Orthodox America


  An Orthodox Christian Approach to Science


by Vladimir Moss

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? (Job 38:4)

Bertrand Russell once wrote: "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science, which achieved its most spectacular triumphs in the seventeenth century. [1] “Michael Polanyi confirms this judgment: "Just as the three centuries following on the calling of the Apostles sufficed to establish Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, so the three centuries after the founding of the Royal Society sufficed for science to establish itself as the supreme intellectual authority of the post-Christian age. 'It is contrary to religion?--the objection ruled supreme in the seventeenth century. 'It is unscientific!' is its equivalent in the twentieth.'' [2]

      It is not so much the enormous change in the material conditions of life brought about by science that constitutes its most important effect. Still more important have been the spiritual effects of what has been called the scientific world-view. At first, from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, this world-view coexisted in an increasingly uncomfortable and schizoid manner with various forms of the Christian world-view; but it has ended, in the twentieth century, by more or less completely banishing Christianity from the minds of "educated" men, whether or not they still call themselves "Christian".

      Science has indeed become the god of our age, worshipped both by scientists and by nonscientists, both in the democratic West and in the totalitarian East. This cult was described in dark, almost apocalyptic colours by Dostoyevsky: "Half science," says one of his characters, "is that most terrible scourge of mankind, worse than pestilence, famine, or war, and quite unknown till our present century. Half-science is a despot such as has never been known before, a despot that has its own priests and slaves, a despot before whom everybody prostrates himself with love and superstitious dread, such as has been inconceivable till now, before whom science trembles and surrenders in a shameful way.'' [3]

      Dostoyevsky was careful to distinguish between science and "half-science," or what we would now call "scientism." However, he saw science, the innocent pursuit of truth by empirical means, prostrating before its counterfeit. How can this be?

      Science obviously contains some measure or kind of truth, otherwise it would not have such formidable predictive power or generate such wonderful technologies. It has therefore been a natural and laudable quest on the part of educated Christians to try and find some way of resolving the apparent contradictions between science and Christianity. Indeed, this is a necessity of our faith. For if the universe is one and created by one God, we must believe that the truths of the faith and the final conclusions of science (if such there can ever be) are compatible. To believe otherwise leads to a kind of epistemological Manichaeism postulating two kinds of mutually impenetrable universes which cannot be comprehended from a single viewpoint, or, alternatively, to a kind of solipsistic Buddhism according to which one of the two realms is considered to be illusory.

      However, it is important to realize that this conviction does not mean that we have to accept the major hypotheses of modern science uncritically. And this for several reasons. First, science is hypothetical in essence; it proclaims no certainties; what is declared to be a self-evident law of nature in one generation is denounced as only an approximation of the truth or (more usually) simply false in the next. Secondly, several of the major hypotheses of science appear to contradict each other, at least in the opinion of significant sections of the scientific community-for example, the time-reversible laws of quantum physics and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Thirdly, some of the major hypotheses of science, such as the evolution of man from the apes, are no less empirically unverifiable statements of faith than the Chrlstian dogmas--with the important difference that, unlike the Christian dogmas, they have no basis in Divine Revelation.

   What we must always remember is that, whatever its many and undoubted achievements, science is a fallible enterprise conducted by sinful men.

      Since this is the case, there is no need to concede to the scientific world-view more than it claims for itself (in the mouths of its more honest and intelligent spokesmen). Otherwise we fall into the trap which so many non-scientific Christians have fallen into, of immediately accepting the latest scientific fashion and adapting one's faith to it, only to find that science has moved on and left their "modernized faith" as an out-of-date relic. This has been the fate of the "Christian Marxists" and "theist evolutionists,'' who in trying slavishly to adapt Christianity to the latest and least credible fashion in science show themselves to be neither Christians nor scientists.

      What we must always remember is that, whatever its many and undoubted achievements, science is a fallible enterprise conducted by sinful men. Therefore, scientists individually and collectively are not immune from deception, and should apply to themselves the words of the wise Solomon: I am Thy slave and the son of Thy handmaid, a man who is weak and short-lived, with little understanding of judgment and laws; for even if one is perfect among the sons of men, yet without the wisdom that comes from Thee he will be regarded as nothing... For a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labour; but who has traced out what is in the heavens, and who has learned Thy counsel, unless Thou give him wisdom, and send Thy Holy Spirit from on high? (Wisdom of Solomon 9:5-6, 15-17). 

    The paradox of science is that as it advances it becomes more and more incomprehensible even to itself. Of course, since the time of Galileo a certain degree of counter-intuitiveness has come to be seen as an essential ingredient of "real" science, for science progresses by challenging accepted assumptions. And yet there is a very large difference between the counter-intuitiveness (for the "infallible" Popes of Galileo's and Bruno's generation) of an earth circling the sun and the plain nonsensicality of a universe in which time can go backwards or exists only in the mind.

   We are tempted to say to scientists who put such ideas forward: you can’t be serious. And yet many of them are being perfectly serious. So we have to take this phenomenon, if not these ideas, seriously.

       A certain degree of humility is in order here. If our knowledge of physics and mathematics is as limited as the present writer's, then we are not in a position to argue with the scientists on their own ground. So should we retire from the fray hurt and simply bow down before the scientists' superior knowledge?

       Many, perhaps most, Christians have been prepared to do just that. But, bearing in mind Dostoyevsky's warning, I think we should be more careful. After all, if these scientists are right, we shall have to change, not only our ideas about the physical universe, but also our ideas about just about everything else, including God, free will, morality, and the human person. And since we have "many infallible proofs" (Acts 1:3) of our traditional beliefs in these spheres, we have good reason to pause.

       For it would be false humility, even irrational, to abandon well-established beliefs out of respect for a group of men, however clever, whose work we do not fully understand and who are themselves far from agreed about how their results should be interpreted. If Einstein could not believe that God plays with dice, why should we? We know that these scientists are wrong (in some of their wilder judgments)-they must be wrong; the problem is discerning why, or rather how, they are wrong.

       But perhaps we are being too alarmist. Perhaps these problems are simply temporary inconsistencies in the scientific picture of the world which will eventually be removed as science progresses and new theories are constructed. Thus, the problems of the relativity theory, we are told, will eventually be overcome in the unified field theory, the so-called TOE or "Theory of Everything".

      This touchingly blind-but also breathtakingly arrogant-faith in the new physics is reminiscent of those biologists who say: though no one has actually seen the evolution of a new species, it is only "a matter of time"; eventually (perhaps in a few million years) we shall see it. Thus, time is the great healer of the wounds of modern science. The problem is: since Newton's time, when all the laws of physics were expressed in time-reversible equations, time has had no place in the most fundamental science of all.

    But the problem is still deeper than that. The progress of science, far from gradually removing all holes, anomalies, and contradictions in our understanding of the world, seems to be throwing up still greater and more intractable ones. Thus, just as Newtonian physics, by expressing all its laws in time-reversible equations, placed the very notion of physical causality in doubt, so quantum physics, without eliminating that anomaly, has added a still greater one--it undermines the category of substance. In fact, it undermines the very notion of objective reality. For the quantum wave function which is the fundamental unit of the modern physicist's universe is not a thing or an event, but a spectrum of possible things or events. Moreover, it exists as such only while it is not being observed. When the wave function is observed (by a physical screen or living being), it collapses into one and one only of the possibilities that define it. Thus, the price of the birth of reality in this way is the destruction of the fundamental unity of reality!

      But still more mind-bending anomalies are to come. Thus, according to one physicist, Everett, "the universe itself is described by a wave function which contains the ingredients of any outcome. His interpretation carries with it a bizarre implication-that innumerable 'parallel' universes, each as real as our own, all exist independently. Your wildest dreams may be fulfilled within these other worlds. With every measurement made by an observer, who is by definition within a universe, the entire universe buds off an uncountable multitude of new universes (the 'many worlds'), each of which represents a different possible outcome of the observation (for example, a living or a dead cat).” [4]

       Some people optimistically regard the new physics as in some way vindicating belief in God. Thus, it has been argued that our universe is a collapsed wave-function whose observer can only be God. This is certainly an intriguing idea, and perhaps a modern Saint Maximus the Confessor could make something of it in a way that accorded with Christian dogma.

       However, it must be admitted that the basic ideas of modern physics and Darwinist biology are much more reminiscent of Hinduism or Buddhism than Orthodox Christianity. Thus, the eastern pagan ideas of cyclic recurrencc of the illusoriness of time and the evolution of one life-form from another all find apparent support in modem science. Again, the eastern idea that every man is by nature a god gains credence from some interpretations of the anthropic principle in physics, which, according to Marek Kohn, "seems to be on the verge of substituting man for God, by hinting that consciousness, unbound by time's arrow, causes creation. [5]

       These parallels suggest that the strange path that science is treading may not be unconnected with the general penetration of western civilization by eastern pagan religions that we observe in several other spheres. For centuries Christians have believed that there are clear and important--which is not to say unmysterious-.-differences between the Creator and creation, matter and spirit, time and eternity, freedom and determinism, man and animal, soul and body, life and death. But in the twentieth century, the age of relativity and relativism, all these terms have melted into each other; under the combined onslaught of modem science and eastern religion, the distinctions which are so basic to our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in haw,' tended to disappear in a soup that can be variously described, according to taste, as pantheist, panpsychic, or panmaterialist.

      However, the recognition that all these alarming intellectual and spiritual trends are related makes the task of resisting them only a little easier. For ,even if we reject eastern religion as false and satanic, and suspect that the god of this world has also had a hand in blinding some scientists, we cannot say the same about science in general. We have to explain both how science has gone wrong and why it still manages to get so many things right ....

      One obvious way in which science has gone wrong is by eliminating from its field of observation the vast sphere of phenomena that we call religious. Concealment of data which conflicts with one's hypothesis is usually considered dishonest science. And yet in relation to religion it has been practiced on a massive scale by most of the scientific community for centuries.

      Even when scientists do deign to study religion, their methods and conclusions are often blatantly biased and unscientific. This was obvious with regard to the "achievements" of Soviet "scientists" as they tried to explain, for example, the incorruption of the relics of the Russian saints. But western scientists have been hardly less biased, if usually more sophisticated than their Soviet counterparts.

      Of course, some "miracles" are contrived, just as some religious beliefs are superstitious; and science can do a genuine service to the truth by exposing these frauds. But the existence of some frauds does not undermine religion in general, any more than the existence of quack doctors undermines genuine medicine. Moreover, science itself has not been immune from quackery of its own in its eagerness to explain away the phenomena or religion. Particularly useful to it in this respect has been the concept of psychosomatic illness and psychology in general. But psychology is the least developed of the sciences, and there are strong reasons for disputing whether it can ever be a genuinely empirical science.

       Another way in which science has gone wrong was indicated by Sir Peter Medawar, himself an atheist, who wrote: "It is logically outside the competence of science to answer questions to do with first and last things.' [6] These things are outside the competence of science because they are in principle unverifiable by the methods of science. To understand these first and last things-and everything of ultimate importance in between-we have to resort to another method, that of theology and faith, for, as St. Paul says, we walk by faith, not by sight (11 Cor. 5:7).

      To say that we walk by faith does not mean that we ignore the evidence of our senses or the methods of logical reasoning. Thus, the central truth of our Faith, the Resurrection of Christ, was verified by a simple scientific experiment involving the sense of touch. And the principle physical evidence of the Resurrection that remains to this day, the Turin Shroud, has been subjected to analysis by scientists from practically every discipline from botany to astrophysics--and remains inexplicable by any other hypothesis. (The recent Carbon-14 dating, which was supposed to have proved its inauthenticity, has been shown to rest on false assumptions. [7])

      And yet millions of people confronted by the "many infallible proofs" do not believe; they cannot make the---for us eminently logical seduction that the Man who fulfills in His own life, death, and resurrection both His own and all of the Old Testament prophecies must be my Lord and my God (John 20:28). They cannot do this because, while science and logic confirm the Resurrection of Christ, the Person they point to is an unseen reality Who cannot be contained within the confines of the senses and logic and therefore represents a challenge to their carnal nature. Thus, their seeing and reasoning are not mixed with faith, which is, in St. Paul's words, the reality (Greek hypostasis: literally 'substance' or 'person') of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).

      When a man, following the evidence of his senses and the reasoning of his logical mind, penetrates, through faith, beyond the veil of the senses to the Logos Himself, He receives further revelations about things not seen, in accordance with his spiritual level. He learns about the creation of the world in the beginning, and its judgment at the end, about angels and demons, the souls of men and the logoi of all created beings. Nature becomes for him, in the words of Saint Anthony the Great, ''a book in which we read the thoughts of God." Only those "thoughts" are not mathematical formulae describing the structure of matter or space-time. Rather, they express the purpose for which each thing was created, its place in the structure of the universe as a whole.

      The scientific approach to nature may be described as analytic and reductionist; the Christian approach, as analogical and symbolic. The essence of the one approach is mathematical and quantitative, of the other-spiritual and qualitative. The two approaches are compatible; there is no reason why one cannot go up the great ladder of Being at one moment and go down it at another. At the same time, they are not on a par with each other, for while the analogical approach ascends from one level of reality to a higher one which is closer to Absolute Reality, the analytical approach sheds, as it were, dimensions of reality, as it descends lower. Thus, by reducing psychology and the social sciences to neurophysiology, analytical science loses the reality of free will and consciousness; by reducing biology to chemistry, it loses the Elan vital; and by reducing chemistry to quanta, it loses time, substance and causality.

      Indeed, the analytical approach reduces itself to absurdity by claiming that there is nothing else than these "no-things"--the ultimate statement of nihilism. This is what happens when qualities are redefined as quantities, when the analytical approach is adopted on its own without any reference to the truths and dimensions of reality revealed by the analogical approach. That is how we come to have theories which deny the arrow of time while trying to describe its supposed beginning (the Big Bang) and end (the Big Crunch); and theories about the origin of life which are based on destruction (mutation) and death (natural selection); and theories about the neurological nature of mind Which, if they were true, would deprive us of any reason for believing in the truth of any theories whatsoever--for why should I believe that the chance product of one set of neuronal firings is "truer" than any other?

      Orthodox Christianity is not against science that stays humbly within its limits, which recognizes that the universe is not an isolated system, but one that is open to the God Who created it, Who preserves it and all its parts in existence, and Who sustains every one of its laws by His Providence until the day when He will come to judge it, when the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up (Il Peter 3:10).

      Such a science, as opposed to scientism, Orthodoxy can work with and applaud; for true religion and true science work together to reveal the great edifice of truth. As the great Russian elder St. Nektary of Optina, who died in 1928, said: "God not only allows, He demands that a man grow in knowledge. There is no stopping place in God's creation; everything moves; and even the angels do not remain in one rank, but ascend from step to step, receiving new revelations. And even if a man has studied for a hundred years, he must still go on to ever new knowledge.... You must work--years pass unnoticed while you work." And as he spoke these words, "his face became unusually bright, so that it was difficult to look at it.'' [8]

      Orthodoxy declares that there is nothing more real than God, that all things live and move and have their being in Him (Acts 17:28), and that things lose reality when they begin to move away from Him and cease to reflect His light. Some things reflect God more fully and therefore partake in more dimensions of His reality. Christ is His perfect, consubstantial Image and Name, for He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, upholding the universe by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3). Men are also images of God, though not consubstantial ones; and their ability to use the word in science, art, and religion in order to describe and understand the universe is a true reflection of the power of the Word of God. Indeed, Adam's "naming" of the animals in Paradise may be seen as the beginning of true, analogical science, for through it, in St. Ambrose's words, "God granted [us] the power of being able to discern by the application of sober logic the species of each and every object in order that [we] may be induced to form a judgment on all of them.'' [9] Lower levels of being do not have the power of the word and can therefore symbolize higher levels less fully and deeply. And yet in Christ and the Church, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:22), even the lowliest wave-function acquires reality and meaning and the ability to partake in some measure in the Providence of God.

        The proof of the primordial unity of the universe, and the guarantee of its eternal unity, is the Incarnation of Christ. For when the Word became flesh, He that is absolutely immaterial and unquantifiable took on matter and was as it were 'quantized.' Thus, in His one and indivisible Person was united the Godhead, mind, soul, body, atoms, and quanta. We might call this the First Law of Analogical Thermodynamics. It is the Law of the conservation of matter and life and meaning in the Light and Life and Logos of the universe, the Lord Jesus Christ.

         However, the unity of the universe has been threatened by man, who, misusing the freedom and rationality given him in the image of God's absolute Freedom and Rationality, has turned away from God to the lower levels of reality. Thus, instead of contemplating all things in symbolic and symbiotic relation to the Word and Wisdom of the universe, he has considered them only in relation to himself, the observer and user; instead of offering nature up to God in eucharistic thanksgiving, he has dragged it down to the level of his own self-centered desires. As a result, both he and nature have disintegrated, and not only abstractly, in the systems of scientists and philosophers, but concretely, in history, for there has been a progressive seepage or dissipation of reality and meaning from the universe separating man from God, then man from woman, the soul from the body, and all the elements of nature from their original moorings. In scientific terms, this seepage or disintegration or expanding chaos is expressed in the second law of thermodynamics, the best verified law in the whole of science. We might call it the Second Law of Analogical Thermodynamics, otherwise known as original sin or, in St. Paul's words, "the bondage of corruption" under which the whole of creation has been groaning to the present day (Rom. 8:21-22).

      The thesis of the First Law, and the antithesis of the Second Law require a Third Law which restores or recreates the order that was in the beginning. This Third Law began to operate at the Incarnation of Christ, when human nature was recreated in the image and likeness of God, but with a new energy that took it onto a higher plane, the plane of deification. This Third Law is in fact no law at all, in the sense of a constraint upon nature, but rather the law of liberty (James 2:12), the glorious liberty of the sons of God (Rom. 8:22), the law of grace...

      Our fall came about through our partaking of the tree of knowledge prematurely, before partaking of the tree of life. We began to analyze and reduce and kill and consume before we had acquired real, stable life in Christ. God did not say that knowledge was evil, nor that Adam and Eve would not acquire a certain kind of knowledge by partaking of the forbidden tree; but since this knowledge was not a knowledge of life grounded in life, it became a knowledge of death that brought in death. Science has repeated this original fall, coming to the bitter and senseless and deadly conclusion that all life has evolved through a struggle to the death, being constructed out of ghostly spectra of possibilities that disappear on encountering the first dawn of knowledge. The universe, according to science, is indeed, as Macbeth said, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Science can only come to life again by coming into contact with the true Light, Christ, in Whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). Let us hope and pray that such a resurrection will take place.

         In the meantime, let us not be deceived by antitheses of science falsely so called (I Tim. 6:20). Let us "continue in the faith grounded and settled," taking care lest any man rob us through philosophy and vain deceit, according to the traditions of men, according to the elements of the world, and not according to Christ (Col. 1:23; 2:8). For the words of Saint Basil the Great in the Hexaemeron about the "half-scientists" of his day are no less relevant in our own: "Have not those who give themselves up to vain science the eyes of owls? The sight of the owl, piercing during the night time, is dazzled by the splendour of the sun. Thus, the intelligence of these men, so keen to contemplate vanities, is blind in the presence of the true Light ...'


NOTES 

1. A History of Western Philosophy (London; Allen, 1959), 512.

2. "The Two Cultures," Encounter, (1959), 13:61.

3. The Devils (Harrnondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 257.

4. P. Coveney and R. Highfield, The Arrow of Time (London: Flamingo, 1991), 133.

5. "Joyfully Back to Church?" New Statesman and Society (May 1, 1992), 32.

6. Quoted in John Taylor, When the Clock Struck Zero (London: Picador, 1993), 5.

7. See Pravoslavnaya Rus', no. 7 (April 1/14, 1993), 16; Orthodoxle, 60 (September, 1994), 3334; Anne de Courcy, "Is This the Face of Jesus Christ After All?" Sunday Telegraph Magazine (July 30, 1994).

 8. Zhitiya Prep~obnykh 5tartsev Optino Pustyni (Jotdanville, NY:

Holy Trinity Monastery, 1992), 337.

9. On Paradise, 11. 

The author is a British convert to Orthodoxy. He has written numerous articles and several books, among which is a four volume set on The Saints of Anglo-saxon England, and one on Russia's New Martyrs, soon to be published by Holy Trinity Monastery. He and his Russian-born wife live in England.

 


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society