Read “History, Science, and Authority”
During the Enlightenment, a tension emerged between the authority of science and the authority of the Bible. The ground of struggle was whether the history recorded in the Bible or the history constructed by late-18th and early-19th-century scientists was more authoritative.
That struggle for authority remains with us today. In light of that, what is the proper relationship between history and science?
In the film, Dr. George Grant explains that: “History is what helps shape and direct science itself, not the other way around. We need to understand what happened, and then science can help us understand how it happened.”
Let’s take a moment to look deeper at both history and science.
What is history?
‘History’ can be used in two related ways:
- ‘History’ can refer to the written record of people and events in time (as in, ‘the book of Kings is a history of Israel’);
- ‘History’ can be used in a more comprehensive sense to refer to the actual people and events themselves (as in, ‘David’s flight from Saul is history’)
We regularly use both senses of history in our normal lives. In fact, our entire civilization is based on an understanding that the past contains real events that can be recorded and known today.
Just consider the importance of history to finance, healthcare, education, business, construction, politics, and the arts. Although people sometimes disagree as to what happened in the past (this is one of the reasons for the judicial system), no one disagrees that something actually happened.
What is science?
Just like history, ‘science’ can be used in two related ways:
- ‘Science’ can refer to the process of studying the natural world in order to create a body of knowledge to help explain, predict, and control it.
- ‘Science’ can refer to the body of knowledge itself that is used to describe the natural world.
Throughout the history of science, people have struggled with two basic problems: we are extremely limited in our human ability to study and understand the natural world; and the natural world is overwhelmingly complex.
In an attempt to overcome these problems, those pursuing science have always used “paradigms” or deductive frameworks to explain the data they discover. A paradigm could be compared to a pair of sunglasses used to see outside on a sunny day. Paradigms include sets of assumptions that help make sense of the immense amount of complex data—much of which cannot be identified, much less understood—throughout the world.
For instance, the paradigm of “plate tectonics” has helped geologists explain movements in the earth’s crust. There are still observations and data, however, that the current paradigm of plate tectonics cannot explain. Nevertheless, it was considered a better paradigm than the view held until the 1960’s, and will continue until it is replaced.
Unfortunately, paradigms can only alleviate the two problems, not solve them. When one looks at the history of scientific thought, it is clear that paradigms change and adjust over time as a result of new discoveries, new ideas, and new understandings. In many instances, the same data are seen differently from one generation to the next. The crust of the earth is a good example; clearly everyone could see it. One generation, however, thought it was static; another thought it moved.
Curiously, each contemporary generation thinks it has arrived at the most accurate views of the world. One can go back in history to see this. Yet even the most brilliant paradigms have been changed or replaced by following generations.
This has happened so many times throughout the history of science, it leads one to question the absolute authority of scientific statements. After all, if conclusions about the same data keep changing, how is it possible that scientists have arrived at the truth?
What are the different types of science?
There are at least three different types of science.
First, there is operational science, which performs experiments to explain and predict current and future events. Operational science is used in disciplines like chemistry, physics, or biology to try to describe the way the physical world or living organisms operate.
Next, there is historical science, which performs experiments and gathers evidence to make interpretations about what happened in the past. Historical science is used in disciplines like geology or paleontology to try to re-construct what happened in history.
There is another type of science called applied science. This is what we are most familiar with in terms of technology such as cell phones or medicine. Engineers and inventors often use observations about the natural world to create new things that rely on an understanding of how the world operates.
Most people are not aware of these distinctions, but usually lump everything together when talking about “science.” This inevitably leads to confusion.
For instance, applied science has practical applications we can see and use, often based on the experimental findings of operational science. Historical science, on the other hand, cannot do experiments on what happened in the past; it can only do experiments in the present and examine pre-existing data to suggest explanations for rock formations and fossils.
Nevertheless, the authority of one type of science is often extended to other types of science. Just because we have cell phones does not mean every aspect of physics and chemistry believed today is accurate. In fact, although it may be surprising, the history of physics and chemistry is full of experimental ideas which “worked,” which were accepted by brilliant men, and which have now been discarded.
This criticism applies even more strongly to the historical sciences, in which no experiments can be done on the past. Rather, evidence is gathered and fit into a historical paradigm. We should therefore be very careful about the authority of statements of historical science, especially those that reject the Bible as an authority.
Can science “tell” us anything?
Consider a phrase you may have heard: “Science tells us that…” with some observation or idea attached to the end.
‘Science,’ however, doesn’t tell us anything. Rather, scientists who have particular views tell us things about the world that may be more or less accurate. To say “science tells us…” is to indulge in the poetic trope of ‘personification.’ After all, no has ever met Science and had a conversation with her.
One of the intentions of personifying science in this way is to make ‘Science’ more authoritative. This approach often comes up in discussions about origins, with some people granting to science an absolute authority it does not actually have. Science, however, represents a variety of competing views of the world which change over time.
This is the reason science textbooks are constantly being updated. Scientific knowledge is not fixed, but is slowly shifting in one direction or another. It is not easy for the average person to see this since he is not privy to the latest scientific journals and debates. However, one need only pick up a science textbook that is 50, 100, or 150 years old, and it quickly becomes apparent how much things have changed in a relatively brief span of time.
This creates an additional problem for the authority of science. If science has changed as much as it has in the past century, how much more will it change in the next 50, 100, or 150 years? How many things that we are “absolutely sure we know” will be the laughingstock of future generations?
What is our ultimate authority in terms of natural history?
The question facing everyone in the modern world is this: is the Special Revelation in the Bible more authoritative than the consensus view of conventional scientists in terms of the natural history of the world?
This is why it is important to remember that science operates within paradigms to interpret data, that scientists are limited in their view of the world, and that scientific knowledge is constantly changing.
Although science can provide us with limited authority about the world, it can never provide absolute authority. This applies equally to conventional and creationist scientific ideas.
In other words, even the best creationist scientific model can only be an approximation of what actually happened. This is because science in itself can never provide absolute authority: it is always changing its views.
History, however, can provide absolute knowledge that is unchanging.
As a simple example, no one can change their biological history. We can all be sure we had parents, and our parents had parents, and so on back to Adam and Eve. Even if someone doesn’t hold to the history recorded in Genesis, they would have to admit that genealogical links are more certain than scientific theories.
This is perhaps one of the reasons genealogies are used throughout the Bible to track the passage of time and show relationships between people. There is something fixed about biological father-son relationships that every culture innately understands.
As Christians, we are in possession of a document that presents itself as a complete history of the world from beginning to end. It is therefore important that we begin with that history when trying to understand the world through scientific means.
Any other approach will inevitably lead to the suppression of that history.
Is creation (or Nature) a book like the Bible that can be read by scientists?
Creation is not a book that can be read because it has no words. It is easy to know what a book is saying because it uses vocabulary and grammar. Creation, on the other hand, has trees, mountains, rabbits, and many more things that have no language associated with them.
Although there are scientists who like to think they are ‘reading’ some aspect of creation, they are mixing metaphors: a book with words is not the same as the non-verbal natural world. After all, how does one know what a tree or a mountain or a rabbit ‘says’ or ‘means’? Without specific words to know the intentions of an author, any ‘reading’ becomes highly subjective.
Instead, scientists do experiments and make interpretations about the natural world in an attempt to understand it. Over time, a few of these interpretations are kept, but most are thrown out. Even if this is what scientists are referring to about ‘reading’ creation, it means creation must be nearly impossible to ‘read’ accurately since so many people are consistently mistaken about it. Again, this is because the metaphor is faulty: creation is not a book.
Nevertheless, this line of thinking remains popular today.
There is a desire for some to equate General Revelation with the creation itself, giving scientists the job of achieving a better understanding of General Revelation through scientific study. Since the “two books” of the Bible and creation must agree, then some are led to re-interpret Special Revelation through the latest “reading” of General Revelation. This was the thinking used in the early 19th-century to merge views of deep time with the Bible, and then again in the late 19th-century to merge evolutionary theory with the Bible.
Of course, the basic problem with this approach is that it has misunderstood how General Revelation actually works.
One does not need scientific knowledge to receive General Revelation. As David tell us in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
General Revelation can be seen and understood by everyone, regardless of their educational state or knowledge about the world. That is the point: it declares to everyone God’s power and wisdom. Unlike Special Revelation, one cannot know more or less of General Revelation; one either recognizes it for what it is and worships God, or one suppress the truth of it.
Curiously, in the modern world, many of those who have greater knowledge of the creation actually reject General Revelation with greater vehemence. If General Revelation increased with scientific knowledge, then surely scientists would be the first to recognize God for who He is.
Clearly, creation is not a book to be read. Instead, General Revelation reveals the glory of God, His power, and His divine nature to all alike. Special Revelation reveals the specific words and actions of God in time. General revelation can therefore tell us nothing about the actual history of the world; that role is left to Special Revelation.