Science, Scientists and Scientism

“Science and religion,” reads the headline. A lively discussion is anticipated. Yet this is a topic that thrives primarily on equivocation–vague statements are made, and vague counterpoints are offered. At the end of the day, nothing is said. If the participants would abandon their propriety and admit the weaknesses in their positions, however, it might be possible to say something. I think Stephen Jay Gould was wrong about NOMA. I think science and religion (here meaning the Christian religion) do overlap, but I do not think they mix.

The first thing that one notices about “science and religion” is that the very topic itself is vague. We don’t talk about “sociology and grapefruits,” so what is it that has gotten these two words in the same phrase together? Three questions come to mind:

– Is natural history, human evolution, and the nature of the world compatible with a theistic view?

– Have we explained away our souls, and other religious ideas (e.g. sin)?

– Are miracles possible?

It seems that even heavyweight minds are content to engage in complex dances of politeness in order to avoid conceding the weaknesses in their own positions, and letting their supporters down.

There are various weaknesses in the Christian position. Amongst those who are able to come to terms with the age of the earth and the origin of the human race, there nonetheless exists a certain superficial aloofness towards the implications of scientific discoveries. Yes, I believe that scientists are good and right, and their efforts have also built me fine technology. Now let us discuss the mind of God, which cannot be addressed by science. But it is really not as simple as that. Science is not the study of atoms and chemical reactions; it is the study of all things. Christians tend to wiggle away without really accepting the picture painted by our discoveries about the world.

Evolution, for instance, is not just a question of whether we are descended from animals, but the whole natural history that led up to our descent, including the existence of non-human hominids, prehistoric religious activity, the amount of time that we have been around, and the evolutionary programming that shapes our behaviour today. Some Christians seem to think it is possible to believe in evolution whilst denying that it has any influence on our ideas about sex, our life goals, and decision-making. As if we can simply brush a million years of dust and move on with our free, individual lives, while thanking God for “using evolution” to get us here. But this is not accurate at all. Evolution has tremendous explanatory power, and it even offers compelling explanations for why we developed ideas about sin and morality in the way we did. It raises real conflicts with a Christian view of humanity’s place in the world. On the other side of this coin, however, is the inability of many atheists to admit that evolution cannot explain why things are the way they are. We have evolved impulses towards religion and morality for clear reasons; however, it is an entirely separate question as to why we live in a universe where intelligent creatures universally evolve such impulses–whether the evolved impulses are directed towards something that has any ontological substance.

The question of the soul is contentious. On the one hand, all human behaviour seems to be deeply rooted in the brain. This has led some materialists to dismiss the idea of a transcendent component to human existence. Christians often dismiss such talk of the brain as an inability to see through the blinders of science, but they often have not properly read up on the relevant experiments, and the biology of their own brains. If they did, they would realize how fragile they are, and they would be less confident in the continuation of their personality, and the immutability of their souls. Yet science has not totally deconstructed the person, and it is wrong to assert that we have completely accounted for ourselves. The hard problem of consciousness is problem that will not go away: and we cannot really know that there is “nothing more” to us than a brain, for this would be a brain saying something about itself that it is in no position to say.

Miracles are not a difficult issue, if one is willing to be honest. Science has made many miracles more difficult to believe, because it has given us testable alternative explanations for many of them, and explained how others have come about. Knowing just how many atoms are in a bowl of pudding, and how complex their interactions are with the world, makes it harder to believe that bowls of pudding can simply disappear. The ascension of Jesus looks a lot more like a fabricated addition to the end of the gospels when one discovers that there is no place up in the sky for Jesus to go. When we discover the inner workings of a system, we can recognize stories that are made up by people who do not understand it. In Genesis, we read about “waters below” and “waters above.” The waters above cease to be confusing when the modern reader remembers that the ancients saw a blue sky, and they believed what they saw.

Yet science has not really eliminated miracles at all. The claim that someone has risen from the dead, or that cancer has been healed, does not really “contradict science.” Science observes what tends to happen–what is normal. A miracle has always been a miracle precisely because it is not normal, and it is nothing more than an abnormal observation. The ancients would have been just as surprised by the walking dead and we would be. Their scientific illiteracy did nothing to detract from their observation that dead people stay dead, objects tend to fall to the ground, and so on. The unilateral denial of the “supernatural” and miracles would be one thing if people did not report them. But they do, and sometimes quite compellingly. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence in order to be admitted into the realm of scientific inquiry, but they do not require extraordinary evidence to be believed unless you decide it is so. A hardened materialist might say that miracles do not occur in laboratories because they are all fabricated. But it is also possible that “miracles” do not occur in laboratories because most of the things in the world that can be controlled (and hence performed in a laboratory) have been figured out, whereas the things that cannot be so easily studied have not. A true skeptic will go on doing science without feeling the need to aggressively debunk miracles, for he knows that they have not interfered with his work before, and this is all that matters to him.

*   *   *

Every interaction in my life has contributed to my perception that scientists are often terrible philosophers. It is intuitive to imagine that someone who has intensely studied some facet of the world will be best equipped to discuss the meaning of it all. But experience does not seem to vindicate our intuition in this case–it has shown us that scientists are normal human beings who, unless they develop their thinking in the areas under consideration, will have no advantage over the common person in answering the question. We know that biologists study the human body, so we ask them: who are we? We know that cosmologists study the cosmos, so we ask them, what is all this? But we often only get the answers that serve the needs of the discipline–mere definitions and tautologies that are useful for practicing the science at hand, but say nothing in and of themselves. For some reason or another, the secrets of the universe are pliable to the adult mind in the same way that the everyday world is pliable to the childlike mind. A girl and a boy catch sight of each other across the room. The one giggles, and the other turns away. A conversation begins. They know how to manipulate the circumstances, but if they are too young, they will not know what is happening, and why they do as they do.

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One Response to “Science, Scientists and Scientism”

  1. this is a relly good post, and mirrors alot of my own thinking.

    If one is going to remain theological in some sense (which I have done to varying degrees of consistency) I’m of the opinion that theology and theological anthrolpology “must” change in light of the discoveries of science. There are loads of christian thinkers trying to do just that, but I suspect many believers simply aren’t aware they exist, haven’t read them, or have had their voices shouted down by certain types… cough cough.

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