Success of Science: The Heavens Declare the Glory of God or Naturalism?

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Science is often at the centre of arguments. Most Christians and atheists are positive about its methods. Yet some are convinced science and Christianity are in irreconcilable conflict.

This article looks at a common argument that the success of science is evidence that naturalism is more likely than theism.

Naturalism, logic and maths

According to Thomas Nagel, an atheist and professor of philosophy at New York University, naturalists who believe in the success of science must justify two key assumptions:

  • that our innate cognitive capacities (e.g. our ability to use logic and maths to understand the world) were selected for ‘true theories about a law-governed natural order that there was no adaptive need to understand earlier’ (Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p76)
  • the self-authenticating nature of reasoning

Evolution and the validity of our cognitive systems

It’s straightforward to account for the survival advantages of valid perceptual systems (e.g. hearing, vision etc). The abilities of our ancestors to escape from predators, and to hunt for food, serve equally well for empirical observations that are foundational to science.

Reasoning is more complex — good theories of how objectively valid reasoning, necessary for science, evolved are currently lacking. Such a theory would require an indirect evolutionary explanation. As Nagel points out ‘scientific knowledge had no role in the selection of the capacities that generated it’ (Mind and Cosmos, p76).

It is not hard to see the adaptive advantage of being able to learn from experience. So a potential evolutionary account of the success of science could assume the origin of our cognitive systems in these more primitive abilities. This is a possibility — but it’s far from certain, as acknowledged by the agnostic atheist philosopher Paul Draper:

While Plantinga seems unsure whether P(R/N&E) [probability of the reliability of our cognitive systems given naturalism and evolution] is low or inscrutable, I am convinced that it is inscrutable. (Paul Draper, In Defense of Sensible Naturalism)

Naturalism and the self-authenticating nature of reasoning

But naturalism faces an even greater hurdle:

It is not enough to be able to think that if there are logical truths, natural selection might very well have given me the capacity to recognize them. That cannot be my ground for trusting my reason, because even that thought implicitly relies on reason in a prior way…Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity. (Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p80–81)

Nagel points out that the validity of our reasoning requires further assumptions:

  • that there are objective mind-independent truths (such as scientific laws, necessary truths of logic and maths)
  • we can use reason to develop justified beliefs about some of these objective truths (though we don’t do this perfectly).

He concludes that such assumptions, given naturalism, are very unlikely:

Such an explanation would complete the pursuit of intelligibility by showing how the natural order is disposed to generate beings capable of comprehending it. But the obstacles seem enormous. In light of the remarkable character of reason, it is hard to imagine what a naturalistic explanation of it, either constitutive or historical, could look like. (Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p86)

The two previous sections (evolution accounting for the validity of our reasoning and the self-authenticating nature of reason) taken together suggest the success of science is unlikely if naturalism is true.

Theism and the success of science

Alvin Plantinga (Professor Emeritus of Philosophy) has argued, given theism, there is a high probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable.

Humans created in the image of God implies “we resemble God more particularly in being able to know and understand something of ourselves, our world, and God himself. “ (Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies)

But isn’t this just an auxiliary hypothesis made by theists to explain the success of science? With all the anti-science rhetoric that goes around in Christian circles these days — we can’t blame atheists for questioning this claim.

However, Plantinga’s argument is consistent with the teaching of Augustine (4th-5th century CE) and Aquinas (13th century CE), two of Christianity’s most influential thinkers. For example, Thomas Aquinas argued:

Only in rational creatures is there found a likeness of God which counts as an image…. As far as a likeness of the divine nature is concerned, rational creatures seem somehow to attain a representation of [that] type in virtue of imitating God not only in this, that he is and lives, but especially in this, that he understands. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae)

Of course, there have been times of conflict between the church and science. However, throughout history, Christians have believed that because we are made in the image of God our world is intelligible to us.

Peter Harrison, professor of the history and philosophy of science, has shown that Christian theological assumptions about the image of God and the fall were foundational influences on the development of modern science. We are aware of our bias — hence the need for testing our hypotheses. But we are not hopeless in pursuing an understanding of our complex world:

“On the one hand, the fall provided an explanation for human misery and proneness to error; on the other, Adam’s prelapsarian perfections, including his encyclopaedic knowledge, were regarded as a symbol of unfulfilled human potential.” (Peter Harrison, Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, p11)

But doesn’t science reduce the plausibility of theism?

Paul Draper offers an interesting counter-argument. Jeffery Jay Lowder calls this an evidential argument from the history of science.

Lowder and Draper, if I understand them correctly, argue the success of science is evidence that naturalism (i.e. that the universe is a closed system) is much more likely than theism.

Draper’s argument appears to assume that, given theism, the laws of nature are completely separate from God’s action in the universe. So the success of science is evidence that God does not interact with the universe. Miracles, on the other hand, are theist claims that God on occasion breaks these laws of nature and interacts with the universe.

This is a form of the god-of-the gaps view of science. God is the explanation for the parts of the universe we can’t understand with science. But, as our scientific knowledge increases and these gaps become ever smaller, the need for God becomes less relevant.

The problem is that most forms of theism do not reflect these god-of-the-gaps views. As John Polkinghorne, formerly professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and Anglican priest, points out:

…theology already understands the known laws of nature in this sense. They are not the grain against which a wonder-working deity occasionally acts, but their regularities are the pale reflection of the faithfulness of the Creator. (The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker, p79)

Science and the triumph of natural over supernatural explanations?

A further aspect of Draper and Lowder’s argument is that the success of science was responsible for our abandoning supernatural explanations of the world.

Most of us have heard a version of what Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’. In medieval times, people in Western culture needed religion as a tool for explanation. They believed in an ‘enchanted’ world of magic, demons, and evil spirits where faith in God comforted them. But now we have science we can leave that world behind. We are now free to face reality.

The problem is that this is an inaccurate reflection of medieval science. It wasn’t as if natural philosophers (as scientists were called at that time) took supernatural explanations of the universe as a starting point before having to abandon them in the face of superior ‘natural’ explanations.

For example, Edward Grant, late professor of the history of science, argued medieval universities were clear from the start that theology should be kept separate from natural philosophy (science). They were taught in two independent faculties (the faculty of theology and the faculty of the arts).

Teachers of natural philosophy were not trained in theology and rarely discussed theology in their lectures and publications:

As if to reinforce this tendency, the faculty of arts at the University of Paris, beginning in 1272, required all masters to swear an oath that they would not introduce theological matters into their disputations. (Edward Grant, A History of Natural Philosophy, p249)

Draper/Lowder’s argument from the history of science is problematic on two levels. First, it only works against god-of-the-gaps type gods — a view inconsistent with most forms of theism. Second, it doesn’t appear to be consistent with the actual history of science.

The success of science is evidence of the intelligibility of the universe, which is much more likely if theism is true than naturalism.




I’m interested in the application of psychology to theology and Christian living.

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Nick Meader

Nick Meader

I’m interested in the application of psychology to theology and Christian living.

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