Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Brief Reflection on "Science Saved My Soul"

Someone on Facebook shared the video, Science Saved My Soul, the upshot being the video makes the claim that science saved his soul from religion.  Watching the video and reading the transcript, I was struck by how bad it was.   So what is wrong with it?

The man has minimal knowledge of religion and assumes it to be an enemy of science.  He asks:

If God exists, God made this. Look at it. Face it. Accept it. Adjust to it, because this is the truth and it’s probably not going to change very much. This is how God works. God would probably want you to look at it. To learn about it. To try to understand it. But if you can’t look—if you won’t even try to understand—what does that say about your religion?

The funny thing is, many scientists were Catholics who believed that because God created the universe, the universe must be reasonable.  The myth of Galileo aside, it was the Catholic Church who did the most to advance Astronomy (35 craters on the Moon are named for Jesuit astronomers).   Cathedrals were built to function as observatories. 

Consider that.  Now consider the narrator's words:

Religions tell children they might go to hell and they must believe, while science tells children they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe. I’ve told plenty of young kids about stars and atoms and galaxies and the Big Bang and I have never seen fear in their eyes—only amazement and curiosity. They want more. Why do kids swim in it and adults drown in it?

Now consider that the founder of the theory which would become to be known as The Big Bang Theory was Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître – a Catholic priest from Belgium who was an astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain.  He founded it in 1927.  He was the one who demonstrated the expansion of space was shown by the red shift of galaxies.

(Religious person – must be ignorant of Science according to the video)

The person who says Science and Religion are in conflict may know a great deal of Science – but he or she is demonstrating a profound lack of knowledge of religion.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chronological Snobbery


Definition of Snob:

a person who has an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth and who looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

There is a tendency in modern times to look at the past with disdain, and to assume that something of the past is of no value simply because of the age of the observation.  CS Lewis describes this in his book, Surprised by Joy, when he says:

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (p207-208)

The Effective Assumptions of Chronological Snobbery

The argument of Chronological Snobbery tends to run as follows:

  1. It is argued that A implies B.
  2. A implies B is an old argument, dating back to the times when people also believed C.
  3. C is clearly false.
  4. Therefore, A does not imply B.

Because we have an exaggerated respect for the scientific data we know today, we look down on people from earlier periods of time as being mentally inferior.  I suppose many might believe this today, but I'd suspect Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas probably had superior intellects to most people who disdain them today.  They might not have known the scientific data of today, but there is no doubt that had they lived today, this modern data would have deepened their arguments, not led them to hold the opposite of what they held when alive.

Of course this brings us to the major problem of Chronological Snobbery: The disdaining of the belief in God and in miracles based on our incrementally increased knowledge over the past

Scientific Data and Truth

Chronological Snobbery assumes, that because we have more scientific data available today (due to the advances in the past), it means the society which did not have access to the scientific data we have now were basically "dumb as rocks" and whatever they claimed to have observed could not be true, especially if they spoke of a Theophany, or of an action by God, it must have been an event which had a natural cause, and the ancients did not know it.

However, we need to recognize that something that is true today could be known in the past, even if it was known with less detail.  The fact that ancients believed some things we obviously know to be false now does not indicate everything they believed was false.  The ancient world may have believed in Geocentrism for example, but that belief did not make untrue the other things which they held, such as Geometry.

In other words, just because ancients did not know some things were true, does not mean they had no knowledge of truth.  The claim that it did is essentially Scientism, holding that only that which can be established scientifically, ignoring all other forms of knowledge.  (The paradox of scientism is that one cannot establish it scientifically).

An Reductio ad absurdum for Chronological Snobbery

Let's envision a time in the 23rd century, where society has changed, and the world is a meritocracy.  Those with genetic advantages in the mental field are given positions of authority and power.  Those who lack are relegated to doing menial jobs, essentially the property of those who have.  Now, lets assume that a person comes forward, and brings up writings against slavery from the 19th century as showing arguments as to why the current system ought not to be tolerated.

Would it be valid to negate his arguments on the grounds that "people back in the 20th century believed [X], therefore they had no idea what they were talking about on slavery"?

Chronological Snobbery Today

Yet, that is what passes for argument today.

  1. Medieval People believed in God and Miracles (Medieval people believed [A])
  2. They also believed in Bleeding as a medical practice (They also believed [B])
  3. They were wrong on Bleeding (They were wrong on [B])
  4. Therefore they were wrong on God and Miracles (Therefore they were wrong on [A])

The problem, of course, is that Medieval people being wrong on [B] has no bearing on whether they were wrong on [A].

A Variant of this Error: The Ancients "Didn't Know" About Natural Phenomenon

Because of this assumption, we often assume (as I said in the beginning) that ancient peoples were "dumb as rocks" about natural phenomena, and assumed natural phenomena were the acts of gods.  In modern times, we assume that because there is a natural cause for these things, the belief in gods must be attributing a supernatural cause to the natural.  However, the ancient Christian author Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), in his Stromata, wrote on superstitions over "ill omens" this way:

It was a clever remark of Antiphon, who (when one regarded it as an ill omen that the sow had eaten her pigs), on seeing her emaciated through the niggardliness of the person that kept her, said, Congratulate yourself on the omen that, being so hungry, she did not eat your own children.

“And what wonder is it,” says Bion, “if the mouse, finding nothing to eat, gnaws the bag? ”For it were wonderful if (as Arcesilaus argued in fun) “the bag had eaten the mouse.”

Diogenes accordingly remarked well to one who wondered at finding a serpent coiled round a pestle: “Don’t wonder; for it would have been more surprising if you had seen the pestle coiled round the serpent, and the serpent straight.”

For the irrational creatures must run, and scamper, and fight, and breed, and die; and these things being natural to them, can never be unnatural to us.

Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. II : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Fathers of the second century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (529). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

In other words, the educated ancients were quite aware of natural causes for things, and did not possess the superstition the modern with chronological snobbery claims all ancients held.  CS Lewis, in speaking of miracles, had written about the Virgin Birth of Christ as such:

The idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people in ‘olden times’ believe in them 'because they didn't know the Laws of Nature. Thus you will hear people say "The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin. but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense and the story of the Virgin Birth Is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modem gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point—that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, 'The thing is scientifically impossible,’ he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being overruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature When St Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancées pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature.

The error of Chronological snobbery asserts that because they did not know in the past what we know now, they therefore knew nothing and thus attributed to supernatural causes things of nature.  But we can see this was not believed in the time of the Old Testament, as we can see in Genesis 38:24 where it says "About three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law Tamar had played the harlot and was then with child from her harlotry."  Sounds very much like knowledge of where babies came from.


Essentially, the argument from chronological snobbery is to assume that, because the ancients did not have knowledge of cells or atoms, they had no knowledge at all and therefore an appeal to an old source has no validity because of its age.  However this is not logical.  A lack of knowledge on topic [A] does not mean a lack of knowledge on topic [B].  Nor does increased knowledge in the present on topic [A]mean no knowledge in the past on topic [A].  We might have radar and other things to help us with advanced knowledge of storms, but this does not mean the ancient sailor or farmer had no knowledge of weather.

To assume that the ancients believed in God because they had no knowledge of science is false.  It is also false to assume that because an idea is old, it is untrue.  These are a priori assumptions of one who rejects belief in God or miracles (I say "or" because not all who deny miracles also deny God… we do have Modernists who reject miracles yet seem to have some sort of belief in God)

It is not the newness or age of the knowledge which is important, but whether it is true that matters.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reflections on Existence, Truth and Science

When the Christian and the Atheist debate on the existence of God, there needs to be some sort of common ground of course.  Otherwise we end up talking past each other.

I think from this assumption we need to look at what Existence and truth are.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines exist as: have objective reality or being.

It defines true as: in accordance with fact or reality.

It is with these definitions, I wish to bring to attention some considerations.

Existence and Truth In Relation to God

The atheist generally argues that God does not exist, while the Theist argues there God does exist.  Unfortunately, what is often forgotten is the fact that this debate ignores a prior consideration.  When the atheist and the Theist dies, one of them will be wrong.  If the theist is wrong, there will be no God on the other side.  However, if the atheist is wrong, there will indeed be some sort of God on the other side.

In other words, there is an objective answer which is in accordance with fact or reality regarding the existence or non-existence of God.

With this in mind, all of the arguments on one side are futile.  They may be arguments which make sense to the one who holds them, but ultimately all persons should be seeking what is true, and the greater the truth claimed, the more important it is to seek to understand it.

One commenter on a blog of mine wrote (in reference to an example of Oxygen not being discovered until the 18th century):

You've pointed out a valid gap in knowledge, but what you've filled it with is arbitrary. Oxygen existed before the 18th century, but without evidence to show that it did, it would have been foolish to believe that it did.

I think the problem with this view is that the previous view of oxidation involved a belief of a substance called "phlogiston."  We know this view is false, and contributed nothing to the truth of understanding oxygen or rust.  Moreover, science had to unlearn this in order to progress.

So despite what science of the time believed was the best theory, it was false and objectively it was an error to hold to it.

This isn't to say "Science is bunk," but rather I wish to point out that what scientists may think on a subject may be entirely wrong if they approach it from the wrong perspective.

What Science Does

The Concise OED defines Science as:

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

I have no objections to this definition.  Now, I believe it is crucial to note what Science does study: the physical and natural world.  It stands to reason that whatever is not a part of the physical and natural world cannot be measured by science.

Because of this, science in seeking to study the existence of things can only do so in the physical and natural realm.

The Definition of God

I don't like the definition in the Concise OED as it is too vague (a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity).  The problem is it so broad it could encompass a pagan Greek concept of anthropomorphic physical beings as well as the Christian concept of God which is Spirit. 

However, we can say this, a definition of God which makes a deity a physical being could (theoretically) make that concept of a god observable by Science.  A concept of a god which is not physical cannot be measured by science.

What Science can do In Relation to the Concept of God

Science can only deal with the physical and natural realm, so it can speak of a god only to the extent that a god is physical and natural.  However, if a god exists which is not physical or natural, we need to recognize that whether or not this god does exist, science is inadequate to establish or deny this existence.

Not "God in the Gaps"

It should be understood here that this is not an argument from silence fallacy, nor a "God in the gaps" argument.  I am not saying that because science cannot speak at all on the existence of God in the Christian concept, it proves the Christian God exists.

Right now I am merely speaking on the limits of physical (scientific) knowledge.  if something cannot be observed by science, this does not mean by itself that the thing cannot exist.

Things which we can establish exist that Science cannot explain

Consider the works of Mozart.  Science can explain music as the striking of certain tones of soundwaves in a certain rhythm, but it cannot explain why the music of Mozart is considered beautiful to people of quite different cultures and geographical regions.

Science can explain the idea of brainwaves and chemical interactions involved in emotions, but it cannot explain the idea of consciousness or cogito ergo sum.

I would advise the reader here that this does not prove science is useless.  I think science is in fact a very important thing for the physical well being of humanity.  What it does do though is to establish that "one size does not fit all."

The Right Tool for the Right Job vs. Scientism

I don't use a telescope to observe microbes and I don't use a microscope to practice astronomy.  I use a telescope to study the stars and a microscope to study microbes.  The failure of the microscope to show me the stars does not mean a microscope is useless.  Nor does it mean the stars do not exist.  It means that it is the wrong tool for the job.

Likewise, science which deals with the natural and physical world cannot answer the questions which go beyond the physical world.

Scientism is defined as "the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences."

The problem with Scientism is that it insists on reducing everything to the natural and physical.  Something has to be testable to be true.  Yet if something is not natural and physical, science will not be able to have authority over it.

Of course the problem, as I pointed out earlier, one cannot determine the Scientific Method through science alone.  It is a theory which self-destructs when applied to itself.  Empirical testing cannot prove the scientific method true, so under the theory of scientism, the scientific method must be rejected.

What We Need to Remember

Again, what I have laid forth here is not an argument for the existence of God.  Rather it is a statement reminding people of what Science is and what it is intended to do, as well as remind people what truth is.  The attitude of scientism bases existence on the ability to be detected and tested scientifically.  Yet this is what needs to be proven before science can be accepted as the arbiter of all things.

This is the First Lesson

Some atheists may be wondering where are the proofs for God.  They exist, but they are not yet presented here. Before we can move on to them, we need to unlearn scientism.  Otherwise a person who applies scientism to the proofs for God will argue that these do not "prove" anything.

Once one accepts that science cannot be the judge of all things, we can go on to discussing how we can know non-physical and supernatural things.