Category Archives: Argument From Science

Science Versus Pop-Science

Multiverse_by_KaeltykIt surprises me how often science enters a debate, not as support of a particular scientific point, but to attack the idea that human perception is trustworthy. In defending his materialism, Alex Rosenberg makes frequent use of this technique:

The most startling evidence of how unreliable consciousness is comes from the phenomenon of “blindsight,” seeing things when you don’t have a conscious visual experience of them. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 149)

While there is definitely truth to the claim that science has found things which are surprising, it is very strange to think that science can contradict our basic perception of reality. After all, it is nothing more than a very careful, systematized set of conclusions drawn from our basic perceptions.

Rosenberg himself uses blind sight experiments in an attempt to argue that humans don’t know anything about what is going on in our consciousness. Not only is this conclusion very questionable at best (it far exceeds what is warranted by the data), but it undermines the experiment itself (not to mention the materialism that Rosenberg thinks he’s supporting). The study is good only insofar as one believes people are accurately reporting their inner lives. To take this as a reason to reject introspection altogether, as Rosenberg does, is to reject the data on which the study is based.

But I’ve already discussed the problems with rejecting belief in one’s own mind and consciousness. What interests me at the moment is the similarity between this argument and the emotional tone of nearly every science documentary I’ve ever seen.

We often forget that, while science is in the business of discovering facts about the physical universe, science documentaries are in the business of entertaining people. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, but the standard approach has long since become: the more this documentary can offend our basic perceptions, the better.

That makes for great entertainment, but not great science.

And, while I’m as entertained as the next guy, I’m beginning to take issue with the glib way modern people often dismiss our basic perception of reality because “science has refuted it”. This is a wild overstatement in itself, and even more suspect when applied only to the perceptions one happens to dislike. Science has found some very strange things indeed, but the day it finds that we can’t trust our basic experience of reality is the day it has contradicted itself.

As I’m convinced that good science does not contradict itself, I’m inclined to take these kinds of claims with a grain of salt. Rosenberg, on the other hand, is quick to leap to the same sorts of wild extrapolations that sensationalist documentaries like to make. But none of this, if one understands the difference between science and the sort of armchair metaphysics which often composes pop-science, is a reason to take him seriously.

I think it is evident that science is being used as a football to support the materialist position Rosenberg happens to favor. But I doubt that, without the prevalence of video editors and journalists who like to make big claims about science contradicting common sense, anyone would think his argument worth a second thought.

Science is Theistic

HandOfGodThe earliest proposers of the “laws” of science meant the term more literally than most today realize. Contemporary people, when we think about the issue at all, tend to think of them simply as the way that nature happens to behave (with no more explanation than that–no wonder Hume was baffled). The developers of science, however, literally considered these laws to be something like divine fiat–God telling the world how it was to behave.

This is one of several reasons why, until very recently in history, the success of science was taken to be a point in favor of theism, rather than opposed to it.

Materialists (like many theists, for reasons I’lll get to) tend to scoff at this idea of divine fiat. But the trouble with this (for materialists) is twofold:

First, that materialism offers no alternative explanation. The regularity of the universe is simply a brute fact, according to this view–”brute fact” here being, as in most instances, something of a euphemism for “magic”.

Second, and more significantly, this perspective is not required by theism. In fact, it is not the traditional view. Rather, many theists have long held that God created the universe with a particular nature, it’s contents having specific tendencies that, under similar conditions, will behave similarly.

But, if this explanation works, why can’t the non-theist simply borrow it from the theist, strip it of any reference to God or the non-physical, and use it as a materialist explanation? Because it is the reference to the non-physical in general, and God in particular, that make this explanation work.

To claim that the contents of the universe have specific tendencies is to embrace teleology (aka final causation). It is a rejection of David Hume’s critique of causation (so beloved of materialists), and is the key premise in one of the traditional arguments for God’s existence. We’ll get to this last at some point in the future.

Beyond that, it is simply another “brute fact” in the hands of the materialists, as opposed to being based on a necessary being, argued for on independent grounds, as the theist’s position would have it.

I tend to be suspicious of views that dismiss vast parts of perceived reality as illusory. It generally seems like an ad hoc way of ridding one’s self of anything for which the view in question cannot account. That is, it is the provence of inadequate views trying to maintain respectability.

The telltale sign, however, is the need to postulate brute facts. Contingent things (that is, things that logically could not have existed, but do) that apparently exist for no reason at all.

Anything that simply pops into our view of reality (such as the patterns of the universe, or even the universe itself), without any explanation, is a sign that we’ve dismissed the actual explanation as illusory.

All this is to say that the only explanation materialism, or naturalism, or empiricism, or positivism has advanced for the fact that science works is, essentially, the old Apple Jacks argument that “it just does”. The moment one suggests that a complete philosophy needs to take the fact that science works into account, these secular philosophies are in mortal danger.

Theism, on the other hand, lives quite comfortably with the idea that the universe has such regularities. All the talk of secular philosophies being, in some unspecified sense, the “scientific” ones is excellent PR. But the reality turns out to be quite the opposite.

Naturalism at the Cost of Reason

book_burnPhilosopher Alex Rosenberg, in defending his atheism, gives us a long list of very good reasons to reject it. We only need to think a bit on some of his statements:

The mistake, as Hume showed so powerfully, was to think that there is any more to reality than the laws of nature that science discovers. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. vi)

Ever since physics hit its stride with Newton, it has excluded purposes, goals, ends, or designs in nature. It firmly bans all explanations that are teleological (from the Greek telos, meaning “end” or “goal” or “purpose” that some process aims at or is good at achieving). (ibid, p. 40)

Putting these two thoughts together leads him to a set of blatant absurdities in his book, and it is hard to see how the modern atheist can avoid them. If one believes that the only things which exist are the kinds of things science studies, one must reject most everything one knows, as Rosenberg spends much time and ink explaining. By the end of the book, he’s concluded that any trust of history, personal perception, language, moral conviction, the principle of causation, or your own thoughts is irrational.

But, in spite of his claims, neither science nor Hume’s philosophy have remotely shown this. Hume, I think, would be shocked to read that line, as he himself didn’t take the position that he “showed so powerfully”. Rather we are being asked to believe that these things don’t exist simply because science “firmly bans” thinking about any alternative to its methods.

Personally, I find this astonishing. While it is scientific to stick to the subject when doing science, many atheists have come to take this stipulation as some sort of unquestionable decree that we reject all other subjects in all areas of life.

Some are even calling this position “the scientific mind”.

Lovers of science should definitely react to the idea that arbitrarily limiting one’s thought is being called “scientific”. But, really, all these atheists have done is point out the basis of naturalism: the idea that we should distrust or ignore any part of our minds that can reach conclusions not covered by science.

Their mistake is failing to see that this is absurd.

Rosenberg makes it makes it here, and it leads him to a host of strange and contradictory statements (which I’ll address in turn). In the end, he’s left rejecting any basis he might have had for trusting science in the first place. But, still, he perseveres–for he understands clearly that to reject the idea that the physical is all that exists is to reject the intellectual foundation of modern atheism.

The Naturalist’s Fairy Tale

don-quixoteBertrand Russell, like the New Atheists, supports much of his attack on Christianity with an almost total ignorance of the history of science:

In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts.

It seems that it can’t be pointed out often enough that science and theology are different subjects. At least, the New Atheists seem to have so much confidence in the idea that science is theology (and metaphysics) that they feel no need to give any reason for the strange conclusion that science answers questions about God’s existence.

But it’s not only theology of which such people are ignorant. Any real respect for history would at least acknowledge the facts of past as it actually occurred. Far from forcing itself onto Christianity, the earliest science was developed by Christians, and sponsored by the Church.

Almost no culture has believed that the universe would have regular patterns which could be observed by the kinds of experiments science uses as its stock and trade. The west is so saturated in science that we never think to question this fact, and, therefore, never notice that most of us can offer no reason why reality would be this way.

Naturalists, for instance, can give no explanation as to why the universe should have this surprising consistency. David Hume famously pointed out that belief in science, as far as the naturalist can see, is based on a logical fallacy.

It was Christians, and other monotheists, who invested the effort in developing modern science because they held the conviction that a rational creator would make an ordered universe.

For Russell to claim, four-hundred years after the fact, that the Christians who invented, supported, and sponsored science somehow have a less scientific worldview than those atheists who blindly trust this inexplicable Christian invention is simply astonishing.

None of this precludes the idea that naturalists can be great scientists; the tools of science can be used by anyone. But to say that the success of science somehow refutes the belief that predicted it would work strikes me as deeply irrational thinking.

Now That the Building is Here, We Don’t Need the Foundation

destroyed-beach-mansion-at-rodanthe-beachI think apologists should be grateful for atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, as he (inadvertently) lays out the flaws in modern atheism more clearly than any theist has managed.

[My position] is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.
– Rosenberg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 6)

We trust science as the only way to acquire knowledge. That is why we are so confident about atheism. – (ibid, p.20)

Rosenberg sees clearly what many secularists miss completely: that modern atheism stands or falls with the idea that science is the only source of knowledge. That is, that the kinds of things science studies are the only kinds of things that exist. Eager as he is to salvage modern atheism, he bites the bullet and declares that science alone can tell us anything about reality.

The most obvious problem with this is actually Rosenberg’s own discipline of philosophy. It has often been pointed out that this is an attempt to use philosophy to reject philosophy (making it self-contradictory). But, even more clearly problematic is the fact that science itself is not rational without the philosophical basis which supports it.

And this is something of a Catch 22 for him. To demand that science is the only source of knowledge is to undercut the entire enterprise of science. But, if he acknowledges the tools of philosophy as a valid path to knowledge, he is then obliged to answer the formidable philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

Rosenberg choses the former path, while completely ignoring the consequences named above. Still, he can’t manage to completely avoid the fact that he doesn’t have a reason (other than his atheism) for taking this position. He is reduced instead to demanding, rather caustically, that one is somehow hypocritical to trust the validity of both science and other fields of study.

Though he can’t support his conclusion , his passion is completely understandable. This position is both the rhetorical and intellectual core of contemporary atheism.

That it is unsupported, self-contradictory, and undercuts science, however, is devastating for this position.

Trust Past Records, but not if they’re of the Past


“Knowing human history will be useless for anything but telling diverting stories.”

“Physics’ long track record of success is the strongest argument for the exclusion of purpose or design from the account of reality.”

Did you spot the contradiction between these quotations? If so, it might surprise you to learn that they are taken from the same book: Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”.

He spends some time arguing that the history of science is the best reason to trust that it will, in the future, vindicate naturalism (the belief that only the physical is real).

He later spends an entire chapter explaining that history is useless because (he claims) it can’t help us make predictions about the future

Personally, I don’t accept Rosenberg’s apparent assumption that making predictions is the only purpose knowledge can serve. Still, his obsession with science and its ability to predict material events has led him to undercut his own trust of science.

This is a consistent problem with Rosenberg (as I’ll discuss in later posts). He’s much more willing than most atheists to face up to the strange conclusions that follow from naturalism. But he is completely unwilling to see the consequences for science itself.

In one sense, this makes “Atheist’s Guide to Reality” a very useful book for Christian apologists. For, by the final page, Rosenberg has unwittingly argued that modern atheism is both self-contradictory and opposed to science.

(Full disclosure: I’m aware of my own contradiction. I claimed earlier that I’d not be writing about Rosenberg. But I find that he raises too many significant points for me to simply ignore him.)

Why Russell was Wrong III: Along Came Science

Carina-Nebula-250x230After making the (false) insinuation that theism is based on intellectual laziness, Russell moves on to discuss the Natural Law argument from a scientific perspective, in spite of the fact that this is a category error:

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion.

Einstein’s contributions to physics are, to put it mildly, immense. What they are not, however, is an answer to the question of natural law. They do not explain why the universe, contrary to what most people expected, follows natural patterns. Rather, they describe one such pattern to a very high degree of accuracy.

Russell seems here to suffer from a misconception I mentioned in my previous post, which is to envision God as essentially a proto-scientific theory of the natural world which competes with modern scientific theories. Given this assumption, I’d completely agree that God is a silly proposal.

However, the abrahamic God has never been such a concept. The transcendent God proposed by western monotheism is not a scientific, but a metaphysical, claim. It is simply not a scientific hypothesis, and should not be treated as a competitor to General Relativity (or any other scientific theory).

The advance of science, therefore, is not a reason to reject the natural law argument. Rather, it is the success of science that is the primary support for the argument. As the original metaphysical grounding for modern science, God may well be the best explanation for why science works at all.

It was David Hume who, as a non-Christian, famously pointed out that modern people can offer no logical reason why science should work – even though it clearly does. The argument from Natural Law, then, is the position that Hume would have done well to look back to the original thing that made people think science would be worth investing their lives in (before it had proved itself): belief in a rational creator of the universe.

Russell then turns to the area of science which, on the surface, offers the strongest support for his position:

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance;

This really seems to simply have replaced “laws of science” with “laws of chance”. Not only is quantum mechanics much less random than this implies, but this is completely beside the point in any case. The natural law argument does not preclude the idea that natural laws are statistical averages based on the properties of fundamental particles.

It’s fairly easy to see, actually, that the fact that we get a particular average for rolling double-sixes out of a pair of dice is precisely due to the structure of the dice. What is not so easy to see is that all of nature must have had a structure that makes it either consistent or intelligible, which is what Russell should be trying to prove.

This mistake, one suspects, is due to a failure on Russell’s part to realize that he’s not arguing against the God Christian theists actually believe in. The “God” he refutes is, again, basically a physical theory – a law of nature that explains gravity in the way that General Relativity does – rather than a metaphysical explanation as to why nature is consistent enough to have laws in the first place. The God he dismisses is actually a contradiction the God of the abrahamic faiths.

The fact that it was western monotheists who developed science goes completely overlooked by his reasoning here. If God were simply an answer to avoid real inquiry, science would never have been developed by believers in God. The natural law argument, in one sense, simply points out the importance of God to the foundations of scientific thinking.

And this is one thing, among many, that bothers me about the New Atheist project. After centuries of development of natural science by monotheists, committed to the idea that God would have created an ordered universe, a group of atheists seize on science as if it had been their idea all along. Slogans declare that, somehow, the view that helped to inspire science is somehow less scientific than the view that did nothing of the sort.

None of this means that atheists cannot be great scientists, but it should be clear by now that, in attacking the infamous “God of the gaps”, Russell is refuting a god that isn’t anything like the God that thoughtful Christians actually believe in.

Nor is he addressing the challenge leveled by the argument from Natural Law and acknowledged by Hume: secular views of reality give us no reason to think that science should work, whereas monotheism does.

Why Russell was Wrong II: Natural Law

bigstockphoto_Theory_Of_Relativity1Given the unfamiliarity of the natural law argument to most modern people, and the length of Russell’s discussion of it, I’ll be breaking my response into a few parts.

Briefly, the Natural Law argument proposes God as an explanation for the fact that nature behaves according to regular patterns (as opposed to the essentially chaotic universe most everyone thought we were living in before the rise of monotheism).

It shows something of the change in culture that Russell feels the need to deal with this, while contemporary atheists do not. In fact, most of them seem to think that order in nature, traditionally and correctly understood as a point in favor of the monotheist, lends itself to arguments against God’s existence.
Russell states:

People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation.

The ease with which Russell, and many others, accuse theists of intellectual laziness has always astounded me. While there are many lay-people who tend to seize on a simple answer to complex questions, this is hardly limited to believers in God. Many atheists, for instance, insist that we should halt inquiry into the cause of the universe (simply acquiescing to ignorance) when considering the matter starts to point to God’s existence.

There are intellectually lazy, as well as thoughtful, people on both sides of the argument. To imply that one position is simply the result of laziness is completely out of touch with the facts.

As this keeps coming up, both in Russell’s statements and contemporary discussion, the point is worth some attention:

The Natural Law argument is, most emphatically, not the use of the phrase “God did it” to explain some gap in our current knowledge. Rather, it is attempting to explain why we can have scientific knowledge about the universe in the first place. It is not obvious that the universe should have particular patterns of phenomena, and a rational God is a good explanation as to why that might be.

As such, it is what we know about nature (how well science works) that is the basis of this argument, rather than anything that we do not know. Whether you are convinced by it or not, this is important to keep in mind as we consider Russell’s remaining objections to it.

This is even more important in our current cultural moment, in that so many of the opponents of theism understand God almost completely in terms of the “God of the gaps”, rather than the way God has traditionally been understood.