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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Do Scientific Explanations Compete with Religious Explanations?

It is often imagined, by partisans of both science and religion, that those two domains are in rivalry for providing the "best" explanations of the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. If there is a valid scientific explanation for, say, the origin of life on Earth, then any religious understanding of the topic is rendered superfluous. The consequence is that many people who appreciate the accomplishments of science conceive religion to be merely an impediment to scientific progress, while numerous religious folk feel compelled to reject the possibility of scientific explanations in some realm that they see as intimately tied to their beliefs.

The idea behind this supposed conflict is that "God" serves as a kind of default causal mechanism invoked to explain anything not yet understood scientifically. Thus, if current science has no explanation for the existence of living creatures, then that is seen -- superstitiously, according to one camp, or faithfully, according to the other -- as evidence that there is still "room" for God in our world view. And, if scientific advances should conquer that problem, then it is hoped or feared that the territory plausibly claimed by religion will be reduced by just the area now newly occupied by science.

I suggest that both sides in this battle are profoundly mistaken about the relation of religious and scientific "explanations," in that those two modes of human understanding are categorically differentiated from each other, to the extant that "explanation" does not even mean the same thing in one mode as it does in the other.

I will attempt to clarify my contention through illustration. Consider the (highly improbable) case of a society lacking even the most rudimentary scientific explanations of anything whatsoever. Everything that happens is seen as merely a brute fact, accepted as just an instance of "the way things are." That complete absence of scientific thinking leaves entirely undetermined the religious attitude of that society: the members might view these simply given conditions as representing an entirely arbitrary state of affairs that just happens to be what faces them, or as resulting from the design/will/intention/self-expression of some divine power at their source.

Now, let's imagine these people hit upon the notion of natural regularities that govern the course of what previously seemed to be totally contingent, particular goings-on in the world. Perhaps they recognize that not only did that apple and that rock and that stick fall to the earth when dropped, but that that there is a general tendency for any heavy object to do so. Of what relevance is the emergence of this first glimmering of scientific awareness to making a choice between the two fundamental religious attitudes described above? None at all, I contend: It is true that the choice has been shifted to a different level, but its essence is unaltered. Now, the question is whether the general law that heavy things will fall towards the earth when unencumbered just happens to be the way things are, or does it arise in accordance with some greater order perceived as "sacred" in nature.

If you have grasped the irrelevance of scientific progress to the central religious issue in this primitive case, it should be obvious that, however far science travels beyond that first baby step, its findings cannot possibly substitute for religious understanding or adjudicate between the primary and opposed answers to the question of God.

This post is, of course, an extended statement of a view I have expressed less fully in a few earlier posts on this blog, for instance, in noting that Zeus was not a really piss-poor attempt at a scientific explanation of thunder, but a poetic representation of the sense of awe and the presence of a greater power that one can experience when faced with an intense thunderstorm.

Nothing in the above musings is intended to convince a sceptic that his negative conclusion on the "God issue" is mistaken. Rather, I have tried to show that the issue cannot be resolved by scientific progress, since both positions regarding it are compatible with any and all scientific findings. I hope I have opened the minds of at least a few of the many atheists whom I respect and admire to the possibility that religious faith does not represent an attempt to ignore the findings of science or a rejection of rational inquiry, but is, instead, a different conception of the essential character of the stage upon which science and reason play their parts, a conception that cannot be dismissed by quoting the lines that those actors speak.

A SIDE NOTE: In discussing what constitutes an explanation, it is interesting to note that one of the most esteemed achievements in the entire history of science, Newton's theory of gravity, did not actually provide any explanation of gravity at all, at least not in a scientific sense. In lieu of offering an answer as to why an apple fell to the earth, he presented a quantitative law giving the rate at which it did so, a substitution for which he was roundly criticized by the followers of Descartes, who accused him of regressing to the "occult" and unscientific form of natural philosophy prevalent in the Middle Ages. However, Newton did have a personal preference for explaining why gravity operated as it did: he suggested that Spirit pervades the realm of matter, and imbues all material objects with mutual attraction. Ouch!

19 comments:

  1. A lot of atheists also cannot "discuss" God unless God can be made into a scientifically falsifiable claim. Thus, some "God Hypothesis" about a dude in the clouds throwing thunderbolts that can be rejected. This is the ultimate strawman argument in these debates.

    Unfortunately, this strawman is not just proposed by atheists but also by religious folks who take the Bible literally! I think this stems from the prevalent but mistaken metaphysical view of materialism. Both the atheists and religious often implicitly agree that the universe is just a pile of dead stuff. Given such a view, only a "supernatural" explanation can work to say why the pile of dead stuff exists at all, or how it is possible that the pile of dead stuff somehow gives rise to subjective experience and consciousness. The religious person maintains that the magic finger of God implants a soul in some collections of stuff (but not others), while the atheist must reject the soul and, for consistency, the idea that subjective experience even exists (see, for example, Daniel Dennett).

    However, instead of searching for the magic finger of God, I suggest we drop the idea of materialism. The same spirit that is within me is the same spirit that is in everything else. Did not Jesus teach this? Isn't this also the message of many Eastern religions?

    Another way to approach the metaphysical problem is to avoid treating substance as primary and instead treat experience as primary. This is the approach of Whitehead's philosophy, which views process, subjectivity, and novelty as inherent in all things. What appears as "random" to an observer (be it quantum phenomenon or human action) is actually the result of some purposive action of the subjective entity. Such an "alive" universe pretty much forces some idea of God. I like the panentheistic view:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism

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  2. ...it is interesting to note that one of the most esteemed achievements in the entire history of science, Newton's theory of gravity, did not actually provide any explanation of gravity at all, at least not in a scientific sense.

    Can you elaborate on that? I confess I've never read Newton's actual works, i.e. I just learned "Newtonian mechanics" in school.

    So I would say that what I learned was a scientific explanation in every sense of the term. You posit mass, gravitational constant, and a force that acts in a certain way depending on those items and the distance between the masses.

    Are you denying that that is a scientific explanation, or are you saying that Newton himself didn't talk about a "gravitational force" etc.?

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  3. May I ask you what you mean by "explanation", and what do you mean by "good explanation" and "good theory"?

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  4. "So I would say that what I learned was a scientific explanation in every sense of the term. You posit mass, gravitational constant, and a force that acts in a certain way depending on those items and the distance between the masses."

    Well I suppose, in the wake of Newton, this sort of thing has come to be seen as an "explanation." But certainly neither the Cartesians nor Newton himself thought he had offered an explanation for gravity.

    I suppose the easiest way to understand this is to see that the concept of "force" in your model does no work at all. Let's imagine that the US trade deficit with China has some constant relationship to US GDP. I ask you why the US has a trade deficit with China. You reply, "1% of GDP per year." I say, "Well, that's great that you've found a law predicting its value, but why does it occur?"

    Your answer: "A force!"

    Do you see that that adds nothing to your explanation at all? The Cartesians mocked Newton for this, saying he had fallen back into "occult" explanations invoking "spooky action at a distance." To them, an explanation for gravity was something like Descartes' -- the Earth was surrounded by a vortex of fine particles in motion that tended to push all coarser particles in towards the Earth. And they would accept Einstein as offering an explanation of gravity. But not Newton.

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  5. "May I ask you what you mean by "explanation", and what do you mean by "good explanation" and "good theory"?"

    May I ask you what you mean by "ask," "you," "and," and "mean"?

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  6. Gene wrote: Well I suppose, in the wake of Newton, this sort of thing has come to be seen as an "explanation."

    OK Gene this has happened to you on another forum, where people (atheists I think) thought you were being an incredible *ss, and you revealed about 40 posts into it that you were relying on a definition that Aristotle used, rather than what people since 1700 have meant by the term. (I'm fudging the details but I hope you remember what I'm talking about.)

    You have done the same thing here. You originally wrote:

    ...it is interesting to note that one of the most esteemed achievements in the entire history of science, Newton's theory of gravity, did not actually provide any explanation of gravity at all, at least not in a scientific sense.

    So coupled with the first quote above, I now conclude that what you really are saying is this:

    "Since Newton, what has come to be understood as a scientific 'explanation' is different from how people before thought of the task, including a smart guy like Descartes. I think philosophy of science took a wrong turn at that juncture."

    I'm not trying to be a jerk (though your recent Ron Paul post no doubt makes me more critical), but I really think you should try to be clearer when you throw out claims like this. You made it sound as if modern physicists would agree--at least if you framed the question for them--that Newton's theory of gravity isn't a scientific explanation.

    And I think that is simply false; most would say it was the epitome of a scientific explanation.

    You then go on to say:

    And [Descartes et al.] would accept Einstein as offering an explanation of gravity. But not Newton.

    The modern scientist would probably say, "What's the difference? Newton posited some mysterious force. Einstein posited warped space time. They are both models that are useful insofar as they allow us to predict the motion of objects."

    I'm sure you can come up with a way to distinguish Einstein's story from Newton's, but I think you are misleading people when you (seem to) claim that you are reporting on what scientists believe.

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  7. Maurizio,

    Gene means that all Newton did was codify the relationship between several variables. It wasn't really an "explanation" because he didn't reduce it to a more fundamental set of causes. Yes, Newton used this thing called "gravitational force" but that was just a conceptual placeholder in his quantitative relationship.

    If you came home after curfew and your parents asked why, it wouldn't help to say, "A force kept me out." I think that is all Gene is saying. Though when he says he is talking about a "scientific explanation" he is incredibly confusing, since really I think he is criticizing what now passes for a scientific explanation.

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  8. Generally, when asked for an explanation of x, we are asking why x came about. Einstein explains why there is mutual attraction between physical bodies -- they curve the space around them, causing the shortest path an object will follow in their vicinity to be other than a straight line. Newton, as he himself readily admitted, offered no such explanation for gravity -- per the man himself, he merely was describing how it operated, and offering no explanation whatsoever as to why it did so.

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  9. "I'm not trying to be a jerk (though your recent Ron Paul post no doubt makes me more critical),"

    It's never easy admitting you've been duped.

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  10. I) There is a Christian hymn which goes in part (more or less):

    Oh sing of His might,
    Oh sing of His grace.
    His robe is the light,
    His canopy space.
    His chariot of wrath
    the dark thunderclouds form,
    And dark is His path
    on the wings of the storm.

    This hymn has always made me profoundly nervous. OK, it can be seen as poetically attempting to come to terms with the awesomeness of God--or as rank heresy of the most degenerate, reprobate sort.

    II) Gene, returning to your improbable example: where you appear to see two parallel highways with few or no interchanges connecting them, I see a vee. Working backwards, you have Gravitation, Things Fall, and That's How It Is. For me, as the former two qualify as scientific, so does the latter, earliest version: it is the Null State of science, upon which all progress adds. Similarly, I see That's How It Is equally as the Null State of religion. Again working backwards, the highways converge--to the Big Bang, if you will.

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  11. As R.G. Collimgwood notes, the basic scientific assumption is "God exists," i.e., there is a unitary order to the universe -- it is a "uni"verse and not a multi-verse. There is no vee, but only two descriptions of the same road.

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  12. Gene wrote:

    It's never easy admitting you've been duped.

    Huh? I never sent him any money. And I was excited at the objective measures of his success, like fundraising, internet popularity, and handicapping at the gambling sites. Once he got crushed the first few primaries--and yes, once I saw how he handled the newsletter issue on CNN--I moved on. How exactly have I been duped?

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  13. Oh, right, that was me who was duped!

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  14. But, Gene, if the highway metaphor visualizes the histories, as they are thought and written, it's a vee.

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  15. Wabulon, perhaps I've not made myself clear: as I see it, anyone coherently travel both branches of the vee simultaneously. Those branches are not two mutually exclusive maps of distinct realities, but two complementary maps of the same reality.

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