Can science and religion work together?

This article is adapted from one that appeared in Origins 12, No. 2 (1985): 71-88.

Leonard R. Brand is professor of biology at Loma Linda University, Riverside, California. This article is adapted from one that appeared in Origins 12, No. 2 (1985): 71-88.

To many people the term scientific creationism seems self-contradictory. How can creation, which by definition involves supernatural phenomena, be scientific? The seeming contradiction disappears if we approach the study of origins with an adequate understanding of how science operates what science can do and what it cannot do.

Let us begin by defining the role of a theory in science. A good scientific theory or hypothesis has the following characteristics:

1. It explains and organizes previously unrelated facts.

2. It suggests useful experiments to be done, thus stimulating scientific progress.

3. It is testable--experiments can be performed that will support it if it is true or falsify (disprove) it if it is wrong. These experiments must be repeatable; other scientists should be able to get the same results when they do the same experiments.

4. It predicts the outcome of untried experiments. If a theory can predict the outcome of an experiment, our confidence in the theory will be increased.

Does a good scientific theory have to be true? We certainly hope it is true--a scientist would not waste time on a theory that he thought to be false. But the truth of the theory is what we are trying to determine with our experiments. We do not know for sure which of our theories will continue to be supported and which ones will turn out to be false.

History has shown that a theory that is false can have the characteristics of a good theory and can effectively guide scientific advance for a long time (even hundreds of years) before the accumulating evidence leads some creative individuals to decide that a new theory is needed. 1 Theories are tools to organize our thinking and to direct our research in a profitable direction. They are valuable, practical tools, but that does not mean that they are absolute truth. They may be only stepping-stones in our search for truth.

It is often implied that because the creation theory originates from religion, it must be unscientific. Does the source of a theory affect its validity? Philosophers of science have struggled with this question and have concluded that we objectively define the source of a scientific idea. 2 A scientist watching a witch doc tor at work may theorize that some of his herbs have medicinal value. Does the fact that the witch doctor is a very unscientific source of ideas make the theory unscientific? Not if it can be experimentally tested.

A theory is not scientific or unscientific because of its origin. It is scientifically useful if it can be tested; and if it cannot be tested, it is outside the realm of science (even though it may be true).

Some would conclude that the above definition has already eliminated creation from the realm of science, but it is not that simple. We can find testable and untestable aspects of both creation and evolution (see table).

We cannot directly test whether God involved Himself in earth history. But if He did involve Himself in the ways described in the Bible (creation and a worldwide flood), those events should have left some evidence in the natural world. (For example, we should find no evidence of evolutionary intermediates, while, on the other hand, we should find evidence of catastrophic geologic action.) Whether or not such evidence exists can be investigated scientifically.

Can flood-geology theories be tested?

Many creationists and evolutionists would agree that science cannot answer the question Did God cause a worldwide flood? But they would probably differ as to their reasons for arriving at this conclusion. While it is impossible to devise an experiment to test whether or not God caused a flood, most scientists make the a priori assumption that there has never been any supernatural intervention in earth history. In fact, that assumption has been built into the very definition of science for nearly a century. Presently, to believe in supernatural events is to be, by definition, unscientific. However, that assumption is really just an untested hypothesis, not a fact that has been demonstrated or even one that can be demonstrated by scientific data.

Not only can science never prove that God has influenced our geologic history, but it is equally impossible for science to prove that He has not influenced our geologic history. These are philosophical questions of ultimate causation that we cannot test by any conceivable experiment. Just because we cannot test the idea, we should not deny that our universe could be influenced by a Being more powerful and intelligent than our selves. Rather, it would seem more openminded to simply conclude that science cannot study supernatural events unless those events have left sufficient detect able evidence to allow us to test hypotheses about them.

For example, the flood geologist pro poses that at some time in the past there was a disturbance in the earth's crust that temporarily disrupted the normal relationships between land and water bodies. This disturbance initiated worldwide a period of rapid erosion and sedimentation that produced a significant portion of the geologic column. According to this hypothesis, the geologic and geophysical processes occurring during that event produced the characteristics of the rock formations formed at that time, including the distribution of fossils and the arrangement of the levels of radioactivity in those minerals used in radiometric dating.

Where this theory came from is beside the point. A flood theory expressed in this form is a simple descriptive statement and says nothing about the untestable question of whether God was involved in initiating this geologic event. It does not attempt to explain any process or event that may have operated outside the known laws of chemistry or physics. This descriptive theory can be used as a basis for defining specific hypotheses concerning the sedimentary processes and the amount of time involved in de positing individual formations, or the processes that produced various other geologic features. These hypotheses can be tested in the same way that geologists test any other hypotheses.

So, for example, two geologists could be doing research on one of the Paleozoic formations in the Grand Canyon. One geologist believes that the formation was deposited over a long time thousands or millions of years. The other geologist believes that the formation was deposited far more quickly than that. They both look for the same general type of data as they study the rocks. Each one must analyze the data that he finds, as well as other published data, and then interpret their meaning.

When they disagree, each geologist will analyze the other's work, reanalyze his own work, and try to determine what additional data are needed to clarify the issue. If each is doing good work, he will then publish his findings in a scientific journal so that other scientists will benefit. Hopefully, as more data accumulate the conflicts will be resolved and the total body of data will clearly favor one explanation--it will point to either rapid deposition or very slow deposition of the formation.

Both flood geologists and other geologists believe that if we are completely fair with the data, eventually the data will tell us which theory is true (unless we are not able to collect the types of data that can provide such information without being able to go back in time and directly ob serve what happened). Both types of geologists will also use the same observational and experimental procedures in their research.

Many would say that the data have already conclusively disproved the flood theory. But discrepancies between a theory and the available data can arise in at least two different ways--the theory may be wrong, or there may be an important discovery waiting for the diligent scientist who uses the theory to guide his research. Creationists and flood geologists recognize that if their theory is true, there must be some significant phenomena yet to be discovered.

Does belief in creation stifle research, as some have suggested? Some approaches to creation may stifle research, but if this theory is understood correctly and if its predictions of new phenomena waiting to be discovered are taken seriously, it could be a stimulus for vigorous new approaches to research. The scientist who uses the Bible as a source of ideas for developing hypotheses should be able to operate as a successful researcher, and, I believe, should even have an advantage in generating successful hypotheses.

Limitations in studying the past

As we attempt to study the history of the earth and of life on earth, we must clearly understand one limitation of the scientific method. Geologic history is in interpreted primarily by comparing rock formations with modern analogues.

Suppose a geologist is studying a sand stone layer and wants to know under what conditions it was deposited. He cannot go back in a time machine to observe its origin, so he will find modem processes (rivers, wind, ocean waves, etc.) that produce sand deposits. Then he will compare these modern analogues with the sandstone formation. He will try to determine which modern analogue produces a deposit most similar to the ancient sandstone. If the sandstone matches most closely the underwater sand dune fields that are sometimes found offshore in shallow ocean water, he will conclude that the ancient sand stone was produced by a similar offshore dune field.

This approach is like answering a multiple choice question that asks Under which of the following conditions was this sandstone deposit formed?

A. River deposit

B. Desert sand dunes

C. Beach sand deposit

D. Marine offshore dunes

E. Turbidity currents

If the sandstone was indeed formed by one of the processes A-E, the research method described above should be an effective way to find the answer. But what if the sandstone was not deposited by any of the processes listed? What if it was deposited in an environment not observable on the earth today? What if it was deposited by a rapid, large-scale flow of water during a global geologic catastrophe? Such a deposit would likely be quite similar in many respects to sand deposits in one or more of our modern analogues.

We would then have to add another choice to the possibilities listed above: F. Rapid underwater sand deposit during a worldwide flood.

Since alternative F does not have any modern analogue that we can study, most geologists would choose one of the other analogues. In doing so they would come to the wrong conclusion. Such an approach to research is simply, as Charles F. Kettering has stated, "an organized way of going wrong with confidence."

A geologist who believes in a worldwide flood has the same limitations as one who does not: he did not observe that flood, and he has access only to modern analogues A-E. However, the flood geologist will at least be more aware of the possibility that our modern analogues may not explain all of the geologic data.

As Stanley, Jordan, and Dott point out: "Inasmuch as geologists are forced to interpret ancient sediments chiefly by analogies with modern phenomena, in interpretations are severely biased if all possible analogues are not known." 3 Since no one has witnessed geologic activity on a scale even approaching what a worldwide flood would involve, there will naturally be a heavy bias in favor of geologic processes and rates that are within the range of what man has witnessed. Some data may force a recognition of greater forces and rates, but only a scientist who takes seriously the Noachian flood account is likely to be adequately prepared to recognize evidence for rapid, worldwide geologic activity.

Proof for God's involvement?

Now let us look at the other side of the coin. Even if the flood geologist uses his theory effectively and makes discoveries that others have overlooked, there will be limits on the scientific conclusions that he can draw from his data. Science cannot demonstrate whether God was or was not involved in influencing our geologic history. Even if research eventually demonstrates that the best explanation for the geologic column is rapid sedimentation of most of the column in one short spurt of geologic activity, that would not prove that God caused a flood. But it would demonstrate that it is reasonable to believe the biblical flood story. God never promised us proof; He only promised us reasonable evidence on which to base our faith.

We can further understand this principle by considering a specific formation--the Navajo Sandstone--and by trying to decide what kind of evidence would tell us whether or not it was a flood deposit. It is often helpful to begin by trying to think of all possible models, or theories, that could explain a particular phenomenon. Here are several models for the Navajo Sandstone:

Wind 1. Deposited by wind over hundreds or thousands of years in a normal desert environment.

Wind 2. Deposited rapidly during a period of unusually persistent high winds, but otherwise not in a catastrophic setting.

Wind 3. Deposited rapidly by wind. Much of the geologic column was deposited rapidly and catastrophically; however, God was not necessarily involved, and this rapid deposition had nothing to do with Noah's flood.

Wind 4. Deposited very rapidly by persistent high winds during a period of lowered water level near the end of the Noachian flood.

Water 1. Deposited over hundreds or thousands of years by water, as the water slowly or periodically carried sand into the area.

Water 2. Deposited rapidly in an area with persistent, relatively rapid water currents and a plentiful sand supply. Otherwise not in a geologic setting that was especially catastrophic.

Water 3. Deposited rapidly by water. Much of the geologic column was deposited rapidly and catastrophically; however, God was not necessarily involved, and this rapid deposition had nothing to do with Noah's flood.

Water 4. Deposited rapidly underwater by the persistent water currents during the Noachian flood. The sand-sized particles were not necessarily produced during the Flood, but came from extensive beds of sand that were part of the pre-flood world and were transported into their new location during the Flood.

A flood geologist may predict that the correct model is either Wind 4 or Water 4, and that Water 4 seems more likely. Since no one knows everything that was going on during the Flood, he could not rule out Wind 4 without adequate evidence.

But suppose he is able to produce compelling evidence that the Navajo Sand stone was deposited very rapidly under water. Even that wouldn't prove the Noachian flood. That evidence would eliminate models Wind 1-4 and Water 1. But models Water 2, 3, and 4 could all explain that evidence equally well.

Evidence that can be explained by two or more models cannot establish which model is more likely correct. We need evidence that fits one model and contradicts the others.

If the geologist finds convincing evidence that much of the rest of the geo logic column was also deposited catastrophically, he will have eliminated all except models Water 3 and 4. What scientific evidence can specify which of these two models is correct? Science can never demonstrate that God was or was not involved in influencing earth history. The choice between models Water 3 and 4 or between models Wind 3 and 4 will always involve a large element of faith.

The flood geologist cannot expect to prove that God caused a flood. But he can hope to demonstrate that hypotheses based on the biblical flood account can stimulate productive research and produce more adequate explanations for geologic phenomena. Successfully demonstrating that much of the geologic column was deposited catastrophically will indicate to an open-minded person that it is not at all unreasonable to believe in the Bible.

There is another important aspect of this topic that cannot be studied experimentally but rather must be dealt with on a philosophical level. The scientist understands the universe as a complex physical system that functions according to natural laws. Many scientists insist that God's causing a worldwide flood would be a miracle, and miracles are some sort of magic, contrary to natural law, and thus unscientific.

Such reasoning would be true only if we are willing to believe that science has discovered all natural laws--that God could not use any as-yet-undiscovered laws to perform His "miracles."

We cannot know for sure whether God operates outside the laws that govern the universe, although it appears likely that He does so rarely, if ever. But certainly it is not reasonable to assert that God cannot work outside the natural laws that are known to us. There probably are many laws beyond those we have discovered that God can use to accomplish His purposes.

Another aspect of this same issue can best be explained with an example. If I drop a book, the law of gravity dictates that it will fall to the floor. However, since I am a mobile, reasoning being, I can stick my hand under the falling book. Doing so interjects an outside force into the system and changes the course of events but does not break any laws.

God could interject an outside force into earth's balanced geologic system and bring on a flood without breaking any natural laws. To acknowledge that, one has only to be willing to admit that a Being exists who has the power and knowledge to do so.

In the concluding article of this series, to appear in our January 1988 issue, Dr. Brand discusses different models for relating science and Scripture, pointing out which he believes to be most fruitful. And he looks at how these models resolve conflicts between science and religion.