Tom Gilson

The Power of Science to Overturn Theism?

Recent combox discussion got me to re-reading a Barbara Forrest Paper on naturalism. It is at one and the same time an atheistic and a scientistic mess. For example, she quotes extensively from Arthur Strahler, “a geologist who has taken particular interest in the claims of supernaturalists to be able to supersede naturalistic explanations of the world.” At one point she injects this:

Strahler makes another point that is important to the understanding of philosophical naturalism: the metaphysical adequacy of supernaturalism is inversely proportionate to the explanatory power of science. The more science successfully explains, the less need or justification there is for the supernatural as an explanatory principle.

Science is great at what science does greatly, but Forrest seems not to recognize its massively important limits. Not until science explains explanation will its “inversely proportionate power” prove to be a problem for theism. Not until it comes up with a Theory of Everything that genuinely explains everythingincluding the ability of theories to explain everything—will it reduce theism to nothing. That will never happen, for reasons of circular logic that I trust are apparent to all. Forrest thinks science is the only reliable route to knowledge—but if science can’t even explain explanation, that’s a pretty serious hole in its supposedly all-encompassing capacity; and Forrest has got a whole lotta ‘splainin’ of her own to do, if she thinks that is about to push God totally off the scene.

This whole “inversely proportionate power” business is off base to begin with. God has never been a mere hypothesis believers came up with just to put ourselves at ease about things in nature we have trouble understanding; nor is God so disconnected from creation that scientific advances push him out of his sovereign rulership here.

She’s a philosopher whose research has covered both science and religion. How could she not know that? There’s more ‘splainin’ to be done there, but it’s beyond me.

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10 thoughts on “The Power of Science to Overturn Theism?

  1. Tom wrote:

    Science is great at what science does greatly, but Forrest seems not to recognize its massively important limits. Not until science explains explanation will its “inversely proportionate power” prove to be a problem for theism. Not until it comes up with a Theory of Everything that genuinely explains everything—including the ability of theories to explain everything—will it reduce theism to nothing. That will never happen, for reasons of circular logic that I trust are apparent to all. Forrest thinks science is the only reliable route to knowledge—but if science can’t even explain explanation, that’s a pretty serious hole in its supposedly all-encompassing capacity; and Forrest has got a whole lotta ‘splainin’ of her own to do, if she thinks that is about to push God totally off the scene.

    I think we all agree that it is not the task of science to “explain explanation.” Scientists concentrate on the how leaving the why to people with a lot more time on their hands. Philosophers and theologians. Barbara Forrest is a philosopher, so he is engaged in a philosophical speculation.

    And on a side note, Tom, don’t take the term Theory of Everything at face value. String theorists are not trying to build a theory that literally explains everything. Their goal is much more modest: to deduce the four fundamental interactions and the parameters of the Standard Model from a more economical theory.

  2. olegt,

    I knew that about the TOE, don’t worry. My point in saying those things was that while Forrest thinks that theism is being fully displaced by science, she’s obviously and dismally wrong, because there are incredibly important matters of explanation which science can never approach, not even in principle.

    By the way, how theory works and how explanation works (not how particular theories and explanations work, but the meta-question of how the principles and processes of theory and explanation are successful) are how questions, too.

  3. Tom,

    Wigner’s questions are of the why variety. He wrote:

    The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. In order to establish the first point, that mathematics plays an unreasonably important role in physics, it will be useful to say a few words on the question, “What is mathematics?”, then, “What is physics?”, then, how mathematics enters physical theories, and last, why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling. Much less will be said on the second point: the uniqueness of the theories of physics. A proper answer to this question would require elaborate experimental and theoretical work which has not been undertaken to date.

    The why questions are ambitious: people who ask them want to know the ultimate nature of reality. Good luck with that. One can never, ever be certain that any question of this sort is, or even can be, answered correctly. The how questions set a less ambitious goal, but at least they can be answered and we can be reasonably sure, at least in some cases, that the answers are reliable. That’s the sole reason why science departments at universities are well funded and philosophy departments are not.

  4. I’m not going to consider this worth quibbling over—but what the heck? There is one relevant instance of “why” in his article, maybe two depending on what you count; and one relevant instance of “how.” How you cut the line between the two, I don’t know.

  5. Not the sole reason for the funding difference, by the way: science has a much more direct connection to economic value than philosophy. It is more obviously useful to more people. (Whether it’s actually more useful is—ahem—a question of philosophy.)

    Just thought I’d mention that.

  6. There are several metaphysical assumptions that we need to posit in order to even begin to do science:

    1. There is an objective reality.

    2. The universe operates according to regularities.

    3. Cause and effect are real.

    4. The regularities (or laws) according to which the universe operates are uniform across space and time.

    5. Objective reality is rational and can be rationally and accurately understood by the way the human mind has evolved.

    These are all a priori metaphysical assumptions which cannot be empirically established by any so called scientific method.

    I would argue that these are assumptions that not only fit very well with theism but actually grow out of a theistic world view. The history of science, I would further argue, backs me up here. In other words, if science displaces theism, as Forrest argues, you essentially undermine the foundations of science itself.

  7. In his book, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer writes: “What I urge people to do is to consider the two great presuppositions–the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system and the uniformity of natural causes in an open system…and to consider which of these fits the facts of what is.” (p65)

    It is a perfectly legitimate and rational exercise to look at a global system from a top down perspective and make a rational judgment about which of several competing worldviews is a better explanation. Indeed it is very natural way of thinking. Philosophers and theologians have been doing so for thousands of years.

    I think that Schaeffer would argue natural science can operate just as well in either system– as long as our view of science is limited to the study of the uniformity of natural causes. In other words, natural science, in an operational/ methodological sense, does not require a closed naturalistic system nor an open theistic one.

    Earlier, in Tom’s series about MN I argued that there are two ways we can look at MN: equivocally or unequivocally. Those who have an equivocal view of MN see some kind of necessary connection between the pursuit of science, a causally closed universe and a naturalistic world view.

    An unequivocal approach to MN however recognizes that science can work comfortably in either system. Unequivocal MN doesn’t confuse the M’s. In other words, M must stand for methodological not metaphysical.

    Forrest’s view, on the other hand, goes beyond mere equivocation. She seems to be arguing rather blatantly that there cannot be a methodological approach to science without an a priori commitment a naturalistic/ materialistic world view.

  8. Of course, theism was the foundation of the age of science. Laws exist because there is a transcendent Lawgiver. However, once the “law exists” mindset was entrenched, pragmatism (if it seems to work, it’s tentatively “true”, induction + utility) has largely replaced theism as the basis of scientific thinking. Pragmatism has essentially been around for a long time too, and I think it could have very well led to the scientific age eventually if theism had not.

    One thing science can never tell us: the extent of our ignorance.

  9. kornbelt888, you might be right about pragmatism, although I wonder about it. Discovery requires intensity of the sort pragmatism does not typically carry. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, a very pragmatic way of looking at things; but invention has a father, too, which is hope: the hope that natural problems have rationally reachable solutions. Pragmatism inherited that hope from theism. It did not originate it.

    Nor, by the way, does pragmatism explain purely theoretical science.

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