The Scientific Method: A Christian Idea
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Madman (1882)
In Nietzsche’s classic parable (one which every Christian should be familiar), he portrays a kind of prophetic madman (arguably Nietzsche himself) running into the midst of a crowd and declaring that God is dead and that they have killed him. The “they” refers to the people of his day, of his culture, and of the formal church which had become ensconced in liturgical monotony and not genuine religion. By their disbelief, by the idolatry of tradition, and by the people’s lack of commitment to genuine faith combined with their commitment to science and rationalism, Nietzsche believed that they had effectively removed God from the society (something that Nietzsche believed was a good thing).
Christians, of course, have been quick to point out during the years that followed, that the notion of God being “dead” or his being “killed” is an irrational concept. By definition, God is eternal and thus cannot cease to exist by any means — he simply is. Further, God’s existence is not predicated on the belief of his people — whether people believe that God exists or not, whether people worship him or not, does not change his state of being. He nevertheless always and eternally is. He is a self-existent being and all things that exist derive their existent from him.
Nietzsche’s commentary is nonetheless instructive for us for 19th century Germany is not the only place or point in history where those who claimed the name of God’s people had fallen into idolatry and unbelief. One need only read the book of Judges to see this cycle taking place over and over or to read the prophet Hosea to see God’s judgment upon his people because they have simply gone through the motions, doing the right thing in form but not being committed to it. Isaiah, Chapter 1, is another prime example, illustrating for us God’s dissatisfaction with his people as they are distant from him.
In any time and in any place where people substitute the form of religion for the practice of religion, you find an era where this takes place. Read the letters of Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) — five of the seven were under the criticism of Jesus and two of those five were pronounced to be under judgment. This was a good deal of the reason that a Reformation of the church was needed in the 16th Century and it is the reason that the American and European churches largely need to repent, for very few care at all about obedience to the Word of God , only about maintaining their status quo.
But what has this to do with the scientific method? Nietzsche’s observation was that with the death of God the world would be turned upside down. Now, it can be argued that Nietzsche is using this more as a rhetorical device than as an observation, but let’s run with this statement (quoted above) for a minute. If God is not then there is no authority higher to man to which one can appeal. If God is not, definition becomes entirely human in its manufacture and not eternal. If God is not, then laws really have no meaning other than the meaning which we give to them; and if God is not, there is no reason to assume that the laws of the universe are consistent between one place and another.
The Scientific Method is the process of establishing a hypothesis, making predictions about the nature of cause and effect based on this hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis to confirm that the actual results match the predictions made. The entirety of this method is prefaced on the principle that the universe is orderly and predictable. Yet, the assumption of an orderly and predictable universe is a Christian assumption based on the fact that we have a God who is orderly and who has created in a way consistent with his orderly character.
Does that mean that no one but Christians can use the Scientific method — or at least that no one but theists? Of course not. The scientific method properly applied is an essential aspect of doing research and science. But without a commitment to the notion that the universe is rationally structured by a rational God, why bother with the scientific method in the first place? Why be committed to the notion that the laws of physics are set and consistent? It is worth pondering the implication of a universe created by an orderly being and a universe that just randomly generated itself without anything to guide it or to order it. In Nietzsche’s atheistic model, we might as well be plunging in every which direction without any basic points of reference like up or down.