Science and Belief
As science continues its pursuit of omniscience—of its investigation into the reaches of all knowledge—it is important always to be mindful of what it reports to us is pure, empirical fact and what is, in fact, analysis of fact. Sometimes, the analysis is reported as truth.
But along the way, meantime, along comes reportage of observable, measurable facts that are sometimes curious or downright fascinating—for some at least. For example, naturalists in Australia recently reported discovery of a record-breaking new species of millipede.1
This new arthropod—or new, at least, to human awareness—is notable for its record-breaking number of feet. Though, in Latin, “millipede” literally means “thousand feet,” until now the species in that class with the greatest number had only 750 feet. One may wonder why they were dubbed “millipede” back there in history. It doesn’t sound very scientifically precise. But this new species is reported to have 1,306 legs—with, apparently, each having a foot at the end of each leg. One may also wonder, in the interest of such an empirical effort, who was the poor undergraduate lab assistant who actually bore the assignment of counting those feet, one by one, probably with the aid of a microscope. But, of course, the goal of science as the pursuit of all knowledge is, after all, assumed.
To trace the history of science back to its origins would most likely take one back to a basic human search for an answer to the existential question, “Why?” In any system of belief today, there is probably agreement that science has its roots in curiosity.
Even in a theistic belief, this basic interest may be understood as rooted or developed into a wish to know more about our Creator. The apostle Paul noted the connection in this way: “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20, ESV). Science, as the study of the physical world around us, may be traced in its origins to the questions of spiritual meaning.
Considering the current, most widespread understanding of the role and meaning of science, it is important to realize that it doesn’t mean the same thing it did in its beginnings. It began—grew out of—a spiritual quest for knowledge, with the assumption that there is a spiritual aspect in the human life. There was—is—a God. Today, increasingly, most proponents of science maintain that there is no spiritual role in human existence outside the human being itself. There is no God.
The inferences, then, of any and all disciplines of science are drawn from observation and measurement of the world around us. The science that claims reliance only on empiricism—on what may be observed or measured with the human intellect—denies or dismisses any interpretation that draws on belief in a spiritual reality.
Yet, this reliance only on empiricism is every bit as much an expression of faith as is that of the religious. God’s existence can be neither proved nor disproved empirically. To say that God does not exist is to place one’s faith on oneself only. But it is, after all, a faith.
More and more there seems to be a reliance on self as the arbiter—the authority—on which to live one’s life. The search for truth is increasingly dependent on what conforms to thought and opinion already accepted or assumed. Behavior and decision-making are expressions solely of faith in oneself, and fact claims from any other source are subject to personal experience.
This emphasis—ultimately a total reliance—on humankind as the authority of all things earthly may have had its beginnings in Greek philosophy. It may have been expressed most explicitly and most memorably by Protagoras of Abdera in the expression rendered most commonly: “Man is the measure of all things.” The entire thought has been translated: “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”2
This assertion of human prominence in all things has been contended for centuries before and since. An example of it occurred, in fact, among Jesus’ own 12 disciples four centuries after the time of Protagoras.
After a horrendous weekend in which their Master, whom they had almost unanimously accepted as the Messiah, the Son of God Himself, had been ignominiously tried, tortured, and brutally executed, they learned He was alive again. He had risen on the morning of the first day of the week. “That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! ‘Peace be with you,’ he said” (John 20:19, NLT). And He showed them his wounds in His hands and His side. What a thrilling experience this must have been!
But on that Sunday evening, notably there were two of the twelve who were not among them, His betrayer, Judas—and for some unknown reason that may have been an expression of disillusionment, Thomas, called the Twin.
What utter heartbreak—what disappointment—had kept him away! And when they told him of the appearance of Jesus among them—back from the dead—he just couldn’t bring to himself to believe it.
“‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands,’” he said, “‘and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it’” (John 20:25, NIV). Who, in Thomas’ position at that moment, could have responded any differently? It may be true that they had seemingly just come to the abrupt end of three years’ experience of witnessing miracle after miracle—even resurrections—in Jesus’ ministry. But, after all, the utter anguish of personally seeing their Master die in agony that Friday evening on the Cross must have been desolation itself.
And Thomas’ response was a blunt expression of the empiricist. He said the only evidence of Jesus’ resurrection that he could accept were his own perceptual observations. He could rely only on what could be considered human verification—what could be sensed humanly.
Then, a week after Jesus had appeared to the disciples, Thomas was back among them this time as they were assembled together again—for comfort, for reassurance, for answers to the meaning of it all. And this time, though they were meeting in complete lockdown, Jesus appeared among them again—it might be said, “out of nowhere,” but more accurately, “out of everywhere!”
After reassuring them, “‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:NIV), He turned directly to Thomas and offered him, with the utmost grace, the empirical evidence that he had sought: “‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side’” (vs. 27, NIV). He presented to Thomas verification through two of the five human senses—sight and touch.
In what must be one of the most chilling scenes described in all of Scripture, the man facing the living Christ with wounds and hands exposed, Thomas’ physical response is not described. Surely, with his Master there facing him, he could not have had the need to reach out with his fingers and feel the injuries.
But confession burst from his lips: “‘My Lord and my God!’” (vs. 28, NIV).
And Jesus there and then made clear the role of more than mere empiricism in arriving at ultimate truth. As British poet Ralph Hodgson said so many centuries later, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.”3 He must have known that he was echoing Jesus’ words to Thomas and the other disciples: “‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (vs. 29, NIV).
It may be quite possible that Thomas, remembered ever after as “the doubter,” was only the kind of person who expressed himself sometimes in overstatement. “Unless I . . . put my finger where the nails were” may have been little more than his way of questioning what others were trying to tell him. But even so, Jesus’ referring Thomas’ skepticism to the issue of belief brings it into focus, applies it to a wider relevance to one’s choice of authority. On what—or Who—does one base one’s belief?