Thinking Faith blogs

Faith, Knowledge and Statistics

XKCD caricature of the Frequentist approach to statistical inference

Knowledge is a special kind of belief, and the science of statistics provides one approach to gaining knowledge. So does faith have any direct connection to statistics? [1]

A couple of months ago Andi Wang wrote about his interest in statistics as a Christian, and now I want to share something of mine.  I'm an applied statistician, using statistical methods to draw inferences from ecological, and more recently financial, data. My fascination with stats started on an ecology field trip that was part of my A-level Biology course, when an introduction to some basic statistical tests one evening revealed how we can discern scientific order in the apparent chaos of our natural environment.  My fascination has gradually developed ever since - but recently I've been excited about ways in which faith might guide statistical practices.  Drawing conclusions from numerical data, I now see, is not the purely objective process it might seem.

The basic point to make is that data don't speak. Although we talk of "analysing" data as if conclusions were latent in the data, waiting to be released, that's far from an accurate portrayal. We also proclaim what data "tell" us and speak of "following the evidence where it leads" - all of which, it can be argued, are seriously misleading. In fact we inevitably (1) collect data according to prior assumptions, (2) bring our beliefs to bear when choosing statistical methods and (3) incorporate theoretical ideas into our analyses. 

That's the simple point I want to make against the objectivity of statistical inference. To argue for a specifically religious factor, I need to give a simple example and recommend a book that makes the case more fully.

Let's take a very simple problem: what's the probability that this coin will land heads up? Here's a good empirical method: toss the coin 100 times and record the number of "heads". We can easily imagine doing this and getting, say, 47 heads and 53 tails. So we might conclude that the coin has a 47% chance of landing heads. Statisticians call this the maximum-likelihood estimate of the coin's probability of landing heads up: this value would make our observations more likely than would any other value - including 50%. (Philosophers call this general approach "inference to the best explanation".) 

Fortunately there's another method: do a null-hypothesis test based on a 50% "null hypothesis" (a default, "nothing-going-on" starting point).  Then having got 47 heads, we'd refer to a table of probabilities for possible outcomes from 100 trials with 50% probability in each one to find the chance of getting a number of heads that's at least as far away from 50 as is 47 (this needs a bit more explanation, but it's not the most important point). The answer (called our P-value) would be about 0.55 and we'd say that nothing terribly unlikely has happened if the fair-coin null hypothesis were true... whereas if we ended up with a P-value of just 0.05, we should suspect the coin of not being perfectly fair (which would mean getting fewer than 40 heads or tails). But we have two important queries: where did our null hypothesis come from, and how does that "if...whereas" line of reasoning about P-values work? The null hypothesis was based on a simple theory about coins, which means our statistical method is not as purely objective as we might have thought: for more interesting questions, the key theory might be controversial and open to change. And the P-value reasoning turns out to be based on some odd logic. For now let's note how non-intuitive it is, and that it seems odd to derive probabilities directly from data. For more detail, see the book recommendation below!

So there we have two methods for investigating the flipping-properties of a coin, each with some obvious problems. Regarding my three concerns above, we may have (1) chosen a flipping technique which we believe to be unbiased (but further research[2] could call it into question); (2) chosen the null-hypothesis method, unperturbed by caricatures like the cartoon above; and (3) employed the simple theory that coins are equally likely to land heads up as tails. But what about the religious factor?

The religious issue, actually, is right there. Humanist–empiricist views of science require that knowledge can arise objectively from evidence without dependence on prior beliefs, so that truths can be established independently of each other, free of subjection to historical, social and cultural factors - especially religious ones! - ensuring the resulting 'knowledge' can be divorced from other beliefs. A Christian view[3], by contrast, might insist that knowledge is a form of belief, and that beliefs can never be reduced to data. The particulars of data - including all kinds of experience - shape our beliefs, and that's how we grow our knowledge. What's more, there is an alternative statistical approach to those outlined above that explicitly builds conclusions upon prior beliefs: Bayesian inference.  For a much better exposition, I can heartily recommend the wonderfully-titled "Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference" by Andrew Hartley.

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[1] For enlightened nerdy insight about the above cartoon, see this discussion.

[2] e.g. Diaconis et al. (2007) SIAM Review 49:211-235

[3] I refer especially to the Reformed and Reformational traditions.

A Reflection on Ecclesiastes

The head of my postgrad ministry recently gave a wonderful talk on Ecclesiastes 3:9-13. During my week away from work, I have spent time with the passage and have found it very encouraging. I hope my reflections on it prove helpful to others at a time of year when many of us are looking forward to changes and new challenges!

'What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.' 

In this time of rest, I thank you for the busyness of life! I often find life overwhelming, but many struggle with loneliness and directionless instead. Thank you for the crush of life: for activity, colour and variety, for friends, for family and relationships, for comings and goings, for bustles and burdens. You gave us this busyness and you are in it all—you are our reward.

Thank you for the work you have done through me: Bible studies written, evenings of service at the church, prayers for struggling friends, meals cooked for church ministries. This toil blesses others, but it also blesses me: it keeps me humble, it softens my heart, and it strengthens my thoughtfulness towards others—a muscle that needs constant use to prevent atrophy!

But thank you also for work done in my ‘day job’: chapters written, books read, essays graded. Sometimes I struggle to understand what all this ‘earthly’ toil amounts to, but I know the gifts you have given me, and I know the joy of using them—of working diligently to your glory.

'He has made everything beautiful in its time.'

In its time...thank you for this chapter and for the unique challenges and joys it brings. Help me not look regretfully at the past or longingly at the future, but dwell with you here in the present. Life really does come in seasons, and there is sadness in watching each end. Help me to trust that you are the source of all life, and though seasons go, they come as well. You have already planned the next season for us and will dwell with us there.

Help me to understand that there are different kinds of beauty in each season and each bears different fruit: delicate slivers of grass and majestic, soaring oaks; verdant bushes, laden with diaphanous roses and waxy succulents with tough skin and a lone, hard-won blossom. Whatever life this season brings, help me be grateful for it, and see the beauty in what you have given.

'Also, he has put eternity into man's heart,'

Eternity! This is the greatest news of all: there will be a season that never ends, and it is good to long for it as leaves chance and we wait for the next bloom. You are our constancy, our ‘ever fix’d mark’.

'yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.'

This is a welcome reminder in the academy where knowledge reigns supreme: there are things I will never understand, because God is far too big for me to comprehend. I don’t have all the answers about you, but you have all the answers about me!

'I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.'

Thank you God for your blessings throughout all seasons: the good things of life are not accidents but reveal your generous character and your love for us. Help us to accept them. In times of rest and non-busyness, I often feel anxious about things I can’t control. Please help me understand that none of your blessings were ever earned or ever could be. Help me be a child, reliant on you and trusting in both work and rest, humbly accepting the blessings of today without worrying about yesterday or tomorrow.

Alleluia, all I have is Christ!

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Dangerous Faith in Artificial Intelligence

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the USA. He is famous for his catchy phrase that the human mind is nothing but "a three-pound computer made of meat." Minsky was an atheist and worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He was convinced that 'free will' is an illusion and he asserted that "people should give their money to AI research rather than their churches, as only AI would truly give them eternal life.” Minsky believed passionately that science and technology can solve all our problems including the death of death. This faith is sometimes called scientism.

Background Notes

Artificial Intelligence (AI) hopes that machines can perform intelligent tasks like reasoning, learning and developing new technologies. While no one is expecting parity with human intelligence today or in the near future, AI has huge implications for how we live. AI devotees trust in the power of science and technology to solve all our problems and eventually to defeat physical death. Some call this 'Infinite Progress'. Key figures in this movement include Hans Moravec, Kevin Warwick and Marvin Minsky. AI followers predict that brilliant scientists will devise very clever and creative computers and fragile humans will be able to upload their minds onto the hard drives of these fabulous machines, so leaving their bodies behind to decay. There is also the hope that humans will merge with sophisticated technologies. Arms will be replaced by mechanical parts and fleshy hearts and lungs will become redundant. Humans will morph into indestructible cyborgs like The Terminator and we will enjoy eternal life thanks to AI. This is the proud faith of Minsky and his many friends. One way to talk intelligently about the Christian faith is to contrast faith in AI with faith in Jesus. Do we trust in Jesus' death and resurrection or in AI?

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that science and technology will solve all our problems. Death will be defeated by clever boffins."

Relativist faith: "We believe that scientism is true if it works for you. There are many other ways to find salvation."

Gnostic faith: "We believe that death is not a disaster. It is the great hour of the freedom of the soul." 

Christian faith: "We believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed death (2 Timothy 1:10). Trust in Jesus. "I am the resurrection and the life." (John 11:25)

Questions

1) Did Marvin Minsky have a dangerous faith?

2) Do we have hope in the resurrection or hope in a robot replacement?

3) Have you heard of 'transhumanism'?

People who are free

I've spent much of the last two weeks at academic conferences. Now, while I take a few days off to recover (!), I'm reflecting on some of the challenges of the scholarly environment that can be exposed with particular clarity at this kind of event. 

I should say up front that in general I really enjoy conferences, and the two I've just attended were no exception - one was relatively small, for specialists in my particular research area, and the other was a huge medievalist congress that draws people from all over the world. At both I met old friends and made new acquaintances, heard eye-opening research papers, spoke to leaders in my field, and presented my own work to engaged audiences. I'm worn out, but I had a great time.

Various observations and discussions, though, had me thinking back to something I heard a few months ago from Sarah Williams, who spoke at the Humanities stream of the Developing a Christian Mind event. She said in her talk then that institutions, funding, and all the rest are useless without 'people who are free'. All too often, academics - especially young or early career scholars - can feel anything but free.

This can come out in the formal context of the panel, where the presence of a forbidding name in the seat next to you or in the audience can have you hedging and downplaying your work, or even overstating it in compensation. It might be the subtle jockeying over institutional class or seriousness of scholarship that comes up in question time. For many of us it's the mix of fear, embarrassment, resentment, and competition that bubbles below the surface during any conversation about the academic job market.

It can be easy to feel trapped by expectations - whether your peers', your supervisor's, or your own. And people who are trapped rarely think, or act, well.

Christians, however, are called to freedom. 'Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.' This instruction gets to the heart of the gospel freedom that comes through Christ: not total independence, but living in the service of God. Knowing that he is our highest authority, and the reason we do our work, can free us from the urge to prove ourselves, and to do so by stepping on others along the way. It can shore us up against the anxiety which, in the precarious academic world, seems to consume the lives of so many: if I have served God, then the details of my career are in his hands.

Reflect on how you interact with others in academic settings. What difference would it make to remember that Christ has set you free?

For an alternative perspective on this topic, see the latest Cambridge Paper by Tom Simpson.

Knowing truth: statistics and faith

Andi Wang considers how academic modes of thinking interact with knowing through faith.

I have always loved solving problems. Even as a four-year-old child in primary school, apparently my teacher once remarked to my parents that I was a “deep thinker”. Throughout my schooling I was naturally drawn to mathematics, and found deep satisfaction in solving problems carefully and systematically. As an undergraduate I pursued a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, and specialised in probability and statistics. Today, I am a PhD student in the Department of Statistics in the University of Oxford where I (try to) rigorously prove useful mathematical properties of statistical algorithms.

Growing up I also had the privilege of being raised in a largely Christian home and as such have considered myself a Christian for a long time. As I matured and began to seriously consider the beliefs I dogmatically accepted as a child, my default mode was to use my analytical and unashamedly logical mind to think things through “objectively”. At that time I stumbled across the field of Christian apologetics, and found satisfactory reasons justifying Christian faith, although the reasons I (continue to) follow Christ presently are very different from those I would have given then.

And today, as a theologically-interested lay-Christian, I continue to find great intellectual satisfaction in pondering and discussing the big questions of faith. What does it mean to “believe” in something? How did those in ages past see themselves in relation to God? What does it mean for the Bible to be “true” today?

Such problems are undoubtedly important and relevant for the church today. They are particularly appealing to me as interesting problems to ‘solve’ or as phenomena to ‘explain’. However, as a result I often find myself falling into the trap of an overly intellectualised mindset with relation to my faith. The temptation that creeps in is to see elements of my faith as primarily intellectual or conceptual — as if being a Christian could be reduced to merely understanding and assenting to a set of ideas. This reductionism forgets entirely that ultimately, belief and faith are manifested in actions and deeds, not ideas. The epistle of James bluntly reminds us that faith without works is dead.

Jesus himself in John’s gospel tells us that He is the way, the truth and the life. If we take this seriously this means that truth, fundamentally, is not abstract and propositional, as if all truth could be reduced to precise mathematical theorems with accompanying proofs. Fundamentally, truth is embodied and relational. After all, if you claim to “know” or “believe” something, but it doesn’t change the way you live, do you really know it?

For instance, knowing the definition of dyothelitism and the fact that spirit in Hebrew is ruakh is useful for my Christian life inasmuch as it helps me to better live out my calling to be a bearer of the divine image and a redeemed servant of Christ. Christ is far more interested in whether or not I am growing in humility and thankfulness than whether or not I understand the Ancient Near East setting of Old Testament Israel.

In Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov the pious young Alyosha finds himself unable to defend his faith in light of his brilliant brother Ivan’s savage intellectual assault. As the conversation ends Alyosha — meek and humbled, having admitted intellectual defeat — rises and kisses Ivan on the cheek. Perhaps in this touching moment Dostoevsky is also trying to remind us that genuine faith is manifested in action, not ideas.

If you are a person of faith within the academy, then you almost certainly will have a proclivity for ideas and wrestling with difficult problems. As someone who spends most of the day with my head in the highly-abstract, infinite-dimensional mathematical clouds, I certainly need to be reminded from time to time that my faith is not another problem that I need to ‘solve’. Wrestling with difficult elements of faith and thinking things through carefully is clearly necessary, but it is only one facet of becoming more Christlike and growing in wisdom and character. It is certainly not a substitute.

For reflection:

1. How does your discipline train you to think? Does this interact with how your Christian community expects or encourages you to think?
2. Are you sometimes tempted reduce growth in Christlikeness to ‘understanding more’ or solving problems?
3. How can rational engagement with ideas form part of our growth in wisdom and character, rather than overwhelming or invalidating it?

 Andi is a DPhil student in the Department of Statistics at Oxford University, conducting research to the mathematical properties of Monte Carlo algorithms.

From Prince Philip to Jesus (article in the Baptist Times)

Delighted that the Baptist Times has published another article by me on creative, storytelling evangelism. Here is how the article begins...

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. Years ago I tried to tell a non-Christian friend, Derek about my Christian faith. I was walking along a road in Bishopston, Bristol talking football and suddenly I blurted out: "Derek, you need Jesus." Derek said nothing. He just gave me a withering look. We went back to our conversation about Bristol Rovers and their bitter rivalry with Bristol City.

I've spent a lot of time since then pondering my abject failure to communicate my faith to my friend. How could I witness in such a way that the conversation would flow naturally and engagingly? Without evoking that cold contempt....

Read the full article on the Baptist Times website.

Ideas for government policymakers

The FiSWES project began in 2015 by taking a critical look at the ecosystem services framework for nature conservation, and the ideas developed by that small Christian working group are now bearing fruit in a new context. I began a fellowship last year with a group called the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), where I've been developing the ecosystem valuing framework for use in policy evaluation.  My fellowship is about "putting values into evaluation", and I want to tell you how it's going.

CECAN's unwieldy name means "we develop ways to evaluate policies for complex problems". The idea behind this cross-university project is that many government policies address complex situations at the "nexus" of challenges to provide water, energy and food security.  Evaluating the success, or likely success, of such policies is difficult because the challenges are so diverse and interconnected, each having a global context.  Simple evaluation methods that assess a policy's success against different criteria independently will tend to overlook the significance of side-effects and trade-offs, when what is needed is "win-win" approaches that simultaneously improve different aspects of the same situation.

Last week I had the privilege of leading a workshop in London with a group of civil servants in environmental policy appraisal.  Here, along with my colleagues Ian Christie and Adam Hejnowicz, I presented what we're calling a pluralistic evaluation framework.  The basic idea of this is that "goodness" can be refracted into many kinds of value that should be considered during the design and evaluation of any policy. We're talking here about values assigned to things and situations (beauty, efficiency, etc), rather than people's value-orientations (integrity, honour, etc.).  A "good" policy might mean one that is likely to foster innovation, beautify landscapes, grow the rural economy, enhance social justice, or increase levels of volunteering: it could be "good" in many different ways.  So if a policy pledges - as does the Government's 25-Year Environment Plan - "to leave the environment in a better state than we found it", we might ask: what does "better" mean?

Classic consequentialist ethics would try to use a simple metric of goodness to decide which of a number of courses of action should have the best consequences.  If "good" refers to the sum total of human happiness, for example, then although this might be difficult to measure, in principle it provides such a metric.  Some scientist might even propose a scientific definition of happiness, allowing the decision to be made on purely objective grounds!  (This scientist would be captive to an implausible notion of objectivity, but that's another topic.)  But sooner or later someone might point out some ways of increasing the sum total of human happiness that are in other respects deplorable - or that not all humans consider happiness to be their own ultimate good - and the problems of this naive consequentialism would become evident.

A Christian approach should be important here, and I hope that the pluralistic evaluation framework is more consistent with a biblical worldview.  This is because it provides a tool for considering a very wide range of kinds of goodness - wider, indeed, than people normally think of.  The map of meaning proposed by Herman Dooyeweerd and developed in the tradition of Reformational philosophy outlines a sequence of aspects in which all of reality is meaningful, in each of which we might recognise better and worse ways of functioning.  This is the basis of the framework I presented last week, and will be presenting again in York in a few weeks' time.  The bottom line of this framework is that wise judgment is ultimately needed for assessing the overall goodness of a policy, or any other situation.  The classic art of good governance will surely never be superseded by any scientific tool or technique.

Wisdom is of course an important biblical theme as regards governance.  Graeme Goldsworthy* points out that King Solomon's wisdom is portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures as a kind that was consonant with the Law of Moses yet beautifully integrative: Solomon knew how to act decisively for good in his kingdom.  Centuries later Jesus, "one greater than Solomon", urged his disciples to "seek first the Kingdom of God", evoking the prophetic vision of a reign of shalom where every kind of goodness would prevail.  Now that would be a worthy vision for policymaking!

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* Goldsworthy, G (1995) Gospel and Wisdom: Israel's Wisdom Literature in the Christian Life

Neymar 100% Jesus?

It's World Cup time - so some thoughts on Neymar, the Brazilian superstar.   

Neymar is more than just a footballer. He is a brand and a way of life. The Brazilian star is the epitome of modern football as he travels the world with his friends in his luxurious private jet. He owns a fleet of opulent motor cars, an elegant helicopter and an Italian yacht. On a whim he once sent a private jet to fly a girlfriend to visit him in Barcelona after the pair had met in Ibiza. In a fit of splashing the cash he squandered more than £14,000 on trainers in one shopping spree. Neymar also claims to be a Christian. He declared: "Life only makes sense when our highest ideal is to serve Christ." After winning important games for club and country, he has been known to wear a headband bearing the words "100% Jesus".

Background Notes

Many of the most famous footballers on the planet own private jets. These are the role models that capture the imaginations of millions of young people today. Often these 'rich young rulers' do not comment about Jesus, faith and God. It seems to many that they live as if there is no God and that they are free to squander their vast fortunes in any way they wish. These rich, powerful men are completely autonomous (self-governing). Neymar claims to be a Christian and yet his lifestyle is just as lavish and whimsical as the other footballing superstars. How can we make sense of this fierce commitment to luxury, opulence and autonomy? It is helpful to ask a simple question. What is Neymar learning about the kingdom of God when he goes to church? Does he know and love the biblical story? Or has he syncretised the Christian faith with western consumerism? Jesus challenges all humans to forsake their false gods and to follow Him. There are so many of these idols that it can boggle the mind. There are rat gods, technology gods, fashion gods but the money god is probably the most popular deity today. Is Neymar guilty of serving Mammon, the money god (Matthew 6:24)? How will things go for him on the Day of Judgment? Why is it so easy for self-proclaimed Christians to worship these false gods? What are they learning in their churches? What are they not learning in their churches?

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: "We believe that Neymar is doing the right thing. If everything is just physical then buying jets, helicopters and mansions makes perfect sense."

Relativist faith: "We believe that Neymar is being 'true to himself'. Congratulations!"

Karma faith: "We believe that Neymar is so wealthy because he has an excellent karma. Whatever is, is right."

Christian faith: "We believe that Neymar will be judged one day by Christ the King. He must repent, follow Jesus and become a much better steward of his wealth."

Questions

1) Why do many footballers follow the money god rather than Christ?

2) What does it mean to serve Jesus 100%?

3) Can you connect this story to the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12?

A Thread of History

Having recently joined the FiSch Blog team, I thought I should introduce myself properly. I am currently a doctoral student working on British popular song during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of how I ended up working on this project is involved: its chief protagonists include my mother, who pushed me into a music degree during my indecisive youth, a marvelous music-history professor I encountered during my first degree, and a series of very nurturing supervisors, all of whom have had some interest in popular song or the music of Britain. My current project and my academic career are both products of those who invested in me and guided me, which is a wondrous thought.

Though my background is in music, I am now much more of an historian than a musician—but then I’ve always been better at writing stories than playing music! If we take History to be all that has happened, seen and unseen, since the beginning of time, then historians merely pull strands from a very long length of cloth that we can’t fully understand, gathering it into something manageable by following a single thread. Students of history are essentially story-tellers, tracing one of many threads—whether that be naval history or architectural history or religious history—to better understand how the cloth hangs together as a whole.

The thread I follow is music. As humans made in the image of a creative God, we have phenomenal powers to problem-solve, build, and create beauty. The natural world displays the glory of God (as beautifully described in Psalm 19); but man has a unique ability to create, reflecting (in his humble way) a stunning part of God’s character.

Music, I would argue, is singular even among the creative arts, as it is non-representational. Literature, the visual arts, and the dramatic arts largely consist of representations of other things (though of course this isn’t always the case): words recounting action or representing speech, actors portraying other people, sets depicting other places, marble modeling other objects, and paint mimicking visual perspectives. But music doesn’t represent anything; in fact, we’ve found that it can’t do so. In an interdisciplinary class of undergraduates I recently taught at the Ashmolean Museum, ten people listened to the same piece of orchestral music and subsequently described ten distinct images or narratives it conjured in their minds. Music communicates extra-musical ideas with wild inconsistency: it seems to have something different to say to each listener and resists definition or translation into other media. Rather, music produces emotion in us independent of words or reason. This innate sensuousness is why the church has historically been suspicious of instrumental music: it moves people without doctrine and without theology, and there could be danger in emotion untethered to fact or Truth.

But ultimately, music was created and sanctioned by God in all its glorious ambiguity and ethereal independence. It reveals something of His character through its overwhelming, un-tameable, mysterious and enigmatic beauty. Therefore as a Christian historian, I find music to be a thread well worth following…

A theology for science

Diagram linking God's word to scientific research via the entities subject to it

"Science" means "knowledge" according to its Latin root, and that is what the pursuit of science is popularly supposed to deliver. But a little reflection shows that scientific knowledge is of a certain kind - powerful but with some peculiar limitations.  The diagram above attempts to illustrate from a Christian perspective what scientists are doing.  It could be the starting point for a Christian account of scientific work.  At Faith-in-Scholarship we want to supplant traditional questions about "science and faith", "science and religion" or "science and theology".  As Tom McLeish argues, the problem in this traditional framing is the "and" - because "science" has no direct comparability with faith, religion or theology.  To see why this is so, we need a theological definition.

Much has been written on "theology of science" and "scientific theology", but rarely do people recognise the simple yet profound connection between the word of God and laws of nature. As used in the Bible, "word of God" has three important senses. There is the word of God as Scripture itself, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, and the word of God that commands and upholds the created order. Bible - Jesus - Word of Power

That last sense is crucial, yet often overlooked*. From the first "Let there be light!" to the indication in Hebrews 1:3 that God "upholds all things by the word of His power," the Scriptures contain many references to God's word as agent of natural processes (e.g. Ps 147:15-20), and there are important analogies between God's word and God's law (e.g. Ps 19).

So I propose a simple working definition of scientific research as "the search for the refraction of God's word that structures the created order."  That is to say that scientific work aims at articulating structural universals in the cosmos that emanate from God's word of power.  The natural sciences focus on laws of nature, structures and functions, classifications and principles; if we look as far as the Germanic concept of Wissenschaften (scholarship), we can also point to the identities and theorems of mathematics in one direction, and to the typologies, theories and frameworks of the humanities (even theology) in the other. This range of analytical phenomena is represented by the bottom tier of the diagram, which shows how we create scholarly artefacts by reference to "data".  All this is part of the "fact-side" of the created order: the concrete entities, situations and phenomena that we can experience - all, like ourselves as human beings, subject to God's creative word.  That word has been likened** to a radio broadcast permeating the cosmos, to which every creature tunes in on some wavelength. The scientist attempts to describe the radio waves themselves.

These scholarly artefacts thus refer beyond the fact-side of reality to the law-side (top tier of the diagram). People don't have to accept God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ in order to probe the structure of creation, God's "general revelation". But we can see natural laws, types and norms as the refraction of God's word into the diverse coherence of the order of creation, structuring the created order.

This definition of the sciences has important implications for how we relate scientific ideas to our daily Christian living and thinking. For example:

  • Starting from Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can know God through His word in all its three senses, before engaging in any scholarship (even theology).
  • The Bible generally refers to facts: specific events,  relationships, and persons and their acts (including God's self-revelation). Some regularities are of course described, such as God's faithful covenantal behaviour towards creatures - but these are still facts, not scholarship. Arguably the Bible is no more a theological textbook than a scientific one.
  • Scientific work does not produce "facts" (these are its data) but "artefacts": e.g. hypotheses, laws and theories. Hypotheses may refer to particulars (like the date of Jericho's fall), but "facts" is better reserved for beliefs founded on people's direct experience of particulars (like that event as witnessed by Joshua).
  • There's no privileged access to the lawlike refraction of God's word of power, but scientific training, insofar as it conforms our minds to the structures of the created order, can help us perceive it - and increasingly as we submit to the diverse, meaningful interconnectedness of that order.
  • Scientific knowledge is thus a kind of beliefs about the law-structure of the cosmos that are always subject to revision, although they may be highly reliable and - for all we know - approximately correct.

There's lots more to explore here. In a future post I shall probe some implications of this view for philosophy of science more generally.

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*Probably the best introduction to this theme is Gordon Spykman's "Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics" (1992, Eerdmans)

** by Dr David Hanson, Faith-in-Scholarship advisor.

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