Naturalism in Science

By: Jim Virkler; ©2008

One purpose of this blog is to encourage the community of faith to gain a strong vision of the apologetic value of science in ministry. In many scriptures the wonders of nature reveal the greatness and character of God. He set the natural order in motion In the Beginning. Therefore, understanding the natural world through the methods of science points to the reality of God. The road to recognition of this statement for many Christians does not always have smooth pavement. Many scientists do not travel that road at all. Their studies lead them, instead, to embrace naturalism. Let’s briefly investigate the historical highway leading to this naturalistic state of affairs in science. While there is an upside to confining science to the natural world rather than the supernatural, the downside is that many Christians do not have enough confidence in science as a faith builder.

Prior to the 17th century, “natural philosophy,” the precursor of modern science, was more often focused on teleology (ultimate causes, ends, purposes), rather than intensive fact-gathering and controlled experiment. Most science historians point to the 17th century as the beginning of the “scientific revolution.” During the course of that century, a number of giants in science developed the basic framework of a coherent scientific method still in use today. For example, Francis Bacon used experimentation and inductive reasoning, Descartes focused on hypothesis and deductive reasoning, and Galileo and Newton incorporated mathematical certainty with careful observation.

Most of the 17th century “revolutionists” mentioned above (there are many more) were also Christians who recognized God as the author of the natural laws they were discovering. Later, as the Enlightenment progressed, many felt increasingly empowered by their independence and reason. They lost some of their respect for traditional authority and became more self-confident, especially as the 18th and 19th centuries progressed into the 20th. Self-confidence and self-empowerment started to nourish doubt and skepticism, overshadowing underlying faith in God. Stephen D. Schafersman, in a 1997 speech at the Conference on Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Enterprise, stated, “By the end of the 19th century, methodological naturalism was embedded in science…Procedural, methodological naturalism in all areas of intellectual inquiry (except theology) meant the procedural, methodological suspension of belief in supernaturalism.” This explains why we have claimed, in this blog, that even scientists with deep faith in God must operate AS IF God does not exist, or at least that God does not impose himself anywhere along the timeline of natural history. We must keep in mind, however, that achievements in science do not depend upon the scientist’s theistic beliefs, even though the scientist’s worldview may impact his conclusions.

This discussion is woefully incomplete, but we hope it inspires our readers to respect science, scientists, scientific method, and science discoveries. Our ability to discover and use applied science is far greater today than ever before in man’s history. Early scientists viewed their ability to discover how the world works as a divine gift. That gift is equally operative today.

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