Thursday, January 5, 2012

Science as a Dreamland

Scientists recently observed neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Since nothing is supposed to travel faster than the speed of light, this would be a big deal. Charles Krauthammer says:

". . . . there must be some error. Because otherwise everything changes. We shall need a new physics. A new cosmology. New understandings of past and future, of cause and effect. Then shortly and surely, new theologies."

With all due respect to Krauthammer, who happens to be my favorite political commentator, this is not entirely correct. I think G. K. Chesterton's remark is more to the point:

". . . the world of science and evolution is far more nameless and elusive and like a dream than the world of poetry and religion; since in the latter images and ideas remain themselves eternally, while it is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare."

It is not usually religious orthodoxy that is threatened by scientific discovery, but scientific orthodoxy. Of course, I believe the things I have learned from science; I believe in electrons as strongly as the next man. I believe because I have been told.





Protons and electrons: an article of faith.




But the fact is that scientific discovery shapes relatively little of my worldview. Scientific discoveries can come and go and have little effect on the Christian whose worldview is shaped by Christ, Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and the sacred history of God's people from Abraham to Billy Graham.






The Resurrection: an article of faith.




I am talking about one of the differences between science and religion. Usually when we talk about the differences between science and religion we wander into the idea that science is about hard facts and religion about non-factual "values." That idea is incorrect, and it is not what I am talking about. It is a popular idea these days, but it misrepresents the factual claims made by many religions. Christianity, for one, is about quite a few facts. To take only one of the many statements of fact in the Bible, Christianity's crucial claim of the Resurrection is a statement of fact. As a matter of fact, Abraham Lincoln died and was buried and did not return living from the grave on the third day; as a matter of fact, Christianity says, Jesus died and was buried and did return living from the grave on the third day. If the resurrection is not a hard fact, then, as Paul says, Christianity is simply incorrect.

So I am not saying that science is about hard fact and religion about something else. Here is what I am saying. First, science investigates a region of reality that is subject to less constancy than the region of reality with which at least some religions, Christianity among them, is concerned. Second, the beliefs of science change far more frequently than the beliefs of religion, at least the beliefs of the very old religions like Christianity.

This doesn't mean that science is not to be taken seriously. It just means that scientific discovery makes up a relatively minor part of my worldview; those regions of my worldview which are shaped by science are generally the less important regions, not least because they are the regions which I view as more subject to change and in knowing which there is less certitude.

21 comments:

Justin T. said...

So how do you reconcile those scientific discoveries which directly contradict the teachings of the Bible? The most prominent example being the evidence for evolution. The scientific evidence for human evolution from a common ancestor is overwhelming. This of course completely contradicts the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, where the concept of original sin and thus the need for the redemption of Jesus. If one is true, the other isn't. How do you reconcile such situations where all the evidence seems to contradict the direct teachings of the Bible?

Sam said...

@Justin T. - The so-called "evidence" that the mechanism of natural selection acting on random mutations is capable of building all complex life on earth from a single-celled organism is non-existent. The fact that there has been "change over time" among organisms (one of many definitions of "evolution") does not support such a claim, because no one is denying such a fact. And before you mention the word "fossil," you should know that the fossil record pokes the Darwinian story in the eye more often than not. A mindless, gradual process (with no end "goal" in mind) would not/could not create the 3-billion character DNA code in all 75-100 trillion cells in your body. Why? Because "information" ALWAYS has its origin in a mind. Darwinism is the folktale of Reductionist Materialists. This is a worldview that should be rejected...

Mark Boone said...

This is an important issue, but I think it can be debated without effect on the points I'm making in this post. I only let it slip in because it was in the wonderful remark of Chesterton.

(An astute reader may have noticed that evolution is my only mention of change in the category of things studied by science. If you don't believe in that sort of evolution, no need to worry: Find something else that changes and substitute it instead. You may have no further to look than out the window at the weather.)

But I feel I may owe Justin T. a more direct answer. If, as you say, there are scientific conclusions which "directly contradict" the Bible, then of course they cannot be reconciled, and with respect to this particular conclusion I would have to agree with the Bible over science; science is a wonderful thing, but it is fallible.

Not that this is a fairly big and bold if. Investigating it would call for a fresh start in a new post.

Justin T. said...

@Sam the evidence for Darwinian evolution is overwhelming. It is apparent at every level, from the fossil record to our genetic makeup to speciation amongst geographic locales to the actual natural selection that we have observed countless times in real time (from fruit flies to finches and more). At this point the evidence is so overwhelming that it's no longer even appropriate to say that one "believes" in evolution any more than one "believes" in the theory of gravity or the germ theory of disease. Whether or not you understand evolution is the more appropriate inquiry.

I'll say this as a final word on evolution: even if the theory of evolution is wrong, which it's not, magic doesn't win by default.

Adam D Jones said...

I've yet to see some scientific idea that conflicts with my faith. I don't understand why some see a great chasm between science and Christianity - in truth, we built that chasm with our own fears.

Sam said...

@Justin T. - Once again, the fact that nature "selects" the "fittest" for survival is not (even remotely) controversial, nor is it even very interesting. The phrase "survival of the fittest" is a truism or tautology. It is true by it's very definition - Of course the fittest "survive" and the ones that survive are the "fittest"! That's like saying, "The bachelor is unmarried." The point here is that natural selection is not capable of "building" complexity "from the ground up," because new and additional "information" is necessary for such a task (which a mindless evolutionary process cannot create even if it had trillions of years). Besides, what you are talking about is mere "adaption" to changing environments and climates. This is called "good" design. Fruit flies and finches remain as they are over time. Even dramatic changes in fruit flies (due to a purposeful manipulation of the DNA code by scientists) only leads to...more fruit flies. And these "freaks" with twice the wings are now unable to fly, unable to mate, and simply die off. And, once again, they are still fruit flies.

Also, you are equivocating with the term "evolution." Evolution is a fact only by how it is defined. But when you extrapolate macro-evolution from the evidence of micro-evolution, you have taken this leap by faith and philosophy and not through any empirical observation of the facts.

Respectfully, regarding your last point, your view is much worse than magic. For without God, you are left with a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, yet there is no hat and there is no "magician"...just a rabbit popping into thin air.

You've been had. Look again at the evidence.

Sam said...

@Adam - I agree that there is no chasm between sound science and an accurate understanding of Christianity. For if both are telling the truth, how could there be?

Although, there seems to be no question that some scientific "ideas" do conflict with faith.

Adam D Jones said...

Sam.

Name one.

Sam said...

@Adam - For a thousand years, scientists believed that the universe was eternal, in the sense that, it had no beginning. At the same time, theologians contested that the universe MUST have a beginning, due to Genesis 1:1. This scientific "idea" was an assault on the Christian viewpoint that a Creator "created" the universe at a point in time. Between the 1920's and the 1960's, scientists gathered evidence which concluded that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning approximately 13.72 billion years ago. So the theologian was of course correct to stand firm. There are some scientists today who are still seeking a way to avoid a beginning to the universe, so that you do not need a transcendent "cause" of nature.

In short, the idea that the universe did not have a beginning is in direct conflict with the Christian (or really any theistic) viewpoint. Fortunately, this view is among the fringe scientists.

Adam D Jones said...

Ah, but that's not science - that's just some unusual speculation.

What our scientists see underneath the microscope must be what God put there, so I won't contest it. Do they see evolution? A big bang? Fine with me, because it has nothing to do with my Faith.

Sam said...

@Adam - They would disagree that they are not "doing" science when they come up with models that avoid a beginning to the universe, because there are scientific methodologies that extend beyond the microscope.

Justin T. said...

@Sam macroevolution and microevolution are the same thing. This distinction is not even taught anymore outside of religious contexts and outdated textbooks. There is no difference between the two.

As to the irreducible complexity argument, please feel free to cite any mechanism or organism that is supposedly irreducibly complex and I bet I can find you some scientific research about the evolutionary mechanisms behind it. Simple structures can and do produce complexity in the evolutionary process given the extreme time scale on which it has occurred. 3 billion years is a long time and a lot of generations and we have found countless pieces of fossil, geologic and genetic evidence of this. Evolution is a theory that predicts what we might find if we look closely at the history of nature. We see evidence of gradual change due to random mutation resulting in some sort of benefit that conferred a survival advantage upon the organism. It is a complex process that involves many redundancies, regressions, and evolutionary dead-ends, all of which we see in nature and have observed and documented. I suggest you do some reading on evolution from a secular source, such as one of the following:

Biology Online
Darryl Cunningham's brilliant comic explaining it
TalkOrigins' Explanation of Evolution as a Fact and a Theory

I encourage you to read some of that information and reevaluate your conclusion about the evidence for evolution.

Sam said...

@Justin T. - PART 1 OF 2: I've heard the myth that macroevolution and microevolution are not terms actually distinguished between scientists. Let me dispose of this myth now:

1. Campbell’s Biology (4th Ed.) states: “macroevolution: Evolutionary change on a grand scale, encompassing the origin of novel designs, evolutionary trends, adaptive radiation, and mass extinction.” [By contrast, this book defines “microevolution as “a change in the gene pool of a population over a succession of generations”]

2. Futuyma’s Evolutionary Biology, in the edition used by a senior member at UD for an upper division College course, states, “In Chapters 23 through 25, we will analyze the principles of MACROEVOLUTION, that is, the origin and diversification of higher taxa.” (pg. 447, emphasis in original). [Futuyma contrasts “microevolution” -- “slight, short-term evolutionary changes within species.”]

3. In his 1989 McGraw Hill textbook, Macroevolutionary Dynamics, Niles Eldredge admits that “[m]ost families, orders, classes, and phyla appear rather suddenly in the fossil record, often without anatomically intermediate forms smoothly interlinking evolutionarily derived descendant taxa with their presumed ancestors.” (pg. 22.) In Macroevolution: Pattern and Process (Steven M. Stanley, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 version), we read that, “[t]he known fossil record fails to document a single example of phyletic evolution accomplishing a major morphological transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model can be valid.” (pg. 39)

4. The scientific journal literature also uses the terms “macroevolution” or “microevolution.”

5. In 1980, Roger Lewin reported in Science on a major meeting at the University of Chicago that sought to reconcile biologists’ understandings of evolution with the findings of paleontology:

“The central question of the Chicago conference was whether the mechanisms underlying microevolution can be extrapolated to explain the phenomena of macroevolution. At the risk of doing violence to the positions of some of the people at the meeting, the answer can be given as a clear, No.” (Roger Lewin, “Evolutionary Theory Under Fire,” Science, Vol. 210:883-887, Nov. 1980.)

6. Two years earlier, Robert E. Ricklefs had written in an article in Science entitled “Paleontologists confronting macroevolution,” contending:

“The punctuated equilibrium model has been widely accepted, not because it has a compelling theoretical basis but because it appears to resolve a dilemma. … apart from its intrinsic circularity (one could argue that speciation can occur only when phyletic change is rapid, not vice versa), the model is more ad hoc explanation than theory, and it rests on shaky ground.” (Science, Vol. 199:58-60, Jan. 6, 1978.)

So, if such terms are currently in disfavor, that is clearly because they highlight problems with the Modern Evolutionary theory that it is currently impolitic to draw attention to. In the end, the terms are plainly legitimate and meaningful, as they speak to an obvious and real distinction between (a) the population changes that are directly observationally confirmed, “microevolution,” and (b) the major proposed body-plan transformation level changes that are not: “macroevolution.” (from uncommondescent.com)

Sam said...

@Justin T. - PART 2 OF 2:
Also, OF COURSE there is a difference between the two. Are you telling me there is no difference between the beak size of a finch changing and a whale descending from a wolf-like land mammal? Once again, that is an extrapolation that the data does not actually permit, unless one "presupposes" the Darwinian story as true.

Regarding irreducible complexity, how about the bacteria flagellum? Michael Behe has continued to show this microscopic "machine" to be irreducibly complex, despite alternative "stories" that have been espoused by scientists (although none have provided a verifiable scientific account) of its development.

And 3 billion years is not long enough if the mechanism is incapable of creating such change. Even assuming you could get a one-celled organism from non-living matter (which is a nonsense idea we haven't even touched), you will not get a flourishing species by simply giving an undirected process of "nothing" (which is what evolution is, in this context) 3 billion years of time to do "its work."

And you said, "Evolution is a theory that predicts what we might find if we look closely at the history of nature. We see evidence of gradual change due to random mutation resulting in some sort of benefit that conferred a survival advantage upon the organism. It is a complex process that involves many redundancies, regressions, and evolutionary dead-ends, all of which we see in nature and have observed and documented."

What you have just described is not capable of bringing about every living organism from a common ancestor. And there is not a "gradual" change throughout history also. The cambrian rock all the way around the world has all major animal body plans ("phyla") coming into existence all of the sudden (geologically speaking). Once again, the fossil record does not support the Darwinian story, which bothered Darwin (although he though future discoveries would fix this problem). Well, it hasn't. It's only made it worse. Not to mention the DNA code and the origin of biological information (which you haven't even responded to). Find an undirected path to creating new "information," like we find in the genetic code, and you will defeat the Intelligent Design movement. But this will not happen, because in 100% of human experience, information is always the byproduct of a mind.

Justin T. said...

Sigh. I see you didn't bother to read any of the materials I linked. Not that you'll bother to read these either, but here are some scientific articles & videos describing the evolutionary history and mechanisms of the bacterial flagellum.

Adam D Jones said...

I leave my blog for a few hours, and two non-scientists are trying to convince each other that they know more about science.

Do you think you will change the other person's world-view with your hard-nosed discussions? Do you think the other person's convictions are so paper thin that they will crumble next to yours? Do you honestly expect a piece of scientific trivia to change a person's views of religion?

None of those things are going to happen through this discussion you are trying to have.

(I'm starting to think that I'm not getting through to any of you.)

Sam said...

@Adam - So are only "scientists" allowed to have "scientific" discussions? Do I need to have "exhaustive" knowledge on a subject to discuss it, or can I simply have "sufficient" knowledge to have a conversation with someone? Furthermore, should I criticize you when you post about the Bible because you are not a professionally trained theologian like me who happens to teach the Bible for a living? Furthermore, I am a Christian apologist with a Master's Degree in this area of discussion. Does this give me any more of a "right" to have these discussions or do I need to be an ACTUAL scientist? And if I become an actual scientist, and were to re-post word-for-word what I just stated, would it become "more" true (in your mind) simply because I am now a "scientist"?

Can't we just assess what people say according to the soundness of the reasons they give and not be prejudicial to their level of expertise? Otherwise, how could we ever criticize a Supreme Court Justice or a professional politician when we view them as doing a poor job? Or just about anyone else!

I think Justin T. and I have had a perfectly fine conversation. We were both respectful to each other and I've appreciated his thoughts. It was a goal of mine to get him thinking about these issues from a perspective he might not have heard before. He, likewise, had similar goals in mind. Whether he or I were convinced by the other is a separate issue. Such a result does not decide whether or not the discussion was "valuable" in the first place.

Thank you, Justin T., for your comments. I've appreciated your thoughts and interacting with you. And thank you, Mark Boone, for your initial post that allowed for what I view to be a worthwhile discussion.

This will be my last post on this site.

Adam D Jones said...

You said, "So are only "scientists" allowed to have "scientific" discussions? "

Of course, I never said that - you are putting words in my mouth. I love to discuss science, even though I lack the proper training - thus, I do not believe to have the final word on the subject.

These discussions never lead anywhere, and both sides end up with more hostility than before. Such is a poor goal for the lofty ideals we posses.

It was not my intention to annoy you, but I'm not interested in hosting these tired old discussions on my site - we should try to do better than "us vs. them."

Justin T. said...

I think this will be my last comment as well. I don't appreciate being told what I can and can't discuss in the comments section, but it's your blog and your rules so I will find somewhere else to have critical discussions about theological issues. Thinking Through Christianity is a lot easier when your commenters are allowed to actually think it through without censorship.

Adam D Jones said...

I don't want to censor anyone. But you two are my friends and I can't stand watching the both of you slug it out like this.

Thomas Ladd said...

Hi Mark,

Mark,

Arriving plenty late here, but just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your thoughts about knowing, change, and certitude. It was good food for thought. I was sorry to see the discussion never actually addressed the issues you raised. That would have been a very interesting conversation. At any rate, looking forward to hearing more from your mind in the future.