Biggest Questions Facing Science
I was struck recently by a news feature on National Public Radio (NPR), based on an article in The Guardian, regarding the most challenging questions facing science. In other words, the biggest questions scientists are struggling to answer.
The reason I was struck was because so many of the questions begged the consideration of the existence of God.
For example, “How did life come about?”
Life appeared on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. “The mystery here,” notes NPR, “is how aggregates of nonliving atoms gathered into progressively more complex molecules that eventually became the first living entity, a chemical machine capable of metabolism and reproduction.”
Translation: how did life come from non-life?
How did something “dead” become “alive”?
There is no scientific answer.
There is, however, a theological one.
“In the beginning God created…” (Genesis 1:1, NIV).
A second question making the list is, “What makes us human?”
Again, from NPR: “We have three times more neurons than a gorilla, but our DNAs are almost identical. Many animals have a rudimentary language, can use tools and recognize themselves in mirrors. So, what is it that differentiates us from them? The thicker frontal cortex? The opposing thumb? The discovery of fire and the ability to cook? Our culture? When did language and toolmaking appear?”
Related to this is the question, “What is consciousness?”
“How is it that the brain generates the self of self, the unique experience that we have of being...unique? Can the brain be reversed-engineered to be modeled by machines? Or is this a losing proposition? And why is there a consciousness at all?”
Science is baffled by these questions, but the Bible is not:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them…the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 1:27; 2:7, NIV).
The Genesis narrative does not speak to how God created, of course, only that God created. All true scientific discoveries simply illuminate the world God has made.
So why isn’t a “God” answer considered?
Because many scientists are not the objective evaluators of data they like to present themselves as being. They follow a religion that refuses to include the existence of a God in regard to any and all scientific explanations.
It is to be granted that modern science is based on empirical evidence and testable explanation. One cannot put God in a test-tube and determine His existence. But there is more at hand here than science doing its job, and knowing its limitations in regard to matters of faith.
It is about limiting what religion can say about science.
The working idea is that we can maintain our religious faith and our scientific discoveries not by seeing both as operating in the realm of public truth – to be jointly engaged and interpreted accordingly – but by seeing them as separate categories altogether that should never be allowed to intertwine.
If you wish to believe in God, fine; just don’t posit that this God actually exists as Creator, or that He could actually be pulled out to explain anything.
In many ways, this is the new scientific project, and it’s called reductive naturalism. “Naturalism” is the idea that nature is “all that is.” "Reductive” naturalism is the value which states that all that can be known within nature is that which can be empirically verified.
So a reductive naturalism contends that what is real is only that which can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled or touched; then verified, meaning able to be replicated in a test-tube. Knowledge is “reduced” to this level of knowing. If it cannot be examined in a tangible, scientific manner, it is not simply unknowable; it is meaningless.
This has led to a “philosophical” naturalism, meaning the idea that all of existence consists of natural causes and laws. Philosophical naturalism holds that life is accidental. There is nothing beyond ourselves that will ever bring order, reason or explanation. We must restrict what can be known to that which is immediately before us, to what is “given,” or “factual.” This means what can be empirically, or scientifically, demonstrated.
As astronomer Carl Sagan argued in his final work, the goal is to rid ourselves of a “demon-haunted” world, meaning anything that would challenge the rule of science and technology as the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality, for there is no other truth or reality to embrace. More to the point, Ronald Numbers has written, “Nothing has come to characterize modern science more than its rejection of appeals to God in explaining the workings of nature.”
The problem, of course, is what science itself is now having to acknowledge. Namely, that science can’t answer the ultimate questions of science.
So once again we are reminded of the words of Robert Jastrow, for 20 years the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies:
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."
James Emery White
“The 10 Most Important Questions In Science,” National Public Radio, read online.
“The 20 big questions in science,” The Guardian, read online.
James Emery White, The Church in An Age of Crisis (Baker).
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., When Science and Christianity Meet.
Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.