Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Response to God and science

Since Geoff B mentioned me by name, I feel inclined to respond. Statements from his post are in italics, and my responses follow.

As an example of how God might fit into scientific articles, consider articles about the origin of life on earth. There could be a whole array of scientific hypotheses put forward, all of which could lead to scientific tests, especially in the field of genetics.

As I look over Pratt’s list that follows this statement they all seem, contrary to what Pratt says, either untestable at present with little hope for future testability, barring God’s detailed and public disclosure of his role (b through d, g and h); or falsified, with regard to organisms’ physical bodies (e and f).

A refusal by the scientific world to accept God in any of its respected experiments these days makes for incomplete studies and false science.

Science does not include God in its hypotheses because no one has discovered indications of his actions that are sufficiently precise, testable, and publicly shareable to be amenable to the methodology of science. The range of questions that can be addressed by science is obviously limited (though it has grown steadily over time), and in this respect science is certainly “incomplete.” But that in no way makes it “false.”

As any student of the history of science will know, Sir Isaac Newton and even Einstein accepted the existence of a Creator.

Neither man accepted an anthropomorphic, embodied God. I think for Newton, infinite and absolute space and time (that is, the entire ‘stage’ on which everything plays out) were essential aspects of God’s very being. As far as Einstein goes, one quote I quickly found through Google put it this way:
He rejected the conventional image of God as a personal being, concerned about our individual lives, judging us when we die, intervening in the laws he himself had created to cause miracles, answer prayers and so on. Einstein did not believe in a soul separate from the body, nor in an afterlife of any kind…

…he was also struck by the radiant beauty, the harmony, the structure of the universe as it was accessible to reason and science…

…it seems likely that he believed in a God who was identical to the universe—similar to the God of Spinoza. [!] A God whose rational nature was expressed in the universe, or a God who was identified with the universe and its laws taken together.
I don’t think Mormons can really look to either of these guys for support in specific theology, or that creationists of any stripe can point to them in support of their perverse notions of science pedagogy. That they had interests and perspectives that included things beyond science is a good example for all of us, but says nothing about what should be in science classes—which, after all, is only one slice of life. Ironically, by insisting on including God in science classes, creationists may have already given in or sold out: they shoot themselves in the foot by implicitly conceding and adopting the point of view that the scientific method is the only path to knowledge, insight, happiness, and so on.

Do they honestly believe that the study of science in a Millennial world will be the same as it is now?

If there is open communion with the heavens in a Millenial world then yes, the range of questions addressable by science will be expanded, because there will then be precise, testable, and publicly shareable indications about God’s nature and his past and current involvement with Earth and humanity.

And, lastly, if science classes are incomplete without factoring in the “God factor” in their experiments, isn't there room for at least bringing that up in evolution or astronomy classes?

I think science classes should reflect the content and methods of mainstream professional science, with protracted discussions of its limitations and alternative putative ways of knowing left to other areas of the curriculum (philosophy, “Guidance” class as they call one subject in our local district, etc.), and to other venues (churches, books, blogs, seminars by charismatic circuit tour speakers…)

In this connection I am against the inclusion of so-called ‘teach the controversy’ approaches involving Intelligent Design in science classes, because this does not reflect mainstream science. However such discussions may have a useful place in classes on philosophy, social studies, science and society, etc.

Having said that, I do not think claims should be overstated in science classes, and I do not think all subjects should be taught at all levels, and this leads me to a particular kind of science pedagogy I think should prevail. What belongs in science classes are tested hypotheses for which the students are capable of understanding the nature of the tests. Because I think science classes should leave students with a ‘feel’ for the practice of science, even more than filling their brains with specific facts, I think it would be poor science pedagogy to present even well-established conclusions of professional scientists at a point before students can have some understanding of how those conclusions were arrived at. This approach would, to some extent at least, both allow and teach students to evaluate evidence for themselves. Adherence to this approach would also serve as a prophylactic against the temptation to bandy about the latest and greatest hypotheses at the margins of knowledge before they are tested—as often happens in the media—which often leads to the unfortunate false impression that science is continually overturning itself, when in fact there is steady accumulation of well-established facts and ‘laws,’ and new theories reduce to well-established old ones in the limited conditions addressed by the old theories.


Christian, thanks for taking the time to respond to all of these questions. I think you have added to the debate and given me things to think about. I still think we need to find a way for science classes to avoid promoting atheism, which they do today as you well know, even if it is indirectly. I still believe there is room for "teach the controversy" in some science classes, although it would have to be carefully controlled and regulated. Thanks again. 

Comment by Geoff B | 12/21/2005 12:10:00 PM  

I think attributing to science the promotion, even indirect, of atheism is quite unfair. True science is non-theistic, but this is because God's actions don't seem to be at all observable. How is this science's fault? The other way in which science may be considered atheistic is that their conclusions are different from what is taught in religion, but again this is not science's fault. If religious claims don't match up with the evidence found then it's religions fault not the scientists'.

Some controversies should be taught in class yes, but in grad school classes. The biggest problem with the ID movement is that they think that science should become like law school complete with debates, votes, equal time for all theories and so on. This is not science AT ALL. Science is proceeds not by defending by argumentation a theory, but by formulating testable hypotheses and by such confirming (not proving) or falsifying your hypothesis. Thus the genuis of science lies not in individuals, but in method. If the IDers want to be respected as scientists then this is what they need to do, not sending armies of lawyers across the country to promote debates and votes as to what is good science.

If something is controversial in science, they usually don't teach it, least of all in high school. If something controversial is taught it is almost alwasy done so with proper qualifiers, but such instances, again, are quite rare. The proper place for the "controversies" is grad school and those who are well enough informed to have something intelligent to contribute to the controversy. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/21/2005 01:21:00 PM  

Even though science cannot disprove the existence of God, and even though there were atheists before modern science was around, I think that advances in science over the past couple of centuries have made atheism a more intellectually viable and believable option.

Like Jeffrey, however, I am not inclined to lay blame at the feet of scientific inquiry or teaching. If God chooses to not more fully disclose his role, or his prophets do not seek revelation on issues raised by modern science because their attention is elsewhere, or alternative modes of insight fail to motivate more compelling stories, none of this is the fault of science.

In terms of global 'market share,' however, I don't know that there is any danger the world is going atheistic. An overall trend towards fundamentalism might be stronger, globally. As long as humans desire to believe in certain scientifically untestable propositions (life after death, divine help in our lives), there is no danger of religion disappearing. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/21/2005 02:06:00 PM  

Positing alternatives can be a useful teaching method. Here are a few I encountered in high school: Galilean vs. Aristotelian gravity, Copernican vs. Ptolemaic cosmology, Newton's corpuscular light vs. Young's waves, Darwinian vs. Lamarckian evolution. I wonder why these mostly come from physics. Did I not pay enough attention in chemistry, Earth science, and biology? 

Comment by John Mansfield | 12/21/2005 02:20:00 PM  

John, one of your examples is from biology, and I seem to recall hearing something about phlogiston or something, and of the days when the theory of plate tectonics was laughed at.

I think such alternatives are typically used, and useful, when they illustrate how a new theory came to be established by empirical evidence, and thus illustrate how science works, in addition to telling us where we came from intellectually.

Unlike your other examples, Intelligent Design does not fit into this pattern, which is why its discussion as an alternative belongs in, as Jeffrey suggests, religiosociopolitical rather than scientific discussions. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/21/2005 04:49:00 PM  

My point was just that fear of confusing youth with conflicting concepts is a little overblown. Singing the praises of Eldorado High again, I like how we handled the religiosciopolitical controversy of evolution: in English class. We read Inherit the Wind and wrote an essay expounding a position of our choice on evolution. I don't see an explicit need, though, for boundary maintenance such that social connections to science can't be discussed in a science class. I don't think anyone would be disturbed by digressions in a science class into public policy issues such as nuclear waste, global warming, or GM crops. 

Comment by John Mansfield | 12/21/2005 08:04:00 PM  

I don't know. The scientific literacy in america is dismal as it is. The last thing we need is to diverge from science in our science classes. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/21/2005 08:47:00 PM  

Jeffrey, I actually second John. One problem in science teaching I see is that it is so often taught merely as a collection of dogmas. Scientific thinking  is so rarely taught. While I don't think it entails teaching ID in the least, I do think that teaching some history about conflicts over ideas and how inquiry proceeds in important. I personally would rather people understand science than merely remember a collection of facts. (Although the facts are important as well) 

Comment by clark | 12/22/2005 12:10:00 AM  

Clark,  teaching the history is fine, as I said in a comment above. And I would also like the teaching of scientific thinking to be part of the process, as my post makes clear. But I have mixed feelings about what John calls digressions into public policy issues.

Of course I'd like kids to learn to make better-informed decisions about the kinds of issues John mentions, and occasionally pointing out the relevance might be fine; but I think more protracted discussion and debate of public policy belongs more in social studies and government classes (or English as in John's experience), both for reasons of time as Jeffrey mentioned, and also because I wouldn't want their science training to leave them with the impression that science is about social advocacy. While complete objectivity is impossible, there is value in striving for it, and in seeking to maintain the political independence of science. Hopefully they could see science as (ideally) providing a neutral information base to draw upon in the policy debates; and science class should be about how to develop the information base while setting aside one's political inclinations. (The history of scientific ideas is a part of this, and perhaps also cautionary tales about failures of scientists to maintain political independence.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/22/2005 08:38:00 AM  


I agree with you in that science should not be overly dogmatic, but I don't think that anything but the most brief overview of the history of the ideas would be appropriate, and this for the reasons which Christian states.

If they teach too much history, this will open the floor to a certain amount of debate and politics. While I do think that proper qualifications should be made to scientific claims, I simply don't think a rehersal of the ideas in question is worth sticking the scientists feet in the mud of PTA politics and the like. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/22/2005 01:48:00 PM  


My "Obey Aaron" T shirt came in the mail today and I'm wearing it right now. Thanks a lot Christian. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/22/2005 02:54:00 PM  

Merry Christmas! Well-deserved, Jeffrey, for being willing and able to take Aaron on.

For those who have no idea what Jeffrey is talking about, here  is the shirt designed by Rusty of Nine Moons during the height of pre-exposure Banner of Heaven hysteria.

How does it look in real life? Mine hasn't arrived yet. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/22/2005 03:24:00 PM  

You should wear it under your Sunday clothes on the day of the creation lesson in sunday school as a silent protest. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/22/2005 03:27:00 PM  


That's a great idea. 

Comment by Jeffrey Giliam | 12/22/2005 05:34:00 PM  

Christian, I'd probably agree that current social and political debates ought not be included, simply for pedagogical reasons. It's too messy and does get one away from the science. I think it would be appropriate in a social studies class.

I'd disagree with Jeffrey that diving into these issues would lead to politics. A great example might be how the debate regarding the place of the solar system (geo-centric, solar-centric). An other would be the issue of continental drift from the early 20th century. Finally I think a great example is the history of light from Newton to Einstein. Even Einstein and QM would be well worth discussing. 

Comment by clark | 12/22/2005 10:43:00 PM  



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