Cadbury eggs…

… are delicious. And xkcd offers you the logical proof that will allow you to eat them year-round.

cadbury_eggs

 

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Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0

Since the blog seems to be back and running again, I’d like to resurrect an old favorite of mind, The TED talk of the week. Past favorites include:

Today’s TED talk comes from philosopher Alain de Botton. In his talk, Alain argues that there is need for a “new” atheism that appropriates what he feels are the attractive aspects of religion, be it religion’s focus on moral education, repetition of teaching, seasonal synchronization of group members, appreciation of the mind AND body, or the many values of art.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 10.00.00 AM

One of my favorite parts of the talk is at the 5:30 mark.

“Now we’ve given up with the idea of sermons. If you said to a modern liberal individualist, “Hey, how about a sermon?” they’d go, “No, no. I don’t need one of those. I’m an independent, individual person.”What’s the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation — and religions know that.”

Stay until the end. The first question is key. It made me think of this song and the words of Augustine. We all long for a connection to something greater. Alain is saying that clearly the doctrine associated with religions is false, but the many other things that religions provide are good. Very good.

His talk highlights the problem of starting with theology when speaking as a religious believer. No doubt there are some who come to faith through the intellectualization of a religion’s beliefs. But I think the vast majority enter the door via the other aspects of religion that Alain desires to appropriate in his Atheism 2.0.

The science and religion dialogue will highly benefit from the “new” atheism Alain is promoting. Here’s hoping religious believers return the favor.

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Chapter 3 The hallmarks of religion and theology (part 3)

In today’s third and final post for Ch. 3 (the hallmarks of religion and theology), we will identify parallels in science and religion. Parts 1 and 2 are linked if you haven’t read them or need a refresher. As always, feel free to leave a comment or suggestion!

Parallels in science and religion

One does not write a book such as this without believing that it is at least possible for science and religion to be on some sort of common ground. The five potential interactions of science and religion we will discuss in the next chapter range from sacred struggle to spirited synthesis, with many options in-between. That there is even the potential for positive interaction requires commonalities, a few of which will be presented here.

Both science and religion believe the claims that they make about the world and our interactions with it correspond to reality. However, neither scientist nor theologian is so confident to believe their words provide an exact replica of the natural world or God. Whether it be limits in human intellect, difficulty in subject matter (best illustrated in attempts to describe an infinite God with human language, especially one as ridiculous as English), instrument liabilities, problems or questions that are not amenable to empirical investigation, etc., all collectively enable at best an approximation of reality.

Limitations in language alone necessitate the need to construct models to convey the reality we investigate. Similarly, metaphors, analogies, and symbols are useful to both scientist and theologian, and not just those who want to sell more than 15 copies of their books. It is impossible to create an exact picture of what atomic particles look like since we cannot visualize them so models are constructed that take account of available data to infer atomic structure. It is perhaps not surprising then that models improve over time as more and more data is collected. Analogies and metaphors are also used in science, especially in the classroom as they enable students to connect the often-confusing and detailed findings of science with prior or commonsense knowledge. Personally, I use analogies frequently in my teaching, and because I don’t eat breakfast and am hungry during my lectures they often involve food.[1]

Analogies and metaphors are quite useful in theological discourse too. To refer to God the Father does not actually mean that God is our father, but to say that God possesses qualities like a father and to acknowledge Jesus’s referral to God as father. Similarly, to say God is love does not mean the God = love[2], but instead that love is one of God’s attributes. Symbols are important to science but even more so to theology. In his remarkable systematic theology, God: The World’s Future, Ted Peters says, ”Christian theology is the explication of the basic symbols found in scripture…”[3] Later in the same book, Peters writes, “To have faith in the God of the future is to reorient one’s life around the symbols associated with Jesus Christ.”[4] Amen, dude, amen.

Another foundational similarity (pun also intended) between science and religion is that both can’t help but be affected by the current philosophical context of postmodernism and its replacement of foundationalism with post- or non-foundationalism.[5] Foundationalism, intimately associated with modernism, models knowledge as a building where beliefs are constructed over an underlying foundation one idea or pillar at a time. The foundational principles can not themselves be proven but are required as a starting point, with all other ideas accepted due to their logical connection to these principles. Growth in knowledge occurs in one-direction, up from the foundations, the prototypical example of which is Descartes’ “I think, therefore, I am.” So, cracks in the foundation are irreparable and the legitimacy of the foundations demands expert defense. We already looked at two options available to Christians (well, Protestants, at least) as foundations (the Bible, experience) and noted the gulf created by having these as the only options.

While science became SCIENCE[6] during the modern period, it is not clear to me how a practicing scientist today could be a foundationalist. Post-foundationalism, alternatively called holism, replaces the model of knowledge as a building with that of a network or web. Growth in knowledge occurs due to traffic in two directions, between the most supported beliefs, which lie in the center, and the less supported beliefs, which lie at the exterior. Unlike in foundationalism, it is not enough to debate foundations, but instead competition occurs between networks of ideas. We’ve already seen examples of post-foundationalism in religion (e.g., Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model, narrative theology) and certainly Lakatos’s research programs from chapter 1 are holistic as well. Furthermore, the other philosophers of science discussed in chapter 1 all promoted post-foundational principles too.[7]

Interpreting science and religion through the lens of post-foundationalism is not giving up the farm at this point and will not preclude me from accurately describing the variety of ways in which science and religion interact. It is a simple fact that we live in a postmodern world and all intellectual endeavors are affected by it. So setting the stage in this way is required for this book to be relevant to readers in 2015 instead of 1915. Acknowledging that postmodern threads run throughout both science and religion does not mean that science and religion a priori cannot be at war. That said a commitment to modernism is more likely to cause people to see science and religion as necessarily in conflict. Conversely, the framework for knowledge that postmodernism (and thus post-foundationalism) provides is an ally for those who desire a positive interaction between science and religion.

Looking ahead

“…preoccupation with method is like clearing your throat: it can go on for only so long before you lose your audience.”[8]

Throat cleared, hopefully audience not lost.

What does this rabbit trail on theological method and the philosophy of science have to do with a book on the creation and evolution debate? Nothing and everything. Nothing in that the discussion is not about the method behind theology and science, but instead their respective findings in relation to the particular of origins. Everything in that method, while under the surface, drives the conversation. If you view religious belief in Lindbeck’s experiential-expressive realm, than you are likely to say that science and religion a priori cannot be in conflict because they offer distinct vocabularies about different areas, make that, different levels of human experience. Religious belief and dialogue is about personal experiences of God while scientific knowledge describes the natural world. Different realms of languages = no possible overlapping surface for conflict unless you don’t really understand the importance of religion or are anti-science. Thus those who see creation and evolution at odds clearly don’t understand how science and religion work!

However, if you see religious belief in Lindbeck’s propositional-cognitive realm, then science and religion both occupy the same level and complete each other.[9] Or they do the exact opposite and directly compete with each other for authority and explanatory power. If science and religion are at war then creation or evolution can be true but not both. Mutual exclusion means if one is right the other is wrong so winning the “discussion” means you don’t have to deepen your ideas if you can just find the weak points to attack in your competitor’s ideas.

In just these two models of religious belief alone, we see the dawning of several different ways to relate science and religion, a few of which are mutually exclusive. And we haven’t even considered the potential interaction with science that the cultural-linguistic view of religious discourse brings forth.

It is not a stretch to say our beliefs that science and religion are competitors in the intellectual marketplace, must be kept separate to keep the peace, or can be harmonized arise primarily out of the way we view religion and theology and much less so our views of science.

Prolegomenon over.

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[1] I am quite proud of my use of McDonald’s and Burger King as correlates for repressible and inducible operons, respectively. The Big Mac also makes a great model for a bacterial cell wall. Ask your local scientist to explain these quite amazing models.

[2] Or God ≡ love for the Math major.

[3] Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 2nd, ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 34. Italics are my emphasis.

[4] Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 2nd, ed. (Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 81.

[5] Yes we have to go there. Trust me, it’s worth it.

[6] Said in a loud, triumphant voice.

[7] The following quote from Karl Popper best highlights post-foundationalism in science: “The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.” Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Harper, 1965). As quoted in Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1996), p.50.

[8] Jeffrey Stout, Ethics after Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 163.

[9] Obligate Jerry Maguire reference.

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Chapter 3 The hallmarks of religion and theology (part 2)

Today we continue the discuss on the hallmarks of religion and theology. If you missed previous posts, see:

Chapter 2: The hallmarks of science
Chapter 2: The hallmarks of science (continued)
Chapter 3 The hallmarks of religion and theology (part 1)

The hallmarks of theology

Playing a simple word game equates theology (theos = God + logos = word or discourse), with “discourse about God.”[1] If only it were that simple. In practice, theology is a vast discipline with multiple fields including philosophical, historical, practical, systematic, and narrative theology, amongst others. All are important to understanding what we believe about God and many will surface at some point in this book.

Philosophical theology has as its focus the “essence of Christianity” and deals with substance, persons, and words that end in -eth. It’s enjoyable when written by C.S. Lewis and painful when written by anyone else.[2] Historical theology makes use of Church history and the formation of doctrine. It’s also the theological field that Christians are likely to know the least about. Systematic theology tends to be academic and dry[3] and is primarily concerned with providing a coherent ordering of theological doctrines. Organization is based on a historical presentation like the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed or method as seen in the long-winded prolegomenon[4] that usually initiates the systematic theology.[5] Practical theology is concerned with the “techniques” of church leadership and practice of the Christian community.[6] It is most relevant for pastoral training and, as you may expect, the most common type of theology heard from the pulpit. Narrative theology is the most recent of the types of theology mentioned here and was developed in response to the liberal theology movement within Protestantism during the 20th century. In it, Christianity is framed as the overarching story of Jesus and his followers; in other words, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so (but on steroids).

There are obvious connections between the type of theology preferred and the model that one uses to explain the role of doctrine to a religious community. As you might expect, philosophical, historical, and systematic theology are likely to be most important to those that favor the cognitive-propositional model of religion and theological discourse, while narrative theology is the theology of choice in the cultural-linguistic model. Multiple models = many different theologies and we have only scratched the surface in these few paragraphs.[7] But you may be asking, why should I care? Acknowledgement of the range of perspectives within the Christian tradition is essential if we truly seek dialogue.[8] More specific to this book, the way people view religion and the type of theology they favor directly impacts how they relate science and religion.

With all of that said, it is not surprising that there are differing opinions amongst theologians on the importance ascribed to the Bible. All view it as key source material and no Christian theology can be said to be non-Biblical no matter how much someone wants to hurl that accusation at his/her opponent. The difference lies in whether the Bible is considered to be primary, secondary, tertiary, or quaternary compared to tradition, reason, and experience. Evangelicals and conservative Protestants view the Bible as primary source material, with experience and tradition secondary or tertiary depending upon the particular denomination. Compare this with liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics who view experience and tradition as primary, respectively. These are categorizations, however, and certainly the specifics of theologians within each tradition are much more complex and interesting than I am suggesting. To argue the merits of tradition, reason, and experience, or the necessity of Biblical interpretation is pointless as all Christian groups are dependent on these sources for theology.[9]

Nevertheless, even though all Christians use reason, tradition, experience, and the Bible in theological construction, there are clear differences between Christians in the theology they produce. As but one example, Nancey Murphy has argued that the liberal-conservative divide within Protestantism (much more of a Grand Canyon than a crack on the sidewalk) is a direct product of modern philosophy and its focus on foundationalism.[10] Briefly, in modern philosophy all ideas require an intellectual foundation. If you look at the options Protestants have chosen, it appears that the only options for the foundation are the Bible and personal experience. And you only get one vote. As you would expect, just like foundations impact the structural integrities of homes[11], foundations affect how Christians talk about God and how they view God’s interaction with the world.

Because conservative Christians have founded their theological knowledge on the Bible, religious language for them is necessarily cognitive-propositional. As such, they emphasize the importance of inerrancy or something like it. If salvation requires proper knowledge of God, and understanding of God is to be solely based on the foundations of the Bible, then those foundations better sure as shoot be rock solid. To conservatives, the concept of inerrancy is without fault (pun intended) and proper hermeneutics is job one for the theologian. By contrast, liberal Christians have founded their theological knowledge on experience, which necessitates religious language to be experiential-expressive. They will have difficult understanding why inerrancy even matters let alone the specific variations of this concept.

The resulting theologies can be so different that you are forgiven if you wonder whether liberal and conservative theologians are really speaking about the same religion. Here, you try it![12]

“Belief in the deity of Jesus Christ also seems essential to the relationship. After Jesus had asked his disciples what people thought of him, he also asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response,” You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” met with Jesus’ resounding approval (Matt. 16:13-19). It is not sufficient to have a warm, positive, affirming feeling toward Jesus. One must have correct understanding and belief.”[13]

“Within each tradition of commonly accepted symbols, rituals, and meanings, there is also much disagreement and argument… Indeed, the symbol “God”… itself points to the great mystery of life, the deepest and most profound issues about which we do not know what to say… Although the human spirit has no way of overcoming the mystery of life, it is also true that we are not able simply to live with a blank, empty Void. So humans create pictures, pictures of what they think the world is like, pictures of what they imagine are the ultimate powers or realities with which they must deal; and they create rituals through which they enact their own roles among these realities and powers. We tell ourselves stories which depict the human situation in this world, and in our lives we attempt to act out our own parts in these stories. Great imaginative pictures and stories and rituals of this sort have become collected in the historical traditions of value and meaning and practice which we know as the religions.”[14]

This book is not about conservatism vs. liberalism any more that is about evolution vs. creation, science vs. religion, Simpsons vs. Family Guy, Backstreet Boys vs. NSYNC, or most importantly, Yankees vs. Red Sox.[15] I have no ideological bombs primed for launch. Like Murphy, I too believe that post-modernism provides resources with the potential to not only mind, but also bridge the gap. However, it is important that we are aware of our underlying philosophical commitments, which paradoxically, often go without notice. Taking stock is a must if we actually mean it when we say we want true dialogue. So much of the science and religion conversation is non-productive and simply annoying because people haven’t taken the time to figure out why they believe what they believe. And if they haven’t done that they most certainly haven’t taken the time to figure out why others believe what they believe. Talking past each other is not dialogue, it’s dueling monologues.

[to be continued on Monday]


[1] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), p. 1.

[2] I kid, but other than systematic theology, philosophical theology isn’t something most Christians like to do for fun. I do, but I’m weird according to my wife and kids.

[3] Saltine-level dry. It’s also often in German.

[4] No I am NOT a hypocrite.

[5] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2011), p. 105.

[6] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), pp. 3-4.

[7] See natural, feminist, liberation, Black theology, etc., let alone all of the different denominational theologies. A beautiful patchwork indeed!

[8] As a Christian, I would also argue that it’s important to understand all of these perspectives to be faithful to the broader ecumenical community. Christianity’s beauty lies in its diversity and we ignore the magnificent mosaic at our own peril. And you can quote me on that.

[9] Thus, “Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old world.” Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 14.

And, “The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant ‘apart form creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,’ is an oxymoron.” Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 27-28.

[10] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1996).

[11] I recall something about sand or weeds being bad and concrete and bricks being good. See the Bible and the Three Pigs for more information.

[12] They’re both Christian theologians by the way.

[13] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 30. Italics are my emphasis.

[14] Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 29. As quoted in Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1996), p.50.

[15] Go Cubs!

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Chapter 3 The hallmarks of religion and theology (part 1)

Last week we learned the hallmarks of science. Over the next three posts this week and next we will discuss the hallmarks of religion and theology. In today’s post (part 1), we will transition into religion and theology and look at the nature of religion. Part 2 will be an in-depth look at the nature of theology while Part 3 will address parallels in science and religion and look ahead to chapter 4.

CHAPTER 3: THE HALLMARKS OF RELIGION AND THEOLOGY

“Belief in the deity of Jesus Christ also seems essential to the relationship. After Jesus had asked his disciples what people thought of him, he also asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response,” You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” met with Jesus’ resounding approval (Matt. 16:13-19). It is not sufficient to have a warm, positive, affirming feeling toward Jesus. One must have correct understanding and belief.[1] Millard Erickson

“Man’s ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”[2] Paul Tillich

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom.”[3] Albert Einstein

————————————————————————————————————

Transitioning to religion and theology

We saw in the previous chapter what makes science, “science,” and we now turn to religion and theology. Religion and theology are inter-twined, but mean different things.[4] Religion is founded on humans’ beliefs in something higher than themselves, be it universal reason, a force of nature, a set of values, an entity called God,[5] or a college football team if you’re from the south.[6] It is possible to study religion from an objective sense and this is the purview of a field known as the “scientific study of religion,” child of mother psychology and father anthropology. Its practitioners scientifically study the reasons why people believe in God and perform the various rituals associated with their religious community. People in the field ask questions like: Is there something genetic about religion? Is religion’s power only due to its cultural properties making the content of belief (theology) irrelevant? Evolutionarily, do societies that believe in God have a better chance of survival? Will the birth rate in Alabama be affected by Nick Saban’s retirement?[7]

While the content of belief can differ greatly, religions are quite similar in their social dimensions. Religions exhibit shared commitment amongst the believers to the group, leading to in-group and out-group dynamics (see high school cliques) that seem to be a necessary aspect of human existence. Within religious communities, there are expectations for how members should treat others and how lives of meaning can be lived through shared ethical principles. Remarkably, the Golden Rule or something akin to it is found in many religions even though the “source” of the rule comes from very different views of God. Then again, perhaps this is not so remarkable since loving our neighbors as ourselves is so difficult to, you know, actually do well.

Efforts to “normalize” religion by identifying common themes helps to illuminate what it means to be human and promotes inter-religious dialogue, but greatly varying definitions of who or what God is hinders the potential of this exercise. Focusing just on religions that believe in an entity defined as God, there can be one to an infinite number of Gods and the Gods can be personal or impersonal, capricious or immutable, angry or loving, Alanis Morissette or George Burns.[8] The diversity of interpretations of God, atheistic religions aside, limits similarities in the cognitive realm of belief. The acting out of religious communities’ beliefs in God varies as well though all religions include feelings such as mystery, awe, amazement, humility, obedience, and practices such as prayer, worship, and the partaking of sacraments.[9]

Though the scientific study of religion is interesting, it is impossible for theology to be studied similarly due to the different ways religious communities define God. Theologians are tasked with rationally ascribing meaning to theirs and the community’s faith in God as echoed by Saint Anselm’s motto fides quaerens intellectum or “faith seeking understanding.” Relatedly, and reminding us again of the connection between religion and theology, if the living out and personal practice of beliefs in God is “on the level of primary experience,” then theology is “second level activity” that concerns itself with “describing, analyzing, critiquing, and organizing doctrines.”[10] Furthermore, experience, while important, is not the sole source of theology. Theologians use other material such as reason, holy books, and the tradition of the religious community, which collectively results in different theologies amongst and even within different religions. Can you say transubstantiation? No, how about complementarianism? Do you like tulips?

And YOU thought science was complicated.

Since theology is constructed and thus cannot be studied objectively, to write on these matters means that one must state where (s)he is “coming from.”

Sorry, not happening!

Ok, fine, I’ll go there.

Hi everyone, my name is Justin. I am a postmodern and post-evangelical Christian who dedicated my life to Christ in graduate school. I believe that faith is both rational and supra rational, but I am wholly committed to the use of reason in explaining my faith and discussing theology. My holy book is the Bible and my tradition is Christianity, dimples, warts, arks, rainbows, Charlton Heston, and all.

The hallmarks of religion

It has been more than 30 years since George Lindbeck wrote his influential book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. In it, Lindbeck argued that there are three models of religion and theological doctrines that collectively describe all Christian communities. The models, like other models, are a simplification of reality, but they highlight well the differences found within the Christian tradition.[11]

In the cognitive-propositional model, doctrines are informative and provide “truth claims about objective realities.”[12] This could be considered the traditional view, in which theology is similar to other rational disciples like philosophy or science. In this model, the theologian functions as an arbiter of truth for his religious community and provides logical and evidential arguments for why that community’s doctrines are truer than those of other communities. But doesn’t this model welcome if not make debate inevitable between different religious communities? And isn’t competing truth claims between different religious groups a major cause of war? Go state! Beat that other team we hate!

The experiential-expressive model states that doctrines are interpreted in relation to the “inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations” of the religious community.[13] The theologian is the spiritual leader and his/her role is to attempt to put into words the complex ways in which the community interacts with and responds to the divine. This model is conducive to inter-religious dialogue because it seeks similarities in religious experiences and focuses on the meaning ascribed to the feelings and beauty of these experiences. The experiential-expressive model of religion describes well the “spiritually non-religious” and can be a welcoming oasis for those who are weary of the cognitive-propositional view of religion and its seeming reduction of religion to warring truth claims about God.[14] But is describing human “feelings, attitudes, and orientations” enough to give justice to God? And how deep can this type of theology possibly be? Who cares… this model comes with a snazzy coexist sticker.

The last model, cultural-linguistic, says that religions are ”comprehensive interpretative schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world.”[15] This model reflects the importance of community and is post-foundational, unlike the other two models, which makes it more amenable to postmodern interdisciplinary discourse. For Christians, the cultural-linguistic model makes the focus the story of Christ and how it can be reinterpreted anew for the religious community. But does this mean that theology is only a story? And how does communication between communities work if each has a unique story; how can we determine which story is the “right” one? No worries since Jesus can be a warrior, good shepherd, and your homeboy.

For those familiar with his work, I do not agree with Lindbeck that the models correlate with history and represent a progression of Christian doctrine since the Reformation (i.e., cognitive-propositional as pre-modern, experiential-expressive as modern, and cultural-linguistic as post-modern). Nor do I formulate my arguments in this book committed to a particular model of Lindbeck’s or believe one model is better than the others, as should be obvious by my humorous jabs at each. All three are needed to collectively explain religion and theological doctrine. Instead I note the models to highlight the different ways Christians think about religion and theological discourse. Your understanding of the role of theological doctrine is likely not the same as mine or your neighbor, and it is certainly not the same as the rest of the readers of the book. Amen for that!

Furthermore, one does not have to agree with Lindbeck’s interpretation of these models to see that they are of great use to theological and religious dialogue. A well-known introductory volume to Christian Theology provides a view of Christianity that makes indirect reference to all three of the models. Try to figure out who is the source of the quote without looking at the endnote…

“How, then, shall we regard religion? Religion is actually all of these – belief or doctrine, feeling or attitudes, and a way of life or manner of behaving. Christianity fits all these criteria of religion… Christianity also involves certain feelings, such as dependence, love, and fulfillment. And Christianity most certainly involves a set of teachings, a way of viewing reality and oneself, and a perspective from which all of experience makes sense.”[16]

Did you figure out who it is? It’s Millard Erickson. I’m not a religious scholar or theologian and this survey is brief but if Millard Erickson and George Lindbeck can agree this much on the hallmarks of religion then it’s probably safe for us to move on.[17]

[to be continued on Thursday]

————————————————————————————————————

[1] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 30. Italics are my emphasis.

[2] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (Perennial Classics) (HarperOne, 2009), p. 47. Italics are my emphasis.

[3] Albert Einstein, The Einstein Reader (Citadel, 2006), p. 7.

[4] In the remainder of this book, when I use the term “religion” I am referring to both theology and religion. When I use the term “theology,” I am speaking specifically about doctrine and ideas about God, not believers’ practices or the cultural role of the religious community.

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998).

[6] Kidding, of course.

[7] Kidding again, of course.

[8] I’ve never seen the movie, Dogma, but I’ve heard it’s good. I have seen Oh, God! and at least one of its sequels. They’re the opposite of good.

[9] You thought I was joking about religion founded on college football, but these actions describe the Alabama fans I know. Sorry Rachel Held Evans, but you know this is true. Go Hawkeyes!

[10] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 21.

[11] In spite of my attempts to be an uglier version of Keanu Reeves and play devil’s advocate.

[12] George Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), p. 16.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This model is also exemplified by the quote from Einstein that opens Chapter 1.

[15] George Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), p. 32.

[16] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 20.

[17] A conservative, a liberal, and a duck walk into a bar. The bartender says…

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Chapter 2: The hallmarks of science (continued)

Today we finish the rest of chapter 2 (previous post here).

CHAPTER 2: THE HALLMARKS OF SCIENCE

“Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”[1] Carl Sagan

“I am a deeply religious nonbeliever…. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”[2] Albert Einstein

“We are glorious accidents of an unpredictable process with no drive to complexity, not the expected results of evolutionary principles that yearn to produce a creature capable of understanding the mode of its own necessary construction.”[3] Stephen J. Gould

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.”[4] Francis Collins

The very first evolutionist was not Charles Darwin or Lucretius or Thales or Nimrod, but Satan himself. He has not only deceived the whole world with the monstrous lie of evolution but has deceived himself most of all. He still thinks he can defeat God because, like modern “scientific” evolutionists, he refuses to believe that God is really God.”[5] Ken Ham

[1] This quote is from an interview with Carl Sagan. See: https://www.singularityweblog.com/carl-sagans-last-interview-science-as-a-candle-in-the-dark/.

[2] Albert Einstein in letter to Hans Muehsam, March 30, 1954, Einstein Archive 38-434, The Expanded Quotable Einstein, p. 218. As quoted in Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (De Capo Press, 2007), ebook.

[3] Stephen J. Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (Harmony, 1996), p. 216. Italics are my emphasis.

[4] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2007), p. 211.

[5] Henry Morris, The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Master Books, 2000), p. 260. As quoted in Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne, 2008), p. 20.

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Philosophy of science comes of age

As science rose to its current seat of intellectual and cultural importance in the 20th century, philosophers and sociologists began to construct models to explain the scientific process and how scientific knowledge is gained or becomes “truth” (collectively called the philosophy of science).[1] An important philosopher of science was Karl Popper, most well known for his work on the so-called demarcation problem that asks: what makes one idea or theory scientific and another not scientific?[2] Popper’s main contribution to the discussion was that if an idea can be formulated into a hypothesis that is potentially falsifiable, it is considered scientific. If the hypothesis cannot be falsified, no dice and you’re in the realm of pseudoscience.

Many interested in the science-religion dialogue, especially those that see science and religion at war, like this criterion because it gives them a missile to fire on their opponents when they feel threatened. Common targets are scientific creationists and intelligent design proponents. Since creationism and intelligent design cannot possibly be falsified, so it goes, they are both pseudoscience and not worthy of anyone’s time. Unfortunately, the falsifiability criterion does not actually solve the demarcation problem because there are some ideas corresponding to the extremes of the natural world – the very small and the very big – that don’t lend themselves well to experimentation, and thus cannot possibly be falsified. But these ideas remain in the realm of science. Interestingly (at least to the author), creationists and intelligent design advocates seem to spend a great deal of effort convincing others that their ideas are falsifiable so they will be considered “scientific.” The arguments are usually quite weak and are an attempt at passing a 60-70 year old science exam that only has one question: are you scientific? I want to say to all parties involved, “The world has moved on.” I guess I just did.

Philosophy of science as a discipline went Hollywood with publication of Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[3] Kuhn’s focus on scientists working in communities was spot-on even if he made us out to be lemmings.[4] In addition, Kuhn’s distinction between “normal” and “revolutionary” science is illuminating since historically scientific fields have gone through periods of relative inactivity where old theories are held without question (“normal” science) and new theories develop during bursts of creativity (“revolutionary” science). Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the book likely for the very reason it became popular; it made science seem irrational and over-emphasized the importance of subjectivity in the progression of science. (And this is but one reason why most scientists don’t like the philosophy of science.) Yes, science progresses via the competition between different communities of scientists. No, particular scientific theories don’t win out for sociological or political reasons. What Kuhn did to encourage including the history of science in philosophy of science discussions was a very good thing, so equally bad was the subjective picture he painted in contrast with science’s objectivity.

The philosopher of science that I believe does the best justice to how science actually progresses is Imre Lakatos.[5] Lakatos combined the historicity of Kuhn with Popper’s focus on rationality to produce his theory of “research programmes.”[6] Lakatos appreciated the community aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy but abhorred the apparent irrationality that accompanied it. Lakatos kept the community focus but infused it with Popper’s ideas to provide a model that was both historical and rational. In my mind, his model also is the most accurate at relating the three key aspects of scientific research: theory, hypothesis, and data.

Scientific knowledge is gained when hypotheses are generated and tested. Scientific use of the term hypothesis mirrors that of its general use. A hypothesis is a conjecture, an educated guess that can be tested in a meaningful way. To test a hypothesis means to subject it to experimentation, with the resulting data refuting the hypothesis or not. (The use of the term data here also mirrors its common parlance.) If the data supports the hypothesis, we don’t say the hypothesis was “proven” as you can never absolutely prove something in science. Nevertheless, when a hypothesis is repeatedly not refuted it becomes “accepted.” It is quite easy to formulate hypotheses, but not as easy to come up with hypotheses that are actually testable. For instance, the hypothesis that I have the same vertical leap as Michael Jordan is both easy to formulate and easy to test: I can jump, fail, and injure my back, and the hypothesis will be refuted (and my friends will laugh at me). The hypothesis that we live in one universe amongst many is not as easy to formulate and immensely more difficult to test.

Importantly, hypotheses aren’t formed out of thin air (at least meaningful ones unlike the comparison of Michael Jordan and me).[7] They are always connected to broader theories and theory is a word with a much different meaning in science than its common use. To most, a theory is similar to a hypothesis and implies lack of evidence or skepticism about the idea’s merit. This is not at all the case when scientists use the term. In science, theories are broad and consist of foundational ideas that have been well established, usually due to multiple independent means of inquiry that have all undergone repeated testing. So, theories (e.g., theory of evolution, theory of general relativity, atomic theory) are in fact the closest thing to truth that science can produce. Let that sink in for a minute.

Back to the connection between hypothesis and theory in Lakatos’ research programs. Let’s look at the theory of evolution, which says that all life forms that exist or have ever existed on this planet have descended from one or a few common ancestors.[8] All evolutionary biologists work under this theory, but different ones will work on different model systems. One may study evolution in bacteria such as E. coli while another studies the evolution of dinosaurs. The bacterial scientist proposes a hypothesis from the perspective of the theory to explain why antibiotics aren’t working anymore (hint, it has to do with something called horizontal gene transfer) whereas the paleontologist proposes a hypothesis for why the last era of dinosaurs came to such an abrupt end (hint, it has to do with an asteroid and lack of dino diversity, at least among the wingless). These hypotheses are not “neutral” and come out of the scientists’ acceptance of evolutionary theory. But the traffic is not only in one direction. Hypotheses don’t just derive from theories but the data they generate can also support theories. A hypothesis that posits the existence of an intermediate life form in a particular geological era most definitely arises out of a commitment to evolutionary theory. But what happens if a scientist testing this hypothesis finds this intermediate species? The theory of evolution is confirmed. Does this sound circular? Yes, it very much does, but the “circle” is in reality feedback between theory and data via hypothesis and depends on logic flowing in both directions (deductive and inductive reasoning). To me, this “organization” of ideas provides the most accurate description so far of science in practice.

An additional utility of Lakatos’ philosophy of science is that different research programs can be compared to determine whether one is “progressing” more than the others (i.e., one is “winning” because it best explains the data). Those programs that are progressing are ones in which the hypotheses not only support the theory but also predict novel data.[9] By contrast, “degenerating” programs are ones in which hypotheses are continually formulated ad hoc to explain away data in light of the theory and don’t predict novel data.

But how long does it take for a research program to officially die off? Interestingly, that’s difficult to predict, but fairly easy to see with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight. A research program will become officially degenerate when a new research program comes along that faithfully explains all of the available data, provides novel hypotheses that welcome further exploration, and convinces proponents of other research programs to jump ship. It certainly helps if the old generation has moved on to, shall we say, greener pastures too.

Perhaps a real-world analogy would best help to illustrate the concept of research programs and interplay between theory, hypothesis, and data.[10] I have been happily married for 12 years. I love my wife and I believe she loves me as well. Let’s say I am driving by a restaurant and see her eating with a man I don’t know. I might be suspicious initially, but I know she loves me from all of the experiences we’ve shared, the three kids we have, the awesome patio set I just bought her (no, seriously, it’s really nice), the fancy dinner I took her to that one time a few years ago, so I choose to ignore it. The next week, I see the same thing. And the next week.

As the data piles up, I’m really starting to wonder what is going on. I thought she loved me? Perhaps my theory is incorrect. I start to re-interpret previous experiences, looking for “clues” as to why this type of behavior could occur. I hypothesize that there were things I said that I shouldn’t have. I hypothesize that I am not spending enough time with her, or she is feeling neglected, or she is worn out and bored from staying home with the kids, or she doesn’t really care about lawn furniture (highly unlikely, I know). Now I start to piece it together and realize that (expletive deleted), my wife is leaving me. Because of this new theory, I think back to things she has said to me that could have suggested she wasn’t happy.

I finally get up the nerve to ask her about it the next time I see her in the restaurant with him. And lo and behold, the next week I have my chance. So I storm in to yell at her in a fury of excitement. As I’m demanding an explanation…

I realize it’s not her! I was wrong and I have just made a fool out of myself. Instantly, the bungee cord of reality snaps back and I immediately return to my original interpretation of our experiences together. I remember how much she loves me and realize I was being an idiot. My theory of her love is secure. Newton is safe for now.[11]

That’s how science works. Research programs are continually bolstered or “progress” as they adequately take account of the available data and suggest new hypotheses and experiments that can be performed to generate data that support the research program. In time, if the research program is incapable of accommodating the relevant data and ad hoc hypotheses must continually be formed to instead explain away the data, the research program will degenerate and the time is ripe for a competing research program to swoop in and gain acceptance. There are several examples from the history of science in which a research program became stagnant and could not accommodate new data.[12] (See Galileo and the Copernican revolution. See Einstein and the quantum revolution. See Watson, Crick and others and the molecular revolution. Etc.). Science is still dependent on data and hypotheses, but Lakatos enables us to once and for all appreciate its theory-laden nature.

Moving forward

Let’s return to the quotes that opened this chapter. The initial quote by noted astronomer and science popularizer, Carl Sagan, deftly summarizes science, so much so that I would be surprised if there was a practicing scientist who didn’t wholeheartedly agree with it. The other quotes are examples of how three well-respected scientists view the interaction of science and religion. Albert Einstein describes himself as a “deeply religious non-believer,” which likely signifies a sense of awe about the natural world that traditional religions and their doctrines cannot adequately communicate. Next, we have the previously introduced Stephen J. Gould, whose lucid skill as a writer significantly transforms an otherwise sterile quote with the simple addition of one word, “glorious.” Deleting this word reveals an impoverished world because even though Gould was committed to the compatibility of science and religion personally he had no room for religious discourse due to his strong agnosticism. Last, we have Francis Collins, former leader of the Human Genome Project, current director of the National Institutes of Health, and well-known Evangelical who founded the organization BioLogos, which aims to promote dialogue on science and faith. Collins is passionate about reconciling the two worlds of science and faith and attempts a harmony of the two in his book, The Language of God. Collins believes science and religion are independent endeavors, with science addressing questions about the natural world and religion addressing questions of belonging, morality, and ultimate meaning.

All four of these scientists were or are leaders in their respective fields and all would no doubt agree to the descriptions of science provided here. All accept(ed) evolution and the other findings of modern science. What accounts for the different views of science and religion that permeate their writings?

And what about the quote from Ken Ham, well-known young-earth creationism advocate who possesses a bachelor’s degree in applied science and taught in public high school in Australia before becoming president of the organization Answers in Genesis? “ The very first evolutionist was not Charles Darwin or Lucretius or Thales or Nimrod, but Satan himself…”[13]

It is to religion and theology that we now turn.

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[1] For a thorough and very well written introduction to the philosophy of science, see Peter Godfrey Smith’s Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2003). For a narrower, but Christian perspective on the philosophy of science see Del Ratzsch’s Science and its Limits (IVP Academic, 2000).

[2] My understanding of Popper’s work has come primarily by reading introductory volumes on the philosophy of science. For those interested in learning more about his views I can at least suggest the following books, however: Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 2002); Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Routledge, 2002).

[3] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[4] Well-educated lemmings, though.

[5] Imre Lakatos, ed. by John Worrall and Gregory Currie, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Volume 1: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[6] Hereafter referred to as research programs so I can get rid of the quotation marks.

[7] Send me some retro Jordans if you’re reading this, Michael.

[8] The tree of life has gotten bushier and more interconnected in the last few decades.

[9] Novel data refers to data produced by an experiment that tests a new hypothesis or data from another study that was previously unknown to the research program. A strong example of the latter is Mendelian genetics, which was unknown to Darwin and early proponents of his theory of evolution by natural selection even though Mendel’s experiments were already in progress. It’s impossible to know everything in your own narrow field of scientific research, let alone a related field.

[10] Hat tip to Karl Giberson for the idea of this analogy.

[11] Please, God, may there never be data to support an Einstein-like revolution. My wife is awesome.

[12] Interestingly, the new data usually comes from a technical advance that enabled more sophisticated measurements. Who could imagine astronomy without the telescope, cell biology without the microscope, or biochemistry without X-ray crystallography? Today’s high-computing systems and next-generation sequencers are doing the same for genomics and personalized medicine.

[13] I forgive the reader for not already knowing that Satan got a Ph.D. in biology from Johns Hopkins University immediately after promoting the eviction of garden tenants Adam and Eve, but just before tempting Jesus in the wilderness with beakers and test tubes.

Yes, the quote is ridiculous. That doesn’t mean the quote should be ignored. Quite the opposite, actually.

 

 

Posted in Blurred Vision, Methods of science, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Science | 3 Comments

Chapter 2: The hallmarks of science

So I’ve thought a bit more about the book (tentatively titled “Blurred Vision”) and decided to scale back on the philosophy and talk more about how science and theology work. Then I will talk about how philosophy of science acts as mediator between the two disciplines and why Lakatosian philosophy in particular is apt at explaining why conversion from young earth creationism to evolution is difficult (and how it is similarly difficult to understand young earth creationist viewpoints when you accept evolution).

The effective change is to replace chapters 2-4 as described in my previous post on the book with two chapters titled “The hallmarks of science” and “The hallmarks of religion and theology.” The rest of the chapters are the same.

Enough of the preamble, let’s get one with it. Readers of this blog are very familiar with the “state of the (dis)union so I will spare you material from Chapter 1. Instead we’ll start with chapter 2, the first half of which is below. The remainder will be posted on Friday. I would love to hear your thoughts!

[Note that I plan to include bolded footnotes as actual footnotes in the book and the rest of the footnotes as endnotes at the end of the book.]

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CHAPTER 2: THE HALLMARKS OF SCIENCE

“Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”[1] Carl Sagan

“I am a deeply religious nonbeliever…. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”[2] Albert Einstein

“We are glorious accidents of an unpredictable process with no drive to complexity, not the expected results of evolutionary principles that yearn to produce a creature capable of understanding the mode of its own necessary construction.”[3] Stephen J. Gould

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.”[4] Francis Collins

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The hallmarks of science

Let’s define science as a rational pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. An unexpected definition, perhaps, since it does not include familiar scientific concepts such as facts, hypotheses, experiments or vocabulary words like photosynthesis, pneumococcus, and phosphatidylinositol 3-phosphate. These aspects of science (well at least the first three), while important, are not the end but the means to it. Whether the scientific discipline be physics, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, physiology, animal biology, ecology, cosmology, etc., it is safe to say that scientists from each are committed to the same rational pursuit of knowledge and the hallmarks of science discussed below permeate all of these disciplines. Nevertheless, each discipline has its own focus, terminology, and instrumentation and my area of expertise, biochemistry, shares little in common with cosmology in terms of content and experimental methods. (Keep this tidbit filed away for later.)

Modern science is an offshoot of natural philosophy and, as such, is similarly framed by logic. Sherlock Holmes, Law and Order, geometry, and the great “battle of wits” scene from The Princess Bride[5] highlight the importance of deductive reasoning, in which particulars are inferred from general statements, enabling proof or something very close to it. You may be familiar with this example of deductive reasoning: all humans are mortal, I am a human, ergo I am mortal. Or from math, if A = B and B = C, then A = Albuquerque, yes, you’ve got it.

Just as important to the practice of science, if not more so, is inductive reasoning, whereby individual experiments are used to formulate broader principles. Unlike deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning does not result in proofs, but instead is a form of probable reasoning. If we continue to see the same result from repeated experiments, then we can infer that the principles or ideas driving the research performed are likely general. If you continually roll dice and only sevens come up, you use inductive reasoning to infer that the dice are loaded. As we will see below, the practice of science necessarily requires a combination of both inductive and deductive reasoning.

The success of science stems from the commitment of scientists to three key –isms: reductionism, empiricism, and naturalism. In reductionism, complex problems or phenomenon are sub-divided into smaller parts that can be more easily assessed or analyzed. Science is not the sole owner of reductionism as other academic disciplines make use of it as well. It’s not just the purview of corduroy-wearing academics, either, as I would argue that everyone uses reductionism in their daily routines. For example, as I am writing this I just heard a very loud noise downstairs. Since my family is gone and I’m alone in the house I’m a bit nervous as to the source of the noise. I begin to hypothesize… Is it a burglar? An animal? A picture falling off the wall? Charlie Sheen? Already, I’ve subdivided the problem into separate hypotheses, each of which provides a testable experiment.[6]

Reductionism is considered a swear word by some who are unfamiliar with the multiple usages of the term. We will look at two examples here to highlight the different ways in which the word can be used and why when I am using it I am not speaking like a sailor. The first, methodological reductionism, is the reductionism referred to in the previous paragraph, and a necessary pre-requisite for scientific inquiry. No one questions its utility and, as I said, we all use it whether we are putting together puzzles (start with the outside pieces first or my mother will start to bite her fingernails), figuring out why a light bulb doesn’t work (replace the bulb, try the fuse, fire your $100 per hour electrician), or writing a book for Eerdmans (divide the topic into subsections, call them chapters, outline the chapters, find the best editor who will help sell your book and transform your writing into WRITING!). In the field of biology, for instance, explanations of heredity were incomplete and no more than simply observations, really trends at best, until scientists showed that a fairly innocuous chemical material, DNA, was the actual hereditary agent and brought about the advent of molecular biology. And now everyone knows about DNA.[7]

The other form of reductionism, ontological reductionism, additionally adds that true causality is only observed at what is considered the most fundamental level of reality. In other words, the world of physics is really the only one that is interesting because it is the only one that is actually doing anything, and while other disciplines may make for fun dinner discussion you and your grandmother are nothing but a collection of atoms (quarks or leptons, if you really want to get small, but most don’t). Your hopes, dreams, and fears are not themselves causal in any essence, but are instead solely the result of atoms dancing to the tune of fundamental forces outside of your control. Ontological reductionism, playfully referred to as “nothing buttery,” is a philosophical position and one that is not required by science. It is also a position that is impossible to actually live out with any coherence…

So reductionism is a good and necessary thing when scientists use it to talk about science, but a not-so-good and not-so-necessary thing when scientists use it to talk about philosophy. We should forgive scientists for promoting ontological reductionism since science was birthed by philosophy (and children rebel against their parents at some point in their lives) and, more importantly, scientists are usually pretty poor philosophers.[8] But we don’t need to throw out a scientific practice (methodological reductionism) when it has been mutated into an unnecessary philosophy that ironically destroys the foundations of the scientific endeavor anyway.[9]

Scientists are also committed to empiricism, which says that knowledge is obtained via sense experience. That seems obvious I suppose, but it’s important to note that the scientific appropriation of this philosophy makes its use a bit different than that presented by Locke, Hume, and others that you read about in your Philosophy 101 class. What scientists mean by empiricism is that scientific knowledge is obtained by data that is perceived by sense experience. The more empirical a science is (i.e., the more data that can be generated for analysis), the better, but a requirement for experimental data is not absolute depending upon the scientific discipline being studied. For example, it is much easier to perform a genetics experiment and count the number of fruit flies that have white vs. red eyes than it is to perform a cosmological experiment and determine the effects of gravity during the Planck epoch (what happened between from time zero and 10-43 seconds). That doesn’t mean the former is scientific and the latter isn’t, however, because both share the other commonalities of science described in this chapter.

There is another philosophical underpinning of science that is important but also ignored, that science is pursued with the understanding that we can actually know “what is really there.” Scientists, whether they acknowledge it or not, aim for increasing verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is a big word and unfortunately won’t work in Scrabble unless you’re making up your own rules, but it’s a GREAT word that means the appearance or semblance of truth. In other words, while our instruments and understanding of nature are imperfect, we trust that our picture of the natural world will get clearer and thus “truer” as science progresses. Our resolution moves from standard definition to high definition to ultra-high definition or whatever the current TVs have that are on sale on Black Friday. Models are continually refined and sometimes, although rarer than you may expect, new findings require scientists to throw the old model into the garbage can (usually not the recycling bin) and replace it with a new one. Scientists are realists and believe that what they are discovering actually corresponds to the makeup of the world we inhabit. While the models are just that, scientists believe they are very close to scale and will become even more accurate with continued study.

Before we move on, there are several other characteristics of science that are also very important but are perhaps even less appreciated than the ones we just discussed. First, science is performed within a community. The ideal of an individual scientist sitting in an office scratching his[10] chin and solitarily contemplating the great mystery of life and the cosmos couldn’t be more false. Scientific research occurs in labs comprised of several to many different individuals from different backgrounds that are collectively obsessed with a similar problem, but attacking it from different angles. Thus, scientists need to be able to work well with others, minimally in their own research labs, and even more now that scientific research has become so technically advanced and inter-disciplinary as to require collaboration between multiple labs across different states and countries. Next, science arises out of the passionate curiosity of scientists. Rare is the scientist who was not that kid you remember who stared at bugs or the sky for hours on end and was fixated on dinosaurs much later in childhood than was socially acceptable.[11] Finally, science is not sterile and formal, but fertile and informal. Yes scientists rationalize and emphasize logic, but they also dream and imagine and believe it or not more than one of my scientist friends has written a novel. Scientists need to be creative to weave their scientific research into a coherent story that they themselves and, just as importantly, others, can understand (that is, if they want to publish papers, receive grant funding, and basically be scientists). Cold rationality is not the primary trait or ideal of any scientist I know, nor was it Einstein’s.[12] For those that are looking for a movie to watch with the family on Friday night, I can’t recommend enough, Naturally Obsessed: The Making of A Scientist.[13] If you don’t personally know any scientists the movie will blow your mind.[14] The Big Bang Theory has its issues, but its portrayal of science being pursued by a diverse, creative, and curious community of individuals is pretty spot-on (for a TV show).[15]

It is also worth noting that there are several assumptions of science that cannot be proven by science itself. We take for granted that the world is orderly, rational, amenable to exploration, and consistent (gravity has been around since the formation of the universe so we’re not going out on too far of a limb to assume that it is going to function next Tuesday as well). These characteristics of the natural world are associated with theism, which is why many historians connect the birth of modern science to early scientists’ belief in God.[16] Though these assumptions cannot be proven by science and must be assumed ahead of time, they are routinely confirmed by the practice of science. Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”[17] He wasn’t a preacher and I doubt he had Christian apologetics in mind when he said this, but he can get an “Amen” from this retired Baptist.

[to be continued on Friday]

[1] This quote is from an interview with Carl Sagan. See: https://www.singularityweblog.com/carl-sagans-last-interview-science-as-a-candle-in-the-dark/.

[2] Albert Einstein in letter to Hans Muehsam, March 30, 1954, Einstein Archive 38-434, The Expanded Quotable Einstein, p. 218. As quoted in Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (De Capo Press, 2007), ebook.

[3] Stephen J. Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (Harmony, 1996), p. 216. Italics are my emphasis.

[4] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2007), p. 211.

[5] You know you want to watch it. You’re just stalling now… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_eZmEiyTo0.

[6] I just went downstairs. Thankfully, no burglar and no Charlie Sheen. Yes, I made this story up.

[7] If you would like to buy a present for me or another science geek, this DNA model (seen on The Big Bang Theory) is a winner. https://www.indigo.com/molecular_models/dna-rna/62122-17-DNA-Model-Double-Helix-Structure-molecular-genetics-teaching.html#.VlpI_BNViko.

[8] Except for me of course!

[9] But that’s a separate book and we just started this one.

[10] Yes, the ideal is usually a man, unfortunately.

[11] My wife is worried about our daughter, but I’m not.

[12] See, for example, the following quotes attributed to Einstein: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” And, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

[13] Hat tip to Craig Story for making me watch this movie.

[14] And you will get excited about protein structures and wonder what the really, um, “eccentric” guy is doing with his life.

[15] And neurotic. Don’t forget that all scientists are neurotic.

[16] There are many books that promote the connection between Christianity and the birth of modern science without over-stating the causal role. For but a few examples, see: David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, eds.; God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (University of California Press, 1986); John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (HarperOne, 1997).

[17] Banesh Hoffman and Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel (Plume, 1973), p. 18.

Posted in Blurred Vision, Methods of science, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Science | 2 Comments