A Theologian's view of science

Among Macdonald’s unspoken sermons is his sermon: The Truth which, while not being about science, nonetheless contains this discussion about science within it. I’ll include an extended excerpt from the section of interest, but even this long inclusion does not cover all that he says about science there. Read the whole sermon for yourself as your interest may require. Before cutting to Macdonald’s words, though, I’ll just add my own little reactive commentary and summary.

Macdonald is not equating Truth with “mere facts” or even correct formulations of how things work (science). The thrust of this sermon (as I take it) is in fact to distinguish and acknowledge an elevated meaning for Truth as being “the Person” [spoiler alert: Christ] and our relationship to Him. Other lesser formulations of truth, such as what we call facts or other things, such as science might dwell on, can certainly be (and are) a part of that whole, to be sure. But without that larger context of a Divine Will to give those things their proper ends, all of it falls short of having any Truth in it.

I do think Macdonald may sell scientists just a bit short in his rather jaded view of what scientific “analysis” must itself be, (and as you can read in the given excerpt), Macdonald indulges in a more stark dichotomy between scientists and poets than I think is warranted. [A dichotomy that Biologos does well to dismantle with its labors.] Christian practitioners both in his time and now would remind him that their study of creation can be just as much a worshipful encounter with Truth as any poet or worshipper might experience in any cosmic temple or standing in front of any altar. But given the times, Macdonald can probably be forgiven for such glosses - especially since this sermon was not intended as a treatise about science. And in fact, I don’t think Macdonald would disagree with what I just noted above - not based on this sermon anyway.

But my main point for putting all this up here, is that I am fascinated by his characterization of science as a tracing back along God’s footsteps in such a way as that science will never encounter “the face of God.” I wouldn’t mind thoughts and reflections here from any others here who don’t mind extended reading and meditational delving (how I’m obliged to take in most of his stuff). The rest of the words below are from the aforementioned sermon.

But there is a region perhaps not so high as this from the scientific point of view, where yet the word truth may begin to be rightly applied. I believe that every fact in nature is a revelation of God, is there such as it is because God is such as he is; and I suspect that all its facts impress us so that we learn God unconsciously. True, we cannot think of any one fact thus, except as we find the soul of it—its fact of God; but from the moment when first we come into contact with the world, it is to us a revelation of God, his things seen, by which we come to know the things unseen. How should we imagine what we may of God, without the firmament over our heads, a visible sphere, yet a formless infinitude! What idea could we have of God without the sky? The truth of the sky is what it makes us feel of the God that sent it out to our eyes. If you say the sky could not but be so and such, I grant it—with God at the root of it. There is nothing for us to conceive in its stead—therefore indeed it must be so. In its discovered laws, light seems to me to be such because God is such. Its so-called laws are the waving of his garments, waving so because he is thinking and loving and walking inside them.

We are here in a region far above that commonly claimed for science, open only to the heart of the child and the childlike man and woman—a region in which the poet is among his own things, and to which he has often to go to fetch them. For things as they are, not as science deals with them, are the revelation of God to his children. I would not be misunderstood: there is no fact of science not yet incorporated in a law, no law of science that has got beyond the hypothetic and tentative, that has not in it the will of God, and therefore may not reveal God; but neither fact nor law is there for the sake of fact or law; each is but a mean to an end; in the perfected end we find the intent, and there God—not in the laws themselves, save as his means. For that same reason, human science cannot discover God; for human science is but the backward undoing of the tapestry-web of God’s science, works with its back to him, and is always leaving him—his intent, that is, his perfected work—behind it, always going farther and farther away from the point where his work culminates in revelation. Doubtless it thus makes some small intellectual approach to him, but at best it can come only to his back; science will never find the face of God; while those who would reach his heart, those who, like Dante, are returning thither where they are, will find also the spring-head of his science. Analysis is well, as death is well; analysis is death, not life. It discovers a little of the way God walks to his ends, but in so doing it forgets and leaves the end itself behind. I do not say the man of science does so, but the very process of his work is such a leaving of God’s ends behind. It is a following back of his footsteps, too often without appreciation of the result for which the feet took those steps. To rise from the perfected work is the swifter and loftier ascent. If the man could find out why God worked so, then he would be discovering God; but even then he would not be discovering the best and the deepest of God; for his means cannot be so great as his ends. I must make myself clearer.

Ask a man of mere science, what is the truth of a flower: he will pull it to pieces, show you its parts, explain how they operate, how they minister each to the life of the flower; he will tell you what changes are wrought in it by scientific cultivation; where it lives originally, where it can live; the effects upon it of another climate; what part the insects bear in its varieties—and doubtless many more facts about it. Ask the poet what is the truth of the flower, and he will answer: ‘Why, the flower itself, the perfect flower, and what it cannot help saying to him who has ears to hear it.’ The truth of the flower is, not the facts about it, be they correct as ideal science itself, but the shining, glowing, gladdening, patient thing throned on its stalk—the compeller of smile and tear from child and prophet. The man of science laughs at this, because he is only a man of science, and does not know what it means; but the poet and the child care as little for his laughter as the birds of God, as Dante calls the angels, for his treatise on aerostation. The children of God must always be mocked by the children of the world, whether in the church or out of it—children with sharp ears and eyes, but dull hearts. Those that hold love the only good in the world, understand and smile at the world’s children, and can do very well without anything they have got to tell them. In the higher state to which their love is leading them, they will speedily outstrip the men of science, for they have that which is at the root of science, that for the revealing of which God’s science exists. What shall it profit a man to know all things, and lose the bliss, the consciousness of well-being, which alone can give value to his knowledge?

MacDonald, George. The Complete Works of George MacDonald … Kindle Edition.

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Unimpressed. Science has a self-limiting scope. That is its strength, not its weakness. Science seeks natural explanations for natural phenomena and isn’t supposed to delve into the supernatural.

Why not?

(1) It doesn’t have the means to study the supernatural. (That’s where Intelligent Design gets it wrong.)

(2) If one doesn’t look for a natural explanation one will never find it.

(I’m terrible, I know)

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Agreed. And I interpret “self-limiting scope” as meaning essentially a limited toolbox of methodologies.

There are those here who would probably push back a bit on trying to call anything “supernatural” and therefore off limits to science. As in they would probably say that all science can do is keep facing / progressing outward from where it is. We shouldn’t expect it to be able to anticipate where it might run up against impenetrable barriers. But I do agree that to the extent that there can be a supernatural category, that almost by definition, that won’t be subjectable to analytical science (though its consequences farther down the causal chain certainly should be.) It’s the definition of “supernatural” and “natural” that stymie this attempted dichotomy though.

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I love that the Latin anagram answers Pilate’s question:

Quid est veritas? “What is truth?”
Est vir qui adest: “It is the man who is here.”

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That would be Intelligent Design people.

Actually, I was thinking of @T_aquaticus or other scientists here who aren’t necessarily believers. I’ve heard them object to the expressed notion that science is automatically disallowed from investigating certain things. It isn’t just ID folks. They would just disagree over what all qualifies as valid evidence.

Designing the experiment might prove to be a problem. What about controls? How would you keep an intelligent designer out of the control group? ID doesn’t even allow questions about the Intelligent Designer’s identity.

And what is considered a matter for scientific investigation has changed over time. Spiritualism (communicating with the dead via mediums) was once considered something you could investigate scientifically.

I’ve certainly had discussion with non believers -obviously no one like T-a- who are deep into scientism to the point they’d insist science would ultimately answer every question of philosophy and even literary criticism. I kid you not. Times like that you just wonder if there is any common ground whatsoever to build from.

For those with a better handle on science (like T_a), it is not that they do not acknowledge the limitations of science but that naturalists simply equate the limits of science with the limits of what is real and knowable.

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Macdonald doesn’t strike me as the type who would have pleased today’s typical ID crowd. I don’t think he would have worried over much about all this (and maybe this is just me projecting on to him) because I think he would already have agreed that all of creation is under God’s providence and that it’s a fool’s errand to try to use science to tease out this or that aspect of creation as somehow more specially created than everything else just for the apologetic purposes of using science as a foundation for faith.

But if you read something of Macdonald that casts doubt on my appraisal above, then please elaborate.

I neither said nor implied that.

Very good. I’m not particularly partial toward ID either, but your comment somewhere above regarding what might be held in common with ID philosophy did provoke me to give that a little thought. If you have more insights about that, I’d welcome them.

As is the case in all apologetics, bar none (goo (Leicester accent) on, prove me wrong!), which is a shame, as I like MacDonald for his neo-orthodox universalism, he isn’t humble in the face of science. Of reason. His older contemporary Kierkegaard showed no such arrogance. Science, reason lack nothing in not discovering God. He’s not ‘there’ to be discovered in any way except as a proposition in Christ, which even to consider openly requires a leap of faith. Furthermore if one performs that, nothing in nature suddenly becomes explicable where it wasn’t without Him. Not a thing. ‘Ohhh, THAT’S why! God’. The qualia of a pubescent Himalayan maple that had me in sobs as soon as I turned a corner to it are not because God. Except as the ground of eternal being thanks be to Christ of course.

Quite true. For example, if I proclaimed that stars were supernatural it wouldn’t force astrophysicists to stop studying them. Science is a method, so if an idea can be tested through the scientific method then it can be studied by science, no matter what we may call the phenomena.

Much of this discussion circles around semantics. For example, the supernatural could be defined as something that can’t be empirically observed or tested. Science defines natural as anything that can be empirically examined. If God were to come down to Earth and perform different miraculous acts it is possible to define those actions as natural and conducive to scientific testing. There are also situations where we simply don’t have empirical observations to work with, such as in the case of the Resurrection.

In the end, it is all about the scientific method. If ID/creationists believe that their ideas are unfairly excluded from science then it is up to them to show us how their ideas can be incorporated into the scientific method.

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Something I much more easily forgive him for (credit to him actually!) than you do. But of all the reading of Macdonald I’ve done - which is quite a bit by now - I’ve not actually encountered much from him about science directly. Hence my excitement to even just get what I did above from one of his sermons. Maybe you are more aware of his attitudes in that regard than I am.

He strikes me as a disciple of Christ / theologian first and foremost - let science and rationalism find their rightful places within that as they may. That’s why I titled this thread as I did.

I didn’t understand some of what you wrote above (Leicester accent) … so I won’t be “proving” anything there.

Well - not the kind of god you’ve fashioned in any case. I don’t think the Christian God is being put forward to fulfill such a role as what so many want him to fulfill: “the explanation” for this or that. So it’s no wonder that you don’t find God in any such category.

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Goo is Leicester for go. It’s legendary for its patois. Shlattagoo’oomfrit. I shall have to go home for it.

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OK, even Google says that is nonsense. Meaning?

Ooh! Ooh! I got this one! (Of course it helps that you have the translation right after it)
Shall have to ‘goo’ home forit.

You’re the only one I know who brings his thick Scottish Brogue (or whatever that is) to your keyboard.

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Very true. The large balls of gas (“miasma of incandescent plasma” :musical_note:) would be there for observation nonetheless. But if (as Lewis puts in the mouth of one of his Narnia characters) … that is not what stars are, but only what they’re made of … I suspect that astrophysicists (acting as such) would have much less to say about that.

My own gloss on the “God as explanation” for stuff is that either God is the explanation of nothing, or alternatively could only be the explanation of everything - which translates to: the explanation of nothing in particular. And it is usually the particulars that very much interest practitioners of science.

Would you buy everything in particular, not that we know all the explanations (only he can know that). I did not mean in that to discount scientific explanations.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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