Christians and Scientific Discussion

I stumbled across another interesting “science blog”:http://highlyallochthonous.blogspot.com yesterday, this one focusing primarily on Earth Science. In “this entry”:http://highlyallochthonous.blogspot.com/2006/12/truth-in-science-on-newsnight.html, Chris Rowan makes a couple of statements that all scientists (especially _Christian_ scientists) should take into consideration:

Furthermore, to properly interpret criticism you need a firm theoretical understanding of the theory you’re criticising.

This is one the primary reasons why lately I’ve tried to curtail myself from writing on topics about which I have very little knowledge and expertise. There are few things so embarrassing as making a dogmatic point only to find out you’re wrong and then have to backpedal.

I’ve watched a number of Christians debate certain scientific points, and it quickly becomes evident that these folks clearly have a less-than-adequate understanding of the other side of the argument. So most of the time arguing is spent trying to get the Christian to understand the point that the secular scientist is trying to make, rather than actually debating the merits of the argument itself and the supporting (or damning) evidence from both camps.

And let’s be clear – “evolution can’t explain x, therefore ID” is not an example of the scientific method in action, and “an unspecified intelligence at some point did something to DNA by some unspecified mechanism” is not a scientific hypothesis. When you make some positive hypotheses about the nature of God- sorry, The Designer- and when and how he has done his designing, and show (by experiment, not assertion) that your hypotheses explain the facts better than evolution does, then biologists might start taking ID seriously.

In the field of science, I’ve seen researchers on both sides of a lot of issues fall into exactly this kind of trap. Most commonly, it is the Christian scientists ((Let me be clear here – when I say ‘Christian scientist’, I am _not_ referring to the particular philosophy/religion/cult of Christian Science; I am merely making a distinction between the average secular scientist and the scientist who possesses a belief in a creator God.)) who will make specific claims, only to have them fall under the weight of evidence from evolutionary scientists.

As a result, I have to wonder how much of science from Christian research organizations is founded on actual evidence and research and how much is simply airy exclamations based on theological beliefs. Don’t get me wrong – I do believe the Bible to be accurate, and I believe in a literal, 6-day creation and intelligent design. But I fear that far too many scientists who are Christians try to make science fit into theology. I believe that science and theology _can_ complement one another, even when they seem to be in opposition. ((I attribute this to the fact that mankind’s understanding of the universe is finite and that there is likely no way possible that we will ever be able to understand everything, even under the best and most rigorous scientific study.))

I believe that Christian scientists do a great disservice to both science and theology when they try to force scientific evidence to fit their own personal theologies. I think that fear plays a large part in _why_ they try, though – science and rationality sometimes have a way of shaking one’s faith in the existence of God, especially when they seem to support the traditional Darwinian evolutionary viewpoint. But rather than facing their fear and examining fact, far too many Christian scientists take information gleaned in the scientific community and try to force it to fit a specific mold. Consequently, they come off looking like fools and their research is quickly debunked as garbage. ((For the record, I’m sure that even if they had indisputable evidence backing their claims, there would be those in the scientific community who would laugh and scoff. You always have naysayers.))

At any rate, it’s a little food for thought, and as always, this entry is open for discussion and debate. And I believe that reading through Chris’ site may inspire some interesting and new story ideas.

4 thoughts on “Christians and Scientific Discussion”

  1. Hi Jim!

    I agree with your point #3… and I also agree that it is unfortunately too common for christians to try to debate science without a deep understanding of it.

    However, I do not think the recent intelligent design movement is as vacuous as the evolutionists (and Chris Rowan) seem to think.

    Much of the discussion hinges on the definition of “scientific”. Chris tries to define “scientific” in such a way that evolution is included but ID is excluded, but it turns out to be almost impossible to do so. (cf. http://www.idthefuture.com/2005/10/the_failure_of_demarcation_arguments.html ) One helpful separation is between “origins science” which deals with non-repeatable past events, and “experimental science” which deals with “the way the natural world usually works” today using repeatable experiments. Both evolution and ID are primarily “origins science”, though some experiments can be performed today to support or refute various theories.

    Furthermore, the theory of ID is an inherently different TYPE of explanatory hypothesis than the theory of evolution, so it is less testable. Does that mean it is less scientific? No, I think not.

    For example: Let’s say you find a shiny new Mercedes-Benz convertible sitting in your driveway one morning, with the keys in the ignition and a big red bow on the steering wheel and a note saying “Happy Birthday”.

    There are several hypotheses for the origin of the car. Dembski would classify them broadly as either: (1) Necessity, (2) Chance, or (3) Design. I.e. were the laws of nature such that the Mercedes just HAD to appear there that morning? Or did the atoms come together by chance? (either quantumly or in a big tornado, for example) Or did some intelligent designer(s) conceive of the car, specify and create the parts, put them together in the right order, and drive the finished product to your driveway?

    If your friend Chris was right, it would be “unscientific” to conclude design in this case. Design by intelligent agents is inherently non-repeatable and often leaves no trail behind of “intermediate links”. Concepts are implemented “fully formed” in the physical world from the mind of an intelligent designer. This why I find contemporary criticisms of ID to be rather shortsighted. They are so scared of the theological implications of admitting the possibility that living organisms are intelligently designed that they throw out the whole theory. But when they try to recognize items around them in the real world that are designed, they use the exact same principles expounded by the ID movement.

    Lots more examples could be given of items which “Chance or Necessity can’t explain x, therefore Design” is the eminently reasonable hypothesis… a Beethoven sonata, a Shakespeare sonnet, a piece of software, Mount Rushmore, Stonehenge.

    Take Stonehenge, for example. “An unspecified intelligence at some point did something to [what we now call Stonehenge] by some unspecified mechanism”. It could have been humans, or monkeys, or aliens, or God, or any intelligent agent – we have no clue. We have no evidence or even positive hypotheses about the nature of the designer, when and how he/she did his/her designing, and no experimental evidence of such “design”. (Indeed, “experimental evidence” for a historical event is really a category error, as mentioned above… unless by “experimental evidence” it would be sufficient to have a person go into a closed room and come out with a miniature model of Stonehenge!?!)

    Yet despite all that, we conclude that Stonehenge was designed. And we are quite reasonable (not “unscientific”, imho) in doing so… because Stonehenge exhibits “specified complexity”, the trait by which all design is recognized.

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough, but I just wanted to let you know I appreciated your thought-provoking post, and I think there are significant reasons to accept the tenets of ID theory (besides our most important reason, the Bible).

    With esteem,

    Tim

  2. Two other thoughts about what Chris wrote.

    1. I’d like to ask Chris about whether he thinks Creationism is “scientific” or not. He’d almost certainly say no… he is almost certainly referring to Creationism when he talks about “pseudoscience” in his second bullet point.
    However, as Meyer pointed out, how does he define/demarcate “science”? Quite possibly he would use the criteria of “falsification”. I.e. Chris might say, “Creationism cannot be falsified, therefore it isn’t science.” He pretty much says this indirectly in his third bullet point.

    But then in his first bullet point, he claims that Creationism actually HAS been falsified – i.e. it is “flawed”. This highlights a common inconsistency in evolutionist rhetoric. They try to claim that creationism ISN’T a scientific theory because it makes no predictions, and then turn around and try to say that it IS a scientific theory, but its predictions have been shown to be false. Putting aside the actual scientific questions for a moment, this type of rhetoric seems rather puerile.

    2. Chris asserted with no proof: “Information is a property of energy and matter.”

    Actually this does not seem to be the case at all. Obviously “information” is a very slippery term… the two fairly rigorous mathematical definitions I’m aware of are: Shannon entropy (which deals with how much information can be sent over a transmission channel with a certain frequency bandwidth), and Kolmolgorov complexity (also called “minimum-description-length”, the shortest amount of “code” necessary to convey some message or algorithm for generating the message).

    But the very basic intuitive understanding of information (a newspaper with 700000 total printed letters has more “information” than 700000 randomly generated letters from a computer) is difficult to state rigorously mathematically. Yet that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that it’s simply “a property of energy and matter”.

    Some work has been done on a definition of “information” that relates to the actual meaning, not just the description length or transmission error bounding. For example, protein specificity (see these cool articles http://www.cosmicfingerprints.com/iidb.htm and http://naturalselection.0catch.com/Files/definingevolution.html and http://www.trueorigin.org/#gain and http://www.trueorigin.org/spetner2.asp). Another approach is Dembski’s attempt to explain his notion of “specified complexity” (which seems to be a combination of “low probability” and also “conforming to a prespecified pattern”, i.e. a combination of Kolmogorov and Shannon concepts..?). See for example his paper here – http://www.designinference.com/documents/2005.06.Specification.pdf … don’t be dismayed by all the mathematics in it.. there’s also some nice explanatory text.

  3. For example: Let’s say you find a shiny new Mercedes-Benz convertible sitting in your driveway one morning, with the keys in the ignition and a big red bow on the steering wheel and a note saying “Happy Birthday”… If your friend Chris was right, it would be “unscientific” to conclude design in this case.
    Not true. We know humans build cars, and we know that humans give each other presents on their birthdays, so I would quite justifiably infer that a human had left said car on my driveway (I would, however, have to adjust my assumptions of my friends’ generosity!).

    Likewise, the Stonehenge site is littered with human artifacts; the megaliths have been cut with human tools; and it dates to a time we know that people were living in England. Furthermore, archaeologists tested (and established) hypotheses about its possible function as an astronomical calendar based on knowledge of human behaviour (a long standing interest in the heavens and the movement of the stars and planets).

    That is how you scientifically study design: you have to define the abilities, techniques and motivations of the intelligence that is doing the designing – exactly the things that ID proponents refuse to do*. I believe that it would be perfectly possible to put together an ID-inspired programme of research, but rather than appealing to spurious and ill-defined probabilities (which is all ‘specified complexity’ is, to be honest) – you could look for evidence of gene transfer between completely different species, for example. My prediction would be any such hypotheses would be falsified, but you never know.

    So I suppose in answer to ‘is creationism scientific?’ I’d say that its creationist concepts have been falsified: an Earth and Universe that are only a few thousand years old, for example, or a global flood, or (either) sequence of creation in Genesis**. Others – that God got life going in the first place, or jump started the Universe, or (even) intervened in evolution and various points, have not, but neither is there any evidence in their favour. The scientific conclusion is therefore that we don’t know yet, and to keep investigating in the hope of an answer – the decision to put a God in that gap is based on faith, not on science, and I respect people who admit that about as much as I am annoyed by those who delude themselves otherwise. Science is about process, you see – and that process does not include a check on whether your data contradicts a literal reading of the Bible.

    *incidentally, an entity that can do anything it likes is not amenable to scientific investigation for the simple reason that you can never rule out it intervening in any process.
    **the contention that several generations of scientists of every stripe and philosophy – including Christians – are unwilling unable to see through the blinkers of their materialism is both laughable and more than a little insulting.

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