Tag Archives: science and religion

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.

New Atheism is Bad Science

Bad Science book coverScientism is pseudoscience.

If that seems obvious, I can only say that there are many who still need to be told. It continues to strike me as incredible that so many people, who claim to be committed to a tough-minded scientific approach, can become so enamored with the idea that this unsupported (and blatantly incoherent) philosophy is the true spirit of scientific thought.

But what is particularly shocking is how often this kind of pseudoscience is promoted by scientists themselves. Richard Dawkins is, of course, the most obvious example, but there are others.

Still, as professor of the public understanding of the sciences, it was (specifically) Dawkins job to clear up muddles like this–rather than exacerbate the problem. The fact that he spent his career arguing for ‘scientific thought’ that was completely unsupported by any kind of scientific evidence did not help.

If Dawkins had understood this, perhaps scientism wouldn’t be running quite so rampant in modern culture. It rears its (vacuous) head every time someone demands physical evidence for a logical principle–or insists that materialism is true on the grounds of (completely arbitrarily) declaring that magic is the only other option.

One of the more popular incarnations is the appeal to the history of science. “We’ve never found any evidence for the non-natural” or so the phrase goes. I suppose there are dozens of responses to that, but the pertinent one is that absence of evidence is only significant if someone has actually looked for evidence at some point.

And there simply has never been a scientific experiment that tested for transcendence. To claim otherwise, or to claim that science shows things without testing for them is at least pseudoscience, if not downright superstition.

Yet this is exactly the kind of thinking being promoted by people who loudly claim to be the true champions of science. An actual understanding of science would be more careful about logical distinctions, slower to extrapolate philosophical conclusions from small amounts of data, and in general have a better grasp of what questions science is relevant to answer.

We see none of this in the New Atheists, and I find it astonishing that they haven’t been asked for evidence for their claims far more often.

Theism is False Because There is No Explanation?

378890256_640I was delighted to see that, even though he argues against theism, Mackie is not impressed by appeals to the anthropic principle. He sees clearly that, while it is not surprising that we don’t observe a universe that couldn’t have supported life, it is surprising that we do observe a universe that did.

A fairly common analogy goes as follows:

If one were to face a firing squad of fifty crack marksmen at point blank range, and all of them missed, it isn’t good enough to say “If I’d been shot, I wouldn’t be here to wonder why they all missed, so I shouldn’t wonder about that question now”.

This is the reason why those pressing the anthropic argument so often appeal to a multiverse. Of course, it must immediately be noted that a presumption of materialism is the only reason to consider the multiverse more likely than any other explanation. Outside of the fine-tuning itself, there is no evidence for it.

As such, Mackie dismisses the multiverse as a serious challenge to theism; he sees that it concedes the theists key points. (For those interested in that issue, I’ve written about it in the past.) Unfortunately, his alternative is no better. He insists that, the further one goes backward in time, explaining causes, the less there is to explain. Thus, he argues, something like a divine mind is far too much to deal with the little that would be left by the time one reaches the beginning of the universe.

Of course, this idea that there is less to explain as one moves into the past is more controversial than Mackie seems to think. In discussions over it, I’ve not seen it well defended. And it is definitely born out of a lack of appreciation for the actual numbers regarding the fine tuning; to call them astronomical is a wild understatement.

He also relies on the much less interesting, and much more obviously false, “what caused God” objection to insist that we stop our inquiry before getting to God. But, unlike most uses of this argument, he acknowledges the common response: that God is self explanatory in a way that the universe is not.

Unfortunately, he simply dismisses the idea without actually addressing the arguments in its favor. He references to his past discussion of the idea, which (as has already been noted) relied on an argumentum ad ignoratium fallacy and a shifting of goal posts in order to make its case.

Macke then closes with something that borders on the completely weird.  That is, he suggests that the design argument requires a reason to think that matter is contingent.

As is always the case with Mackie, I’m not sure if he’s claiming that this is so, or merely throwing out a possibility. If the former, he needs to defend it; if the latter, he hasn’t actually rebutted the argument.

To be fair, he takes this idea from Kant and Hume. Still, that doesn’t make it a good argument. There are many clear reasons why matter is contingent–not the least of which is the origin of the universe that Mackie has just been discussing. Anything which is not contingent must necessarily exist eternally. The fact that matter has an origin precludes the possibility of it being non-contingent.

The most significant thing this shows, then, is how determined Mackie is to come up with reasons to dismiss theism. I don’t take back my earlier compliments of him–I do find him far more reasonable than most.

Still, if defending his materialism leads him to suggest that matter is logically necessary, and to constantly throw out possibilities that he does not defend, theism seems a far more plausible view.

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.