Friday, June 26, 2009

Faceoff: The Scientist and the Believer

Note well the following contrast in recent opinion pieces.

Today's WSJ offers the view of cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University. His assertion is that (a) belief in God is fine for scientists as long as they do science as if God didn't exist; (b) it is therefore rational, perhaps more consistently rational, to reject belief in God altogether.

We acknowledge the issue but dispute the conclusions. Yes, science seeks to understand what happens naturally, meaning without interference from the outside. It therefore assumes that what we generally observe is natural cause and effect, not the actions of a deity. One cannot do scientific research with the assumption that miracles happen frequently enough to affect relevant data. To assume otherwise would make the data opaque to analysis, in effect introducing a random variable that can't be observed.

But note well math involved. A scientist doesn't observe all relevant phenomena when exploring the natural world, only a part of it. Further, science routinely expects that a small segment of its observations will not be adequately explained by hypotheses that otherwise account for the data powerfully enough to be embraced as true. Hence, it is not necessary for the methods of science that there be no deity who acts in the world in ways that change what is otherwise the "natural" pattern of cause and effect. It is only necessary that such a deity not do so routinely.

And so note well that as far as thoughtful Christian theology is concerned, God's miracles are always assumed to be rare. If they were not, they would obviously enough not be recognizable at all, for the world would operate with such seeming randomness that one couldn't distinguish a regular pattern to which a miracle constituted an exception. We note that as far as biblical narrative is concerned, over a span of roughly two millennia of history, miracles are confined a small part of the world and to three isolated periods of about a generation each: the Exodus and Conquest, the work of Elijah and Elisha, and the work of Jesus and the early church.

If there are miracles indeed, and if they are indeed rare, note that the effect on science is extremely negligible. What are the odds of a miracle being observed by a scientist who has access to data that, while statistically significant, represents the tiniest sliver of all relevant phenomena? And if the miracle were observed, what is the power of that event to overturn the generalization that the data otherwise invites? We think that those questions have obvious answers.

In sum, faith sees miracles as possible but necessarily rare. Kudlow believes that a scientist must assume that they never occur in order to do science. But in fact science functions perfectly well with miracles that happen rarely, exactly what faith requires if miracles are to have meaning at all.

And so in contrast, we note from ToTheSource the observations of Dr. Benjamin Wiker of the Discovery Institute about the recently published Fitness of the Cosmos for Life, edited by scientists John Barrow and Simon Conway Morris. As the symposium of scientists in this book attests, our observations of the natural world, the very cosmology that Dr. Krauss studies, suggests a most notable fine tuning of the universe to yield life. One can even argue coherently that if the cosmic "reset button" were pushed and the universe started over again, it would yield not another outcome but an outcome very, very similar to the present one.

What Barrow and Morris and company consider that Krauss does not is whether the cumulative data of science suggest a conclusion that must be drawn apart from or beyond the scientific method: that the very structure of the universe suggests not randomness but purpose. This teleological argument is nothing new, of course, but it neither is it so old as to be obsolete. If anything, it becomes more persuasive the more we know.

In the end, Krauss can only appeal to a certain simplistic consistency in his worldview: as a scientist, I don't assume God in my science, so I have no need to assume him anyplace else. Barrow and Morris say that starting with the science and looking at all the science drives them to another, metascientific conclusion abut God. Krauss says that if that's so, the science is ruined. We say that conclusion mistakes the real nature of scientific data and observations.


Rafael said...

A rather meek addendum:

I also wouldn't concede that the regularities (= the non-miraculous) that scientists observe and attempt to explain must be explained without recourse to God. Science, after all, explains how things occur, not why. I'm not sure what a scientific argument would look like that proved that the four natural forces (gravity, electro-magnetism, strong, and weak), for example, were not the products of God's creative work.

So theistic scientists don't have to "do science as if God didn't exist." Instead, it seems to me that science is incapable of bringing up the question of God at all, either to affirm or deny God's existence. Scientists may be theistic or atheistic, but science, it seems to me, is neither.

JB in CA said...

Krauss's argument, which is common among scientifically inclined thinkers, appears to be this: Scientists need not be substantive naturalists but they must be methodological naturalists. In other words, they need not believe that nature is all there is, but they do need to proceed as if it's all there is. In doing science, Krauss believes, one is justified in appealing only to those assumptions, evidence, and methods that are purely naturalistic. As a result, he argues, science is wholly distinct from theology and, therefore, need not pay any attention to it.

Common though this argument is, it suffers from an even more common problem. It's logically fallacious. The conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. Why should we believe beforehand that naturalistic methodologies can lead only to naturalistic, and never to theological, results? Why not instead simply follow the evidence where it leads, and see if it's true? Proclaiming that it is ahead of time doesn't make it so. If science had demanded such a compartmentalized approach in other areas, physicists would never have made important discoveries in chemistry, chemists in biology, and so on.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Right: a scientist would never say that he's driven to conclude that a miracle occurred in his lab. He can say that he has outlier data that he can't explain.

Krauss would have us believe that if not assuming a god works for science, it ought to work for all thought, a different way to express the fallacy.

aaronburgess said...

What has traditionally demarcated science from theology has been falsificationism. Falsificationism replaced naive inductivism (Mill) and verificationism (Vienna Circle)as the primary methodology of science.

Popperian falsificationism would propose that the difference between science and theology is that scientific propositions are empirically falsifiable and theistic propositions are not.

Popper's position was purely methodological but others took it further (e.g. Flew's "Theology and Falsification"). Popper even stated that he believed Marxism and Darwinism to be metaphysical research programmes and not science based upon falsificationism.

If a proposition (argument) is not falsifiable, it does not mean that it is uninteresting or not useful or untrue. It is just not empirically falsifiable.

There are of course philosophical issues with falsification, primarily that it is a self-defeating proposition (i.e, it is not empirically falsifiable).

But as far as methodology it seems to be a better framework for doing science than inductivism because falsification rejects the notion that scientific theories are actually true. Instead a new theory is simply "better" than an older theory if it falsifies the older theory and provides a more precise explanation of material phenomena.

JB in CA said...

Falsificationism is attractive, but unworkable as a demarcation between science and other fields of inquiry. For example, the claim that the laws of physics operate the same everywhere in the universe would be unfalsifiable (since there's no way we could get everywhere in the universe to test them), but no one would want to abandon it as a genuine scientific theory. Nor would anyone want to deny that "this is a fair coin" constitutes a scientific claim. Yet no arbitrarily long string of heads or tails (say 100 in a row) could ever falsify it. (Probability allows for such anomalies.) And when was the last time you heard of scientists who abandoned their theories because they were confronted with empirical results that disconfirmed them? They rarely take such results as instances of falsification. Instead, they try to save their theories by coming up with alternative explanations of the conflicting results (which is the very aspect of Marxism that led Popper to regard it as a non-science). In fact, much of what scientists take to be science would no longer count as science, if they took falsificationism as seriously as they often say they do.

The failure of falsificationism is a perfect example of why I think we should be exceedingly careful about proposing a demarcation criteria between science and other areas of investigation, including theology.

aaronburgess said...

JB, good response. You are right that one of the detractors of falsificationism has been that it is "unworkable." I would add that it is also not highly pragmatic b/c it is not possible to continue to attempt to falsify all scientific theories to see if they still obtain.

You wrote: "the claim that the laws of physics operate the same everywhere in the universe would be unfalsifiable..."

I think that most scientists would agree that these laws are not actually falsifiable now but they would argue that they are potentially falsifiable. We could conceive of a scenario where we could falsify them.

Whereas (considering the current state of affairs) the God thesis would never be potentially falsifiable.

JB in CA said...

AB: I hadn't thought about the pragmatic issue. Nice point.

I'm not sure, however, that I agree with the claim that the laws of physics are potentially falsifiable. (Actually, I'm not even sure I know what "potentially falsifiable" means. Since "falsifiable" means "able to be falsified," does "potentially" add anything to the claim, or is it simply redundant?) I am inclined to think that it really isn't possible to falsify the scientific claim that the laws of physics operate the same everywhere--at least, that is, if we assume that naturalism is true. In other words, if naturalism is true, there would be no way, given those very laws, that we could get to the far reaches of the universe to test them (because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, etc.). It would take supernatural help to accomplish that. And, of course, that's precisely the sort of thing that the naturalistic assumption would not allow. On the other hand, if we are allowed the possibility of supernatural help to test the laws of physics (thus, making them falsifiable), couldn't we also appeal to that same supernatural possibility to test the claim that God exists (thus, making it falsifiable as well)?

JB in CA said...

Addendum: Now that I've reread what I just posted (I know, I know, I should have reread it before I clicked the button), I realize I should have said that "falsifiable," in this context, means something like "able to be tested for falsity," rather than "able to be falsified." Obviously, true claims, for Popper, can't be falsified, even though they can be falsifiable.