Category Archives: Science

Reconciling Our Minds

Kant, for those who don’t already know, is considered to be the original source of the modern separation between fact and value. He envisioned a clean break between that which can be known through the senses, and that which cannot.

This black and white view has been thoroughly absorbed by modern thought. Secular materialists have based their entire position on it, of course, but it seems no less prevalent among the romantics. They argue that the realm of meaning and value are purely matters of emotional and aesthetic experience.

As is probably obvious, I’m increasingly convinced that we need to reject the idea of a simple divide between fact and value. Empiricists have long pointed out that there is a great deal of practical biological consideration which goes into our concept of ethics. Romantics, in turn, have pointed out that a great deal of abstraction and interpretation goes into our science.

To me, it seems obvious that the attempts of one side of the fact/value split at dismissing the other have been failures. Rather than sit with the romantics, denying the importance of science, or with the materialists, denying the reality of moral fact, we need to question the idea of a clean divide altogether.

This would take us back to something like the notion of truth in the middle ages, in which neither the validity of the senses nor of moral and spiritual experience are singularly trusted. In that world, this would be a key part of the doctrine of the incarnation (that the bridge between the physical and the non-physical can be crossed).

This idea, so often contemptuously dismissed by modern people, is far more probable than the alternatives on offer. The longer I’ve examined it, the more inescapable it seems.


BioLogos

Richard Dawkins seems to have several roadblocks in his quest to rid the world of religion. While there are better-known issues, I think that perhaps the most persistent and important of them is the existence of Dr. Francis Collins.

Francis Collins is best known as the director of the Human Genome Project, and is now the NIH director. He is also a professing Christian, and a walking contradiction of much of the philosophy of the New Atheists. He is far too respected a scientist for Dawkins to indignantly ask him if he understands the elegance of evolutionary theory. The simple example of Collins has forced the New Atheist writers to qualify many of their statements about the supposed contradictions between faith and science.

But they could learn a great deal more from Collins if they’d care to look. Most particularly, anyone who is interested in the issue of the relationship between evolutionary theory and Christian theology should be aware of the BioLogos foundation. Here, Collins has gathered many experts in both science and theology to promote the idea that there is no contradiction to be found here.

Though there are religious groups who will be offended at the concept, the overwhelming majority of Christians worship in churches which agree with Collins. Atheists interested in supporting evolution, however, seem to stand to gain as much as any Christian from the efforts of this group.

That is to say, there is a clear body of respected Christian scholars explaining to Christians, in terms not offensive to them, why it is theologically acceptable and rationally sound to believe in evolution. If his project were simply about the promotion of science, this would be the best thing that ever happened to Richard Dawkins.

But it isn’t. Dawkins simply waves off Francis Collins as an exception and moves on. The fact is that, though Collins stands a far greater chance of actually persuading religious individuals to believe in evolution, his method would cost Dawkins his favorite banner to wave in the fight: the idea that one must choose between faith and science.

Shallow and prejudiced view of social reality

For this and other reasons, it is becoming increasingly clear that the promotion of science is not at all at the heart of the New Atheists’ attack on religion. Many of them seem willing to jettison science if it means an advance of secularism in our culture.

Therefore, it is also clear that, whether one is a theist or an atheist, the best way forward is not the conflict model of Dawkins, but the more peaceful approach of Collins.


Scientism

I’m beginning to think that scientism is not only the greatest threat to religious belief in our current society, it is also the greatest threat to our discovering any valid philosophy of life.

That is, we seem to be heading back into the late nineteenth century mentality that science will give us all truth about life.

This, of course, immediately brings to mind the reasons why such an attitude failed – as well as the fact that our current optimism seems no more prepared for those difficulties than its nineteenth-century counterpart. The limits of science, the brutality of human nature, and the uncertainty of perception have not changed. I’ve even seen a growing defense of eugenics, as if the issues of corruption and discrimination have somehow been solved.

Rather, it has been shocking to me how many people find themselves unable to seriously question the idea that all truth is physical – that any true statement can be measured by science. Of course, philosophers are quick to point out that this belief, itself, cannot be measured by science and that, consequently, it fails on its own terms.

What concerns me, however, is the speed with which many try to rescue scientism from this self-contradiction. I’ve encountered several methods, all of which are poor, but it is extremely rare that a proponent of scientism seems to genuinely question the idea. I consider this to be extremely dangerous:

“Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination?”

– E.A. Burtt

To simply believe the philosophy one absorbed from PBS documentaries and high-school science classes, rather than understanding the exact nature of the discipline of science, brings a sort of absolute certainty that allows all the judgment, ridicule, and tribalism we see in any fideism.

Rather than insist that the limitations we impose on reality are correct, or claim that the (often wild) extrapolations modern people make from science are automatically valid, let us be open to the idea that physical evidence is irrelevant to many of life’s biggest questions. Simply using the terminology of science does not make science applicable to the question.

As a professed lover of science, I’m offended that people can’t enjoy science for what it is – simply marveling at the insights it gives us – rather than feeling the need to eliminate all other forms of knowing. Is science not amazing enough until we declare our rejection of everything else? Certainly, science itself does not comment on other fields of study.

I find that, while I don’t need to believe in fairies to enjoy a garden, I can equally enjoy it without pausing to eschew all belief in anything which can’t be reduced to physical processes.


New Atheism and Democracy

Civil Rights MovementI’m not sure what to think about the comparison the “New Atheists” are making between themselves and the civil rights movements of the twentieth century. In general, I think back on the footage of peaceful blacks being horribly mistreated by police officers and wonder why we’d cheapen that movement by suggesting that it is anything like the bombastic and sanctimonious whining of the New Atheist writers in the face of – well, snippy words, perhaps, but nothing at all like what the blacks faced.

New Athiest ProtestI’ve already questioned the logic of complaints about the nature of elections in my last post, but, it seems to me, that there is nothing else for New Atheists to mention that might constitute legal discrimination. Surely, there are churches who are trying to remove all mention of Darwin from public schools, but if these ill-conceived campaigns are an affront to anything, it is science – not atheism.

ScientismOf course, many of the New Atheists seem to have trouble distinguishing between atheism and science. This, I do not hesitate to say, is as detrimental to promoting real science as anything the creationists have brought about.

If there is discrimination against atheists, by all means, let us oppose it. Let us not, however, get into hysterics over the religious right (about which I have my own objections) or insinuate that religion is somehow the cause of most of the world’s problems. Somehow, I doubt that the blacks who followed Dr. King, the Indians who followed Gandhi, the Christians who followed Bonhoeffer, or the Buddhists during China’s cultural revolution would agree.

Let us not simply paint the word “reason” on our flag. Let us use reason. Let us see that thought means rejecting Professor Dawkins’ claim that ridicule, jokes, and other emotional appeals are the best way to promote reason and science in culture. Let us realize that the greatest enemy of reason and peace in society is not religion, but blind tribalism. It seems to make no difference whether one calls one’s tribe “white”, “black”, “Christian”, “atheist”, or “Bright”.


The Paradigm of Faith and the “Scientific Mind”

DNA ModelScience is, of course, the banner of the current atheist movement. Richard Dawkins has referred to the “scientific mind” as a state of thinking superior to, and incompatible with, religious belief. While I believe that it is much further from the actual reasons for the movement than its purveyors claim, the relationship between the scientific and the religious has become a key topic for many.
Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists often demand that science has settled the matter of God’s existence. Contrast this with Gould’s claim that science and religion have nothing to do with one another, and we see that the point deserves some attention.

First, it is true that the supernatural is not addressed by science. The scientific method, by definition, can only test the empirical. This is why it is ridiculous to attempt to assess the quality of a friendship, or the beauty of a sunset through scientific experimentation. It is also why science cannot tell us whether a thing is good or evil.
This point seems to have been missed by some who, reacting against “God of the gaps” apologetics, point out that the gaps are steadily closing, and that science has replaced religious belief. Such atheists often assert that religion is humanity’s pre-scientific attempt at explaining the world, but is no longer necessary now that we have a better system.
This, of course, completely overlooks the concept of paradigms, and that religion was never meant to address the questions science studies. The fact that people don’t abandon faith after learning of science should make it obvious enough that want of scientific answers is not the reason for belief in God.
But, if this is a common counter-apologetic, theists are partly to blame. We spent quite a bit of time and energy arguing for God’s existence on scientific grounds, and, like it or not, have impressed upon many the idea that God’s existence is basically a scientific question. Looking back, we should have been more careful.

There is a kernel of truth in all this, however. That is, such objections to God recognize that there is a scientific element to religion in general and Christianity in particular. While it is entirely true that spiritual, metaphysical, and supernatural claims can never be tested with science, the Christian God is God, not only of the unseen, but of the seen as well. While, for the most part, this means simply that he is the master of science, and maintains scientific order in the universe, it also significant that there are claims about the physical world made in the Bible. (The universe had an origin, for instance.) These are scientific claims, and should be treated as such.

Sir Issac NewtonOne of the many bold claims of Christianity, however, relates directly to science (though it is not properly scientific). It is the claim that science will work.
For most of us in the modern world, science is so “obvious” that we can hardly believe that it was not conceived of earlier. In truth, science is based on a number of philosophical assumptions that were anything but agreed upon outside of western monotheism.
Put simply, the early scientists believed in science because they made the absolutely radical claim that the world was rationally intelligible. They made this claim because they believed in a rational God.
In a sense, then, the success of science is a confirmation of monotheism. No other pre-scientific system of thought expected that science should work. While this does not prevent Buddhists, pagans, or atheists from becoming brilliant scientists, it does seem to establish that science and Christianity live quite peacefully with one another.

Of course, there are those who accept that there is no conflict between belief in God and what Richard Dawkins has called “the scientific mind”, but instead claim that specific findings of science contradict the tenets of Christianity. As an avid reader of both science and theology, I’ve seen no such thing, but will have to defer the matter to another post.


Free Will and Biology

I’ve heard it suggested, with what appears to be increasing frequency that there is no such thing as free will. That is, evolutionary biology can account for every impulse within the human mind. However much we may think we make our own choices, so the claim goes, we are merely doing that which our genes have programmed us to do; we exist merely to propagate them.

There are at least three reasons why this position is both false and harmful to our society.

Most obviously, it is not science. Rather, it is materialistic philosophy masquerading as science. Even the freshman biology student can see that no experiment can test between “we exist for our genes” and “our genes exist for us”. And, as Francis Bacon first pointed out, scientific theories need to be falsifiable.

Wrong though it is, this wouldn’t concern me were it not for the natural consequences of deciding that one’s personal position is scientific fact. It is conducive neither to empathy nor curiosity.

Second is the speed with which human beings are reduced, in this line of reasoning, to pure chemistry. While I believe, fervently, that one need not believe in the soul to be kind to others, this seems to go beyond the pale. The particular type of materialism that reduces not only the basic state of humanity, but even our thoughts and will, to puppets of blind forces is unnerving at best.

Not only does this devalue everything we say or do, but it seems a universal excuse ready for the taking. I doubt that many of the proponents of this idea have considered the degree to which it opens the door for claiming “I was only following my drives”, and of the danger that entails. I believe thoroughly in moral responsibility, and cannot abide a philosophy which denies it.

At the very least, this strips our choices of all meaning.

Last, but most difficult to communicate, is the very concept of “free will” being supposed here. Perhaps it is only natural that a society that tends to view freedom as liberation from anything which restrains us would end here, at last realizing that our impulses, too, are a kind of restraint – in that they press us to behave in particular ways.

But, as any musician, athlete, or craftsman can tell you, there is a greater freedom that comes from submitting to training and practice. Freedom, in this sense, is not liberation, but something more like growth. Certainly, this holds true in the spiritual as well. The will is most free, not when it embraces genetically programmed instincts, but when it strives after something higher than pleasure.

And that seems to be an essential element of freedom: the ability to sacrifice. The ability to put aside the immediate, submitting our desires to the long-term, even the eternal, untangles the knots in one’s heart. There is joy in such moments: becoming that which one was created to be.

That is a joy, and a purpose, that only a will freed from its base impulses can achieve.


Environmentalism

I listened to a talk by an expert in extinction today. His job is to understand the process of extinction in order to prevent it when possible. Needless to say, he was an interesting guy who offered some good advice for taking care of the planet.
Mostly, I was struck by how much of it involved things that are good for humans. Things like living as near to your job as possible, eating less meat and processed foods, not overspending in general… These are all things that make us happier and healthier.
I’m aware that an issue this broad is anything but simple. Still, I often wonder if we create controversies where they need not exist. we argue a great deal about the exact causes of climate change when it seems that we should be doing all the things environmental scientists are suggesting anyway.
I know I’ve used intellectuallizing about issues as an excuse to not actually do anything about them, but want to be better in that area. So, I’m not going to post my thoughts on the controversy. It’s dinner time, so I’m going to go out and find something with lots of locally grown produce to eat.


Science versus Religion?

 

Having heard a lot about the apparent contradiction between a scientific and a religious way of thinking, I couldn’t help but post something that I think should be better known about the history of science.

The contribution the Greeks made to science (most notably, Aristotle) is tremendous, but it is interesting to note that they didn’t actually invent science. One of the reasons for this is that the grecian religion – with its belief in many capricious gods – considered the universe to be basically unpredictable. In fact, most pre-scientific worldviews (understanibly) considered the world to be a chaotic place.

One of the reasons why science was invented in Europe (which was less advanced than many other empires) was the Christian understanding of the universe. Basically, a non-pantheistic concept of the divine, combined with a rational creater resulted in a view of nature that it was ordered by rational principle, rather than having its own unpredicable whims.

This is all to say that the Christian religion predicted that science would be successful in contrast to the majority of other pre-scientific worldviews. This was a major reason why (in contrast to stereotypes) the Catholic church sponsered scientific research from very early on. The success of science, then, is an affirmation of that prediction.

This doesn’t prove Christainity, of course. Nor does it mean that one must be Christian in order to be a brilliant scientist. It does show, however, that scientific thought rests quite nicely within a Christian paradigm.

Therefore, I’d encourage any of you who are Christian to embrace science as a natural part of the Christian worldview – rather than getting pulled in (as some have) by the temptation to undermine science in the name of piety. The natural world is full of beautiful things – and we ought to deepen our appreciation of creation by deepening our understanding of it.

 

There were a few tangents I had to resist in there, but this seems long enough. I’ll have to do a follow up next time.