Monday, November 13, 2006

Science, Reason, and Faith

[Crossposted from Street Prophets]

Simplicio's position that "Religions Don't Deserve Special Treatment" doesn't get much of a rise out of me: Christians are "privileged" in this country in that they are not threatened with death for being Christians, or a type of Christian, as we have for the vast majority of our history in a vast majority of the world. Perhaps if we lost some of that privilege we might rely on God more and ourselves less - and our faith would glorify and honor God (as it should do) more.

Matthew Krell did a great job addressing the political and legal issues of maintaining the separation of church and state in a country peopled, in super-majority fashion, by followers of Christ - here and here. To simplify one of Matthew's argument: don't poke sticks into hornet's nests (sorry Matt, you are way too erudite to say that).

Finally, my fellow SPer's of all faiths, particularly PastorDan did an admirable job of handling the arrogance of the "materialists are rational, the religious are not" arguments intrinsic in the Simplicio's diary. I will also question the reason of the "rationalists" (used in the same form as "Christianist") and pointed specifically at believers in Scientism (or here). Most of the atheists and agnostics, and most of us of faith, on the Street show Boreas' understanding of being worthy of respect.


Regretfully, there are extremes on both ends that do not. One of those extremes is that of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who have decided that they too are going to derive meaning about the universe - from science's recording of observations and its theories to explain those observations. Of course, real scientists do not dip into "meaning" - and Harris/Dawkins and some ID scientists have crossed out of being scientists and become religious in their view: they are attempting to find the meaning behind the facts of the universe. I do too, but I do not use science to do that; and they think only science can do that:
. . .very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think . . . The other view is the religious view. According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know . . . You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense . . . Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, 'I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so and-so,' or, 'I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such -and such a temperature and it did so-and-so.' . . . But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes--something of a different kind-this is not a scientific question. If there is 'Something Behind,' then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them. After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, 'Why is there a universe?' 'Why does it go on as it does?' 'Has it any meaning?' would remain just as they were? . . . Since that power, if it exists, would be not one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it . . . If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe--no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. -- C.S. Lewis, "What Lies Behind the Law", Mere Christianity [this is, of course, part of his argument about one of those ways God shows himself by other means than scientific]
Simplicio's diary is, in part, an apologetic for the evangelical atheism, and scientism, of Harris and Dawkins; and he is shocked that we do not understand that science has indeed defined the "meaning" in the universe and there is none - just our "selfish genes".

More importantly, as Simplicio said here, Harris thinks they can force the faithful back into their holes and cover them up by use of "conversational intolerance" - what a lovely term. Certainly, you can see this intolerance anytime you read Dawkins or Harris on people of faith; and their attempt to push people out of the conversation by their insults and demagoguery. Most attempts I have seen at achieving the "conversational intolerance" of people of faith amounts to attacks on person rather than a reasoned argument; but people of any faith should be prepared to have a reasoned argument.

Before leaving science's ability to prove or disprove things, I want to say that some of what Simplicio posted as scientific fact isn't even accepted by the scientific community as fact - or even really as an adequate theory that explains the facts. For instance, no one really knows the chemical conditions of the "primordial ooze" that abiogenesis supposedly took place in - it is becoming clearer that the earth had far more oxygen and far less nitrogen than was originally thought (that is not good for abiogenesis). No one can explain (and there are multiple theories equally called science) about how amino acids formed, then chained up to produce useful proteins, and especially how those huge (and essential for evolution) molecules like DNA and RNA formed; and then developed cellular structure - all within about 170 million years (even scientists agree that is not a lot of time for this process). Certainly no known evolutionary process or mechanism can explain how this occurred. He, however, religiously cited this as fact. Further, while random mutation and natural selection can be clearly seen driving variation within a species - no one has really shown either from the fossil record, or in an existing species, how a new, biologically distinct (unable to mate back to the precursor) species has arisen (especially in higher level animals), or by what process: right now science isn't even sure what the precursor of homo sapiens is, much less been able to track us back to the primordial ooze. They have a few planks to remove from their eyes before they worry about anyone else's splinters; because the statements like "we do not know now but we will" are faith statements. They may never know; and in fact, for events that are singular and not processes (like abiogenesis and new species formation) they will never know because they will never have the ability to observe these events as they already unfolded.

Finally, the closest I can come to proving the existence of God is by the statements of His Son; and then Jesus' proof of those statements by the resurrection - walking around on the earth for 40 days after being killed and buried is a bit unusual. All empirical data - 500+ eyewitnesses, inability of the Romans and Jews to produce a body, the secondary literary proofs - all support the resurrection account. However, adherants of scientism attempt to ignore the empirical evidence by methods that are feeble at best - certainly not capable of achieving "conversational intolerance" with anyone with any support for their beliefs at all.


Now, it is clear to at least 85% of the world's population that science cannot prove, or disprove, the existence of God - and never will. However, other than saying we must prove God exists empirically (which is impossible and always will be), we were also said to be irrational - lacking reason. Unless you believe in scientism, you also realize that reason and science are also two different things. So, despite my admitted understanding that I believe in something that cannot be proven empirically, are there reasonable and rational arguments for the existence of God? Sure there are:

Experience and Observation:

I was an near-atheist, certainly the hardest of agnostics, and then came back to Christ. Some insight into that can be seen in my testimony; but the point here is that I experienced God. Period. I was not argued into being a Christian; and I cannot be argued out - because I know because I experienced Him. Rationalists will say that anecdote is not data, but that is nonsense really. Enough anecdotes is indeed exactly data; and what scientists do is observe as many anecdotes of a process as they can in order to generalize from the specific (the anecdote) and arrive at a general explanation of the phenomena they have observed. So, the experience of 85% of the people on the planet that "something" underlies physical reality that is supernatural is indeed data - and worthy of respect. Scientism tries to isolate us as individuals of faith and convince us our personal experiences are unreliable and unprovable. That is, BTW, fully opposed to the scientific method.

There is a reason that 85% of the US, and an equally vast majority of the world, believe in some form of God or spirituality. Paul said:
Romans 1:19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. [Paul would have to add "Science" to the list of idols today]
Observationally, God is evident both within us and in His creation; and 85% of the planet who are not "fools professing to be wise" feel that and see that.

However, that too is really an attack against person - it is not nice to tell a blind man that he just doesn't get it because he can not see what is visually clear to everyone else. Perhaps, there is some metaphysical sense organ that allows the 85% to "see" more of reality than the poor 15% who cannot. You would hope the 15% who are blind would not be so arrogant as to challenge the 85% to prove that vision existed - but Harris, Dawkins, and Co. are exactly that arrogant; and we should be able to deal with their "reasonable" arguments against the existence of God - since they have only their intellect, and spiritual blindness, to operate with.

Philosophical Plausibility:
I can certainly provide rational arguments for God's existence -- whether they are convincing on an individual level is another matter. I've come to realize that the problem lies not with the arguments but with the nature of belief itself. Belief in God, like almost all beliefs, can be rationally avoided. Skeptics can always find reasons, however implausible they might be, for refusing to concede that God exists.

Are we to conclude that theological arguments are therefore useless? Certainly not. For while they will not convince those whose passions rule their reason and prevent them from facing the truth, such arguments can be useful for shoring up a culture's plausibility structures.

Everything that we believe is filtered through our plausibility structures: belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. For example, if I were to find a box of cookies in my kitchen cabinet I would assume that my wife had bought them at the store and placed them there herself. If someone were to argue that tree-dwelling elves baked the cookies, packaged them for their corporate employer, and stashed them in my pantry, I would have a difficult time believing their claim; the existence of unionized tree-dwelling elves is simply not a part of my plausibility structure.

Plausibility structures can prevent us from forming beliefs that are inconsistent with experience and evidence. But they can also have a negative impact, preventing us from forming true beliefs about reality. This appears to be the case within a broad segment of modern science. By accepting a plausibility structure that is limited to purely naturalistic explanations, many in the scientific community have imposed self-limiting and irrational criteria for explaining reality. The same is true for the small segment of atheists who truly believe that it is implausible that God exists.

. . .

It is this implausibility that needs to be continuously pointed out and brought into the open. Theological arguments aid in this effort by pointing out that belief in the existence of God is more probable, more plausible, more reasonable, and more rational than its denial. While we should be respectful of individuals who adhere to skepticism or atheism [no creation of "conversational intolerance" allowed to me], when these beliefs are brought to the public square their mystical and improbably assumption should receive the utmost scrutiny.

The use of these arguments does not require that Christians become full-time apologists. All that is required is a basic knowledge of their structure and an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Whether they are directly useful in leading unbelievers to Christ, they can be indirectly useful in reshaping the plausibility structures of our culture.

As I add posts to this series I'll include them under the following categories:
  • Cosmological Arguments -- A general pattern of argumentation that makes an inference from certain alleged facts about the world (cosmos) to the existence of a unique being, generally referred to as God.

  • Ontological Arguments -- Ontological arguments are arguments, for the conclusion that God exists, from premises which are supposed to derive from some source other than observation of the world ? e.g., from reason alone. [Alvin Plantinga is a Catholic philosopher, and one of the best around. You can check out a bunch of his stuff at the Virtual Library of Christian Philosophy here; his Wiki article; and his home page at Notre Dame

  • Teleological Arguments -- theistic arguments which share a focus on plan, purpose, intention and design. [The closest to a scientific argument for the existence of God is here: fine-tuning]

  • Moral Arguments -- theistic arguments that include or rely on a moral component. [This is where C.S. Lewis's argument from the first five chapters of Mere Christianity would fall]
Joe Carter: "Dismantling Implausibility Structures: The Uses of Theistic Arguments"

Anti-Intellectualism and Christianity

Up to now I really haven't been focusing on Christianity - but faith and belief in God and the supernatural in general. Now I am going to say something about followers of Christ and faith. As I quoted my ex-pastor in "Loving God with All Your Mind":
We live in a culture that is very opposed to critical thinking. By critical thinking, Carl means carefully examining something to see if it is true or not. We are so bombarded with lies that (since we have lived in a culture where we are told we determine what is true) now people no longer know how to think very well. That should not be true of followers of Jesus Christ. We should be leading the way in the right use of the mind.

Some Christians in America have also become anti-intellectual. They will say things like:
  • "Do not try to understand this with your mind - just believe"; or
  • "Faith is not really a reasonable thing"; or
  • "Faith is not intended to be logical"; or
  • "Faith is a leap in the dark".
  • "God's thoughts are above our thoughts".
What do all these mean? Does that mean God is not logical? That His logic is different from ours? That He would say 2+2=15; but we cannot understand that so we just have to believe? If you hear something like that you should hear a large warning horn going off somewhere - these things are not true.

The message of God - the Bible, the Cross, the blood of Christ, salvation - is logical. It is reasonable. It is coherent. It is consistent. It is sound. It is true. It is not true because someone says it is; or because you believe it - it is true because it is real. There is such a thing as an absolute objective reality. God has said He wants you to know; and He has given you a mind with which to understand the truth. Our faith is not based upon a leap in the dark - it is based on eyewitness testimony. Our faith is a reasonable, logical, coherent, consistent system of truth that is understandable.
You can certainly see how the list above would play into the hands of those like Harris and Dawkins. If you wish to be bashed about by the "conversational intolerance" of these blind men you are certainly welcome - I am not up for that. However, we are told in scripture to:
1 Peter 3:15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope [elpiß -- "joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation"] that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence
Not much room there to allow yourself to be isolated by "conversational intolerance"


  1. It is obvious that you know nothing of philosophy and nothing of the consequences of believing in something so vile as an organized religion. I's pity you, but it would be a waste of my time.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly