Making Connections

How we view the universe in general and our lives in particular depends on certain a priori commitments (whether you have formally thought about them or not). The discipline of science for instance depends on a number of these, none of which it can confirm on its own accord. They are not simply brute facts about the universe which we have uncovered – there are other ways in which we might conceive the universe to be, and science on its own cannot adjudicate which of these perspectives are the case – not every perspective favors the enterprise of science. But hold to them it does, and it has historically been able to do so because of what has been revealed through Christian theology. Below I outline five of these a priori commitments and indicate how scientific thinking is connected to insights from scripture, and has steered science in the right direction.

Existence of a theory-independent external world

“’Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool…All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be’, declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:1-2)[1]

It is interesting that from a scientific perspective it cannot be clearly determined the world is not simply a product of my own mind. But if my mind is what is determining reality, then the endeavor of science makes no practical sense. God rescues us in this dilemma and assures us that there is a created world which exists apart from ourselves, and we are a part of that created world. It is not surprising then, in our postmodern culture, which rejects the sacred order and prioritizes the psychological perspective, that people struggle mightily with issues about meaning and identity. From an idealist view of the universe, such things are not grounded in any external reference frame. Science functions because it works collaboratively, and does not depend on any single internal perspective of the world.

Knowability of the external world

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20)[2]

Albert Einstein aptly said that, “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Given that there really is an external world, that in itself does not guarantee anyone has the ability to understand it. Yet, we do have a mind which not only perceives the world but attempts to explain it. In turn, we are able to infer realities about the One who created it. We have been given both an external and internal witness which inform us not only how the world operates, but how things ought to be. We often hear people mistakenly tell us that we should “follow the science”. Science on its own cannot do this – it cannot tell us if we should smoke cigarettes, drop the bomb or clone humans – something outside of science is required for that.

Orderly nature of the external world

“He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.” (Psalm 104:19)[3]

One of the great problems of empiricism is that it cannot confirm there really is any order to the universe. We identify patterns in nature and extrapolate from prior cause-and-effects about what might happen next, but we do so with limited certainty. It could very well be we live in a universe of chaos and disorder, and what we have expected from the past will be upended tomorrow. The gods of other religions are thought to be capricious, and if so, we don’t really know what is coming next. The Christian God lets us know that there truly is order in the universe because He is the one who has established it. Some complain that the stories of miracles in scripture work against our sense of order in the universe, but that misunderstands the nature of miracles. Anything described as miraculous can be seen as such because it occurred in a background of an existing order – miracles do not disrupt a confidence in order.

The existence of natural laws.

“I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it” (Jeremiah 5:22)[4]

By definition, a scientific law is simply a description of a repeatable phenomenon. As such a law has no ability to cause or create – it tells us what is, but not what will or ought to be. Stephen Hawking erroneously claimed that, “because there is such a law as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Gravity exists because matter exists. Gravity is something and would not exist if there was nothing. Rather, a law exists because there is a law giver – something which exists outside the law itself which instantiates its existence. Scripture lets us know that it was God himself who put these natural laws in place.

The uniformity of nature and induction.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)[5]

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, …He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)[6]

While I might notice a certain pattern locally, what allows me to think that same pattern exists universally? We have good reason to be suspicious about this: medications and vaccines don’t always work, O-rings fail and engines blow up, some buildings stand for thousands of years while others collapse within a decade. Rather than think laws don’t hold everywhere or for all time, we think there are variables which we have not accounted for – there is a law-based explanation for why things did not turn out as we expected. The justification for this is that the universe is not holding itself together. Instead, it is the Creator who is its sustainer through and through, and He is an unchanging entity.

Collectively, these five a priori commitments form the basis from which science can justify its efforts. If we give up on any one of these, science would be a fruitless effort cast adrift in uncertainty. Not only is science aided by these truths, but humanity in general benefits from this understanding. Without them, we could never know what is right and true in the world.

[1] See also Isaiah 40:26, Acts 17:24-25

[2] See also Psalm 19:1-6

[3] See also Psalm 74:13-17

[4] See also Psalm 104:7-10, Job 38:8-14

[5] See also Numbers 23:19, Psalm 102:25-27, Malachi 3:6

[6] See also John 1:2-4,10

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