I’ve been a busy boy on the blog this week. I guess I’ve got a lot on my mind lately.
A couple weeks ago, on my birthday, in fact, an old pastor, who I still count as a friend, wished me a happy birthday and encouraged me to take a look at a book he feels provides a strong challenge to the secular scientific view of the world and the universe – Not a Chance by R.C. Sproul
The premise of the book is that the universe and nature could not have arisen by chance, and therefore must have been created by God.
Honestly, I hesitate to spend my time on this, because I sort of know what I’m going to find. My experience with apologetics books by authors such as Geisler, Craig, McDowell, & Strobel, is that they aren’t really intended to convince the unbeliever, but to comfort the already convinced.
So I’ve started reading it and have a couple thoughts to share from the preface – mostly to highlight the red flags that jump out.
R.C. Sproul is very good with words, eloquent even, but he uses that eloquence to play a linguistic shell game. He also makes a number of bald assertions that I’m going to hope he at least tries to substantiate in the body of the book.
He jumps right out and makes an attempt to bolster the scientific credentials of the bible with the following claim:
“We have a tendency in our day to think of mythology as a literary enterprise of primitive, ignorant, prescientific cultures. This tendency errs in two directions. On the one hand, it is the nadir of arrogance for us to assume that ancient civilizations were primitive, ignorant, or prescientific. The Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, Romans, and Greeks, for example, were anything but primitive and ignorant. They all achieved extraordinary levels of scientific advancement. Yes, they had mythology, but they had their serious science as well.”
There are a couple problems with this paragraph alone.
First, the assertion that we make an “arrogant assumption” that drives our characterization of ancient civilizations as primitive and ignorant, as though, one, we aren’t aware of their level of scientific advancement, or two, they were somehow on par with our current level of advancement, is a blatant shifting of the goalposts. It’s clear he’s setting the table to try and equate biblical authors’ spiritual claims with modern scientific theory.
The problem with his assertion is that there is no mischaracterization of the level of their scientific advancement and we’re making no assumptions. We know how advanced they were. We have access to the same information as Sproul. Modern science is built on those very foundations. Their attempts made progress in very human fashion. They generally aren’t characterized as “ignorant” either. On the other hand, the natural claims one finds in the bible bespeak a primitive ignorance that is unsurprising – in fact, I think it’s telling that Sproul doesn’t mention the ancient Hebrews as one of those scientifically advanced societies.
Sproul also stretches the truth when he uses the word “extraordinary,” as though their advancement was somehow something other than what is recorded historically. It was great progress, but falls comfortably right in line in the progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge – one discovery generally leads to another – though not in a simple smooth progression.
The mythology they have, of course, neatly fills the still massive gaps in the scientific knowledge of the day.
After this first attempt to move the goalposts to bolster the credibility of ancient religious claims, he then moves to the other end of the field and tries to move those goalposts too. He claims that mythology isn’t only in the past, but persists today. After he sets you up by referring to things like old wives’ tales and athlete’s superstition, he grabs the goalposts with both hands:
“Mythology also intrudes into the realm of science. Uncritically accepted hypotheses and theories of the past die a slow and reluctant death.”
Such a bald and blatant attempt to equate the effort it takes to disprove a scientific theory with the persistence of superstitions doesn’t offer much hope for the content of the rest of the book. He also is dishonest in stating that hypotheses and theories of the past are “uncritically accepted.” That is patently untrue. Hypotheses, and the theories that result from the process of testing and either proving or disproving hypotheses until the facts become clear, are systematically criticized in the peer review process. No theory is accepted until it has passed that test.
They are certainly for more critically examined than religious claims about the natural world.
But he pretty much has to set the stage the way he would like it to be, because the entire premise of the book depends on the idea that scientists’ stock-in-trade is just another collection of myth.
Sproul stakes his claim that the element of chance in the natural world is a myth that has entered the scientific vernacular. He asserts that scientists have come to view chance as a thing that has, in itself, causal power. For instance, he writes:
“With the elevation of chance to the level of a real force, the myth serves to undergird a chaos view of reality. Buttressed by inferences drawn from quantum theory, the idea that reality is irrational rather than coherent gained popularity.”
Having said that chance, as opposed to intentional causality, is a myth, he rides that as though the assertion is beyond question, which is ludicrous. Now I’m sure he’ll in with more explanation, but this preface carries an air of foregone conclusion, which I’m sure his Christian readers will eat up, but which will have critical thinkers rolling their eyes.
He also grossly mischaracterizes the methodology and motivation of science as follows:
“As we prove the seemingly infinite and the infinitesimal, we are left with aching paradigms stretched to the breaking point.”
Well, maybe that’s a problem for Christians, who start from a place of assuming they know everything, and therefore reject new information that challenges assumptions. But science doesn’t work that way. Science doesn’t ache at the change of paradigm. Science challenges new information and new claims to be sure they are factual before they are accepted and before older scientific theories are displaced. Nobody is aching except the author.
Sadly, he continues painting a very dishonest picture of how the scientific community operates with nonsense like this:
“The Enlightenment dream of discovering the “logic of the facts” has become a nightmare for many. Some have responded by abandoning logic altogether. It is when logic is negotiated or abandoned that myth is given fresh impetus.”
What nonsense. Nobody has abandoned logic on this side of the wall. Unless by that he means that they have given up trying to figure out how to make nonsensical spiritual claims jive with discovered scientific fact. This is just an untrue statement. I wait to see if he actually tries to substantiate this. I doubt he will – I think this is just another attempt to present a jury-rigged background to make his arguments appear reasonable.
Finally, he says something that is very true:
“The twin enemies of mythology are logic and empirical data, the chief weapons of true science. If either weapon is neutralized, mythology is free to run wild.”
Quite. And I think we’re about to see a lot of wild running about with the facts in the following chapters.
More to come…