One of the biggest misconceptions in the discussion about science and faith has to do with our ability to explain natural phenomena and what those explanations imply about God's actions in the universe. This is a misconception that is explicitly held by many who don't believe in God and implicitly held by many who do believe in God. The result of believing this idea is a complete misunderstanding of God and biblical teaching, and leads to false conclusions about God's involvement in the natural world. The misconception is the idea that if science has developed a naturalistic explanation for some phenomena then that removes God's involvement from the process. A closely related corollary to this misconception is the idea that if there is a phenomena that we can't explain, then God must be the explanation. This latter corollary is called the "god of the gaps". We invoke God as an explanation for things we don't understand. Both of these ideas, a god of the gaps argument or the idea that a scientific explanation removes God, are false, unbiblical, poorly reasoned, and lead to incorrect conclusions.
Let me illustrate the two aspects of this misconception with two incidents from my life. In my previous post I talked about how the amount of matter in the universe is precisely tuned to allow life to exist. One time after I gave a talk and mentioned that fact, a Christian physicist from the audience came up to me and informed me that I shouldn't use the amount of matter in the universe as a fine-tuning argument because a natural process called "inflation" forces the matter density to be the needed critical value. He was basically saying that since there was a natural mechanism that explained the matter density of the universe, then it wasn't an example of something that appeared fine tuned, so I shouldn't use that as evidence for God's actions. He had the misconception that if science has developed a naturalistic explanation for some phenomena then that removes God's involvement from the process and that it doesn't give evidence for a designer. Don't mechanisms that work extremely well to accomplish some purpose also give evidence for a designer?
The other incident in my life occurred when I was in elementary school and I attended a week-long summer camp. One day, our camp counselor was talking about evidence for God from science. He said that inside of the nucleus of every atom were positively charged protons and since positively charged objects were repelled by other positively charged objects, the protons in the nucleus should just all fly apart. He went on to say, however, that Colossians 1:7 explains why the nucleus doesn't fall apart because it says, "in Him all things hold together." The counselor was implying that God supernaturally holds the nucleus together. He was, of course, appealing to a god of the gaps argument. Since he didn't know why the protons stayed confined to the nucleus, then God must do it. I find it ironic that I still remember that incident and that I have subsequently spent much of my life studying the force that actually overcomes the electromagnetic repulsion and binds the protons together in the nucleus, the strong nuclear force described by Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD).
A consequence of this kind of reasoning is that any natural explanation diminishes God's role. Since we have natural explanations for so many phenomena, atheists believe that God's role has been minimized to be nonexistent. However, as a Christian who believes that God has revealed himself in the Bible, I should look to the Bible to determine how I should see God in the natural world. Should I look at things that are unexplainable and invoke God's actions there? Should I only attribute God's action to true miracles where the normal laws of nature are superceded? We know that nature should reveal God's character as Psalm 19:1 says. But how does nature reveal God's character? How should we see God in nature? Some passages of scripture that help answer these questions include Matthew 6, Job 38, and Psalm 104. Here is a list of some of the things that the Bible says God is responsible for.
The sun following its course (Psalm 19:1-6)
Feeding birds (Matt 6:26)
Clothing lilies (Matt 6:28)
Enclosing the sea (Job 38:8)
Commanding the morning (Job 38:12)
Bringing rain (Job 38:34)
Feeding lions and birds (Job 38:39-41)
Covering the deep (Psalm 104:6)
Setting a boundary for the sea (Psalm 104:9)
Sending forth springs (Psalm 104:10)
Causing grass to grow (Psalm 104:14)
Bringing forth wine (Psalm 104:15)
Planting trees (Psalm104:16)
Appointing darkness (Psalm 104:20)
Having lions seek food from God (Psalm 104:21)
Feeding animals (Psalm 104: 27-28)
Water evaporating (Psalm 135:7)
Forming babies (Jeremiah 1:5)
Forming babies (Jeremiah 1:5)
Notice that these are just every day things that, in many cases, ancient people knew were not supernatural. For instance, it was certainly known that lions hunted prey and birds dug up worms, but all these actions are attributed to God. He does these things. If I want to see God in nature, I should not look primarily to the things I don't understand and can't explain, but primarily to the things I do understand and can explain. In doing so, I will see the works of God. I will see the soul of the artist.
So according to biblical teaching, whether cancer is healed by a surgeon or by a miracle, God is responsible. Whether wind blows through my state of Oklahoma because of high and low pressure or if Jesus calms the wind on the Sea of Galilee with his words, God is responsible. Whether wine is made through fermentation or Jesus changes water to wine, God is responsible. You get the idea. This principle, that God is responsible for natural phenomena and divine intervention is referred to as Divine Providence.
When we discover something new about how nature works, we are not removing God's action from that phenomena. Instead we are discovering how God has performed his action. There are so many ramifications of this. For instance, critics of intelligent design say that acknowledging there is a designer thwarts scientific investigation. But that is just not so. Simply acknowledging a designer does not give any indication of the methods the designer used to implement his design, so all scientific investigation remains open. Knowing that the statues on Easter Island were designed does not stop the investigation of how they were carved and moved, or the more important question of why they were erected at all.
There is so much more that must be discussed regarding this topic of how God is seen in nature and how it relates to science, so this post only serves as an introduction to the subject. I have just barely introduced the principle that we should primarily see God in nature through the marvelous natural processes that work so well, not through supernatural miracles, and that finding a natural mechanism for a process does not remove God's involvement. Let me conclude this post with a great illustration of the many ways that God's actions are demonstrated. This illustration as reproduced here in its entirety is from astrophysicist Jeff Zweerink and appears on the Reasons to Believe web site. It is the story of three men who are playing a round of golf.
The first fellow, Jack, teed up his ball for a shot. The whoosh of his club sent the ball sailing over the wide water hazard and onto the front edge of the green where it rolled right into the cup. As the second fellow approached the tee, he remarked, “Nice swing, Mr. Nicklaus!" Without even a warm-up, the crack of the second club sent the ball directly toward the middle of the water hazard. Upon contacting the water’s surface, the ball bounced a couple of times before rolling to the shore, up the bank, across the green, and straight into the cup. Jack turned and said, “Well played, Jesus! Well played.” After placing his ball on the tee, the third fellow paused for some time, admiring the beautiful course. A quick swing of the club sent his ball arcing toward the deepest part of the water hazard. Just before striking the surface, a colorful rainbow trout leapt from the water, and the ball ricocheted off the fish’s tail into a large hole in a tree. A second later, a squirrel emerged from the hole, spitting the golf ball out of its mouth. The ball fell through the air, struck four different branches as it circled the tree, dropped onto the green, and rolled into the pin before landing in the bottom of the cup. Jesus turned around and proclaimed, “Excellent shot, Dad!”
Dr. Zweerink then asks the question, "Which of the three golf shots demonstrates God's activity?"
There are many things in nature we can explain and understand, and many that we have not yet discovered explanations for. The character and actions of the God who created and sustains the universe can be seen in them all.
Cartoon copyright by Sidney Harris sciencecartoonsplus.com