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Creation, Part III: The Philosophy of Science

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Written by Basil on 12/22/2004 1:33 PM. Filed under:

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Note: This series of articles has been compiled into a single article entitled “On the Dogma of Creation.” These articles remain in place for the sake of the conversations that occurred in the comments.

Part I in this series
Part II in this series

Why are scientists so convinced of the truth of evolution, whether expressed in astronomy, geology, or biology? Some have accused scientists of having a secret, godless agenda of metaphysical naturalism. After all, it is argued, why else would God be excluded from their descriptions of the world?

I discussed in the previous article that science is marked by a methodological naturalism. It may be helpful to define naturalism. Naturalism is a focus on nature to the exclusion of anything extra-natural or supernatural. Metaphysical naturalism is the belief that nature is all that exists. Metaphysical naturalism is a subset of philosophical materialism, the belief that existence is solely material (that is, that everything is matter in the philosophical sense), that there are no non-material substances, such as minds, souls, spirits, angels, demons, or gods. The famous description of metaphysical naturalism is the statement of Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.”

Enter the religious, believing scientist. She recognizes that Sagan’s statement is false in the extreme. She believes in God, and she believes in knowledge about all the non-material things listed in the previous paragraph that Sagan, Dawkins, Gould and other metaphysical naturalists disbelieve. She also believes that science produces very useful information about the world, information that is true so far as it goes. But science seems to be entirely naturalistic. There is no talk of God, no examinations of the soul or the angelic host. How does the believing scientist reconcile these two apparently contradictory positions?

She recognizes that the naturalism of science is one of method. The scientific method uses empirical information to study the visible world around us. However, since it restricts its field of inquiry to empirical data, its competence is also restricted to empirical subjects. It is simply impossible for science to study things that cannot be perceived by the senses. The scientist is free to believe in the panoply of non-empirical realities like souls, angels, demons, and God himself, and science remains blissfully agnostic about them.

Thus, the information gained from science remains free of any theological statements referring to God as creator or to the purpose of a thing. It remains completely consistent with theological descriptions of the world, within limits. Obviously, if science finds that reptiles precede birds in the development of life, theology cannot then hold the opposite without also holding that somehow our senses are systematically deceived.

Scientists study empirical data, and then generalize their findings to produce a testable hypothesis. Further data then either confirms or disconfirms the hypothesis. To be more precise, further evidence either falsifies an hypothesis or it allows the hypothesis to stand. After much confirmation and peer review, where similar results strengthen the hypothesis, an hypothesis can be given the status of a theory.

A scientific theory is not mere conjecture. A theory is a model for explaining data that has not been falsified by the data and explains a wide variety of seemingly contradictory data. Theories also tend to confirm one another and lead to better theories which integrate into one new theory the earlier, separate theories.

The most famous example of this confirmatory power of diverse theories is that of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s theory of genetics. Though both men were ignorant of the other’s work, their theories confirmed one another. Darwin, in fact, recognized the lack of a mechanism for trait inheritance as a weakness of his hypothesis and expected that a later discovery would support his work. That support came from the genetic theory of the monk Gregor Mendel. Eventually, the two theories were brought together into a new theory, often called neo-Darwinism.

It is important to recognize two facets of the scientist’s work. First, the scientific method is thoroughly probablistic. It does not ever result in demonstrative proof, in the sense of a mathematical proof or a logically deductive argument, where the truth of the conclusion is guaranteed by the truth of the premises. A scientific theory is always more or less probable. Therefore, one will always be able to deny that one theory or another has been proven. To take two examples, some misguided believers disbelieve Copernican astronomy (that the earth revolves around the sun), others disbelieve the common ancestry of all life (evolution).

Second, many theories of science have a massive amount of evidence behind them. The common ancestry of all life (evolution) or the basic solar system (heliocentrism) are so well confirmed at this point in time as to be taken for granted. In teaching astronomy, it is common to refer to the earth revolving around the sun as a fact. It is technically a theory, but it is supported by so much evidence as to be accurately considered a fact. Even so, it is only probably true that the earth revolves around the sun. The same can be said of any scientific theory.

It must be admitted that the scientific method has its philosophical roots in the Enlightenment. This leads some Orthodox to question the foundation of science altogether. It is a fascinating question without easy answers, but it is a discussion for another time.

I believe that it is important to accept science and the knowledge it provides, while integrating it with the Orthodox faith in a coherent worldview. Presenting our children with a false bifurcation between Orthodox theology and modern science will force most of them to abandon the faith for a skeptical scientism.

In the next installment, I will continue to discuss the integration of theology and science in a coherent worldview. We will examine how theology and science complement one another and how scientific knowledge sometimes forces us to reevaluate our understanding of divine revelation. Equally importantly, we will examine how and why science does not and cannot revise the revelation of God.

Part the fourth (next in series)

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4 Responses to “Creation, Part III: The Philosophy of Science”

  1. Victoria Says:

    I think it’s worth recognizing that both science and theology are practiced by imperfect people. Both scientists and theologians have axes to grind, egos, hurt feelings, and deeply personal questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything. What I mean to say is, just because the *practice* of either science or theology is imperfect, we should not reject what either has to offer.

    And of course you agree, Basil, I’m just writing it to write it!

    I appreciate this thread greatly, since I was never not once asked during my education as a scientist to think about these things (as you know).

  2. Mr. Hibbity Gibbity Says:

    I think Victoria hit upon it, but I’ll clarify for my own purposes – even if the scientific method is perfect, it’s still utilized by imperfect beings that can skew the results to meet their own agendas.

    Also, if there are no absolutes in science, then what about the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics? Are they erroneously named or are they, in fact, absolutes? Or are they simply labeled “laws” because nothing has come along to disprove them?

    If so, then “laws” is a misnomer and everything should be labeled as “theory”, since eventually, everything might be disproven.

    Look, I think I know where you’re coming from. You’re attempting to show the absurdity of a literal translation of the creation story, with a literal Adam and Eve from which all of humanity sprung. Yet, is that story any less difficult to believe than the story of a man that was savagely mutilated and murdered and who came back to life three days later?

    You seem to be saying that it’s childish and, perhaps, impossible and my question is ‘why’? What separates the story of Christ from the so-called “fanciful” realm of the creation story?

    Yes, you can look at human creation in a number of different ways: the universe took shape, man was evolving, God stepped in and separated us from the animals; or God spoke everything into existence billions of years ago and humans “evolved” from His all-encompassing design; or it was all just chance; or we were simply spoken into existence and came to be as described in the Biblical account.

    What makes any of those any less fanciful than any of the others?

    I suppose I look at it like this: there are those scientists that exclude religion from science and then there are those that use science and religion to support one another. As soon as you accept the possibility that God took part in some aspect of the creative process, then you have to accept the possibility that the Biblical account is, indeed, accurate. To simply write it off would be to write off the same scientic method that you’ve championed here.

    So yes, a “intelligently designed” type of evolution is entirely possible, but so is simply being called into existence.

  3. basil Says:

    Mr. HG, what is possible for God does not concern us here. As believers, let’s assume that we believe in the God of classical theism, who can do anything that is not logically inconsistent.

    What we are discussing is how science determines what has actually happened. No one is claiming that the scientific method is the most perfect way of gaining knowledge. It is, however, a useful way of gaining knowledge, and most modern people believe that the information that science gives us is trustworthy, so far as it goes.

    The reason science excludes religion is because religious beliefs are non-empirical and non-falsifiable. There is no way of describing the color of God nor of recording the weight of an angel. How does one set up a comparison between how things occur without the intervention of God and with his intervention? As Christians, we believe that the world would not exist without the intervention of God. The world exists, therefore God intervened. That little bit of logic is utterly incapable of being falsified (proven wrong by further empirical research); it cannot count as science. But it makes for some rather elementary theology.

    As for the difference between “law,” “hypothesis,” and “theory,” see two discussions of their relationship in scientific jargon: “Scientific Laws, Hypotheses, and Theories” and “Scientific Hypothesis, Theories and Laws”. They give similar information while also providing some different nuances in explaining the differences.

    With regard to the Adam and Eve story, see the first article in this series. I’ve already addressed how to interpret the Genesis mythology within the context of ancient near-eastern creation mythologies (mythology being shorthand for “deep, abiding truth that transcends the categories of historicity and science” ). In the second article, too, there was some very good discussion about it.