Science and its limits

September 21, 2013 § 1 Comment

This is the first post in a series on the topic of the “intersection of science and God” based on a great book by John Lennox entitled “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?“.

If you’ve ever read some of my previous blog posts, you know that I enjoy the topic of the intersection of science and God. Recently, I just chugged through a great book by John Lennox.  While there are a lot of things I find extremely material to the dialogue on this topic, here were the quick hits for me:

  • Science, by definition, has certain limits.
  • The origin of life is more complex than is taught in high school science books.
  • Information doesn’t just “come to exist” on its own…it’s brought about by intelligent agents.

For now, let’s dig into the first topic of the limits of science.

Science, by definition, has certain limits.

Right out of the gates, Lennox observes that “best in class” scientists can be found in both atheistic as well as theistic camps. He maintains that it is, therefore, too simplistic to assume that science and faith in God are at odds and it’s worthy of our continued exploration.

With this initial observation begging us on, he discusses the definition of science. He begins with the definition of Michael Ruse that science is something that “deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law”. He  notes that this type of definition allows us to distinguish between the topics of astronomy and astrology, as an example, but it fails to include other categories we commonly call “scientific” such as cosmology or forensics. There is another way of looking at things in a scientific way, he concludes, and that is through abduction; or inferences to the best explanation. And here’s the kicker. While the domain of science is rightfully focused on the study of “natural” things (what else could it be?), it doesn’t necessarily follow that natural causes to events we observe must be the only causes postulated.

Covering off on one of the usual suspects of the conflict between science and faith in God – evolution – Lennox does a good job of distilling the key points and logic behind the argument. The first point is that people usually put the concept of God and that of the theory of biological evolution in the same category of explanation. This, to Lennox, is incorrect and committing a category mistake because the theory of evolution belongs in the category of “explanatory mechanisms” and God belongs in the category (among others) of that of “mechanism creator”. Essentially then, a methodology with limited scope based on observation (evolution) is being used to create an absolute metaphysical position (“this is how life began“). He also notes that there is often strong philosophical pressure being placed on scientists to conform to naturalistic paradigms and this pressure doesn’t allow the assumed rigorous and self-critical analysis to be performed of theories that should be better pressure tested. Here was one of my favorite quotes that sums up the point well:

“Well, as common sense would suggest, the Darwinian theory is correct in the small, but not in the large. Rabbits com from other slightly different rabbits, not from either [primeval] soup or potatoes. Where they come from in the first place is a problem yet to be solved, like much else of a cosmic scale.” – Sir Fred Hoyle

Lennox also makes a great point that “scientists who appear to be at war with God [are] not quite the same thing as science itself being at war with God”. His point is that the current prestige of science as a category of knowledge gives scientists a “bully pulpit” to make statements that are taken with greater weight by the general public than they often should. In reality, such statements (such as “the origin of life can be naturally described by evolutionary processes alone”) are personal belief statements, and not statements of fact.

Ever heard of Aunt Matilda’s cake? It’s a good analogy that Lennox uses to describe how science works and illustrates its limitations. Suppose that your Aunt Matilda baked you a cake and you brought in scientists to explore and define the material composition of the cake; the fundamental particles, the nutritional effect from the composition of all those eggs, flour and sugar, the structure of the proteins, etc. What you would have is an explanation of how the cake was made and how pieces relate to each other. But what if you wanted to know why it was made? Aunt Matilda knows the answer – it was made for her nephew Jimmy’s birthday – but science can only explain how it was made.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Sir Peter Medawar regarding the limits of science, as he seems to hit the key insight.

‘The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; “What is the point of living?”‘

Are those questions not worth asking? Do they not have answers? Despite the opinion of some scientists, I think they do. Plus, for those scientists that say those questions aren’t worth asking, I ask them to scientifically prove it. So there.

But just suppose you had no nose.

April 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a father with a young toddler at home, I’m quite fond of the philosophy of Dr. Seuss.  While paging through “The Nose Book” with my daughter, I was struck by the end of the book where Dr. Seuss leads his readers to imagine a world in which they have no nose.  As he states:

SeussNose

Just suppose you had no nose...

“Just suppose you had no nose! Then you could never smell a rose…or pie, or chicken a la king. You’d never smell a single thing.”

This got me thinking about a conversation I had recently with one of my atheist friends.  He told me in a very matter-of-fact way that he’s certain that he has absolute truth – and evolution is it.  Now, I’ll grant that evolution to a certain degree seems very factual to me when it’s narrowly defined as “descent with modification”.  I’m not as eager to grant the proclaimed “fact” of common ancestry and I’m quite skeptic of abiogenesis (somehow life originated naturally from non-life).

But.  Let’s play with the idea and say that a broader definition of evolution is true.  If we grant this, isn’t it also reasonable to grant that future states of our species would be able to understand even more about this “absolute truth” than we currently do?  For if we reverse the process and look in the evolutionary rearview mirror a bit, we would note that the “absolute-truth” perception of a lesser-evolved creature (one without sight or hearing for instance) would be highly limited relative to where our species is at now.  And while we currently find ourselves to be quite sentient with all this fancy listening, seeing and consciousness-ing, who’s to say that we have all the senses possible?  Maybe we’re more like the animals without noses that Dr. Seuss challenges us to imagine?  Perhaps chicken a la king exists, but we just don’t have a nose to smell it.

Perhaps our sixth sense is the one that will unlock the key to true reality.  Maybe it will even allow us to “see” the God that created us.

“…and where would all your glasses sit?  They’d all fall off.  Just think of it!”

Alastair Noble and Intelligent Design

April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I listened to an interesting podcast from Apologetics315 tonight.  It was an interview with Alastair Noble who is the Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design in the UK.  I’ve written a few blog posts on the topic of ID and why I think it deserves a seat at the intellectual table – here and here.

This interview was a good dose of one academic’s rationale for why intelligent design is sound science (read: not masked religion or an appeal to some sort of “God of the Gaps” thinking) that deserves intellectual debate and consideration.  I couple of points made in the podcast that I enjoyed were:

  • Science seems to point toward design in numerous ways – from cosmology to the “fine tuning” of the universe
  • The existence of “molecular machines” like bacterial flagellum point to design much more than random chance
  • The presence of “information” in DNA is a knock-down supporter for design because we don’t know of any example of information that WASN’T created by an intelligent agent

Here’s the blog post on Apologetics315 as well as a link to the podcast.  Enjoy.

Scaling a mountain of ignorance

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world….the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same. Consider the enormousness of the problem : Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: ‘What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe?’ And science cannot answer these questions. “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

- Robert Jastrow

(founder and former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies)

Lee Strobel interviews Doug Groothuis

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recent interview of Doug Groothuis by Lee Strobel.  Nice, quick summary of Doug’s point of view toward apologetics as well as some key elements from his book, Christian Apologetics.

~~~~~~

Philosopher Douglas Groothuis spent more than 8 years producing his 752-page tome Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Here’s an interview hitting some highlights.

Q. Your book has amazing breadth, covering everything from the nature of truth, to arguments for God, to evolution versus creation, to the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, to the challenge of Islam, to the problem of evil – and that’s just for starters! Yet it’s quite readable; you avoid delving too deeply into technical issues while hitting all the key points. I can see this as an invaluable reference book, but I could also envision interested Christians simply reading it cover to cover. How do you hope your book will be used?

A. I tried to make the book accessible, inviting, and intriguing to the thoughtful reader, Christian or unbeliever. But I also wanted to take readers into the material with sufficient depth that they might fathom the force of the arguments for Christianity as objectively true, rational, and pertinent to all of life. There are hundreds of footnotes and a glossary to take the reader further into the intellectual and spiritual adventure of apologetics.

Continue reading at BibleGateway.com>

Intelligent design – a position worthy of exploration

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

My faith was initially turned upside down by the presentation of evolutionary “fact” in a college anthropology course.  If the course of human (and all living organisms) propagation can be explained by the kind of mechanism that operates in unguided and purely naturalistic ways, what room is there for God?  I still believe in the truth value of that statement, however I now refute the claim that the diversity of life and propagation of species via natural mechanisms is true – and believe there is sound empirical evidence that supports this position.

I observe a spectrum of possible alternatives when it comes to origin of life hypotheses.  On one end you have Darwinian evolution (purely naturalistic in mechanism).  On the other you have 6-day (literal Genesis interpretation) creationism.  In the middle seems to be theistic evolution (evolution + God) as well as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

William Dembski is one of the prominent figures in the ID space.  He, like most of his contemporaries in ID, has been ostracized for taking a stance against Darwinian evolution and the metaphysical naturalism that underpins it.

Here’s a recent interview (snippet below) with Bill Dembski I stumbled upon that I find to be a good read on the history and current state of the ID movement.

As for more scientists coming on board with ID if it were legitimate, I think this question misses the point. The question is not legitimacy, but incentives. There are no incentives for coming on board with ID save that one thinks it offers some interesting ideas and true insights. There is no federal funding for ID research. If it’s known that you accept intelligent design and you’re in the mainstream academy, you can expect your career to be derailed. Support ID and expect some pain.

Read the entire interview here.

I don’t believe in a chasm between science and faith.  I observe a chasm between science and the philosophical position of metaphysical naturalism.  Do you have to be a proponent of ID to be a Christian?  No.  But I believe  it’s a position that warrants exploration and should be evaluated on the merits of the scientific claims it makes and not unjustly judged by who or why it’s being brought forward.

Theism and atheism – same evidence, different belief.

January 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

I saw this post today on Rosa Rubicondior’s blog.  Who is Rosa?  Here’s how she defines herself and her blog’s POV:

A regular look at religion and UK politics from the point of view of a centre-left atheist humanist, and spilling over into discussions of, science, history and other related topics. Any money generated from ads will be donated to various charities such as moderate centre-left groups, humanist, humanitarian and wildlife protection and welfare organisations.

It was significant to me, not because of the topic or the individual post (though I did find a lot of her post very interesting), but because of a comment from a reader that illustrated the “spectrum of belief” that involves theists, atheists and agnostics.  Here was the comment:

Anonymous said…

“Faith is belief without evidence”

While you make several good points in your post, this statement, I believe is patently wrong.

Agnostics are the ones who could call themselves the most scientifically minded. Agnostics are the ones who only go as far as the evidence will take them. Christians and atheists, on the other hand, use inductive reasoning to take them part way, and then bring about a deductive conclusion based upon that evidence in combination with their pre-set world-view.

In that sense Christian faith can be described as “Choosing to believe the conclusion that the Bible and God Himself through the person of Jesus the Christ has presented regarding the evidence that we have before us.”

The fact is, faith requires evidence. Both atheists and Christians have before them the same amount of evidence, and both atheists and Christians believe what they believe by faith.

“By faith we (Christians) understand (choose to believe the Bible’s claim) that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Hebrews 11:3

“By an even greater amount of faith (everything came from nothing by nothing) atheists understand (choose to believe the implication of atheism) that the universe came into being by natural means even though nothing natural / material existed UNTIL the universe came into being.”

Many atheists who blog find any of the Atheist Origin of the Universe Mythologies a preferable hypothesis to supernatural design. But it’s an odd sort of preference for atheists, be they scientists or just regular people. Given that the universes these Mythologies propose are purely speculative, undetected, and undetectable in principle, they certainly don’t support atheist claims of only believing that which is supported by evidence. The idea that the anthropic principle would be decisively explained away by appealing to the existence of infinite invisible universes, for example, that we shall never have an opportunity to observe, and whose existence can therefore never be established, is not exactly persuasive argumentation.

Yet those who claim to believe nothing without evidence do live by this faith regardless of their claims.

Bertrand Russell boasted: “The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal. The way in which science arrives at its beliefs is quite different from that of medieval theology. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.”

Yes, we can see that when Dawkins declares that there are “billions and billions of planets with life upon them.” And then he says, “I am sceptical of strongly held beliefs held in the absence of evidence.”

I post this with the confidence that merely saying something you don’t agree with is not your definition of “Preaching” and that you’ll have the courage to post this potential discussion.

While Rosa ultimately attacked this comment just as she does every contrarian post on her blog, I think “Anonymous” paints an interesting picture of the beliefs that both theists and atheists arrive at through inference.

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