The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Are Science and Faith Compatible?

with 6 comments

Lately it seems as if some of the most volatile and debated issues of philosophy, religion, politics, and science have become even more polarized then they have ever been. I do recognize my own limited point of view in this regard and accept that such a statement is likely hyperbolic to the extreme. Yet, in recent history, our culture has certainly tended toward partisanship, especially in matters of faith and culture. This may be a small and fleeting moment in the grand scheme of things, but it is one that we are in and must discuss rather than allow the continued fragmentation of society based upon misunderstanding and mischaracterization of so many issues. As the title of this post suggests, my purpose in writing is primarily to discuss the compatibility of science and faith, though I do want to stress that I believe that this issue is only symptomatic of a larger trend of radical polarization of ideas in our culture.

So, again to the question: are the realms of science and faith compatible? Can one be a faithful adherent of religion, acknowledging the supernatural, and still understand or even practice science? The short answer should be an absolute “yes!” However, many do not agree. Some claim that the very basis of faith, that there is what cannot be proven empirically, flies in the face of science. Or, in other words, that what cannot be proven empirically cannot be said to exist! Such a notion is obviously false. One need only question the reality of abstract ideas, numbers, metaphysics, or aesthetics to recognize that many things that our culture (and even science itself) depends upon to be true are not empirically verifiable. (See my series, Science and Faith, for more elaboration on this point.) What is really the problem here is that science, by nature of what it is and how it operates, illegitimately excludes that which cannot be proven empirically from truth as a whole.

Perhaps, then, the realm of science is being inappropriately misunderstood as a comprehensive epistemology rather than a method? Science is not a category of knowledge, nor its primary source. It is a method by which some knowledge is apprehended. Religion, on the other hand, is also not the primary source of knowledge. Religion is a practice which generally attributes its method to the influence of the supernatural (Though a case can be made for non-supernatural or secular religions, my point here is to focus on the relationship between religion of the supernatural kind and science). While the supernatural catalyst of religion, especially in the theistic sense, may have the properties of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc., no one (that I know of) claims that religion can lead to the apprehension of the same qualities.

However, both science and religion allow for conclusions to be made about reality. This is where the conflict occurs, since the conclusions tend to be characterized as contradictory. D.J. Grothe, in a recent interview with Dr. Michael Shermer on the program ‘Point of Inquiry,’ said:

“Science and religion are incompatible if religion makes any claims about the universe inconsistent with science…but not…if you’re a religionist who’s willing to give up all of the supernatural claims.”

This statement may require some time to register as the falsehood that it actually is. Grothe claims that science and religion only conflict when religion disagrees with science! In other words, science is always correct. But can science always be correct? Surely a look at many incorrect theories should prove otherwise. Yet, what I am more interested in questioning is the characterization of science as something that can even be characterized as “correct” or “incorrect.” Science is a method that should lead to a correct determination provided that steps are taken without error, similar to the mathematic process of addition. However, can it be said that “addition is always correct?” Of course not! The process of addition provides the correct sum when it has been conducted without error. What Grothe is doing, perhaps unwittingly, is establishing science as an inerrant and comprehensive teleological source, rather than using it as a method through which to apprehend knowledge. Moreover, Grothe, most likely wittingly in this case, neuters religion to only that which is non-supernatural. Clearly, this undercuts the very purpose of the religions which he claims contradict science. Again, he has stacked the deck in his favor.

Grothe’s guest, Dr. Michael Shermer, responded by saying:

“There’s no evidence through science [for the effects of faith]. Wherever there have been attempts to prove it, those attempts have failed- most recently with the prayer and healing studies with the 1800 cardiac bypass patients with which there was no effect at all. This is a big mistake that religious people make…trying to use science to prove something. They’re going to fail. They always do.”

What Shermer says may be true, if not for the time being, possibly forever. Perhaps science will never prove the effects of faith, or the existence of the supernatural. However, this is really not the issue at hand. In fact, it seems to be a red herring meant to categorize the faithful as misusing science to somehow prove faith. Surely this is not true of all people of faith, nor is it germane to the compatibility of science and faith. Incidentally, I recall reading an article in the New York Times about the study mentioned by Shermer and wondering just what exactly the parameters were for tracking the relationship between prayer and health. Were the people praying all accounted for? Were they all praying for the same thing or to the same god? Were the patients themselves praying? Was there any relationship at all between the faith or skepticism of the patients and those who prayed for them? It seemed to me that the conclusion was: not enough people got better, therefore prayer doesn’t work. I would ask whether prayer is, in this case, being limited to the act of supplication rather than being understood for the rich, nuanced and multifaceted practice that most who pray believe it to be. Regardless, even the perceived failure of such a study has little to do with the compatibility of faith and science.

Decades ago, when presumably the polarization of science and faith was less severe, atheist George Wald spoke on the relationship between the two in an address to the John XXIII Institute Conference on Theology and Ecology. He said:

“I think the struggle to know is epitomized in science. One could add a word and say an unending struggle to know God. I think the big question is, if one added that word, would one have changed the meaning of the sentence? For me, no.”

While I may disagree with his atheistic position, I do agree with his statement. Wald sees both science and religion as in pursuit of knowledge, yet he has chosen to pursue one over the other. It seems he is content to make that choice, yet in speaking this way he makes no claim that his decision was compelled by a valid restriction of religion by science. In fact, he went on to characterize his own secular scientific position as religious.

Is it possible then, that the question itself of whether science and religion are compatible is actually contributing to the false dichotomy of “science or religion, but not both?” The very birth of scientific practice is rooted in the belief in a teleological universe which should be ordered in such a way as to be studied systematically. Without such a philosophical grounding, one has no basis to believe that the systematic approach of science would be at all effective. In other words, science began with faith. So long as the faithful in this world practice science, in whatever capacity, the notion that one can either be faithful or scientific but not both is a false dichotomy.

Written by Christopher Butler

September 28, 2006 at 7:06 am

Progress, Ethics and the Finitude of Means

leave a comment »

As petrol costs continue to rise, there seems to be an abundance of discussion about governmental regulation of price gauging and even some philosophical talk of alternative energy. As much as I am intrigued and hoping for a paradigm shift in our reliance upon fossil fuels, I can’t help but suspect that it is a long way off. While new types of transportation solutions are a start, even if they are still very much in the concept phase, my concern is the pre-technological paradigm shift that is needed in our scientific motivations. How does this in any way relate to Christian philosophy and apologetics? Stick with me, I promise to make the connection, however loose, long-winded, or disconnected my approach may be…

Let me begin by suggesting that the past two decades have seen exponential growth in technology, both on the scientific and consumer level, which ultimately seems to have become the goal of science itself. In other words, it seems that science, at least on the popular level, is expected to produce technology, which in turn is expected to progress society towards something better. Yet, it seems that any sincere scientist would hope that at the root of their study is a fascination for the universe and a desire to understand it more. For the Christian, this inductive study of the creation is rooted in the image of God in which we are made. As I suggest in my past two posts concerning the relationship between faith and science, the questions that man asks regarding his existence and the universe must be approached bilaterally- from both observation and philosophy, as science ideally gathers data and philosophy provides the framework through which to interpret it.

However, some scientists disagree. In 1985, Dr. Gerald Feinberg, Professor of Physics at Columbia University wrote,

Scientists now consider that scientific inquiry dominates the human intellectual adventure…Many philosophers argue, as do I, that ethical questions do not have answers in the sense that scientific questions do. (from ‘Solid Clues’).”

While I certainly agree that there are substantial differences between the approaches that science and ethics may take in providing answers to questions, or even the types of questions that they can answer, it is a false dichotomy to limit questions categorically to ethics and science. In fact, if one is determined to create such a dichotomy, ethics is the wrong choice and should be substituted with philosophy. Ethics is a system of moral principles dependent upon a philosophy. Without a grounded philosophy, a system of ethics is meaningless and could allow for anything. (I would even go further to say that philosophy cannot be the ultimate counterpart to science in this hypothetical dichotomy, as the philosophy itself depends upon its epistemological root, but this gets our discussion into much choppier waters than I am ready to navigate in this post!) But, to suggest that science dominates the human intellectual adventure is irresponsible and ignorant of the reality of science’s need for philosophical guidance. This is along the lines of the projected face of the Wizard of Oz declaring it’s independence from the true ‘wizard,’ the man behind the curtain.

Feinberg goes on to write,

“There is no valid reason for any society to limit the type of questions that scientists may investigate or to constrain the type of answers that scientists may find to the questions that interest them…Society is no more justified in regulating the curiosity of its scientists than it would be in regulating their eating habits, or regulating the expression of artists.”

Society is certainly not justified in arbitrarily setting limits for scientific inquiry, but clearly no one is advocating this. Ethics, on the other hand, derived from philosophical determination of the nature of mankind and the universe, should naturally affect how science proceeds. This certainly does not mean policing the thoughts of individuals, so Feinberg can rest assured that even ethics cannot limit the types of questions that scientists ask. This does, however, mean that ethics should prevent certain methods from being used for the purpose of answering questions, as well as determine the value of study relative to its expected impact upon society. For example, while many would agree that it was nobody’s business what sorts of questions Josef Mengele asked in his own mind, it became the world’s business the moment he proceeded to use men, women and children as the subjects of his depraved inquiry. Even today it is fashionable to decry the use of animals in scientific testing, of course it should be pointed out that tolerance for this practice is much lower in the case of the cosmetics industry than it is in cancer research. So while it is true on one hand that ethics cannot allow men to attempt to police the minds of other men, it is true on the other that one’s curiosity does not have preeminence over society. Moreover, thoughts of Mengelian proportion aught to compel psychiatric and/or spiritual council rather than be indulged simply because they are one’s right to think. Likewise, many questions are lawfully and rightfully asked, but the means of attaining answers to these questions have the potential to wreak havoc upon mankind. Thus, our responsibility toward the protection of one another trumps curiosity.

Dr. Liebe Cavalieri, in his book “The Double-Edged Helix: Genetic Engineering in the Real World,” responds to this particular type of thinking when he writes,

"I suspect that many of the implications of [modern science] have been cast aside by the scientific community because a more enlightened view would require a general examination of societal problems, and the solutions to those problems might place constraints on the scientific enterprise.”

In other words, in constructing this false dichotomy of science and ethics at odds, a world is created in which scientists can rightfully turn a blind eye towards considering the effects of their exploits. In doing so, the actual progress or improvement that society can expect is likely stunted. Cavalieri continues,

“Many scientists fail to take note of the possible ill effects that could follow from their work; they make the implicit, vague assumption that all science is good, as though its beneficent application were foolproof. This leads to the illogical conclusion that any and all goals are equally desirable in the search for knowledge, and this is somehow connected with freedom of inquiry…Some scientists hold up the specters of Galileo or Lysenko at any suggestion of public accountability, although their histories are not relevant to the issues of public and environmental safety raised by [modern technologies.]"

But all science cannot be implicitly good, as the example of Mengele so simply points out. Even questions such as how to apprehend cures to disease or improve food supply to the world are posited out of a moral and ethical framework. If it were not morally right to care for the sick, I can see little reason why science would be calibrated toward such results on its own accord. If there is such a thing as ‘good’ science (meaning science for good, rather than science well done), then there must also be such a thing as ‘bad’ science. Bad science could be as obvious as exploiting others for immoral purposes or as subtle as methods extended for a goal that brings short-term benefit but ultimately contributes to the harm of society. This is why ethics, as a system, and ultimately morality, must shepherd science.

I began this post with a remark about our present condition, some twenty years after Feinberg and Cavalieri wrote on the issue, which finds us uncertain of our future as we seem hopefully dependent upon fossil fuels and outgrowing our ability to sustain ourselves. It would be unfair to suggest that the scientists of the past, enthusiastic to develop society and get motors running (literally), should have known better and suppressed their knowledge of petroleum refining to prevent a massively disproportionate dependence upon it years later. However, now that we are existing within such an enormous machine, it may be time that we consider the costs of being liberated from our dependence. At that, I will conclude with Cavalieri’s seemingly prophetic remarks (made in 1985) regarding our situation and future:

“The physical realities of finite energy supplies, the limited ability of the environment to absorb pollution, population growth and the finite potential for food production, and, ultimately, the projected thermal instability of the planet force the inevitable conclusion that growth must cease within a few decades…The practice of science as we know it cannot continue unrestrained, in the present milieu, for its results are bound to be applied by the industrial establishment in the name of progress…Scientists will have to develop a social conscience, convey this to the people, and above all, teach their newly acquired wisdom to the technocrats. To call for an awakening of scientists, technocrats, and the masses on whom technology is practiced sounds all but hopeless, to be sure. But there is no other way to halt the impending technological disaster.”

Written by Christopher Butler

April 25, 2006 at 6:29 pm

Bertrand Russell and the Castration of Knowledge

with 7 comments

Rather than simply being in pace with trends, I have been discussing the relationship between religion and science in several recent posts because I feel that this discussion deals with some critical philosophical ideas that strongly influence our society. In this particular article, I would like to examine the argument of philosopher Bertrand Russell that science has allowed for the dominance of ‘technical’ truth over ‘absolute truth,’ which I believe is flawed on the basis of a particular misunderstanding of the role of religion in society and of an arbitrary limiting of science.

In his “Religion and Science,” published in 1935, Russell attempts to compare and contrast religion with science:

Science is the attempt to discover, by means of observation, and reasoning based upon it, first, particular facts about the world, and then laws connecting facts with one another and (in fortunate cases) making it possible to predict future occurrences…Religion, considered socially, is a more complex phenomenon than science. Each of the great historical religions has three aspects: 1) a church, 2) a creed, and 3) a code of personal morals…Creeds are the intellectual source of the conflict between religion and science, but the bitterness of the opposition has been due to the connection of creeds with churches, and with moral codes. (All quotes in this post will be from ‘Religion and Science, by Bertrand Russell.’)

Russell defines science as having relevance to the pursuit of knowledge dealing with the origins and destiny of the physical world, as well as the process by which it is sustained. This is, at face value, as it should be as far as scientific methods are concerned. However, as later quotes will show, this particular scheme of science is governed by the presupposition which excludes supernatural phenomena from explanations. To assume that all of reality can be explained outside of the realm of supernatural phenomena is quite unwarranted given the likelihood that we do not have full knowledge by which to justify it. Russell’s religious source, which he cites as the creed, is also unlikely. The creed is a statement of belief; for it to be both the source of the belief and the statement of the belief certainly begs the question. However, the assumption that the creed is the intellectual source of religious belief is also governed by an unwritten assumption excluding supernatural phenomena, for if religions are manmade, then the creed would certainly become the source of religion, but if God does exist and has spoken, than God is the source of religious belief and the creed is merely an affirmation of the belief.

Russell continues,

Sometimes there happens to be a text in the Bible making some assertion as to a matter of fact…Such assertions, when they are refuted by scientific observation, cause difficulties for those who believe, as most Christians did, until science forced them to think otherwise, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired.

It would be helpful to have particular passages which illustrate the point Russell is trying to make here, but unfortunately he leaves the idea undeveloped. To use my previous post as a valid example, science provided observational evidence that seemed to contradict with the current interpretation of certain Biblical texts dealing with the Earth’s relationship to the Sun. However, as Galileo rightly pointed out, and many theologians and scientists later concurred, the truth of the scriptures was never at risk, but the truth of the interpretation of men of its meaning. The authority of the scriptures, then, is not subservient to the findings of science. One cannot solve issues of seeming discrepancy by simply limiting scriptural authority to meaning and morality, either. It is out of a comprehensive scheme that conclusions in regard to meaning and morality are made, which depend on a specific expository process from beginning (the origin of creation) to end (its destiny).

Back to Russell:

Men of science did not ask that propositions should be believed because of some important authority had said they were true; on the contrary, they appealed to the evidence of the senses, and maintained only such doctrines as they believed to be upon facts which were patent to all who chose to make the necessary observations. The new method achieved such immense successes, both theoretical and practical, that theology was gradually forced to accommodate itself to science.”

Many scientific conclusions have adhered to such a scheme and have made obvious improvements upon society. This is quite clear to all, I am sure. However, this statement is subversive if it is meant to assert that all theories and conclusions of science adhere to it strictly, especially those which pertain to origins and destiny, the understanding of which continues to be in flux as new interpretations of evidence come in and out of repute. In the cases of making inference in regards to such distant events (both future and past), it is necessary to view the observational data in light of an ideological framework. Again, in reference to the Galileo controversy, the proper interpretation of phenomenological language in scripture is by no means an accommodation to the higher authority of science. Rather, it is the uncovering of an already existing truth by the collaboration of piety and observation.

In anticipation of what many may dispute about the notion of science operating with presuppositions, I will first include what Russell himself had to say about it:

Experience has shown that it is dangerous to start from general principles and proceed deductively, both because principles may be untrue and because the reasoning based upon them may be fallacious. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.”

This is obviously false. Most scientists would agree that their methods begin with the assumption that supernatural phenomena do not exist. While I think this is a fair limitation of methods, I do not think that it is a fair limitation of conclusions given that we could not possibly affirm through observation or experiment the non-existence of supernatural phenomena. It is a brute assumption that cannot be validated by Russell’s method as stated above. In fact, presuppositions govern the crucial points of science; they provide an initial scheme from which to formulate questions and hypothesis, as well as provide a framework from which to interpret evidence and make conclusions.

Russell continues,

A religious creed differs from a scientific theory in claiming to embody eternal and absolutely certain truth, whereas science is always tentative, expecting that modifications in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at complete and final demonstration…Science thus encourages the abandonment of the search for absolute truth, and the substitution of what may be called ‘technical’ truth, which belongs to any theory that can be successfully employed in inventions or in predicting the future…’Knowledge’ ceases to be a mental mirror of the universe, and becomes merely a practical tool in the manipulation of matter.”

Russell admits the limitation of science to the pragmatic, yet his conclusion that therefore objective truth does not exist does not logically follow. If science is simply a means to knowledge, and is successful in providing a portion of that knowledge, it does not mean that the remaining knowledge that is not reachable through science simply is invalid or does not exist! The notion that truth is that which ‘works’ has been demonstrated time and again to be unnecessarily narrow and observably false. Russell’s own statement, that ‘science is always tentative,’ relies upon a larger ‘set’ of truth which cannot be empirically verified but the objectivity of which is invoked in order to make the claim. So, while the judicious scientist is aware of and accepts the tentativeness of his discoveries, and rightly so, it would be incoherent to claim that it is objectively true that ‘science is always tentative.’

What Russell really does, out of his assumptions about religious philosophy and his rejection of it as epistemologically valid, is make knowledge impotent in really providing any answers to the ‘big’ questions of man. By limiting the source of knowledge to “technical truth” derived by science alone, he has, in a sense, castrated knowledge! His “technical truth” will by nature be unable to answer questions of meaning or morality (questions most likely to be of higher priority to mankind), nor will it honestly lead to a comprehensive understanding of origins and destiny.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 18, 2006 at 4:36 pm

Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy

with 2 comments

In 1614, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in which he defended his position regarding the authority of the Church in matters of scientific inquiry. On the basis of that letter, and the subsequently published work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” Galileo was censured and punished by the Papal authority of Pope Urban III as a heretic for his teaching of heliocentrism, despite initially having the support of the former Cardinal Barberini.

The church’s denial and suppression of scientific observations, which were ultimately proven to be true, on the basis of theological doctrine has become one of the most frequently invoked polemics against the Christian faith in modern history. Many skeptics cast Galileo as a fellow skeptic and renegade agnostic fighting against the potentially fascist control of the Church. While there are shades of truth in such a picture, I would argue that it is irresponsible to distort the struggle of Galileo for the purposes of debunking Christianity. While an obvious response to such a move would be to recall the warning of Augustine, that one must not judge a philosophy by its abuse, I think there is more to this to be discussed. Needless to say, to conclude that because the Church was in error in the Galileo affair therefore Christianity is false is unwarranted.

Actually, Galileo was a devout and committed Christian, believing that God had created a world with certain laws which made scientific study possible. To Galileo, scientific inquiry was a means through which to better understand his creator and to bring glory to Him. His study, however, did reveal some tensions between what the Church had taught regarding the created world and his own documented observations. In his letter to the Grand Duchess, Galileo explained,

The reason produced for condemning the opinion that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still is that in many places in the Bible one may read that the Sun moves and the Earth stands still…It is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth- whenever its true meaning is understood…It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. (All of the statements of Galileo quoted in this article are found in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, of 1614.)

It seems that Galileo calibrated his scientific study by affirming what should be the authority, both for the scientist and for any discerner of truth. Despite the seeming tensions between the accepted teaching of the Church and his observations, Galileo was certain that an explanation which favored both the authority of the scriptures and the truth of his observations could be found. By taking his observations of God’s creation and understanding them in light of His Word, it became apparent that much of the Biblical descriptive language, especially as it pertains to the created world, is phenomenological in nature. In other words, much of the Biblical description of the created world is in language which reflects how certain phenomena appears from the point of view of mankind. Galileo defended this conclusion on the basis of the theological position of Augustine, which indicated various genres of literature within the scriptures as indicative of the different means by which interpretation is established.

Galileo continued, “Since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the Earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind.”

This makes a crucial point regarding the truth and teaching of Scripture. Galileo says, and I think quite correctly so, that while the scriptures cannot speak falsely and should be regarded as quite correct in all propositions they make, they may not carry a particular doctrinal mandate in regard to the Earth’s position and behavior in the universe. So, while the Bible does in fact make many statements about the Earth being immoveable or having four corners, the emphasis is on the point of view of mankind and is often poetic rather than scientific. Thus, to create a doctrine from a literal interpretation of descriptive phenomenological language would be tenuous at best and irresponsible and heretical at worst!

Galileo advocates for the freedom of scientific inquiry, proceeding from reverence and honor of God, His Word, and His creation, rather than the censuring of such a practice out of fear.

To prohibit the whole science would be but to censure a hundred passages of Holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven.”

In other words, the Bible itself seems to affirm that the Heavens, too, are a truth-telling source of testimony to the glory of God. Thus, our observations of it must be combined with the scriptures to provided the most accurate and comprehensive description of our Creator available to us. Perhaps, then, the argument should be that neither science nor the Church, which is merely the corporate name of God’s people, should have final epistemological authority, but that the two should participate in concert, guided by the truth of the Word, in the effort to discern the truth of God and His creation.

Sadly, Galileo was never vindicated in his lifetime. Cardinal Barberini, who had initially encouraged him to produce the “Dialogue,” was later displeased by how Galileo’s work unfavorably characterized the church and too strongly advocated for heliocentrism. When Barberini became Pope Urban III, he called Galileo before the Inquisition to answer for charges of heresy, for which he was ultimately condemned and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It wasn’t until 1758 that the Vatican formally accepted the heliocentric scheme of the solar system and affirmed its agreement with scripture. Much later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote of his regret over how the Church handled the dispute, indicating that Galileo’s desire for the cooperation of science and scripture was indeed correct.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 17, 2006 at 3:11 pm

Science and Faith, Part 3 (What Are the Limits?)

leave a comment »

In my last post, I mentioned some specific scientific advances in an effort to illustrate the limits of the conclusions that can be made through scientific inquiry. The idea of the limits of science is one that merits a bit more discussion.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that macroevolution is somehow verified empirically. One could then safely conclude that man is the result of genetic change over the span of millions of years. However, many of the descriptive terms often used to describe the process of evolution would still not necessarily apply. The key issue is that of purpose. One often hears the mechanism of evolution described as ‘blind chance,’ or ‘random processes,’ yet we have no basis upon which to assume that it is, in fact, a purposeless phenomenon. It is in this case that the non-teleological assumption is imported, rather than legitimately inferred by the evidence. In other words, even the unlikely confirmation of evolution would not legitimately lead to the conclusion of atheism.

A simple example might help to illustrate this point: Suppose that you walked into your kitchen to find a kettle of water coming to a boil on the stove. You could rightly conclude that the water was boiling because it had been placed in a vessel which had been heated to the point that the water molecules are activated. However, without speaking to the person responsible, you would have no means of determining why the kettle had been placed on the stove in the first place. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that the kettle had been filled and heated by random and purposeless chance. (While I am not trying to make a strict analogy between the kettle scenario and evolution, as the properties of the kettle scenario are within the context of human decision making, I am suggesting that the conclusion regarding purpose is equally unmerited in both.)

Neither can the notion of the value of human life (not to mention the value of all life) be discussed in scientific terms. Value is a moral assessment that has little to do with empirical facts. Take, for example, the process of adoption. For any family considering or going through this process, the issue of cost will inevitably factor into the decision. Often, the process can cost well over $20,000. Yet, many would agree that suggesting that this new member of the family’s value could be accurately assessed in terms of a dollar amount is not only in poor taste, but quite incorrect. This is because value is not an empirical measurement, but a moral one. I would even dare to suggest that the entire concept of adoption is an adequate proof of the general agreement on the part of humanity that life is of high moral value. Otherwise, why would anyone desire to extend the family non-biologically, either for his or her own benefit or for the benefit of the parentless child?

Evolutionary scientists might argue that value should be a factor of cognitive function. Perhaps this is what causes scientists like Richard Dawkins, among others, to advocate for the extension of human rights upon primates. However, this seems wholly capricious for several reasons. First, on what basis is cognition evaluated? Though primate behavior appears quite similar (though primitively) to human behavior in many ways, many behaviors also indicative to high cognitive ability are found in other animals as well. For example, some species of birds exhibit sophisticated vocal ability (though I do concede that there may be more mimicry in this case than linguistic ability). Other animals, such as dolphins and pigs, are often extolled for their intelligence. But in all cases, the level of intelligence is often explained in terms of instinct and stimulus response, which provides the key to discerning between human and animal behavior.

For example, ant communities are quite complex and use communicative behavior far different from our own. A ‘scout’ will venture out for food, and will send a ‘radio’ signal out when it is found. The others will follow that signal (and the exact path of the ‘scout’) to retrieve the food. We humans require roads with rules, large colored signs, and even maps and directions to navigate. Yet, human behavior far surpasses the stimulus response of ants. Education is a prime example, as the educated become educators. One might spend years endeavoring to teach sophisticated behavior to a primate, yet I strongly suspect that expecting that primate to, in turn, teach others would be futile.

These issues do not lead to the scientific conclusion that humans have inherently more value than animals. However, they do confirm that pioneering for primate rights is scientifically arbitrary. Value is a non-scientific factor that can inform scientific investigation but cannot be determined by it.

Finally, if value and purpose cannot be scientifically determined, neither can behavior. To clarify, behavior can be observed scientifically, but to suggest how one aught to behave is another matter. Like it or not, mankind expects a certain kind of behavior of itself. I need only to point to the local courthouse or penitentiary to prove this point. Consider this: If a bird sets up shop and builds a nest in your garage, it would be absurd to haul the creature into court and charge it with trespassing. Clearly, the bird has no idea about such concepts and is merely following its instinct toward survival. However, if a human did the same thing (minus, perhaps, the nest), it would be another matter! This is because we believe in the rights and responsibilities of mankind. We may have the ‘golden rule,’ however I would challenge any scientist to produce convincing empirical data explaining the origin of it.

I actually believe that by delineating the limits of science, science is now free to proceed undeterred by extraneous considerations and will be more effective. Philosophy is suited to governing science such that it is calibrated to gather information successfully and without harm to society. Yet, clearly science has no ability to govern philosophy in the same way.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 27, 2006 at 10:04 am

Science and Faith, Part 2 (Are they Incompatible?)

leave a comment »

I have often encountered opinions of skeptics along the lines of 'one cannot be a Christian and maintain intellectual integrity.' Such an attitude seems to revel in intellectual 'class distinctions' and support the animosity that some skeptics have for believers. Fortunately, this idea is obviously false. One need only acknowledge the many scientists who confess belief in God to show that faith and science are not mutually exclusive.

But there is clearly more to the issue than this. I would argue that skeptics who hold the opinion that science makes faith irrational are not necessarily speaking on behalf of what is, but what should be. They are likely to argue that a proper understanding of science should lead to skepticism towards faith, though it does not for many, or that one should not believe anything that is not empirically proven (note that in my last post I discussed how science is founded upon ideas that themselves cannot be empirically proven). I suppose a logical deduction from this might be the implication that the faithful must not really understand science. Try telling that to the many distinguished PhD's in church on Sunday! In fact, surveys generally show that a person holding the degree of PhD is just as likely to believe in a personal God as the general population.

Perhaps the skeptic has allowed the conclusions of science to extend beyond their true capabilities. There is certainly no scientific conclusion that has proven in the affirmative that God does not nor cannot exist. To the contrary, our current scientific theories are quite limited in their metaphysical reach. For instance, the Big Bang theory lays out a possible sequence and timeline for the beginning of the universe, yet it does not provide an empirically verifiable conclusion regarding the catalyst of the ‘bang’ itself. Prior to this theory, many postulated that the universe has eternally existed. Though many philosophical objections were provided to refute the idea, the discovery of red shift by Edwin Hubble provided the empirical basis for understanding the universe as having begun at a point in the past. But the question remains, what do we make of the point prior to the Big Bang? Does it even make sense to call it a point in time (this is another article in and of itself!)? Clearly, the unknown elements here are vast enough to allow for many philosophical possibilities- God, not the least of which, included!

The theory of evolution is often cited as an empirically proven scientific basis for rejecting belief in God. However, I would argue that this theory has not even begun to approach warrant for such a conclusion. Rather than examining the much refuted holes in the theory, I simply want to point out that the naturalistic conclusion that some evolutionists make is not warranted by the facts themselves. To date, and assuming the theory is accurate (and I am not convinced that it is), we still have yet to discern the mechanism by which the process of evolution occurs. We have made a conclusion based upon observations around us, but we cannot adequately test those observations as they are contingent upon an almost inconceivably large timescale. Without the affirmation of testing, there is no reason to begin applying evolutionary conclusions. Let me make one point clear however: I am not advocating that a gap in knowledge should lead us to give up our search or capriciously insert God to account for the unknown. Where the real problem lies, I believe, is in that many have allowed the philosophical presupposition of naturalism to guide their interpretation of observations and prematurely close the case. Thus the conclusion is that evolution is a non-teleological (without purpose) process. This way, discovering the mechanism of evolution is no longer so crucial, because the purpose is already prescribed. But we have no basis upon which to build such an idea! It is a conclusion which has been imported philosophically, not factually.

For the many scientists who believe that faith should not even approach scientific thinking, I would make a simple challenge: If such a pronouncement is going to be made, it cannot be a street on which the skeptic has right of way. In other words, if scientists should not make conclusions which correlate with their theistic worldview, neither should scientists make conclusions based upon observations that correlate with their non-theistic worldview. This would certainly be a difficult rule to impose upon science in general, since the practice is meant to be used to answer questions that are not necessarily scientific.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 23, 2006 at 11:10 am

Science and Faith, Part 1 (Is Science the Only Way to Truth?)

with 6 comments

If you have been at all aware of the recent surge of controversy surrounding the concept of intelligent design in science, you've probably encountered the argument that such a concept should not be considered science at all, on the basis that it is itself unprovable by science. What that really means is that using the operative standard of the scientific method, the claim that the universe is far too complex to have formed from chance and random processes cannot be verified emprically.

The scientific method outlines what Isaac Newton believed to be the proper way to go about scientific research and investigation, and can be simplified in this way:

  1. Observation
  2. Hypothesis, or developing a possible explanation of observations
  3. Prediction, or reasoning the effect of the hypothesis
  4. Experimentation, or testing the observation, hypothesis, and predictions.

While many would affirm that this is the only valid method of scientific inquiry, the truth is that some of the core scientific ideas that serve as the foundation of much current science cannot be verified by the scientific method! For example, the Big Bang theory attempts to answer questions of the origin of the universe and suggests that the universe itself expanded from an initial singularity and infinitely dense state, before which was nothing. Yet, such a theory cannot be demonstrated by recreating the process in a laboratory; it is inferred on the basis of compelling observed evidence. I am not trying to imply here that the scientific method is not valid. Clearly it is a fair and logical process by which to operate, and should be used. What I would suggest is that it is not a primary means of establishing truth. In other words, truth is a concept too large and diverse to be limited by the scientific method. In fact, there are many truths that are not scientific in nature but are accepted and even serve as the basis of scientific investigation, yet cannot be proven empirically. Such truths range from the laws of logic to metaphysics.

Ethics are a particulary good example of this idea. Scientific empiricism is quite useful in determining the how things are, but is irrelevant to determining how things aught to be. Yet, at the core of scientific inquiry is the understanding that it aught to be carried out honestly. Recently, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of Korea has been publicly lambasted for fabricating research in the area of stem cell research and cloning. He publicly admitted to this, stating in his apology that his actions were a 'blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country,' and a 'criminal act in academia.' Clearly, honesty is a crucial element to scientific research, and without it the entire field would descend into meaninglessness. However, science cannot provide any data to lend credence to what is ethically appropriate in experimentation. This is a question of what is morally proper conduct for those involved in scientific inquiry and practice. If one were to deny that ethical truth even exists, then there cannot really be any problem with what Dr. Hwang has done.

The area of aesthetics provides another source of non-scientific truth. Our civilization has been overwhelmingly occupied with expressions of aesthetic value, with painting, sculpting, music, poetry, film, architecture, etc. Yet, without the notion of aesthetic truth, the entire field of art criticism would collapse. A skeptic might respond by saying, 'There is no aesthetic truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!' But disagreement does not invalidate the idea that there is aesthetic truth. In fact, that critics might disagree on the value of a particular painting requires that they have a standard of aesthetic value in mind. Even scientists invoke aesthetics when the describe equations as 'elegant' or 'beautiful,' some even suggesting that beauty is implicit in a good equation (see It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, by Graham Farmelo)!

Even our understanding of reality itself cannot be empirically proven. For example, how can I be certain that my entire perspective on what is real is true? How do I know that I am not just a brain being stimulated to make me think that I am writing this blog entry? I can't prove this empirically, yet I am not advocating that anyone take up this philosophy. What I am trying to point out is that there are truths that are properly basic, beliefs that cannot be proven on the basis of another belief but are rationally accepted.

Science itself cannot be verified or justified by the scientific method. Science operates on many assumptions, including the Copernican principle, which states that our place in the universe is not special or unique, or the uniformity of nature, which presumes that present conditions echo past conditions. These ideas cannot be empirically verified, but are assumed to be true and are the root of astronomical and geological study.

I am certainly not trying to reject any of these scientific ideas. Rather, I am trying to show that empiricism as the only method of deducing truth is unnecessarily restrictive, and philosophically incorrect. I often laugh when I hear of efforts to produce a 'theory of everthing,' yet even if we do someday have a comprehensive scientific understanding of things, that would be only one portion of how we understand reality. We would still need our moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical knowledge (among others) to complete the picture.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 21, 2006 at 5:26 am

Infinite Cause, Finite Effect

with 2 comments

In previous articles, I have referred to a relatively standard (at least in this setting) logical proof regarding the creation of the universe. The cosmological argument is:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The reason this proof is useful is that it logically shows the necessity of cause for our existence. However, this is where things get more difficult for the argument, and dry for the reader. Please bear with me, as a brief discussion of infinity is necessary before I examine one of the typical objections to this proof (Webster, incidentally, defines infinite as ‘extending indefinitely; immeasurably or inconceivably great or extensive,’ and infinity as ‘unlimited extent of time, space, or quantity’). An infinite regress of causes cannot be possible in this scenario, as we are in effort to explain the cause of space, matter, and time, all of which, from our vantage point of reality, are finite. Therefore the cause of such must transcend time by being eternal, space and matter by being immaterial. When the concept of infinity enters the discussion, we must differentiate between the quality and the quantity. The quality of infinity relates to the potential of infinity, or in a numeric sense, the potential of beginning at 0 and counting incrementally, never reaching a limit. Thus infinity is not a value, per se, but a means of describing a quality. The quantity of infinity is, therefore, an impossibility, as to be able to identify (or count) it would assume a closed set, which is contradictory to the concept itself.

Now, to apply this concept to our observational understanding of the universe is simple. The reason our universe must be finite in its origin, rather than ‘infinite’ in the scenarios of expanding and contracting universes or universes which give ‘birth’ or cause other universe, is because even these alternatives presuppose a catalyst. While they imply a potential infinite in the incremental sense (like beginning at 0 and counting upwards), they cannot account for the origin of the process- they are still mired in cause and effect. Infinite in a regressive and progressive sense would render the concept of cause and effect meaningless. Atheist Kai Neilson sums this up nicely: “Suppose you suddenly hear a loud bang…and you ask me, ‘What made that bang?’ and I reply, ‘Nothing, it just happened.’ You would not accept that. In fact, you would find my reply quite unintelligible (Kai Neilson, Reason and Practice).”

As I mentioned at the start, I would like to address one objection to the proof which I encounter most frequently. This is often stated, ‘Well, if the universe requires a cause, then what was the cause of God?’ The question itself misunderstands the first premise of the proof, which is ‘Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.’ As inferred by the necessary qualities of the cause, God did not begin to exist. Before objectors raise another concern, this is not a conveniently introduced ‘loophole’ for God. The claim that God is eternal and uncaused is no less valid than the same claim on behalf of the universe, yet this is not the only means of proving validity. The cause of time, space, and matter must transcend its creation, and must be personal. Otherwise, for the cause to be non-personal would require a prompt of some sort to which the effect responds. An illustration of a personal cause would be a scenario in which we answer our door after it has been knocked. The person who knocks freely chooses to do so. Both cause and effect cannot be eternally existent, otherwise the door would be infinitely knocked on at the same time as eternally being answered. The contradiction is clear. An impersonal cause of the universe would require a property of the as of yet uncreated universe to precede its existence, to which it would respond in its coming into existence. Thus, the cause of our universe must be personal and uncaused, otherwise, the willing of creation could not occur.

Reading C.S. Lewis tends to put things in perspective for me, as his wit not only aids him in explaining complex ideas, but also points out the extent to which we thinkers can overcomplicate things for the sake of our own debate. His take on this argument does just that as he writes, ‘An egg which came from no bird is no more natural than a bird which had existed from all eternity (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock).’

Written by Christopher Butler

November 2, 2005 at 5:18 am

The Inescapability of Purpose

with 2 comments

In early 2005, a group of MIT graduate students submitted a paper entitled, ‘Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,’ for peer review at a conference dealing with computer science. After its acceptance, the students gleefully announced the absurdity of the paper’s recognition as it had been randomly generated by a computer program designed to arrange ‘scholarly-sounding’ content in proper structure but without regard to actually making sense (you can generate one of your own at http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/). While this has been used to ridicule both the evaluation process of such scholarly work as well as to point out the robotic quality and low standards of much scholarly writing, it provides an excellent analogy to deriving meaning from life itself: Meaning on the ‘micro’ scale rationally implies meaning on the ‘macro’ scale. Clearly, something went wrong in the evaluation process, most likely due to the lack of integrity on the part of the evaluators themselves. But the point lies more in the shock we might feel upon hearing about this ‘prank.’ While the source of this paper merely arranged words, implicit in our outrage is the assumption that a paper receiving peer review aught to be meaningful, and its meaning should be tied to its source.Is this not very much like the outrage many feel in regards to the evolutionary conclusion that we are the meaningless product of time, chance and random processes? In one of his many defenses of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould stated, ‘The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so- roughly .0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time- and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan…We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves- from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way. (as quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God)’ Ironically, Gould made the case for the meaninglessness of human existence relative to the massively meaningful (at least to him, anyway) existence of life in general, yet claims that it must be we in our ‘wisdom’ that assign meaning to existence. What is the purpose of meaning if it is created by that which is meaningless? What can be value of meaning as Gould understands it if it is rooted in a temporal ‘blip’ on the evolutionary timeline? I use these two examples to show the illogical way in which meaning is discarded from answering questions of ultimate origins, but clung to when validating the purpose of individuals and ideas, or in other words, how many are willing to accept meaning on the ‘micro’ scale while jettisoning reason on the ‘macro’ scale.

I would argue that our notions of truth, thought, the mind, laws of logic, and meaning make no sense without the presupposition of the existence of God. If this is true, then, as Christian apologist and philosopher Greg Bahnsen was fond of saying, evolutionists and atheists are ‘borrowing from my worldview’ in their efforts to debunk it. For the moment, let’s go back to the evolutionary model as suggested by Gould. If we are materially reliant upon our observations in order to develop arguments for any worldview, atheism/evolutionary included, then we must adhere to the logical implications of our arguments. How do we argue for the meaningless of humanity using minds that were the process of random evolutionary processes? Philosopher William Lane Craig explains, ‘according to naturalism, our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth. Thus, we can have no confidence in the truth of their deliverances- including the conclusion that naturalism is true! (William Lane Craig, Response to Presuppositional Apologetics, Five Views on Apologetics)’ If we have no meaning due to the randomness from which we ‘evolved,’ then how can we be sure of our capabilities? How do we know that we are not operating with dysfunctional minds? After all, as frequently as a theist points to design in his teleological (Webster: exhibiting or relating to design or purpose especially in nature) argument for God, the atheist is quick to point out the so-called flawed elements or imperfections of our biology. Many a theist has pointed to the complexity of the human eye as an example of design in the universe- that intelligence must be the source of this design. Yet, here’s how evolutionist Kenneth Miller describes the eye: ‘An intelligent designer working with the components of this wiring would choose the orientation that produces the highest degree of visual quality. No one, for example, would suggest that the neural connectors should be placed in front of the photoreceptor cells- thus blocking the light from reaching them- rather than behind the retina. Incredibly, this is how the human retina is constructed. Visual quality is degraded because light scatters as it passes through several layers of cellular wiring before reaching the retina. Granted, this scattering has been minimized because of the design flaw. (Kenneth Miller, Life’s Grand Design)’ Clearly, Miller is missing the point of the teleological argument, which, by the way, does not argue for the perfection of biological design. There is not much question as to the imperfection of our physical bodies. Were they perfect, mortality, pain, growth, intake, output, and reproduction would all be meaningless, or at least experienced and discussed in a very different manner. Even the Biblical narrative assumes the imperfection of the body when it is declared by the Apostle Paul that those who believe in Christ will be resurrected to glory (Romans, ch8).

The purpose of the argument is to show that at the root of our construction is information- information that must have a source. In addition, and more importantly, Miller assumes that the flawed design of the eye is due to the physiological and structural inadequacies of our biology in general. How, then, does he avoid making the same conclusions about the brain, and the biological processes of it that aided in the formulation of his conclusion? If we affirm that our existence is merely the product of chance and random biological processes, and that our sense of unity and morality is merely a preferential attitude developed out of necessity for survival, then we have no means of defending our expressions as in any way meaningful. In this sense, an evolutionary scheme for our existence is much closer to the MIT students’ paper-generator than any teleological scheme (yet, ironically, the analogy won’t completely sustain as the creation of the random paper-generator was from the intelligence of the students, with a clear teleological base for debunking the scholarly standards in their field)! No matter how we come at it, intelligence and purpose are inescapable.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.