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Friday, July 09, 2010

Science & the Search for God: A Reaction

I have been posting on Kitty Ferguson's book, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion & the Search for God. The previous post is here.

There has been an exchange of views between a reader and me, as a result of that post. I thought that it was serious, and perhaps interesting enough, that I ought to reproduce the exchange as a separate post, and have done so, with the permission of the commenter. Inserted material, not in the original comments, is in square brackets - [thus].

Pete DeSanto said

After reading this chapter, I am having serious misgivings about the direction that Ferguson seems headed. She dwells a lot on what science CAN'T do, almost as if she is making the bed of ignorance in which god will rest.

There is a lot of discussion about preconceptions and how that affects the "emergence of scientific knowledge" that seems to ignore the fact that what emerges is always due to the questioning of our preconceptions! How else to explain the move away from natural theology? We have removed the need for god to explain the how to needing god to explain the why, despite centuries of religious claims to truth. Religious preconceptions were overcome with evidence (under penalty of physical and spiritual death), why should we not expect that secular biases will also not be overcome should that be required by evidence?

I would also like to see more contrast of science with Ferguson's religion. E.g. how does religion deal with questioning of preconceptions? How does society and culture influence and change religious belief? Most importantly, what checks are used to determine if a school of religious thought is valid?

I fear Ferguson is digging herself a hole which will collapse in upon itself.

[There was another comment, not germane, by another person, at this point.]

Martin LaBar said

Perhaps so, Pete DeSanto.

My own view is that her comments about what science can't do are a welcome voice. I wouldn't characterize her as proposing a strong argument for God's existence. I would characterize her as showing, in a number of ways, that science can't disprove God's existence. I'm re-reading as I post, and will try to deal with this in due time, perhaps not satisfactorily. I have decided that it makes more sense to write about the book in the order it was written.

As always, thank you for your comments.

Martin LaBar said

Thanks again for your comment, Pete DeSanto. After reading it again, and my response, I apologize for not responding more thoroughly.

First, there are two kinds of preconceptions related to science. One of them is a preconception about what sort of result you will find. There was, at one time, a preconception that protein was the genetic material. And you are quite right. Perhaps the greatest strength of science is that that sort of preconception gets discarded, as discoveries are made.

The second kind of preconception is about the very nature of things, or the scientific enterprise. The quotation from Feynman, [see previous post, in the first link above] as I read and understand it, shows an example of that. Scientists have a preconception that nature will let us discover things. There are other preconceptions of this type, the most fundamental one being that our senses are giving us reasonably accurate information about the world around us.

Certainly, religion has its own preconceptions, and they can be dangerous in a number of ways. But religion gets questioned a lot. There are atheists in a position to do so, and competing religions that question each other. Ferguson's book, to me, in a sentence, says that science is great, but it doesn't tell us everything. It is not principally a book about religion.

Thanks again.

Pete DeSanto said

Feynman was certainly entitled to his opinions, but I think the jury is out on such things. You can always ask a deeper "why?" that doesn't have an immediate answer and assert that it is a matter of metaphysics and not science. In any case, the scientific approachability of nature is not an a priori assumption, but one discovered only after centuries of trial and error at determining answers to questions about nature. It so happens to be shown valid throughout the history of science.

Not to be insolent here, but show me a scientist who begins an experiment with the notion that nature will let us discover things. I would suggest that most experiments (and most human endeavors) are prefaced by the question, "Will this work?" and little else. The fact that we can use results from one experiment to predict expectations of other experiments in a wonderful thing, but certainly not one that was presumed with certainty absent evidence that it might indeed be the case. There was no shining moment when one person claimed such a thing and a whole realm of knowledge was suddenly opened to us. It took considerable effort by many people to come to the point of realization that nature is approachable analytically instead of by revelation.

Comments about what science can't do abound. Answering those comments with "therefore god" is special pleading. Science can't disprove the tooth fairy or santa claus either, yet no one considers that a valid argument for their existence. So I agree that she does not make even a weak argument for the existence of god.

I think it's a bit disingenuous of Ferguson to make arguments about science's inability to disprove any god and then use that to make claims about a specific god. I.e. she uses examples of the Christian god throughout, but not any other.

As for the questioning of religious preconceptions, let's be clear that in the short time during which such questioning was not punishable by death or excommunication the result is ever more divergence in religion. Witness the thousands of Christian denominations based on various interpretations stemming from one group breaking off from another denomination. The situation is quite the reverse in science, where the number of diverse hypotheses gets whittled down to converge upon only those that are best supported by the evidence.

Martin LaBar said [Not as a comment, but as part of this post.]

Thanks again, Pete DeSanto, both for the comments, and for agreeing to allow me to post them as part of a full blog post.

First, let me say something about your comments about religion. I reiterate that my impression is that the book is not primarily about religion, but about science. To summarize it: Ferguson argues that science has its limits. That being said,  perhaps the book would have been stronger if it had dealt with, say, Hinduism. But the three major monotheistic religions of the West, splintered as they may be, are the most influential ones, by far, for the audience who was likely to read the book.

Second, about Christianity. Yes, it is true that Christianity is divided into thousands of denominations. I am not an expert in Christian denominational history, and have no plans to become such an expert, so I don't want to say more about this beyond this paragraph. I will say that I agree that this splintering of Christianity can, indeed, be taken as evidence that we Christians have some serious difficulties in interpreting God's revelation. I think that it is also true that pride and human traditions have led to some of the fracturing of the church. I can see that it would be possible to take this as evidence that God's revelation is non-existent, or at least not relevant. My own experience with God, and what I believe that God has done for me, in spite of my own failure to understand all of what He is saying, and in spite of the flawed humans who introduced me to Christ and accompany me on my Christian journey now, is far more important than these human failures. God is able to work through a church, or a person, with human limitations, even human sins. That's not an excuse for sin.

You mention punishment by Christians for disagreement. That was, and even is, reprehensible. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7:21-23, when he said that he never knew some who said "Lord, Lord." (He may have also been referring to some church splitters.) Such things happened, and, a little bit, are still happening, and I'm deeply sorry that they did and are. They were and are wrong -- sinful. I can't do anything about them. I don't want to say more about this, either.

Third, about the main issue -- the limits of science.

You say "You can always ask a deeper 'why?' that doesn't have an immediate answer and assert that it is a matter of metaphysics and not science." That is true. You always can, and to say so is not to trivialize the situation. I contend, and I believe there are a lot of good philosophers, and even scientists, by no means all of them believers, who agree, and would go further, saying that the answers to some "why?" questions are not scientifically answerable, in principle. As I understand him, Feynman did exactly that in the quotation referred to above. Probably the most fundamental such question is "Why is there anything?" That is not a trivial question. Science cannot answer it. I don't think we have any better answer than that God willed it to be so. Perhaps you are right about the approachability of nature not being an assumption, but I don't believe that there is a scientific answer to why nature is approachable.

Let me be as clear as I can about one thing that I am not saying. Should every scientist have a doctorate in the philosophy of science, in order to work at, say, NIH or NASA? No. I have a Doctor of Philosophy degree, but have never had a course in philosophy, either as a graduate or undergraduate student. I expect that that shows sometimes. Most of what most scientists do, and this is the way it should be, is what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science." The Wikipedia article that that link refers to says, following Kuhn, that such work is "not actually challenging or attempting to test the underlying assumptions of that theory." (This and other quotations from the Wikipedia are from the version of July 8, 2010.) That is not a put-down of normal science. It's important. But it's not everything.

It is also not reasonable to expect that most scientists will even care about such matters, or should. But what I am saying is that science, as an enterprise, ought to be careful not to claim, or to give the impression, that all questions can be solved through science. The general public should not believe that, either.

I will go further. There are not only limits to science, but limits within science. In the first post on Ferguson's book, I pointed out that current science says that, at the sub-atomic level, there are things that we cannot know, and that this ignorance is not going to disappear with more expensive instrumentation or more exact measurement. Quantum mechanics could be wrong, I know, but these ideas have been around for the better part of a century now, and show no sign of being overturned. It is also true that mathematics, which is closely tied to science, has a gap in what it is possible to know. To quote from the Wikipedia article that that link refers to, speaking of mathematical systems, "one particular arithmetic truth the system cannot prove is the consistency of the system itself." This idea, too, has been around for the better part of a century, and shows no sign of disappearing.

I should also point out, I guess, that I believe that there are two kinds of "gaps" in scientific knowledge. One such is fundamental gaps, gaps such as the above. Another type is gaps of ignorance. We don't, for example, know what all of the genes in the human genome are, let alone what all of them do. But there is no good reason not to try to find out, doing normal science as we go. For another example, we may not be able to explain exactly how a particular characteristic might have arisen from some pre-existing organism. But that's no reason to suppose that such an explanation will never be found.

Now for another thing that I am not saying. I am not saying, and I don't think Ferguson is, either, that the above limits to science, or others not covered here, are a proof that there is a God. My belief in God does not rest on the limitations of science. The current Intelligent Design movement seems to be acting as if it does, which is both a scientific and a religious mistake. If there is a God, then He is responsible for both what we can understand, and what we can't. If a scientific explanation can be found, that doesn't mean that God wasn't involved, any more than knowledge of how internal combustion engines work proves that humans didn't invent them. My belief in God rests on faith. (Hebrews 11:3) That science has its limits is consistent with that faith.

(You have pointed out, referring to a chapter I haven't posted on yet, that Ferguson may, indeed, be proposing a God-of-the-gaps theology. I expect to deal with that issue again when I post on that chapter. It's an important issue.)

You say, "It took considerable effort by many people to come to the point of realization that nature is approachable analytically instead of by revelation." That is true. Nature is approachable analytically, and, for science, that method is much more likely to yield useful results than trying to approach nature by revelation. In fact, the analytical approach does a pretty good job of opening God's revelation through nature to us. (Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:20.) But the analytical method does have its limits. In my first post on Ferguson's book, I paraphrased her list of five assumptions needed for the analytical method to work. The very first assumption, namely that nature has patterns and predictability, is not always true, as I indicated in the paragraph above about sub-atomic unpredictability. Ferguson also discusses chaos theory. Her book is the most that I have read about that subject, so I can't say much about it, but there is a Wikipedia article on Chaos Theory, which says that some systems (such as the weather, and many more) are unpredictable, at least with our present knowledge and instrumentation. The other four assumptions are also not universally applicable. The challenges to their applicability come from scientific thinking, not some sort of religious attack.

Thanks again for your comments, Pete DeSanto. Thanks to any other readers, should there be any such!


Pete DeSanto said...

Ferguson would not be writing this book if it were not to defend the possibility of god from scientific inquiry. So it is very much about religion in general and Christianity specifically as is evident from her reliance solely upon Christian scripture and characters. If this were primarily a book about the limitations of science, I doubt the title would be "The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God."

The main point of my preceding posts is that Ferguson describes all the limitations of science that prevent science (in her opinion) from eliminating the possibility of god and ignores the fact that those same limitations are much more damaging to religion. Assumptions? Preconceptions? Religion has those in spades! What makes matters worse is that the basis upon which religion is built is bare revelation with no mechanism for revision. So the result is that there are thousands of claims as to which religion-based reality is the One True Faith. That was the reason I mentioned the splintering of common faith to many uncommon faiths, to illustrate the dead end to which religious inquiry fundamentally based upon revelation leads. Ferguson's conclusions are incomplete. In addition to "science cannot eliminate the possibility of god" it should include "but religion cannot establish the possibility of god."

Pete DeSanto said...

My other point was that the characterization of items on Ferguson's list as assumptions of science is just wrong. As I said before, these things were not simply proposed a priori and taken as true. They evolved over time as evidence emerged suggesting they were valid. I do not think the challenges to those items come from religious attack, but the conclusions drawn (e.g. science CANNOT know) based on them by religious individuals are used to attack science by laypeople whose only encounter with science is via Ferguson's incomplete framing of the situation.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete DeSanto. Perhaps you are right about Ferguson's motive. I don't know.

As to the splintering of Christianity, as I indicated in the post, that's a problem. But there are many denominations that agree on some common fundamentals, such as those found in the Nicene and/or Apostle's creed(s).

It is also true that Christianity tends to be conservative -- meaning resistant to change. Nonetheless, there have been some significant changes in at least some bodies that call themselves Christian, such as the rejection of slavery.

As to your statement "religion cannot establish the possibility of god," that depends on what you mean by possibility, and what you mean by establish. I agree that I have, nor do I think others have, a knock-down, unassailable rational argument for God's existence. This does not bother me. If there was such a proof, freedom of choice and faith would be a sham.

As Paul said, in Ephesians 2:8, "for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,"

Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews said, in 11:3, "By faith, we understand that the universe has been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which are visible." (Both quotations from the WEB.)

You may be correct in your second comment, in that Ferguson's fundamental assumptions are not assumptions, but conclusions. Either way, there are, as you say, scientific challenges to them.

I agree that there are times when ignorant (or perhaps not so ignorant) laypeople have attacked science as not being able to know when they should not have attacked it. That's wrong. But it is also wrong to suppose that science has, or can find, all the answers, or that there is no valid place for faith.

Thanks again.

Pete DeSanto said...

I don't think we are in disagreement on a lot of things regarding the science part of things Martin. BTW - you can just call me Pete.

I understand that there are many denominations that agree on fundamentals. Where they disagree though there is no way to reconcile them without relying on subjective interpretation of imprecise language. The situation is much different when one is able to access objective evidence.

Establishing a possibility requires some form of description of how there is a likelihood that something may happen or could happen. Religion does not even attempt to address that, it merely claims that something did happen and will happen. It is only through the human endeavours of science and philosophy that apologetics can even begin to make a case for the possibility of god. Revelation and faith are now demoted in favor of attempts at logic and reason when it is necessary to present a nearly rational argument for the possibility of god. Yet when those arguments are countered, revelatin and faith once again regain their importance. This is also somewhat of a theme in Ferguson's book so far. Logic and reason when addressing science, faith and revelation when addressing religion. While she wishes the two would not be in conflict, her approach is self defeating so far.

I would not characterize Christianity as offering much freedom of choice. What you call freedom is perhaps more appropriately called coercion. Believe or burn for eternity is not much of a choice. There may be freedom of choice afforded in this world, but the story is clear that once you are in god's world there's no more Mr. Nice Guy.

I will caution that I have only been able to read excerpts using Amazon's preview feature and I may change my mind when I read the book more fully.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete.

I have made a practice of responding to comments using whatever name the commenter uses, but can make an exception.

You are entitled to your opinion of God. To me, that's an example of free choice! I don't see God as cosmic bully, however.

I do not doubt that we pretty much agree on what science is supposed to be about. We disagree about God, and there's probably nothing I can say here that would change your mind (or the reverse).

Thanks again.

Pete DeSanto said...

My own opinion may be an example of free choice, but that does not mean it stems from any god. God is clearly a cosmic bully in the stories about him as those who do not conform to his will are inevitably punished by him. Even those who he compels to act against his will are punished for doing so.

It is curious to me that god's followers cannot produce convincing evidence that meets any critical level of scrutiny.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete.

It is true that there are some stories in the Old Testament that are strange to read. But, if those are to be taken seriously (as apparently you do, at least to use as a source for debate) why not also take seriously the story of Christ's coming to earth in human form, and dying for the sins of others, so that they didn't have to be punished, because of God's love?

To me, the convincing evidence is multiple, and includes the evidence of nature, but the most important evidence is perhaps that Christianity works radically, so much that it can be noticed, in some people, whose behavior changes, in ways almost everyone, even non-believers, would agree was for the better, after a conversion experience.

When I see someone's transformed life, or see that my own life has been transformed in such a way as to be kinder and less selfish, that is evidence for me. I understand fully that such matters are subjective, and don't necessarily meet "any critical level of scrutiny." I think God respects us enough that He allows us to make up our own minds about His existence, and if His existence could be proved like a Euclidean theorem, we would almost be forced to believe in it.

Zieg said...
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