Science, Schmience

As my little cadre of readers know, my former pastor Chuck and I are engaged in a little debate around R.C. Sproul’s Not a Chance, in which Sproul takes on the idea of Chance as a factor in Existence. In doing so he contacted a scientist buddy or two, one of whom at least is also a bible-believing Christian, it seems. This guy, “Bob,” provided some commentary after reading through my blog that was half interesting, half a festering lump of offensive arrogance.

I’ll deal with the latter in a subsequent post, but I’m going to reproduce his comments here then address the points he brings up to see if they hold water.

“My education and discussion focus is in the natural sciences. But I think the principles I discuss apply to the whole of scientific methodology.

“I don’t know what Sproul said about HUP [note: HUP stands for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – a quantum physics concept regarding the behavior of sub-atomic particles. HUP basically states that the more accurately you measure the position of a particle, the less accurate the measurement of its velocity, and vice versa. The act of measurement itself has an effect on the particle, preventing the sort of precision we’re used to in other bodies of science] or how he used it. From what I understand, HUP is a statement about behavior at the particle physics level. It says it is impossible to know precisely both the position and momentum of a particle. Therefore its future cannot be determined. This is a departure from classical physics which said that the future motion of a particle could be exactly predicted.

“So, classical physics tries to provide exact results (deterministic) while quantum physics speaks in terms of probabilities (i.e. chances). For example, to describe the position of an electron, quantum mechanics describes only the probability of finding the electron at a certain point (because the exact point is impossible to define per HUP).

“Anyway, I’ve also read that the lack of predictability per the HUP cannot be applied to the macro world. HUP does not mean that predictability is impossible on a macro scale. Again, not sure what point Sproul was trying to make with HUP and quantum mechanics.

So far, so good. The behavior of particles at the sub-atomic level is not mirrored in the behavior of larger bodies. As we’ll see in the review, Sproul was using HUP and the concept of Probability/Chance in Quantum Physics to build a strawman that, once torn down, will allow him to assert existence of his god.

All well and good. But Bob’s going to depart from Sproul’s work and go after science and trot out NOMA, all the while crossing the Magesterial Boundaries himself.

“For many, science has the answer for everything.

No. Nobody who has any decent respect for the scientific process thinks that. However, those “many” with a reasonable understanding of the scientific process understand that it is the best method we have to objectively assess reality and the universe around us and/or specific claims about said reality in order to gain knowledge from and about it.

However, science and the scientific method are limited. Unfortunately the limitations of science are not often acknowledged or communicated. Science can explain many things but not everything. A couple of observations in this regard:

Actually, the limitations on it are acknowledged and discussed regularly. This is a common Christian tactic in which science is denigrated without basis or reference. The idea is to put the individual using scientific processes on the defensive before the discussion even begins.

1) The limit of science is the natural world. Science is limited to naturalistic explanations (natural causes). The supernatural is outside its scope.

Here’s NOMA in a nutshell. NOMA stands for Non-Overlapping Magisteria, a concept coined by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould. The basic idea is that religion and science have nothing to say to and about each other and should stay out of each other’s playgrounds, so to speak. The main problem with NOMA (and we’ll see more of that below and in my upcoming review of Dr. Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact) is that it is not a reasoned assertion, but an artificial barrier to try and avoid having to empirically examine religious claims about reality.

The reason this idea of separation is unacceptable is because of the constant stream of assertions by Christians (and other religious faiths) that God(YHWH) is fully engaged and intervening in our physical reality. They would have us teach Creationism in schools. They claim healing, rescue, and other answers to prayer. If their supernatural being is constantly interacting with natural physical reality, then it is something that should be open to observation and assessment. More on that in a moment.

I would hypothesize that, despite its roots in the mind of the illustrious late Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, the religious like NOMA because they like to have their cake and eat it too. They have no problem using their religious claims to attack the results of scientific examination, but balk at having their own claims similarly examined.

I’ll believe Christian claims of Non-Overlapping Magisteria as soon as they cease trying to insert their Magisteria into our childrens’ education, into our government, and into our personal lives.

2) There’s a pervasive arrogance in the scientific community which says scientific explanations are the only valid type of explanations. They’d rather discount the existence of the supernatural and other modes of explanation rather than acknowledge the limitations of science.

Let me first note that Bob doesn’t seem to put on offer any other modes of explanation. Here’s hoping he does, because you’ll find that other modes are no more than sophisticated forms of Hand-Waving and Begging the Question, and other baseless assertions that involve unfalsifiable presuppositions.

“Here’s an analogy (as imperfect as it is): What if I were to evaluate the world using only a metal detector and then deny the existence of people or trees, rather than acknowledge the limitations of the detector? How absurd would that be? But that’s what often happens in the scientific community.

This is actually a key point. I think Bob’s got it all wrong though, and here’s why:

A metal detector is a single method of input (or two, actually, depending on the model, but that’s splitting hairs.) It is designed to detect but one thing – metallic materials. It also has a very narrow bandwidth, and its very limited in scope, at a very narrow depth.

But equating that with the process of scientific observation is facetious at best.

Stepping back, we as human beings have exactly 5 senses by which we interact with the universe around us. Nobody has more. Some gurus might assert more, but nothing of the sort has been proven or even demonstrated with any level of consistency. In order to communicate an idea or observation to another person, any data regarding that observation must by necessity be communicated in terms of one or more of those 5 sensual inputs.

We are only able to experience the universe by those 5 senses. Period.

They make up the sum total of the observational powers of the human mind.

All methods of measurement are but extensions of these observational powers.

Therefore is is reasonable to assert that these 5 senses are the only means of obtaining knowledge about the universe around us. Whereas the metal detector in Bob’s analogy is a narrow focus, science represents the sum total human power and method of observation. Any new method developed automatically is added to that total, so that science represents our best and most complete means of gaining knowledge about the universe and everything in it.

So Bob’s analogy isn’t just imperfect. It is irrelevant.

“In his book, Darwin on Trial, Phillip Johnson does a good job demonstrating how Darwinism is closer to being religion than a theory based on science. I like the following way he sums up the view of much of the scientific community:

“The position of scientific naturalists is that, “Scientific investigation is either the exclusive path to knowledge or at least by far the most reliable path, and that only natural or material phenomena are real. In other words, what science can’t study is effectively unreal.” – Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, pg 116, note 2.

Well, we should start by mentioning that Phillip E. Johnson was no more a scientist than I am, and less of one than Bob apparently is. There is an excellent debunking of Johnson’s book at talkreason.org for those with the time and inclination.

But the quote Bob offers is actually a fallacious extrapolation. The reason that scientific investigation is the only reliable path to gain knowledge about reality is that it is the only repeatable means we have. Observing the world and the universe with our five senses, and drawing conclusions from those observations is all we have.

When Bob, and Johnson, and Pastor Chuck, say such things, they imply, strongly, that they have access to other means of gaining knowledge. But they are means that are impossible to categorize, formalize, and duplicate in any controlled process to prove that they’re right.

I’ll be interested in having Bob and Chuck put forward some of these additional means of gaining knowledge over and above our human capacity to observe, assess, and retain.

“Here’s the bottom line. Both sides of the argument need to be reminded that science and the scientific method rely solely on naturalistic causes and explanations. When it comes to the supernatural, science can have no comment and the scientific method does not apply. Period.

“It is futile to use scientific reasoning and evidence to argue for or against God. By definition, science and its methods are God-ignorant (could you say they are atheistic?).

This is, of course, patently incorrect. I have no problem making such an unequivocal statement.

Bob, Pastor Chuck, and nearly every believer will follow this up with assertions that:

  • God created the universe as a single act of his will.
  • God specially created the individual species and man separately from each other in the natural order.
  • God guides every aspect of every life on earth, from the smallest insect to the greatest animal to the most prominent human being.
  • Nothing happens without God’s specific willful permission.
  • God intervenes in the lives of believers to affect his will.
  • God intervenes in the workings of the world to affect his will to the benefit of his purpose and to the benefit of believers for whom he has chosen to answer prayers and alter his will (we won’t even get into the paradox that produces right now.)

The God of the believing Christian is a supremely active god, intervening in every single tiny aspect of the universe. In fact, the book by R.C. Sproul will assert, by the time we are done, that there is absolutely no such thing as random/purposeless chance, that every movement of every subatomic particle, is purposed aforehand by God’s will and his will alone. He is in total control of the entire universe.

So if you take the sum total of observable phenomena in the universe, in our human experience, what you find is that humanity, via scientific methodology, is consistently and almost inevitably able to find a rational explanation for each observable event.

For the Christian to assert a supernatural agent at work in the real world, they would need to produce evidence of an event, any event, that would provably be unable to occur without the intervention of an outside, supernatural agency.

If Bob and co. wish to dismiss that idea, then their god become relegated to irrelevancy. For how can they assert the intervention of any god into the lives and circumstances of any individual if that intervention is absolutely indistinguishable from natural occurrence? That is the primary rub. So if the Christian wishes to assert (repeating:) “When it comes to the supernatural, science can have no comment and the scientific method does not apply. Period,” then the Christian must cease insisting there be any mention of their God’s intervention into natural processes studied in biology, geology, chemistry, physics, genetics, and all branches of science. For by their own admission, God is irrelevant in nature and vice versa.

They don’t get to have it both ways.

“My view on why science’s limitations aren’t talked about much: It causes us discomfort in two areas:

1) Makes the world less knowable – Admitting science and scientific reasoning has limitations reduces how much really is knowable and explainable, and emphasizes how much we really don’t know – and possibly how much our capability to understand is limited

I’m sorry, Chuck and Bob, but this is nonsense. Science is nothing but the formalization of the use of all human sensory ability to observe the universe. It is limited only by the entire human capacity to know anything. That’s all. The methodology of science is nothing more than observation, and refining that observation to isolate cause and result – no matter what is being observed. Science doesn’t just happen in the lab. It happens every time you hear a knock in the engine of your car, a noise outside your house, a computer or phone app that doesn’t behave as it ought. You do science every time you observe and evalute.

Now granted, we sometimes do poor science and come to erroneously quick conclusions, but that is where the formalized scientific method comes in. Doing so ensures that the observational method/experiment is repeatable so that others can see if truly the results are assured and a proper reflection of reality.

You don’t have any other method of knowing. Period.

2) Admitting scientific reasoning has limitations allows for the possibility that the supernatural exists and the possibility that we may be accountable to something outside of ourselves.

I’ll just say again – if a proposed supernatural agency is wholly indistinguishable from known natural processes, then that supernatural agency is rendered irrelevant and can be dismissed unless and until some proof is shown of its necessity in that the result observed could not have happened in any other way than by the intervention of that supernatural agency.

“People don’t like not knowing or being accountable to some authority. What better way to rid one’s self of guilt than to get rid of accountability?

And this is just, well, sad. This is how many Christians avoid having to face the ramifications of their scientific misunderstandings – they assert that the rational thinker, rather than drawing the most likely conclusion about their observation, is actually willfully dismissing the supernatural from their observation to avoid dealing with guilt over sin. This is a pernicious and, unfortunately, pervasive theme you’ll see repeated over and over and over again. Bob and Pastor Chuck, and even R.C. Sproul has already touched on it in just the first three chapters of his book.

It’s really a subtle ad hominem attack. It has no relation to the argument at hand and to its elements, but is an attack on the individual, calling the rationalist not only evil, but willfully so. In the next installment you’ll see Bob double down on this personal attack without remorse, which speaks volumes about the religious mindset at work, even if Bob himself is a pretty nice guy (which I have to assume he is.)

“So again, science and the scientific method can only address causes within nature not outside of it. If one attempts to apply scientific explanation to the highest levels of cause, it becomes self-referential because it can only explain nature by the natural. It’s at this point we have the real sore spot between scientific philosophy and religion – Does God exist? It all gets back to a disagreement about ultimate causes.

Having read this paragraph over and over again, I’m almost taken aback in that it reads like a complete capitulation that Bob (and really, the religious in general) has exactly zero proof of the existence of his god. It’s a repudiation of the assertion made by the author of Romans 1 that nature itself is proof of the existence of God. But if the observation of nature not only lacks indication of a supernatural agency, but by Bob’s assertion cannot be used to provide any proof of the supernatural, let alone anything so specific as YHWH, then either Bob’s assertion is incorrect, or Romans 1 is incorrect.

Basically, Bob says that the only arena for argument about the existence of God is the area where we really have, as of yet, no knowledge, ultimate causes.

In other words, God of the Gaps. It appears he’s only willing to argue for the existence of his God in areas where scientific knowledge is lacking because it is only there where he will not face opposition from actual scientific knowledge that argues against the existence of his supernatural agent.

“I am not saying that science methodology is not useful. It is a great tool for discovering natural processes and finding out how they work and interact. However, too often it is assumed that natural processes are the only ones at work or the only ones that matter.

They are the only ones we can observe and it is the only method we have, formally or informally. Period. I’ll be interested in having Bob or Chuck provide additional avenues of knowing that aren’t reliant on this exact process.

“I think one can balance belief in God with a scientific approach to discovery. A believing scientist might say that they use scientific methods to discover and understand the natural processes at work in the world but still acknowledge God as the creator of these processes and as the ultimate cause.

That’s all well and good, as long as everyone recognizes that said scientist has absolutely no reason apart from his or her own early indoctrination and the unsubstantiated assertions learned in the pew to believe so.

“To me, the believer’s view of the world is more satisfactory. Creation can be seen as existing and functioning with a design and purpose in mind (though still realizing that imperfections exist due to its fallen state). The non-believer lives in a world without purpose, although they have gotten rid of guilt (have they?).

Here Bob tries to gloss over the fact that the natural universe appears to exist without specific purpose, and that the only sense of purpose is provided by the self-same indoctrination that by his own admission cannot stand up to rational scrutiny.

And just to finish it off, we’re back to the ad hominem attack. Lovely.

In the next installment, Bob will turn his ad homs directly on me. Won’t that be fun?

Stay tuned.

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11 thoughts on “Science, Schmience

  1. Thank you for having the patience to rebut these arguments Bob and Sproul are making.
    You nailed it. What stood out to me most last year was that all the evidence presented for God acting in the world was God of the gaps. The only positive evidence presented was highly subjective. Gaps in knowledge are not evidence for a conjecture.
    What you discuss is what I was referring a while ago when I wrote that Chuck was trying to knock science down to the level of faith. Science isn’t perfect, but actual scientists don’t claim it is. It is infinitely more reliable as a source of knowledge than faith or revelation. Religious explanations have been falsified by science. No scientific claim has been falsified by religion. Crying that it’s not fair that because NOMA doesn’t work, as you well explained, unless you believe in a non interventional God or an undetectable God. Does Sproul go that far? Ken Miller does. He believed God acts on the quantum level where we can’t predict. This claim is consistent with observations, perhaps, but indistinguishable from no God at all.

  2. Needs more context for those of us not already in the loop (and maybe for those who are, for later reference…)

    Where are these comments he made? Public? Can you link to them?

    What is HUP?

    Consider defining NOMA in the text, too (in addition to the link).

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m having that very same ad hominen attack used against me in regards to my deconversion. I don’t believe in a god because of my observations not because I don’t want to face some unpleasant reality about myself! I have felt very taken aback and haven’t known how to respond to the accusation that I am choosing not to believe. Anyway, thanks for enlightening me to the fact that this argument is used against rational thinking all the time. I feel more sane and more prepared.

  4. First let me say: nice blog Toonforever! Also very nice new headerpictures!
    Second thing i want to say: the search of pastor chuck and bob for the explanation for why you thinking is changed, is really crazy! They are so brainwashed with the idea that their faith is the only true thing, that all things you say, no matter how much truth and rationality it contains, it does not need to be taken seriously, because they have already almost figured out what your problem is. And they will find a problem, because they need an explanation which will keep their faith as it was.

    I have respect for the way you keep focused on the arguments and for not giving up!

    Greetings from a deconvert from the netherlands.

    • Greetings, Peter, and thanks! Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. I’m actually working as we speak on an article about that very idea and what feeds it. I look forward to your input 🙂

  5. Pingback: So Sorry, So Sad Redux | Why I No Longer Believe

  6. My respect for R.C. Sproul fell away when I came across an article where he said ‘God does not send anyone to Hell, people send themselves, there is nowhere else for them to go’.

    I see such thinking as the ultimate apologist fudge, somehow seeking to justify the unjustifiable. Better to admit they don’t know they put forward such a view.

    Seth Andrews commented that the biggest challenge to a Christian is an atheist who is a good person, because according to their theology this is not possible. I remember as child wondering how Albert Schweitzer could be such a good person given he had rejected Christianity. I later had similar thoughts about Gandhi. Then later a work colleague who had rejected Christianity because of the abuse at the hands of religious people.

    Although such issues troubled me, it was only when I was prepared to accept the possibility that the Bible could be a human, not divine construction, that the veil was lifted from my eyes.

    As you demonstrate in this post, people are prepared to accept the most unlikely explanations if it is necessary to support their overriding world view.

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