Sunday, April 24, 2016

Proving the Impossible is Probably Implausible

Recently, while speaking to a group about science and religion, I was reminded of a recurring theme that seems to crop up whenever I ask people to think about science and religion at the same time. It is the tendency in our society, whenever we are trying to be persuasive, to give preference to ideas that sound scientific, even when we are discussing topics that are not scientific. An interesting twist on this theme, which often arises from the religious end of the spectrum, is the attempt to use scientific argument to demonstrate the inadequacy of science itself.

In the preceding post, I discussed the tendency of some religious people to turn to “scientific”-type arguments to justify their belief, just as many atheists turn to “scientific”-type arguments to justify their disbelief. As mentioned there, neither type of argument fits the criteria required for scientific hypotheses, and both rely on untestable theological or philosophical assumptions. However, on closer examination, the science-like but religiously motivated arguments we most commonly encounter today would more appropriately be termed “anti-scientific” arguments, because they focus on the inability of science to explain natural phenomena. These usually take the form of trying to calculate the improbability of a natural event or the impossibility of explaining the origin of a cellular component. (In other words, they try to invent scientific processes that will demonstrate that scientific processes are inadequate; hmmm….) At any rate, the reasoning is that if science can’t explain something, that is evidence for God. I am very wary of such arguments for several reasons:

First, let’s remind ourselves what we mean when we say that science is limited. We mean that there are some realms of reality that science cannot address-- certain kinds of questions it can’t ask, because they aren’t physically testable. Anything in the natural realm, on the other hand, is fair game for the explanations of science. It is philosophically incorrect to state that science cannot explain a given natural phenomenon, because that is exactly the realm science is designed to explain. Science may not have explained it yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t-- just wait a few years, and it may. So let’s be accurate when stating what kinds of things science cannot explain.

Second, it is simply incorrect logic to use things science hasn’t explained yet as evidence that God must have been at work. The present lack of a natural explanation does not automatically prove a supernatural one. Furthermore, this kind of argument creates the impression that God can only be invoked as a cause when there is no other possible explanation. It sets up a false dichotomy between things that are “natural” or explainable and things that God did. I find this position untenable, because I believe God can and does work through natural means, and/or he allows natural means to work. True faith acknowledges the presence of God in both the explained and the yet unexplained.

Third, using unexplained things to argue for God requires that once a natural explanation is found, arguments in favor of God must retreat to another unknown area. Thus, as more and more of nature succumbs to the explanations of science, proponents of anti-science arguments retreat further and further into the cell, grasping at molecular straws to verify their faith. It has reached the point that people argue heatedly over whether or not we can explain the origin of bacterial flagella, as if a final decision for or against God hinges on the answer to that question. God has been backed into hotly-contested corners, where physical tests become the criteria for belief. This does a disservice to religion, whose strength should lie in the power of faith to see beyond the physical. Faith in God lies not in statistical tests or molecular analyses, but in a pure and simple witness to our spirits, a process that is entirely outside of but not inconsistent with the scientific method.

Fourth, stating, “science can’t explain this, therefore: God,” simply invites the opposition to state, “science can explain this, therefore: no God.” While these two inverse statements are not logical equivalents, people treat them as if they were. That is, neither statement is philosophically correct, and one does not logically imply the other, but using one certainly invites the other, just the same. Most of the arguments we see flying around these days, on both sides, fall into this category of logical error and unenlightened contention.

And finally, the claim that God can be proven by observing things that defy natural explanation fosters a reliance on miracles (used here to mean things beyond our current comprehension) to produce faith. Undoubtedly, miracles can reinforce faith, but they are not to be relied upon or even sought after for the purpose of creating faith. I am greatly bothered by the suggestion that something I don’t understand would lead me to believe in God, while something I can understand would lead me to find him unnecessary. Faith is not based on ignorance; it is a trust based on experience. Furthermore, if a miracle is something beyond our current comprehension, does it follow that comprehending it would make it any less wonderful? I think not. In fact, in my experience, the more one begins to understand the components, complexity, and processes involved in the world around us, the greater the awe it inspires. I, for one, hope that science does find explanations for more and more things, because learning the details of the natural processes God has employed enhances my understanding and worship of him. (I would refer you once again to the Kenneth R. Miller quote, here.)

It is my experience that those who would prove God by rejoicing in the ignorance or incompleteness of science have fundamentally misunderstood the functions of both science and religion. When the nature of science is misconstrued to be a threat to faith, the all-too-common response is to turn to physical arguments for God, an approach which undermines the function of religion to tell us of things beyond our current sight. Both science and religion, powerful tools of learning, deserve better than to be dragged into the mud of misrepresentation and dispute. In a vast universe infused with light, life, and wonder, let us not sit in dark corners, arguing over bacterial flagella, as if our puny understanding could stake an intellectual claim for or against a Master of that universe. Rather, let us all have the humility to recognize that none of us knows very much, yet, but we may all rejoice in the process of seeking after the answers, whether in the realm of science, religion, or both. Any increase in our understanding, in either arena, is to be celebrated.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Nature as a Witness

I still remember the first time I learned about the cellular process of DNA transcription and mRNA translation-- the process by which the DNA “tells” the cell what protein to make. I was in eighth grade, and my marvelous biology teacher, whom I credit with inspiring my career, was diagramming the details on the chalkboard with fat, neon-colored chalk. As I began to grasp the beautiful intricacy, precision, and sheer genius of that complex molecular process, tingles of excitement literally went up and down my spine. It was the most breathtakingly elegant thing I had ever seen! In that moment of awe and wonder, I also experienced a profound witness in my heart that there is indeed a Creator.

In the time since then, I have learned that while many, probably most, of my fellow scientists frequently experience a deep sense of wonder for nature, not all of them feel the accompanying spiritual witness of God that I experience in such moments. Certainly some of them do, but there are many who feel a reverent awe for nature without ever feeling or acknowledging the Deity responsible for it. It is obvious that having a detailed understanding of or an emotionally moving experience with God’s creation does not, in and of itself, confer a belief in God. These are separate kinds of knowledge. I’m not only talking about the difference between scientific and other kinds of knowledge, which I have discussed at length on this blog, but also the difference between an emotional experience with nature’s wonders and a spiritual experience with God.

Because believers very often do feel a connection between the natural world and spiritual experience, it is understandable and appropriate that they tend to cite natural wonders as inspiration for their belief, as in one of my favorite hymns, "How Great Thou Art." However, I have observed the tendency of some of my fellow believers to veer off into presenting “scientific” reasons nature gives us to believe in God. Rather than testifying of the spiritual witness they have received through observing nature, they begin talking about the probability of molecular events or about the structural complexity of little cellular machines, as if these were scientific evidence for God. While I would never want to downplay the witness they may have received through such knowledge, just as I experienced in eighth grade biology class, I feel an obligation to remind them that such examples are not scientific proof of God, nor does the wonder they inspire equate to a witness. Usually, we are not going to convince someone else to believe in God simply by detailing the magnificent structure of a bacterial flagellum, and usually, these kinds of “proofs,” offered to non-believers, quickly become contentious.

It is interesting to note that in the cultural war between science and religion, people on both ends of the spectrum resort to arguments that sound scientific (but which, on close inspection, are not) in order to prove or disprove God. For example, on one end, Richard Dawkins shows why molecular evidence refutes the kind of God he imagines (his theological and philosophical assumptions), and on the other end, Michael Behe tries to demonstrate molecular evidence for the kind of God he imagines (his philosophical and theological assumptions), while neither acknowledges the utter inability of science to verify their beginning assumptions. It’s almost as if our whole society tacitly acknowledges that scientific arguments are really the only kind that can be convincing and dismisses arguments about deeper meaning. While limiting questions in this way is appropriate and necessary within science, outside of the realm of science it is utterly absurd. Jewish journalist Yuval Levin has stated:

""[... We] have become all too accustomed to asking only scientific questions, and this is the true source of our problems. . . .
“Science cannot search for meaning. In the study of nature, this handicap is not debilitating, since we do not need to grasp for meaning, or even to believe there is any, in order to develop a useful understanding of the natural world. But this handicap becomes a complete paralysis when the scientist turns his attention toward man. The scientific method is fundamentally incapable of providing us with a meaningful understanding of nearly anything about the life of man as he experiences it. And yet, the success of science in other realms convinces us that anything it cannot tell us could not be worth knowing. It teaches us to be satisfied with incomplete answers, and tells us that our search for meaning is misguided." (from Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook, p. xvii.)

Of course, our search for meaning is not misguided. What is misguided is the tendency in our society to want to “prove” or “disprove” things of meaning by resorting to science. Science can give us an idea of how things work, but it cannot give us a reason to care.

At the end of the day, God is not known to us through probability distributions, the composition of cellular structures, or the behavior of subatomic particles. He is known through a quiet witness to our minds and hearts. No amount of physical evidence can substitute for or negate that witness, but once that witness is obtained, then all of nature begins to testify to us of a Creator.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fact or Theory?: Getting it Right

Recently, I met a college student whose professor had told her that it is a fact that all living organisms are descended from a single life form. I quickly informed her that her professor was wrong-- that is not a fact, it is one hypothesis that stems from the theory of evolution. However, lest this student use the idea that evolution is “only a theory” to dismiss it entirely without giving it an honest look, I hastened to add that a theory, or even a hypothesis, is far from being a guess. I later wished that I had had time to explain the difference between fact, hypothesis, and theory-- for all of these have definitions in science, which differ from how they are often used in the vernacular. So, in regret that I cannot explain it to her in person, I will explain it here, hoping it will be helpful to someone else whose professor has made or will make the same mistake.

First, fact:
I love what one of my old ecology textbooks says about this: It defines facts as “particular truths of the natural world” and then goes on to state, “The notion of truth is a profound one that philosophers discuss in detail and scientists just assume is simple. Truth consists of correspondence with the facts.” (Krebs 2001:13, 14)

This sounds circular, but it’s really just saying that facts are things that are true. Furthermore, facts are true whether or not we know or understand them correctly:
“[scientists] make observations, which may be faulty, and consequently every observation is not automatically a fact.” (Krebs 2001:13)

The UC Berkeley “Understanding Science” website defines it this way:

“Fact: Statement that is known to be true through direct observation. Since scientific ideas are inherently tentative, the term fact is more meaningful in everyday language than in the language of science.”

In other words, in the actual doing and reporting of science, “fact” isn’t a term we use a lot. (Also note an idea we discussed in a previous post, that scientific knowledge is tentative.) Here is a very relevant example:

"[In] scientific thinking ...we can only be completely confident about relatively simple statements. For example, it may be a fact that there are three trees in your backyard. However, our knowledge of how all trees are related to one another is not a fact; it is a complex body of knowledge based on many different lines of evidence and reasoning that may change as new evidence is discovered and as old evidence is interpreted in new ways. Though our knowledge of tree relationships is not a fact, it is broadly applicable, useful in many situations, and synthesizes many individual facts into a broader framework. Science values facts but recognizes that many forms of knowledge are more powerful than simple facts.” (UC Berkeley link above)

Hm, what an intriguing statement! Knowledge that is more powerful than facts? Read on!

Next, hypothesis:
Once a scientist has some observations in hand, he/she formulates a possible explanation consistent with everything else he/she already knows. This possible explanation is a hypothesis, and it must be stated in a way that allows it to be tested by experiment or further observation. A hypothesis makes predictions about future observations, and if these predictions are actually observed, the hypothesis is supported. Observations contrary to the predictions would help refute the hypothesis. Remember that testability and falsifiability are flip-sides of the same coin; for a hypothesis to be scientific, it must be possible in principle to gather evidence that would support or refute it. (See more on testability, and see “Falsifiable” here for further clarification of these terms.) Even so, we can never prove or disprove a hypothesis with absolute certainty.

Finally, theory:
Again, the Understanding Science project summarizes well (they make my job a lot easier!):

“Theory: In science, a broad, natural explanation for a wide range of phenomena. Theories are concise, coherent, systematic, predictive, and broadly applicable, often integrating and generalizing many hypotheses. Theories accepted by the scientific community are generally strongly supported by many different lines of evidence-but even theories may be modified or overturned if warranted by new evidence and perspectives.”

And (still quoting from the above link) here is a further point I wish to emphasize:

“Occasionally, scientific ideas (such as biological evolution) are written off with the putdown "it's just a theory." This slur is misleading and conflates two separate meanings of the word theory: in common usage, the word theory means just a hunch, but in science, a theory is a powerful explanation for a broad set of observations. To be accepted by the scientific community, a theory (in the scientific sense of the word) must be strongly supported by many different lines of evidence. So biological evolution is a theory (it is a well-supported, widely accepted, and powerful explanation for the diversity of life on Earth), but it is not "just" a theory.”

Nor, I would add, is it as simple as fact. A theory, by definition, is an overarching, explanatory idea that rests upon numerous facts and hypotheses. It is a BIG, HUGE, elegant idea that squares (at least so far) with many facts we have in our possession… insofar as we can tell that they are facts. A theory is also generative, spurring new hypotheses and avenues of research in an organic, ongoing process that is never complete. And, as with any scientific idea, some aspects of a theory may turn out to be right, and some may turn out to be wrong-- and we can’t tell the difference yet. Moreover, a theory can remain well-supported and valid as a research scaffolding, despite the incompleteness of some of its sub-elements. For example, it may turn out that we have correctly understood the basic laws of inheritance that lead to genetic changes in a population over time, while a complete family tree linking all life forms to a common ancestor remains elusive. Both of these ideas fit under the umbrella of “The Theory of Evolution,” and either of them may (and probably will) be modified as our understanding… er, evolves. Hence, no one who understands the breadth and dynamic function of theory would be so simplistic as to equate it with fact.

So… the next time someone tells you that evolution is a fact, you can tell them with great enthusiasm that on the contrary, evolution is not a fact; it is much more than only facts-- it is a theory! How exciting is that?! (You may want to explain this using large hand gestures, indicating that, in science, theory is a BIG thing compared to fact.)

And then, if they ask you whether you believe in it, you can tell them that while a theory is well supported by multiple lines of evidence, putting absolute faith in a scientific theory is not scientific. No one can fault you for refusing to commit your final opinion, because science does not have the final word. And that’s a fact.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fertile Common Ground: Conservation

The stated purpose of this blog is to promote positive interactions between science and religion. While several of my posts have focused on how to avoid conflict (by noticing how it has been generated), today I’d like to focus more directly on positive interactions that are already taking place. If evolution has been the most contentious topic between science and religion, then certainly the topic of greatest agreement and cooperation between them in recent years has been biological conservation.

Many of the world’s religions are recognizing that the teachings of their faith prompt them to care for our planet and the life upon it. Religious leaders around the globe have taken an increasingly active role in encouraging their fellow believers to act responsibly with respect to our environment. Numerous organizations have formed to promote cooperation between religions and conservation groups. Here are two of the most prominent organizations, whose websites contain a wealth of information about religions and the environment: Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.

From 2008-2011, I was fortunate to have the opportunity of serving on the board of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group, a sub-group of the Society for Conservation Biology. During part of this time (until the birth of my youngest child), I was chair of the curriculum committee, and we were charged with writing materials to serve as a starting point for cooperation-- a bridge-- between conservation professionals and religious groups. We wrote articles introducing religious groups to the views and goals of conservation professionals, and vice versa, as well as a series of Fact Sheets summarizing the positions of seven of the world’s major religions regarding the earth and the environment. (These are all available at the Religion and Conservation Biology resource page.) I remember writing the last of these summaries just a few days before my son was born-- whew!-- and I was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this worthy effort.

As I complied my research for these summaries, I noticed a pattern: The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) centered their conservation ethic around the idea of stewardship-- that God, the Creator, has given us charge over his creations and holds us accountable for our use of them. Those religions whose beliefs include reincarnation (Hinduism and Buddhism, for example) centered their conservation ethic around the ideas of nonviolence and the interconnectedness of all life. And Eastern religions such as Confucianism and Daoism tended to focus on the balance of nature and our proper place and action within it. It is interesting to note that, while the core concepts leading to a conservation ethic may be different for each religion, every major world religion contains strong internal motivation for environmental responsibility. These are not values that have to be imposed from outside; they are already there and, interestingly, always have been. Often it is the most ancient of teachings that have lended themselves most effectively to a revitalized concern for nature. It is to the credit of these religions that many of their number have allowed themselves to be informed by modern environmental science and then have reached back into their own traditions to find a deeper motivation for improved action.

“And the reason I’m telling you this is because…” (Dr. Seuss) it demonstrates that when scientists and religious people have taken a step back to look respectfully and non judgmentally at each other’s beliefs and goals, they have found many common values and ways to work in cooperation. Hooray, hooray, that we don’t all have to hold the same worldview in order to work well together toward common goals! This fact gives me great hope for the future of mutual understanding and appreciation between science and religion.

To my fellow conservation scientists, I would say: Remember that Conservation Biology, as a discipline, is a marriage between a science (biology) and a value system (conservation). We are qualified to teach people the findings and tools of our science, but our moral authority to dictate value systems is no greater than anyone else’s. We must not expect religions to convert or adapt to a science-dictated worldview, and we must not present science as a moral authority on the environment. The wonderful news is that we need not (and should not) expect people to change their religious views in order to embrace conservation. Conservation is already proving to be a topic of agreement despite diverse worldviews, as long as we will work respectfully with religions to find common ground in our values. We can be more careful to avoid language that engenders strife and instead employ language with which religious groups can identify, such as “intrinsic value of nature,” “reverence for life,” and “stewardship.” We will meet with cooperation if we will remember what science is and have the intellectual honesty to report it accurately as a tool for understanding how things work, while respecting the diverse views of others regarding what people and societies should value.

To my fellow believers I would say: Let’s look to the best in our beliefs and traditions for motivation to care for this special planet, and then stand ready to listen to, learn from, and embrace the sound ideas and tools science can offer us for doing it more effectively. I, for one, am grateful that science can teach me biological principles that will help me be a better steward over my little corner of this beautiful earth. Trying to do so is part of my worship of the Creator.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Does Evolution Support Atheism?

After a long time away from my blog over the holidays (and beyond), I have been inspired (or provoked) to take up my pen (keyboard) again in response to a blog post I read by a fellow member of my faith. The author, Dave, cautioned that evolution contributes to atheism because of its materialism and “mechanistic underpinnings.” (Materialism is the philosophy that all that exists is matter, and mechanistic means explaining phenomena in purely physical terms). While he acknowledged that “There are no inherent problems with interpreting natural world events using a mechanistic-laden theory like evolution, as long as people recognize the limitations,” he maintained that danger arises when they accept mechanism as reflecting the way the world really is, as a sort of ontological reality.” (Ontology, by the way, is a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature and kinds of things that have existence.) While I think I agreed with the basic idea Dave was getting at, I was bothered by his claim that “the underpinnings” of evolution contribute to atheism. It struck me that the discussion could be aided by an understanding that science is based on one particular kind of naturalism (explaining things in terms of only natural causes and laws), and that philosophers recognize different types of naturalism: methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. The first is a method or tool; the second is a philosophy. Let’s look at these more closely (bear with me through the philosophical lingo-- it will pay off!):

Methodological naturalism is methodical study of the natural or physical world that limits itself to natural explanations that can be empirically tested, observed and quantified. Here’s a lengthy quote about that, if you wish to read it (or you can skip it and still get the drift):

“Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.... Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea's worth. In deliberately omitting theological or "ultimate" explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of "meaning" and "purpose" in the world. While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as ‘methodological naturalism’ and is sometimes known as the scientific method. Methodological naturalism is a ‘ground rule’ of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.”-Kitzmiller vs Dover (2005:64-65)

In other words, methodological naturalism is what the scientific method is based on. The naturalistic “underpinnings of evolution" Dave refers to in his blog are exactly the same as the naturalistic underpinnings-- the scientific method-- that all of science is based on. We cannot conduct science in any other way. The Theory of Evolution is no different (or any more conducive to atheism) than any of the rest of science in this way.

Metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, on the other hand, claims that nature is all there is—that nothing exists beyond the natural world we observe. Metaphysical naturalism denies the existence of the spiritual and is therefore distinctly different than the methodological naturalism necessary for scientific inquiry, which must remain mute about whether anything lies beyond the physical world. And here is the key point: metaphysical naturalism is not part of science; it is a philosophy (taken on faith, ironically) entirely outside the power of science to confirm or deny. Hence, a religious scientist can be perfectly comfortable employing methodological naturalism in his science while firmly rejecting metaphysical naturalism. The problem is when people (and often scientists themselves) fail to draw the distinction. Others also recognize this problem:

“Methodological naturalism is distinguished from metaphysical (or ontological or philosophical) naturalism, the view that nature is all there is and that supernatural entities such as spirit and God do not exist. The former is a statement about the limits of science, while the latter is a statement about the whole of reality, but some philosophers argue that the distinction fails in practice because scientists tend to act as though the whole of reality is accessible to their methods.” –New World Encyclopedia (my italics. Quote found here)

Note that last line, to which I added italics. And now I’m sure you are saying, “Alisse, you are harping on the same subject again! We know, we know: science is a method limited to only some portions of reality, and problems happen when we try to take it beyond its bounds and turn it into a philosophy about all of reality. We get it, okay!” Good. I’m glad you understand this point, because I continue to find it at the root of most conflict involving science. In fact, this is the very thing that has led to the backlash against science in the U.S. For example, William Dembski, a prominent leader in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, declares, “Intelligent Design entails that naturalism in all forms be rejected” (1998). He further states:

“So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, IDT [Intelligent Design Thesis] has no chance… The ground rules of science have to be changed. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that the material world is all there is. …Methodological naturalism asks us for the sake of science to pretend that the material world is all there is. But once science comes to be taken as the only universally valid form of knowledge within a culture, it follows at once that methodological and metaphysical naturalism become for all intents and purposes indistinguishable. They are functionally equivalent. What needs to be done, therefore, is to break the grip of naturalism in both guises, methodological and metaphysical.” –William Dembski (1996). 

Wait. Did I hear that last line right? Because some people think the scientific method is the only valid way to knowledge, we should overthrow the scientific method? We should ignore the valid distinction, recognized by philosophers, between the two kinds of naturalism and throw the baby out with the bath water? That's certainly what he seems to be saying. Although I obviously sympathize with Dembski's concerns about people placing science on too high a throne, I find his solution baffling. He doesn't just want to dethrone science; he wants to dismember it.

As summarized in the court decision of Kitzmiller vs Dover, “ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation" (2005:64). Let’s think about what would happen if we overthrew the ground rules of science-- of the scientific method that must leave questions about God alone-- and allowed all fields of science to address the “supernatural.” Everybody has different ideas about what is in that realm. Various untestable and unfalsifiable proposals of the supernatural would have to be entertained not just in biology and geology (the fields especially objectionable to ID), but in physics, astronomy, electronic theory, medicine, chemistry, engineering, etc., etc. Can you imagine the implications, here?  People could legitimately propose that invisible water fairies are responsible for hydraulic lift. In other words, attacking the theory of evolution by changing its “underpinnings” (scientific naturalism) has vast implications for how all of science—not just biology—would then be done. It would cease to be science as we know it and would resemble the more speculative versions of science known in previous centuries, before the formalization of the scientific method. You think I’m exaggerating, and yes, it all sounds ridiculous, but this is indeed the logical conclusion of rejecting methodological naturalism as Dembski suggests. It undoes science.

It seems abundantly clear that the real solution, which Dembski alludes to but does not pursue, is to emphasize that science is not “the only universally valid form of knowledge.” Instead, ID jumps on board the idea that science does provide the answers and sets about to disguise itself as a new scientific enterprise, all the while seeking to undermine the scientific method. I fail to see the logic in this approach, well-intended toward the "intelligent designer" though it may be.

Thank goodness, I say, for the naturalistic “underpinnings of evolution” and of science in general. Let’s just keep straight what kind of naturalism we are talking about. The Theory of Evolution is more likely to facilitate atheism (and a subsequent backlash against science) when its grounding in scientific naturalism is fundamentally misunderstood or ignored.

Monday, December 2, 2013

What About Evolution?

Undoubtedly, the topic which has caused the most conflict between science and some religions is the Theory of Evolution. Quite truthfully, it is the philosophical extrapolations based on evolution, not the science itself, which have been most problematic. Nonetheless, even the science related to things like the age of the earth and the origin of man have come into conflict with traditional religious interpretations.

Obviously, I can’t cover this topic in any kind of comprehensive way on this blog. But I am not going to shy away from it, either-- that wouldn’t help anybody. Because my own religious beliefs encourage me to accept all truth, from whatever source, I enjoy tackling this topic head-on and without fear. Exploration is non-threatening to my faith, because I only have to believe what is true; if I’m not sure of the truth, I can refrain from committing my opinion while I continue searching.

In my search for answers, here are a few books that have been most helpful and enjoyable. (I won’t say that I agree 100% with everything they say, but I found much to agree with, and they offer some wonderful insights and possibilities.):

If you want to see my own conclusions (so far) about evolution, I will simply lift a passage from my novel, Emergence: A Journey of Friendship, Science, and Faith. In this passage, Miriam Bancroft is a biology professor, and Meg is her graduate student: Miriam On Evolution

What an intriguing mystery we get to try to unravel! I can’t wait to learn someday how all the pieces fit together, and I want to be in the front row when God eventually explains all of this! In the meantime, let’s all take a few deep breaths and keep our cool about it. Contention seldom generates understanding.

One more word is helpful when discussing topics so complex that none of us fully understands them yet: humility.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why God is Not a Scientific Hypothesis-- And Why We Would Not Want Him To Be

Despite all I have said on this blog, there will still be some who say that God should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. Consider this statement by atheist Richard Dawkins:
“Either admit that God is a scientific hypothesis, or admit that his status is no higher than that of fairies or river sprites.” (in Stenmark 2004:74)

Dawkins is indeed correct that if God is not a scientific hypothesis, then he can’t hold any more prominent place in science than fairies do. However, Dawkins’ statement reveals two logical errors lurking in his philosophy. The first is his assumption that anything that isn’t a scientific hypothesis isn’t worth considering—i.e. he is revealing his scientism. The second error is the reasoning, common to many atheists, that if there is a God, and if he interacts with the natural world at all, then his actions should be empirically detectable. (Don’t ask me how they “know” this-- it is an untestable assumption. One could just as reasonably claim that the way to detect God is through our spiritual rather than our physical senses, and there would be no scientific way to refute that.) Ironically, the sign-seeking argument that a deity must be physically detectable is used not only by some atheists who say, “see, there’s no evidence for God, because we have never detected him,” but also by some believers who wish to make a place for God within science.

I have spent a considerable amount of time cautioning the first of these groups, including my fellow scientists, against representing science as atheistic. It is not. Science is agnosticit  cannot claim any knowledge one way or the other about God. If you don’t want to take my word for it, I would refer you again to the UC Berkeley website and leave it at that for today: Science has limits

Now let’s turn the tables a bit and take a look at those segments of society that wish to embed God in science. Many religious people object to the idea that science tries to describe the natural world—God’s creation—without reference to God. While some of these groups openly regard science as the enemy, others of them try to couch their religious beliefs as a new kind of science that can include God. While I understand their desire to give the Creator credit at every turn (which I do from a religious standpoint), efforts to do so from within science quickly become problematic. This is a complex and multi-faceted topic that keeps me awake at night, and I can only scratch the surface here. But for a start, let’s consider this analogy:

Many believe that God has influenced various historical events. How, then, would you propose to teach in the public schools, to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagan animists, atheists, etc., history with God inserted? Everyone has their own account—commonly called scripture—of God’s dealings with mankind, and everyone has their own idea about how God (defined differently by all of them) has worked. What if, in the middle of a secular history class, the teacher or a student wanted to insert an explanation that the Hindu god Shiva had caused some historical event, or that Allah had, or that Jehovah had? And once that can of worms was opened, someone else could assert that fairies had caused something, or that aliens had. How would you test any of these claims, and how would you settle the disputes? It would be absurd to think that we could teach history or conduct scholarly historical research this way. But no less absurd is the idea that because the study of secular history does not include God, we should reject it as a discipline. The same could be said for political theory, sociology, economics, and innumerable other fields. We don’t throw out a hammer or a wrench just because it can’t saw a board, and we don’t expect any one tool to perform all functions.

It is no different with science. In order to study the natural world and communicate with each other about it, we had to devise a system (over the centuries) that put people of all beliefs on equal ground, with access to the same data, through their senses only. The scientific method seeks to do that by prohibiting up front all hypotheses that cannot be tested by the physical senses. Even this kind of evidence is hard enough to agree on, but at least it can be seen, measured, and experienced by people of any religious persuasion. To insist that science include Diety (and whose Diety?—we’d have to entertain all imagined types) would require us to abandon the hypothesis-testing foundation that makes science reliable. Science (and the centuries of work required to develop its methods) would regress and scientific progress would flounder under the infusion of disparate, untestable beliefs.

Those who have attempted to formalize a method for detecting God empirically have had to begin by adopting untestable assumptions about how God works, and some of these assumptions are objectionable to people of varying faiths. I am thinking specifically of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in the United States, which is the most sophisticated attempt to date to carve out a space for God within science. (Although spokesmen for ID are usually careful not to specify the designer or imply that they are talking about God, their arguments do indeed have direct theological implications.) On close examination, the assumptions of ID would produce a science that may be untenable for Buddhists, Taoists, and various Christian groups, such as Mormons, among others. (This is to say nothing of the scientific objections to ID, which are many.) Additionally, by attempting to create a scientific way to prove God, the arguments of ID would unintentionally create empirical ways to disprove God, something which science is currently incapable of doing. Thankfully, so far the methods developed by the ID movement don’t work, or else aggressive atheists would have all kinds of new ammunition in their hands! In short, ID is a prime example of why attempts to make God a scientific hypothesis are problematic from both scientific and religious standpoints.

I advocate the scientific method, not only for protecting science against untestable and unfalsifiable claims, but also for protecting religious freedom against the various philosophical claims of pseudoscience, both theistic and atheistic.