The authority of science

Cosmologist Sean Carroll garnered considerable buzz recently with his contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.  Launching off of an interview with Carroll, LiveScience made a big splash with the headline: “Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?”

A few days later, an AP story mined societal anxiety about growing fraud in science.  And in the year-end issue of my local university campus newspaper, the science columnist made an earnest and zealous attempt to distinguish scientific “education” from religious “indoctrination.”

Examining the language and underlying assumptions in popular science writing reveals an often narrow and uncritical school of thought that has an outsized, unwarranted, and perilous grip on our culture.

Let’s start with the LiveScience article on Sean Carroll.  If we take it seriously, and try to discern from its own contents whether science will “rule out the possibility of God,” we’ll be disappointed to find only an abundance of ungrounded suppositions and a string of logical fallacies.

The surest presupposition that pops up is a philosophical hard naturalism or materialism.  It is simply assumed that the natural world or matter/energy are all that is.  Accordingly, only “domains of science” are considered serious fields of inquiry.  “Theologians,” to say nothing of philosophers, are cast as attempting to “seize upon” as yet-unanswered sticky points and rhetorical flips.

A deeply rational theist like William Lane Craig–a cosmological rock star of sorts–couldn’t get billing in a pop science piece like this.  To do so would turn off those readers who’ve placed faith in science’s ability–given enough time–to answer everything; a faith in science-of-the-gaps if you will.

Folks like Carroll and LiveScience offer succor for those who hope to  ignore any kind of truth that is not empirically derived.  But there are non-empirical truths each of us take for granted everyday.  There are properly basic beliefs, such as the belief that one did not spontaneously come into being five minutes ago with memories implanted to give the false impression of living prior to that time.

And individuals have faculties beyond the senses.  The faculty of morality comprehends objective moral truths, and the faculty of reason allows one to know “A” is not identical to “not A.”  These ways of knowing reside entirely outside the “domain of science.”

Yet, science writing subsists on a de facto “verificationism,” a trust only of propositions that can be empirically verified.  Of course, the foundational proposition of verificationism fails its own test.

On top of naturalism and verificationism, the LiveScience writer treats theories like the multiverse as settled matters rather than metaphysical conjectures.  This kind of assumption thrives in columns that can’t take the space to unpack the ideas they reference.

And then there are the fallacies in the article.  Consider this passage:

Other versions of quantum gravity theory currently being explored by cosmologists predict that time did start at the Big Bang. But these versions of events don’t cast a role for God either. Not only do they describe the evolution of the universe since the Big Bang, but they also account for how time was able to get underway in the first place. As such, these quantum gravity theories still constitute complete, self-contained descriptions of the history of the universe.

This passage is simultaneously a tautology and an appeal to authority.  Notice cosmologists must “cast a role” for God.  The theory cannot escape the constraints of the theorist’s inborn bias.  And for the writer to qualify the theories “as such” only  undermines the idea the theories are actually “self-contained.”

As the piece progresses toward its end, the stubborn question of ultimate meaning is dismissed as a failure to see the universe itself as unique and not in need of an answer.  But Carroll offers no real reason beyond a lyrical twist.  Dr. Craig likens this cessation of reason to the taxicab fallacy: once the questioner reaches his destination (that God is not required), he dismisses the cab of critical inquiry, namely by abandoning the principle of sufficient reason.

There is an attempt to invoke the testimony of a psychologist to explain away religious phenomenon as arising out of psychological need.  This is classic genetic fallacy.  How one might come to have a belief has no bearing on the truth of the belief.

The consequences of letting such suppositions and fallacies thrive in the thought life of scientists and their admirers are considerable.  Look at The Aggie‘s piece on education and indoctrination.  The author fills a column with generalized disdain for the excesses of “evangelical religion,” perhaps not realizing that he is harboring a zeal equally in need of its own justification and defense.

A remarkable irony emerges when the columnist pegs “indoctrination” to Western culture.  It was in large part the values of Western Antiquity and the Bible that supported the critical thinking needed to produce modern science.

The collegiate composition is alarming in its take away that “Religion has no place in schools, and science has no place in churches, synagogues or mosques . . .”  This reminds of the woefully dismissive bumper sticker that reads, “I won’t think in your church if you don’t pray in my school.”  Simply a false dichotomy.  Sometimes it’s the laboratories and the halls of the academy that could use a little more critical thinking.

The Aggie column concludes with a call for an education that will produce “un-indoctrinated” citizens.  Here we have the error of Locke, that humans are tabula rosa and there is some pure Science that can properly inform the citizen.  The prescription also bears a whiff of the tyranny of tolerance.  All ideas are equally valid except the one that proposes to be true to the exclusion of others.  As with verificationism, it’s a paradigm that defeats itself.

We are in an age where science is upheld, unrealistically and with poor justification, as some final arbiter of knowledge.  Though some think we live in a postmodern society, the underpinning beliefs are still very modern indeed.  Just looking back to the twentieth century, we know all too well the tragedies modernity begot: eugenics, gulags, genocide, rampant pollution, spiritual alienation.  What a downer.

But the search for hope is unyielding.  Like a hokey Star Trek episode, the LiveScience article concludes by waxing lyrical, quoting an evolutionary psychologist: “We’re not designed at the level of theoretical physics.”   Not even a scientist can avoid language invoking the agency of a creator.  He goes on to say that things like interpersonal relationships are what matter on the “human scale.”

Is there some grand, unifying worldview that best satisfies questions both on the cosmological and the “human scale?”  Look no further than the many ready witnesses who make a reasoned, coherent and consistent case for a God who is revealed in the Bible and intervenes decisively in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

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