Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Origin Science and Operation Science

It’s 7:45am and my middle-school-aged daughter, despite a few knocks on her door, still hasn’t appeared for breakfast. Since the bus comes in 25 minutes, I finally check her room, only to find she’s not there — or indeed anywhere in the house! Her jacket and shoes which I saw at the entrance last night are missing too. After a few calls to some friends, I phone the police. But by the time they arrive, I confess that my memories, my documents and photos, and the things in “her” room in my house do not prove that I have a daughter. And thus I decide to drop the matter, and go on living as if “my daughter” never really existed.

The shock you experience upon the reaction of the father in this little story is exactly what I and my scientist friends, Christian or not, experience when we’re told (by Christians!) that we can safely disregard all scientific evidence about the past.

For the last century or so, atheists have claimed that there is an absolute and irreconcilable conflict between modern science and the Bible. Surprising as it may seem at first glance, increasing numbers of orthodox Christians agree with these atheists.  Of course, the reaction of the two groups differs. The first celebrates the great achievements and the rapid advances of modern science, using them as evidence of science’s truthfulness. The second group, on the other hand, attempts to cast doubt on any scientific theory that appears to be in conflict with Biblical revelation.  This applies primarily to theories that claim a greater age of the earth and the cosmos than a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 seems to allow. Most other scientific theories — especially those that have important technological implications, are welcomed, but only because they are useful. The fact that science gives us an increasingly better understanding of the universe God created, that this knowledge enables us to magnify and glorify the Creator, and that the study of science is therefore an important part of the cultural mandate, is ignored.

To safeguard the conviction that, according to Scripture, the earth and the universe are only six to ten thousand years old while science claims ages amounting to billions of years, there is a tendency among Young-Earth Creationists to distinguish between “origin science” and “operation science”.

The claim that there is a sharp difference between these two is also found in John Byl, God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe (Banner of Truth, 2001). One of the main goals of that book, and of Byl’s writings in general, is to suggest that the claims of modern science about the history of the cosmos are irrelevant, so that Christians can be reassured that the so-called “traditional interpretation” of Scripture on matters of earth and cosmic history is correct. And so in the last pages of the book, one finds a commendation of a “distinction between origin and operation science… The latter is concerned with repeatable events, the former with singularities such as creation” (p. 213). [Note: For an insightful review of Byl’s book by a Reformed theologian, see C. John Collins, Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review v. 29, n. 1 (2003), pp. 56-59, available online via our “Collected Papers” or directly here.]

The idea is that “operation science” is a worthy enterprise, because we can do repeated experiments, while “origin science” should be dismissed because it relates to events of the past on which experiments cannot be done. That is, Christians are told they can safely ignore all results of scientific inquiry into the history of the cosmos.

What is Origin Science?

Science in our day is widely seen as having special authority, being a respectable and dependable source of knowledge. Many voices rightly acknowledge the limited character of science, for it is unable to speak to matters of value, purpose, meaning, beauty, morality, etc. It is true that some strident atheists claim the contrary and continue to press the notion that science is the only source of truth in all areas of life, but it is important to realize that this claim itself cannot be supported by science! Nevertheless, science does have significant validity particularly because of its systematic way of self-correcting through peer review and because of the worldwide community’s involvement, with scientists of all religions and cultures represented.

Because of this high regard for science, some wish to remove “origin science” from the field of science. The idea is that science is supposed to be experimental, and since origins looks back in time it deals with matters that cannot be reproduced in the lab and so should not be considered science. This includes especially the field of paleontology (studying the fossil record, including the use of radioactivity and geology) as well as astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology (these deal with stars and galaxies whose light often takes many years to reach us). These are the disciplines, after all, which have been marshalling the evidence that life has been around for about ¾ of the earth’s 4.54-billion-year history, and that the universe itself is about 13.75 billion years old. And these ages are supposed to contradict a “plain sense” or “traditional” reading of Scripture.

Now, it is quite difficult to define exactly what science is, but its empirical character is indeed key. That is, theories in science are to be tested against the actual world. But does that mean science must be experimental and repeatable? Not really.

The Value of Historical Science

Our observations in the present, and collected observations over millennia past, can in fact help us to uncover features of the universe today, give us insight into past events, and even serve our neighbour. Continental drift is an example in geology. Multiple lines of evidence, with different observations, assumptions, and methods, lead to a common conclusion. Two years ago, the magazine Modern Reformation featured an article which gave details on how the spreading rate of the mid-Atlantic ridge matches the rock ages measured via radioactive decay. And this is all intimately coupled with our understanding of the dynamic structure of the earth (with its crust, mantle, and core), which is used routinely to measure earthquakes and save lives by sending out tsunami warnings.

A biology colleague pointed out that the so-called “origin science” of continental drift, far from being speculation, fantasy, or a “parlour game”, actually leads to predictions which can be verified. See, for example, this 30-year-old piece in the NY Times; a later scientific journal article is W.J. Zinsmeister, “Cretaceous Paleogeography of Antarctica”, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 59 (1987), pp. 197–206, online here. Research on the history of life can make predictions that have been confirmed. In this case the theory of continental drift and the theory that marsupial mammals migrated from South America to Australia via the Antarctic continent are the basis for the prediction that one might find fossil marsupials on the Antarctic continent. As the newspaper article reported, this prediction was confirmed.

Why Is Origin Science Considered Unreliable?

Some scientists, especially when making public pronouncements as high-priests for atheism, appeal to their audience by way of all kinds of proof claims. One hears arguments that because the big bang theory is solidly proven, people had better give in, get on board, and join in assent. There are two ways to address such claims.

One response is to deny that the big bang (e.g.) is proven. That is, we can quickly discard any theory, conclusion, or statement of origin science by pointing out that there is not, and can never be, any real proof of them; after all, they cannot be repeated in an experimental context. But this response is actually not helpful, and is in fact misleading. For the appeal against proof is in fact a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the nature of science.

The appropriate response to dogmatic proof claims is to note that in science proof is not even in view. While in the field of mathematics, proving theorems within axiomatic systems is indeed a cornerstone, in science one works with theories and weighs evidence in favour of or in opposition to them. And so both the claim that science has proven something, and the claim that something has not been or cannot be proven, can be ignored. It’s not about proof!

Thus the claim that origin science cannot offer proof actually offers false comfort to those who feel threatened by the discoveries of modern science, especially as the rhetoric of warfare between science and Christianity has grown through the relentless efforts of both Young-Earth Creationism and what might be called the “scientific atheist” movement. One must instead replace the notion of proof within science to one of weighing the evidence.

Origin Science Does Not Exist

One distinction which is often not made is that between origin and history. Origin science per se does not actually even exist, except as a limit upon what science can hope to achieve, indeed a limit of which Christians in the sciences (or Christians speaking about science) ought to be acutely aware. It may be debatable among Christians whether studying the history of the universe or any feature of it has any value or reliability (I say it does have both), but science clearly does reach a point where nothing more can be said which is in any way amenable to the methods of scientific investigation. Where does something come from in the final analysis? What is its absolute origin? How did it come to be in the first place? Why does it have the particular characteristics it has? These questions are answerable in the ultimate sense only with reference to the specific creative work of God. Everything is contingent upon him. (Of course, God is to be acknowledged not just for creation, but also for his providential and covenantally faithful sustaining, and especially for his personal relationship with humanity.)

In cosmology, the big bang theory does not actually address the origin of the universe, but only its early development. No one claims to know why the big bang occurred, what triggered it, what conditions were present prior to it, either theoretically or observationally. In fact, cosmologists clearly state that they cannot address anything in the first 10−43 seconds: beyond the first tenth of a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, nothing is known. Biology (especially through paleontology and comparative genomics) may investigate the historical development of living things, but cannot hope to make much progress in scientific investigations of the actual origin or existence of life due to the contingencies and singularities involved.

Every origin story in history (the origin of the universe, or of stars & galaxies, the solar system, earth, life, humanity, or you as an individual) can only be so by virtue of the cosmos being created by God with its divinely ordained lawfulness and coherence. This lawfulness and coherence can only be taken as a given without which science cannot function. But God is also personally involved in all events that occurred in history, as Scriptures clearly reveal.  All is contingent upon him.

Past and Present Connected

And so perhaps people who refer to “origin science” just mean “historical science”, but let’s keep using their term.

Enforcing a sharp distinction between origin and operation science would demand that we as humans can know nothing about the past at all, and by extension can know nothing in the present. All human knowledge relies upon past experiences, and while an individual person cannot be absolutely confident about everything he or she remembers, communities have a way of mutually reinforcing what occurred in the past. The idea that we must remain agnostic about the past from a scientific point of view is inconsistent with the God-given confidence we as humans can have in assessing anything at all. The origin-vs.-operation approach when taken consistently endorses a radical skepticism and extreme doubt. If I look out of my window and see a tree, or share personal memories with a friend over coffee, must I really immediately recognize that these perceptions could easily be caused by any number of other alternative realities which must equally be embraced? Sounds like post-modernism in hyper-drive!

Instead, we can trust that God has created and sustains this world as a true reality of which he graciously and faithfully allows us to have true experiences. We can be confident (not in the positivistic or triumphalistic sense, but appropriately qualified and tempered in a critical realist way), and not forever wallow in the pit of existential despair into which we are cast if we succumb to the irrelevant notion of proof.

If we abandon our connection with the past, as that approach actually demands by consistency, and if instead we trust only that which we can prove (which, of course, is nothing except within the limited axiomatic systems of mathematics), then we must forbid forensic science and witness interviews in police investigations, as well as archaeology, not to mention medical science, cartography, meteorology, genealogical records. We also lose Biblical revelation, as Christianity is a religion rooted in the history of God’s redeeming action narrated in Scripture. The Christian in today’s society, including in science, can gratefully acknowledge God’s goodness and faithfulness, apart from which we can do nothing, but because of which we can approach our calling, and indeed our whole life, with confidence in his sustenance and providence, and confidence in a reality he has created and upholds.

The Continuity of Origin Science with Operation Science

Remnants of a supernova first seen
in 1054, though the explosion happened
six to nine thousand years ago.
In both what are called “origin science” and “operation science”, the key feature of science is evident: science uses empirical evidence in the development and communal assessment of theories. In both cases, predictions are made: if we see a certain flux of neutrinos we can predict that light from an exploding star will soon be seen, even if this supernova occurred a hundred thousand years ago. If we measure the time period of a Cepheid variable star, we can expect it to have a certain absolute brightness, allowing us to assign a distance to its host galaxy. We can then confirm whether other Cepheid variable stars, or supernovae, found later in that galaxy match this distance. Measurements via one form of radioactive decay, using one set of methods and assumptions, can be confirmed via another form, using quite different methods and assumptions, either in the same or a nearby rock or fossil. Internal consistency between observations is required, as is consistency with other more well-established scientific principles.

Recently there was lots of publicity about an experiment that claimed to show neutrinos traveling faster than light. Most physicists did not have much confidence in this result for various reasons; one was the well-established special theory of relativity, and another was because of “origin science” in which we have experience with neutrino vs. light speed by studying star explosions from 170,000 years ago. The current status of the neutrino speed experiment in question is that a loose cable was found, calling into further doubt the original claim.

The point is that in both experimental and observational science, scientists employ the very same methods, habits, assumptions, expectations, tools, theories, principles, etc., and so it is not possible to maintain a useful distinction between them.

The Challenge of Origin Science

If a “traditional interpretation” of Scripture indicates that the universe was created in 4004 BC, much of what is discovered via historical science challenges this. Is our response going to be one of fear, or trust? This is God’s world, and we can humbly and boldly explore his creation as we are called and equipped to do, without resorting to radical skepticism or proclaiming that science can say nothing.

We at Reformed Academic are not interested in re-interpreting Scripture on the basis of modern science. But scientific discoveries can lead us to ask whether we have placed upon Scripture, perhaps due to earlier scientific or philosophical ideas, an interpretation which is not warranted by Scripture itself and which was not possible for its authors or first hearers. It is troubling that in our own Canadian Reformed community there are growing voices that adopt scientific creationism (and/or its methods, outlook, and conclusions) as if it is the stance required by Reformed Christianity; that approach gives false hope as it dangerously makes what is often pseudo-science the reason for confidence in Scripture. But we are encouraged that in the broader Reformed Christian community, which is arguably more in continuity with what our own Canadian Reformed community historically has accepted, there are such critical re-assessments.

What’s the Point?

Claims that “origin science” is “little better than an amusing intellectual parlour game” and that the “prime aim [of ‘operation science’ is] developing useful technology” (p. 214) are central to Byl’s book. However, this fragments a beautiful structure, described by (agnostic) physicist Ethan Siegel as follows“Only if the fundamental laws of the Universe are the same everywhere and at all times can we learn what they are today, and use that knowledge to figure out what the Universe — and everything in it — was doing in the past, and what it will be doing in the future. In other words, it is this one fact, this most astounding fact, that allows us to do science, and to learn something meaningful, at all.” Siegel’s post is chock full of words like “astounding”, “remarkable”, “wondrous”. And the approach of “origin science” vs. “operation science” requires the utter denial of all this discovered awesomeness, which I, for one, am not prepared to do, on account of Psalms like the 8th, 19th, 104th, and 148th. “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

Byl’s writings have been very influential in our circles, with pastors and teachers recommending his book to young people. A recent editorial in Clarion (“When Science and Scripture Clash”, 17 February 2012, pp. 78-81) also demonstrates Prof. C. Van Dam’s continued allegiance to the origin-vs.-operation science notion. Many scientists in the Canadian Reformed community have grave difficulties with this approach, and I hope this post (together with the incisive review by Collins referred to above) has shown its serious problems. While the results of modern science may be uncomfortable, it will not help to simplistically dismiss their claims as irrelevant on the basis of an indefensible distinction between “origin science” and “operation science”. Let us not lose sight of what we have learned about God’s awesome deeds of the past.

And, back to the (fictional) story I began with: Of course, I will look for my missing daughter! I’m not interested in proving her existence, but confident that God is good and faithful. And I have my responsibilities to attend to.


Mike and Esther said...

First of all, thank you Arnold for making the effort to be clear and well rounded in your approach to address this topic.

I just wanted to affirm certain parts of your post:
1) "One distinction which is often not made is that between origin and history."
This is an important distinction. Many throw the baby out with the bath water, stating, for instance, that evolution can't have been the process that God used to create because they don't believe there was a Big Bang.

And 2):
"Every origin story in history (the origin of the universe, or of stars & galaxies, the solar system, earth, life, humanity, or you as an individual) can only be so by virtue of the cosmos being created by God with its divinely ordained lawfulness and coherence....without which science cannot function. But God is also personally involved in all events that occurred in history, as Scriptures clearly reveal. All is contingent upon him."
(The last point is supported by Colossians 1:15-20 but is saying more than some scientific assertion, of course.)
Could you elaborate on this point please?: ..."Every origin story....can only be so by virtue of..."

And 3):
"If we abandon our connection with the past, as that approach actually demands by consistency, and if instead we trust only that which we can prove (which, of course, is nothing except within the limited axiomatic systems of mathematics), then we must forbid forensic science and witness interviews in police investigations, as well as archaeology, not to mention medical science, cartography, meteorology, genealogical records. We also lose Biblical revelation, as Christianity is a religion rooted in the history of God’s redeeming action narrated in Scripture."
Thanks for spelling this out for us.
And thanks for approaching this topic in a charitable manner.
Mike Vandergugten
Langley, BC

Arnold Sikkema said...

I have been asked by my brother and colleague Dr. Byl what I think about Adam, even though it’s quite a stretch to move from my pointing out that the supposed distinction between “origin science” and “operation science” is untenable (and therefore unreliable as a defence of “the traditional interpretation” of Scripture and as permitting the dismissal of all historical science) to suppose that I am in danger therefore of dismissing the Bible or the Reformed confessions (or parts thereof). Nevertheless, let me affirm that I uphold the Biblical Adam, and note that science cannot address details about particular people in the distant past.

Marcel Sikkema said...

Hi Arnold,
Thanks for posting this and also providing a link to Dr. Byl's response. I have followed some/most of the postings on this blog and am intrigued by the questions that an alternative origin timeline introduces for various important points of my faith. Dr Byl raised some of these points, although his tone was more aggressive than it needed to be perhaps. I do not intend to question your commitment, your faith, or anything like that but I am curious about a couple of items specifically and would appreciate your interaction with them. If you have interacted with them elsewhere, my apologies, and I would appreciate you directing me to them.

First, how you fit the fall into sin and the resulting original sin which was passed down to all men (Romans 5:12) into a evolutionary account of the development of man? I understand your comment about science not addressing particular details about individual people but this question actually involves how the biblical teaching about the fall dovetails with an evolutionary perspective. Every time I attempt to reconcile the two I end up doing mental gymnastics and so I would like some clarification here.

My second point would be the possibility of miracles in the past. This once again is something that science cannot speak to, but it is something that Christian scientists and scientifically curious Christians must include in our world view. Can our understanding of world history and even origins of the universe/humanity include miracles? Can we only recognize miracles during periods of time of which the is a reliable historical account? I suppose allowing for miracles in a prehistorical time would be difficult as they cannot be scientifically verified (by their very nature). I suppose that allowing for miracles during this time would also allow for an incredible number of different possible narratives, all plausible, none verifiable.

I must admit a great amount of naiveté in this area as the extent of my studies has been in psychology and counselling, definitely not the HARD sciences which much of this work stems from. However, I am curious about these issues and do enjoy being able to understand and reconcile different perspectives. I am having difficulty with this one.

Thank you for your time and for the forum to discuss these points. I look forward to your response.

Marcel Sikkema
St Albert, AB

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Marcel Sikkema asks a question that automatically arises in connection with findings in geology, biology, genomics, astronomy, and other modern sciences which point to a much older earth than a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 suggests. To rephrase his question: If there indeed were pre-Adamites, and if humanity descended from a population of several thousands, what are we to do with the biblical teaching that original sin, which affects all human beings, had its origin in the disobedience of a historical Adam and Eve, whom the Bible presents as the parents of the entire human race?

This is indeed a difficult problem. It is also one on which more than one orthodox theologian has attempted to shed light. Let me refer to two of them, both of whom have been mentioned on this blog. One is Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, who some years ago issued a 14-page paper titled “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople” (to be found under our “Collected Papers”; direct link here). He refers in this paper to relevant studies by several Christian scientists, theologians, and philosophers, considers a number of models, and in the end expresses preference for the one proposed by Old Testament scholar and ordained Anglican minister Derek Kidner in his book Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP, 1967). Kidner’s model admits of human evolution, but he nevertheless holds that Adam and Eve were the first creatures on whom God bestowed his image, and that they are the parents of all humankind.

The other theologian is C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. The book in question is titled Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Crossway, 2011); see my review on Reformed Academic (8 December 2011). Collins, according to the review, “questions the widely accepted scientific claim that DNA evidence necessarily points to a population of several thousand from which humanity descended. He adds, however, that even if there should have been more than two ancestors, we still don’t ‘necessarily have to ditch all traditional views of Adam and Eve.’ One possibility is that Adam was the chieftain of a tribe, serving as its ‘federal’ head and representative, and that therefore his trespass affected all connected with him.”

How helpful are such theories? By way of reply, let me quote the final statement of Tim Keller: “When Derek Kidner concluded his account of human origins, he described his view as an ‘exploratory suggestion…only tentative, and it is a personal view. It invites correction and a better synthesis.” And that, Keller believes, “is the right attitude for all of us working in this area.”

F.G. Oosterhoff
Hamilton, ON

Jitse van der Meer said...

Dear Marcel,

The following two books offer wide-ranging surveys of approaches to your first question.

Alexander, Denis. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose. Oxford, UK & Grand Rapids, MI. 2008.

Deborah Haarsma and Loren Haarsma, Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (revised edition). Grand Rapids. Faith Alive Christian Resources. 2012. (

Jitse van der Meer
Hamilton, Ontario

Arnold Sikkema said...

On Marcel’s question of miracles in the past, let me refer him to Davis A. Young, “Scripture and Geologists: A Reply to John Byl”, Westminster Theological Journal v. 51 (1989) pp. 377-387. Young deals with this on pp. 384-6 under the heading “The Role of Miracles in Science.” This article is included in our re-publication of Young’s important pieces from 25 years ago (along with Byl’s critique and Young’s response), by permission from the journal. (See our “Collected Papers”, or this direct link.)

Arnold Sikkema
Langley, BC

Reformed Academic said...

We have stated this earlier, but let us re-emphasize what we do affirm, namely that we hold to a real Adam and Eve, a real fall, that humans suffered actual biological death as a consequence of the fall (I Cor. 15:20-22) and that the early chapters of Genesis are speaking about real events, not myths (as commonly construed).

Mike Janssens said...

I’m having difficulty reconciling the hypotheses presented here with established theological truths. I agree with the notion that no question ought to be off limits, since that violates scientific integrity just as much as the bigoted intolerance for intelligent design theories we find in American and some Canadian universities. However, I’m deeply concerned with the idea that scientific theory is being used to interpret Scriptural truth, as opposed to the other way around. Why does Man’s word interpret God’s Word? An old-earth revision of the Genesis account creates more problems than it solves.

You run into death before the fall into sin. How does sin make all of creation groan under the curse if the only change after Adam’s sin was the death of man? If death existed before the fall, even in the animal world, then there was no curse on creation. If there was no curse, then creation needs no Redeemer. If creation needs no Redeemer, then our faith is futile.

You run into a license for skepticism on all the other supernatural events that science cannot accept, such as the flood, Sinai, multiple resurrections, including Christ’s, the sun standing still for Joshua, or going backward for Hezekiah, water from a rock, a talking donkey, angelic appearances, Samson’s strength, or the ten plagues of Egypt.

Scientifically, creationism and Darwinism are only compatible if you make presuppositions about the evidence. Theologically, the two are irreconcilable.

Mike Janssens
Strathroy, ON

Arnold Sikkema said...

Thank you, Mike, for your questions, and please accept my apologies for the delay in my response. I think we have gone over many of these points already, but let me note the following.

1. It is not a matter of “Man’s word interpreting God’s Word,” but of scientific observations urging Christians to discover if perhaps they have interpreted Scripture wrongly. This has been done throughout Church history, from the time of the Church Fathers onward. One example is that of the sun-centred system, which is being accepted by practically all orthodox theologians; another is that of Calvin’s notion of accommodation. It is exceptionally illuminating to read Galileo at length in his 1615 piece which I commend to you: “Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany: Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science”. Also, the essays on creation by OPC minister Dr. Peter J. Wallace, are quite helpful. (These are also listed in our “Collected Papers”.) Wallace suggests that changes in the church’s view on such matters were always the result of scientific observations, never of exegetical ones. And so Christians who have problems with a non-literal interpretation of Genesis should make sure that they know the history of science as well as their church history. In sum the use of extra-biblical sources in biblical exegesis whether these sources are from science, archaeology or the study of ancient languages is unproblematic provided Scripture itself provides the justification for the resulting exegesis.

2. The Bible does not say that animal death was part of the curse. In the Genesis text death was part of the curse for Adam and Eve alone. Two other creation stories in Scripture make it clear that God feeds carnivorous animals and rejoices in this as part of His good creation. Here I think of Job 38-41 and Psalm 104; the latter is often identified, including by Dr. Jannes Smith of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in a December 2010 sermon at Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church, as being a Hebrew commentary on Genesis 1.

3. In spite of the claims of materialists and atheists, science does not question the fact that God can and does act in nature in personal and miraculous ways, nor does the conflict between scientific observation and a literalistic reading of Genesis necessarily lead to skepticism about the truth of the Gospel. As we confess in Article 5 of the Belgic Confession, the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that Holy Scripture is from God. Or, as Calvin phrases it, there is the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit” in our hearts. We must seriously consider the danger of ignoring the work of the Spirit and relying on pseudo-science as a support for our faith.

Arnold Sikkema
Langley, BC