The Invisible Things

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Are Science and Faith Compatible?

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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

Bertrand Russell and the Castration of Knowledge

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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

The Postmodern Vacuum

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‘But the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909)

Chesterton’s quote, even decades ago, so accurately portrays the postmodern mind, forced to vacillate among disparate issues, non of which are capable of providing an adequate philosophical foundation yet many potent enough to fracture reason across the board and instill angst before essential questions can even be entertained. I might be appropriate to continue this section with a joke often invoked within a discussion such as this: What do you get when you cross a postmodernist with a used car salesman? You get an offer you can’t understand! Postmodernism is a word not easily defined, yet it is certainly a contemporary ‘buzzword’ used in many different contexts; invoked frequently in the speeches of politicians, the criticisms of works of art, the discussion of higher education, and even the cue cards of television talk show hosts. Its ambiguity of meaning allows for the ubiquity of its use, and perhaps the root of the confusion stems from postmodernism’s implicit rejection of absolutes. Postmodern theory suggests that knowledge itself is contingent upon circumstances such as time, place, and social status, through which the individual creates his own knowledge. In fact, in this framework, the concept that knowledge may arise or exist from outside the individual is inherently suspect!

According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by its ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ The late literary theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida concurred, and argued that knowledge could not maintain integrity without invoking an ‘original utterance,’ the logos. The idea that man would be given or have access to the ‘original utterance’ is thus called logocentrism. Critics of postmodern thought would rightly agree and point out that without being grounded in an objective standard, postmodernism can masquerade as philosophy without having to account for the logical disparities that so clearly exist when such a system attempts to be practically applied. The Christian, regardless of his philosophical or logical capabilities in argument, should be expectedly and unabashedly logocentric. The Word of God, as preserved in the Bible is the first and last word- the source of the metanarrative from which we presume objective morality, elitism of ideas, and the convictions of the individual. This is fundamental to Christian theology and has clear and logical implications upon forming a Christian worldview. As observed by a Wikipedia author, ‘Many of these critiques attack, specifically, the perceived "abandonment of objective truth" as being the crucial unacceptable feature of the post-modern condition.’ This is absolutely the case, for there can be no compatibility between a philosophy reliant upon the reality of objective truth and a philosophy that elevates agnosticism to its objective truth (essentially, to state that truth does not exist and defend such a statement as being true).

We have all encountered postmodernism in its popular form of relativism, an attitude reflected in a phrase at this point cliché: ‘Truth is relative.’ Yet it is such a pronouncement which pulls the carpet from underneath itself! If it is so, then that must include the statement itself, thereby invalidating it. If it is not so, then such a statement is meaningless in its inability to adequately reflect reality. One who claims that truth is relative speaks into an intellectual vacuum; he can neither generate worthwhile response, nor express anything truly meaningful. This is the bankruptcy of postmodern thought, and yet Alan Bloom, in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, affirms the state of things as he writes, ‘Every professor on a university campus today can be absolutely sure of one thing: that almost every student coming in for an education is confident that truth is not absolute but relative.’