Science, For Goodness Sakes! (Part 1)
I need to preface this post with the disclaimer that I love science. I appreciate modern medicine and respect the work of the scientific community. As you will see, though, I believe the efforts of some in the scientific community to be philosophical in nature, rather than scientific. They have left the jurisdiction of science and have an axe to grind with the perceived “non-scientific” religious community. They make philosophical claims that are not scientifically testable, using the label of “science” to garner popular support. One example is the activism of those who wish to have evolution taught in schools to the exclusion of all other alternatives. (Admittedly, the recent Ham/Nye debate has been the impetus of this post, and although I disagree with Ham on the age of the earth, I agree generally with the notion that science isn’t able to speak with authority on the question of God’s existence.) I hope this post will prove to be a useful tool to someone in addressing some of the hype. If not, it allows me to get my own thinking down in print in one place!
One of the more popular arguments coming from the New Atheists (NA) says that religion always has a negative impact on society, therefore people should reject religion and adopt naturalistic materialism as a worldview. Furthermore, say the NA, religious people have used God to explain the source of morality (or origins, or consciousness, or religious belief…) but now science is able to tell us where morals came from. Since science is able to explain where morals came from, there is no need to cling stubbornly to antiquated, obsolete religious beliefs. There are a number of reasons that this argument doesn’t work. The first is that it is based on scientism, which is a flawed and self-refuting philosophy. The second is that it attacks a straw-man version of theism, where faith is the opposite of reason (a false dichotomy) and God is only needed as an explanatory force for events we can’t understand with science. The third and most important is that the historical data do not support the notions that religion is always bad and societies that reject religion are better off. Since there is a lot of material to cover, I’ll discuss the three reasons we can reject the NA argument in two separate posts, beginning with a more in-depth look at scientism.
Scientism, as I described briefly in a previous post, views science as the ultimate, authoritative source of all valuable knowledge. It is a naturalistic philosophy, and generally predicts that greater adherence to reason and rejection of religion yields better outcomes for humankind. Support for this idea comes mainly from sensational medical advances (such as the smallpox vaccine), and has a certain amount of veracity, as long as we consider scientific advances to be in opposition to religious institutions (which they are not). An historical case for the antagonism of religion toward science can be built, but it relies on heavily cherry-picked data. For a more balanced an accurate examination on the question of historical religious posture toward scientific advance, see Tim O’Neill’s article here: http://www.strangenotions.com/gods-philosophers/
Naturalistic Materialism and Scientism also suppose that anything that is not observable or measurable does not exist. This way of viewing the universe precludes the possibility of the existence of God, angels, demons or any other supernatural entity or force. The problem here is that scientism isn’t able to test its own fundamental, distinctive propositions scientifically. Can the hypothesis that anything non-measurable doesn’t exist be proven or disproven scientifically? No, it can’t. Scientism fails to meet its own scientific criteria at a fundamental level. Besides, are we, as human beings, intrinsically aware of non-material things that exist? Several things come to my mind that even atheists would acknowledge: loyalty, hatred, forgiveness, consciousness, love…morality…these things can’t be quantified but they are universally acknowledged as realities that each of is deal with. We know this because we observe their effects on the world and ourselves. We might even see these non-quantifiable indicators as aligning themselves with basic theism, as the needle on the compass always points north. Whereas Naturalistic Materialism seeks to find the “rational” (as though theism were irrational) explanation for these undetectable realities in non-theistic terms, they do so at the expense of scientific integrity. Does science have a bias built into it? Not in the pure sense. But scientism has a non-supernatural bias built into it, with no scientific basis for such a bias.
As inconvenient as it may be for the New Atheists, the fact that God won’t lay down on a microscope slide and dance the Charleston doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist. In fact, even if science found a cogent explanation for EVERYTHING observable in the universe, mankind wouldn’t have a rational reason to suppose that non-material beings do not exist. This is true especially where they leave their fingerprints on the observable world. I refer here to several things:
1. Documentary evidence; the Bible, which, in order to be explained in a non-supernatural fashion, must be subject to violent interpretive gymnastics that haven’t been applied to any other text that I’m aware of. Given the possibility of miracles (standard for conventional theism), the Bible is completely consistent with history. Indeed, early church history in particular is quite difficult to explain without a literal, historical resurrection. One might even argue that Jesus’ claims of deity mean that God actually did get “under the microscope” for mankind.
2. Cultural/Anthropological evidence; messiah legends in numerous cultures around the world, expertly surveyed in Don Richardson’s “Eternity in their Hearts”.
3. Medical evidence http://journals.lww.com/smajournalonline/Fulltext/2010/09000/Study_of_the_Therapeutic_Effects_of_Proximal.5.aspx (Another instance of God getting “under the microscope”, but since it supports theism, every atheist—and one deist—I have confronted with this evidence have dismissed it as inconclusive. 100% of the patients in this study displayed significant measurable improvement after being prayed for, which far exceeds any placebo effect.)
4. Cosmological evidence; the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the universe had a beginning. There are volumes of other cosmological data that support the so-called “Big-Bang”, which don’t require rehearsal here, but which corroborate the Biblical concept that a timeless, immaterial force initiated the universe.
Taken piecemeal, the above indicators for God’s existence may or may not be convincing. However, given the impossibility of logically proving the non-existence of God, and the weakness of agnosticism in the face of a body of evidence like the above, theists would seem to be on safe epistemic ground. To the contrary, those who might be persuaded by the NA would do well to engage the critical thinking skills those very atheists claim to apply, and look at the relevant data before going along with an atheist agenda. Stay tuned for more!