Tuesday, July 22, 2008


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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Natural Science and Theology

Here is an excerpt from research I did this past semester:

Many of the assumptions of materialism and mechanism are originally theologically motivated. Griffin (2000) explains, “Whereas we had previously assumed that the mechanistic view of nature was adopted primarily for rational-empirical reason, we have now learned that it was adopted primarily for sociological and theological reasons” (p. 133). For example, Epicurus, an early Greek materialist, believed that the chief cause of human disturbance was a belief in an interventionist God and in the afterlife. Materialism, he said, rid human beings of this disturbance; he said: "If our suspicions about heavenly phenomena and about death did not trouble us at all and were never anything to us . . . then we would have no need of natural science" (Wiker, 2002, p. 33). He claimed that the world is composed exclusively of matter, and that all order in the world can be accounted for in terms of the random interactions of uncreated matter. If the material universe was eternal and non-contingent, and had at least some powers of self-organization (random processes), there was “no need of invoking a god as the designer of the complex dance of the stars and planets; a purely material account [would] be sufficient” (Wiker, 2002, p. 46).

Also, Griffin explains that the mechanical philosophy of nature was championed by some philosophers precisely because they could use it as an argument for the necessity of a metaphysical God; Griffin quotes Boyle, a leader in the move towards the mechanistic worldview; he said, “Boyle rejected, furthermore, the view, common to spiritualists and Aristotelians, that creatures have ‘internal principles of motion,’ saying that these ‘vulgar’ views make nature ‘almost divine’” (2000, p. 115). In order to preserve what Griffin called “false metaphysical compliments” towards God, many of these philosophers dichotomized the physical from the divine more fully than ever before. Whatever properties God possessed, such as the capacity for independent action or self-motion, was precisely what matter lacked. Thus, in reaction to movements positing magical or “occult” powers to the physical world, scholars and philosophers searched for a way to preserve God’s exclusive organizational power. In this climate, Griffin explains, the “idea of matter as inert could seem a godsend” (2000, p. 119). Griffin explains that from this point of view
creatures do not need the power to move themselves, because an external, omnipotent agent can do everything directly. We must distinguish clearly between matter, on the one hand, and the laws of motion, on the other, realizing that the latter exist only as imposed by God… In short, the world’s order contains no inherent rationality to be discovered; it is completely imposed by the arbitrary fiat of God… Only this view, Boyle held, respects the absolute difference between the Creator and the created and reflects the perfect transcendence, freedom, and power of the former. (p. 115)

The intellectual projects of those who were trying to exclude God in their philosophy and those who were trying to preserve his metaphysical transcendence converged into a philosophy known as Deism. The Epicurean worldview was revived during the modern era, and influenced the views of many Deists (including Thomas Jefferson, who had read Epicurus in the original language) (Wiker 2002, p. 207). While Deists believed that God was the original motivator, all processes since the creation happen autonomously, and could therefore be studied without reference to divine intervention. As Wiker explains, “In Deism, then, the living Logos was replaced by the laws of motion as that which defined the order of existence” (2002, p. 205). The arbitrary fiat of God described by Boyle became the inherent order of the natural world that, while imposed originally by God in the act of creation, is autonomous and independent of God’s influence. Wiker (2002) explains:
Deism therefore became the religion of the new view of nature; that is, it was the religion that a closed system of nature would allow. As with Epicurus, the Divine was both distant and impotent to interfere with nature. The characteristic animosity of Deism toward Christianity … was rooted in the Epicurean animosity to an interfering, miracle-performing deity. Simply put, Deism was the form religion had to take in a Newtonian cosmos; and one sign that God did not ultimately belong in the system was the all too easy slide of Deism in the eighteenth century into materialist atheism in the nineteenth. (p. 205)

Thus, we see that the materialistic and mechanistic philosophy of nature led to deism, which is marked by a distaste for contemporary divine intervention in the physical world. C. S. Lewis (1947) explains, “What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord” (p. 8), independent of divine or human action. Brent Slife continues this thought, “The world is thought to occur as if its operation happens autonomously, as a result of its own independent processes … natural laws and principles autonomously govern the many processes and events of the world – not God” (“Should We…”, p. 6). It is clear that mechanistic philosophies are not theologically unbiased; they have their origins deep in various threads religious thought.

It is clear that the natural sciences have evolved over the ages in response to theological questions and concerns. I am not saying that the natural sciences are a religion; only that they present a particular theological worldview. Daniel Dennett (1995), for example, disputes the view that science is philosophically and theologically unbiased when he says:
Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on without examination. (p. 21)

We see in the mechanistic conception of science an example of the insights from Gadamer that Richard Williams summarizes:
“Methods do not establish truth. Rather, presuppositions about truth – and the nature of the world – influence, and, therefore, end up instantiated in methods. Thus at some level and to some degree, any methods will reflect back to those who employ them something of the presumed nature of truth and the world that influenced their creation and deployment” (Williams, “A Modest Proposal…”, p. 3).

Many philosophers have demonstrated the the idea of science as a self-correcting enterprise, free from theological, ideological, and philosophical assumptions is historically and presently inaccurate. Any method we use in science will be affected by pre-empirical metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the world around us. As honest scientists, we must recognize and acknowledge this, and be fully aware and cognizant of the assumptions we bring to our research. We must also recognize the possibility of alternative assumptions. As Griffin explains,
“If we find that the reigning orthodoxy within the scientific community is destructive, and if we find that this worldview has resulted largely from the influence of the Christian theology of an earlier century, then it is especially incumbent upon the theological community today to challenge this worldview … What is clear now … is that if there ever is to be a harmony between science and religion, the attachment of the scientific community to the mechanistic worldview will have to be transcended” (pp. 110-132).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

In response to the evolution discussion board

I will be the first to defend the fact that natural selection could be a means by which God distinguished species from one another. I little sympathy for those who believe that the biblical account is a sufficient explanation and excludes any other explanation.

Scientists refuse (and possibly rightfully so) to allow the biblical account to be sufficient to them as an explanation – they want to know more details and understand more deeply the events and the reason behind the world around them. However, it is presumptuous for them to then claim that their discoveries must be a sufficient explanation of life. That is my primary complaint against the natural sciences – the belief that the universe can be sufficiently explained by matter governed by scientific law. If that is all we need to know about an event in order to explain it, then any divine or teleological explanation becomes unnecessary and redundant. Yes, evolution does not forbid us from believing in God – it just makes it unnecessary to do so. Evolutionists can make the same claim that Laplace did when he presented his treatise on Calculus to Napoleon. Napoleon asked Laplace why there was no mention of God in the entire treatise. Laplace replied, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” That is, the mathematical account was sufficient, without divine intervention. God became the “God of the gaps” – a crutch to rely on whenever we don’t fully understand something.

That is a fine claim to make, as long as you don’t criticize biblical adherents for claiming that they do not need evolution because the biblical account is sufficient. It is interesting that people believe that while religion can never be considered sufficient, science can. I do not believe that religion and science are mutually exclusive. But at the same time, they cannot be mutually independent of each other either. I argue with the whole dichotomy of science v. religion in the first place, because I argue against the very philosophical foundations of modern science. I do not believe that an understanding of scientific laws is all we need to predict and understand the events in the world around us. They may be important, but not sufficient.

I find it particularly amusing that people cling to evolution because it provides an account that even non-religious people can believe in. It is almost as if they are subjecting scientific inquiry to a constitutional requirement that “no scientific theory will establish one moral or religious belief in preference to another.” Truth isn’t a civil rights issue – we aren’t required to only propose scientific claims that someone of any religious persuasion can believe in.

Science assumes that “there exists a physical world separate and distinct from our minds which is comprehensible through our senses and which is governed by certain generalities called the ‘laws of nature’ … [All] events in the universe have natural causes which always precede them in time and that can be explained rationally in terms of the laws of nature … [And these] laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe … [and] have remained the same through time.” This I got from a physical science textbook published by BYU. These assumptions are very useful in the realms of physics and biology. I am not going to say that they are wrong, but that we shouldn’t claim them to be absolute or irrefutable.

The idea that all matter comports itself deterministically to mathematical laws excludes the idea of agency. Agency is the idea that there is something in us that can transcend a deterministic framework – that whatever we do, there exists the possibility that we could have done otherwise. Determinism is the idea that whatever happens, happens inevitably, resulting from the unchangeable natural laws. Thus, things happen of their “own accord, automatically,” regardless of any human or divine action. Thus, what we claim about the external world inevitably reflects and influences what believe about ourselves and God, since we exist in a physical setting and interact with the physical world on a daily basis.

Someone could say that they believe that matter follows inevitably certain mathematical principles, and that it doesn’t prevent them from believing that we are moral agents and act of our own accord in a physical environment. That is a very popular and fairly justified philosophical opinion akin to Cartesian dualism – that there are two different kinds of things in the universe, which have very different characteristics and operate under different sets of rules – matter which is governed by mathematical laws, and sentient, agentic beings that are governed by whatever moral or psychological laws that governs them. I actually have my own arguments against Cartesian dualism, including critiques of the mind-body problem, but I don’t want to dilate on the issue. I will say that if you make the claim that scientific principles are deterministic you are taking a philosophical stance.

And most important and relevant to your question Elizabeth, whatever claim we make about the natural world entails certain implications about ourselves and God, whether we are of an entirely different character than the material world, whether we have agency, whether God can actually interfere in the events of the natural world or is bound by certain mathematical certainties, etc. In fact, the issue extends into the moral realm as well, because if everything we do is the result of genetic or environmental factors, or if all our thoughts can be reduced to neurological and physiological phenomena, then how can we be held responsible for our actions? If our society is merely the result of an evolutionary history, then are laws and morals binding or merely social contracts and human inventions? Does the god we believe in really exist, or was it an evolutionary advantage to believe in a supreme being? These are just a few of the moral and religious questions related to science.

Ernest Mach believed Science could be stripped of all philosophical and theoretical baggage by making it a purely descriptive discipline. No theoretical or speculative claims, but a careful description of the world around us. This would limit science to a collection of factual occurrences. From this perspective, scientists could believe they have unencumbered themselves of philosophy. However, the moment they try to speculate about an underlying order behind their observations, or to predict future events based upon their observations, they enter the realm of philosophy.

Einstein himself disliked the idea of science being a purely descriptive discipline. He asked, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality? Is human reason, then, without experience, merely by taking thought, able to fathom the properties of real things?” Einstein developed his theory of Relativity through a rational epistemology – it wasn’t until years later that his theory was confirmed through observation. His science was based upon a different philosophical groundwork, and he recognized that and capitalized on it. He would agree more than anyone that science is inextricably connected to philosophy, if it isn’t philosophy itself.

The most popular trend in science today is the philosophy of logical positivism – we observe the world in order to speculate and understand the rational order that governs it. It is a kind of blend of empiricism and rationalism. Modern science is logical positivism, are particular brand of philosophy. Karl Popper’s falsification theory of science hasn’t been accepted at large by the scientific community, and has problems of its own as well. Thomas Kuhn was a famous physicist who proposed a fascinating theory scientific advancement is the replacement of one philosophical tradition with another (this is a very much over-simplified version of his idea).

No philosophy professor or psychology professor would agree that science can be unencumbered of philosophy. The claim itself presumes that philosophy is purely speculative and somehow less reliable than the claims of scientific experience. Philosophy, however, isn’t that way. Any time we make a claim of truth, or an observation about the world around us, we are using some kind of philosophical assumption. That is a primary complaint that many professors in the psychology or philosophy departments have against the natural sciences: biologists and physicists dismiss any brand of thought outside their particular philosophical framework as “philosophical” and therefore “speculative”, while ignoring or forgetting their own philosophical groundings. I am a physics minor, and every day in physics class I hear claims of an entirely philosophical character, regarding the nature of scientific law, the characteristics of matter, the fundamental constituents of the universe, etc.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Let's believe in magic!

I finally understand what I don't like about the newest Star Wars movies (besides the acting and plot, etc.). It lies in the distinction between science fiction and fantasy.

Today, we live in a world where it is assumed that everything that happens has a "scientific explanation." This means more than that everything is explanable; it means that everything is understandable and accountable in terms of matter governed by mathematical laws. If anything out of the ordinary happens, we simply assume that it can be explained scientifically, even if we don't exactly know how yet. This modern-day perspective is often called scientific naturalism. This perspective is intricately connected with determinism, which is the assumption that all events are predictable, if you know all of the preceding circumstances. In other words, whatever happens, happens inevitably.

Scientific naturalism hasn't always been the prevailing assumption in society. In the past, and even in places today, people often applied a "teleological" explanation to the events of nature. The Greek word "telos" means end, or purpose. In this world view, things in nature act with a purpose, for a specific end, in an agentic kind of way. It is in a teleological worldview that we ascribe human characteristics to trees and rocks and "mother earth", etc., as we often read in older literature or modern fantasy. Even the idea of human agency or free will is a teleological explanation of human behavior, and is seen by many scientists as an "artifact of the past," as all human action is believed by them to be reducible or explanable in terms of neurons interacting in the brain. Human teleology is the last surviving link to this more archaic mode of explanation, and we are rightfully most reluctant to let go of it, although it is growing more and more popular to do so among the biological and psychological sciences.

Here is a key attraction of fantasy: in a world saturated with naturalism, fantasy invites us to "suspend" our assumption that all events are scientifically reducible and explore the possibilty of things that transcend the scientific realm, such as spirits, magic, and even free will. In a fantasy, the future is undetermined, non-mechanistic. Science fiction, although enjoyable to read, does not require us to suspend our basic assumptions about the world. Although the events that happen in science fiction are often impossible within our scientific framework, it is nonetheless assumed by the reader and the characters of the story that in the fictional science fiction world, all events are scientifically reducible.

This is a primary difference between the original Star Wars movies and the newer ones. In the original Star Wars movies, the force was not a scientifically reducible entitiy, but rather an exception to the scientific framework, a more spiritual entity, something that could be directed and channeled teleologically. Jedis were "sages" with military combat training. The movies were called by most critics a "fantasy." In the newer movies, however, we find the guiding assumption that all things must be scientifically explanable, and thus with the introduction of the "mitochlorians" Jedis became individuals with a certain evolutionary advantage over their fellow beings, and the force, rather than being directed agentically, had some sort of scientific connection with the cells in their body. The story stepped over the line from fantasy to science fiction. (one could argue that it was straddling the line in the beginning, the newers ones merely clarified the allegience, but the distinction is still illustrative)

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, "Why is it so hard for us to believe in things that are scientifically irreducible?" We see today a growing trend to reinterpret even scriptural accounts of miracles in terms of modern science, and assume that God himself cannot transcend the scientific realm. If we believe in human agency, we already believe in at least one thing that can transcend a deterministic, scientific framework. Might there also be others?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

My First Post!

This is my first post!