Where does scientific knowledge come from? Today I want to share some thoughts on this and to reflect on the surprisingly widespread view among Christian thinkers that science is a form of divine revelation.
God is the sole sustainer of His creation, which includes everything that is not God. So we might say God is the source of everything. But that quickly runs into trouble: for example, it would make God the source of evil (if that’s a thing), and biblical faith adamantly denies that. It seems better to say that God sustains all creatures and that everything (even evil deeds) somehow depends on God. Before leaving the topic of evil, we should note its peculiar relationship with knowledge via the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil described in Genesis 2 and 3. The knowledge that Adam and Eve obtained by eating from that tree was hardly a God-given gift, even if we could say that it did depend on God, indirectly.
With scientific knowledge, we’re in different territory. First of all, the biblical concept of knowledge is focused on experiential knowing (paradigmatically when in the Authorized Version of Gen. 4, “Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived”), whereas scientific knowledge focuses on propositional knowing. So are we safe to say that God is the source of this kind of knowledge? There are theological arguments to this effect, and I’ve been learning some of them in Tim Morris’ and Don Petcher’s excellent book Science and Grace. Indeed, it seems that my namesake Colin Gunton advocated that “all knowledge depends on disclosure or revelation.” But I’m not yet convinced.
To be clear, there are nuances here. Some writers see scientific knowledge as a species of general revelation, while some protect that concept for its classic reference to knowledge of God’s revealed nature and moral law and take science simply as revelation. But I’m uncomfortable with either of these for scientific ideas. Let me explain!
‘Revelation’ has the connotation of seeing the truth of something, in the sense that we can’t deny what we see with our own eyes. It’s about self-evident knowledge. When God reveals Himself to someone in Jesus Christ, that person has no choice but to acknowledge Him: they know God in His Son. (Roy Clouser has written about this – as briefly summarised here.) Revelation brings us to know particular things or persons by experience.
Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, while based on particular data (this observation, that meter reading), is general knowledge (Earth orbits the Sun; E=mc2; all atoms contain protons; heredity depends on DNA). And several features of such knowledge make it difficult to construe as revelation. For one thing, it can’t be simply seen in the way that particular situations can be seen to be as they are. But most importantly, we can’t be sure it’s true! The example propositions just given may be widely held now with great certainty, but (a) they can’t be proven logically (or statistically), and (b) contradictory knowledge has been widely held in the past (the Sun orbiting the Earth, rest-mass being conserved, atoms being indivisible, heredity due to proteins). This is enough, in my view, to contest the idea that scientific knowledge could be a form of revelation. Until the 17th Century, it was widely ‘known’ that the heavenly bodies circled the Earth: was this then part of God’s revelation? When conservation of observable mass was so obviously a law of nature (and still remains a useful principle), with what caveats was this ever revealed? Where, in the proposition that atoms (Greek ‘un-cuttable’) are indivisible, is revelation? All scientific knowledge is provisional. Whereas a common view of the verbal inspiration of Scripture holds the text to be infallible as originally given, any historically-informed view of scientific work ought to see scientific conclusions as no more than on the way towards truth! Personally I doubt that scientific investigation will reach certainty at any point in the future, even after Christ’s return, by the very nature of the task of studying God’s creation (cf Prov. 25:2).
The claim that scientific knowledge is revealed is closely connected to the notion that God has given us two books: a Book of Scripture and a Book of Nature. This model goes back to Augustine (as elegantly traced in Peter Harrison’s outstanding book The Territories of Science and Religion) but it isn’t infallible! The most concise scholarly rebuttal of the notion that scientists simply read nature like a book that I know is by Keith Sewell (here).
Clearly I have more reading and thinking to do, but I want to caution fellow believers about elevating scientific knowledge too much. I fear we may endorse idolatrous views of science as well as compromising the biblical teaching on God’s general revelation (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1, Acts 14). But I’m open to fresh revelation!