Category Archives: Argument From Science

Queen of the Sciences

vasili-belyaev-sofia-the-holy-wisdom-of-god-spasa-na-krovi-st-petersburg-rf-undated-1890s-640x336Anyone interested in the relationship between science and theology should find this passage by atheist Paul Davies interesting:

The orthodox view of the nature of the laws of physics contains a long list of tacitly assumed properties.  The laws are regarded, for example, as immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe, and were imprinted on it at the moment of its birth from “outside,” like a maker’s mark, and have remained unchanging ever since… In addition, it is assumed that the physical world is affected by the laws, but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe… It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism, which asserts that a rational being designed the universe according to a set of perfect laws.  And the asymmetry between immutable laws and contingent states mirrors the asymmetry between God and nature: the universe depends utterly on God for its existence, whereas God’s existence does not depend on the universe…

Clearly, then, the orthodox concept of laws of physics derives directly from theology.  It is remarkable that this view has remained largely unchallenged after 300 years of secular science.  Indeed, the “theological model” of the laws of physics is so ingrained in scientific thinking that it is taken for granted.  The hidden assumptions behind the concept of physical laws, and their theological provenance, are simply ignored by almost all except historians of science and theologians.  From the scientific standpoint, however, this uncritical acceptance of the theological model of laws leaves a lot to be desired… 

-Paul Davies, Universe from Bit

This is simply an extension of Hume’s problem of induction. All of science, if one is secular, seems to be a massive logical fallacy that works for no reason at all. It is only theists who have offered an explanation for its working (more than one actually—some are much more sophisticated than the version Davies names here).

One can always debate theism as an explanation. But it makes no sense at all to declare, without giving a secular response to this problem, that atheism is somehow the “scientific” way of thinking. Rather, modern science was invented by theists, for theological reasons, and was only later crowbarred into an atheism that has no concept at all as to why this strange, and acutely theistic, method of inquiry works.

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Co-opting Science Shows a Lack of Respect

fiery_preacherThere are few people who disrespect science more consistently, or more flagrantly, than the fans of Richard Dawkins.

A real respect for science, in my view, includes a respect for understanding clearly what science does in general, and what a given experiment  shows in particular.

It makes me uncomfortable to sit in a church and listen to a preacher carelessly speak for God–simply assuming that the divine backs his particular social view without bothering to give a reason.

I have a similar reaction to those who claim to speak for science, insisting that it has shown things that it simply has not. Generally, this involves claims that science has never actually tested, and takes no position on.

As a lover of science, I find this disrespectful.

More often than not, it isn’t even a specific study that is being referenced. Rather, there is simply a vague wave in the direction of “science has shown” or “this is a scientific way of thinking”. It never seems to occur to people that science hasn’t “shown” anything that wasn’t demonstrated experimentally,  and not having tested a thing definitely means that there is no experimental demonstration.

This is typically how co-opting science for one’s purposes starts. When pressed, however, it begins to take a more targeted form: deeply distorting what a particular experiment concluded (or was even testing in the first place).

And sloppiness about what is being tested in an experiment, and, consequently, the wild extrapolations made by the New Atheists, are deeply out of touch with the scientific method.

They are also insulting to real science.

Science is powerful precisely because it is careful not to claim more than it has found. The New Atheists can be heard extolling this virtue all across the internet–yet the attempts to make science claim more than it does are every bit as common.

From glibly asserting that Libet’s experiments disprove free will (though Libet himself pointed out how careful examination of his experiments shows no such thing), to the general claim that God’s existence is somehow a scientific question (that has been tested experimentally) isn’t simply an affront to theology, philosophy, logic, and reason. It is also an affront to science.

By all means, let us enjoy the technologies science provides. And let us not forget to appreciate the hard work and brilliance of those who advance scientific knowledge.

But the fact remains that tacking on glib, untested internet memes as if they should enjoy the respect that real science has earned is worse than non-scientific. It rightly offends those who respect genuine science.

 


Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter

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“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.


Materialism vs. Science

science-vs-pseudoscience_box-300x125“Now they [DNA molecules] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

– Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

“Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.”

– Denis Noble (in response to The Selfish Gene)

The point Noble was making, and one which even so staunch a materialist as Dawkins was willing to concede, is that there is no scientific test to decide between these two views. These both speak to the facts as they stand, and no amount of extra empirical data could alter this situation.

Unfortunately, Dawkins seems to have missed the larger point here.

That is, this shows that there are at least some (and probably a great many) questions that are about subjects other than science. Like many (but by no means all) scientists, Dawkins tends to assume that only those methods he’s personally comfortable with and trained in is the only means of getting at truth.

He seems to have no idea that this assumption is, itself, a philosophical (rather than scientific) position.

This is the basic contradiction of scientism: that it is, itself, not established by science. But there is another point to be made here. One that is, in my view, much deeper and more significant.

For those that know a bit about metaphysics, Noble’s description of genes is vaguely aristotelian, whereas Dawkins’ is basically cartesian. This is significant in that it illustrates, contrary to popular opinion, why talk of aristotelian teleology isn’t answered by appeals to science. Science simply has no way of testing whether or not teleology exists in a particular system.

That is, whether or not a thing in the universe “points toward” something else (say, a match pointing to the creation of fire or a day-dream pointing toward Paris) is basically ignored when doing science. It has never been genuinely ruled out as a possibility.

But I say “basically ignored” rather than simply “ignored” because science (at least as it has been practiced in the last four centuries) tends to presume teleology in the same way that it presumes math and logic.

That is, as David Hume pointed out, the modern materialist has no basis whatsoever for believing that science works. Inductive reasoning is, to such a person, simply a kind of magic that has created all the wonders of the modern world.

Induction, and therefore science, assumes that there are patterns to reality: that like situations will produce like results. This is perfectly explicable in terms of teleology: all things have particular effects that they “point toward”.

The idea that science opposes teleology (and the rejection of materialism it implies) is more an accident of history than anything like a rational argument. Like so many things, it enjoys credibility by a vague association to the mythos of science without actually having been supported by evidence.

And when people begin to assert that teleological systems (such as our minds and wills) can be explained away by science, the fact that scientism is being confused for science becomes all the more obvious. Dawkins is simply a relatively recent example of those who have fallen into this trap.

What is less obvious is that this would be science “explaining away” its own foundations. And, for this reason, real science will never do this. Science is, and always has been, anti-materialist.


Theology and Science Aren’t Rivals (In Other News: the Sky is Blue, Water Wet)

touchingthevoid4601Continuing on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the thorny and emotional issue of arguments from design.

Mackie himself opens with Hume’s Dialogues, which contain several lines of argument (nicely summarized by Mackie). The first to be discussed is Hume’s idea that the entire universe cannot be said to be designed, because we cannot check that hypothesis with additional information (as we’ve included the whole of our information in it).

Because he tends to be very fair-minded, Mackie criticizes this argument in that it a scientific hypothesis or theory often goes beyond the available information–and is not useless for that (indeed, many have been put to amazing use). Still, he agrees with the basic formulation on the grounds that “the theistic hypothesis” does not explain why we observe the specific phenomena that we do.

Of course, the main thing to be said here is that it is simply wrong-headed to speak of “the theistic hypothesis” at all. Not only does this assume that there is only one form of theism (a falsehood that atheists are keen to reject in other contexts), but it is simply wrong to say that theism is a hypothesis in the first place.

Those beholden to materialism are constantly in danger of treating every topic as if it were science (save, it seems, when it is their personal views we happen to be discussing). No one dismisses a literary theory, a moral code, or a proposed law on the grounds that it is not a scientific hypothesis–that the results can’t be mathematically modeled or make predictions about the particular phenomena of stories, morals, or laws.

This is because these things are not science. More specifically, it is because they deal with free agents (writers, lawmakers, and so forth), and it is impossible to give a deterministic proof regarding the acts of such agents.

But this is what Mackie is demanding of theism. And it is to grossly misapply standards.

I’m coming to agree with those who maintain that there is a current tendency in philosophers to be consistently over-impressed by Hume. I enjoy his works, and he was clearly brilliant–but his arguments against theism were mostly directed at the easiest targets.

To insist that they had much, if anything, to say about all forms of theism is to deeply misunderstand what theism actually is.


Nagel’s Knowledge vs. Dawkins’ Ignorance

UnknownIn my opinion, more than enough has been said to show that the New Atheists, when it comes to most of the topics they like to discuss, have no idea what they are talking about. They essentially state this themselves–in that Dawkins, Krauss, and Co. admit ignorance of both philosophy and theology.

It, therefore, makes no sense at all for anyone to listen to them as if they knew what they were talking about.

That said, what is the situation for those that actually do know what they are talking about? Where is the debate over things like theism and materialism among professional philosophers?

The short answer is: heading back toward theism.

For the long answer, I want to get into the recent controversy surrounding the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Nagel is one of the most well-respected philosophers in the english-speaking world. He is a professor at NYU, and a brilliant man without (so far as I can tell) so much as a hint of arrogance. He is also an avowed atheist.

And he has attacked the materialistic view so beloved of the New Atheists.

His most recent book “Mind and Cosmos” purports to show us “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. To anyone who agrees that what most believe today is largely based on what university professors were teaching their students yesteryear, this is a very important book.

As such, it’s worth it to spend a few posts on him, and the best place to start is by dealing with the straw man that keeps being put up in place of Nagel’s argument.

That is, many people think that they can refute Nagel simply by throwing out the standard evidence in favor of evolution. But the argument isn’t with evolution as a scientific theory–it is with the idea that a purely physical theory (like evolution) can ever explain the whole of life.

Judging from how many people have accused Nagel of ignorance about evolution, this can’t be stressed enough: He isn’t arguing that current evolutionary theory can’t explain this or that feature of living organisms, and is therefore false. If that were his argument, it would make sense to give the classic “scientists are working on it” response.

But it doesn’t make sense here. The argument is about what science can, even in principle, ever discover. Nagel has offered good reasons to think that science can’t possibly explain things like consciousness–unless we make some fairly serious adjustments to the scientific method.

That is, we would have to remove the “methodological naturalism” stipulation that is the basis of most vague assertions that science (in some unspecified way) backs materialism.

Without this move, so argues Nagel, science pursued for all eternity could never explain consciousness anymore than painting something red for all eternity could ever make it green. Science, as it currently exists, is simply not the correct method for explaining certain things (such as consciousness).

What is his argument? What are the consequences for theism? For materialism? And what has been the response?

I’ll address these questions in future posts. But, for now, it needs to be made clear what the answer is not: the unreflective and ignorant materialism of people like Dawkins and Krauss.


Philosophy or Calvinball?

calvinballIt’s the job of the neurosciences to explain how the brain works without purposes.

– Alex Rosenburg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 206

As a passionate materialist-atheist, who lovingly quotes Christopher Hitchens, Rosenberg seems to think that the above sentence is a point in his favor. He is completely right to say, as he does, that neuroscience (like all the sciences) simply set aside purposes from the get-go. What he fails to see, however, is that this undermines his reasons for embracing atheism.

That is, he cites science as the source of his atheism. He argues that it has shown theism to be false, but directly states (in both the quoted line and other places) that science’s job isn’t addressing the question of God–or anything else that involves purposes. Rather, it simply ignores the question in order to focus on material and immediate causation.

That makes science the best tool ever conceived for understanding the patterns of the physical world. What it doesn’t make it is an answer to the question of purposes.

And it isn’t only God; it is any purpose. The reason Rosenberg brings up the point here is to argue that there is no such thing as purpose in the human mind. According to him, we don’t plan for things, we don’t think about things, and we don’t want things. This is because science doesn’t study purpose in the mind or anywhere else and (as far as Rosenberg is concerned) there is nothing other than what science studies.

Rosenberg insists that these are unavoidable conclusions which follow from science. But, for those of us who think it nonsense to say that people don’t actually think, the response is perfectly obvious. This doesn’t follow from science; it follows from the completely arbitrary demand that there is nothing more to reality than that which science studies.

So long as one is open-minded on the subject, it is obvious that neuroscience’s project of describing the brain without purpose, however amazing and useful, does not remotely show that there is no such thing as purpose or intentions in the human mind. In fact, the overwhelming majority of neuroscientific studies depend on trusting test subjects to be accurately reporting on the intentions, purposes, experiences, and desires they feel. If one thinks that neuroscience has (or will) do away with purposes in the mind, then one thinks that it is a self-destructive field of study.

And this is the final problem with all the appeals to science made in support of materialism. Not only do they simply assume that science covers all of reality (which is exactly what the materialist should be trying to prove), but they ultimately contradict science itself.

Simply put, science only functions if there are parts of reality other than the scientific. Claiming that non-scientific forms of inquiry should be rejected is simply a case of cutting off the branch science is sitting on.

And this is the basis of modern atheism.