Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Science and the Hidden God

Recently the Times asked readers to define "faith". Many definitions were pejorative and said little expect that faith is irrational.

Why is faith so often thought irrational? Because, many say, it is belief in the absence of evidence. Of course the critic has in mind the standard she believes science provides. It, she believes, is the paradigm of knowledge, for its conclusions, unlike faith, have a solid evidential foundation.

But is this so? Is there a real difference in kind between the faith and science? Is science rational and faith irrational? Is science grounded in evidence and faith cut loose from it? I will argue that it is not.

The argument is two-part. (i) I argue first that the conclusions of science and of faith (and when I speak of faith I mean here the belief that God exists) are similar in kind. Both are grounded in the evidence the senses provide, but both far outrun that narrow evidential base. (ii) I argue second that the critics of faith unjustifiably narrow the sources of evidence and so put faith at an unfair disadvantage. Part one appears below. Part two will appear in a later post.

Science is no mere collection of reports of observation. Rather science is of its natural general. The theoretical constructs of science do not tell us only what the body of researchers has so far observed. Scientific theory is no mere list. Rather it tell us what happens whenever certain conditions - conditions essentially general in nature - obtain. The best examples of this are provided by physics. The Special Theory of Relativity, for instance, tells us about differential time flow in any two reference frames in motion relative to one another; and of course relative motion actually observed forms a tiny subset of all relative motion.

The theoretical constructs of science thus far outrun their evidential base, and so we cannot expect those constructs to follow deductively from their evidential base. Hence the arguments within science are inductive in nature, and so the conclusions of those arguments are at best probable.

Now let us ask what kinds of inductive argument are at work within science. Why precisely do we accept the theories we do? My answer is this: at bottom, scientific theories must be explanatorily superior. They must explain the contents of our observation reports, and those that do a better job of this than any of their competitors are the ones we embrace. Consider, for instance, the revolution that overturned pre-Einsteinian theories of space and time - the ether theories, let us call them - and gave us the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Now, as a matter of historical fact, Einstein himself recognized that the ether theories could be made to square with all evidence that had come to light. It could be made to square, for instance, with the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment. But to do so would require that the ether theories be saddled with a theoretical posit, viz. the existence of a privileged reference frame by which absolute rest and motion might be defined, whose existence could never be revealed in any observation whether actual or possible. This, Einstein thought, counted against the ether theories and for the STR, for it unlike they made no such posit and was thus considerably explanatorily simpler.

My point here is this. The STR did not triumph over its rivals because they could not be brought into consistency with observation. They could. Rather it triumphed over them because of its explanatory superiority. It explained the relevant observation set better than did they.

Now, with this lesson in mind, let us turn to the comparison of faith and science. Many with faith (and I include myself among them, though my faith often wanes) believe as they do in part because they find the content of their faith to explain much that they observe. The universe exists but is contingent (and by this I mean that it might not have existed). What might explain this fact? Presumably something outside the universe, something that unlike the universe is not contingent (for we cannot explain a thing by itself, and we cannot explain contingent existence by contingent existence). Moreover, this something, whatever it is, must possess the power to create a universe such as ours. God is one among the many possible explanatory hypotheses here, and many have argued that it is the best of them all.

Second example. The universe seems to be finely tuned in such a way that it is hospitable to life. If it had been even slightly different in one of a number of ways, life would have been impossible. What might explain this extraordinary fact? It seems two sorts of explanation are possible: either some mechanism produces such a plethora of universes that one such as ours was inevitable, or a power created our universe because it was one in which life could arise. The latter sort brings us very close to God, for a power that acts for some purpose is one that is intelligent. Thus as before one might begin one's argument for God's existence here.

Examples might be compounded, but I will stop. (If I were to continue, I would argue that the existence of moral obligation finds its best explanation in God.) My point is not that these arguments are persuasive as stated. Clearly they are not. But they are arguments that have been developed at great length by theologians, and their point, I take it, is that God is the best of an array of explanatory hypotheses. Deny that they're right about this this if you like, but one point you must grant: belief in God, like belief in the theories of science, is grounded in arguments to the best explanation. Faith is not a repository of superstition. It is not a product of an imagination cut loose from the world. Rather it begins with our knowledge of the world around us, and like science seeks to explain that world in the best possible way. Perhaps you will reject its explanations, but do not deny their existence. They are there. Moreover, do not object that the object of faith, viz. God, has never appeared in your or anyone else's observation of the world and thus that belief in that object is irrational. (I sometimes think that when critics of faith object that faith is irrational, they mean just this. They mean quite literally that no one has ever seen God.) If this objection were sound, science too would be irrational. There is much that science posits that has never appeared to us and will never appear to us. If in fact an asteroid impact does indeed account for the mass extinctions at the end of the Craetacous , that impact will never be observed. Rather we can observe at most a tiny subset of its effects, and we infer that it was indeed the cause of those mass extinctions because it best explains them. We will never observe the curvature of space predicted by the General Theory. Indeed we cannot observe it. It is not an object; it is not an event. Thus it cannot present itself to the senses as do these things. But we can know that it curves because that curvature is part of the theory that best explains much that we can observe.

Thus it is with God. We theists believe that God best explains much that we observe. Disagree if you like, but acknowledge that we believe with reason. We don't believe out of weakness of will or out of irrationality. We believe because we wish to know at bottom how the world works, and in this we are of one mind with science.


David B. Ellis said...

I think you're positing an overly narrow view as the general non-faith position.

Science is one example of sound ways of forming beliefs. But its not the only one most of us atheists advocate (only the most philosophically naive atheist would do that). There are many questions which I think I have justified beliefs regarding that I don't derive from science.

I don't believe in that 5+11=16 because I performed a scientific experiment.

I don't believe that I ate a chili dog yesterday because as a result of science.

I don't believe that other people have minds because some scientific investigation yielded this result.

By the way, you didn't actually define faith as you're using the term.

What do YOU mean by the word?

Franklin Mason said...

Fair enough. These are all ways in which we acquire genuine knowledge. But I doubt that the atheist will think them ways that the theist can acquire knowledge of God's existence. God's existence isn't self-evident, as is 5+11=16. Nor do we get it through direct inspection, or the memory of what we experienced in the past.

My point was that one aspect of theism, at least traditionally, was very much scientific in character: God is a posit necessary to explain certain facets of the world around us.

And what do I mean by faith? I have no very good answer. I meant it here only as shorthand for belief in God's existence.

David B. Ellis said...

But I doubt that the atheist will think them ways that the theist can acquire knowledge of God's existence. God's existence isn't self-evident, as is 5+11=16. Nor do we get it through direct inspection, or the memory of what we experienced in the past.

God, if he existed, though, could provide very good evidence of his existence. If, for example, our dead friends and relatives got one day a year to visit us and tell us about their conversations with Jesus and St. Paul we'd have pretty solid evidence of the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.

My point was that one aspect of theism, at least traditionally, was very much scientific in character: God is a posit necessary to explain certain facets of the world around us.

I'd call the arguments philosophical in nature rather than scientific. But they're an attempt to provide a rational basis for theism, sure, no argument there.

However, belief based on philosophical (or scientific) arguments isn't how most believers appear to use the term "faith".

Most of them seem to mean something more like what Craig calls the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit" or something similar.

Franklin Mason said...

Again, I grant most of what you say. I did not mean to provide a full account of faith or of its rationality. I wished to consider only one aspect of that rich and complex idea. Most believers, I take it, do hold that God does explain much, and if asked why they believe they might well give those explanations. This is one of the legs on which faith stands.

But I would dispute the distinction you seem to wish to make between philosophical and scientific arguments. I think that, when you begin to consider the actual reasons science has taken the path that it has (why, for instance, it opted for the Special Theory instead of its ether-theory competitors) you find much that is philosophical in nature. Now, I don't mean to say that this in any way undermines the decisions scientists have made in their theory choices. But I do wish to say that, when science begins to ascend upwards to general theories of how the world is put together, there's much philosophical intuition at work; and I would say that, in this regard, it is the same in kind as theological arguments for God's existence. Theologians might walk out a bit farther on the philosophical limb than do scientists in general, but they're both out there; and its my impression that folks like Dawkins don't want to admit any such thing.

Burk Braun said...

Hi, Franklin-

"The universe exists but is contingent (and by this I mean that it might not have existed)."

Let's start right there. You have no idea whether it might not have existed. No one does. We are completely ignorant of what went on or whether it was contingent or not.

"The universe seems to be finely tuned in such a way ... . What might explain this extraordinary fact?"

Ditto, again here- you have no idea whether the tuning is from a menu of choices, or a completely determined program from some more fundamental issue. We are completely ignorant about it.

"But they are arguments that have been developed at great length by theologians, and their point, I take it, is that God is the best of an array of explanatory hypotheses."

God is far from the best explanatory hypothesis- it is the easiest explanatory hypothesis, consistent with our complete ignorance and our infantile needs and wishes. And with our desire to, once the hocus-pocus of faux-philosophy is over, to get down to the real business of taking communion wafers, sacrificing chickens, believing in virgin births, saying a thousand hail Marys, or whatever else makes us feel happy.

I appreciate your impulse to equate real truth-seeking with the mistaking of metaphors for reality that is theology, but I am afraid it just doesn't work. I am all for making hypotheses about reality, but let's be honest about the extent of our knowledge and the motivations behind our hypotheses. Honesty, in the end, is what science is about.

Burk Braun said...

Oh, I should also remind you of the track record of this hypothesizing. Every time god was invoked to account for something in the past, that hypothesis turned out to be wrong. Biology, lightning, disease.. you name it. If the problem is understood to any extent, you can bet that god is no longer a hypothesis.

Franklin Mason said...

Sorry to begin here, but I'm unsure how to take that word "infantile". I know very well what it means, but I'm unsure to whom you intend it to apply. If it's ad hominem (as it seems to be), I'm unsure how I'll proceed. Ad hominem is a logical fallacy. No matter what bad qualities your interlocutor might evince, that implies nothing about the strength of their arguments. Thus I'm unsure why I find that word here. I assumed that it was all about the arguments, not about diagnosis of the putative personal faults of others.

Anyway, here's a question. Is the keyboard on which you type such that it might not have existed?

Burk Braun said...

Hi, Franklin-

"infantile" was not ad hominem at all, simply a nod to Freud and to psychological theories of the origin of religion in general. Father figures and all that, etc.

As to my keyboard, there is always the possibility it might not have existed. In this case I have a pretty good understanding of the chain of events going into its creation, so I am pretty confident that many contingencies were involved in its being what it is right now. But if I didn't know anything about some object, I wouldn't know anything about contigencies of its origin either. I am not sure what you are getting at.

Franklin Mason said...

I most certainly is ad hominem. To call a belief infantile is to impugn the character of the one who holds it. It is to say that, with regard to their belief, they don't exemplify the proper maturity but instead have fallen back on childish and immature modes of thought.

It's also commits the fallacy of irrelevance (strictly, ad hominem is one species of that fallacy, but your point commits it in a second way too). When you said "infantile", you seem to wish to point out the origin of the belief. But the questions here aren't about origins of belief. I don't care one whit about that. It's about cogency of argument. A belief can be quite infantile and yet, at the same time, quite firmly grounded in reason. I know you believe that theism isn't reasonable, but a charge of infantilism, even if true, does nothing to show this.

Now, about contingency. You gave me that you keyboard might not have existed. It would seem, then, that consistency would demand that you say that your monitor might not have existed too. And your chair. And your desk. And so on.

My point is that we can extend outwards to consider each and every object in our universe - planets, stars, masses of interstellar gas and all the rest. We have an idea about where they came from, and those processes are contingent. Thus those objects are contingent. And it would seem to me that, if each member of a set of objects is contingent, that set is itself contingent. The conclusion follows that the universe itself is contigent.

Perhaps you would wish us to consider the process whereby the whole of the universe came to be - the big bang. There is nothing absolutely necessary in that event. Indeed one of the two theories that would seem to govern it - quantum dynamics - is most often interpreted in such a way that the events it governs are probabilistic in nature. Thus I would guess that the event that gave rise to our universe - the big bang - did not occur of absolute necessity, and this makes our universe contingent.

This was the first premise of my argument.

Burk Braun said...

While people generally take psychological arguments personally, and as impugning their free will, etc., it is simply not ad hominem to pursue causes that are rather clearly related to effects- in this case the tendency to jump from deism (which I have little problem with, though see little point to) to the patriarchal, hierarchical, miraculous, life-after-death, etc. fixations of Christianity.

No doubt atheists also have characteristic fixations that may influence, though hopefully not determine, their philosophical outcomes as well. It is critically important to keep these influences in view, since try as we might to be strictly logical, they tend to creep in nevertheless.

The origins of belief have everything to do with an argument if they still form the center of that argument. Why do you mention god at all? Why even entertain that hypothesis? It is not out of scientific scrupulousness, I can guarantee you. It is purely out of the social tradition you come from, plus personal predilections and commitments. It would be simply dishonest to argue otherwise.

"And it would seem to me that, if each member of a set of objects is contingent, that set is itself contingent. The conclusion follows that the universe itself is contigent."

Again, this does not follow at all. The set does not have to have the properties of its parts. And contingent or not, we still know nothing about the process, so there are no premises here to hang one's reasoning on. As above, deism is acceptable enough in the absence of any evidence. But neither does it help matters, being subject itself to contingency and regress unless, (as you are sure to do), you pronounce by fiat that >this< entity is really where the buck stops. Hmmm

Franklin Mason said...


I wash my hands of it. I'd guess that any further attempts at argument will be met in the same way: quick, unargued rejection followed by a diagnosis of my intellectual failures. I asked that we consider only the arguments (a reasonable request - this blog is philosophical in character), and yet you insist upon the charge that I cannot have any good reason to believe as I do but believe out of some deep-seated irrationality. I did not wish for a therapist. I did not ask for a cure. I wanted a philosophical interlocutor, but I suppose I won't get it. I'll give an argument, you'll dismiss it out of hand, and then you'll attempt to explain to me what is defective about me and the way I form beliefs. Indeed after this last post, I suspect that you'll accuse me of dishonesty if I say that my beliefs are rationally grounded. (You did just this.)

Why are you here? I'm confused. You barely engage philosophically. Mostly you diagnose. Are you out the fix us theists?

There are standards about proper behavior in a philosphical forum. I've lived with them for years. I am a philosopher by trade. I suggest that you pick up a journal of philosophy to see those rules in action. Speculation about the causal history of someone's view you will not find. It's irrelevant (indeed it's a bit of an insult - when you do that, you imply that the arguments for the view are not to be taken seriously). Suggestions of dishonesty as even worse. They're fundamentally disrespectful.

Burk Braun said...

Very well- sorry about causing discomfort. I wish you the best, and warn you against doing theology while calling it philosophy, the first dictum of which is ... know thyself. Perhaps someday you will encounter a surprise when searching for god within.