Friday, December 16, 2011

Faith and Reason: the Limitations of Science

One of our fellow bloggers,Tildeb ( recently posted several comments on this blog challenging our belief in the existence of God. According to Tildeb, "The most sympathetic and intellectually honest mind-independent answer to the important question Does god exist? is "I don't know.' That is as good as it gets given the available evidence. . ." Tildeb then goes on to define "faith" as "belief that something is true without compelling evidence existing independent of mind . . . the motivation to believe that god exists and is real does not come from reality itself (where the evidence should be overwhelming) but from within the person who wishes to believe."

    We beg to differ. The evidence for the existence of God is overwhelming. We are surrounded by it.

    People have different reasons for embracing Christianity, some more rational than others. But down through the centuries there have been a significant number of intelligent, well-educated people who have given attention to the question, "does God exist?" and have concluded that there is a rational basis for faith -- from Justin Martyr in the Second Century to C.S. Lewis in the Twentieth. Lewis, in fact, gave up atheism to become a Christian.

    Part of the problem is Tildeb's definition of "faith": "belief that something is true without compelling evidence" – evidently a kind of "Sprung ins Dunkel," an existential leap of faith into the dark. But Christian apologetics has traditionally appealed to evidence. Faith is the trust one puts in Christ when one thinks that the evidence is convincing. You weigh the evidence, you become convinced that Jesus really was and is Who He said He is, and you trust in Him as your Savior. It is, for the thinking Christian, a completely rational decision.

    Probably most modern atheists base their skepticism on science, insisting that no evidence exists in nature to indicate the existence of God. The "God hypothesis," they say, is unnecessary. We need, however, to be aware of the limitations of science.

    First of all, science is based on the empirical method. But since science will never have all of the facts at its disposal, its conclusions will always be tentative. The possibility always exists that some new discovery tomorrow will invalidate the conclusions of today. Science can invalidate a truth claim, proving it false, but it can never entirely validate one.

    Secondly, since the empirical method is based solely on what comes through the senses, it generally cannot take cognizance of any possible spiritual or immaterial reality. This means that a philosophy based on science will naturally tend toward materialism, the view that matter and energy are the only reality. It is little wonder , then, that many scientists are skeptical about the existence of God. But that may only point to a defect in their method.

    Moreover, it is exceedingly difficult for science to deduce an "ought" from an "is." Science can give us a description of the way things are; it cannot tell us what they ought to be. Thus in a philosophy of naturalistic materialism the whole matter of morality and human rights becomes problematical. Genocide is an observable fact of life. That it is somehow morally "wrong" is a value judgment that science cannot make. If we are looking to science for answers as to what we should do, we are likely to come up empty.

    But science has an even more severe problem. As noted above, the empirical method is based on sense perceptions. But how do we know that our senses are giving us an accurate picture of reality? How do we know that we are not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses? This was the question raised by David Hume, and it has vexed philosophers ever since. Thus science itself, in the last analysis, is a prisoner of the mind, not sure if anything actually exists externally.

    As a naturalistic method, science is completely compatible with Christianity; science is simply the study of the natural phenomena created by an all-wise and all-powerful God. But when science becomes an all-encompassing worldview, an naturalistic ontology, it comes into direct conflict with religion. And it is as a worldview that science has severe limitations and drawbacks.


[More later]




  1. A two part comment:

    You started off so well! And then, unfortunately, you began to create a straw man equating science with a philosophy of naturalistic materialism. But that's not science; the method of science is methodological naturalism(MN), meaning the study of natural causes for understanding natural effects delivered by a natural mechanism. Unlike religious belief of revelation, this method has the audacity to work at producing applicable and practical knowledge that is true for everyone everywhere all the time. The question here is not whether such a method is sufficient to explain the universe and everything it contains but if we have cause to make room at the inn of knowledge about the universe for some other equivalent method - like perhaps religiously inspired revelation - because we find MN insufficient.

    Too often people assume that a lack of knowledge - an honest "I don't know" - means it is fair game for the insertion of some faith-based assumption. This is a variation on the god-of-the-gaps argument we see in your assertion of the 'ought/is' divide... that because the method of science does not reveal what ought to be, we can justifiably insert whatever we believe based on some faith claim and assume that such a faith-based belief is justified in comparison to the method of science. Please note that there isn't a shred of evidence that this IS justified and much evidence that it is not. The evidence against inserting faith-based beliefs is the veritable waterfall of claims of what ought to be done in the name of a veritable host of gods that are in contrast to one another and often incompatible. If faith-based beliefs offered us anything more than science based methodology, we should at the very least see a cohesive and consistent answer from the religious who invest their trust and confidence in religion's role to answer the various 'ought' questions. We simply and honestly do not find this to be so. The assumption that religious faith justifiably answers the 'ought' questions is obviously false. To then infuse this false 'belief' (in the sense of misplaced trust and undeserved confidence) with certitude as if that is an improvement over "I don't know" is a direct route to self-delusion with no means available to falsify the belief. This is what we would expect to find with a method of inquiry that doesn't honestly inquire... a method that replaces the process of honest inquiry (beginning with 'I don't know'') with so-called answers based on the already accepted conclusion.

  2. And now the second part:

    Let's take the Jesus example. What's more likely: that the entire natural order should be suspended for miracles to be allowed or that perhaps the attributed miracles were later attached to him? You say it's 'completely rational' to suspend the natural order in the name of Jesus and that evidence leads you to this conclusion. Really?

    The historical Jesus may or may not be true because the evidence at best is rather flimsy, but even if it were true, then the storied explanation - about his redeeming man for our fallen nature - is incoherent.

    We know the Genesis creation myths are not historical (in that the timeline between the first male and female of our genetic heritage is many thousands of generations and that the smallest population bottleneck from whence modern humans spring is about 10,000). The Jesus story of redemption attempts to justify a creation myth from thousands of years of age earlier with an historical event of the crucifixion. In other words, the incoherent christian tenet is to assume the redeemer literally dies for a metaphor and does so by suspending the natural order in a place and time of questionable effectiveness if the message is to reveal a monotheistic god to all humanity.

    This story cannot be derived from good evidence (mind-independent) for no such compelling evidence is available. All we really have is testimonials - often contradictory and out of sequence - in the form 'I know a guy who knew a guy who said he once knew of this guy who performed miracles.' This is not the kind of min-independent evidence to lead one to justify suspending what we do know about the universe in order to gain trust and confidence in the testimonials; instead, the implausibility of the Jesus story requires rather extraordinary and strong evidence to support it. This is not available. What is readily available, however, is to insert the conclusion - god exists - into the premises in order to foster not mind-independent evidence-based trust and confidence but mind-dependent faith-based trust in a highly improbable claim and infuse that with certainty. This conclusion is indeed a decision but unfortunately is not rational; it held together only by assuming that the faith-based belief is in reality true.

  3. Wait a minute! You mean to tell me that there were "many thousands of generations" between the first male and the first female? How can this be? Is there something you know about reproduction that I don't?

  4. Yes, Bob, there were many thousands of generations between our genetic mother and genetic father present in your DNA. It can be so because it is so, because this is what our genetic evidence shows us is true about reality.

    I know! It's tough to wrap one's head around this so I'll let an evolutionary geneticist explain it:

    Mitochondrial DNA points to the genes in that organelle tracing back to a single female ancestor who lived about 140,000 years ago, but that genes on the Y chromosome trace back to one male who lived about 60,000-90,000 years ago. Further, the bulk of genes in the nucleus all trace back to different times—as far back as two million years. This shows not only that any “Adam” and “Eve” (in the sense of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA alone) must have lived thousands of years apart, but also that there simply could not have been two individuals who provided the entire genetic ancestry of modern humans. Each of our genes “coalesces” back to a different ancestor, showing that, as expected, our genetic legacy comes from many different individuals. It does not go back to just two individuals, regardless of when they lived. (Jerry Coyne)

    1. Tildeb, you have based an argument on the assertion that Genesis cannot be real history; that this has been disproved. I don't agree that it has. The assertions that our genes come from 10000 ancestors and cannot have come from only 2, or that there are thousands of years between individual male and female ancestors, is based on evolutionary assumptions. In the Biblical model Adam and Eve would have plenty of created genetic diversity, and estimates of mutation rates based on assumed common descent do not have to be applied 'as is' in a Biblical model. Major facts are consistent with the Biblical model such as Y chromosomes being similar worldwide and the existence of three main mitochondrial DNA lineages. I'm not saying that a Biblical creationist has all the answers, but I see no reason to reject the Biblical model as being disproved.
      Therefore your argument that Genesis can't be history is not proven. This is not a reason for me to reject my faith in the Bible as God's word.

  5. If we call our common female ancestor "Eve" and our common male ancestor "Noah," there is little in Prof. Coyne's observations with which a biblical literalist would disagree, other than his conclusion. The question is, what happened genetically between Eve and Noah? What is the genetic relationship between Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal and anatomically modern humans. And if there was some sort of geological catastrophe that wiped out most of the human race, did any of the genetic material of the extinct races survive in us today?
    As for Eve herself, what exactly is Prof. Coyne saying -- that she had multiple sex partners, so that while we share a common descent from her, we do not share a common descent from any single one of her partners? where did all of these anatomically compatible males come from?
    I did make a distinction in the last paragraph of my blog past between a naturalistic methodology and a naturalistic ontology. The distinction is crucial for the discussion.

  6. If you and I and every other person shared a single pair of human progenitors, then your DNA and my DNA and everyone else's DNA would show this matched pair of alleles when we trace back the x and y chromosomes. We'd arrive at the same place, the same pair of alleles. We don't. The x chromosome traces back about 50K - 80K years longer than the y chromosome. This is a death knell for the Adam and Eve creation myth to be considered historical but it is exactly what we would expect to find using the evolutionary explanation of our primate species.

    You see, Bob, there is no design option in the theory of evolution by natural selection. The words ‘natural selection’ rule it out. You cannot have it both ways; you either accept or reject the theory of evolution. There is no middle ground, no compatibility issue. If you wish to substitute design for evolution, then you run into a very significant problem: there is no evidence for design. None. Zero. Nada. Zip. And there should be if it were a legitimate hypothesis. That's why it's been deemed a religious belief: no evidence.

    But without missing a beat, look what you do with this problem: you then make the most remarkable assumption, that this lack of evidence for design reveals a limitation of science!

    What, heads you win, tails I lose?

  7. You mistake the method of science for scientism, a worldview that only science can provide meaning. No one is suggesting scientism is what stands against theology, for it is a self-defeating argument that no practices.

    Although I have no doubt you think the distinction is crucial for this discussion, it is a straw man fallacy.

    Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. This is the way you are attempting to describe science as a worldview.

    But science as a method of inquiry means the methods of the natural sciences and its single epistemology, which allows reality to arbitrate what’s claimed to be true about it rather than faith claims imposed upon it. In this sense, this method of honest inquiry – honest in the sense that reality rather than faith determines what’s true – should be applied to any subject matter that can yield satisfactory and reliable natural explanations for phenomena. Furthermore, the incompatibility of any epistemology that allows for faith claims to be equivalent in truth value is shown to be so when we gain no further knowledge from inquiries that include supernatural and paranormal speculations equivalent to made up stuff… speculations which have a very long and ‘rich’ theological history of claims about reality being startlingly inaccurate, unnecessary in complexity, untrustworthy in results, and claims assumed to be true but without any means for independent verification. The single epistemology of science is not the same kind that informs faith-based beliefs – a kind of science that similarly imposes faith-based beliefs on reality as you would have us believe – but one that is founded on a method of inquiry that extracts evidence from reality to inform truth claims made about it. This is why the epistemological differences between science and faith are insurmountable because they are in direct epistemological competition.