Monday, September 21, 2015

Further Thoughts on Faith and Science

After posting "Thoughts on Faith and Science," I received this response, which I thought was worthy of reflection and address:

"You and the article's author are talking about two different things. However, to your point:

'The third is my understanding of miracles. While I don't think it is necessary that most of the miraculous stories in the bible be li
terally true (and I am not denying their possibility or existence either), I do think that the basic understanding of the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ be true in order for Christian faith to maintain any coherence. These miraculous events, if actually breaking any physical laws, would be 'one-off' affairs, meaning they would be non-replicable (sic) and therefore untouchable to scientific investigation.'

This is what makes science and religion completely incompatible. Science encompasses all things and for something to lie outside the realm of science means that they are at odds on a fundamental level. Merely the existence of some supernatural being (and even there, in the very word supernatural, implies incompatibility with natural science) already defies the very idea of science, much less that this being could pass part of itself into an impossible child (for humans) who then subsequently dies and comes back to life with no outside intervention after a much-too-long period of time.

A miracle may be a miracle in the sense that it is impossible to explain by our current understanding or knowledge. This is fine and compatible with science. But if you step outside the realm of science - 'untouchable to scientific investigation' - then that is where you can no longer the idea of a miracle with science. Fundamentally.

You can argue that the incarnation was poetic and metaphorical, that the death was not a death but some coma that was misinterpreted as death, that the resurrection was a recovery from this coma (perhaps with outside aid, despite what the bible says), and I will buy every bit of it. That is completely compatible with science. But to say that it's a 'one-off' and 'untouchable to [science]' is not acceptable to science." - Mr. Chen, Posted on Facebook, September 11, 2015.

Below are my musings in response to the points of contention Mr. Chen brought up:

Thanks for your thoughts Mr. Chen! I apologize for the late reply as I've been pretty swamped with schoolwork recently.

You're right, my response was really more geared toward comments I had seen in the posting from which this article was taken, and not to the article itself. Another poster made a great summery of the article in his comment [posted on Facebook, above these], with which I generally agreed (especially in its application to political ideas).

I've had some time to reflect on your points and they made me realize that my statement that miraculous events are “untouchable to scientific investigation” isn't exactly true. They may not be repeatable in a lab, but they are subject to historical, anthropological, and archaeological investigation, which are still branches of science. I think, then, a reasonable conversation about events like the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus must rest on what we know about these areas.

However, I've also noticed that we're operating on a number of assumptions regarding natural science that we should probably take a look at. First, we are assuming God would need to break the laws of physics in order for these events to happen. This may very well be true, but I wonder if there are other theological interpretations where this isn't necessary. It seems to me that while the standard laws of physics would be largely deterministic in regards to what events are possible, the nature of many quantum events seem to be more probabilistic in nature. This opens some pretty fantastic possibilities for what would still be regarded as natural phenomena. Since I'm not an expert in these areas, these are just my musings as I read more about them, but I find their implications very intriguing for discussions about God or miracles.

I also question your statement that “science encompasses all things.” I would argue that science encompasses our reasonable inferences regarding subjects we can observe. To truly “encompass all things” we must have knowledge of every bit of information in the universe, and I don't think our species will ever make it to that point naturally. I'm not saying that it's impossible, but based on what I currently know, I think we will always have more to discover.

Perhaps the best analogous event to what we are talking about (and to which we can both agree actually happened) is the Big Bang. Again, I am not an expert in this field, so I may very well be off in my understanding of it. However, my understanding is that the current laws of physics break down in the moments immediately following and surrounding the singularity which signaled the beginning of the event. This could have multiple implications. If the laws of physics can break down once, why can they not do it again? One may very well call this event miraculous, for lack of a better term.

The problem is, many Christians are tempted to leave it at that, with a definition of miracles resting in ignorance rather than what we know. To me, the only relevant God is a revealed God. This means that the true importance of any miraculous (or otherwise unexplained) event rests entirely in revelation. For Christians, this revelation rests primarily in the Incarnation and in the experiences of those who wrote scripture. I think such revelations are naturally possible (without breaking any physical laws) since, much like other quantum events, the nature of the mind also appears to be less deterministic and more probabilistic.

Now, I recognize that allowing for the possibility of miracles does not necessarily mean their certainty. This is where I think historical, anthropological, and psychological study becomes important for their investigation. But the purpose of my response here isn't really to delve into their certainty (which would probably take a bunch more posts); it's mostly just to show the reasonableness of their possibility.

Finally, just to address the coma theory. While as possible as just about anything else, even that would be very unlikely. A man who had just been beaten severely, crucified, stabbed in the side, and left for dead in a cave with probably very little oxygen, and no food or water; would be just about as unlikely to get up, go on a walk and talk with people, as one who had actually been dead. Such an event would probably require Divine intervention. :D #science #religion #atheism #christianity #faith


Frank G Turner said...

This is Frank from over at the other blog. You are quite engaging and a deep thinker and I do appreciate that. I wanted to point out something with regard to taking the Gospels literally though. I don't know where this is appropriate so I will just put it here.
Are you familiar with the works of Richard Carrier? He writes a blog over at He makes some claims about there being no historical Jesus. I have not had the chance to read his works in depth but I have listened to some of his lectures on YouTube. You are aware of inaccuracies within the Gospels are you not? How they can't be all true as it would have required multiple people being in 2 places at the same time? (There are those who compare it to eye witness accounts of different people who will describe different things).
You might get some responses at the original blog where we started this though. There is plenty of stuff on how the Gospels were written many years after the events they describe and how there are known bits added in after the original writing. It is some good stuff to study.

Brother Ivan, the Sinner said...

Hi Frank! Thanks for visiting my blog! I have read some of the works of Richard Carrier, just in the past few days actually. I found his comments on Josephus well thought out. He argues that the Christ passage is most likely an interpolation as it doesn't fit the overall theme of Josephus' work, shows inconsistencies in use of the aorist verb tense, and that even early Christian apologists, such as Origen, who elsewhere quotes Josephus, don't mention this passage. This has also been debated by other scholars in the field, including secular ones. I tend to give the "chance" of Josephus' passage concerning Christ having historical value at around 40%. I don't put much confidence in the passage. However, I think Carrier completely misses the value elsewhere in Josephus for understanding the New Testament.

That value lies well beyond the disputed "Christ passages," but instead in Josephus' observations regarding the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which are very similar to the prophetic proclamations of Jesus in Matthew ch. 23.

I also found that his statements regarding Seutonius and especially Tacitus run counter to the consensus of most other scholars. Still, consensus doesn't guarantee that a particular view is right, but I do wonder if his motivation is driving his thinking a bit more than the evidence.

As for the historical value of the Gospels, I don't take them literally in many respects. It is clear that each author has ordered the events to fit a particular theological narrative (cf. Matthew and John), and mythic elements may well have been used in some of the stories. For instance, the numerical value of Jesus' mass feedings, i.e. 4,000 and 5,000 has significance, in that each number may represent the salvation ("feeding") brought by Jesus, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (represented in numerological form). Because of this significance, the size of the crowd could not have been random, and so serves as a theological device. Now, Jesus' disciples may very well have become known for feeding masses as part of his ministry, and that may have provided the kernel of historical truth behind the theological story.

But, as I noted in my most recent blog post, the canonical gospels don't actually represent four accounts, but more than likely at least seven (Mark, Q, Special-L, Special-M, Signs-J, Sayings-J, and Special-J) which have been synthesized into the works we have. Scholarly consensus is that these gospels were largely finished by 70-96 CE (66-70 for Mark, 70-80 for Matthew and Luke, and 80-96 for John). Even though this was decades after Jesus died, many of the witnesses to these events were still alive. I noted it in a post above, but research into oral traditions over long periods of time (up to a century in Central Africa) has shown that in oral societies stories can remain remarkably unchanged for generations. Additional, possibly authentic traditions regarding Jesus have also found their way into much of the gospel of Thomas and the Apostolic Fathers.

Because of the theological nature of these works, it is no wonder there are discrepancies, as each focuses on different aspects regarding Jesus' person and ministry. But what should really strike us as equally significant as the inconsistencies are the consistencies found within the narrative. There is so much agreement as to the basic narrative, that I (and most scholars) believe there is a historical core representing a historical Jesus.

Just what exactly is encompassed within this "core" is often up for debate, but most scholars agree it is reasonable to conclude Jesus truly did exist, that much of his teaching is preserved, that he was perceived as a healer and possibly a prophet in his own time, that he died on a cross, and that his tomb was found empty.

Anyway, these are just some additional thoughts. But I'll definitely keep reading and am happy to take suggestions on future reading material. :)