This is the printer-friendly layout. Click here to find the online format.
Thomas S. Buchanan on God & Science
For several years I taught a course to freshmen on basic mechanics. In this course a teacher will begin by assuming that the universe is a very simple place where all ropes are massless, all pulleys are frictionless, and everything has only two dimensions. It is amazing how many problems you can solve when assuming that we live in such a strange universe.
As the students progress and master simple mechanics, the teacher must introduce a third dimension, gravitational forces, and friction. The problems can no longer be solved so easily. That is, once the students understand the basic concepts with the simplified assumptions, they must be given more realistic assumptions, so that they begin to see the way things really work.
I believe that this is essentially how modern science deals with God. For the sake of building simple equations and mathematical models, we assume that he does not exist, because accounting for God is more than most of us can handle, mathematically. These equations work well for the most part, explaining the phenomena they are supposed to explain, but they are a simplification of the real universe.
Naturalism Breaks Down
In the study of physics or engineering, these assumptions—the “laws” of physics—make good sense. The naturalistic approach solves most of the problems we have. God does not usually violate the principles of gravitational forces, and I would prefer to know that the engineers who designed a bridge took those forces into account and did not presume upon divine intervention to hold up the roadbed, before I load my family into my car and drive across it. The basic “laws” of physics serve us well.
Nevertheless, the naturalistic approach breaks down when challenged by more realistic assumptions, as when we get to certain aspects of biology. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you that we have made little progress in understanding human thought and reason. This is due, in part, to scientists’ beginning premise that man is made of just body, without soul or spirit. For to believe that man also is made with an immortal soul is to acknowledge the existence of a part of us that is beyond the reach of electrodes, a part that can even continue after death.
Man is both physical and spiritual. A few neuroscientists understand this. For example, the Nobel Prize laureate Sir John Eccles believed this and attempted to study how the spirit affects the way neurons fire in the brain.
However, for every Eccles there are a hundred or more naturalists who believe that the nerve cells and neurotransmitters describe everything that happens in the mind and that once we formulate laws governing cellular interactions we will understand all there is to know about human thought and behavior. In like manner, many geneticists believe that once we understand the human genome we will understand the secrets of human behavior.
Scientists bounce from one idea to another, looking for a type of Rosetta Stone that will allow them to unlock the secrets of human behavior without having to consider the soul—that part of us that is supernatural, the part that communes with God. They do this to show their independence of God. What this bouncing shows is in fact their ignorance of him.
This reverses the usual stereotype. Many scientists, and popular culture in general, seem to think that Christians are narrow-minded fools because we believe in God. But because we believe in God, Christians have the broader view.
In the Middle Ages, one’s education began with the trivium, which consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Once these were mastered, a student was then ready to begin the more advanced topics of the quadrivium: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Only when one mastered the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium was one considered competent to proceed to theology. The ancients realized that the arts and sciences were subordinate to God, and only the best minds were allowed to be trained in theology.
In our world, theology has taken a back seat to science, but only because we have allowed it to. It is still a much more difficult thing to understand—the workings of the Lord of the Universe—and although many excellent scientists are working today, I know of few world-class theologians. I believe this is because theology is a broad discipline requiring an understanding of many fields—history, philosophy, literature, science, and so on—while science is a far more narrow discipline, requiring specific technical skills and little knowledge of anything else. Most scientists I know do not have the skills to study theology. They never got past the trivium (as anyone who has ever tried to read through a thesis written by a scientist can attest.)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton wrote against the “materialists” who believed that everything began in matter and could be explained by scientific principles of causation. He believed that materialism was a far more limiting assumption than Christianity. “All intelligent ideas are narrow,” he wrote in his work Orthodoxy. “They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist.”
But materialism is much more restrictive than supernaturalism, he continued, because although “[t]he Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe . . . the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.” The Christian
admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure that he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as [a lunatic] is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.
Although popular culture treats us as narrow-minded, we actually have a far more broad-minded view of the universe than the confident materialists. We have room for science and theology—our universe is bigger. Theirs is the narrow universe of naturalistic materialism.
He Made Us
In Psalm 100 we read, “Know that the Lord, he is God; it is he who has made us, and not we ourselves.” Modern scientists have twisted this to say that we who came from Adam (which means “dirt” or “ground” in Hebrew) have made ourselves. The dirt raised up from the dirt to make itself, and from this came man. The first man was not made (by Someone) from the dust of the earth, but the dust of the earth somehow made the first man.
What are the implications of this line of thought? If God is Creator of the universe, we need to look to him for the order to which we must conform ourselves. But if we made ourselves, we can make up our own rules. That is, if we made ourselves, we do not need to look to God for order and meaning, we don’t have to conform ourselves to anything outside us.
Why does this matter? Look at the issues involving the creation and termination of life. Cloning, abortion, euthanasia, test tube babies—these are issues that affect us all, or will in the very near future. Our future is being shaped by those who wish to mold man in their image.
In China there are millions more boys born than girls because they have the technology to determine a child’s sex in utero and have no moral qualms about aborting girls solely because they are girls. In our country, parents will soon have the ability to make children who are clones of themselves (or their loved ones). We can make people in our image! Or, if you don’t like that, you can make a child to be like a famous dead person.
I predict that within the next five years we will hear debates about digging up the bodies of Beethoven, Mozart, Einstein, Napoleon, and a host of others in order that their DNA might be cloned. Mark my words.
This is what comes when man no longer thinks that “it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves.”
How We Live
If we believe that He made us, how should we live? First, we should not be ashamed of our faith. We should not be bullied into believing that we have an inferior argument because our argument contains God. God is not a handicap. He is a source of power.
I am often asked by undergraduate students if it is difficult to be a Christian and a scientist. I usually respond that I find no conflict. I am a scientist by training, and I do not have sufficient faith to be an atheist, so I see no other viable choice.
The eyes of faith, I submit, are no less scientific than the eyes of naturalism. Indeed, they are more scientific, because they accept more realistic assumptions, assumptions that better reflect reality. Just as our two eyes see two different pictures, and we are able to merge them stereoscopically to produce something more marvelous than one single view, so too the eyes of faith and science can often see things more clearly and wonderfully than those with monocular vision.
To study the human nervous system, for example, is to peer into God’s image—to look at something fearfully and wonderfully made. Such work can be overwhelming when viewed with the eyes of faith.
Second, we should praise God that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, as the psalmist says: “I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are your works, and that my soul knows very well.” For ten years I worked in the research laboratories of the Rehabilitation Institution of Chicago—the leading rehab hospital in the world. Since my lab was on the fourteenth floor, I would often be in the elevator with patients who were missing a hand, an arm, or a leg. At times, I would feel guilty that I could actually walk into the building and stand in the elevator.
But now that I am working elsewhere, without these reminders, I rarely pause to give thanks to God for blessings that I have. Our life itself is a gift from God. He made us, he fashioned us, he designed us in his image. This gift of life should not be casually ignored or intentionally denied.
Those of us who have children understand this gift of life because we have experienced the miracle of birth. Despite our knowledge of embryology and neonatal development, to most people the birth of a child still remains a great miracle. Why? Because even if we cannot articulate it, in the processes of conception and gestation we see the creation of something sacred, something made in the image of God. We see the birth of a new soul. In the very act of designing us, God’s touch made our lives sacred. In every child born in a hospital, there is a hint of that child born in a manger.
Christians believe that life itself is holy. It is sacred because we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God himself. If we do not believe this, then we are like those who “professing to be wise . . . became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (Rom. 1:22–23a).
May God give us grace to reflect on how fearfully and wonderfully made we truly are.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.