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.

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