The Struggle for the Soul of Science, pt4: Philosophy
I am under no illusions, however, that if the Secular Genesis story is found to be at odds with the evidence, scientists will turn en masse to the Bible for a better explanation. It is quite possible, even likely, that in time the scientific establishment will reject the ideas of common descent and uniformitarianism, and even the Big Bang itself, but this will certainly not lead it to creationism – naturalism must always prefer alternative non-theistic explanations, by its very definition. However much creationist scientists can show that the evidence matches the account of the Bible (recent creation, multiple common ancestors, a global flood), the scientific establishment cannot countenance the possibility of intelligent design, or even a ‘theistic’ version of evolution, because it is philosophically committed to naturalism. Ideology rules some interpretations simply out of bounds.
For this reason, Dawkins is quite right to dismiss theistic evolution as an unacceptable compromise between Biblical faith and academic (i.e. naturalistic) science. From the academic perspective, if the scientist accepts that there is actual evidence for a non-natural agent who has interfered at any point in the world, the door is unlocked to a whole new realm of possibility, and no area of scientific study is safe from the meddling of religious belief. [We will come back to the view that acceptance of supernatural causes discourages any further investigation.] From the religious perspective, if the scientist has allowed in principle that there is evidence for the supernatural, and that the Bible is reliable, why continue to hold on to evolution, which was designed to explain life without any active intervention by a God? Why not go all the way and take the Bible’s (alternative) narrative of cosmic origins at face value, since it claims to be empirical evidence?
Yet theistic evolutionists continue to struggle for some reconciliation between ‘science’ (i.e. scientism) and religion, trying to persuade naturalists that belief in God need not result in bad science, and trying to persuade Bible believers that disbelief* in Genesis 1–11 need not result in bad doctrine. Perhaps they fail to see quite how fundamental philosophical naturalism is currently for the scientific establishment, and equally how fundamental a reading of Genesis 1–11 as history is for Biblical theology, as my next two posts will discuss. The real disagreement is not over the scientific evidence itself, but over the grand stories of the universe within which that evidence is to be interpreted. [* At least, this is what it sounds like to the unsophisticated average member of the church or synagogue.]
The role of evidence
That said, it is not that empirical evidence is irrelevant to the question of which grand story is true. On the contrary, as mentioned earlier, both stories make the claim to be based on empirical fact, and as such are theoretically able to be falsified by the evidence. In that case, it seems a bit like cheating for naturalistic science to exclude on principle the possibility of finding evidence for non-natural causes. It is not just religious believers of the monotheistic tradition who believe that history itself has provided evidence of a supernatural intervention in the world (e.g. crossing the Red Sea, resurrection of Jesus, Mohammed’s revelations of the Qur’an). Many of no particular faith have had personal experiences of non-natural agents – call them ghosts, spirits of the departed, higher consciousnesses, gods, angels, or whatever – and no-one can persuade them that these are simply illusions of the brain. For such people, denial of the possibility of non-natural causes seems to be quite simply an irrational ideological belief, contrary to their own empirical evidence and therefore contrary to good science. It is one thing for atheists to lack any personal experience of non-natural agents; it is quite another to assert that all such experiences are invalid.
This assertion, though, has been dominant for over two centuries, ever since Enlightenment rationalism accepted the philosophical arguments of Spinoza and Hume that regardless of personal experience, logic itself proves that non-natural interference with the natural world (or ‘miracles’) is impossible, or at least unprovable. Effectively, if you want to be seen as rational, you must be prepared to mistrust the evidence of your senses. It is not hard to see how damaging this has been for open-minded assessment of the scientific evidence. However, in recent years the logic of Hume has been shown, by the eminent secular philosopher John Earman, to be not just weak but entirely fallacious according to Bayesian probability theory.1 Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature but rather naturally impossible events, as William Lane Craig explains on his website reasonablefaith.org.
Even though philosophy now accepts that ‘miracles’ are possible, scientists are still understandably concerned that appealing to non-/super-natural agency as an explanation will quench the scientific impulse to investigate further. If ‘God did it’, that automatically means ‘I cannot know how’. Yet this fear reflects a very different understanding of ‘God’ than the Bible presents. Undoubtedly there is an essential element of mystery in the ways of God, and He does sometimes declare certain fields of inquiry out of bounds for those who respect Him, for their own good (e.g. divination, astrology, necromancy). However, if God created both the natural and spiritual realms, then both are the product of the same mind, and will ultimately be found to be complementary and logically coherent, subject to the same set of fundamental laws, and dependent on the unchanging character of the Creator (James 1:17). Admitting the possibility of non-natural agency expands, rather than restricts, the scope of scientific investigation. As an example, one could mention the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies, which does scientific analysis of evidence relating to the possible separation between body and mind.
The priority of ideas
We saw in the last post that life seems to be distinguishable from non-life by its ability to process coded information. Humans can be further distinguished from other living organisms by our consciousness and language capability, which makes us uniquely able to adapt our environment to suit our own needs rather than vice versa. If ideas and the human mind have the greatest power to change reality, science itself would seem to take second place to philosophy and theology; our primary focus should shift from the material world to the immaterial world of ideas, narratives and worldviews. Thought is more powerful than physical processes, and it may even be more ‘real’.
The new field of information theory has made the astonishing observation that the world of ideas, or information, is both independent of matter-energy, and more fundamental than it. The words you are reading are not a function of their material properties, whether that be ink on paper, pixels on a screen, or sound-waves through air. The words themselves are codes for meaning, but again, the codes themselves do not define the message, which can be expressed effectively using various different code systems (English, Chinese, Hebrew, sign language). The minds expressing their thoughts using coded language are able to create and modify their own system of codes (e.g. Esperanto), and manipulate matter-energy (i.e. by inventing computers or arranging stones on a beach) to make it preserve and communicate particular thoughts of theirs to other minds. Information is therefore more fundamental than even matter-energy itself – ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ (John 1:1)
As evidence that ideas can actually change the nature of matter-energy, take the placebo effect.2 More and more scientific studies are being done on the power of belief to influence people’s bodies, and tests have shown that a doctor’s reassurance to a patient that a certain pill will cure their ailment can actually result in a cure even if the pill itself is designed to exacerbate the condition. One is reminded of Jesus’ regular explanation to those healed by Him, “Your faith has cured you.” Further tests are exploring whether the effect works on animals also, and even whether the doctor’s personal conviction is sufficient, without requiring the patient’s own confidence in the placebo. Of course, it is important to note that the placebo effect is not ‘pretend’ – it genuinely changes physical realities simply by the power of belief, and there need be no transfer of chemicals or hormones between doctor and patient for it to work. The immaterial, or non-natural, is a cause which is proven to have effects.
The pharmaceutical industry knows that in practice the placebo effect might completely counteract the natural properties of a drug they are testing. However, they have no option but to use double-blind tests, involving placebos, in an attempt to isolate its purely natural effects. They do not deny the power of belief (i.e. non-natural causes, ‘miracles’ if you will) to influence the experiments, but they simply have to hope that these will stand out as anomalies given a large enough test sample. In this example we see naturalism functioning as a useful principle for scientific study, even if there is an honest recognition that non-natural causes will sometimes produce real and unpredictable effects. Science is inherently broader than naturalism.
The need for historical testimony
This scientific honesty and pragmatic (methodological) naturalism could be very beneficial in the field of cosmic and biological origins. It is perfectly justifiable to work with a theoretically closed system of constant rates extrapolated back in time, just to be able to say anything intelligible about the past. However, at the same time it would be foolish to deny that past events, particularly catastrophic ones (whether or not caused by an intelligent mind), may have had an impact on rates of change which might well not be possible to calculate. Creationists are not suggesting a rejection of all current scientific methods for investigating past history of the earth and universe; fields such as geology, astrophysics, or palaeoanthropology should continue largely as currently practised, as long as all dates produced come with the understood proviso ‘assuming current rates’ or ‘subject to calibration’. Any hard evidence for how rates might have changed in the past should then be welcomed and analysed, rather than dismissed from fear of upsetting the paradigm. Basically this is a call for a bit of scientific humility in the face of so many past unknowns.
For example, carbon14 dating can only prove the relative ages of two organic objects, until the radiocarbon age is calibrated on the basis of absolute dates established from recorded human history. Currently the earliest undisputed date in ancient history is the destruction of Nineveh in 612BC; dates given to any material object or archaeological stratum which are earlier than that cannot yet claim to be absolute. Human observation and recorded testimony is therefore indispensible for determining absolute dates, and the only people group on earth who actually claim to preserve an unbroken historical record with precise dates back to the beginning of the world is the Jewish people. This gives their record a unique importance within world literature and human civilisation; if it can be shown to be reliable testimony, it may be able to provide the necessary calibration for the modern scientific investigation of earth history. This will be the subject of the next post.
- 1. Hume’s Abject Failure (2000).
- 2. cf. Ben Goldacre, Bad Science (2008).