Posts Tagged ‘science’

In the previous post it was my desire to help Christians understand the broader context for The Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision on June 6, 2015, which ruled that states may not prohibit same-sex marriages.  The post highlighted the importance of understanding classical republicanism as the background to much of the Founders of the American Republic.  Classical republicanism stressed that for self-government to work the individual citizen needed to be virtuous, by which they meant one who controlled his inherent selfish patterns and lived for society’s common good.  The virtuous man was the free man because he was able to control his selfish passions.  Recognizing the inherent selfishness of human nature and the impossibility living virtuously without the support of religion, the Founders looked very favorably upon the role of religion as a source of civic health and freedom in American society, even if they did not always agree on the specific form that role would take.

In this post I want to look briefly at the philosophical and theological currents that have led to the contemporary radical change in attitude toward religion.  The four points below represent a shift in how people view reality or what is often called their worldview.

  1. Fact vs. faith. Becoming quite prominent in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was the idea that natural science was able to explain reality fully by means of the natural laws of cause and effect discovered through reason and experimentation. Science was true because it was based upon the facts.  The existence of God was not demonstrable by science, being by definition outside of the physical realm of cause and effect.  Religion was based upon faith, which was often seen as opposed to reason and without a factual basis and thus lacked a legitimate claim to truth.[1]
  2. Individual vs. society. Since faith in God was not supported by reason, man was born into a world without moral obligations to one another based upon universal divine authority. In contrast to classical thought—Christian and pagan—man was not by nature a social being with responsibilities toward his fellow human beings, but was an autonomous or self-ruling individual.  Consequently, society was no longer a positive field for the practice of virtue, but rather was a kind of necessary evil for the survival of the individual.  Therefore, working for the common good was a decision by the sovereign individual to help him survive and not a moral obligation or virtue as in classical republicanism.
  3. Negative vs. positive freedom. In a world created by God a person is not only obliged to obey God’s commandments and exercise love in society, his true freedom is to live according to his nature. This is what is meant by positive freedom.  In a world created by God one must conform his or her sexual practices to God’s will and there is no right to change the definition of marriage.   Indeed by living within God’s design for marriage the couple experiences a fully human relationship.  The predominant contemporary understanding of freedom is the lack of external constraints or negative freedom.  One must sacrifice some of his freedoms to live in society, but the truly free person may follow his passions as long as they don’t harm others.   In such a world individuals can demand that society permits them to fulfill their desire to have sexual intercourse with anyone who consents and to marry a consenting partner of the same sex.
  4. Self-divinization vs. sanctification. In Existentialism and Human Emotions the famous atheist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “There is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. … Man is nothing else but what he makes himself.” Sartre recognized that without a creator God, it is up to humans to make themselves what they want to be.  Humans become their own creators, their own gods.  With a creator God out of the picture and the freedom to create ourselves, it is not surprising that the transgender movement is following right on the heels of the successful efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.  As our own gods, we are free to decide whether we are male or female.[2]  In the Christian view God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). We do not create our own nature.  We have received it and by sin have perverted it.  The Christian gospel promises the restoration of our human nature by means of the process called sanctification.  The free person through faith in God’s grace escapes the corruption of sinful passions and is able to practice virtue (2 Peter 1:3-7) in conformity to Christ, the true image of God (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

What then is the place of religion in American society today?  The contemporary worldview that dominates not just America but Western society as a whole is hostile to most religion.  Religion is no longer is seen as a bulwark of civic health and freedom. The significant public role for religion at the beginning of the American republic was the product of a cultural-philosophical situation that no longer exists.  With the current worldview described above religious beliefs and practices are quickly being relegated to the strictly private sphere and necessarily so.  Many view membership in a church or a synagogue as on a par with belonging to a private club, except that a private club does not hold a philosophy of life that runs counter to the current cultural norms.  Also, the ever widening public sphere of increased government involvement in the daily lives of American citizens is resulting in a shrinking private sphere, which means that religion will play an even smaller role in American society.

These changes are why Christians feel increasingly marginalized in American society.  In my next post I will examine how Christians and the Church should respond.

[1] A similar approach taken by Dr. Steve Turley is worth reading.  See


[2] This is not to deny that there are people who suffer from a psychological and/or physical disorder that causes gender confusion.  They should be treated with compassion and professional help, but the transgender movement does not want that.  They want to have the right to decide for themselves what their gender is and to have everyone else accept that decision.

Interstellar is a visually stunning movie which has been criticized because of perceived scientific errors and the character Dr. Amelia Brand’s claims about the power of love.  With regard to wormholes, black holes and relativity theory, I’m in no position to comment.  However, the criticisms of the latter dismiss potentially profound insights into the realms of ethics and epistemology (theory of morality and knowledge respectively) because it raises the issue of the nature of reality and mankind’s place in it—something not unrelated to science by the way.  Such criticisms also miss the chief error of the movie, which is theological (SPOILER ALERT).

The story focuses on a crew of scientists and astronauts who are on a mission to find a planet either to transport humanity to from a dying earth or to restart mankind on such a planet with fertilized eggs.  Dr. Brand’s comments occur during a discussion among the three crew members concerning which of the two planets they should go to in order to accomplish their mission.  Dr. Brand supports going to the planet where her fiancé is.  All the objective data point to the other planet, and Cooper, the pilot, accuses her of personal bias.  Dr. Brand responds with the following reflection on love. “Love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.  Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”

There are two types of complaints about Dr. Brand’s speech—aesthetic and rationalistic.  Its purported aesthetical sin is that Dr. Brand’s mushy emotional mystical gobbledygook has no place in science fiction, which is supposed to be about science.  Those who react in this way often claim to love science fiction, but in reality what interests them is futuristic technology; that is, they like the mechanics or apparatus of the story but not the story itself.  They fail to appreciate that science fiction is a genre that lends itself to philosophical and theological reflection on a reality beyond the merely technological.

The rationalist complaint is that truth is discovered only by a combination of empirical observation, experimentation and reason, a perspective that is often equated with science. Instead, it is derived from a modernist worldview that limits reality to matter that can be observed by the senses and interpreted by unaided human reason.  This is the worldview of scientism, which should be distinguished from science, and it cannot be established on its own premises.  Limiting knowledge only to the observable and measurable is an affirmation that cannot be demonstrated by observation.

Both the science fiction technological enthusiasts and the advocates of scientism are rightly upset with Interstellar because not only does Dr. Brand’s speech go against their desires and beliefs but so does the actual plot.  It turns out that Cooper is wrong and Dr. Brand was right about which planet that they should go to.  Furthermore, Dr. Brand’s father had been unable to find an equation that would allow for humanity to be transported to another planet.  Because he believed that Cooper would not abandon his family for the mission to save mankind, he lied about the feasibility of the transportation option.  In reality, the strong familial love between Cooper and his daughter Murphy, who becomes Professor Brand’s assistant, helps to forge a link via gravitational waves across time and space that allows her to solve the equation and save humanity.  In both cases love is more ethical and leads to the truth in contrast to a merely rationalistic science.

How is it that the emotion of love could actually be a “physical” force in the universe?  The answer is that love is not a mere physical force.  1 John 4:8 states that God is love.  Medieval thinkers understood this truth to be the chief explanation of motion in the universe.  Dante concludes his Divine Comedy speaking of God as “The love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradisio, Canto XXXIII.145).  Aristotle in Metaphysics Book XII, Chapter 7 writes that God, the final cause, “produces motion as being loved.”  Just in case anyone is concerned that I’m advocating returning to a geocentric view of the solar system, Isaac Newton wrote that God “is not duration or space, but he endures and is present.  He endures forever, and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere he constitutes duration and space. …  In him are all things contained and moved.”[1]  The majority of the founders of modern science, like Newton, believed that they were observing how God works in the world.  Modern man and his science need to recover this worldview to overcome the false dichotomy between faith and science.

The theological error of Interstellar is when Cooper triumphantly proclaims that the “they” that created the wormhole is “us.”  It still sees man and his love as the key to the universe and survival.  Dr. Brand’s plea that love is from a “higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive” needs to be taken more seriously.  From a Christian perspective it makes sense that love puts us into contact with a higher dimension than ours, indeed to the center of reality.  When we pray, when we worship, when we act in love, we connect with the heart of the creation who is the truth and will guide us to the truth and in the truth.  Interstellar is a fascinating and accomplished film, but it needs Immanuel, “God with us.” It needs to realize that the name of Immanuel is Jesus who will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:23).  Merry Christmas!

[1] Principles, II, 311, ff. quoted in E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, 2nd rev. ed. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1954), p. 258.

Do you remember the three “kingdoms” of our sciences classes—mineral, plant and animal?  While this elementary science has many facts right, it may have the whole idea wrong.  In fact, limiting the world to these three kingdoms dehumanizes mankind and represents not science but the materialistic philosophy of scientism. Read the rest of this entry »