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

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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

The Inescapability of Purpose

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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.