Faith, Science, and Proof

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by Shane Scott

I am in the midst of a series of articles exploring some common objections to Christianity raised by atheists. The particular arguments I am considering actually grew out of an extensive online discussion with some friends of mine who are not believers. In this article I want to address what I think may be the central issue that stood in their way, and that stands in the way of faith for many people today. By the very nature of this topic, my thoughts in this article are going to involve thinking carefully through some issues that we don’t typically discuss in sermons, so I hope you don’t mind “girding up the loins of your mind,” as Peter might say!

During the course of my exchanges with my friends, one of them made this challenge:

“You claim God exists, you prove it. If you want us to believe then you better prove it scientifically –  otherwise we won’t believe it.”

The underlying premise of this challenge is that the only kind of proof that merits acceptance is “scientific” proof. This viewpoint is sometimes called scientism. scientsimidolScientism is not the same thing as science. Broadly defined, science is the study of the natural world, including subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology. By contrast, scientism claims that the natural world is all that exists, and therefore, only those truths that can be deduced by the study of science can be considered legitimate. Scientism is the underlying assumption of the New Atheist movement.

There are two major problems with scientism, however. In the first place, it is self-refuting. Or, to use less, formal language, it doesn’t pass the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” test! My friend was basically claiming that the only way he would believe Christianity is if it could be scientifically proven, that the only kind of proof that counts is scientific proof. So, I turned the same challenge around to him. I asked him, “Can you demonstrate that scientific proof is the only kind of proof that deserves acceptance scientifically?” Obviously not. Such a statement is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. And to prove a philosophical claim, you would have to use philosophical arguments. Since scientism cannot be proven scientifically, yet claims that the only acceptable knowledge is scientific knowledge, it refutes itself.

The classical arguments that great thinkers as far back as Aristotle and Aquinas made were not scientific arguments, but they did offer proof of God’s existence. That proof was in the form of logical arguments that started with obvious, empirical observations and then drew from such premises certain inevitable conclusions. The fact that such arguments were philosophical rather than scientific presents no problem, since even the most radical atheist is really doing nothing more than making philosophical assertions when demanding “scientific” proof.

And that leads me to a second problem with scientism. Atheists often possess a naïve faith in science, failing to realize that the practice of science rests on certain assumptions that cannot be demonstrated scientifically, but must be taken for granted. For example, scientific investigation depends on the following beliefs:

  • That there is a physical world existing independently of our minds (trying proving that!)
  • That this world is characterized by patterns and regularities.
  • That our senses are to some degree reliable sources of information.
  • That there are objective laws of logic and mathematics that apply to the world.

These facts may seem obvious, but they all rest on some very complicated underlying assumptions (in a discipline of study known as metaphysics). The scientific enterprise presupposes all of these facts. And since it assumes them, it could not possibly defend them without arguing in circles. These assumptions can only be defended philosophically. Which means that the very practice of science rests on decidedly non-scientific foundations. You can’t do physics without metaphysics, in other words.

I’d like to make one more point about faith and science (as opposed to scientism). I realize that many people on both sides of the debate over Christianity seek to pit faith against science. There is no question that scientism is opposed to faith in its effort to usurp the place of God and claim for science the quality of omniscience. But genuine faith and genuine science cannot be at odds. From a Christian point of view, the natural world is the creation of God – not many gods. And He is distinct from the creation, rather than the multiple gods of pagan religions – gods identified with the elements of nature, constantly and chaotically at war with each other. This one God, distinct from the world, is the reason for the order and regularities that make scientific observation possible. And He is the reason there are objective laws like logic and mathematics, and minds that can rationally comprehend and describe those patterns. The Christian story provides a reason for why those underlying assumptions I listed a bit earlier are in fact true. The atheistic worldview, on the other hand, struggles to explain why those assumptions should be the case.