Thursday, May 10, 2007

on debates, faith, science, and astronomy (aka a super long post)

If you haven't seen the debate on ABC about the existence of God, you should. Well, maybe you shouldn't, because it's not a very good debate. But it's certainly interesting to watch. Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron decided to "prove" the existence of God scientifically, without reference to The Bible or to faith. They failed spectacularly. Not only was their logic lacking, but most of what they talked about was faith or the Bible. The atheists were right when they noted, in their first rebuttal, that the audience might as well go home because the debate was won, then and there.

Now, I am sympathetic. I believe in God. But throughout this debate I found myself rooting for the atheists. You cannot "prove" the existence of God. It is completely a matter of faith. It is simply not a scientific phenomena. To win this debate against Comfort and Cameron, I do not think you have to say that God doesn't exist. You just have to say that you cannot prove it. C&C's three main pieces of "evidence" were: 1) creation requires a creator, 2) the existence of conscience, and 3) personal conversion experiences.

First, the existence of a creation may require, logically, a creator of some sort (though, certainly, evolutionary processes can explain our and the earth's existence), but that goes nowhere in scientifically proving the existence of God. I hate hate hate when people use arguments like, "if the world were tilted a few inches to the left on its axis we'd all die, thus God perfectly positioned the world." That's idiotic. The very reason we exist in the form we do today is because we, as life forms, adapted to the environment in which we live. If the earth were differently tilted on its axis, a different form of life would exist today.

Second, C&C argue that because we have an "inborn" sense of right and wrong, that proves God's existence. In contrast to his stated objectives, they use the 10 Commandments as a source of these inborn morals. Well, they're taking this inborn sense for granted. I think the atheist debaters attacked this line of reasoning relatively well. How do we explain the fact that many people do not inculcate these morals, they don't take them up? People murder and commit adultery all the time. Much of our morality can be explained through socialization processes. We aren't born with the idea that we should obey our parents (commandment number 5). We learn. We get punished if we don't. One counterpoint that the atheist debaters didn't mention is the fact that morals are culturally variable; how do we explain that? Also, and the atheists did touch on this, note that the first 3 commandments have to do with worshiping Yaweh, the Jewish God. If these are our inborn senses of morality, how do we explain other religions?

The third plank in C&C's argument is that the ultimate proof of the existence of God can only come when you submit yourself to His* will and feel His change in your life. Well, for starters, this is not remotely scientific. However, the bigger argument against this is: most people in most faith traditions have significant conversion experiences and subsequent life transformations. Thus, this says nothing about the existence of a Christian God.**

Okay, so, here's the thing: I'm obviously a fan of faith. I think faith is important to our lives and to society. I'm not an idiot. I know bad, horrific things have been done in its name. But bad and horrific things have been done in the name of science as well. Neither faith nor science, I believe, is "better" than the other. Both serve vital purposes. Everyone has faith, atheist or not. Their faith may not be in a God, it may be in humanity, or something different. But it is impossible to compare the two, much less debate them.

As I watched this debate, I though of a post I wrote a while back, during the summer of 2005, during my slight fling with the sociology of knowledge of astronomy. I was reading a lot of books about the history of thought about the nature of the cosmos and it made me think a lot about the relationship between science and faith. Here is part of it:

I've been thinking alot about science and religion, faith and fact, and how they (ought to? should? do?) interact. We often try to make them fit together in a nice theory-of-everything. That's a western obsession of ours, trying to make all of our different knowledges and ways of knowing the world compatible.

The Bible tells us that faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Science, on the other hand, is a weaving together of logic and empirical fact. Faith-based and fact-based views of the world are necessarily different, yet often in our society we try to make them fit together. They dont NEED to agree with each other in order to individually be valid and useful in their different purposes. The primary difference between faith-based views of the world and science is that science relies on empirical, or experiential and observable, evidence to support its claims while faith relies upon that which is inherently unknowable or observable. These two views of the world are mutually exclusive; you would not want science to answer questions about the meaning of life any more than you would expect religion to provide a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon of gravity.

Empirical evidence requires facts. Facts are mutually agreed upon experiences that can be simultaneously observed or experienced in any place at any time by any number of people. The appearance of an angel to a person or group of persons cannot be described as a fact: the event cannot be experienced again by anyone at any time. To believe this requires an act of faith. Science, on the other hand, is completely shareable. If I say that water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, this could be proven by anyone, anywhere.

Science also must be able to be disproved. Just as I cannot scientifically say that an angel appeared, neither can I say that an angel did not. The existence and appearance of angels, therefore, is not a matter in which science can concern itself. I can, however, prove that the Earth is not 10,000 years old by using carbon dating, or by counting rock layers. Because faith requires no evidence, it cannot be disproved. This is why science cannot answer the question of the existence of a God: it is ultimately and completely a question of faith, not one of fact.

Faith deals in absolute truths; the very nature of science does not allow it to deal with such issues. Science is about probabilities, the probability that a certain event will occur in the future given conditions and variables x, y, and z. Faith-based ways of knowing the world search for absolute truth and make absolute statements of Right and Wrong. Science cannot answer these questions, and we would not want it to.

Through history, people have always tried to make science and faith agree with one another, but often both suffer in the attempt. Pythagoras and others, when describing the universe, tried to make it conform to their faith-based views of the world. Their faith was tied up in the perfection of the universe, and thus the universe and everything in it was seen to be spherical or circular, the most perfect geometric form. When ideas about Beauty and Truth overshadowed ideas about science, the result was statements such as this by Plato: “This was the method I adopted: I first assumed some principle which I judged to be the strongest and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this, whether relating to the cause or to anything else; and that which disagreed, I regarded as untrue."

To make his science fit his faith-based views of how the world ought to be, Plato and his students introduced the concept of retrograde, explaining away apparent irregularities in planets’ paths while retaining perfectly circular orbits. Claudius Ptolemy, in his observations of the universe, was also determined to make his ideas about perfect harmony and order in the universe conform to his observed data. As we can see, when empirical observations are interpreted through the lens of a faith-based view of the world, science cannot accurately describe the present or predict the future.

A major breakthrough was made in rescuing science from faith-based ways of knowing when German mathematician Johannes Kepler, after working with Tycho Brahe’s meticulous data and attempting to fit it into both the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe, decided to let the data simply speak for itself, finding that empirical facts simply did not fit with a faith-based view of the world that insisted on perfection and sphericity. Empirical facts were able to describe the shape of the universe more accurately than ever before; no longer was a certain view of the world and how it worked necessary to understand and accept the science: it became more universally shareable. No longer relying on faith-based ideals, theories could be disproved by empirical facts.

Yet we still try to make faith- and science-based views of the world agree with each other. Creationists try to find scientific evidence to support a 10,000 year-old Earth. The Archbishop of Canterbury sought out Einstein to ask how his theory of relatively would affect religion (his response: “None. Relativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion.”). We can see not only that these two different views of the world are designed for different tasks, but that when we try to make them agree we get perfectly circular orbits and impossibly young planets, both bad science and bad faith. Faith does not need evidence. Science can be shared and universally applied precisely because it can only be based on empirical facts.

*their language, not mine
**note that Ray and Kirk were not trying to prove the existence of a/any God, they were specifically trying to establish scientific proof for a Christian God, as evidenced by their use of personal testimony and the Bible.


Anonymous said...

You might be interested in Dawkins "The God Delusion" if you haven't already read it. He's a little dogmatic, but I thought his discussion of universal morals, etc was really interesting. Although he specifically disagrees with your view that science and religion are isolated and irrelevant to one another. He goes into the statistics of the probability of God existing, but not disproving it. I didn't find his statistical argument wholly convincing, but again, it's a good thing to have read if you're interested in the topic.


J. K. Jones said...

Dawkin's book is interesting, but he dismisses the traditional arguements for God's existence too quickly and without warent.