Thursday, April 14, 2005

I Believe in Matter Almighty

World Magazine's Marvin Olasky interviews Alvin J. Schmidt, author of How Christianity Changed the World (originally published as Under the Influence). Responding to the question of how Christians can counter the widely held belief that Christianity and science are incompatible Schmidt says:

Alfred North Whitehead (a non-Christian philosopher of science) said that without Christianity's "insistence on the rationality of God" there would be no science. The first experimental scientists, beginning with the 13th century, were all confessing Christians (Roger Bacon, Occam, Francis Bacon, Kepler, Boyle, Simpson, Pasteur, etc.). They related their scientific findings to biblical theology. Not until the 18th century, when many scientists bowed to philosophical materialism, were Christianity and science defined as incompatible.
If Christians don't understand how to identify and refute the materialistic faith that underlies much of what goes by the name of science, we'll be running down a myriad of rabbit trails, arguing over particulars while overlooking core worldview considerations. As Phillip Johnson observes in The Right Question: Truth, Meaning & Public Debate: "Christians often think the controversy is primarily a dispute about scientific facts, and so they become trapped into arguing scientific details rather than concentrating on the fundamental assumptions that generate the evolutionary story."

Surprisingly, many adherents to the materialistic faith are ignorant of their faith commitments. They claim to be just following the facts wherever they lead, unencumbered by philosophical precommitments. This is why Cornelius Van Til insisted that one of the primary tasks of apologetics is to make unbelievers "epistemologically self-conscious," that is, aware of their own presuppositions about the nature and extent of knowledge.

The following online exchange with a self-professed "scientific materialist" (SM) illustrates the "faith" of a materialist at work:

KP: I've been thinking...although you say that you and other scientific materialists would willingly alter your position given enough counter evidence or the inability (in principle) of naturalism to account for observed phenomenon, haven't you really posed the issue in such a manner that it is practically unfalsifiable? I mean, at times you appeal to what you believe is evidence in favor of your position but when faced with information that appears to counter it, you can always retreat to the claim that a naturalistic, though currently unknown, explanation exists.
SM: I don't think so. Science has undergone some remarkable changes in thinking...from the Newtonian universe to the Einsteinian, for example...Paradigms change in response to an accumulation of evidence that cannot be explained under the present system, and which points to phenomenon outside the present knowledge.
KP: But again, I'm speaking specifically of the naturalistic presupposition. I still maintain that that is the most strongly held belief of contemporary science. I'm not denying that there are in the field of science.
SM: Because there's nothing that has yet been unexplainable. I am not going to give up a system that works very well all over the place lightly or happily and certainly not unless there is positive evidence that falsifies it, or at least that points clearly to things beyond the paradigm. I think most scientists do indeed make naturalistic assumptions although the trend towards theories of information, complexity, and so forth makes the assumptions of today much less mechanistic and much less reductionist then has been the case in the past.
KP: You sometimes speak as though science and Christianity are incompatible. Why is that? I fail to see what it is about the Christian worldview that would make the scientific enterprise impossible. Science would "work" just as well under a Christian theistic framework.
SM: That's true. And that's why many scientists are able to maintain religious beliefs, often strongly held and sincere, from what I can see. The scientific method can be applied at work, without falsifying one's commitment to Christianity.
KP: Then it's kind of misleading to speak as though science only works well or even best with naturalistic assumptions.
SM: Ah...but one must make the assumptions of science in one's work, otherwise, one is doing something other then science. But science does not entail a set of ultimate commitments. Certainly, it does not need to. Anyone who can apply the standards and methods of their particular field can practice science. And, if they wish to have religious beliefs beyond that, I see no problem there. If religious beliefs determine the science, well, that is a problem.
KP: And is it a problem if science makes religious/theological assertions? And what do you mean by "the assumptions of science"? Is naturalism a necessary assumption for the application of the scientific method?
SM: If you make supernatural assumptions about things, your work won't go very far in modern science. What a person believes in their private, personal life is irrelevant to their science so long as it conforms to the standards of their field. If it does not, then their work will need to be good enough to overthrow the dominant paradigms or they will not get far.
KP: No doubt about that. If one adheres to a supernatural worldview, he/she won't go far in modern science because of the naturalistic bias. Those who are vocal about their religious convictions are ostracized as pseudo-scientists. There is an "in-house" pressure to conform to scientific materialism but this says nothing about the truth of that position. You see, what you're saying? You're saying that religion is to be privatized but has no bearing on anything beyond the subjective experience of the one who holds to a particular faith.
SM: The difference between science and other fields of study is that science checks itself against an objective/physical reality which actually exists. The option to ignore someone because you do not like his views (i.e. if he is religiously inclined) is limited by the "reality check" function. If someone's science is good, it will win out...not necessarily at once, but it will win out in the end.
KP: I really don't understand you. You talk about this objective reality as though there is no interpretation involved on the part of those doing the observing. The naturalistic viewpoint is not the result of scientific inquiry unless of course one assumes it prior to making his observations. We're talking about the philosophical, non-empirically verified, assumptions that we bring to our experiences. Mind you, I'm not denying that there is an objective reality that exists apart from our minds. What I am saying is that this reality check you speak of seems to overlook the philosophical dimensions I'm speaking of.
SM: Science is not about ultimate commitments. It's a practical and opportunistic attempt to make descriptions and models of the world. I don't think practicing scientists worry much about the ultimate assumptions of science. The scientific method is really a method - a collection of methods, even and certainly not something to be seen as timeless truth.
KP: And again, your saying that science is different from all other disciplines in that it is referring to an objective reality is to again assume materialism, not conclude it. You assume that the ethicist is not dealing with an objective standard of ethics and that the theologian is not dealing with an objective reality because they are not dealing with physical entities.
That scientists may be unconscious about their ultimate commitments, is really "immaterial" (pun intended). The fact is that they have them and they make pronouncements about them that are received authoritatively. Sagan's comment that the cosmos is all that exists, all that ever existed, and all that will ever exist is not a scientific statement but a philosophical/religious one.
SM: That is definitely a philosophical comment on Sagan's part, perhaps an aesthetic observation even. Sagan was quite a romantic, and a bit of a dreamer. Many scientists are, in some sense. Physicists seem almost addicted to romanticizing their subject.
KP: Your original comment was not that science tests physical objects but rather that what distinguishes it from other studies is that it has an "objective reality" to check against. Do you see that you assume that objective reality = physical existence and physical existence alone? And that is not a scientific conclusion but an a priori.
SM: That's what distinguished it. Where is the physical or external reality against which ethics might check itself? Theology...metaphysics....I do think that the difference between such systems of knowing and scientific knowing is exactly that ability to check against a physical world which exists in and of itself. Whether there's a non-material "reality" somewhere does not seem a useful postulate to me.
But we have already established that assumptions must be made before any investigation of any sort...certainly as true of theology, ethics, sociology, as it is of science. simply concerns itself with things that can be checked against external physical reality?
KP: And are the assumptions of science themselves known scientifically?
SM: I would say that every time an airplane is able to take off the ground, the "materialist/naturalist" assumptions that went into designing that airplane are validated just a little bit more.
KP: And a theist could not have discovered and applied the laws of physics and aerodynamics without adopting a naturalistic worldview?
SM: I suspect a theist could have done so, but only up to a point. A theist, depending of the type of theistic beliefs we are talking about, would have no necessary reason to go beyond theistic assumptions about how nature works. As science has advanced, it has progressed towards greater and greater tendency to explain natural phenomenon in natural terms.
KP: Modern science was founded upon theistic presuppositions. Does that, according to your reasoning, validate theism?
SM: In fact, much of physics has been developed by theists, certainly classical physics. Modern science has been successful largely to the degree that it abandoned theistic assumption. Science was founded by theists but it was founded by people who looked to nature to validate their hypotheses.
KP: You're not making a very good case here. Of course a theist would have reason to explore the working of nature. That is exactly why modern science was born in the context of Christianity.
SM: Science has been successful largely because it abandoned theistic explanations and substituted explanations of natural phenomenon in natural terms.
KP: And what theistic assumptions are threats to the progress of science? One doesn't have to presume naturalism to look to nature to verify claims about nature. The theist isn't bound to deny the validity of empirically derived knowledge, is he?
SM: The power of scientific explanation has grown in almost direct proportion to the degree that the role of "god" as a practical explanation has declined.
KP: And is it conclusive that that growth is due to the abandonment of theism or could it not be the result of time? One doesn't want to commit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
SM: Conclusive? It is a pretty strong historical phenomenon. History does not generally provide "conclusive" proof of anything, but that doesn't at all mean that we can't understand what's going on. All history risks post hoc fallacies.
KP: Well, I think you're committing it now. You're saying that science has advanced BECAUSE theism has largely been abandoned and I don't think you can substantiate that claim. If what you are saying is true, we would not have expected science to have been founded by and flourishing among Christian theists.
SM: Really? How does theism yield knowledge of nature? If it's possible to invoke god at some point as an explanation, then why investigate at all? It seems to me that the history of science is a long and difficult attempt to overcome such thinking as applied to nature.
KP: Why investigate? Reformed theologians see the investigation and harnessing of nature as a fulfillment to the divine command to subdue the earth. Also, the classical theistic scientists set out to investigate the natural world because they believed that it was the product of a rational mind and therefore had an order to it. They also believed that we are created in the image of this God and therefore could, as Kepler said, "Think God's thought's after Him". The idea that theism is somehow hostile to scientific inquiry is simply unsubstantiated.
SM: The association between declining use of theistic assumptions and rising explanatory power of scientific knowledge is clear. The matter of which is cause and which is effect, or whether there might be no association at all, is one of judgment, like most historical problems (at least those spanning such a long and complex period.) But is that not theism reflecting the influence of what are really non-theistic ways of seeing things? That's theism exhibiting some flexibility, which I certainly think is a good thing.
KP: You have consistently created a straw man of the theistic position and have sought to make Christian theism an enemy of real science. That's not so. Granted, there have been Christians who have been hostile to science but such a stance is in no way inherent within the Christian worldview. The Christian can only be said to be hostile to science unless one identifies science with naturalistic philosophy.
SM: If theism invokes supernatural explanations for natural phenomenon, I don't see how it can be accommodated in science.
KP: What non-theistic way of thought is that reflecting?
SM: Any viewpoint that is bound up in revealed wisdom and absolute truth, which theism certainly is, is going to be very hard to reconcile with scientific exploration. The view that hypotheses should be checked against the world, and that when they conflict with revealed wisdom, revealed wisdom loses. I can't see the value of making supernatural assumptions about the universe. Where do such assumptions lead us? What kind of knowledge comes from them? How is it to be validated? That's pretty much all I'm saying.
KP: But why? You have yet to show any substantive conflict. And, as I've pointed out, if what you say is true, then science would have never been born in the bosom of Christianity.
SM: I don't think I understand your point about the development of science from Christianity and I really don't think science was born in the bosom of Christianity at all. Seems to me that science came about despite massive and systematic resistance from orthodox Christian churches.
KP: This has been very stimulating and I appreciate your willingness to take this time with me. Right now, though, I have to go. I'd love to pick this up with you soon.
SM: OK...see you later. Have a good weekend, if i don't see you again.. : )

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