Science and Metaphysics (a reaction to “Science Vs. Religion: Beyond The Western Traditions”)
Today I read an interesting article on NPR concerning conversation about science and faith. You can read it here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/07/13/329759036/science-vs-religion-beyond-the-western-traditions?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20140713
The main idea of the article seems to be that in the U.S., these conversations mainly occur between people with a non-supernatural (or “materialistic”) framework (atheists, agnostics, skeptics etc.) and those from the Abrahamic religions. Adam Frank, who authored the piece, correctly points out that this approach excludes eastern and mystical worldviews and religions, including Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism. He effectively challenges the reader to broaden the scope of the discussion and exercise some contextualization and to educate oneself on the wider array of perspectives than the one we come to the table with.
I disagree with the author on one major point, however. First and foremost, he seems to be advocating religious pluralism: “Note that none of this implies that one perspective has to be superior to the others in discussions of science and religion.” This is a classic postmodern approach to truth: appealing to a multiplicity of perspectives and implying that none (or all) are correct. Does that work in logical terms? It would never work in a chemistry lab. H2S04 is always sulfuric acid, even if there are conflicting viewpoints on the fact. Likewise, either the materialistic-anti-religious movement is correct in saying that there is no God, or theists are correct. One perspective or the other is superior, they can never be factual equals. Mr. Frank is suffering under the illusion that to disagree with someone’s perspective is to disrespect their person. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “People are equal. Ideas are not.”
More importantly, Mr. Frank (who works in the field of theoretical physics) failed to address the inadequacy of inductive reasoning (popularly known as “science”) as a tool for assessing metaphysical truth claims. Plain english: science isn’t able to measure non-scientific things. Frank places all the world’s religions on one end of the table; each presenting their own metanarrative with mutually exclusive truth claims. At the other end of the table is empiricism, strangely silent in Frank’s appeal to pluralism.
What are we to interpret by his silence? It’s hard to speak for Mr. Frank, but many of the science vs. faith (which is a false dichotomy) conversations I have witnessed have gone much like this:
Skeptical person: “I reject a religious metanarrative in favor of materialism. If the scientific process can’t provide me with evidence that a particular religion is true, I reject that religion. I’m just following the evidence.”
Then the religious person (usually a Christian) says something well-intentioned but not very helpful such as “you just have to have faith.” Or “I don’t believe in evolution because it’s just a theory.”
The Christian metanarrative is ultimately evidence-based and not incompatible with scientific inquiry, as many people try to portray it. Christians who want to engage in those conversations need to at least get a base of knowledge beyond the youtube commandos. Anti-theists spend copious amounts of their effort and energy learning arguments against theism. While this doesn’t make their position correct, their vocabluary and tone can often be intimidating to Christians who don’t really have their feet under them in terms of thinking about science and faith. (If you are a Christian and find yourself unable to answer the challenges of skeptics, don’t lose heart! Find some good apologetics resources and get equipped!)
Probably the biggest challenge to the conversation is the oft’ uncorrected assumption that science is the appropriate tool to apply to metaphysical questions, such as “does God exist” (or “is there a transcendant reality” in the case of eastern religions). Clearly metaphysics lies beyond the scope of the scientific process.* Is that reasonable grounds to assume that no metaphysical reality exists? If you build a tool for detecting “X”, and you can’t find any “Y” with your “X” detector, you would be silly to proclaim to have proven that anti-Y-ism is the best idea around! Furthermore, (and this only applies to theistic religions) what logical grounds are there to assume that a deity would be obligated to provide evidence of his/her/its existence?
Let’s simplify the argument of many internet atheism communities:
Every premise must be supported with empirical evidence. (Ok, that’s not too bad, except that metaphysical realities such as numbers can’t be proven with the scientific process.)
The premise “God Exists” has no empirical evidence to support it. (I happen to disagree with this also, and believe it can be shown to be false. But I digress.)
Therefore God does not exist.
So, we all know that it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of a thing. Every well-read atheist will remember Bertrand Russell’s infamous parable of the celestial tea-pot. But there is another flaw in this argument which makes it self-defeating: it assumes that such a deity would be obligated to provide the type of empirical evidence we are asking of it. Such a premise (God is obligated to give us scientific evidence of his existence) has zero empirical evidence.
The person who is dogmatic in his stance against the supernatural is working off of a self-defeating philosophy, and calling it science. (This is very common in the movement known as “secular humanism”. They have co-opted the word “science” for their own anti-religious agenda, and often stretch its meaning or change it completely to something more like materialistic naturalism, which is a philosphy, not science. This is a logical fallacy known as “equivocation”, or “four term fallacy”.) If they won’t follow the rules of logic in their own arguments, there isn’t much point in having a conversation. They have decided that the scientific metanarrative (which seems to add up to nihilism) can replace any other metanarrative by default, on the basis of the merits of science in the natural world. Unfortunately, science is not equipped to answer metaphysical questions.
So if I could have a cup of coffee with Mr. Frank, I think I would ask him why science even has a place at the table in the conversation about metanarrative. Science is good at answering questions of physical process, not questions of meaning. Science can give us “How?” We look to metaphysics, religion and philosophy for “Why?” The fact that there is a variety of conflicting answers to “Why?” does not somehow qualify the tools of science to answer.
*We can’t prove the existence of numbers using the scientific process. Their existence, which is unchallenged, is a question of metaphysics. One can’t place a “7” into a test tube, or determine the weight of all the prime numbers between one and a million. In that sense, the existence of numbers is not demonstrable using the tools of modern science. I use this illustration to show that metaphyiscs is a necessary part of everyone’s apparatus for belief. We need metaphysics, whether we know it by that name or not. Ultimately, to require empirical, laboratory evidence for belief in something is not consistent with the way anyone thinks about reality. As another example, consider loyalty. Does anyone question the existence of loyalty? No. Yet we can’t measure it with the tools of science. The same is true for hatred, forgiveness and jealousy. Simply put, science is very useful for making observations and predictions about the physical world. That’s it.