Saturday, June 14, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  2 What is science? What is not science?

Notes from a Sunday School that began on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

2 What is science? What is not science?

The philosophy of science is a rich field and we have no time to dig into its complexities. Instead we will just scratch the surface. For our purposes what is important is that we understand the distinction between two naturalisms: philosophical and methodological. The former is not science, but both anti-theistic scientists and anti-science theists, in a case of strange bedfellows, will claim it as such. It is the second, methodological naturalism, that is properly called science.

2.1. Philosophical Naturalism: The cosmos is all there is.

Last year I started to watch the Truth Project27, a video series put out by Focus on the Family. This project presented a serious distortion, though whether it was by intent or through ignorance I cannot say.

What the Truth Project did was to present as their quintessential bogeyman scientist the late astronomer and television celebrity Carl Sagan. In particular, they took great advantage of Sagan’s famous quip:28
The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.
Additionally they presented another egregious example of philosophical/methodological conflation from Cornell biologist William Provine. This charming man (who also appears in Ben Stein’s Expelled) writes:29
Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.
The Truth Project could have found literally thousands of atheistic scientists, prominent and garden-variety, who—while they may agree that the cosmos is all there is—would have been careful to point out that what they were stating was an opinion, not a scientific fact.

Philosophical naturalism is not science. It is the philosophy that everything, ultimately, has a scientific explanation. It is, quite simply, the denial of the supernatural. But science per se does not and can not deny the supernatural. By definition the supernatural, if it exists, is outside the province of science. If it could be explained and addressed by science, it would be natural, not supernatural. The miracles of the Bible are inexplicable (by science) events—they are not parlor tricks.

Officially what science has to say about the supernatural is that it has nothing to say about the supernatural.

Richard Dawkins, perhaps in his role as this generation’s spokesman for atheism, is also guilty of perpetuating this error, no doubt with malice aforethought. A central theme of Dawkins’s The God Delusion is that the existence of God is a scientific question. His motivation is rather transparent: to declare the question resides in the domain of science, so he can then state that science effectively proves the negative. In fact, the existence of God when he interacts with the world, at certain times and in certain ways, would be scientifically observable. The miracles of Jesus could have been recorded had the technology been available. But in general God is operating in a supernatural realm, and that realm is not in the domain of science. Instead we “settle” for the beauty of the secondary causes—the laws of nature God established to have an ordered universe.

The Truth Project presented scientists like Sagan and Provine as if they were speaking on science rather than on philosophy. This provided them with simple, highly unsympathetic targets. In their way the creators of the Truth Project are guilty of fomenting anti-science attitudes among Christians.

2.2. Methodological Naturalism: Let’s operate as if the cosmos is all there is.

Science and the scientific method does not state that the cosmos is all there is. Instead it operates as if the cosmos is all there is. The qualifier “as if” is small but important. It means that science says nothing about the supernatural—it simply precedes along with no expectation that the supernatural will intrude in an experiment, nor will it’s invocation be required to explain a result.

The overwhelming majority of scientists would agree that science has nothing to say about the existence of God. That is, most scientists, of all stripes, would disagree with Sagan and Dawkins and the Truth Project, and support methodological naturalism.

Examples are easy to find. Even at the National Center for Science Education, which is leading the fight in the United States against Intelligent Design, takes that position, contra Sagan and Dawkins. Eugenie Scott, the NSCE director wrote:30
Religion may use natural explanations for worldly phenomena, but reserves the right to explain through divine intervention; science has no such option. Whether or not miracles occur, they cannot be part of a scientific explanation.
That is methodological naturalism, and it is quite different from philosophical naturalism, which states “miracles do not occur, period.”

Science is indeed godless—but only in the sense that it is agnostic. And it is agnostic in the same way that theology is agnostic. Scientists can do science whether or not they believe in God. And the same goes for theologians.

2.3. Show me the experiment!

Methodological naturalism is the time-tested approach to do doing science. There is, however, a practical side of science. Science must be testable. It must make unique, positive predictions. By positive, we mean that if theory B is proposed as a superior alternative to theory A, then theory B must do more than say “theory A cannot explain this data or that data.” Theory B must state: if you do this experiment we predict you will get this result—and if you don’t, well, then I guess we’re wrong.

This can be summarized by stating that a scientific theory must be falsifiable. In a definition that we will later use to our advantage, Wikipedia states:31
Falsifiability (or refutability or testability) is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, it means that it is capable of being criticized by observational reports. Falsifiability is an important concept in science and the philosophy of science.

Some philosophers and scientists, most notably Karl Popper, have asserted that a hypothesis, proposition or theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable.

Not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice. For example, "it will be raining here in one million years" is theoretically falsifiable, but not practically. On the other hand, a statement like "there exist parallel universes which cannot interact with our universe" is not falsifiable even in principle; there is no way to test whether such a universe does or does not exist.
One of the mistakes we will see that the Intelligent Design community makes is to couple their claim that evolution is wrong with an attendant claim that ID is a legitimate science. The latter is, at best, premature: Intelligent Design proposes no experiments that will confirm or refute an ID prediction.

27 See here for details.
28 Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).
29 See here for more details.
30 See here for more details.
31 See here for more details.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Bad e-Tactics, Bad e-Theology, Bad e-Witness. That's no way to go through e-life, son.

No, this time I'm not talking about the "Wedge Strategy." But it is another form of (in this case quite bad) evangelism by deception and misdirection.

Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian told me about this. (In person. Over breakfast.)

Enter any address ending in (note the missing 's') and you'll be taken to a John-Hagee-like pre-trib, pre-mill easy-beliefism (say this prayer and "really mean it" and you are saved) Christian site.

OK, I shouldn't be too hard on them, because I certainly don't know how to set up a site so that you are the destination for * (I tried and sure enough it worked.)

How did they do that?


From the Flattened Fauna Department

After all these tragic generations—well can one of you biologists explain something to me? Why do squirrels still run halfway across the street, change their puny minds when they see you barreling down the road, then turn about and return to the side from whence they came? And then, when safe, they inevitably second guess themselves and dart back onto the street just in time to get acquainted with your Goodyear radials. Why? Where is the selection pressure for decisiveness in the squirrel population, or for just a bit of "squirrely" common sense? Could it be that suicidal squirrel behavior (SSB) is the long-sought smoking gun of irreducible complexity?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  1.4 Christians v. Scientists, what’s the score?

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

1.4 Christians v. Scientists, what’s the score?

In this section we look at just a few of the conflicts between science and the Bible. Of course, we now understand that they actually represent disputes between scientists and theologians, or scientists and Christians..

i. Heliocentricity

This is, perhaps, the most famous example. Does the sun rotate about the earth, or the earth about the sun? By now virtually everyone agrees23 that the earth rotates about the sun, and the sun rotates in the Milky Way, etc. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish astronomer and contemporary of Martin Luther, is generally credited with firmly establishing this fact scientifically.

Copernicus’ sun-centered cosmology provided simplicity in explaining the sixteenth century’s database of astronomical observations. For example, the retrograde motion of Mars’ orbit, quite inexplicable in an earth centered system, is easily understood, at least qualitatively, in Copernicus's heliocentric system.

When the earth is on the opposite side of the sun from Mars, clearly Mars will appear to be moving to the “left.” When they are on the same side the earth, which moves faster (because it is closer to the sun) will out race Mars, which will then appear to mover to the “right,” as shown.

Responding to Copernican theory, Martin Luther is purported to have stated, presumably referring to Copernicus: 24
There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth [Joshua 10:10–15]
The important fact to remember here is the Bible never states the sun rotates about the earth. It only uses figures of speech, such as the “sun rose.” If the Bible did say the earth was the center of the universe, then we would have a real problem on our hands, but it doesn’t. The insistence from some theologians was based, in part, on the assumption that God would place the pinnacle of creation at the center of the universe, and was reinforced by casual observation. But assuming God would do what we would do if we were god makes for very bad theology. That bad assumption is the basis for both types of liberal theology. The classic liberal theologian assumes that God is as “nice” as he would be if he were god, so all the vengeance-is-mine baggage gets tossed overboard. And the liberal theologian of the right, the legalist, assumes that even though God didn’t inspire scripture prohibiting this or that, surely he intended to.

In fact as we’ll discus in more detail later, not only did God not put us at the center of the universe, God could not do it, because God created a universe with no center. To put us at the center of a universe that has no center would be a violation of the Law of Non-contradiction. Nothing, not even God, can be something and its opposite at the same time and same place and in the same relationship.

This would seem to be a clear victory for the scientists, although perhaps an “asterisk” is in order, given that Copernicus was a devout believer, who wrote: 25
After I had pondered at length this lack of certainty in traditional mathematics concerning the movements of the spheres of the world, I became increasingly annoyed that the philosophers, who in other respects made such a careful scrutiny of the smallest details of the world, had nothing better to offer to explain the workings of the machinery of the world which is after all built for us by the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.

Still, this one goes to the scientists: Scientists 1, Theologians 0.

ii. The start of the Universe.

In its opening verse, the Bible makes its most profound scientific claim:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)
Our universe, according to the writer of Genesis, began. There was a “time” when it wasn’t, followed by a time when it was.

In the early twentieth century the scientific consensus was quite different. The prevailing cosmology was the Steady State theory. This held that while the earth and stars had a beginning, the universe as a whole “always was, and always will be.” Endless recycling occurred, powered by a matter-producing engine maintaining a steady density. Here is a rare case of scientists, including such luminaries as Eddington, Hoyle, and Einstein, claiming something that could not be reconciled with the Bible, ever. An infinitely old universe had no causal event that could be attributed to God. An infinitely old universe renders God unnecessary.

The support for the theory was largely philosophical. A universe with a beginning had obvious theistic overtones. Something that begins is something that was caused. The famous British astronomer, Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) said, with admirable honesty regarding his priorities: 26
Philosophically the notion of a beginning of the present order is repugnant to me. I should like to find a genuine loophole. I simply do not believe the present order of things started off with a bang …the expanding Universe is preposterous… it leaves me cold… We [must] allow evolution an infinite time to get started.”
The “bang” of Eddington refers to is the Big Bang, the cosmology that supplanted the Steady State model and remains, though in a more sophisticated form, the prevailing theory. The Big Bang resulted from the painstaking observations provided by American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) that the universe is expanding. Run that tape backwards and the implication of a beginning is clear. We will have more to say about the Big Bang later, but for it serves our purpose that science, in a certain sense reluctantly, came around to accept what the Bible taught. The universe is of finite age.

Scientists 1, Theologians 1.

iii. Homosexuality: Nature or Nurture?

First, a little relevant history. Many Christians, across denominations, consider Augustine of Hippo (354-430) to be the greatest theologian of the first millennium. One of many lasting contributions, a formulation of Original Sin that we still affirm, came about innocently enough. Augustine had a prayer:
Grant what You command, and command what You desire.
Enter the monk Pelagius (ca. 354- ca. 420/440) a native of the British Isles, although whether he was Irish or English is not clear (Augustine calls him English, Jerome calls him Irish.) He is the first Briton to make a contribution to literature, writing a Latin commentary to the Pauline epistles.

Pelagius disputed Augustine’s famous prayer. He argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so.

Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches something quite different: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, moral inability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. And, apart from grace, we are doomed.

To put it as succinctly as possible:

  Pelagius: God would not punish us for how we are born.

Yes he would, each and every one of us, which is why we need a savior.

Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not absolutely required. At least in principle we can do without grace. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.

As we know, Augustine won the day. Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.

Now consider the following imaginary yet familiar debate:

  Non-Christian: Homosexuals are born that way. They don’t choose to be gay.

  Christian: No they aren’t. They make a moral choice.

What do you call the Christian? Well, in a certain way you call him a heretic. For his premise in holding fast to the position that homosexuals are not born that way is not just semi but full-blown Pelagian. This Christian, like Pelagius, is insisting that God would never give the moral responsibility without the moral ability to comply. In fact, both sides in this debate accept the erroneous premise that God wouldn’t punish us for how we are born. One side says: "But we are born that way, therefore God would not punish us." The other side says: "You are correct, God would not punish you if you were born that way, therefore you weren’t.

Everything I know about Augustine and Pelagius tells me that in the little debate above over homosexuality, on the point of whether it was a condition of birth, Augustine, the saint, would be sympathetic with the “non-Christian” position and Pelagius, the heretic, with the “Christian.”

The Augustinian response would be: Maybe you are born that way, but that’s no get-out-of-jail-free card. We all are born sinners.

Now in terms of science, the data are ambiguous. The best guess at the moment is that the answer is “both.” There is a predisposition toward homosexuality but that is not always the explanation. The point here is that the fact that some people being born gay fits naturally with Christian theology. Christians should not be Pelagian in this question.

The jury’s still out on this one. Let’s call it a tie:

Scientists 1, Theologians 1, and 1 draw.

23 But not truly everyone. Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis argues strongly in favor of geocentrism. See here for more details.
24 There is some uncertainty here. It is from Luther’s Table Talk, or transcriptions of dinner conversations. The quote was reported by a student named Anton Lauterbach, who copied down the conversation.
25 Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, 1543.
26 Eddington, The End of the World from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics, Nature, 127, p. 450, 1931.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  1.3 God is not a god of confusion

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

1.3 God is not a God of Confusion

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor. 14:33)
This section is really a summary and reiteration of the previous two. In those sections we discussed four topics:

  1. The Bible, which we are taking to be the perfect, inerrant, and inspired word of God.

  2. Creation, which we are taking to be God’s perfect handiwork—perfect in the sense that He made it exactly as he intended. Creation reflects the creator—it is not meant to be a deception. And, unlike virtually all other religions, as well as some enduring heresies, creation for the Christian is good, not bad. The material word is good, not bad. Our Lord had and has a physical body.

  3. Theology, which we saw was a demonstrably imperfect way to study what is perfect (the Bible.)

  4. Science, which is also a demonstrably imperfect way to study what is perfect (creation.)
We can say then that we understand the SAT-like analogy: 22
Bible:theology :: Creation:science
When we say “God is not a god of confusion,” we are stating that what is perfect cannot be in conflict. Perfection must be self-consistent. The Bible and creation may, for the most part, each speak to is own magisterium, but when they do overlap, no matter how much or little that occurs, there can be “No Final Conflict.” When apparent disagreement occurs, it is always, always to be understood as occurring between imperfect theologians (often of the armchair variety) and scientists (ditto.)

The recurring problem is that when inevitable disagreements arise on the right of this picture, Christians often state that science is disagreeing with the Bible rather than first asking whether it is just their theology that is under fire. Some scientists, interestingly enough, will agree with them, for it suits their philosophy to have their science in conflict with scripture.

At the risk over overkill, we make the same point one more time with a picture:

22 SAT “like” because, alas, these venerable constructs have been removed from the SAT.