Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Indubitable Problem of Truth

The caption below is one of those ubiquitous posters that inhabit facebook pages everywhere. This particular one however was found on a page that one might be forgiven for thinking should have no place for spurious thinking. It was on a page dedicated to "The Science of Everyday Thinking" a mooc course of the same name. Because I was an attendee, and because I really got the message about how we were supposed to think- logically, clearly, without prejudice, without bias and with a knowledge of heuristics that would enable us (supposedly) to make better decisions, and generally live to our fullest potential- I was bemused. Apparently at least 63 people thought this was a poster worth giving the thumbs up. So much for critical thinking...

Perhaps that is particularly smug sounding and you may be still looking at the poster thinking "What the...what's wrong with it? It looks legit..." As my nearly 19 year old son would say. 

Ok game over, the problem with it is that Andre Gide wants us to know that he has found it to be true, that truth cannot be found, or at the least that we should doubt those who make truth claims. So if what he wrote above is true then we should not trust Andre Gide- but be skeptical of his truth claim because he is proposing he has found something true. It is in fact an invitation to be a complete agnostic or at least a skeptic. Well I am a firm believer in healthy skepticism- and we should be firmly skeptical towards the above truth claim. There are attendant problems with the sort of all pervading skepticism that permeates our culture. The whole idea of truth gets reduced to "mere opinion". There is no such thing as absolute truth is the tacit assumption in the sentiment expressed above.  Just imagine, someone has the hubris to claim an absolute truth while categorically denying absolute truth. The whole idea of truth is in disrepute.

So what prompted me to return to this poster that lodged in my memory some months ago? 

I was in one of those conversations that takes place as people pause in their busy lives for a few minutes after the conclusion of a Church service where we have a rushed cup of tea with fellow devotees before settling back to the frenetic pace of our own private lives.

The chap I was in conversation with complained that scientists are always changing their minds about what is true. For instance they tell you that butter is no good for you because it is high in cholesterol, and cholesterol is bad for you, and so we should use Margarine, then they tell you that Margarine is just one protein away from eating plastic and is carcinogenic, then they say that butter is great because it is a completely natural product and contains good cholesterol... and so it goes on. You know the sort of thing. He had a valid point.

Full of enthusiasm over our recent excursion to the big city to hear scientist, author and apologist Dr. Stephen C. Meyer wax lyrical about scientific evidence for the existence of God it got me thinking about how secular scientists are always criticizing people of faith because they are so entrenched in their views. To use a common  vernacular "faithheads" never budge in their stubborn grip on whatever they perceive as the truth- no matter how much the evidence points to the contrary position. We hear the old cliche in reference to religious people- "I've made up my mind, don't confuse me with the facts"   And at least to some degree we have the stigma of history to support the idea, remember Galileo?

So by way of summary, those whose loyalty lies in the direction of science as the greatest or only source of authoritative knowledge claim the vertue of being able to revise and constantly update knowledge, criticizing- by contrast- the ineradicably fixed nature of religious truth. Conversely, in the Christian worldview- loyalty to the authoritative knowledge accorded to a true understanding of scripture provides the only stable basis upon which to build a life that honours truly what it means to be human.  

Is the supposed antagonism between science and faith based on truth or misunderstanding? Can they be reconciled?

The counter-claim of the religious is basically- if it ain't broke, why fix it? If something is true, then it is true for all people everywhere and for all time. If, for example, the Universe came to be- out of nothing, the shifting opinions of science will not alter the eternal fact. Or as some wit exclaimed "One can be forgiven for having one's own private fantasies, but one cannot have one's own private facts" . The truth is that truth is objective, it is what it is despite what postmodernists love to portray. The claim by Christians is for the fixed and thereby trustworthy, objective nature of truth, and the criticism of science is its transitory, unpermanent, constantly shifting goalpost attitude.  Here is an extract regarding "truth" from the satirical peom on postmodernism by Steve Turner (tongue firmly in cheek):
We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.
 Is the absolutist truly an archaic relic of the past? Truth is independent of our beliefs, If our beliefs line up with truth- well and good. If they don't line up with reality- then we are simply deceived. Christians are fighting for the exclusive and timeless nature of truth, and rightly so.

Clearly the above poster leans positively in the direction of scientific materialism while attempting to give a backhander to religion. And truly there is ample evidence of an upward trend in our successes in our search for knowledge. In broad strokes the world has progressed from Aristotelian elements of earth, wind, air and fire with the addition of the mysterious "quintessence" to Newtonian physics. And from there to Einsteinian relativity and now into the realm of quantum physics. Science has indeed rightly advanced into ever-increasing accuracy with regard to the physical world and the criticism is that religion has sat in the shadows of obscurantism, and became a fossilized dinosaur in its fixation with the absolute.

But is that completely true?

Well no it isn't, certainly not in the realm of Christian theology. If science is to be applauded on the basis of constant change in the direction of greater accuracy then we can also apply this criteria to theology. To this day we still have those same basic elements, Earth, Air, Wind and Fire but of course there have been an almost endless succession of improvements to how we understand these basic elements, and this is no less true of Christian Theology.  Creedal statements are the legitimate attempts to express an ongoing commitment- like the progressive reputation of science- to a process of affirmation and an ever increasing distillation of timeless truths into more concise, unmistakeable formulations. One can trace perhaps one of the earliest, simple creedal statements to Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 1 Corinthians 15
In order to safeguard the core truths against those repeated attempts to subvert orthodoxy one can trace the various councils convened over the centuries to ward off or clarify challenges to the faith, both from within the ranks of the broader Church and from without. The council of Nicea, the synod of Dordt and many, many others testify to this persistent theological development.. So we see then that Christian history is replete with the continued efforts to understand, clarify and further the cause of truth. It continues to this day. What was true yesterday, is as true today and will be in the future, but what will and must continue to change are the expressions and formulations that must consistently thwart the challenges of contemporary atitudes, like for example the current war on truth by the philosophy of relativism. What the late great Albert Einstein said of science is equally applicable to theology-
…new frameworks are like climbing a mountain-the larger view encompasses, rather than rejects the earlier more restricted view.
So there is maturity, development and innovation in the expressions of both disciplines, and yet also there is a constancy, a timelessness in the fundamentals. The incredible thing is that despite entering into the quantum age of physics- such is the accuracy of Newtonian physics that it is (if I'm not mistaken) still the model used in the incredible achievement of the landing of "Philae" on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko 6.4 billion kilometres away. Isaac Newton, by the way, was a Christian along with many who were the progenitors of the scientific method.

Scientists, like Christians are believers in absolutes, as opposed to the philosophical relativists. The continued refinement of our knowledge of the Universe is to get to the point of the best possible description of physical reality- so it is a search for truth.

Why not let sleeping dogs lie? Why not let scientists continue with their worldview in peace and Christians persist in their faith without interference?

Well an obvious objection would be where does that leave the Christian who is a scientist? Must there be a forever divided loyalty? But it also omits another obvious difficulty. A scientist who is a Christian, indeed any Christian in seeking to be more loyal to Christ must take seriously his or her own authority- The Bible. The scriptures proclaim:
 "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork." Psalm 19:1
Clearly it is within the scriptural mandate to look to the heavens for evidence of God's glory and in order to appreciate Him who fashioned nature according to his own character and will. The unbiased study of nature then is indeed intended to help us know God just as surely as the books of scripture do. Even the most ardent atheist scientists are unwittingly complimenting God's handiwork in their devotion to its mysteries. Should Christians be ignorant of a continuing source of knowledge that furthers the glory of God? So there is a direct scriptural link that points to the reality that nature is another "book" that can teach us to honour God.

May we just ignore the argument between faith and reason, science and religion? Isn't there a danger that the study of nature, ie. science will lead us away from God?

The point at which a legitimate love for science becomes the authoritative and only source of knowledge is in contemporary language called "scientism" - in more theologically oriented language we would call it a form of idolatry.

The difference between an idol and an icon is that the idol becomes the ultimate focus- blinding us to the reality beyond. An icon is that which grasps our attention long enough to enable us to see the reality it points to beyond itself. So long as nature remains an icon it will continue to glorify God.

If the study of nature is to reveal the glory of God as surely as the books of the Bible do, as testified by the Word of God itself- it is as C.S. Lewis said- no more possible that the study of nature can do away with the idea of God than a stream can rise above its source. If God is as good as his Word- to which every loyal Christian would agree- then Scientists whose sole aim is to observe nature in all its various aspects are doing something drastically wrong if they can then turn around and argue belligerently that nature proves the non-existence of God. Which is what many atheists tend to believe, especially in terms of Darwinian Evolution. And so it is encumbent upon Christians everywhere to give voice to the truth that Christianity was the cradle in which a love of science was nurtured, in as far as it is in their capacity to do so. And so the whole enterprise of scientists whose worldview encompassess philosophical materialism has been geared to enlist science from Darwin's day forward to perpetuate the myth that science has buried God. And (as Richard Dawkins so elegantly wrote) that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist".  

In this current atmosphere, the continued refusal to engage with the science community by Christemdom actually has put Christianity on the backfoot, even ducking for cover, rendering anything we say as irrelevant. The reverse should be true- that science whether in the form of intelligent design, or big bang cosmology- will if engaged with systematically and rigorously will indeed make it possible once again to be an intellectually fulfilled theist as it once was- and not just in our own cloistered halls.  

In the current state of affairs the relationship between science and theology is awkward if not downright hostile.  The uncomfortable popular misconception is that science and theology are competing worldviews. And this tragic error is compounded by unthinking adherents of both sides. They are not. It is essential that one distinguishes between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, because that is where the real worldview clash materializes.  The latest offering by Analytical Philosopher and Christian, Alvin Plantinga addresses the very real need to comprehend just where the real battlelines are drawn between atheism and theism. His latest book Where the Conflict Really Lies is sure to bring illuminating thoughts to the debate. If anyone wishes to buy me a copy please leave a comment to that effect below!  Here is a soundbite that gives the promise of a really good understanding as to the nature of the real conflict:
'there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.'Alvin Plantinga
Here is what Thomas Nagel, a philosopher in his own right- and an atheist says of Plantinga in a review of Plantinga's latest book in the New York Review of Books:
'Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds”—ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.'
' I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he [Plantinga] believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution.' (Emphasis mine)
Clearly that is a powerful push for Plantinga's faith and thought when duly considered who it is that is giving that statement.

To give a real time instance of this misunderstanding of where the conflict really lies take this interview between Dan Abrams (MSNBC) , Eugenie Scott (National Center for Science Education)  and Stephen C. Meyer advocate for Intelligent Design. It is sometimes difficult to follow the arguments because of numerous interjections- but it is possible!


Do I really need to understand the difference between a scientist committed to methodological naturalism and someone committed to philosophical naturalism?

The accusation by Abrams is along the lines of an attempt at evasion by Meyer to directly come out in the open and stop hiding behind the supposed "facade" of Intelligent Design. He sees it as a failure to be honest on Meyer's part to come clean and confess that it is a movement to bring back religion into the mainstream. It is in fact the opposite of  a "sleight of hand" type of avoidance. With credentials in the philosophy of science, Meyer knows only too well what is the correct stance to take according to the dictates of the scientific method. It is in fact a mark of integrity and scrupulous honesty that unfortunately is completely lost on the uninitiated, that Meyer is abiding by science on its own terms. What Abrams either fails to appreciate or deliberately conflates is the issue of methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. While freely and openly confessing a belief in the Christian God, and is therefore a theist, Meyer is careful as a matter of honesty and integrity as a scientist with a Christian worldview to apply methodological naturalism to his claims for Intelligent Design. That is- as a matter of evidence and applying the well accepted scientific principle of "inference to the best explanation" (as Darwin also did)- Meyer points to the uncontested reality of digital code containing information within the double helix of the DNA molecule and the failure of the standard, accepted scientific theory to account for it. There is no way- based on the scientific evidence and methodology at this time- to attribute that directly and scientifically to the providence of God, but neither is it scientifically honest to simply attribute complex digital information to a natural process- when that flies in the face of all that we know of information science. The refusal of the wider scientific community to acknowlege the reality that the commonly held conclusion is not the result of science but the inevitable answer of the majority worldview of philosophical naturalism through which the evidence is being appraised is tantamount to the sort of dishonesty that Meyer is being unjustly accused.

And so Meyer correctly- in doing science according to convention- conforms to methodological naturalism- even as he contests against the assumptions of philosophical naturalism. He is playing the game according to the rules of scientific endeavour. If there is any dishonesty to be appropriated perhaps it is in the repeated obfuscation of those philosophical naturalists like Eugenie Scott whose commitment to the idea of nature being all there is is in fact a worldview commitment not strictly supported by science. Attributing the information in DNA to natural processes is an extrapolation from the scientific evidence in the light of a naturalistic worldview. It is the evidence being interpreted through the lens of naturalism, and quite naturally in the nature of the case- the conclusion will therefore of course necessarily exclude even the possibility of the supernatural. It has to be so- but that can hardly be called fair- let alone scientific. The queston then becomes a moral one of conscience and integrity. In the case of the digitial nature of information in the genetic code, this worldview commitment is a science stopper not a science enhancer. According to the presupposition of philosophical naturalism- there is only nature- nothing outside of nature exists-  so it is hardly suprising then that accordingly there cannot exist anything to point to realities outside of the natural system- whether or not such evidence actually exists. That can hardly be called good thinking let alone good science when it comes to questions that demand an explanation beyond the horizon of naturalism. It is in protest to this foregone conclusion that theists steadfastly resist a naturalistic assumption encompassing the entire Universe in a closed system. That is science with blinkers. As it happens, Meyer points to several rich fields of investigation which are leading the charge against this presupposition.

Science or God, or Science and God?

To further appreciate the artificial wall that philosophical naturalism has created by which the question of anything that transcends nature is prematurely and pre-emptively struck out of court I would point the reader to Ben Stein'ls "Expelled- No Intelligence Allowed" documentary. He analogously uses the Berlin Wall as an example of how certain factions within the educational and  scientific community have closed ranks  and are attempting to stymie any discussion with regard to intelligent design. However increasingly that wall is looking decidedly shaky, for some 30 years or so now there have been respected scientists willing to go AWOL because that is where the evidence is leading. The wall is definitely showing signs of a bulge that will lead to its collapse.

Science- Do we Deify it, or Demonize It?

What should the Christian stance be? How do we have a healthy interface between science and Christianity? Listen to Jim Bradford, PhD as he addresses the 2014 Faith and Science Conference. He holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Minnesota and is one of the top four officials in the Assemblies of God. One of his key points is that Science has such a huge authority in the minds of modern humanity that we ought to take the whole issue of science and intellectual pursuits seriously and have a nuanced and balanced attitude towards the claims of science.


How do we evaluate the claims of the skeptic and atheist and the absolutist claims of the religious? 

Follow Tim Keller's vision for checks and balance in our worldview: