Talk 2: Christian Faith and Scientism

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"The heavens declare the glory of God, and he sky above proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19.1).

That was the starting point for the great physicists of the 17th century. But for millions in the West the reality is very different. To quote from a newspaper interview, the BBC's 2016 Reith Lecturer, Professor Stephen Hawking, starting with bits of the human body instead of the sky above, would not agree. For he says:

"I regard the brain as a computer … There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

But how is it that humanly millions believe such nihilism in the Western world in the 21st century?

It certainly is not due to the facts science reveals. Some of the recent and very great physicists like Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr (all Nobel prize winners) have admitted the rationality of believing in God.

Modern science has to be understood in the context of its historical flowering in the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, we need to begin in the 4th century BC with the philosopher, Aristotle, the Greek genius and polymath. In his day the subjects of modern science were all part of philosophy (a Greek word meaning literally the "love of wisdom"). What we now know as the various "sciences" evolved out of philosophy over the centuries (and particularly in the 19th and 20th), once a particular discipline had agreed methods of procedure and ways of testing hypotheses. You then had independent sciences, such as physics, chemistry, biology and so on.

But Aristotle differed from today in wanting a full explanation of the subjects he was investigating. So for him, and for common sense, you need at least four explanatory factors, which he called "causes". These were the "formal" cause, answering the question, "what is it?" – (for example) a table; the "material" cause, answering the question, "of what is it composed?" – answer, wood; the "efficient" cause, answering the question, "what or who brought it into existence?" – answer, a carpenter; and, fourth, the "final" cause, answering the question, "to what end is it directed?" – so a table is for eating off, writing on or leisure pursuits. Aristotle knew that such a fourfold explanation is desired by intelligent people who want to understand things. He would also say that not to be able to answer, or not to want to answer those four questions or explanatory factors, is to fail intellectually, to fail scientifically (scientia is the Latin for "knowledge") and so to fail philosophically (in your love of wisdom).

But such a failure is happening in the secular West today in our schools and universities as we shall see.

Let me explain.

There was resistance to Aristotle at the time of the Reformation and as the new sciences were evolving. Some mediaeval scholasticism was so married to Aristotle that the Bible was obscured. Luther put things bluntly but unhelpfully because only half true:

"a man cannot become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle … compared with the study of theology, the whole of Aristotle is as darkness is to the light."

However, this Reformation rejection of Aristotle gave permission to scientists (or "natural philosophers" as they were then called) to ignore his "four causes".

Isaac Newton and the rest of the founders of modern science now had a free hand to have their own simple scheme of "primary" and "secondary" causes. That is where God is said to be the creator and first cause, but he uses secondary causes to achieve his purposes in the world – through natural laws and the like.

This is the scheme described in the Westminster Confession (chapter 5 section 2) which is about God's providence:

"Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently."

Focusing on secondary causes meant more time for scientists to experiment instead of sitting at a desk or in a monastery cell having to think about God and any ultimate "efficient" causes or "final" causes that relate to him. It was, indeed, this freedom that contributed to the rise of modern science. Modern science was born of two convictions: one that the universe was the rational product of a rational mind, and, two, that the mind of this maker was not bound at every turn by the deductive syllogisms of the scholastics. So the best way for a scientist to determine how the Creator had done things was to turn to nature and examine it carefully.

But this new scheme had its problems. Listen to Francis Bacon the first philosopher of modern science and a 16th century contemporary of the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker. Bacon was writing on the temptations which would indeed be very powerful. He says:

"Undoubtedly a superficial tincture of philosophy [he means the new science] may incline the mind to atheism … For on the threshold of philosophy [or science], where second causes appear to absorb the attention, some oblivion of the highest cause [God, the primary cause] may ensue."

However, he then went on to say that "a farther knowledge brings it [the mind] back to religion" for "when the mind goes deeper" it sees that these primary and secondary causes are all connected and depend on one another in the providence of God.

Of course, that is fine if people do go deeper. But the success of discovering secondary causes in mechanics and the application of them in all sorts of technologies has indeed led (as Bacon predicted) to agnosticism and even "atheism" in the 18th, 19th , 20th and 21st centuries in the West.

Also the rejection of Aristotle at the Reformation meant that the failure to demand adequate explanation in terms of final causes – the purpose of things or the end to which they are directed - has been spiritually disastrous. It is one of the causes of secularism and the religion of nihilistic science, or scientism, that Hawking represents.

And, of course, this is the particular issue in the conflict over human origins. Darwin was the culprit here in not focusing in respect of Homo Sapiens (human beings) on Aristotle's formal cause (the answer to the question "what is it?") and his final cause (the answer "to what end is it?"). He was really only focusing on material causes (or physical structure and physical nature). Obviously human beings are analogous to animals in some physical respects. So some evolution of the fittest is possible and likely. But in terms of the human mind, human communication and above all in terms of being religious, they are not analogous. Human beings are radically different to animals and machines. Therefore, for Christian people (and it should be the case for secularists) the problem is not so much over when creation "began" – whether trillions of years ago or 10,000. The problem is how to conceive of the "beginning of all things", whenever it happened. It is the same with how to conceive of the "end of all things", whenever that will be. With regard to latter, the Bible provides us with a kaleidoscope of analogies in the book of Revelation, whose gist is clear enough in the context of the whole Bible. Similarly, that is what seems to be happening in Genesis 1-3 and particularly in chapter 1. The main problem with Darwinism is its claim that the development of the universe was a random process without God, not how long that development took. The Bible teaches that God is in control at all times.

So what is to be said about "Creation and creationism" with regard to schools. This is always a hot-potato. In early 2016 it was an issue at the BBC when an alleged creationist was appointed as the male host to BBC Breakfast which has 6 million viewers. Dan Walker, this new host, also thinks keeping Sunday special is a good thing, which, The Times newspaper and others at the BBC implied, makes the man a "weirdo".

Because Psalm 90 is the only Psalm claiming to be by Moses and has the reference, "a thousand years … are but as yesterday" and 2 Peter 3.8 in the New Testament, therefore concludes, "with the Lord one day is as a thousand years", I am not persuaded by those who insist that Genesis 1 has to be exegeted as referring to a 144 hour creation. Nevertheless, I (and a number of modern philosophers of science) would agree with G.K.Chesterton who once said in a broadcast talk:

"some of the most aged among you were told, a long while ago, that the world was made in six days. Most of you are now told that modern science contradicts this; a statement which is certainly much more of a lie than the statement it contradicts."

The fact is the Bible's creation account speaks with brilliant simplicity. In the same way as you can say, "the sun rose this morning", which is not scientific from a Copernican point of view, but communicates a real happening, so, it can be argued, Genesis communicates. And what it fundamentally teaches, and Christians believe, is that God caused the world, the world did not cause God, and God was active in all of creation.

And it needs to be noted that it is not a majority who believe that God played "no part in the process" of creation, but only 48% (according to a recent poll).

All this being so, not surprisingly there is a reaction going on against secular nihilism and not just in schools but also at the University level. Questions are now being asked as to why the final cause of human existence is not a subject for study in our universities.

In 2007 there was a significant book be Anthony Kronman. Its title was Why our Colleges and Universities have given up on the Meaning of Life. He was not writing as a Christian but a humanist and a Law Professor at Yale. He is concerned that our universities have expelled the question of what is life for and its meaning from their lecture rooms. Kronman, however, contrasts this with an earlier era, when the question of the meaning of life was at the centre of education.

At the beginning of the 19th century, universities in America and also Oxford and Cambridge were not highly specialized institutions. Indeed, Oxford only began separate honour schools for different subjects in 1802 with Mathematics and Literae Humaniores (Greek and Roman Classics and Philosophy); and Natural Sciences and Law-and-Modern History were added in 1853. Up to that time, in both Britain and America every branch of learning, with Theology as queen, had its place in a unified body of knowledge whose purpose was to shape students morally and intellectually for leadership in both the Church and the world.

All this was changed by the emergence of the research university in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century, when people believed new additions to knowledge would change the world for good, in line with the German enlightenment.

Kronman summarizes what happened:

"The older conception [of knowledge and its transmission], which had shaped European higher education since the Middle Ages and been transported to America in the 17th century, encouraged a more stable and holistic view of knowledge, one that stressed the continuity of human knowledge from each generation to the next and the capacity of a well-educated mind to grasp it as a whole. It underscored the role that teachers play as keepers of a tradition. By contrast, the new ideal of scholarship emphasizes the progressive character of human knowledge, which changes and increases over time."

But the problem then was this. The immensity of such knowledge makes it impossible for anyone to see the wood for the trees.

Of course you need invention, but not at the loss of all that is valuable from the tradition. So often now the goal of the research university is certainly not to discuss the meaning of life, but to provide information for others to use to make money to fund more research.

The following year to Kronman's writing, Alasdair MacIntyre, the philosopher, concluded his study God, Philosophy, Universities on a similar note. He points out that in the new research universities, which most of the prestigious universities have become, they are different to their predecessors on two counts. One they don't try to integrate the various disciplines; and, two, they have no sense of a shared enterprise (I quote),

"whose principal aim is neither to benefit the economy nor to advance the careers of its students, but rather to achieve for teachers and students alike a certain kind of shared understanding."

So perhaps they ought to be renamed, "multiversities". This is so different to the concept of the "university" behind the vision of a truly liberal education. And MacIntyre says the concept of the University presupposed by these modern universities is …

"not just one that has nothing much to do with any particular conception of the universe, but one that suggest strongly that there is no such thing as the universe, no whole of which the subject matters studied by the various disciplines are all parts or aspects, but instead just a multifarious set of assorted subject matters."

Take the study of man and the range of things said about human beings:

"From the standpoint of physics human beings are composed of fundamental particles interacting in accordance with the probabilistic generalizations of quantum mechanics. From that of chemistry we are the sites of chemical interactions, assemblages of elements and compound. From that of biology we are multicellular organisms belonging to species each of which has its own evolutionary past. From that of historians we are intelligible only as emerging from long histories of social and economic transformations. From that of economists we are rational profit-maximizing makers of decisions. From that of psychology and sociology we shape and are shaped by our perceptions, our emotions, and our social roles and institutions. And from that of students of literature and the arts it is in the exercise of our various imaginative powers that we exhibit much that is distinctive about human beings. But how do all these relate to each other? In what does the unity of a human being consist? And how should the findings of each of these disciplines contribute to our understanding of ourselves and of our place in nature?"

It would have been the place of philosophical theology in the past to have given an answer. But not today. Philosophy is often only in the university because it will attract some students who will pay over their loans for a course that doesn't even begin to answer those questions. And theology in many universities is no longer teaching for commitment but just religious studies and treating the Bible just as any other part of world literature, and, irrationally, not addressing its truth claims.

So how we need, as in America, not just Christian schools but Christian universities which, as a matter of fact, often academically outclass secular ones; and we need them soon.

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