Saturday, March 24, 2012

More about Origin and Operation Science

In their 1987 book entitled Origin Science,[1] Norman Geisler and Kerby Anderson introduced a distinction between ‘operation science’ and ‘origin science’. They argued that operation or empirical science handles regular events while origin or historical science deals with singular events.

This is the distinction that Dr. John Byl relies on when in a recent post he highlights the subjectivity of research into the past as opposed to the objectivity of research into the present. Dr. Byl writes: “The central point of my book was that scientific theory--particularly in origin (or historical) science--is highly subjective and driven by worldview considerations. A Christian epistemology should thus give prime weight to Scripture, logic and observation. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are fallible human constructs that should be evaluated in the light of the former.” Further, “The science used to build airplanes is of a rather different nature than the claim that man evolved from apes. To wit, we must distinguish between operation science and historical science:”[2]

Dr. Byl rejects origin science because it is stained by the subjectivity of worldview influences. The status of operation science is left unclear. Operation science is also fallible. Nevertheless it is placed beside Scripture as far more reliable than origin science. However that may be, he recommends, the better approach is to rely on Scripture, logic and observation. I have divided the problems with this approach into three groups. In Part A I argue that operation science is not a safe haven because it is as subjective as origin science. So why should one trust operation science? In Part B I will offer reasons for its trustworthiness. But this trustworthiness is not without limits. Part C concludes with some thoughts about the role of Scripture.

Part A: The subjectivity of operation science

The distinction between research into the past and that into the present is one of degree, not of kind. Beginning with Hume, philosophers of science have acknowledged that scientific investigation of current events relies on past experience. This is known as the problem of induction. This simply means that human experience is limited in principle and that scientific knowledge has no absolute certainty. This holds for both origin and operation science.

Michael Polanyi
Origin science is not any more subjective than operation science on account of worldviews. Beginning with Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, historians and philosophers of science have shown that scientific knowledge depends not only on the object studied, but also on what the scientists bring to this study such as religious and metaphysical beliefs, ideological and political agendas and the like. This applies irrespective of whether the investigation involves current or past events.[3] Dr. Byl recommends the solution to the subjectivity of origin science is to “give prime weight to Scripture, logic and observation.” as if they are not affected by subjectivity. Let us take a brief look at the subjectivity of observation, logic and theory in that order.

Observations in science can be classified into two groups – those predicted by theory and those made accidentally. Both types of observation are subjective because they are always seen in terms of what one already knows whether that is a theory or a worldview. I will deal with theory-guided observation below and focus here on the role of worldview. We can take the perception of pendulum movement in the Aristotelian and Galilean worldviews as an example from physics. The world according to Aristotle consists of earth, water, air and fire. A body falls according to the proportion of earth it contains because earth has the natural tendency to move down as opposed to fire which moves up. Thus the pendulum movement of a rock at the end of a rope is seen as falling with difficulty. In contrast, the late medieval philosopher-bishop Nicolas Oresme described the pendulum motion of the rock in terms of a force implanted in the rock by the person who gives it a swing (the ‘impetus’). Galileo adopted this view and saw a body that almost succeeded in repeating the same pendulum motion. This led him to see other properties of the pendulum on the basis of which he developed the law of independence of weight and rate of fall as well as the law of the relationship between vertical height and terminal velocity of motions down inclined planes.[4]

William Herschel
Examples of the subjectivity of observation abound. One example is the story of the discovery in 1781 of the planet Uranus by William Herschel. Records show that the best astronomers in Europe had seen this luminous body before 1781 and recorded the observation as a star. After 1781 and using the same quality telescopes suddenly other new planets were discovered. The subjectivity of observation is revealed by the fact that the post-1781 astronomers had learned that new planets could be discovered while the pre-1781 had not.[5] A second example concerns fossil shells which since ancient times have been reported in the Egyptian desert and on the mountaintops of Switzerland and the Andes. Given these locations they could not possibly be imagined to have originated in the sea. Aristotle saw them as growing spontaneously in the ground. Renaissance Platonists saw them as copies of the eternal Forms. Steno first saw them as remnants of living things. Finally, individuals who contributed to the discovery of what is now known as oxygen gas identified it as ‘fixed air’ (carbon dioxide), nitrous air, atmospheric or common air, dephlogisticated air and, finally, oxygen. Kuhn concludes among others that “Observation and conceptualization, fact and the assimilation of fact to theory, are inseparably linked in the discovery of scientific novelty.”[6] There is nothing surprising in this. One sees the unknown in terms of what one already knows or thinks to know.

Thomas Kuhn
Byl writes: “In science, reliable observational data always trumps theories. After all, theories are constructed to explain reality.” The historian of science Thomas Kuhn and others have drawn attention to the fact that in science reliable observational data do not always trump paradigms and this also applies to theories. When an anomalous observation is made one of three things may happen: (1) the paradigm or theory is rejected, (2) a decision is postponed and judgment is suspended, and the paradigm or theory is retained because it is supported by multiple lines of independent evidence, (3) the paradigm or theory is amended.

The theory of continental drift is a good example. Before its introduction by Wegener in 1912 geologists worked within a paradigm in which the continents were static. The anomalous observation was that the outlines of S. America and Africa matched like pieces in a puzzle. Moreover, the continents shared identical strata with identical fossils in them. These observations also applied to other continents. But there were no known forces that could move these continents apart. Geologists suspended judgment or rejected Wegener’s theory until the 1960s when new observations tipped the balance in his favour. For details, see this website.

Rejecting a theory or a paradigm may block research. Hence the second and third response to an anomalous observation. These responses occur because theory guides observation. It does so because a theory logically contains observation statements. These are the observations predicted by the theory. Such observations are logically inferred from the theory. When actual observations differ from the predicted one, the theory is rejected. Otherwise the theory is submitted to more tests. For example:
  • Theory: All cats have five legs
  • Deduction: My cat has five legs
  • Observation: My cat has four legs
  • Conclusion: Not all cats have five legs (rejected theory)
If my cat had five legs, then the theory would be considered acceptable. This means that for any given theory a large collection of potential observations remains out of sight because they are not logically implied by the theory. No one is going to count legs in horses. A theory is like a search light – it reveals a small circumscribed area and leaves the rest in the dark. There is no logical cure for this incompleteness because this is the nature of science both of the past and of the present. The need for observations to be relevant for a theory means that they are theory-laden. Observations are also worldview-laden as mentioned above.

Byl’s cursory mention of logic is unhelpful as it stands. If he means inductive logic, then he must remember Popper’s point that one cannot move logically from an observation to an observation statement since the former is a psychological event while the latter is a logical entity. If he were to disagree with Popper, his next problem would be that the conclusions will depend crucially on whether the observations were correct and complete. The role of theory just indicated virtually guarantees that the observations are incomplete. On the other hand, if Byl is referring to deductive logic the conclusions depend on whether the premises are correct and that in turn depends again on the completeness of the observations on which the premise is based.

Part B: The trustworthiness of origin science

The explanation of singular events in the past relies as much on regularities as the explanation of singular as well as regular events in the present. This is the point of forensic science mentioned in Sikkema’s blog post. Forensic entomology studies the insects and other bugs found in corpses, the sequence in which they appear, the kinds of insects, and the stage in their life cycle in which they are found are clues that suggest the time of death, the length of a corpse’s exposure, and whether the corpse was moved. In a murder case, for instance, the time of death can be estimated by determining the stage of development of insect larvae deposited on the body, the known rate of their development and the temperature. A critique consistent with scientific creationists’ rejection of radiometric dating would be that forensic scientists assume the constancy of the rate of development of insects. The equivalent critique of radiometric dating by young earth creationists is that the rates of radioactive decay are not constant. But such assumptions are always checked by using independent lines of evidence. In our forensic example such checks would include the last time a phone call was made or the victim was seen in the bank. In the case of radiometric dating the so-called whole rock method neutralizes assumptions about initial quantities of isotopes. The independent lines of evidence come from isotope ratios measured in different samples of a whole body of rock – hence the name.[7] Independent lines of evidence increase the confidence one has in the correctness of the reconstruction of the past because the different lines of evidence cannot be accounted for as the result of a single common cause. The more independent lines of evidence the less likely it is that they accidentally converge on the same conclusion.

The same applies to reconstructions of the history of life on earth. For instance, the evolution of fruit flies on the Hawaiian Islands has been reconstructed using chromosome mutations. The relative age of the islands has been determined by radiometric dating. The sequence of their formation by volcanic action has been established on the basis of the North-Western movement of the continental plate of which they are part. Chromosome mutations, radiometric dating and continental drift are mutually independent lines of evidence. They are also independent of any evolutionary paradigm. They all converge on the same reconstruction of the history of fruit fly evolution. For more on this example and on independent lines of evidence, see van der Meer, J.M. “Ideology and Science”, Reformed Academic, 16 August 2010 (links: full paper & introductory blog post).

According to Dr. Byl, “Operational science calculates forward, deducing effects from causes, whereas historical science calculates backwards, inferring past causes from present clues. One problem here is that more than one possible historical cause can give rise to the same effect.” This, however, is also a difference of degree, not of kind. In operation science, experiments aimed at changing the rate of movement of tectonic plates are as much beyond human possibilities as experiments in the past. Nevertheless, predictions are possible. This also applies to the history of pouched mammals (marsupials) mentioned by Sikkema. In that light Byl’s distinction between forward and backward prediction carries little weight in preferring ‘operation science’ over ‘origin science’. Moreover, in operation science there are an unlimited number of theories that can account for a set of observations just like in origin science more than one possible cause can produce the same effect.

In conclusion, Dr. Byl is incorrect in singling out origin science for its subjectivity. Operation science is just as subjective. This conclusion has earned Thomas Kuhn the reputation of being a relativist. The response of Feyerabend was to throw up his hands and say anything goes.[8] Still others such as scientific creationists have taken this as a licence to build a science with what they call a Christian content. These responses must be rejected from a Christian point of view. Here the doctrine of creation is essential. I believe that God created a reality that exists independent of human cognition. This means that we have the religious duty to try to eliminate the role of worldviews that direct us away from knowledge of this objectively existing reality. This is how a central theme in Scripture can shape science at the worldview level. It is worthwhile to put this conclusion in a wider perspective. There are two traditions in the interpretation of the Book of Scripture. In the biblicistic tradition the Bible plays a direct role. Texts are used out of context as source of scientific information about nature (geocentricity, Scriptural geology). In the perspectival tradition, on the other hand, the Bible serves indirectly by providing a general view or perspective on nature (nature as purposive, as contingent, as existing objectively). I recommend the latter because it does not fall into the mistake of treating Scripture texts as if they were intended to give information about nature that satisfies the standards of science.[9]

Part C: Scripture and science

In recommending the use of Scripture in historical science Dr. Byl overlooks the fact that the interpretation of Scripture suffers as much from subjectivity as science does. After all, subjectivity is a human characteristic. This may be seen in those cases where a faulty interpretation of Scripture shaped scientific understanding. In the history of biogeography, the belief that Noah’s flood was global was taken to imply that plants and animals had spread from a single centre on mount Ararat. This was used to account for their spread across the globe. But the facts could not be accounted for and so the information taken from Scripture was abandoned. Further, there was a theological debate in the sixteenth century about the incarnation, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article. But in that debate the anabaptist Menno Simons took the literalist position “that Levi was still in the loins of his father Abraham when Melchisedec came to meet him (Hebrews 7:10) as an indication that the father is the true origin of the child. The same point he found demonstrated in II Samuel 7:12, where David was told by God, ‘I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body.’” We now know that the father is not the sole origin of a child. In the history of geology, Neptunism – the school that tried to explain the features of the earth in terms of the action of water – was inspired by the story of Noah’s Flood. Despite far-fetched attempts by flood geologists no evidence for a global flood has been found.

Contemporary scientific creationism provides more examples. Dr. Byl writes: “The Bible makes clear that there can be non-material causes (i.e., spiritual beings can cause physical effects) and that God’s sovereignty over the world includes the possibility of miracles and changes in physical “laws” (e.g., perhaps during the creation week, after the Fall, at the time of the Flood, after the return of Christ, etc.). This in itself already negates the presumptions inherent in mainstream historical science.”

I agree that spiritual beings can cause physical effects and that God performs miracles. But Dr. Byl engages in stunning speculation when he suggests that changes in the laws of physics might have occurred during the creation week, after the Fall, and at the time of the Flood. This is what the use of the Bible as a scientific textbook leads to. On the one hand Dr. Byl insists that we should stick to the Bible for knowledge on the history of the laws of physics and of life on earth. On the other hand, he goes beyond what Scripture warrants and gives free reign to his imagination. How much better is that than the origin science he rejects?

Herman Bavinck
Byl’s suggestion that historical science should be bounded by Scriptural truths overlooks the fact that historically mistaken interpretations and overinterpretations of Scripture have served in that capacity and undermined the authority of Scripture when they were proven wrong. It was the use of Scripture ‘as any other book’, that is as a source of information for research on nature and history that led to higher biblical criticism. I refuse to use Scripture that way because it was not intended to provide information that satisfies the requirement of modern scholarship whether for history or for the natural sciences. This should not be misunderstood as rejecting its historicity. The crucial distinction was made by Dr. Herman Bavinck who stated: “Holy Scripture has a purpose that is religious-ethical through and through. It is not designed to be a manual for various sciences. It is the first foundation (principium) only of theology and desires that we will read and study it theologically. In all the disciplines that are grouped around Scripture, our aim must be the saving knowledge of God. For that purpose Scripture offers us all the data needed. In that sense it is completely adequate and complete. But those who would infer from Scripture a history of Israel, a biography of Jesus, a history of Israel’s or early Christian literature, etc. will in each case end up disappointed. They will encounter lacunae that can be filled only with conjectures…. Scripture does not satisfy the demand for exact knowledge in the way we demand it in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, etc. This is a standard that may not be applied to it.”[10] In sum, the history in Scripture satisfies the intent of its Author, not that of historians.

[1] Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987.
[2] Byl, John. God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe. Banner of Truth, 2001.
[3] Brooke, J. H. (1991) Science and religion: some historical perspectives. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge; Van der Meer, J.M. Ed. Facets of Faith and Science. 4 vols. The Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Faith and Science / University Press of America. Lanham: 1996; Brooke, J.H., Osler, M.J., Van der Meer, J.M. (Eds.) Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions. Osiris 16. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2001; Alexander, Denis R. and Numbers, Ronald L. eds. Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins. Chicago. University of Chicago Press: 2010.
[4] Galileo Galilei, Dialogues concerning two new sciences, trans. H. Crew and A. De Salvio. Evanston, Ill, 1946, pp. 80-81, 162-66). More examples in Kuhn, Thomas, The structure of scientific revolution, 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1970.
[5] Based on Kuhn, Thomas S. “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery.” Science, 136 (3518) June 1, 1962, 760-764.
[6] Kuhn, Thomas S. “Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery.” Science, 136 (3518) June 1, 1962, 760-764.
[7] Young, Davis A., Stearley, Ralph. The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth. InterVarsity Press Academic, Downers Grove, Ill. 2008, Chs. 14 and 15. link review 
[8] Feyerabend, P. Against Method. London: Verso, 1975.
[9] Van der Meer, J.M. “Interpreting Nature and Scripture: A New Proposal for their Interaction.” In: Christianity and the Human Body: A Theology of the Human Body. eds. Robert Brungs, SJ and Marianne Postiglione, RSM, The ITEST Faith/Science Press: St. Louis, Missouri. 2001, pp. 38-72.
[10] Bavinck, H. Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, vol. 1, p. 444; italics in the original.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the intriguing and compelling article. I do affirm in principle the quotation you supply from Bavinck about the primary purpose of Scripture. That said, I am somewhat hesitant about how far it goes. It may be the case that I and II Kings, for example, are not primarily written to provide a "history of Israel," but any scholar who wishes to write such a history would be foolhardy to ignore I and II Kings. Furthermore, much of Scripture's historiography seems to be directed at telling us about certain events that took place in the past. It can be a struggle to see how these books direct us to the knowledge of God (and so they become more infrequently employed in preaching and Christian devotion), though we accept in principle that this is their primary purpose.

David DeJong
South Bend, Indiana

Jitse van der Meer said...


Thank you for your response. I see the difficulty you are pointing out. Immediately before the Bavinck quote I wrote: “I refuse to use Scripture that way because it was not intended to provide information that satisfies the requirement of modern scholarship whether for history or for the natural sciences. This should not be misunderstood as rejecting its historicity.” This refers back to the use of Scripture texts in the hands of scientific creationists which I was discussing. Taken as a general statement about all of Scripture it is of course far too sweeping. More nuance is required in other contexts such as I and II Kings. At the risk of sounding naive, is it not possible to view I and II Kings as history told with the purpose of making a point? What is selected for inclusion and the way the story is told are shaped by the point intended by the Author. The stories would not be useless for a scholarly history of Israel, but it would have to be carefully assessed with its intended purpose in mind. I am not a biblical scholar and so I cannot assess the value of this suggestion when the rubber hits the road in I and II Kings. Is the so-called historical-redemptive approach to these books of any value? Perhaps someone in the know will respond.

Jitse van der Meer
Hamilton, Ontario

Unknown said...

I do think the redemptive-historical method provides a way through these issues. But it still may be dangerous to posit any dichotomy between the "religious-ethical" purpose (Bavinck's phrase) and the "historical" purpose with respect to some books. That is, because revelation is inherently incarnational (i.e. because a christological hermeneutic is necessary), the historical and revelatory intent of some books cannot be separated; they are two sides of the same coin. In this respect YECers are affirming something important about the rhetoric of scripture; it insists on being located in a particular time and a particular place. This does not mean that all details mentioned in those books will meet a professional historian's standards - as Bavinck says, they are using scripture as any other book and not in accord with its true purpose. But it does mean that, regardless of whether it satisifies the standards of modern history (which in principle denies that history can be revelatory of God and his works), many of the books of Scripture do have a historical intention.

David DeJong
South Bend, Indiana

Herman van Barneveld said...


In a blog entry on Reformed Academic, More on Origin and Operation Science, Jitse VanderMeer quoted Herman Bavinck in a response to John Byl. “Holy Scripture has a purpose that is religious-ethical through and through. It is not designed to be a manual for various sciences. It is the first foundation (principium) only of theology and desires that we will read and study it theologically. In all the disciplines that are grouped around Scripture, our aim must be the saving knowledge of God. For that purpose Scripture offers us all the data needed. In that sense it is completely adequate and complete. But those who would infer from Scripture a history of Israel, a biography of Jesus, a history of Israel’s or early Christian literature, etc. will in each case end up disappointed”. This is a beautiful quote in and of itself.

However, Herman Bavinck would be rolling around in his grave (if that were possible) if he found out how Jitse VanderMeer has used this statement (about the Bible not being a Science textbook) against his own strongly held beliefs. The sad irony is that, while Jitse uses Herman Bavinck’s writings to try to undermine John Byl’s argument that forensic or historical science is not the same kind of science as operational science, Herman Bavinck makes exactly the same point as John Byl. I will prove that with the following three quotes from Bavinck's insightful and prescient 1901 article called “Creation or Development”.

First, and this is the part that is similar to John Byl’s statement that origin science is worldview driven and has nothing to do with science as such (and remember, this is Herman Bavinck): “But however much this system (evolutionary theory) may seem to be inwardly united and however readily we may account for its influence and popularity, it is not a product of science, but of the imagination; it is a play of conceptions on the part of the understanding which thirsts after unity. It is said to be built upon the foundation of empirical physics, aided by logical thinking; but it is a castle in the air, without any solid foundation, and without any severity of style, an air castle in the true sense of the word. With the laying of the very first stone it abandons empirics, the reliable results of physics. It is no science in any serious sense, no science exacte, as it is claimed to be, but a world-view with which the subject plays his parts, a philosophy as uncertain as any system of the philosophers, and individual opinion of as much significance as that of every other man."

Herman van Barneveld said...


Bavinck continues: "That this assertion is correct is shown by the fact that though this system has been more broadly worked out in this century just closed and furnished with data from physics, in principle it has been thought out and recommended by philosophers long ago. Neither in former centuries nor in this has materialism been the result of severe scientific investigation, but the fruit of philosophical thought. Indeed, from the nature of the case physics can never go back of nature. It stands on the ground of nature, assumes its existence, and hence cannot answer the question of origin. As soon as it undertakes to do this it leaves its lines, ceases to be physics and becomes philosophy, on an equal standing with the other philosophical systems which as grass and flower of the field may bloom today but wither tomorrow. Physics may have discovered in this century the law of the conservation of workcapacity, but with no logical possibility can the inference be drawn from this that matter and force are eternal.”

Second, there is not a single phenomenon that backs up many claims: “This new world-view involves itself still more in a net of contradictions when it handles the question of the origin of man. It is indeed stated, as the consistency of the starting point claims, that man descended from the animal. But it has not been demonstrated by a single phenomenon. It was known in earlier times that all sorts of relationships exist between animal and man, it is taught in the Scriptures, and at most has been indicated in our age in several particulars. With the animals man was created on the sixth day. His body also was formed from the dust; of the earth he is earthy. But all the features of relationship give no right to the conclusion that man and animal belong to one family and that they are blood relations.”

And third, “Moreover, no single sample has been produced of the transition forms which with a common descent must have existed in great numbers. Some finds of human bones and skulls have been hailed enthusiastically as remnants of the so ardently longed-for transition forms. But a more accurate investigation brought ever again to light that all these remnants were original with common people, men of like movements with ourselves. In spite of diligent and zealous investigations there is nothing in advance this day of the word of Rudolf Virchow, that every fossil type of lower human development is wanting. No one has thus far demonstrated where and when and how the animals have developed themselves into men. As far as we can go back into the past, animals have been animals and men men. The descendance theory of Darwin may be an indispensable link in the doctrine of development; it finds no support in facts. Man always has and still does form a distinct species in the world of creatures.”

Uniformitarian ideas that Bavinck opposed are no longer in vogue today so we see that Bavinck was right on. So we see Reformed Academic is using respected Reformed philosophers to try to back up their own science-above-scripture claims, even though these philosophers would vehemently disagree with them. It's appears to be a theme in progressive creationism to get past church fathers to join their position, even though they would object to the old-earth position. Examples include Augustine, Justin Martyr, Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Ambrose, and other church fathers (see "Refuting Compromise" by Jonathan Sarfati who quotes all the respective sections on pages 105-137).

To me it is crystal clear. The editors of Reformed Academic have been swayed by origin research to such an extent that they’ll try to squeeze conclusions from that research into the Bible, even though there is no hint in the Bible that the creation days aren't normal days. This is even more more surprising seeing that evolutionists and old-earth geologists are running stuck trying to fit the facts into their worldview. For much more proof, read Jonathan Sarfati’s “Refuting Compromise.”

Herman van Barneveld
Hamilton, ON

Reformed Academic said...

Jitse van der Meer has just now had time to respond to Herman van Barneveld's comment. The response is here.