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The Big Picture

'Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.' -- Vizzini from "The Princess Bride"

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Perspectives: Science and Scientism

Science is a beautiful endeavor. It strives to solve the mysteries of the Universe one fact at a time. This comes in a number of different flavors; physics, biology, cosmology, chemistry, even pure mathematics. Science does not, however, even touch on the mysteries of life ("Why are we here," "What is the meanig of life"). Because of this we have such things as philosophy and theology; although those human schools long predate science. Since those schools of intellectual thought are mutually exclusive, there should never be any conflict between them. This is not what we witness to be true though. We see theology fighting science in biology (evolution and creationism), physics (age of the universe), chemistry ('violation' of the second law of thermodynamics) and cosmology (big bang and the origin of the universe). Because science sets as its goal understanding how these things work, by finding facts and generating theories on the mechanics of the universe, it treads onto theological grounds. Facts generally work against theology. This encroachment is scientism.

To state it bluntly, I think theology is a total waste of human effort. Why concentrate on understanding a nonexistent god? It is like creating a new field of human intellectualism, Santology; the study of Santa Claus. Philosophy, on the other hand, is quite useful to humanity, it is ethics and temperment. Philosophy can be the 'brakes' of technology; the offspring of science. This is scientism, the application of science to the human condition.

Now that we have sketched out a brief idea of science and scientism, let's look at their importance to humanity. First some counter-perspective from an ardent YEC Christian, our old friend Ray Comfort. He appeared on the Hellbound Alleee radio show (thanks to Brent Rasmussen of UTI) and explained how atheists don't really exist. He was approaching science from a theological point of view and messed up how atheists really think (our friend, scientism).

Ray's argument was one of anti-reductionism, horribly mangled of course. His claim was that the only way to be a true atheist is to know everything (omniscience). This is one of the classic intuitive arguments made by Christians, in that it sounds correct, but as soon as one thinks about it, it is completely wrong. His claim that the only way to know that there is no God is know everything can be proven false by many methods. For example, you don't have to know everything to know that Frankenstein's Monster does not exist. This is the idea that it is impossible to prove a negative. But that is not always true. If the proof can be changed to proving a positive, based on a limited data set, then it can be done. This is saying that one can acquire a set of facts which makes something impossible. We can say here that the 'science' of reanimating dead tissues contradicts known biological and physical principles. In this example, one has the fact that electricity does not animate dead cells. Also, the medical technology of the time period could not reconnect nerve cells of severed body parts. Thus based on these two facts alone, the monster could not have been a reality (this is ignoring the obvious that Frankenstein was a work of fiction by Mary Shelley).

A second method is less rigorous, but equally as effective. Instead of knowing everything, one can know only a limited set of facts, and rule out certain possibilities based on them being highly improbable. In our current case, we can say that based on what we know, nothing supernatural has even be shown to occur. An example of this is UFO sightings. The only evidence that alien life forms have visited Earth is anecdotal. There has been no known physical evidence of their existence. In this situation, the only proof is eyewitness accounts. But this alone is very shakey proof. The reason is that it relies solely on the witnesses being able to accurately interpret what they are experiencing. Colored lights moving in the sky can resemble a UFO to an observer, but it would only be an actual UFO if that observer knew for certain that there was no other explanation. In other words, if the witness could provably rule out natural phenomena such as lightning, aurora borealis, and manmade phenomena such as planes, balloons, etc. But this situation can never be the case because there would always be some previously unconsidered possibility the the witness was unaware of. Because there can always be an explanation of something that the witnesses cannot account for, or even that the people who hear the witnesses' story cannot account for, then the truth would always be tenative. This goes double for miracles and supernatural gods. Centuries, or even millenia, ago, some natural event would have been construed as a miracle, but when judged against today's science, it is trivially explainable. (The sun rising in the east and setting in the west is a perfect example -- it is today know to be due to the Earth's rotation, but then was attributed to the actions of the gods.) So, simply invoking eyewitness testimony as proof of God really provides us with nothing evidenciary. Applying this to proving God, what we learn is that nothing has been offered as proof of the existence of God other than eyewitness testimony, and that everything once attributed to miraculous intervention of God has been explained through naturalistic processes. Thus one can make the claim based on this data set, that there is no God -- even though the data is incomplete. the rebuttal to this is the last bastion of religion -- the "God of the Gaps" theory.

Now it is time to invoke science and scientism.

Science provides the data set -- facts about our universe. Science takes those facts and creates theories as to how the universe operates. We have theories of gravity, relativism, germ and infection, planetary motion, and evolution. Those are all worked out based on the facts we observe and demonstrate in labs. They are theories because they fit all known data best. These theories constitute the nature of the universe. Scientism takes these theories and extends them into the philosophical. Why are these theories important to humanity? Does understanding how the universe works shed any light onto our existence, purpose, and future? Does knowing the universe give any meaning or purpose to life? Can it guide morality?

All those questions can be answered and can benefit humanity. We can get clues to human morality through science -- we can extend life, happiness through beneficial application of science knowledge. WE can do this as well as the opposite, develop nuclear weapons that can kill everything, dangerous germs, and even control emotion and sexuality through chemistry. How we use that is guided through scientism and philosophy. This is based on one simple premise. that preserving humanity and the environment we depend on is the ultimate 'good' and destroying that is the ultimate 'evil'. that is, aiding civilization is the moral goal. Science and scientism are not the sole means of doing this, thus we have philosophy, but in this scientific era, they are certainly a crucial, make that indispensible, realm of philosophy.

Thus science does not have to be cold and calculating, it is also warm and enlightening of the human condition. It can play a role in the 'meaning' of life.

This effect, rather this encroachment into the world of meaning by science is the threat to theology that is most feared by theists. Those who are willing to make their belief in God more abstract, less involved can make this transition easier. This is why liberal Christians see no problem with science. It also explains the threat that conservative Christians perceive. The more rigid your view of theology is, the less able you are to let science take over certain aspects. Again, my favorite example is the delicate balance of creationism to the need of Jesus' death and resurrection. Without a young Earth and a literal original sin, their religion crumbles, their Bible becomes a myth rather than a history book. Thus they fight science and its subsequent scientism fiercely. If God becomes aquaint notion that is no longer possible via science, then their entire worldview dissolves.

This is exactly why they only have as their weapon to destroy science intuition. And with this intuition comes a prerequisite ignorance of the reality of science. Because intuition fails quickly in the face of fact. What seemed intuitive, that the only way to prove there is no God is to know everything, is easily dismissed when all known facts and theory is placed up against it. Intuition fails when fact prevails.

Beauty and the elegance of the universe remain even when the myth of gods are eliminated. This is because we as humans have the capacity to perceive the beauty in and of itself. Meaning comes from the ability of appreciation. As individuals grasp this, their theology falls away like Linus' baby blanket.

Inspired by the WSJ column of Kevin Shapiro.



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