Intellectually responsible debate requires understanding what you’re disputing. That’s one of the most well-established tenets of debate. When one side distorts the other, either by failing to understand or by intentional twisting, the debate is no longer about each side’s beliefs, but about one side’s false beliefs about the other’s beliefs. The result is usually that a weak straw man is put up and knocked down, in a classic display of fallacious reasoning.
Today I’ve seen a glaring instance of dispute without understanding. It’s at What Would JT Do, and it’s titled Response to Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnaur. (Carson’s last name is actually Weitnauer.)
Of the many things I could say in response to JT, I will focus specifically on where he represented our position incorrectly. If we can get to the point where we are each willing to do the work understand what the other is saying, then maybe we can move on to discussing whether one side makes more sense than the other. A discussion about what JT believes compared to what I believe would make a lot more sense than a discussion between what JT believes and what JT says I believe.
I’ll take each point in turn. The headings refer to the points that JT either misunderstood or misrepresented.
The teachings of Genesis within the context of Christian interpretation.
So when the book of Genesis paints a picture of the universe where the earth was made before the stars, you must choose either scripture or nature. Science, of course, sides with nature. Do you? And, if you do, why do you hold to those scriptures?
What you’re describing is a certain relatively recent interpretation of Genesis. Taken in context of its time and its genre, the opening chapters of Genesis point more toward a framework of understanding God as creator than a descriptive timeline of how he did it.
This is a topic of very frequent conversation and debate among believers. Yes, there are some who think we need to take Genesis 1 in its most literal sense. There are good exegetical reasons to deny the necessity of doing so. Since Genesis 1 does not force a literal interpretation, it makes sense to fill in our knowledge by way of what we know from science. There is no contradiction there, except perhaps with a set of beliefs to which I do not adhere.
The nature of the regional flood
Yes, the earth is old and regional floods happen all the time (these are not the global flood that killed almost everything as described in the bible).
(Bible is a proper noun when used in this context. Oh, well; JT is only doing what many atheists do.)
JT can easily be forgiven for not knowing that there is biblical and geological research here, for examplesupporting the idea of a regional flood that meets the description of the Genesis flood.
The nature of God and his relation to his creation
If you’re asserting that nothing in the bible (not just those two things) is incompatible with science, I must disagree. People rising from the dead is offensive to both medicine and biology. Someone walking on water could not conflict with physics more. Someone being turned into a pillar of salt is absurd by the light of chemistry. I could go on, but you get the gist. These things are called “miracles” expressly because they violate the laws of the universe (otherwise they could be the happy product of natural causes, which sounds pretty pedestrian, not god-like at all)….
Science works on the assumption that the universe operates under a set of rules. If not for this assumption, experiment and repeat experiment would be meaningless. If your miracles (impossible if the universe is consistent by definition) require a suspension of the laws that govern the universe, then they’re not science.
From ancient times, these events were called miracles because they were very uncommon. To say that God cannot intervene in the course of natural events is to deny a God that Christians also deny.
Science does not require exceptionless laws, but only a very high degree of regularity in nature. This is fully in accord with what Christians believe about God and his relation to his creation. JT has attacked a version of God that Christians do not believe in any more than he does.
The relation of faith and knowledge
While science isn’t the only way to acquire reliable knowledge (even if it’s the best way) there are oodles of ways to acquire unreliable knowledge. Faith is a good example (which you must admit if you think the abundance of other faith-driven religions around the world are false).
The relation between Bible, science, and general human learning
Architecture and engineering pre-date the sixteenth century. Surely you don’t think cathedrals were built without those disciplines. It wasn’t prayer or god that erected them, it was human beings working and thinking which requires nothing of god…. While the bible contains instructions on how to purchase and keep slaves as well as commands to kill people for working on Saturday, in between those edicts there is nothing of how to construct a building…. Even if Christians deployed that secular reasoning and/or helped to refine it, that doesn’t change the fact that the reasoning and techniques themselves were entirely secular.
(“God” is also a proper noun in this context. Oh, well. Apparently it’s important to many atheists not only to denigrate God but also to violate what they learned in English class.)
Here JT misunderstood the reason I spoke of the building of cathedrals. Someone had said, “If you leave science out of religion your cathedrals fall down go boom.” I quoted that as a great example of the fact that they hadn’t left science out! This illustrates their practice of science, in contrast to the prejudicial view that they opposed science.
No one (and here I mean no one; see below for context) believes the Bible is a book of science in the sense JT suggested here. We believe there is concord between Christianity and science, not that Christianity is science! To question why the Bible doesn’t teach architecture and engineering is to completely misunderstand how Christians understand human learning in general. We don’t think it has to be in the Bible to be true, and we don’t think it has to be in the Bible to be concordant with the Bible. And we’re absolutely fine with secular reasoning, provided that secular doesn’t begin with the metaphysical presupposition that there is no God who works in his creation.
The reasons for which we believe Christianity was crucial to the launching of science; also, Christians’ motivations with respect to learning and discovery
Christianity was necessary for science’s launching? How? We didn’t need people saying “Hey, can someone really walk on water?” before we started doing experiments – we just need curiosity about the universe, which doesn’t require Christianity. In fact, once you know “god did it”, that can suppress the need to continue looking for answers, since you’ve already got one.
Curiosity about the universe expressed itself in many ways in many cultures, but only in Christianity did it express itself as, “what natural regularities can we discover and understand?” This is related to what Sean McDowell said in the excerpt Hemant quoted a couple of weeks ago. To add to that briefly, other cultures regarded the universe as being subject more to whim than to natural laws, as being animated by spirits and therefore not a proper object of natural investigation, or as being illusion, or as not being of high personal concern.
Christians do not, in actual practice, suppress the need to continue looking for answers. The great Christians in science have always asked, “given that God is behind the workings of the universe, and given that he is a God of order, what can we learn about how he works?”
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen atheists say that “Goddidit” is a curiosity-killer. I don’t know of a single time they have ever demonstrated that with empirical, sociological or psychological science. It’s an evidence-free prejudice. They may claim that Creation Science amounts to an illustration of their principle, but (even though I don’t agree with a lot of “creation science”) I don’t know of anyone in that school who has quit their researches on account of their beliefs.
My purpose for making a particular claim
So science has to do with who uses the ideas to change the world rather than who came up with the ideas? By that logic Truman was a greater nuclear scientist than Einstein.
The passage JT was responding to there was my response to a comment, “Just look at how much gunpowder affected history, especially during the 16th century. Christians did not discover gunpowder.” I wasn’t asserting there that science was about who changes the world, I was countering a specific claim made by a specific person.
The entire basis of our claim concerning Christianity and science
we don’t need to be told that pursuing our curiosity pleases god in order to look for answers – we just need to be curious, and curiosity pre-dated the wheel and the notion that sticking your hand in a fire f*ing hurts.
Simply stated, “curiosity” doesn’t appear in our claims or in our rationale. Here JT has imagined that we have said something, and has colorfully refuted his own imagined claim.
Correcting An Error I Have Made
JT objects to my saying, “The Bible is not a work of science, and no one thinks it is.” I acknowledge my error: there are young-earth creationists who apparently think it is. I personally do not consider it to be a work of science. The number of knowledgeable Bible scholars who consider it a work of science is relatively small.
Granted, they get a lot of press. So does the Jesus Seminar. If getting a lot of attention were the mark of scholarly consensus, then the scholars all agree that the Bible is literally true in everything it says about Genesis 1 and not to be trusted at all in the Gospels; for that’s what you’ll hear in the popular press. Obviously scholars don’t agree that the Bible is perfectly trustworthy and authoritative in one place and completely unreliable in another. This just goes to show that public popularity does not define scholarly consensus.
The point of this post has been to show how JT has been arguing a straw-man version of our beliefs. I have concentrated on that, and that alone. Were I also to have weighed in on other factual errors I would have also spent time on:
- Jesus, Thomas, evidence, and faith
- Galileo’s place in the history of church and science
- Science, miracles, and justification of knowledge
- The origin of belief in an ordered universe