April 6, 2011

"Belief, Science, Survival" Revisited - Join The Discussion

UPDATE October 19, 2012
Anti-Science Beliefs Jeorpardize U.S. Democracy, by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Scientific American, October 17, 2012 

The following is my reply to a number of constructively critical comments made in response to my September 23, 2010 blog post Belief, Science, Survival by my good friend and published author Craig M. White.  To understand the background behind what follows, you are invited to look at this brief post and the comments that follow by Craig, another friend, Kevin Graham, and me.

I have known Craig for many years, having worked with him in Washington and in Africa in the US Refugee Resettlement Program.  I have the greatest respect for Craig’s scholarship, and his views regarding human affairs and the “bigger questions” of Life.  Rather than reply as a comment to a string of Craig’s posts, I am making a new post so that Craig’s, Kevin’s and my views might be shared more widely and thereby bring more of you into the discussion.  The issues Craig and I are discussing – the nature of “truth” and evidence, responding to the complexities of our Universe and Life, the need or lack of need for a creator God – are not wasteful mental wheel-spinning.  They are questions that are at the core of each of our very being.  We all think about them quite often, fleetingly or in incomplete snatches.  Yet rarely do we have, find or take time to give them serious consideration or sort out exactly what it is we believe in or accept as truth.  Reading the original post, its comments and the following is an opportunity to do so.

There are no right or wrong answers to the questions we raise.  There is, however, one future ahead of Humankind.  The course we take to that future will depend on what we accept as truth and what actions we take as individuals, nations and as a species based on that truth.  It is likely that the world’s powerful and wealthy will lead us.  But we, each of us, now and into the future, can influence where Humankind ends up.  Join us in trying to influence what direction we shall take.

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Thank you, Craig, for your kind and incisive comments on my blog post Belief, Science, Survival.  I very much agree with you, comprehending and accepting scientific accounts of cosmological and evolutionary time and events is not easy.  Within the scientific truth regarding our Universe there are huge gaps in our knowledge, great possibility for error, and significant on-going scientific debate and revision.  One obviously must somehow address these and other shortcomings of science and secularism before committing to such a truth.  Rather than respond to each point in your comments, most of which I have already addressed or referred to in the writings of others elsewhere in my blog,1 let me address the major aspects of scientific knowledge you draw attention to and claim have serious shortcomings.  Shortcomings you believe make science no more convincing than the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity. 

Our Universe is dynamic.  Genetic mutation, variation, agency and emergence as they have appeared in the Life of our biosphere add to the complexity of this dynamism.  As long as the Universe and Life remain in process, scientific knowledge about objects and processes must remain provisional.  As you know, this tentative truth is comprised of descriptions and explanations arrived at through observation, experiment and other methods that have produced a huge body of credible knowledge that continues to withstand repeated challenges.  Contrary to your assertion, that which is unknown to science (the gaps and subjects still being debated) does not detract from what is known and make it less credible.

Science does not claim to possess total, perfect, final or absolute truth about anything.  In fact, some of that which is currently unknown about our Universe and Earth and its Life is regarded by science as possible or probable postulates based on credible truths provisionally in hand.  Scientific truth, therefore, is a combination of the provisionally known, postulates about certain unknowns (the gaps, what existed before the Big Bang, etc.), and complete ignorance about all the rest.  Odd, you say, science admits that that which is completely unknown and having no postulates is part of its truth.  Yes.  This “rest” of the unknown has yet to undergo scientific investigation, testing and postulation.  Regarding the unknown, consequently, science does not default to inferences about a supernatural creator God who purportedly understands and controls all.  It prudently submits to scrutiny that which it knows for the time being, rationally postulates about the unknown based on what is known, and leaves the rest for later.  That a truth is incomplete does not make it false or necessarily unacceptable.

That which existed before the postulated Big Bang, the actual gaps in scientific knowledge, and the staggering complexity of what science has revealed about our Universe, Earth and Life should not cause alarm or lead us to a supernatural belief for a remedy.  In much of human history and prehistory our species has done, and in some parts of our current world continues to do, just this – behave superstitiously out of fear or ignorance.  Though others make no distinction between superstition and informed, reasoned belief, I do.  I do not take your views to be superstitious.  Clearly they have been arrived at through an on-going courageous, informed and concerted effort.  That both of us take the same approach to our Universe and Life yet arrive at different yet respectively satisfying conclusions is what interests me most.  You find my conclusion as incredulous as I find yours.  How can that be?  Is one of us wrong?  Is one of us misreading the Universe and Life?  Is one truth truer than the other?

Gaps and complexities do not diminish or discredit the explanatory power of science nor make speculation, postulation and hypothesizing about such unknowns and complexities a waste of time as many (not including you) believe.  They certainly do not demand a “fix” in the form of a gap-filling creator God to explain it all, which you do seem to believe.  In fact, I think having addressed such questions as postulates or left them unanswered strengthens the explanatory power of science.  Nevertheless, your statement “a theogenic model of the universe makes intuitive sense” cannot be dismissed.  However, making intuitive sense by accepting a supernatural creator God pales in explanatory power when compared to the scientific postulate of the origin of our Universe based on other aspects of the Universe that are known.

By not claiming to explain beyond that which can be substantiated by demonstrable, testable evidence, science is prudent.  The postulates of science are informed, reasoned and evidentially supported but nevertheless unconfirmed explanations.  Requiring that science explain everything once and for all time, the observable and the unknown, in order to be acceptable as a valid truth is, well, unreasonable.  One cannot describe, demonstrate, or test all of that which is unknown.  The practitioners of science do, however, embrace and address the unknown by making observations, conducting experiments, making analyses, producing descriptions and models, asserting hypothetical and theoretical explanations, and submitting these findings to widespread, rigorous and repeated scrutiny.  In theology there is no unknown for all is known by God.

I am very much aware that you and many others accept the major findings of science, including evolution, as part of a truth that includes the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, designer, personal, creator God.  In contrast to the provisional truth of science is the absolute truth of the Abrahamic religions.  For its adherents, all that is - that which is known and unknown - is accepted as a whole, comprehensive and final truth as provided by God as documented in sacred texts.  Abrahamic canonical texts, for example, are considered by the respective believers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to be authoritative scripture containing the evidence of their truth.  That is to say, they are documents that are sacred and venerated because they contain divinely or supernaturally inspired truth.

Contrary to your assertion, Craig, that there is evidence supporting Christian faith, the canonical texts you cite do not contain unequivocal, demonstrable, testable evidence of the existence of a creator God that has been conclusively and universally established.  The anecdotes found in these texts and variously repeated, with revision, do not reach this standard of evidence and consequently have not attained the same level of acceptance as have the basic understandings of science.  For example, the fact that scientific knowledge has evolved from geocentrism, to heliocentrism to our current understanding of our place in our galaxy and Universe does not discredit science’s current understanding of our place in our Universe and compel us to accept a creator God as behind it all as an equally viable explanation.

I claim no expertise in theology or scholarly knowledge of the assertions and evidence found in religious canonical texts.  I therefore welcome key specific citations of such evidence if you would kindly provide them.  I am, however, somewhat familiar with the assertions and evidence for a creator God found in the Masoretic Text, Tanakh, Torah, Talmud, Bible, Qur’an and Hadith.  The willingness of a large number of intelligent and/or educated people, be they commoners, kings, prophets, saints or theologians, past and present, to accept the assertions in religious canonical texts as proof of the existence of a creator God does not constitute evidentiary proof acceptable to science.  Not one of the Abrahamic canonical claims for the existence of a creator God has succeeded in establishing itself as a credible scientific fact.  If it had, it would have appeared on the front page of the New York Times and a creator God would have taken His place among the other provisional truths of science, and been quickly and firmly ensconced within science textbooks all over the world.

The human assertion, be it canonical or not, of a creator God’s existence, omniscience and omnipotence is not supported by an unequivocal, replicable, demonstrable, testable preponderance of observations, investigations or experiments.  The onus for providing such proof is on those making the assertion not those asking to see the evidence.  Must they provide such evidence and must it satisfy such standards?  Well, yes, if believers expect such explanations to be accepted to the same degree that the basic understandings of science have been universally accepted.

Science does not have the burden of disproving the existence of God.  It is the burden of those who accept the assertion to prove that a creator God exists.  Contrary to the rants of many contemporary atheists and agnostics, science has no position on the existence of God – whether he exists or not – just as it has no position on all other unsupported assertions regarding the unknown.  Richard Dawkins, perhaps the dominant scientist and author among the so-called “new atheists” is a “probabilistic atheist,” claiming that the existence of the Abrahamic God is "very, very improbable."  I agree with Michael Shermer, a good scientific position is one of non-theism – having no position on the subject therefore no deity is accepted, rejected or postulated.

As to your second question, yes, there is a conflict between Christianity and science.  I agree with your comment that science and the Abrahamic religions both look for patterns and causes in our Universe, and that the absolute truth of Abrahamic religion predates the provisional truth of modern science.  However, having arisen within the Christian milieu of Europe does not mean that science is in any way beholden to religion as possessing a superior truth.  Scientists have, for the most part, severed themselves from that branch of science's roots embedded in Christianity.  (Regrettably, Francis S. Collins, former head of the Huma Genome Project and current head of NIH, is a notable contemporary exception.)  Nevertheless, most, in fact, have and continue to argue that science is to be commended for having shed its efforts to find evidence supporting God’s absolute laws of Nature.  Many also applaud science for eschewing a reliance solely on rational proofs as did Spinoza, and for giving up the search for grand theories explaining it all in the realm of human affairs.  Patterns and trends remain valid objectives in science but truth is in the particulars.

The diversity of philosophical opinion in this the so-called “postmodern” period, including the unsubstantiated beliefs that the world is irrational, illusional or unknowable, and that all opinions and beliefs are equally valid because our minds are constrained by languages and values, does not negate the explanatory power of science.  The efficacy of scientific knowledge is evident in medical science, engineering, technology and elsewhere all around us.  Despite the need for scientists to be more open to a wider range of possible causes and effects, which I think they should, we nevertheless do not allow anyone and everyone to prescribe medicine, conduct cancer experiments or build skyscrapers because all truths are not equal.  [I am sure you accept this and I apologize for exaggerating in making my point.  But some do take postmodernity near to such extremes.]

There is an objective reality regardless of my experience of or feelings about it.  The evidence for this postulate, for it is in fact a postulate because it is a tentative conclusion based on other evidence and experience, is unequivocally overwhelming for most people.  Granted, my experience of reality is a mental representation.  However, it is not an illusion.  Every time I stub my toe I’m painfully reminded of that reality as an inheritance of an unnecessary over-abundance of foot nerve endings my primate ancestors relied on to navigate the tree branches of their reality.  For me to accept that objective reality is irrational or unknowable would be a denial of my bodily existence, for my physical existence is part of that very real and knowable reality.  En garde, Descartes:  Reality is because I bump into it all the time, therefore I am whether I think about it or not.  Please see A Physicist Examines the Basis for Belief for a more nuanced and intelligent discussion of this topic.

Despite the great enormity and apparent purposelessness of our Universe, the immense complexity and improbability of Life, and the great chasms in our secular/scientific understandings, there is clearly something about it all that nevertheless demands our reverence.  That we accept stewardship of the biosphere, and that we work to create a sustainable global morality, whether there is a creator God, or not.  Each of us must live our lives forward into the uncertainty of an ever-changing Universe and Earth.  I have chosen the incomplete, provisional yet compelling understandings of science as a guide.  I believe these understandings are a better fit for the ever-changing circumstances of my life experience and my limited ability to understand anything.

Thanks once again, Craig, for responding to my post and comments.  I very much look forward to your next book on, as you say, each member of Humankind having a “big story” about our Universe and our place in it.  I can certainly agree with that – we do! 


1  Secular Truth and Morality:  Being Virtuous, Happy and at Peace Without God and Religion;  The Case for Human Evolution, Science and Reason – A Reading List; What’s So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D’Souza – A Review; Cultural Evolution, Phase II – Establishing a Unified Worldview; and Is Scientific Knowledge as Good as or Better than Religion as a Basis for Values, Ethics and Morals?.  Regarding the “Anthropic Principle” see Richard Dawkins.  Regarding the myth that if evolution is true then species should get stronger and prosper when there is no morality when I “simply take what I want that I can get away with” see The Origins of Virtue:  Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley; The Evolution of Human Sociality:  A Darwinian Conflict Perspective by Stephen Sanderson; and Primates and Philosophers:  How Morality Evolved by Franz de Waal.  As for the multiple universes of M-Theory they remain a part of science’s postulated truth, for now.

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