November 27, 2005

"Mechanistic, Naturalistic and Evolutionistic Philosophy"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at November 27, 2005 10:01 PM

Via Katie in e-mail, the NYTimes has excerpts from textbooks for "Christian schools", published by (who else?) Bob Jones University.

And yes, there's a Physics for Christian Schools. It's disturbing that someone thought physics was too atheistic and needed to be all churched up. Physicists, on the other hand, are pretty godless compared to the general population. Anyway, here's an excerpt:

Some people have developed the idea that higher mathematics and science have little to do with the Bible or Christian life. They think that because physics deals with scientific facts, or because it is not pervaded with evolutionary ideas, there is no need to study it from a Christian perspective. This kind of thinking ignores a number of important facts to the Christian: First, all secular science is pervaded by mechanistic, naturalistic and evolutionistic philosophy. Learning that the laws of mechanics as they pertain to a baseball in flight are just the natural consequences of the way matter came together denies the wisdom and power of our Creator God. ... Second, physics as taught in the schools of the world contradicts the processes that shaped the world we see today. Trying to believe both secular physics and the Bible leaves you in a state of confusion that will weaken your faith in God's Word.

I have this perverse curiosity as to how exactly they remedy the mechanistic and naturalistic approach in "secular science" (a redundant phrase, I believe). Perhaps the equations are presented in the form "F = ma, because of Jesus."

Reminds me of the classic anti-evolution Chick tract in which it is asserted that the strong nuclear force is a falsehood, and that atomic nuclei are compelled to hold together by the power of Christ. And speaking of evolution, I can only imagine what their "biology for Christians" text is like. Good for the UC for not crediting some of these courses.

Tags: Christianity, Physics, Religion
Comments

I think the key words there are "weaken your faith in God's Word." (oops, almost forgot to capitalize the W...) What this says to me is that there is a belief amongst the religious right that any form of exposure to ideas outside of the Bible or any form of questioning of doctrine or dogma will cause people to flee their Church.

And you know, maybe they're right.

Posted by: Chris L-S | November 28, 2005 1:53 AM

Honestly, I'm sure they're right, for certain fundamentalist values of "they". My parents were always very careful about my media consumption (they wouldn't let me see The Wizard of Oz) because of that concern, but as soon as they lost that control, *whoosh* there I went.

Posted by: Lanth | November 28, 2005 9:51 AM

dang, christ has got his age-old arms all over those atoms!

i wonder upon the gOD, creating such things as tiny particles and laser beams ... what will exalted hE come up with next?

a bigger universe? yeah, right!

Posted by: esoteric pagoda | November 28, 2005 11:30 AM

Here's a question I have for all scientists: Why is the supposition of a mechanical, closed-system, natural universe more likely than the supposition of a transcendant Being as the first cause and the binding force behind the known universe? I have heard science defined as the quest to understand and describe the universe we live in. If that's the case, why is it valid to begin with a set of suppositions (completely unproven...) that rule out an entire category of possible explanations?

In other words, a theistic scientist is actually more intellectually honest because he is willing to accept all possible explanations, while the naturalist is only willing to accept explanations that fit his preconceived notions of what the universe is like.

Posted by: mike | November 28, 2005 12:43 PM

Well, given that there exist scientists who are still religious, one would hope that the people who have faith in that stuff would have enough confidence in their beliefs that they can feel that science and religion can coexist. Of course, science and some forms of it seemingly can't (as in the kind practiced by the people who believe that books such as physics for Christians are actually necessary---last time I checked, Atheists and Christians are governed by the same physics). Secular science is supposed to be redundnant, and in partial answer of the last comment, it's not just a matter of explaining things (which religion can also do) but modeling phemomena in a manner that includes intermediate steps beyond miracles and noodly appendages (as in: what we study is a model of the system but not necessarily equivalent to the system), making operational (and useful) predictions using these models, and coming up with everyday applications such as medical treatments, etc. Ignoring question for truth issues for a second, the utility of a scientific perspective has been validated time and again by its immensely useful applications.

In terms of assumptions that we can't prove: that includes, e.g., the Axiom of Choice. The theist science who believes that some sort of creator (such as a Flying Spaghetti Monster) was responsible for our little toybox is neither more nor less intellectually honest than somebody who believes this came about in some other manner. Both sets of people are studying the same toybox, and for science is the study of how the toybox works regardless of what put it there. The actual science involved is a secular process for both of these sets of people.

Posted by: Mason | November 28, 2005 2:09 PM

Esoteric pagoda... nice name.

Mike: Science isn't just any quest to understand the universe, otherwise Buddhist monks meditating in Tibet would qualify as scientists. Science uses a particular method of acquiring knowledge based on accumulation of evidence through controlled, reproducible experiments. Certainly there are facts about the universe that are inaccessible to the scientific method, due to practical limitations of experiments if nothing else. And it may be that the scientific method itself ultimately doesn't work due to problems of induction, although that's a more philosophical issue.

Now frequently theistic scientists will consider the existence of God to be among the facts inaccessible to science, which philosophically I have no problem with. However, scientists tend to place a lot of importance on backing strong claims with evidence, and as there is no evidence of any sort (scientific or otherwise) for the existence of God, many scientists end up being atheists on Laplacian grounds. (Laplace was asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in his book on astronomy, and Laplace replied "I have no need of that hypothesis.")

I do not think it is sensible to talk about whether various deep metaphysical assumptions are more or less likely than others. To talk about likelihood implies some notion of probability, which is philosophically troublesome when talking about the nature of the entire universe. (Unless you invoke a space of possible worlds and can say something about the distribution of metaphysical properties on that space.)

And presumably you meant to say that an agnostic scientist is willing to accept all possible explanations, the theistic one presumably having ruled out the no-God hypothesis.

Let's also not forget that the Bob Jones authors are not talking about some generic Transcendent Being, but the Christian God. There are two types of atheistic claims: the positive "I believe that God does not exist" and the negative "I do not believe that God exists". Regarding Transcendent Beings I am a negative atheist: I don't have any evidence for one, and have no need of the hypothesis, so I just don't give the matter much thought. But the world is not inconsistent with such a being. On the other hand, regarding the Christian God I am a positive atheist: it is obvious to me that Christianity is not a true description of the universe.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | November 28, 2005 2:31 PM

Your points are well taken. However, in a universe where a Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) was the first cause and the sovereign director of all persons and things in said universe, then understanding the FSM would be an important prerequisite to science, rather than a noodly appendage (pardon the pun). Good science in such a universe would certainly allow for explanations and predictions that are dependent on the FSM, considering that the FSM very well could be the single most important "phenomenon" in such a universe.

Or, to put it another way, as we study the toybox, we must at least allow the possibility that an FSM, or some other sort of being, may play a role in the functioning of the toybox. In medicine, this might mean at least allowing the possibility that the FSM can relieve a person from an ailment by means outside of the "natural" known workings of the body. In physics, this might mean allowing for the "intevention" of the FSM that might contradict the knows "laws" of the universe (which are merely descriptive rather than prescriptive... but you already knew that).

A "secular scientist" and a "spiritual scientist" should follow the same methods. However, my point is that the secular rules out possible explanations and conclusions from the onset, without any reason or evidence for his position. The spiritual scientist is able to accept natural explanations for things, but also is able to accept a super-natural explanation IF that is the most correct answer. By limiting the pool of available "answers", the secular scientist may actually be putting himself at odds with science by forcing himself to ignore an answer that may be the right one.

By the way, you may have noticed that a number of the world's most influential scientests throughout history have been very spiritual people as well, including Sir Isaac Newton, the father of physics as we know it.

Posted by: mike | November 28, 2005 2:32 PM

The fact that many important scientists have certain beliefs is irrelevant to either of our claims. Yes, many of them are theorists and many of them are atheists. So what.

In terms of the rest of your comments, I disagree strongly. As Gazebo points out, if you change your statement slightly, the interpretation becomes a bit different.

As for some cause being the most important or not, supernatural causes aren't testable, usable in any operational sense, etc., so they're not in the models we study. Plenty of science's foundational fathers (as you point) believed in them, but those beliefs do not appear in their scientific models either. (They're not in the versions we have now and in the cases where I have read the original documents, they don't appear there either. Some make statements about trying to understand the FSM's great universe or whatnot, but as mentioned, that camp is in no way inconsistent with science. Neither is the camp that there is no FSM. An FSM isn't needed in the models, so it isn't there. It really doesn't matter what one's nonscientific beliefs are, and you'll find people of all stripes in the business.)

I am concerned with interesting, testable predictions and useful explanations. If you wish to view what we do as having the extra approximation of not having an FSM or something else turning the cranks, that's fine. Think of it as averaging out over those degrees of freedom (in that parlance, they're hidden variables, so to speak), and nothing at all changes. There isn't a difference between a theist or atheist scientist. The operative word is scientist.

Posted by: Mason | November 28, 2005 2:52 PM

I still don't think you're getting the heart of what I'm saying...

To use the verbage of the original blog, what if it is actually true that "F=ma, because of Jesus."

That may or may not be the most accurate account of reality, but it should at lease be included in the realm of possible answers. Suppose a scientist is trying to figure out why apples fall to the ground upon disconnection from the branch of a tree. Suppose also that this scientist does not believe in the idea of "gravity" because he cannot see it, touch it, hear it, or anything else. His experiments will, by necessity, lead him to some other conclusion as to the nature of falling apples. By rejecting "gravity" from the onset, he has come to an erroneous conclusion because of his own personal presuppositional bias.

So, what if our universe is actually governed by some set of supernatural, absolute and unchanging principles? What if the "laws" of physics are really just descriptions of what happens, but they themselves are subject to the authority of a force or being outside of the system? Understanding the system will be of no use to you if you don't understand the environment in which the supposed "closed system" exists.

"God" may exist, or "he" may not. However, to conclude that he does not and conduct your science according to this bias is not good science.

Posted by: mike | November 29, 2005 4:49 AM

You seem to have a misconception that the goal of physics is to be a perfect description of all of reality, so let me repeat that the scope of physics is limited to what is accessible to experiment. There is a class of questions including the existence of God which are properly categorized as metaphysics, and it's silly to expect physics to have anything to say about them.

The flip side of that is that metaphysical questions are irrelevant to physics unless they will make a quantitative difference in experimental results. I hold up the statement "F=ma because of Jesus" as ridiculous not because it's wrong, but because the Jesus clause adds nothing from a physicist's perspective. One gets the same mathematical model whether or not Jesus is included.

I'm reminded a bit of the people who complain that God is being "banned from schools" when it's actually just officially sanctioned school prayer that's banned. Just because a god doesn't appear in physical theories doesn't mean gods are being excluded from reality. About 50% of physicists believe in a god, and these physicists see the physical laws as expressions of their god's will. And the rest of us just see them as the way things are. And the great thing about physics is that both groups get the same answers. Atheistic, theistic, and agnostic physicists all have the same Standard Model, they get the same 15-digit agreement between QED and experiment, they have the same difficulties developing a theory of quantum gravity or high-Tc superconductivity. This is because the mathematical models that best explain experiment do not reference metaphysical facts about the existence of gods, either in a positive or negative way.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | November 29, 2005 9:39 AM

It's ok; I don't think you're getting the heart of what we're saying either. Isn't life grand?

You made the following comment: "Understanding the system will be of no use to you if you don't understand the environment in which the supposed "closed system" exists."

Sorry, but that's patently false. Understanding the system has given us countless technologies, medicines, etc. that have improved the lives of people immensely. If this is of no use to us, then I'm afraid that nothing is.

Mike, honestly I think you're misunderstanding what science actually tries to accomplish. I think the best way for you to achieve the perspective you'd like is to go to graduate school and do that research yourself, because you're going to find a great deal of difficulty finding a practicing science who agrees with you (and this includes the ones who essentially agree completely with you on religion). If you want to argue that science should accomplish something else, again the best thing will be for you to take up this career.

Anyway, it was nice talking to you. It's time to agree to disagree.

Posted by: Mason | November 29, 2005 10:54 AM

Mike would definitely benefit from taking a philosophy of science course - as Mason says, he really doesn't understand what science is all about. Much easier to do than Mason's suggestion, too. :)

This may be a personal pet peeve, but another related misunderstanding is that scientists "rule out" supernatural explanations "without evidence". Nonsense. There is no evidence for supernatural phenomena having a detectable effect on reality, therefore the supernatural is ignored (as the Gazebo and Mason have repeatedly explained) as irrelevant until such time as evidence is presented requiring the supernatural.

The gravity example is kind of ironic - if I recall my history correctly (and it's been a _long_ time, so maybe not...), that's pretty much exactly what Newton did. Except that he did reach gravity as the conclusion, despite his (and others) strong philosophical misgivings about action at a distance. So if we did live in bizarro-universe where lightning had more to do with Thor having a bad hair day than with electromagnetism, I think we would have been drawn to that conclusion by the evidence by now... :)

And a comment relating to the first two remarks - Chris and Lanth are spot-on correct based on my observations (my mom's family and my wife's family). And it's not just science, any college education seems to be adequate to break religious conditioning.

Posted by: Justin | November 29, 2005 1:07 PM
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