Combating Mechanistic Thinking

By David Maljaars

One of the main reasons that the theory of evolution and humanistic philosophy have been able to gain such a foot- hold in our society is because of the widespread belief that science is superior to religious faith. In other words, as one of my professors in college put it so bluntly, "I have no problem with you believing what your religion dictates, but what I am telling you is the scientific truth!"

The history of man’s changing view of God’s relationship to His creation has fascinated me ever since I discovered how my own secular public schooling and university training had led me into the same prejudiced world view: that science and religion were two mutually exclusive spheres. And although the majority of scientists today believe this, this has certainly not always been the case.

One of the most important units I teach in Chemistry 11 is the history of the development of the atomic theory. In this unit I try to show the students how changes in the atomic theory have contributed to science’s gradual estrangement from God. The central concept that I try to teach is that scientists have fallen into the error of believing that natural phenomena that can be explained mechanically (in terms of particles and the forces between them) do not require the presence or activity of God to be explained.

Let me give an example. Until relatively recently, when lightning struck and thunder roared, men and women quaked in fear, and ascribed this phenomenon to be the voice of God. However, in our more scientifically advanced time, we know this simply to be the result of a discharge of static electricity resulting from friction between molecules of air travelling in opposite directions. We can even replicate this in a lab. Everything can be explained mechanically, and therefore modern science would scoff at explaining lightning as the voice of God. And yet thunder is specifically described in Scripture as God’s voice (Psalm 77:18, Psalm 104:7) and God’s direct activity (I Sam. 12:18, Psalm 18:14, Rev. 4:5). What we must understand, and our young people must be armed with this truth, is that mechanical explanations and "laws" of nature do not explain anything; they simply describe God’s faithful and continual governance of His creation. If God would withhold His hand for even one instant, then not one single "natural law" (e.g.. gravity, magnetism, laws of static electricity, laws of motion, etc.)

would continue to operate. It is only man’ s foolish pride that he thinks that, when he discovers a natural law or a mechanical explanation for a given phenomenon, that he can disregard God.

It is helpful, I believe, to see how changes in the understanding of the atom have contributed to this decline. In the beginning of the scientific era, this was certainly not the general view. Many scientists were motivated to explore nature and discover these natural laws simply because they believed in a God of order, and they wished to learn more about God’s greatness by studying the work of His hands, Newton, for example, dedicated his famous Principia to the honor of God for His marvellous design in creation.

In 1808, John Dalton published his atomic theory - that all matter was composed of indivisible building blocks called atoms. According to this theory, each element consisted of unique atoms which could form molecules with elements of other unique molecules. Although opposed by theologians as a mechanical explanation of matter, the theory rapidly gained acceptance. But it allowed salt, for example, to be explained simply as a one - to - one ratio of sodium and chlorine atoms; or water as a two - to - one ratio of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, instead of these important substances being special creations.of God. We now all accept the atomic theory, but the tragedy is that science had begun its reliance on mechanical explanations.

In 1897, J.J. Thomson used the results of many years of research with electricity to put forward the theory that atoms were actually sprinkled with negative particles which he called electrons. Suddenly a considerable number of natural phenomena could be explained (mechanically) by this new particle: static electricity (e.g.. lightning) as the accumulation of electrons; current electricity as the movement of electrons along a conductor; chemical bonds as the attraction of opposite charges; elasticity in materials and even muscular movements as the result of "stretching" of electrical forces.

Ten years later, Ernst Rutherford deduced that all atoms must contain a tiny nucleus, with electrons circling around it. This led to the realization that the nucleus itself was composed of building blocks called protons and neutrons. This idea had tremendous implications for science and its view of God. Suddenly it was realized that there really was no need to have all one hundred elements created separately - they could all have been formed by mechanical processes of cornbining just the right number of protons, neutrons, and electrons! From this it was a short step to the ideas of stellar evolution and the Big Bang theory.

Now, I would like to point out that we must teach our students these understandings of God’s creation. We are not disputing them. What is so unfortunate, however, is that in the last several centuries, scientists have increasingly chosen not to view these mechanical explanations as illustrations of God’s greatness, majesty, power, and faithfulness, but have chosen to view them as ends in themselves - as primary causes of the natural phenomena we observe.

It is this artificial separation of God from His creation that has resulted in the widespread acceptance of science as an authority greater than God’s Word. But is this way of thinking limited to atheists and evolutionists? Or, if we look deeply into our own hearts and habits of teaching, do we not often find the same philosophy expressed, perhaps very subtly? How easy it is to teach the mechanical explanation of things and to leave God "out of the picture." But if we do this consistently, we lead our students astray, and, in practice, we divorce God from His creation.

I have found this history unit in Chemistry to be an ideal opportunity to focus on this theme. However, I think that we as science teachers in all units at all grade levels must strive to let our students feel and understand that we are explaining something of God’s perfect design, His governance and providence, worked out in the myriad scientific principles which we teach. We pray that students may see as a constant theme that infuses all our teaching what Paul exclaimed to the men of Athens: "For in Him we live, and move, and have our being."