Friday Feature: It Pays to Know a Little Philosophy

Video: It Pays to Know a Little Philosophy

In past Friday Features, we talked about the idea that there are “two books” – the book of Scripture and the book of nature, and that from very early on, Christians have thought that God has revealed Himself to humankind primarily in two ways. First, we know that God exists from the “book of nature,” meaning the things that have been made (Romans 1:20). The whole creation tells the glory of God:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)

The whole of God’s created order gives glory to God, and there is no lack of evidence that He exists. Everywhere we look, from micro to macro, a profusion of created things speaks information about Him, as if the rocks and trees, our DNA, and distant galaxies are all shouting, “Someone created all of this! He is God!” Day to day pours out speech. We have more than enough information to show us that a wise Creator made everything. Therefore, as Paul says, if we think God doesn’t exist, we “are without excuse.” The natural world tells us God exists; this idea is sometimes called “general revelation.”

What we now call “science” was at one time called “natural philosophy,” and as we noted in previous Friday Features, the pursuit of natural philosophy grew out of the Christian worldview and was thought to glorify God because it led to a high view of His wisdom.

But much more importantly, we have the Bible, which is God’s “special revelation” to humankind. God has revealed much more about Himself in the Bible than what we can find out about Him by investigating the natural world. But note: for many centuries before our time, both the “book of nature” and the “book of Scripture” were seen as bringing glory to God.

I love science. Starting about the 6th grade, I became sort of a junior astronomer and black hole aficionado interested in the crazy things that happen around black holes where we can see the edge cases of Einstein’s general relativity. My imagination was electrified by thoughts like this:

“suppose you were to fall feet-first toward a black hole… Your feet start falling faster than your head…you become stretched out in the shape of a long thin wire. By the time you reach the event horizon, you find that you are hundreds of miles tall…your body will have been torn apart by incredible tidal forces.”[1]

Lucky for us, as far as we know, we aren’t close to any black holes. But what an exciting adventure of the imagination! At the time, these and other discoveries exalted science in my mind as the source of answers to big questions. Not long after, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series (1980) seemed to explain much about how everything in the universe came into existence, and the episode “The Persistence of Memory” showed not only marvels of DNA and brain science, but also how libraries stored the collective wisdom of civilizations that came before us. We could tap into that wisdom by buying a book, in which “for the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the origin of species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things.”[2] At the time, it seemed to me that the grand vista of history from the Big Bang onward was open and ready for exploration—by science!

Perhaps if I had had some grasp of basic philosophy which is a proper part of an education based in the Christian worldview, I might not have bought the whole naturalistic story—a universe with no meaning and no ultimate value for life. It was years later before I realized there are limits to what science can know. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3), and although it’s wonderful, science is not the source of all knowledge.

I offer this Friday Feature so you don’t have to go through the same struggle as I did.

Video clip: Everyone makes philosophical assumptions, whether they realize it or not—and like Einstein said, “the man of science is a poor philosopher.”[3]

On April 3, 1998, at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, Georgia, William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, and Peter Atkins, one of Britain’s most famous and outspoken scientific naturalists, and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Lincoln College, participated in a debate moderated by William F. Buckley.

Read more: (Following is a transcript of a discussion following the debate)

[Peter Atkins] Do you deny that science cannot[can] account for everything ?

[William Lane Craig] Yes, I do deny that science…

[Peter Atkins] So what can’t it account for?

[William Lane Craig] Well, had you brought that up in the debate, I had a number of examples that I was going to give. I think there are a good number of things that cannot be scientifically proven but that we’re all rational to accept. Let me list 5:

1. Logic and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science; science presupposes logic and math, so that to try to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle;

2. Metaphysical truths, like “there are other minds, other than my own”, or that “the external world is real”, or that “the past was not created 5 minutes ago with an appearance of age” are rational beliefs that cannot be scientifically proven;

3. Ethical beliefs about statements of value are not accessible by the scientific method. You can’t show by science whether the Nazi scientists in the camps did anything evil as opposed to the scientists in western democracies;

4. Aesthetic judgements cannot be accessed by the scientific method, because the beautiful like the good cannot be scientifically proven; and finally, most remarkably, would be

5. Science itself. Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with …unprovable assumptions. For example, in the special theory of relativity, the whole theory hinges on the assumption that the speed of light is constant in a one-way direction between any 2 points A and B; but that strictly cannot be proven; we simply have to assume that in order to hold to the theory.

[William F. Buckley] – So, put that in your pipe and smoke it…[laughter]

[William Lane Craig] So, …none of these beliefs can be scientifically proven and yet they are accepted by all of us, and we’re rational in doing so.

In the video, William Lane Craig mentions five things that science can’t account for. Not everyone may be able to articulate it so well as Craig does, but anyone who has taken a semester of philosophy should know these things.

Colossians 2:8 warns us not to be taken captive “by philosophy and empty deceit.” Some have taken this so far as to mean that Christians shouldn’t study philosophy. But that is the opposite of what Christians should do. Christians should know some philosophy: the good philosophy that flows from a biblical worldview. In the Colossians passage, Paul is talking about the effect of ideas. The world is full of ideas, and most of them are opposed to a right knowledge of God. These ideas deceive us—they lie to us. And when we believe lies, we are taken as prisoners to do the will of the enemy of our souls.

So it pays to know a little philosophy. But regardless of the kind of study, whether philosophy, or psychology, or chemistry, or business, or anything in between, the Christian worldview is the truth. If we understand this well, our minds can hold a true picture of reality that guides our actions in the right way: the way of Christ, and we can avoid being taken prisoner by lies.

[1] William J. Kaufmann, The Cosmic Frontiers of General Relativity (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1977), 120.

[2] Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 281.

[3] Albert Einstein, “Physics & Reality,” Daedalus 132, no. 4 (2003): 22, accessed January 3, 2021, (Note: the original article appeared in 1936.)

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