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.