Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 2)

The fire has calmed within the hearth, but still provides the room with a soothing warmth. Its soft light spills upon the our dapper hosts who are adorned in smoking jackets, the left breast of each embroidered with emblems both distinguished and mysterious. Soft jazz plays in the background as our two hosts return to their conversation.

David: Welcome back, friends, and thank you for joining us. Let us now dig deeper into the subject at hand. I have this idea to present you, a scientist, to hear your thoughts. It seems to me that there are people who discard any notion of God and turn wholly to science as the foundational construct for obtaining truth. Furthermore, they then treat science as if it’s their religion, holding firmly to their choice of theories, tenets, and sacred texts. Science for them is then no longer just a structured means of learning, but a holistic worldview that seeks to find an explanation for life outside of any concept of God. What do you think of this “science as religion” theory?

Brett: I believe that your theory is right, that science plays the role of religion for many people. That is, that a scientific stance toward the world becomes, for some people, a worldview. For such people, science makes final statements about what’s valuable, who we are, etc. What’s especially insidious about this is that the scientific worldview is assumed to be a neutral one. I think the direction you may be leading with your questions is spot on, namely that the scientific process isn’t some neutral high ground from which we can discover the truth about the world. It comes with it’s presuppositions just like any other system of thought (Christian theology, Humanism, Marxism). When any system of thought becomes a totalizing system then I think we run into trouble. For the new atheists, the scientific system becomes a totalizing system. All things are judged through it.

David: One central issue seems to be how religion and science each arrive at their respective centers of truth and reality. Let us focus more for a moment on the science side of things. How does a scientist become sure of something? What evidence or test is required?

Brett: An intriguing query indeed! If you mean ‘sure’ as in, “such and such theory is true”, then I say he or she never can become sure of something. There is no test or evidence that has proven watertight for such assurance. The history of modern science is littered with one theory after another that the majority of the community was “sure” of. But new evidence arose, and the theory fell under its weight. Take for example the theory that light propagates through some medium (call it “ether”). Our understanding of other wave phenomena (sound, water waves) strongly supported this theory. But then toward the end of the 19th Century two physicists devised a clever way to measure the speed of the ether with respect to the Earth. They found that either the ether wasn’t moving or it didn’t exist. For fundamental reasons, the community eventually rejected the first conclusion. Now, physicists are fairly certain that light doesn’t propagate through a medium. (Actually, there are still some hangers-on to the ether theory.)

David: Your response highlights something I’ve observed listening to various scientific voices. There seem to be two basic approaches to science in terms of larger worldview (and these are very generalized of course): Skeptical Science and what I’ve mentioned before that I’m calling Religious Science.

Skeptical Science sees science as an intellectual endeavor where everything is tested and questioned and nothing is fully taken for granted. This view will continue to seek and ask questions and challenge both the known and the unknown. The view of truth is either that there is no absolute truth, or that it exists but is very far removed from our immediate grasp, and so persistent science will always continue searching. From a Christian perspective, this is favorable since you can view God as absolute truth to be sought, and science as a way of seeking him and learning about what he has created.

Religious Science is what I tend to grate against. This perspective views science as not necessarily just a means to an end, but an end in itself since science is the only way of accessing any kind of objective truth. Therefore, what science labels as fact is considered true and factual. My issue with this is that, as you point out, it’s not an absolute since it often relies on popular consensus and is sometime debunked eventually by time and advancements. I think this is where I see many of the militant atheist evolutionists landing and it frustrates me. They accept evolution as scientific fact when it is still labeled as a theory, and essentially the creation of one person. In fact, evolution is often referred to by means of asking if one “believes in the theory of evolution.” Theory? Belief? That doesn’t sound absolute and it certainly doesn’t sound scientific.

I favor Skeptical Science as a means of learning, not as a means of determining my absolute truth. However, in order to avoid constantly living in an existential crisis, there must be some absolute confidence we can take from the certainty of the Religious Science approach.

Brett: I think your categories of skeptical and religious science are great, and that is interesting language: “believe in evolution”. I agree that the wording ‘believe in evolution’ is very common, and odd. It’s a phrase I myself use. I’m glad you pointed this out. ‘Believe’ to me implies whole-soul orientation toward something. “I believe in you”, “I believe in God”, “I believe in the virtue of hard work.” Perhaps when someone asks me if I believe in evolution I’ll now answer, “No. I think it’s true; but I could be wrong; and I certainly don’t *believe* in it.”

I must disagree with your statement about evolution being “essentially the creation of one person.” Evolutionary theory, like all scientific theories, was a monumental team effort. Long before Darwin, there was Linnaeus classifying species in structures that looked like family trees. And there was Mendel cross-breeding peas and thinking about how heredity worked. And there was Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather, I think), who had some strange ideas about the genesis of all species from a single source, or something. And around Darwin’s time and afterward there was the unearthing by many scientists of dinosaurs and huge numbers of creatures that lived before us. Then, after Darwin’s theory began to take hold there was an explosion of research. For example, Barbara McClintock laying the groundwork for the field of genetics or Watson and Crick on the chemical structure of the DNA molecule, and how it might replicate itself and pass hereditary information. I think there must be many more significant contributors. My point is that some theories seem to be built by a single genius (structure of the solar system, by Kepler; gravity, by Newton; space-time, by Einstein; evolution, by Darwin). But in fact they’re usually a gathering together of many previous ideas by one exceptional thinker. And then they’re usually cast out by that thinker to the scientific community in a very basic form. The community then grabs hold and fleshes it out over many decades. Evolution, as presented in Darwin’s Origin of Species, is really only a seed of a theory. Today, I think, it is much more developed. By the way, another striking thing is that it seems to be one of the longest-standing scientific theories. It’s about the same age as the current theory of electricity and magnetism. It is 3 times as old as our current theory of what matter is made up of. It’s remarkable to me that evolution has not only withstood 150 years of scrutiny (think of how much energy many brilliant minds from our religious community have put into debunking it) but I think it has actually been enriched by such careful examinations.

David: It appears that I was mistaken in my understanding of how scientific theories are formed. I supposed it is common for us to ascribe an idea to one person rather than recognize the collective effort. Thank you for such astute illumination as to the nature of the scientific process. I believe this to be a good stopping point for now. Let us adjourn and we will see you, dear reader, in the comments and in our next installment.

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3 thoughts on “Theology Talk with Brett and David: On Science (Part 2)

  1. The most interesting part of this discussion to me is belief. On paper, it seems like a lot of scientists, philosophers, etc. are comfortable with the idea that we don’t really KNOW a lot of things, but we have working theories. Gravity is probably a thing (even if it’s weird and easily overcome), evolution is probably a thing, the brain’s relationship with personality is a thing. We comfortable with uncertainty.

    I see an inconsistency in this reluctance to call things absolutely true and an aggression towards people who don’t adhere to certain beliefs. in a literal way, some are uncertain of their beliefs but certain of their disdain for non-adherents to those uncertain beliefs. There’s a moral certainty of the rightness of judgment.

    This kind of zealotry is also present in social and political discussions. There’s something troubling to me that a person can be so unsure and yet so sure in dismissing others as “less than”.

    When I was in law school, there was story on ESPN about how some high school boys had spoken out against some sports team hazing in which cell phones were shoved up their butts as a rite of passage. The backlash in the city was strong, but so was the backlash on the ESPN website by commenters. Lots of “f*g” comments about the guys brave enough to speak up. Essentially they were rape victims but dozens or hundreds of commenters were comfortable slurring them and putting them in the wrong. Now, a football player publicly and aggressively discussed his discomfort with homosexuals and the overwhelming public sentiment is that he is a bigot. The ESPN commenters back then and also now seem very sure of themselves, but they’ve arrived at opposite conclusions. This is troubling to me when we’re outcasting people.

    If we’re uncertain about reality, how can we be sure of moral absolutes?

    • Spot on.

      I’ve also seen this divergence, where we use this “I don’t know” language to actually forward a worldview and make statements, all the while cloaking it in so-called humility, pretending we haven’t actually reached a conclusion. I think it’s because we’ve learned that the way to bully is to claim moral high ground, and moral high ground is only attained (in our culture, at least) by a sense of relativity and ambiguity. Which, if you had to explain this to an alien, would be very confusing and evil-sounding. Why then has it become so intuitive?

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