Plenary Session 1
Topic: What Science Is, And What Science Isn't
Speaker: John Lennox
The first main session of the conference opened with Dr. John Lennox, the Irish mathematician and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford. Lennox is a brilliant Christian apologist and debater, who always articulates the faith very well.
Lennox opened by establishing some basic terms we must use consistently if we are to get anywhere in our discussion. "Science" is a broad term used in a large variety of ways, often confusingly: exact vs. non-exact science, quantitative vs. qualitative sciences, hard vs. soft science. As he pointed out, philosophers of science have basically given up trying to create a 'correct' definition of science because it so often advances by hunches, creativity, and the like. As a general rule, science which makes predictions that turn out to be true is good science...but that is not very useful as a practical way of thinking.
To begin with, he divided science into two broad categories: inductive science and forensic/historical science.
Inductive science is science where we can do an experiment, repeat it, and predict what happens next. It tends to be accurate, quantitative and testable. This is the type of science done by physicists, chemists, engineers, astronomers, mathematicians, medical doctors, molecular biologists, and the like.
Historical science is science which is done where historical events which cannot be repeated are investigated--cosmological events like the Big Bang, archaeology, some geology and some biology (particularly evolutionary biology). This is "post-op" science; Lennox used the analogy of a detective coming upon a body. He must make logical inferences, tests, and investigations to draw valid conclusions, but he can't repeat the experiment by doing the murder over and over again.
It is interesting to note, then, that the majority of our arguments in science tend to happen in the historical sciences. Inductive science tends to cut across worldviews--no matter what you believe, you tend to agree that if I've dropped this ball 5,000 times and it fell at an acceleration of 9.81 m/s2, then that will also happen on the 5,001st time.
It is this kind of science which has gained the trust of the culture. This repetitious science has led to massive technological breakthroughs which have made our lives better; as a result, we trust scientists.
(However, even this method is not deserving of complete 100% trust all the time. We must remain open-minded to the fact that our assumptions and partial knowledge limit us. Lennox told the story of the Inductivist Turkey. On day 1, he was fed. On day 2, he was fed. On day 3, he was fed. On day 364, he was fed. Repeated experiments told him that he would be fed tomorrow as well. But then day 365 turned out to be a thing called Thanksgiving. So he learned in a painful way that repeated experiments sometimes do not hold forever.)
Regardless, in general we would all agree that inductive science which repeatably makes predictions and then verifies them is the most solid type of science to trust in, and can reliably be accepted.
Lennox proposed, however, that it was very dangerous to give equal footing to historical sciences as inductive sciences. They still deserved trust and respect, but the lack of experimental certainty should result in a lowering of our certainty.
In general, we would do well to have a healthy dose of skepticism in our lives. True pure proof is only possible in mathematics, everything else really comes down to "the evidence is very strong." And within the category of "the evidence is very strong," experimental evidence should always outweigh theory/historical explanations.
Aristotle, Copernicus, Kepler, and Pure Reason
Lennox used the story of the Heliocentric universe as a good example of the danger of relying fully on theory and not on experimentation. In ancient Greece, there was no way to go and track an orbit directly via experimentation, so they had to rely on theory. The Greeks believed that since mathematics ruled the world, all orbits would be perfect circles. This requirement--which was pure conjecture--stunted astronomy for centuries.
Because of this Greek theoretical assumption--that everything orbited in pure circles--astronomers were handicapped. As observations of the heavens increased, this didn't hold. So Ptolemy developed a system in which pure circles orbited pure circles orbiting pure circles, to try and explain the situation.
It took over a millennium before Johannes Kepler challenged the other assumption. Kepler decided to throw out the assumption that the orbits were circular and instead to just plot them and see what they were; in the end he found that they were elliptical. (For more detail, read my past article on the same story.)
Lennox pointed out that this was a great example of the danger which plagues historical sciences today--they are unable to do repeated experiments and observations of some things (like the Big Bang and macroevolution). As a result, their theories carry a very high weight--and can force you to fit data into your preconceived notions. (See also my past article on confirmation bias.)
Science is done by scientists
Lennox argued then that the problem is, we often forget that science is done by scientists. The data collection methods must be set up by people, who have a certain worldview. The data must be sorted and "bad data" thrown out by people, who have a certain worldview. The data must then be analyzed by people, who have a certain worldview.
The data--the facts--are not the problem. It is the worldview which can lead people astray.
And we must remember that (contrary to what the New Atheists will tell you)--scientists must take some things on faith as well. They have their own creed. They must assume that the universe is rationally accessible to the human mind. They must believe nature is uniform across time and space. They must assume that there is a true reality out there which we can discover at least in part through the scientific process.
This is why, Lennox said, he is always so shocked by atheist's insistence that they will only believe God if He can be proved.
First, Lennox points out--there are many, many things which we believe in science that we cannot prove. Almost everything which is not pure mathematics in fact. We simply believe them because the evidence is so strong. They haven't been "proved." That is just lazy word use.
Second, you need not prove something to have enough trust to bet your life on it. None of us can prove that the airplane we are stepping on will safely land...but we are betting our lives on it.
That is all our religion is doing--it is arguing that there is sufficient evidence that one should risk their lives for the Christian faith. Scripture begins with a postulate: "In the beginning, God...". It assumes God. It doesn't try to prove Him. But then it gives us much evidence to give us reasons to risk our lives to follow Him.
Naturalism and Science are not the same thing
Ultimately, it all comes down to worldview. There are two major worldviews, and they don't really come into play during medicine, physics, engineering, or math...they come in when we talk about origins and the like. This is why it is so absurd that some Christians badmouth scientists, when in fact the majority of scientists are not at all working in origin type questions and their worldview is irrelevant.
The two major worldviews are this, put simply:
- Naturalism - nature is all that exists, a closed system of cause and effect
- Theism - nature is not a closed system
That is really the basic assumption. You cannot prove one or the other, they are just things you decide to believe or not to believe. Both are faith statements. The story of our culture--that science fits with one and not the other--is demonstrably false: 60% of Nobel Prize winners in science since 1900 claim to be Christians, and yet there are also Nobel prize winners who are die-hard atheists. Isaac Newton says the Law of Gravity points him to God, and Stephen Hawking says the Law of Gravity points him away from God. Obviously the Law of Gravity is not the issue! It is the preconceived worldview of those studying it which makes the difference.
So if we are to be fair, we must admit: the clash in our culture is not Science vs. God, but Naturalism vs. Theism.
The New Atheists are beginning to redefine science in a way it has never been defined before: by adding the requirement that only naturalistic science counts as science. This is purely a worldview statement and has nothing to do with the history of science...and yet it is what has been taught the past two generations in our schools.
You see, if you are a naturalist then you cannot allow a divine foot in the door. (As Lennox said: "If a divine foot gets in the door, there is a possibility it might be attached to a divine God who demands something of you.")
So naturalists are redefining science into an apparatus which immediately denies any evidence outside nature. Then they turn around on the other hand and say that they reject God because there was "no evidence"...when they were the ones who refused the evidence by their new definitions of science!
If you design a machine that only sees visible light, how can you deny that X-rays exist just because your machine doesn't pick them up? If you make a net 1ft square, how can you say that anything bigger than that is not a fish?
It seems a very silly thing to claim, and yet that is precisely what naturalistic scientists do. When you by definition refuse to accept ANY hint of the supernatural, it is ridiculous to later say you deny God because your science didn't find evidence of the supernatural.
Two Different Types of Explanations
Next, Lennox gave one of his classic (and I think, most powerful) arguments. He pointed out that the problem is we often forget that we are talking about two entirely different types of explanations.
Theists are looking for explanations of Agency--what the ancients would have called the Final Cause. Naturalists are looking for explanations of Mechanics--what the ancients would have called the Material and Formal Causes.
He shared two examples of this that he often gives to school children which makes it obvious.
1. Imagine you have a vehicle. Now why does that vehicle work? I'm going to give you two explanations for how that vehicle came to function and you can only choose one. Does the vehicle function because of the laws of internal combustion? Or does it function because of Henry Ford? Choose one.
2. Imagine we have a kettle boiling for tea. Why is this happening? Is it because of the laws of thermodynamics heating the bottom of the kettle and conducting into the tea? Or is it because I wanted a cup of tea?
To say one must choose between "science" and "God" is exactly the same kind of false dichotomy--there is no competition between them as explanatory power because they are not the same kind of explanation at all.
Why does the sun rise? Because of our orbit and our spin on our axis. AND because God wills that the sun rises. Both are true, and indeed, you NEED both for a full picture of the truth--just as you need Henry Ford for a full picture of why automobiles function, or you need the guy who is thirsty for tea for a full picture of why the tea is boiling.
They do not contradict each other, they complement each other.
This is why a God of the Gaps--where God is only used to explain what can't be explained naturally--is so dangerous and wrong for Christians. If this is your approach then necessarily as science advances, your God will shrink. But Genesis 1:1 doesn't say, "In the beginning, God created everything we don't understand...". Our believe in God explains both what science DOES know and what it DOESN'T know.
God is the one who puts the kettle on and adjusts the temperature and monitors it as it boils--you don't have to choose between Him and Thermodynamics to explain it. Both explanations are fully true and fully complementary.
In his final comments, Lennox argued strongly against the principle of reducability--the idea (crucial to Naturalism) that everything can be reduced purely to physical principles.
He used a true story to describe this.
At Oxford they have dinners with faculty, and they choose who sits by who randomly. So Lennox is sitting next to a biochemistry professor. The man hears that Lennox is a pure mathematician and laments, "We are going to have a terrible evening." Then he finds out Lennox is not a reductionist/naturalist, and decides he is really in for it.
But Lennox proposes they have some fun by doing an experiment. They pull out the menu and it offers as an entree Roast Chicken. Lennox asks the man to explain--using only biochemistry and proven science--how marks on the page can convey to him the idea of a particular species of bird which has been killed and prepared in a certain way.
In other words--how is it possible for simple marks on a page to convey information if you start only with basic chemistry and no purpose?
The man stood there stunned, unable to come up with something. His wife leans over and says, "You are going to want to get out of this one, honey."
They continued to discuss through the entire meal and by the end the man was shaken. He said it was impossible--not just that he couldn't do it, but it could not actually be done. There was no way to explain away abstract information and ideas being communicated by a certain ink laying in a certain way on a certain piece of prepared tree pulp.
Then Lennox really through him off because this man's specialty was DNA. If, Lennox said, you cannot explain the information of linguistics from pure naturalism and reducability, then how can you do it with DNA--which is itself a language?
What Lennox pointed out was the obvious--that we have thoughts and information, and thoughts and information cannot simply be random chemical interactions in the brain or they would not correspond to real, actual reality. Therefore materialism is ultimately suicidal because it destroys the very basis of the thoughts themselves. If you are a materialist then you cannot trust the validity of your thoughts which led you to materialism to begin with.
Thus, he concluded: consciousness, information, the complexity of life, and the origin of the universe are overwhelmingly difficult problems for naturalists.
In the end, he concludes: "Science and Christianity are compatible, but it seems to me quite clear that science and naturalistic atheism are not."
Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel's book, "Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False."