For the past five weeks I’ve dealt with objections to Christian belief that arise from the experience of evil. Today I will begin to examine objections inspired by modern natural science. In general, people who object to belief based on science argue that science has discovered fully natural, lawful explanations for processes and phenomena that were in the past explained by the existence and activity of God. If belief in God is an inference from observed effect to unobserved cause, belief in God is no longer warranted. Since the beginning of the scientific revolution so many secrets of nature have been given natural explanations that there is no longer any reasonable expectation that we will find any place within nature for God to act. Even if natural science cannot prove there is no God, the argument continues, it has closed so many gaps in nature so tightly that belief in a God who created and is active in the world has been robbed of its explanatory power and hence of its rational basis.
Before Galileo and all the way back to Plato and before, the world was conceived as a combination of body and soul. In analogy to the human being, the world body was animated by a soul that enabled it to move. The distinction between dead matter and living soul was self-evident. Matter possesses no power to move itself or cause any change in something else. Only soul is active and causal. When people living before Galileo looked up into the sky they assumed that the movements they saw there were the result of the rotation of all things around earth, which is the center of the universe. The Sun, Moon, the planets and the stars moved around earth propelled by the world soul. It was a spiritual universe in which the activity of God and the spiritual world was obvious. Movement (the visible effect) was explained by soul (the invisible cause). And all of this was made doubly certain by our experience of our minds and souls in relation to our bodies and the external world.
Galileo and those that followed him argued that we should adopt a new analogy or model to help explain how the world works. Instead of the organic model of soul/body in which soul exercises its causality mysteriously by an internal organic connection, such as that we experience between our minds and our bodies, we should think of the world as a machine in which wholly material parts (ultimately atoms) interact with each other only externally. Movement is transferred from one body to another by external impact. In this way the mystery is removed from movement and change within the world, because mechanical interactions involve only relative spatial location, magnitude and direction and these can be comprehended by the clearest and most precise of all the sciences, mathematics.
Perhaps Galileo believed that there were spiritual and organic aspects to the world whose working cannot be explained by the mechanical analogy. But soon there were those who argued that everything and every process in the world can be explained exhaustively by mechanical principles, that is, by external relations comprehended in mathematical language. All movement in the physical world is cause by impacts of physical objects on each other. All phenomena are caused by atoms that come to be arranged spatially by purely natural means. Hence no inference from the beauty, intelligibility, fittingness, complexity and order of the world to a spiritual cause, i.e., God, is warranted.
Much more could be said in response to this argument than I am going to say. Those who know something about contemporary physics know that the mechanical model is no longer held to mirror everything and every process in the physical world. It applies only approximately to a narrow range of the world. The idea that the world is made of unbreakable atoms that relate only externally has been exploded. Other analogies and models now play a part: fields, waves, strings, etc. Causality is no longer central to scientific explanation and quantum discontinuity or indeterminacy has been added to continuity and determinacy, introducing again a sort of mystery into nature. Many of the arguments against belief that were forged in the post-Galileo era no longer carry any weight. Nevertheless the impression still remains that somehow scientific explanations of physical processes exclude the activity of God.
In response to the arguments derived from the mechanical model, I want to remind you that what occurred in the early scientific revolution was a shift from the organic analogy to the mechanical one. But why should we prefer a mechanical analogy? From where do we get it? The answer to this last question is obvious: From everyday experience. We see simple machines like the fulcrum and lever or complex ones like the mechanical watch and are impressed with how easily we can understand them and how readily we can describe them simple spatial and quantitative terms. But machines are outside of us and we have no capacity to get inside them. Hence we assume they have no inside, no consciousness, no soul and no mind. Then we extend this analogy to the whole universe and conclude that the universe has no inside, no consciousness and no mind. But we do not know this! We have assumed it based on our experience of simple external objects.
My simple answer to the argument from natural science to unbelief or skepticism is as follows: The metaphors of machine, fields, waves and all the others derive from common sense observation of the external world. But there is one object in the world to which we have a most intimate relationship, not external but internal, that is, our own being, body, mind and soul. We experience within our very selves the power of causality and movement and freedom as our own acts. And that is something one can never experience in an external way! All physical science is but an extension of common sense experience of the external world, so of course science will never reveal the spiritual/mental dimension of the world. Only by taking our internal experience of ourselves as primitive and self-evident can we gain access to a spiritual dimension of the world.
Why not take our most direct experience of reality as the deepest window into that we can experience only indirectly? I consider it completely absurd to allow external and indirect experience to overturn the compelling impression of internal and direct experience! After all, both are human experience understood only in the mind. In empirical experience we use without noticing the power of our minds to construct internal images of things outside the mind from sense impressions. But in the mind’s experience of itself we experience the creative and constructive power of the mind directly. If we allow internal experience to have its proper say, the world will no longer appear as a meaningless machine or a mindless interplay of energy fields or a random world of quantum probabilities. (Don’t forget that these are but images or models in our imaginations!) It will appear as beautiful, meaningful, intelligible and spiritual. It would make perfect sense to view it as an expression of the mind of the Creator.
Future Posts: What is science, and what are its limits? Do the Big Bang Cosmological Theory and the Theory of Biological Evolution contradict belief in a Creator who exercises providence in and over the world?
It is very interesting to me to interact with the ideas of a methodological naturalist or one who holds to Scientism as an epistemology. Such persons will usually emphasize the findings of the natural sciences as superior epistemologically because they make predictions and are arrived at by measurements and observations. These measurements are supposed to make the conclusions drawn from them more objective, and the predictions that scientific theories can make are supposed to show them to correspond more closely to reality.
That all sounds well and good, but what intrigues me is when the persons in question make the move from these admitted strengths of the natural sciences to the claim that only such knowledge is real, true, or worth pursuing. I have heard speakers declare that the arts, the humanities, and theology do not count as disciplines of knowledge because they make no predictions about the world. In particular, I have heard them specify that belief in God is irrelevant because adding God to one’s ontology would not yield any concrete predictions about the world. In business, people demand statistics in order to make data-based decisions—and certainly they are right to do so to a degree. But all of the ways that empirical knowledge is elevated today in our measurements-based culture betrays to me the more fundamental principle that only that which is measured is real.
Where I think that touches on your remarks is something my fianceé pointed out when we discussed this topic: no matter how “objective” the measurements that one makes with one’s laboratory tools, it is still a mind that must interpret the data, organize it, decide what is relevant and what is irrelevant, and finally write up the data’s meaning and present it. Indeed, a human mind must design the framework for the observations in the first place, designing the experiment, control groups, method, supplying the materials, etc. That seems like an innocuous enough statement, but if Scientism is correct, then the information that is being filtered through human minds and our mental experiences cannot be considered knowledge. Thus, Scientism would fall on its own sword, and it shows that the empiricist framework that much of our culture’s epistemology is built up on truly has no foundation.
Good thoughts. As far as science’s ability to predict…I can predict that something will happen in 30 seconds that no science can predict. I predict that I will take a sip of my Gatorade just after I finish typing this sentence. There! I did it! The methodological power of scientific predictions is nothing compared to the power of freedom to make use of physical regularities to change the scientifically predicted course of things. Also, to your point, it is human reason and freedom that creates science in view of understanding and free action based on knowledge acquired. If reason and freedom did not transcend/escape physical necessity and predictability, science would not and could not exist.
That is another reason why I lament the strain in Psychology and Neuropsychology that seeks to downplay personal agency within a person’s mind and behaviour. Though perhaps greater in the past, continued gains in the knowledge of Neuropsychology give an impression in popular psychology that a person’s choices are simply a determined effect of chemical balances or imbalances in the brain combined with external environmental factors. One of the saddest things for me has been seeing how people who embrace this view of agency are affected, thinking that their own will or ability to enact change in themselves or in the world are essentially nonexistent.
A set of neurons studying itself!! Where does this set go to get outside itself so that it can reflect on itself?
I guess the idea is that somehow the set of neurons referencing measurable aspects of physical reality, like test results of neurochemicals or the image of firing areas during a brain scan is supposed to enable the set of neurons to reflect accurately on itself. Somehow.