Nothing Buttery

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Don’t let that title fool you. We’re not talking about diets, but a different kind of “nothing buttery.”

You see it in quotes like this one from Francis Crick:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”

Nothing but . . .

You see this kind of language all too often in popular science literature. We are nothing but neurons, or genes, or atoms. There is no vitality to life—we are simply material, reduced to stuff that obeys the laws of physics or chemistry or biology. It is a world void of purpose and meaning. But is it true? Are we and is our world nothing but?

The Real Debate

Some years ago, I saw a debate between physicist Paul Davies and chemist Peter Atkins. It was the last debate over atheism and science that I ever attended. Why? Because it was strikingly obvious that the science had nothing to do with it.

While not a man of faith himself, Davies championed the cause for believers like myself in the audience, describing a world using the same scientific findings that Atkins, the strident atheist, used. It was a world governed by the laws of physics and biological evolution, with some unknowns yet to be discovered but many successful answers already found. Davies suggested that he and Atkins agreed on the science. Atkins insisted they were fundamentally at loggerheads.

But it was clear to me—and I hope everyone in that room—that the difference was philosophical, not scientific. You see, Atkins believed all those “nothing but” statements—nothing but atoms, chemical elements, genes, and neurons—and for him, that meant there is nothing more. Davies saw an amazing picture of the natural world that suggested more—mystery, meaning, and maybe even purpose. It was a battle between metaphysical commitments, not a skirmish of science (and certainly not faith, since neither was a believer in any conventional sort of way).

This is all too often the case in such debates, and that’s why I no longer watch or attend them. I don’t accept the “science supports atheism” logic that is really just a lot of “nothing buttery.” And I worry that theologian Rodney Holder is right when he writes: “My belief is that it is this philosophical position adopted by many scientists, with the propaganda put out in its favour, rather than any specific scientific theories, which has been the major contributory factor to the widespread acceptance in society that science and religious belief are not only in conflict, but that science has made religion completely superfluous.”

A spiritual analogy might be helpful here. Do we believe that prayer is “nothing but” words? Certainly it includes words, but it also involves real communication with God. Similarly, in science, we don’t have to accept what is often called ontological reductionism or the closely aligned ideas of materialism or determinism.  As Christians we believe the universe is more than merely “nothing but.” We believe in those same atoms and genes and neurons, but we also believe God uses them for a purpose—something like more than instead of nothing but.

  • John Polkinghorne and his tea kettle example can be helpful.
  • Justo González unpacks the “because” and the “so that” of the doctrine of creation.
  • We talked to well-known apologist John Lennox about scientism, “the idea that science is the only way to truth.”
  • We’ve also learned that the divide between believers and atheists is more complex than your average debate would imply.

Instead, A Cup of Tea

One of the classic science-and-religion analogies, told often by the likes of John Polkinghorne, John Haught, and others—is that of the whistling tea kettle. This analogy builds on some basic philosophy and how to understand levels of causation.

So why is the kettle whistling? One perfectly valid answer refers to electricity (or gas), heat transfer, kinetic energy, water changing phases, and pressure pushing the steam through the opening in the kettle’s spout. A second answer, equally valid, is my desire for a cup of tea (or, even better, a cup of tea to share with you while we discuss faith and science).

This example shows the limitation of the “nothing but” reductionist mindset. Yes, atoms and molecules and the laws of physics produce steam and make the kettle whistle. But there can also be a higher order cause—an intent, a desire. Even a divine intention.

Theologian Justo González expanded on these two levels of causation in his recent BioLogos Conference talk. Referring to the doctrine of creation, he noted two key aspects: the because and the so that. Science (among other methods of inquiry) can unpack the levels of because in God’s creation, but God also endows nature with a so that.

These are basic ideas in any faith-and-science discussion, and it is important to make sure they’re understood by those we minister to. Otherwise, they too might come to believe that science really is just a nothing buttery endeavor, making our faith completely superfluous.




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