Creation and Science: The limitations of science

Last Sunday I gave some advice and admonition regarding keeping the faith during summertime. I noted there that summer is a time in which we enjoy in a special way the good things of God’s creation. Well, if we are enjoying ourselves in any sort of legitimate way during the summer months, then we are in fact enjoying the good things of God’s creation, but whether or not we recognize it and give thanks is a different matter.

Every Sunday we recite together: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” Or in the Apostles creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The doctrine of the creator and creation is not the whole of the creed, but it is the foundation for everything else. If we get this wrong, then even if we still profess the rest of the creed its meaning will have become distorted beyond recognition. Yet, there is probably no part of the creed that has been so subject to attack, distortion, and outright rejection over the course of the last century or more.

So it seems appropriate to begin a new series on the subject of creation. Before I address creation directly from the standpoint of faith, I will start with a series of essays on what could be called obstacles to faith. The first, of course, is the highly exaggerated regard for the importance and authority of “science”.

The word evokes the most sure and authoritative kind of knowledge. It speaks of what is not just an opinion or conjecture, but “proven fact”. It is identified with the work of human reason to such an extent that what is “scientific” is rational, and what is not supported by “science” is, at best, mere opinion, and at worst, irrational superstition.

Now, if we pay close attention, though, the status of what now goes by the name of “science” as the most sure and authoritative kind of knowledge is not a proven fact, supported by science. Indeed, if we examine the claim we will see that it is, at best, misleading.

So what is “science”? Well it is surely the sort of knowledge that is produced by what is called the scientific method.

Well, using that handy contemporary research tool called “Google” we find that the expression is promptly defined thus: “A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

The power of the method was perhaps shown most dramatically by Galileo in his famous experiment dropping different weights from the leaning tower of Pisa and showing by experiment that the hit the ground at the same time. “You say that the heavier weight will fall faster? Gotcha! See the two weights hit the ground at the same time.” End of debate.

And beginning of a new debate because we still don’t know why the weights fall at the same rate. That leads to a whole history of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses. Curious, in the end the results are never certain, but always tentative, always subject to modification, as more data becomes available.

More to the point though is what is implied and presupposed in the whole method.

To begin with the systematic observation is driven by some question like, “Do different weights fall at the same rate or different rates?” That question presupposes some knowledge, namely that bodies have something called “weight” that gives them an inclination to fall. So our knowledge of the world never starts with science, but science presupposes that we live in an intelligible world about which we already know something.

Next, the whole process of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, shows that science is dealing with only a particular aspect of the world in which we live; science is only examining the world insofar as it falls within the realm of observation by our senses, either directly or by way of instruments we have fashioned to extend our perception. Further, science depends on measuring those observable aspects of reality, which means in some way putting a number to them and bringing them into the realm of mathematics.

This ends up being true even for sciences that touch on unique human realities like economics, psychology, sociology, and even history. In these areas statistics becomes the key to making these realities measurable in some way.

This method has been very powerful in its ability to produce results in terms of technology, but as far as understanding is concerned that is another matter. We could say that the focus on the measurable means that science touches only upon the most superficial aspect of reality.

So how does this bear on God and creation?

If the scientific method is taken as the only source of knowledge and the scientific method only examines measurable material reality, then by definition spiritual reality (God, the angelic world, and the human soul) is unknowable. If, further, it is supposed that only what is knowable exists, then the conclusion is that spiritual reality does not exist.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument for agnosticism and atheism. It claims to be supported by science and therefore by reason, but the whole argument relies on the non-scientific (and highly questionable) presupposition that the only way to knowledge is the scientific method.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.