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Monday, March 10, 2014

Science owes a debt to theology

Although we hear a lot today about faith and science being enemies, the scientific enterprise as we know it today wouldn't exist without Christianity and how it saw the world. This may seem surprising to you, but when you think about it, you can see how it makes perfect sense. Prior to the modern era, the primary view of how we can know things was based on the thinking of Aristotle, who believed that we can only start with things we know and simply reason to an outcome. This "First Principles" idea infiltrated much of science since Aristotle, until the 13th century, when a couple of Franciscan monks began to challenge the idea.1 What ultimately fuelled their investigation was the idea that the Christian God was a rational being, and therefore we could uncover His ways if we investigated his creation in a rational manner.

Asking a question about the function of the world

Is the world discoverable? Before we can begin any scientific enterprise, we must first know if it is ever possible to find the answer to certain questions we are asking. This is no trivial point. If you were to have all the latest brain scanning and most sensitive neurological equipment, you could tell a person is dreaming, but you could never tell what that dream is about. The question of content is outside of science altogether and must be reported by the dreamer. However, Christians such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger and Francis Bacon, and others knew they could begin to investigate the world scientifically, because God would create a world to work in a specific order.2 And since the Christian God isn't capricious, he wouldn't "change the rules" so to speak and change the laws of nature from one day to the next.

So today, when a scientist builds a hypothesis, he or she has already assumed that the world is really the way we experience it. But why is he or she justified in such an assumption? Remembering the hit movie The Matrix may help you get a clearer picture of my point. In The Matrix, most people believed they were living normal lives in a well-developed world when in reality they were simply being fed a computer simulation straight into their brains. The things they experienced weren't real, but a forgery. However, science assumes that we can talk about the real world and find out new things about it. Grosseteste and other Christians answered such objections by appealing to their theological framework: that God is the kind of God that wouldn't lie or change the rules on us. Science needs this grounding in theology to justify its assumption of consistency in experimental results.

Scientism dismisses theology as a fairytale

Of course, science's evil twin scientism would never acknowledge that Christian theism is the basis for the modern scientific enterprise. In fact, you many times hear scientism's claim that theistic beliefs are the enemy of science3; they hold back the true advancement and if we would only throw off the shackles of belief in God, we could somehow progress to a new era of scientific discovery.

Physicist Paul Davies, who is by no means Christian, reflected on why scientists should believe the laws of nature exist at all and why they're rational. He questioned his colleagues about them. Davies writes, "Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from 'that's not a scientific question' to 'nobody knows.' The favorite reply is, 'There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.' Davies goes on:

"All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed… The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science."4(emphasis added)
As Christians, we believe that God orders the universe and makes it discoverable. It offers reasons why we can trust our senses as reporting reality, and trust the fact that there are certain laws undergirding specific interactions in the world. Scientists assume a framework that theology grounds. This is why historian Lynn T. White writes:
"The preaching of a monk in the fastnesses of the German forests may seem far removed from the modern laboratory; yet the monk was an intellectual ancestor of the scientist. As the triumphant chant, 'I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,' rang through the new churches of the northern frontier, another foundation stone of the modern world was laid, the concept of an orderly and intelligible universe."5
To read the previous articles in this series, click here and here.

For the next article, click here.

References

1. For a good overview of this point, see Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004 218-219.
2. Schmidt. Ibid.
3. See MacKenzie, Richard "Is Faith the Enemy of Science?" where MacKenzie argues that it is. Lawrence Krauss responded affirminigly to MacKenzie and commented, "I have asked Richard if his recent purpose is to destroy faith or teach science, and he has indicated that destroying faith at the moment is a higher priority. I accept that argument, however for me the latter purpose, teaching science, is higher priority."
4. Davies, Paul. "Taking Science on Faith" The New York Times. 24 November 2007.
5. White, Jr., Lynn T. "The Significance of Medieval Christianity". The Vitality of the Christian Tradition, 3d ed., edited by George F. Thomas New York: Harper & Bros, 1944. 97.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

God is making an impact in philosophy


In April of 1966, Time magazine ran one of its most talked about covers of all time. It didn't include a photograph or hint at lasciviousness. Instead, it was a plain black cover with a red border and three simple words emblazoned on the cover in the form of a question: "Is God Dead?"

Nearly 50 years later, we can confidently say that God is not dead. He's very much alive and not only in evangelical churches across North America, South America, Africa, and beyond, but also in certain halls of academia where most had assumed he was all but extinct. God is alive and well in philosophy departments.

Below is a great, short clip by Oxford University professor of philosophy Vince Vitale telling s just how much theists are impacting this hugely influential discipline today.

 

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Our Culture Was Predicted Over 80 Years Ago

Many people liken today's society to George Orwell's dystopian futurist book 1984. I can see the attraction, with Big Brother controlling people's actions by force and official departments of doublespeak editing history. It makes for an interesting picture.

However, I don't think 1984 is the closest parallel we have to what's happening to Western society today. In 1932, some 16 years prior to Orwell's work, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, an earlier dystopian caution about where modernity was headed. But instead of the government crushing dissent wherever it may be found, it is the populous that is really driving the push for conformity in Huxley's vision. By labeling those with traditional values as strange and "savages," by promoting the newest ideas and newest technologies as obvious advantages, and by allowing the population to always feel good about themselves (primarily through the drug Soma), it is the culture that drives conformity and discomfort avoidance at all costs.

Below is one telling passage from the book. Here, the natural-born "Savage" who has escaped his Reservation and is discussing the importance of pain with Mustapha Mond, one of the ten World Controllers. It eerily predicts many today's pushes for equality and moral "openness." While our soma isn't found in the form of drugs, I see us self-medicating more and more thought the acquisition of our toys. IPhone and entertainment channels are the rights we demand, with almost all government housing projects are littered with satellite dishes. "Choice" is seen as the highest ideal, with everyone exercising their right to delve into any practice they so desire "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else." Chastity is considered nothing more than a punchline, with only the backward and old-fashioned holding it up as a virtue.
"You'd have a reason for chastity!" said the Savage, blushing a little as he spoke the words.

(Controller Mustapha Mond:) "But chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can't have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices."

"But God's the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic. If you had a God …"

"My dear young friend," said Mustapha Mond, "civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended—there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren't any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that's what soma is."

"But the tears are necessary. Don't you remember what Othello said? ‘If after every tempest came such calms, may the winds blow till they have wakened death.' There's a story one of the old Indians used to tell us, about the Girl of M├ítaski. The young men who wanted to marry her had to do a morning's hoeing in her garden. It seemed easy; but there were flies and mosquitoes, magic ones. Most of the young men simply couldn't stand the biting and stinging. But the one that could—he got the girl."

"Charming! But in civilized countries," said the Controller, "you can have girls without hoeing for them; and there aren't any flies or mosquitoes to sting you. We got rid of them all centuries ago."

The Savage nodded, frowning. "You got rid of them. Yes, that's just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether 'tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don't do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It's too easy."
Huxley, Aldous (2010-07-01). Brave New World (Kindle Locations 3047-3062). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Scientism rejects philosophy as a form of knowledge

Yesterday, I began a series called "Science versus its Evil Twin: Scientism:." I had written that there are five major clues that distinguish the pursuit of science, and I examined the first in yesterday's post. Today, I'd like to look at the first part of Clue #2 – Scientism rejects other forms of knowledge.


In most cheesy b-movies, we see the storyline play out predictably. The villain has made some advancement in pushing his agenda and the world starts to play by his rules. Therefore, in order to maintain his grip of power, our villain seeks to silence anyone who may disagree with him. He will discredit, disgrace or imprison anyone who offers up a contrary view to his plan. He seeks to be the only authority on all matters that he wants to control. In our look at science versus scientism, we also see a wrestling for power. There are those using science as one way of understanding the world, and there are those who say since science tells us about the natural world, that means that only science can tell us about anything. Scientism discounts all other forms of knowledge as either imperfect or not really knowledge at all.

Science owes a debt to philosophy

As we mentioned above, science has at its core the idea of observing interactions and critically examining their causes. Anyone beginning to study the subject of science is taught the scientific method, one of the primary ways scientists accomplish their task. Usually the method is divided into basic steps: a person has a question about some function of the natural world, he constructs a hypothesis, then tests that hypothesis with experiments, and analyzes the outcome. Lastly, he determines whether the original hypothesis is true and reports the results. This is a fundamental notion of what makes up our lab sciences. However, assumed in those steps is a lot of philosophy! Several philosophical principles must exist before the scientific method can even get started! Let's take a look at the components more closely and see where these assumptions lie.

Testing Hypotheses with Experiment

When scientists perform tests, one of the things they assume is a cause and effect relationship. If we are studying some effect, such as the attraction of magnets, we assume that there is a cause and effect relationship between the material of the magnets and their attraction. But we only make such an assumption because our past experience has shown that whenever material of this nature gets close to certain metals, a force is exerted between the two. How do we know that making such an assumption is warranted? Isn't one of the goals of science to eliminate assumptions and instead provide explanations for why functions happen? But then, aren't we starting with an assumption that cause and effect relationships are going to show us that? How do we know that the relationship we see isn't just a fluke of timing? Since it is only our experience that tells us about cause and effect, we are assuming our experience can tell us about the relation between the two, but we have no other reason to do so.

Realize, this line of doubt is not my own. Skeptic David Hume argued at great lengths to say that our experience may work for us, but that does not mean there is really a causal connection between two things, simply because one happens to come prior to the other.1 Basically, Hume asserts that science cannot test its own assumption about repeatability. Hume says trying to prove such things by experiment is really question-begging since you're using the very testing method that's in question! Therefore, in order to say that we know condition A produces effect B, we must rely on theories of what makes our knowledge justified. This again is the realm of philosophy. The scientist cannot scientifically prove that experience is a good indicator of what will happen in the future if the same conditions were to be produced; he relies on a philosophical framework to justify his assumptions.

Analyzing Outcomes

Once the scientist has performed experiments, he analyzes the outcome and draws conclusions as to whether it matches his hypothesis or not. But how can he be sure whether the results do indeed match his expectations? Philosophy comes into play here as well. In chapter 6 of this book, we took a moment and discussed the Three Standard Laws of Thought, also referred to as the Laws of Logic. We discovered that these laws were the main way that anyone compares and contrasts claims to see if they make sense or not. The Law of Identity states that a thing is equal to itself. So if the results of an experiment match the hypothesis, then the hypothesis can be considered valid in that instance.

We also learned from the Laws of Non-Contradiction and Excluded Middle that the result has to be either consistent with the hypotheses or inconsistent with the hypothesis.2 That means scientists use the Laws of Logic in analyzing their outcomes. Logic in all its forms is clearly identified as the only way a scientist can draw any conclusions that would continue to make sense.

Scientism dismisses philosophy as unnecessary

So, philosophy plays a crucial role in doing science well. It becomes the measuring stick on truth claims. But when our evil villain scientism enters the picture, he challenges this authority. While he uses philosophy, he sees anything other than what he defines as science as a threat and therefore dismisses it as unimportant or dead. Famous physicist Stephen Hawking, began his most recent work The Grand Design by doing just that. He writes:
"…philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances."3
Of course, such claims as "philosophy is dead" and "Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge" are highly problematic. For one thing both claims are themselves not scientific; there is no test that fits the scientific model one may perform and come up with those statements. No, saying "philosophy is dead" is making a philosophical statement itself; it's doing philosophy! The claim becomes self-refuting and can be dismissed. This is why Hawking's claim has been so widely criticized by philosophers of science, even those who are atheists!4

To read the next article in this series, click here.

References

1."This proposition, that causes and effects are discoverable, not by reason but by experience…You say that the one proposition is an inference from the other. But you must confess that the inference is not intuitive, neither is it demonstrative. Of what nature is it, then? To say it is experimental, is begging the question. For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future. All experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future, since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance." (Emphasis mine) Hume, David. ""Skeptical Doubts Concerning Human Understanding"." Paul Edwards and Aurther Pap, Eds. A Modern Introduction to Philosophy. New York: The Free Press, 1973. 131, 136.
2. I am assuming here that the hypothesis in question is well-formed and the results can be accurately determined. Many times experiments either do not factor I all the initial values or perhaps the hypothesis is so broadly stated that results can be inconclusive. Usually, those instances will be studied further or other scientists will try to refine the original experiment to find a more specific answer to the question at hand.
3. Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books. 2010. p5.
4. To see several critiques of this stance, see Christopher Norris' "Hawking contra Philosophy" in the March/April 2011 magazine Philosophy Now, Roger Penrose has taken the entire thesis proposed by the book and dismissed it by saying, " What is referred to as M-theory isn't even a theory. It's a collection of ideas, hopes, aspirations…" (http://afterall.net/clippings/491891).

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Science versus Its Evil Twin: Scientism

One of the difficulties Christians face in defending their faith today is this misplaced elevation of science above everything else. I've had conversation with people who, like the trident chewing gum ad, think that if a majority of scientists hold a view then that somehow provides evidence for that view being correct. They believe this even if the point we're discussing is not a point of science! They claim that science is the only way we can know truth and if a claim doesn't have its basis in science then it's either not knowable or not worth discussing.


Those who claim that science is the only way to find truth remind me of actors cast in a 1950's b-grade movie, a flickering sci-fi tale where our hero (science) is replaced by his evil twin, intent on ruling the world. All those in the film who should know better continue to mistake the twin for the original, even though signs are clearly there to tell the two apart. The name of this evil twin is scientism, and while it may look like science on the surface, all the signs are there to prove that it's nothing like science at all. Of course everyone watching the movie can easily see the differences, but those poor victims never see the clues and usually fall right into scientism's evil clutches. So, to make sure we don't become scientism's next victims, let's take a look at the first of five clues that show the differences between the role of science and the philosophy of scientism.

Clue #1—Scientism selfishly believes only its own rules apply

Those practicing science make theories based on observable evidence.

Whenever school children begin science programs, the first thing that they are asked to learn is what the concept of science entails. Usually, this includes some nod to the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, testing and reporting results. The National Science Teachers Association defines science as "characterized by the systematic gathering of information through various forms of direct and indirect observations and the testing of this information by methods including, but not limited to, experimentation."1 C. John Collins, in his book Science and Faith comes up with this definition:
"A science is a discipline in which one studies features of the world around us, and tries to describe his observations systematically and critically."2
Whichever definition one uses, it's normally understood that the study of science has at its basis observations. Many times we picture a scientist in a lab doing experiments, but as Collins rightly points out we cannot also discount someone like the ornithologist whose specialty is migratory patterns of birds. Although he does not gather his information in the lab, he does observe birds and makes predictions and conclusions from those observations. So, science has observation as a necessary condition of its practice at some point in its process.

Those holding to scientism exclude any theories that cannot produce observable evidence as unworthy or not true.

Given the above, things we know to be real or true and are yet unobservable must be learned by some way other than science. Moral knowledge is one example. Moral laws are not things we can see or feel. We cannot measure them with a ruler or say "They occupy this amount of space and have this much mass." While we can observe the effects of people breaking moral laws, we cannot see the laws themselves. Therefore we know them by ways other than science. But we know moral laws are real.3

However, those who hold to scientism are not satisfied with the possibility that there are ways of knowing beyond the scientific method. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a recent debate gave a stark example of scientism. He opened his talk by noting that colleague Peter Atkins, when asked to give a talk at Windsor Castle was questioned by Prince Phillip who asked "You scientists are awfully good at answering the ‘how' questions but what about the ‘why' questions?" According to Dawkins, Atkins replied "Sir, the why questions are just silly questions."4 In one sweeping generalization, Atkins and Dawkins dismiss all those "big questions" of life, the ones that humanity has held in the highest regard for most of our existence! They reject wholesale the pursuit of understanding for why there is a universe at all, whether man has a purpose, how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

What motivates such a dismissal of the very issues that have been at the center of human consciousness throughout recorded history? It's because those who hold to scientism believe in another proposition that you may not know about. They believe that the natural world is the only world there is; that anything that cannot be explained by exclusively natural causes is either not real or not worth knowing. Dawkins alluded to as much in the quote above. But notice, this is a belief; a philosophical one known as methodological naturalism.5 The evil twin has contradicted himself! In stating that only things that can be explained by nature are knowable, he has made a statement of knowledge. But there's no way that the statement itself can be found in nature! Those who hold to naturalism as the only way to know things have undercut their own position because they start with a belief not found through science! Like our study in moral relativism, we see that scientism has a problem in that it cuts its own legs out from underneath itself. Yet, those who cling to it continue to deny that there are other ways of knowing. They believe their own rules only apply. Anything that doesn't fall within the realm of scientific investigation is considered a "silly question."

Science's evil twin, scientism, has made a mistake as bad guys always seem to do. He has tried to fool the world into believing that only his rules apply and are worthy of consideration. Some may believe that for a time. However, if you are sensitive to this trick, you can see that it really makes no sense to hold onto such a belief at all. Naturalism is self-refuting, which makes scientism the position that's silly.

For part two of this series, click here.

References

1. "National Science Teachers Association. The Nature of Science Position Statement. July 2000. 9 March 2011 .

2. Collins, C. John. Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books. 2003. p34.

3. For reasons on why moral laws are real things, see "The Case for Morality" section of chapter two.

4. Dawkins, Richard. "Debate: Does the Universe have a purpose?" 10 November 2010. YouTube. 09 March 2011 .

5. In a recent trial on the merits of teaching school children intelligent design along with evolution, Judge John Jones III, after hearing testimony from three scientists, stated "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." Jones III, John E. "Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District;Decision of the Court, Part 2." 31 December 2005. The Talk Aroigins Archive. 21 March 2011.
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