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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Can Religion Offer a Better Answer than Science?

Internet memes, those single images overlaid with a quote or quip, are all popping up all over social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Some are funny, some make one reflect, but those hoping to prove a point can often be inadequate to the task.


One such meme that's becoming more frequent is the challenge New Atheist Sam Harris offered theists during his 2007 debate against Rabbi David Wolpe. Harris asked, "I would challenge anyone here to think of a question upon which we once had a scientific answer, however inadequate, but for which now the best answer is a religious one."1

Many people have read the challenge and chat boards are filled with comments from people who simply cannot think of a single question that qualifies. Some atheists have crowed about the inability of theists to do so.  Has history only gone from the religious to the scientific? Is there no question that can meet Sam Harris' charge?

Astronomer Robert Jastrow thought of one. Science had assumed that the universe had always existed. It was infinite and eternal. This was so ingrained into the scientific thinking of the day that Einstein adjusted the calculation of his General Theory of Relativity to only show a steady state universe.2After the Big Bang model was proposed, vehement arguments ensued about the whether the universe had a beginning. After its beginning was confirmed, Jastrow told Christianity Today "Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact."3

There you go.  Sam Harris' challenge is met. However, some may object to this answer, saying that it was actually science and not religion that proved the universe had a beginning. I would argue that point, but let's lay it aside for a moment. Is there another question that relies only on religiously-obtained knowledge to provide a better answer than science?

Let's try this one: "Can we clone a human being?"

A question like this really asks two things: it asks if humanity is capability of performing the task and it questions the prudence in performing it. For the first part, the cloning of large mammals from adult cells was not possible prior to the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Through the discovery of somatic-cell nuclear transfer it became possible to clone sheep, monkeys, and even human beings. We didn't have the science, so the answer to "Can we clone a human being?" was "No, it's not scientifically possible." But now that it is possible4, we must turn to the second implication of the question, whether it is prudent to do so.

To answer to this part of the question, we find that science is woefully inadequate to the task. This is because science deals with the what, the why, and the how of natural processes. In other words, it only worries about function. It cannot deal with the questions that focus on the ought, the good, or the right. Science can tell us the best way to transplant a kidney is by using a living donor. However, it is totally impotent to tell us whether the living donor should be restricted to volunteers or enlarged to include, say, convicted murders who haven't given consent. This is a moral question, and such questions surround our scientific advances routinely.

Similarly, science says we can clone a human being. The possibility is there for science to use cloning as way to create spare parts for people, allowing for transplants that wouldn't be rejected.5But most nations have outlawed people even attempting to do so. The ability to clone humans is now not limited by the procedure, but by its moral implications and the concept of human worth and dignity. The answer to "Can I clone a human being?" is still "no" but the reasons for that answer are informed by religious values and not by scientific ones.

To decide to clone people on only the scientific response to this question would be barbaric. As Baruch Cohen explains, the Nazi experimented by freezing holocaust victims and the data they obtained is the only controlled scientific data we have on hypothermia.6But because it gives us scientific answers surely doesn't mean we should duplicate it.

It should be evident that science alone cannot answer all the questions humanity has.  It cannot even answer all the questions it raises though its own discoveries. Questions about God, the purpose of man, the ethics of cloning or transplantation, and even how we gather our scientific data must come from somewhere other than science. Religious and moral beliefs are necessary, not only because they can answer these questions, but because without them science can become a monster acting on whatever capability it discovers.

It isn't sceince but virtue that measures the enlightenment of a society.

References

1.Padilla, Steve. "Rabbi, atheist debate with passion, humor". Los Angeles Times. 12/29/2007.
<http://articles.latimes.com/2007/dec/29/local/me-beliefs29> Accessed 4/10/2013.
2.Dr. Sean M. Carroll writes that the Constant's "original role, to allow static homogeneous solutions to Einstein's equations in the presence of matter, turned out to be unnecessary when the expansion of the universe was discovered." See "The Cosmological Constant" by Sean M. Carroll  Living Reviews in Relativity.  Vol 4.(2001) 1. Accessed online at http://relativity.livingreviews.org/Articles/lrr-2001-1/fulltext.html 4/10/2013.
3."A Scientist Caught Between Two Faiths: Interview With Robert Jastrow," Christianity Today. August 6, 1982. Cited in Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jastrow Accessed 4/10/2013.
4."In November 2001, scientists from Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT), a biotechnology company in Massachusetts, announced that they had cloned the first human embryos for the purpose of advancing therapeutic research."
"Cloning Fact Sheet". Human Genome Project Information.
http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/cloning.shtml Last modified 5/11/2009. Accessed 4/10/2013.
5."Scientists hope that one day therapeutic cloning can be used to generate tissues and organs for transplants. To do this, DNA would be extracted from the person in need of a transplant and inserted into an enucleated egg. After the egg containing the patient's DNA starts to divide, embryonic stem cells that can be transformed into any type of tissue would be harvested. " (Cloning Fact Sheet, 2009).
6.Cohen, Baruch C. "The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments". Jewish Law Articles.
<http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/NaziMedEx.html> Accessed 4/10/2013.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I found it intriguing and enlightening. -Bethany R.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Here's one: Just because you discover how God did something, doesn't mean you've disproven Him. When you, as a scientist, can create life out of nothing, we'll talk. Science is the study of God's work. Science figures out daily, how things work, and why. It's like looking at a completely custom house, tailored to your exact and specific needs, only to immediately tell yourself the carpenter must have never been there to begin with, because you figured out exactly how he built the house. It makes no sense."The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' " - Psalm 14:1. Remember that.

    ReplyDelete

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