In Chapter 19 of his series Trying to fly with one wing, physicist Stanley Williams claims that the scientific method rose out of the truth seeking practices of the Catholic Church, and is still the way that the Church seeks truth. Here’s his overview of how the scientific method works in both science and Christianity.
Now, to briefly explore the relationship between Christianity and the Scientific Method here is an overview of each of the above steps with an explanation of how they apply to the development of Christian theology.
(1) Curiosity and Presuppositions.
Supernatural faith plays a role in each of these steps, but it is in this step that the correlation is most obvious. It is also in this step that even pagan scientists (unknowingly) access Christian faith to do their work of science. In fact, we could probably replace the words “curiosity and presuppositions” with “faith” and “supernatural revelation.” It is our curiosity that reaches out beyond ourselves and looks for answers and a structure or order to the universe. It is curiosity that asks “Why?” and “How?” Faith presupposes there is a God that can answer the prayer, “Why did that happen?” and “How can I better understand it?”
For example, if we ask, “Why does water run downhill?” we will discover that science helps to answer a theological question. Water runs downhill because of gravity, which pulls water into the ground and thus waters plants, that allows food to grow, which sustains life. Gravity also pulls water down through many layers of sediment, which remove impurities, and then allows the cleaned water to collect in underground basins and in wells for people to drink, thus sustaining life. In fact, every scientific discovery throughout time points to something called the Anthrophic Principle — a theologically significant concept that everything in the universe (from far away galaxies to subatomic particles) was finely tuned to do one thing — sustain human life.
Science has also discovered that if a closed system is left alone without the intelligent input of energy, it will degrade and cease to function. This is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics or entropy. A car left outside without care will not just cease to run, but will eventually end up as a pile of rust. A garden left untended will be overrun with weeds. A baby left alone without care will die. But when continual, intelligent care (in the form of an intelligently controlled energy) is put into the system, sustained life and beauty result. “The heavens declare the glory of God…” (Ps 19:1-6).
It is only because of an ordered universe, cared for continually by a benevolent God, that the world does not do as the car did. Even secular environmentalists are confounded when a major oil spill or a volcanic eruption threatens to destroy a corner of the earth and after a few years the area recovers and brings forth new life. What we see in all this is physical evidence, scientific evidence, of what supernatural revelation of our faith proclaims. There is an intelligent order, and sustenance at work to give life and maintain it. Science assumes this; that is, it is an act of faith in an ordered (not random) universe that supercedes knowledge. Science, by its “nature”, requires faith in a principle that itself cannot be proven by science. My editor, Dave Armstrong, says: “Belief that the universe is orderly and uniformitarian is a non-scientific premise that is required to do science. Science reduces in the end to philosophy, which in turn requires axioms, and in many ways is not unlike theology.”
Now, space is limited, so we must move on. Notice how faith in what is not seen or understood is ubiquitous to each of the remaining steps. The secular scientist will not call it “faith” but rather a “wonder” or “awe” of what is there. I contend that the secular scientist’s wonder is a near equivalent to a Christian’s faith, if not the preliminary and necessary steps to it.
So, with that basis, let’s move quickly through the remaining steps of the scientific method.
(2) Observations. The Israelites and early Christians observed God’s behavior through physical signs, physical miracles and the physical words and actions of Jesus and the prophets. Note that these observations and experiences are a mixture of reason (observations in nature) and faith (prophetic proclamations).
(3) Hypothesis. The observers form hypotheses about what can be learned from the observations and what they have been told, e.g. “Obey God and you will live. Disobey and you will die.” Or, “Have faith in God and you will be healed, and your sins be forgiven.”
(4) Experiment. Experiments are run to test the hypotheses. These are not always controlled experiments, although science loves such things. But science cannot always run controlled experiments. When an earthquake occurs there is nothing that we can control. Yet we learn from such events. In Joshua 7, Achan buries forbidden loot in the floor of his tent when he was told to destroy it. In Numbers 20, Moses angrily strikes the rock twice to produce water for the Israelites, rather than speaking to it in faith. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira lie about giving all their money to the Apostles. For all of these causes, there is an effect; and Christianity learns from such things. (As we should.)
(5) Theory. When Achan’s loot is miraculous discovered and his family stoned (with real rocks not street drugs), when Moses is prevented from entering the Promised Land because of his disobedience, and when Ananias and Sapphira drop dead — the hypothesis suddenly becomes trustworthy and we claim a theory exists. Scientists and theologians both look for patterns by which to predict future events. In both disciplines the theory is “developing.” Thus, there is both the development of scientific theory and the development of doctrine.
(6) Testing. But after centuries of testing, with the same results…
(7) Rules and Laws take the form of scientific predictability and theological doctrine and even dogma.
Yes, it is true that not all dogma can be tested. But what can be tested gives mighty good evidence that the extrapolations of prophetic utterances of Christ are fully trustworthy. Not everything is tested in science, but the extrapolation of rules and laws allows us to send men to the moon and back, having never done it before.