprised nor dismayed.

I also asserted that the so called “plain reading” of scripture should not always dictate what our scientific conclusions should be.  Clearly most of us now understand the Bible passages that refer to the rising and setting of the sun are based on the way the ancients observed the phenomena; in fact we continue to use the terminology as convenient.  But we don’t base our modern technology on the ancient understanding of natural phenomena.  What part of the firmament does NASA fire its rockets into?  Was anyone surprised that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin proclaimed that “I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God?”  Was there really anyone who expected him to? (Ironically, Gagarin never said such a thing, and was, in fact, a Christian.)  No, as I said earlier, we simply understand those passages in their native scientific context, make the appropriate adjustments according to our scientific expectations, and move on… (Credit again to Gordon Glover and his Science and Christian Education series).

So how should we do science?  Google the Merriam-Webster definition of science and you get: “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation”.   Note that the knowledge science deals with is not the only knowledge there is.  Science is not a belief system nor a worldview.  I don’t believe in “science” rather than believe in God.

In my profession as a geologist I practice methodological naturalism.  I assemble the facts based on observation or experiment and formulate a hypothesis about what those facts mean.  I test that hypothesis based on what predictions would be made if it were true and then test those predictions by gathering additional observations or experiments.  The additional data either confirms the hypothesis or I modify the hypothesis according to the new facts.  A dry cleaners has a spill of dry cleaning fluid.  Does that spill pose a threat to nearby drinking water wells, and if so, how much of a threat.  I drill monitoring wells between the spill and the drinking water wells.  I collect water levels; are the drinking water wells downgradient or upgradient of the spill?  I collect water samples; the presence of the contaminant is confirmed or not.  And so I build my case until I reach the most probable conclusion.  Notice I said “most probable conclusion”.  The scientific method rarely proves anything absolutely.  There is always further refinement as new data continues to accumulate.  Did I conclude the drinking water wells not at risk?  Maybe I didn’t screen the sampling wells in the right formation and missed the contaminant plume.  Did I begin detecting the dry cleaning fluid in the drinking water wells?  Maybe there is more than one source I hadn’t accounted for.  You get the idea I hope.

One thing I do not do.  I do not consider the supernatural.  It’s funny in my profession you are always encountering people who want to know what you think about “water witching”.  Do I ever locate wells by witching them; no I tell them.  And then I get the anecdote about uncle or grandpa and how the “witch” located the best water when no one else could yada, yada, and so on.  I always smile and just move on.

Well, why don’t I consider the supernatural?  It’s not because I am a philosophical materialist.  Philosophic Materialism is a worldview which states the physical or material universe is all there is.  I don’t believe that.  I believe there is more than just matter and energy.  I believe in Jesus, that he raised from the dead, and is God as He claimed to be.  And I don’t believe there is any scientific (i.e. natural) explanation for that resurrection, it’s a faith claim.

Perhaps a more mundane example will illustrate my point… and will have the additional advantage of showing that you, dear reader, practice methodological naturalism yourselves.  Again, borrowing from Gordon Glover, suppose you need to be somewhere but you’ve lost your keys.  How will you go about finding them?  Should you consider they’ve been “spirited away by some supernatural force?

image1

Maybe God is protecting you from a deadly car accident…  But even if that’s the case, that’s not going to help you physically find the keys.  You really don’t have any practical way to deal with those scenarios…  Even if you pray for God to help you find them, it’s not going to do any good to just wait for God to drop them into your lap.  And if they’ve been “spirited away” to some other dimension, what’s the point of even looking for them.  Your only hope of finding them is to organize a material based “scientific” search for them by systematically re-tracing your steps; i.e. assume a methodological naturalism.

A biblical worldview should not fear or reject Naturalism if we are only talking about a method of investigation.  Not every problem we approach or every question we have can or should be solved or answered by methodological naturalism.  An excellent example of that is discussed in this Jesus Creed post on the free will issue.  But I am going to assert with a high degree of conviction that questions that submit themselves to material cause and effect explanations, such as those questions we usually ask under the banner of science, should be approached with methodological naturalism.

Another way of thinking about it is that methodological naturalism is the systematic study of God’s Ordinary Providence i.e. the regular observed patterns of material behavior that is the sum total of all the physical laws of nature.  It is this very ordinary-ness or the uniformity of nature that allows us to systematically investigate the cosmos according to its regular workings.

God is not bound by the ordinary laws of nature the He Himself instituted.  I believe He can and does, at His discretion, choose to intervene or suspend the ordinary workings of His sustaining power… which we call miracles.  But remember, His ordinary laws of nature are no less His workings.  That is the mistaken dichotomy of modernism.  I believe the ancient authors of the Bible did not make this division, to them it was all God.  So when Jesus turned water into wine, God bypassed the normal means to glorify and point to His Son.  By His ordinary means He is turning water into wine all the time…

Psalm 104:14 — He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.

Science can only comment on the ordinary process of wine making, it can have nothing to say about the miraculous process…NOTHING!

But on the other hand there is nothing more spiritual about miracles than about the usual way God goes about doing things.

Comments

  1. Greetings, dear Imonk readers. I have a business meeting this morning, so I will not be able to engage comments until this afternoon.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      That’s okay. I’m filling up the slack (or should that be Fracking the Slack?) with a couple snarks.

  2. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    I asked the question a bit late last time, but you did answer it indirectly this time round:

    You are a hydrogeologist / environmental geologist?

    (From a fellow geologist – I wear a few hats, but practice as a Resource geologist – mostly potash, diamonds, phosphates. Have a background that includes kimberlite petrology, volcanology, lots petrography as well as geochronology – Ar/Ar)

  3. “Note that the knowledge science deals with is not the only knowledge there is.”

    Quite a bet, that. To me, the only thing worth noting that is that when science and not-science are in ‘conflict’, science is the one that’s actually correct isn’t it?

    Yeah, I know it’s currently in vogue to say Galileo was ‘disrespectful’ or that Darwin could have phrased things more artfully or that the Enlightenment *totally* led to the Holocaust.

    But really, at the end of the day, you’ll want your medicines from a scientist and not a Christian Scientist, won’t you?

    • I’d agree, J.

      In the last essay I asserted that all truth is God’s truth.

      My problem with this is when a hierarchy is established. Truth is truth. In the case of conflicting truths, “the Bible” “God’s truth” “Spirit revelation” does NOT win. Truth is truth.

      Christians, above all, should be committed to the truth. Not some arbitrary traditionalistic truth, but to real, hard, brutal, naked, honest, it hurts truth. The easiest way for me to lose respect for any religious leader is to catch them lying, because their “believed truths” are greater than actual truths.

      • Yeah. What seems to be happening is the formation of an argument that ‘deeply held religious beliefs’ be given a kind of affirmative action: A trump card* or ‘doctor’s note’ excusing those who proclaim it from having to actually compete in the marketplace of ideas. Which strikes me as a HUGE cheat. The laws for ‘religious exemptions’ were intended for tiny fringe sects. That majority groups, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere might claim it is nothing less than a reversion: A straight-up backwards movement to the 18th century and before, when you couldn’t say critical things about the church or mosque because it was against tradition and they said so, that’s why.

        Theists are going to be chuckling about this right up until the moment the Unitarians or Reform Jews or Church of Satan opens it’s first restriction-free abortion clinic in the south.

        *Sheesh, that term’s connotations has been forever altered by recent events hasn’t it?

        • Agreed.

          Beliefs should never trump truths. Especially for anyone who believes all truth is God’s truth. Otherwise, it’s just fear. Childish fear.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says:

        Fully agreed on your hierarchy of truths comment.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “But really, at the end of the day, you’ll want your medicines from a scientist and not a Christian Scientist, won’t you?”

      Have you even *heard* the warnings for most medications? I’m not sure I want medicines from scientists, either!

      • Ask your doctor if Morteum is right for you.
        Side effects may include vomiting, strange dreams, disgruntled bowel syndrome, homocidal thoughts, swelling of the feet and hands, hair loss, kidney failure, nervousness or anxiety, bleeding from the eyes, puss-filled boils, night sweats, sudden blindness, heart palpatations, oral leprosy, uncontrolled salivation, and spontaneous combustion.
        If you or someone you know experiences any of these symptoms while taking Morteum, contact the nearest HAZMAT center for safe disposal.

  4. “But remember, His ordinary laws of nature are no less His workings. That is the mistaken dichotomy of modernism. I believe the ancient authors of the Bible did not make this division, to them it was all God.”

    Okay. But then I’ve seen christians get very huffy if their prayers are ever compared to magic or spellcasting. “No,” they say, “It’s completely different!” and then go on to explain to me exactly why. Which, y’know, fair enough. But if you look at what ancient people believed–yes, including the supposedly monotheist Israelites–then it is likewise not at all clear that they differentiated magic from prayer from miracles. This, again is a ‘modernism’.That you embrace this supernaturalism but not that one is likewise selective.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Not just prayers — look at the Spiritual Warfare fanboys. Some of them wouldn’t be out of place beside John Dee & Edmund Kelley in a Summoning Circle. And nobody has ever been able to explain the distinction between Imprecatory Prayer and Putting a Hex on someone you don’t like.

      • It’s folk religion. You are evoking a spirit to alter or change this world in some way for good or for bad. Results are often mixed and heavily interpreted. Glory is given or original prayer is ignored.

        What’s changed in the past couple hundred/thousand years? Maybe the name of the deity. We are so good at saying “God” to mean anything. There are hundreds if not thousands of “Gods”, all with the same generic label name. What are we describing? Some unknown entity? Something we can’t put into words? The image of the invisible? The magnificent? The force and sense of love behind the cosmos? It doesn’t seem to be Jesus of Nazareth. That guy dusted his shoes off and left a place. He didn’t put hexes on people.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          I remember private correspondence with Martha of Ireland regarding folk magic traditions. (Specifically, the Appalachian and PA Dutch folk magic traditions used in fiction by Manly Wade Wellman et al, of which the type example is The Long-Lost Friend.)

          At one point, she stated that in a lot of folk magic, there is little difference between prayers and spells.

    • Oh it absolutely can be spell casting or magic or whatever. HUG does a good job of showing just how the magical incantations are done. In Jesus’ name, amen. Like praying a blessing over food, almost seems like a ritualistic purity incantation, not an honest confession to God that he dared blessed us with food as we’re starving because we are incapable of feeding ourselves but thank you God for daring to let us eat today as we supersize our meals in the name of Jesus.

      ugh

      It’s always been a form of magic.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Not just magic, or folk magic, but that they won’t admit to it.

        Contrast this with a Catholic contact of mine years ago, who agreed when I said that by any definition I could come up with, Mass (Divine Liturgy to you Eastern-Rite types) falls under the classification of a form of ritual magic.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      J, you do get at one aspect of prayer that I wrestle with. It is NOT magic wand, genie-in-the-bottle stuff, though that’s what a lot of Christians make it out to be. In fact, most Christians I know (self included) tack “in Jesus name” at the end of every prayer, as if that’s some sort of magical “abracadabra”.

      Prayer is NOT magic or spell-casting, which leaves several of us Christians wondering, so just what is it…?

      • Prayer sure seems like magic for most of the Christians I know. “Pray for my kids who are sick” “Pray that I find a new job” “Pray that the right political candidate is elected”. So, you pray for stuff and hopefully, you get it. You recite a magic spell, and hopefully, it conjures up what you want.
        If you pray for your kids to stop barfing and they don’t, how can you escape the thought that you either didn’t pray hard enough or did not pray correctly. How could healing be bad? And if healing doesn’t happen, and you believe that the sickness came to teach you a lesson, how can you escape the thought that your neighbors kids did not get sick so are you the only one who needs to learn something? Why is it so darn difficult for so many Christians to believe that life is chaotic and random and no amount of bending God’s ear can change that?

        What is prayer then? I’m not sure.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I also asserted that the so called “plain reading” of scripture should not always dictate what our scientific conclusions should be.

    Especially when I’ve heard some really WEIRD “plain readings of SCRIPTURE” during my time in-country. (The heyday of The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay and Christians For Nuclear War — the current convoluted “plain readings” of AIG are positively mundane compared to some of those going around at the time.)

    • oooh there’s a passage in the book I’m reading (True Believers: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements) that deals with this. I’ll hunt it down later and post it. It’s good.

  6. Joseph (the original) says:

    I like the mention of prayer as a representation of superstition for both the Christian and other monotheists and polytheists…

    I can appreciate the connection when making appeals to supra-natural ‘forces’ (both benevolent and malevolent) to directly intervene in human circumstances. Prayers or appeals that hope to alleviate some perceived natural condition (healing, provision, protection, etc.) are efforts to be heard by a deity or deities that will be moved into action by the supplications.

    For those that are Christians reading and posting here, including the author of this post, what elements of Christian prayer can be understood as being different than the prayers of non-Christians of other faiths that acknowledge a ‘higher power’ in their supplications???

    • I don’t know anymore, tbh. But I’m interested in hearing other’s thoughts.

    • Taking the Lord’s Prayer as the model, there’s actually very little about it that is asking for “stuff”, our daily bread excepted. Mostly, it is a cry for God to finish His work in redeeming Creation, and giving us the power to do our parts in that work (like forgiving our enemies, avoiding temptations, etc). The typical “vending machine”/”prayers in, stuff out” model isn’t a good fit with that paradigm.

      • Joseph (the original) says:

        Eeyore:

        yes, a good reference point regarding prayer for the unctuous Christian…

        what about the condition: deliver us (all plural petitions in the Lord’s Prayer) from evil (all manner of evil? the evil one without and the evil within?)

        seems like a protection spell? although the Lord’s Prayer has been viewed as a template, or framework, for petitions to the Heavenly Father (seems more like an absentee father, no?) that supposedly knows all the things His children need before it leaves their lips in petition, it is ‘true’ that the vast majority of specific petitions are not granted…

        the miraculous will always be the exception, not the norm…

        Jesus encourages us to pray as does the Apostle Paul, but being ignored or not having prayers answered is what, a definition of insanity? superstition? self-deception? drinking the grape flavored Kool-Aid of religious win-the-lotto hopes???

        • kerokline says:

          Unctuous? I’ve always found the Lord’s Prayer fairly inoffensive. Sure, the KJV renders it a little purple prose-y, but at it’s core its so much more interesting than I think you’re allowing.

          Yes, I agree, and I don’t know that anyone who gives it half a second’s thought wouldn’t also agree, that prayer have nearly nothing to do with G-d. We do not pray for G-d’s benefit, we do no pray for His favor, we do not expect a response. We pray to silence, for ourselves.

          I always assumed that’s why the Lord’s prayer sounds less like an invocation and more like a reminder. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us / Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” could just as easily be rendered, “I hope I do right by you, I hope I can forgive myself or others who don’t.”

        • what about the condition: deliver us (all plural petitions in the Lord’s Prayer) from evil (all manner of evil? the evil one without and the evil within?) seems like a protection spell?

          It’s definitely not meant as a protection from harm – Jesus and Paul both told Christians to expect suffering and persecution in this life. It’s more a call to help us persevere in the midst of it.

          being ignored or not having prayers answered is what, a definition of insanity? superstition?

          Again, it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for magic, yep, it’s insanity. If you’re looking for *your* expectations to be adjusted… welcome to orthodox Christianity. 🙂

          the miraculous will always be the exception, not the norm…

          One of the problems of the “flat” way that many Christians read the Bible today is they say “It is chock full of miracles!” Well… yes and no. Yes, it certainly documents miracles. But that documentation is spread over (at bare minimum) 2500 years of Israel’s history (and I am NOT going to get into any squabbles over pre-Abrahamic chronology in this post 😛 ), and those miracles tend to concentrate around specific people and turning points in that history. Suffice to say, the vast majority of believers, then and now, saw no miracles with their own eyes.

          “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us / Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” could just as easily be rendered, “I hope I do right by you, I hope I can forgive myself or others who don’t.”

          Except the prayer is not addressed to others, but to God. Jesus was pretty clear in His condemnation of prayers offered merely for personal benefit or to impress onlookers.

          • One of the problems of the “flat” way that many Christians read the Bible today is they say “It is chock full of miracles!” Well… yes and no.

            Have you ever thought about all the people Jesus and the apostles walked by and didn’t heal?

          • kerokline says:

            Except the prayer is not addressed to others, but to God. Jesus was pretty clear in His condemnation of prayers offered merely for personal benefit or to impress onlookers.

            Come on Eeyore, you know what I mean. Prayers are for our benefit, not G-d’s. In the same passage where Jesus says not to pray out of vanity (“so that they may be seen by men”), He says to pray alone, in secret. In the same passage, He says ” your Father knows what you need before you ask Him”.

            What sense does it make for Jesus to pray, “Take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours”, if it is not for Jesus own benefit? Is G-d working in real time, as if He could be like “Oh no, dang, you’re right, you don’t need to do that”. Is G-d just waiting for us to do something, and now that the words have been said something has changed? G-d already knew – Jesus needed to say something, because silence and sound are powerful, primal things to humans. Unvoiced concerns are not concerns at all.

            Prayers are us saying what we need to need to say – not because G-d needs to hear it, but because we need it to be said.

          • To be fair, some of the language above is a bit… vague. 😉

          • Joseph (the original) says:

            Eeyore:

            It’s definitely not meant as a protection from harm – Jesus and Paul both told Christians to expect suffering and persecution in this life. It’s more a call to help us persevere in the midst of it.

            perseverance through anguish (a loved one’s suffering) or suffering (one’s own circumstances) instead of being alleviated, some nebulous form of grace (intended to make the suffering be suffered at its most intense?) is a good substitute???

            even when Jesus mentioned evil fathers (abusive really) that would give their child a snake instead of a fish when asked, or a scorpion instead of an egg, and this contrast mentioned right after His teaching of the Lord’s Prayer? but most answered petitions of the most passionate and honest end up with the unwanted strength to endure? isn’t that cruel? at least if we use Jesus’ example as a qualifier???

          • perseverance through anguish (a loved one’s suffering) or suffering (one’s own circumstances) instead of being alleviated, some nebulous form of grace (intended to make the suffering be suffered at its most intense?) is a good substitute???

            If you’re looking for an explanation of why God allows evil and suffering, I have none to give, because God Himself has not given it. But one thing He *has* done – as Dorothy Sayers pointed out in her book *Creed or Chaos*…

            “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

      • kerokline says:

        Even the “give us today our daily bread” is a rather interesting artifact of translation. The Vulgate renders it more like, “Give us our bread above subsistence” (panis super substantialis), or as some translations have it, “Give us today the bread for tomorrow”.

        I’ve always read that statement to not be about food or eating. After all, prayer or no prayer, it rains on the fields of the just and unjust right? Everyone gets bread (as much as anyone gets bread).

        I always read it to be about peace, not about hunger. More along the lines of “Let me not worry about tomorrow today”.

    • Christiane says:

      likely the most ‘different’ prayers would be the eucharistic prayers before communion:
      the Catholic and the Orthodox have similar liturgies for the Eucharist, and the Lutherans and the Anglicans have somewhat different eucharistic prayers

      I don’t know about evangelicals. I do know that for many of them, it is called an ‘ordinance’, which is observed without ‘formal’ liturgical prayers, and is considered ‘symbolic’ . . . I also don’t think it is a very high priority for worship as it is not observed very often by evangelical people. I could be mistaken about this and, if so, would appreciate correction.