Science or Revelation (The Question of God - Alt. S.S. 3 of 11)


(system) #1

With this session we approach what could be one of the most contentious and impassible subjects to be tackled in a SS class. There is much heat generated on how literally one should read Genesis and whether YEC (Young Earth Creationism) and/or YLC (Young Life Creationism) is mandatory to be a true Adventist or not. One prominent Adventist thought leader has suggested those who do not adhere to such conservative views are, in effect, “Seventh-day Darwinists” and ‘fifth columnists”[1]. This sort of rhetoric, while no doubt heart-felt, can and has obfuscated the issues of how to parse and resolve the two potential knowledge streams – revelation and experience – that I alluded to in my Figure 1, Session 1.

A full treatment of the Faith and Science debate would far exceed my space, goals and competence. So what I propose to do this week is much more modest. I wish to mostly work on definitional boundaries. Much contention we encounter is semantic, not substantive. That is, we use words in disparate ways believing we are talking about the same thing, but we are not. Consequently it can be most helpful to cut through some of that equivocation and at least try to be on the same page when using terminology.

Some Definitions:

Science: “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”[2]. The mechanism employed is known as the -

Scientific Method: “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”[3].

Science is also naturalistic. This does not mean that scientists necessarily have bias against the supernatural (although many do). It merely notes that the enterprise deals with the natural world using methods of repeatability and falsification. It seeks to further our understanding of why things happen in nature the way they do. Scientists assume that the world normally behaves in a consistent and predictable manner, according to physical laws (as opposed to behaving randomly). This implies that cause and effect relationships exist in nature. This does not preclude scientists from believing in the possibility of catastrophism or miracles. But a catastrophic or miraculous event is inherently unrepeatable, thus there is no way to generate or test hypotheses from such actions.

Although scientists generally rely upon certain principles (such as logic) in conducting their work, there is no single, universally accepted "scientific method". Nonetheless, most every scientist would agree that science includes at least three basic elements[4]:

1) Collecting facts, or "data” a) Observations: most basic way to collect facts, and in its most basic form, requires no special training or equipment. b) Measurements: usually requires measuring devices, and often the use of those devices requires special training. 2) Formulating a "hypothesis" to explain those facts. A hypothesis, by definition, is neither right nor wrong, it's simply an untested explanation. However, good science avoids basing a hypothesis on anecdotal evidence. It attempts to evaluate all of the information that is available, and even uses common sense. 3) Testing the hypothesis. a) Controlled Experiments: are properly designed to test a certain hypothesis, and they can be repeated. Unfortunately, many hypotheses – such as in geology – cannot be directly tested in a controlled experiment. Some distinguish between "hard" and "soft" science on this basis: "hard" science relies on controlled and repeatable experiments to support its hypotheses and theories, whereas "soft" science does not. b) Predictions: A hypothesis or model can also be tested by making predictions based on that hypothesis. If a prediction comes true, then there is reasonable evidence for accepting the hypothesis. Not every hypothesis can be tested in this way. c) Circumstantial Evidence: When it is impossible to collect direct evidence (e.g., through a controlled experiment), a scientist must rely on "circumstantial" evidence to test hypotheses (as would a detective). However, circumstantial evidence is subject to interpretation, so the conclusions drawn using this approach are less certain.

The point made in 3c, above (Circumstantial Evidence), deserves more elaboration. There are many who try to define science as only a single category, the above-labeled hard science. So-called soft science would consequently be unworthy to be called science. The argument loosely runs like this. I go, for example, into the lab with a beaker of some unknown liquid and dip in litmus paper. The paper turns blue. Consequently the pH of the liquid is basic. And I can do this day after day with the same results. That repeatability then demarcates science.

Obviously results obtained in a repeatable process are preferable. But now consider a discipline, like geology, that is inherently non-repeatable. Some months ago a geologist friend of mine went hiking with me in Zion National Park. As we walked he pointed out some of the sedimentary structures in the sandstone cliffs. He noted that the rock layering is consistent with wind and water patterns where deposition proceeds systematically and episodically, as we can observe in any dunefield or stream bed today. They are not at all consistent with flood deposition and subsequent evaporation. These features are found throughout the two-thousand-foot section of Navajo Sandstone at this location. Estimates of maximum possible deposition rates and analogy from observable rates indicate a time-frame greatly exceeding the limits of even the most liberal Young Earth Creationist. And this deposit lies in the middle of the fossil-bearing portion of the geologic column.

Now, of course, we were not on hand with video cameras to provide irrefutable documentary evidence as to how this landscape came to be as we saw it. One has to rely on inference or remain silent. For someone, perhaps preferring a short chronology for theological reasons, who wishes to limit science to only those disciplines where repeatability occurs, there can be some measure of comfort obtained from this lack of ‘video’. But it seems to me we have several issues to ponder here. First – and one should not discount this – we were, of course, not present when it happened. So humility and a healthy appreciation of God’s transcendence should keep us humble when drawing inferences. But one also has to ask whether God would provide evidence that was counterintuitive to what a reasonable and honest person might infer.

It also seems to me that there are many Christians who have such fear regarding this general topic that they are prepared to seriously resist evidence in order to hold to a YEC and/or YLC hypothesis. And no wonder. There is a genuine and considerable risk of a theological slippery slope here. To see this clearly consider Randall W. Younker’s article, entitled Consequences of Moving Away from a Recent Six-Day Creation[5]. Whether he makes an adequate ‘slippery-slope’ argument is for you to consider. But it is not hard to understand that the stakes are high. Death threatens us all. And, if we are merely believing ‘cleverly devised fables’ then our futures are at grave risk.

Naturalism

Another important concept to clearly understand is the difference between Methodological and Philosophical Naturalism.

Methodological Naturalism means that all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events only. This rules out recourse to the supernatural as explanation. But it does not rule out personal belief in the supernatural or the possibility that there have been supernatural causes. It simply delimits the extent of the scientific method.

Philosophical Naturalism posits that there is no higher tribunal for truth than natural science itself. This is virtually identical to Scientism, where natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, or humanistic explanations.

Sometimes people conflate these terms. Since miracles are inherently unrepeatable you cannot do science on any terms besides methodological. But again, a commitment to methodological naturalism in no way precludes the scientist from believing in God or miracles. Examples include Michael Behe’s Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution[6], or Francis Collin’s The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief[7]. But some pejoratively use the term naturalism as if there was only one kind – philosophical naturalism.

And, as noted in Session 1, many theistic scientists also want to be compatiblists. That is, science is compatible with God’s revelation. As God is both the source of His specific revelation of Himself in the Bible and the general revelation of Himself in nature, the findings of science and theology cannot really contradict. The contradictions must be merely apparent and a resolution possible which is faithful to the truth of God's revelation.

Now let me attempt to clarify some science and revelation issues by examining:

Two Types of Reasoning

First, consider Deductive Reasoning.

Here we argue from the general to a specific instance. If something is true for a class of things, this truth applies to all legitimate members of that class. One of the most common and useful forms of deductive reasoning is the syllogism. For example, the form known as Modus Ponens:

If P, then Q. P. Therefore, Q.

with the classic example:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Contrast that with Inductive Reasoning.

This is reasoning from a specific case or cases and then deriving a general rule. It draws inferences from observations in order to make generalizations. Inference can be done in four stages:

  1. Observation: collect facts, minimizing bias.
  2. Analysis: classify the facts, identifying patterns of regularity.
  3. Conclusion: From the patterns, infer generalizations about the relations between the facts.
  4. Confirmation: Test the conclusion through further observation.

Please note some important, but often overlooked differences.

  • Deductive reasoning produces no new truth. It is merely truth preserving. And syllogisms carry risks. First the premises may be unsound. So, garbage in, garbage out. Second the inferences may be invalid. That is, the reasoning process between premises and conclusion may be faulty. However, even with a sound and valid argument, we have merely uncovered a perhaps previously unrecognized truth but nothing novel. Still, this truth-preserving aspect of deductive logic delivers certainty. And certainty is viewed by many as a sort of ‘siren song’ of confidence. Further, there is a flawed but potent argument, for theists, that runs something like this. God’s revelation is certain. So if we proceed carefully, and deductively, using the propositional truths found in the revelatory source the conclusions we reach will be superior to any inductive method. Such an approach can devolve into proof-texting.
  • Inductive reasoning, in contrast, is probabilistic. By starting with specific data then working from specific to general there is a real risk that we will make inferential errors, producing faulty conclusions. Science, consequently, is always tentative for at least this reason.
  • And another frequently unrecognized point - induction is a deductive fallacy.

To see this fallacy, consider the invalid syllogism known as Affirming the Consequent.

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Q.
  3. Therefore, P.

Induction begins with observation – some series of Q’s. Some of these observations are so well established we take them for granted. Like gravity. Jump off a cliff. You invariably fall (except perhaps for Wile-E-Coyote). This experiment is so repeatable it takes on the near-certainty of natural law. But, logically speaking, this data is but a sequence of Q’s. If the data is consistent we might form the hypothesis: If P then Q. So when a Q occurs, we say the cause was P. But this inference is not mandatory.

Let me suggest here an analogy to the old, hopefully familiar, game of ‘Chutes and Ladders’. Here is a small portion of the game board:

Figure 4

Let’s use this to visualize the reasoning process of Modus Ponens and Affirming the Consequent.

The game rules dictate that if I am on square 98 then I must slide to square 78. But let’s simplify even more:

Figure 5

Starting on square P I must necessarily slide to Q (if P then Q). But if you recall the rules you also realize that this is not the only way to reach square Q. I could roll the dice and reach Q by some other route. I could draw some card that would also land me at square Q. One might even say that a ‘miracle’ could occur to bring me to Q. There are multiple possible ways to get there. Science (as opposed to scientism) recognizes the logical fallacy built into the inductive method.

Some Take-aways

  • Deduction delivers certainty – but no new knowledge. Induction can produce new ‘knowledge’ but not certainty.
  • Science is inductive and, consequently, probabilistic.
  • Methodological Naturalism is agnostic with respect to Theism.
  • Science has gained great authority in part because the method has been so successful.
  • Hard Science is different from Soft Science, but both attempt to falsify the hypotheses and are methodologically naturalistic.

Revelation

As I noted earlier, knowledge derived from revelation has the appearance of being deductive:

  • Premises are statements presumably warranted by God (so they are inherently sound).
  • Inferences are what theology does, but if, upon review, they follow sound logical rules, they are then valid.
  • The conclusions produce an expanding body of certain doctrine.

Since deduction produces certainty, and God (the presumed starting point) is also certain, then this stream of knowledge appears better than probabilistic science – which historically has reversed itself (e.g. Ptolemy → Copernicus; Newton → Einstein).

However:

  • Which revelation wannabe (if any) is the correct starting point? Christians simply assume the Bible but a Muslim, for example, would not agree.
  • What does a ‘plain reading of scripture’ consist of (how can we be sure the premises are sound)? How do we handle contradictions? Metaphor? Cultural context?
  • Theologians sometimes disagree about conclusions even if they agree about the premises. So the validity of their inferences must be examined carefully and skeptically.
  • What should we do when Revelation and Science seem to conflict? Ought we to give up the quest for compatiblism and have one side just ‘trump’ the other?

Freud writes “The scientific method is the only source of knowledge.” He consequently dismisses revelation out-of-hand. But the DVD discussion participants are far from being in total agreement with this. Winifred Gallagher notes that “just because it is not scientific doesn’t mean it is not true.” Science is one window into reality, but it seems short-sighted to presume – a-priori – that this is all there is. But as Michael Schermer notes – with science you have a method that seems to hold promise of separating out some truth and error via falsification. And religion is less objective.

The Video Conversation [4 minutes, 49 seconds] – Transcript

Handout Material for Week 3

Some questions to Consider:

Q: How does one quarrel with personal, subjective experience? Is it just true for ‘me’ or can we find ways to determine what may be true for all?

Q: Are we, if theistic, inherently compatiblists? How should one resolve dissonance when the two streams of knowledge-formation (revelation and experience) disagree?

Q: Stephen Jay Gould once suggested (in 1999) the concept of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria) [8]. This is a supposed to be "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to ... the supposed conflict between science and religion." … “the NOMA principle is “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap (emphasis mine), nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” But there are overlaps – the competing stories of evolution and literal Genesis being one of the most obvious. Do you think Gould has a solution here? Or is this just a convenient way to allow science to ‘trump’ religion?

References:

1 “a growing number of Seventh-day Adventists who refuse to be silent while a morally dishonest fifth column among us ruins our church by (whether in the name of progress, or science, or whatever) seeking to bring into it teaching that in every possible way undermines all that we believe and stand for.” http://www.atoday.com/dinosaurs-perspectives-goldstein-and-taylor 2 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/science 3 http://www.merriam-webster.com/netdict/scientific%20method 4 adapted from: http://www.uwsp.edu/geo/faculty/ozsvath/lectures/Science.htm 5 Younker, Randall W., “Consequences of Moving Away from a Recent Six-Day Creation”, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 15/2 (Fall 2004), online at: http://www.atsjats.org/publication.php?pub_id=6&journal=1&cmd=view&hash= 6 Behe, Michael J., Darwin’s Black Box (Simon and Schuster, 1996) 7 Collins, Francis S., The Language of God (Simon and Schuster, 2006) 8 http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

Links to the other essays in this series:

1) Introduction 2) A Transcendent Experience 3) Science or Revelation 4) The Exalted Father 5) Why Believe? 6) Miracles 7) Moral Law – Part A 8) Moral Law – Part B 9) Love Thy Neighbor 10) The Human Condition 11) Suffering and Death


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2213