Theological intrusions into science

By Ken Perrott 31/05/2010

It’s no secret. I have no time for theology.

I try to stay away from debates about existence of gods as I think it is a mug’s game. Evidence gets distorted or invented. And logic gets skewed. The UK Humanist Terry Sanderson has a brief article about this in the Guardian (see Theology — truly a naked emperor). As he says:

What is theology? I think one of the best definitions was given by the sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein when he said: “Theology … is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”

As an example of the trade he refers to Rowan Williams: “who is lauded far and wide for the vastness of his theological knowledge. He is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend. And because no one can fathom it, it must be very important, right? He’s much cleverer than we are because he can say things that we don’t understand. For instance:”

“The word of God is not bound. God speaks, and the world is made; God speaks and the world is remade by the word incarnate. And our human speaking struggles to keep up. We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what may be infinitesimally different perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the word’s light has been made manifest.”

Well – theologians might debate this. I couldn’t possibly comment. As I said, a mug’s game.

Interfering in the real world

Trouble is, the theologically inclined sometimes step out of their playpen and start interfering in the real world. Some seem particularly prone to lecturing us about the nature and limitations of science. Of course their motives are oblivious but they should not be allowed to get away with misrepresenting, sometimes even slandering, science, the scientific method and scientists.

Stuart, a local theology student, has had a go at lecturing us about the inadequacies of the scientific method in a blog post (see Are logical arguments evidence?). He argues that evidence is not required “for reasonable belief,” that argument in itself can be sufficient evidence, and that “physical evidence doesn’t speak” so different perspectives inevitable lead to different conclusions from the evidence. That is, evidence is unreliable and we must, in the end, rely on argument alone.

He exposes his own motives for this with his claim that “Christians would be in an awkward position,” if “evidence is required for reasonable belief.” So “there must therefore be something terribly wrong with the criteria.”

I guess many Christians would dispute that!

But lets look at his claims separately;

No evidence required?

He justifies this with “we should know nothing of moral truths, aesthetic values, and meta-physical intuitions. Yet surly we do know that torturing babies is wrong, open graves are macabre, waterfalls are sublime, that the past is objective and other minds do exist.” This is rather a jumble and one could debate each claim. But I think he is arguing by analogy that because some beliefs may be “properly basic” or axiomatic one can justify any old favourite belief by classifying it that way.

Come off it. Some philosophers won’t allow you any basic or foundational beliefs – and you want to use this claim just as a matter of convenience?!

He then argues that justifications for evidence are “self-referentially incoherent.. . . For no physical evidence is able to reveal that evidence is required for reasonable belief.” These sort of artificial circular arguments are what give theologians and naive philosophers a bad image. They are seen to sit around discussing how many angels they can place on the head of a pin while the rest of humanity gets on with the important business.

One important philosopher made a wise comment on this issue. Karl Marx in his Theses On Feuerbach wrote:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Maybe a bit obtuse but, I think, very powerful. I interpret that to mean that “knowledge” obtained and developed without contact with reality is of little or no value. To change the world we need an effective method to know, or understand it. This requires contact with the real world.  His point was, perhaps, obvious to natural scientists who would have recognised this as an important assertion underlying the scientific revolution. However, while recognising this, Marx’s targets were philosophy, history and social science.

The fact is that these basic foundations of science, often considered axiomatic, are tested every day – in practice. We know reality has an internal logic, follows laws, etc., because we would not get the results we do if it didn’t. Similarly we know that basing knowledge on evidence is reliable because it works. We also know that basing knowledge simply on claims of basic belief or isolated logic is often wrong. We know that from experience.

Science knows all about mistaken logic and arguments because so many scientific ideas have been proved wrong. This happened because we tested them in practice, attempted to validate them against reality.

Argument can be sufficient evidence?

It’s understandable that theology and idealist philosophers promote this argument. And within those circles this approach can be very successful – because the resulting ideas and claims are never tested against reality!

In the real world, of course, things are never that abstract. Very few arguments or ideas in science are ever completely abstracted from real evidence, from reality. And there is always pressure to test resulting ideas and theory against reality. However, sometimes we have to rely on logic and mathematics to make advances. We may not always be able to test our ideas against reality becuase of technological immaturity or lack of theoretical precision. But in essence we make progress because ideas, logic and argument are intimately connected with, obtain evidence from, and are tested against, reality.

Another aspect worth remembering. Reality is largely counter-intuitive. Not surprising considering our intuitions have arisen from our evolution in a “medium sized” world. Most of reality, though, is far smaller or far bigger. It moves more slowly or much faster. Distances are immense or much smaller than we can comprehend. Common sense and classical logic therefore are often inappropriate by themselves.

Human interpretation means evidence is not objective?

Well, of course, our subjectivity is a problem. We may be an intelligent species but we are not a rational one. More a rationalising one. We go into situations with preconceived ideas. We are selective with our information  gathering. It is just human, and in many situations safer, to attempt to reinforce our prejudices.

This is a fundamental problem with the “argument is evidence approach.” It’s a great way of reinforcing our prejudices because we are under no obligation to test our ideas or search for objectivity. Of course we can debate with others, provide an opportunity for contrasting views to encourage the development of new ideas. But, let’s face it, we live in communities. Group thinking is natural.

And as I said above, common sense argument is not applicable to most fundamental scientific interactions with reality – no matter how honest and objective we try to be.

Hence the vital role of objective evidence and testing against reality in science.

Reality is what keeps us honest! No matter how beautiful we think our theories are if they cannot be validated against reality, are shown to be wrong by reality, we have to modify or abandon them.

Science is also a social process. Colleagues constantly critique our ideas and conclusions. Scientists really thrive on scepticism. We all would just love to be recognised for demonstrating a mistake in widely accepted theories. If our objective evidence or testing is inadequate we soon hear about it. We get forced back into real interaction with reality.

This is what is unique about the scientific process and why it is so powerful. This is why scientists can eventually reach consensus about our theories of reality – despite differences in religion, nationality and race. After all, there is only one reality.

Contrast this with religion and superstition. Reality is ignored and we see that there are multiple prejudices – and multiple “logical arguments” to justify them.

Humanity didn’t make the progress it has by relying on logical argument divorced from reality and practice.

And this is the latest cartoon from from Jesus & Mo – very appropriate:


Similar articles


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]