Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why "God Did It" is Not Science

This is part of a discussion I had with Jewish Philosopher regarding evolution (isn't it always, sigh...). I had to edit it here and there for it to make any sense in this kind of presentation, but if you want to see it in its original entirety, just click on the link above.

Now, this whole post does not have anything much to do with evolution specifically, but it is useful as a way for me to explain my view of how science operates and how it is a rather different kind of way of thinking.

"I still have no idea why "God did it" cannot be the truth, whether we want label that fact science, theology or whatever."

It can be truth, but unless you can demonstrate it with direct evidence and a definition of what God is and how he did that creating then all you have is speculation and it cannot be called scientific. You may come to your conclusions through extrapolations of known facts, but you are necessarily making assumptions (skeptics would call them unwarranted ones) that are not founded in scientific methodology when you approach metaphysical levels. It is unavoidable.

Science tells us what the conclusions can be based on the evidence at hand. The conclusions may not be what is actually true though. But most rationally-minded people have trouble dismissing the conclusions of science because the known objective evidence is always on their side.

...

At the end of the matter, what we can say of evolution is that it is true as far as we know (specific mechanisms notwithstanding), but that our knowledge could be flawed in some way. Scientists are not stupid people, they know that evolution is far from a complete theory and they have vigorous debates amongst themselves about how evolution may have happened. None seriously posit a divine director though because no evidence points to that above any possible natural causes. It's not that that is an impossible conclusion, but that it's not a reasonable conclusion before they consider more naturalistic explanations.

"As far as I can tell, and please correct me if I am wrong, you are basically saying that since evolution is atheist [does not involve a god] therefore it is inherently superior to intelligent design theory which is theistic."

No, that's incorrect. I didn't say anything about superiority, just about how science operates and thus how scientific an explanation can be. And the interpretation of evolution being atheistic or not is irrelevant. Theism is simply an added concept not needed to explain how evolution occurred, as far as we understand evolution at this time.

In the same way one might study a murder mystery there are certain ways of going about figuring the puzzle that make more sense than others. You find evidence, you talk to witnesses, you figure it out without supposing miraculous events, etc. Because if you suppose a miracle happened, then why would any piece of evidence ever indict any individual? It could have been a miracle that his evil twin popped into existence, did the deed and then popped out of existence. Absurd, to say the least, no?

Now science is like this kind of rational investigation - but, I said, it is conceivable that even rational investigations can be wrong. Maybe some evidence is missing, maybe someone didn't think something through enough, etc. So in reference to evolution, it is not a _necessary_ conclusion to discount supernatural intervention, but it is also not something that is rationally required.

Scientific investigations are only superior in the sense that they take into account all the available objective evidence and rational considerations. But in doing so they are inherently limited. For the world as it actually is may be more than what is known today or what the human mind can conjure up to explain the observations.

Science's power is in the fact that it sticks to the facts and doesn't extrapolate beyond them. In fact, evolution says nothing about God one way or the other. In the same way science doesn't posit God to be the force pulling us down to Earth or the force that makes water boil, science doesn't posit God to be the force that causes evolution to occur. Now, it could be that God is involved in all those things, but it is just not a required actor to explain the facts that we know about.

"To continue with your crime analogue, let’s take the still controversial President Kennedy assassination. The President is riding through Dallas. Suddenly, a piece of lead shaped like a bullet strikes his head and kills him. I would logically conclude that this act was committed by an intelligent being. In other words "Oswald did it." However let’s say that someone would claim that involving an intelligent being is entirely unnecessary. There is no reason why a meteorite shaped exactly like a bullet could not have caused the President’s death. Would this be accepted by the police? Is this somehow a more rational and scientific point of view?

This is exactly how I feel when debating evolution. An evolutionist will claim that involving an intelligent designer is entirely unnecessary to account for life; a natural process, however poorly understood or unlikely, could somehow have done it. Maybe. But why does he have to insist on that? Why not reach the apparently simple, obvious conclusion, accepted by everyone before Darwin, that there exists an intelligent designer who created life – in other words "God did it"? I cannot help but feel some sort of mental block is in involved here; a profound emotional denial."

You said: "Suddenly, a piece of lead shaped like a bullet strikes his head and kills him. I would logically conclude that this act was committed by an intelligent being."

Why? You're not making that conclusion based on that simple analyzation, there are numerous unstated pieces of information that are involved. One, bullets often come from guns fired by people. Two, people are generally intelligent beings. Three, the President of the United States is not an unusual target for assassins, etc.

If you knew nothing of bullets and you knew nothing of politics or people then that initial statement that a "piece of metal struck a guy in a car" could easily be explained by a meteorite. Only once you have all that additional information does it make sense to posit an intelligence out there with an intent to kill.

Before you can posit an intelligent creator you need to have at least some of those kinds of similar information. How did it do the creating? Why did it do the creating? Is there an intent with creation? What is this intelligence? How does it work?

You don't have any of that information and that is why science cannot seriously posit it. Science sticks to the facts. It is a deeply conservative methodology in that way.

"I cannot help but feel some sort of mental block is in involved here; a profound emotional denial."

I don't think you understand how science operates. Science is not in the business of telling you absolute Truth (with a capital T) or how to live your life or what politics to follow. It is a conservative methodology which follows the known facts and makes theories based on what is known. It may be wrong it may be right, but either way its methodology is certainly a rational one.

What a belief in God is is a step away from the conservative rational methodology to what one believes is correct anyway. It is an assumption found without conclusive evidence. People who follow strict scientism though cannot make that jump. They follow that conservative methodology even into their personal lives and beliefs. It is more often a love for science and rationalism than an attack on God which leads people to rational atheism. It is the outcome of purely rational conservative thought.

17 comments:

B. Spinoza said...

The way I've been defining God, the correct way is not "God did it", rather it's "It is God". Science is trying to find God by studying God as it physically manifests itself. While philosophy/theology studies God as it mentally manifests itself. And since God is really one, both are looking at the same thing viewed from different perspectives

Jewish Atheist said...

Let me rewrite that for you, Dr. Spinoza:

The way I've been defining Nature, the correct way is not "Nature did it", rather it's "It is Nature". Science is trying to find Nature by studying Nature as it physically manifests itself. While philosophy/theology studies Nature as it mentally manifests itself. And since Nature is really one, both are looking at the same thing viewed from different perspectives

Any difference?

B. Spinoza said...

Now I'm a Doctor? I don't even have a graduate degree. In fact, I barely graduated from college :)

But to answer your question, Dr. Atheist:

Nature, as I understand it, is God's nature. And as the saying goes, God and his nature are one. Therefore there isn't really a difference. What you have to understand is that there really is only one being that exists and nothing else can exist or be conceived of without it. This isn't a metaphor or anything like that, it is absolute reality

Jewish Atheist said...

What you have to understand is that there really is only one being that exists and nothing else can exist or be conceived of without it.

Why do I have to understand this? Is this being different from "everything?" If so, how?

(Sorry to derail your post, Orthoprax.)

B. Spinoza said...

>Why do I have to understand this? Is this being different from "everything?" If so, how?

it is everything and the cause of everything. When I say Being, I don't mean personhood, I mean a thing which exists. Look at the Universe as one whole where everything is in harmony with each other and nothing really conflicts with anything else because everything is a part of it. A conflict can only be understood when something interferes with something outside of itself. but as we posit that only one thing exists, therefore there can be no true conflicts. It's a real nice way of looking at things and it makes perfect sense.

Alex said...

A nice science quote:

"The first rule for any scientific hypothesis ought to be that it is at least possible to conceive of an observation that would contradict the theory. For what good is a theory that is guaranteed by its internal logical structure to agree with all conceivable observations, irrespective of the real structure of the world? If scientists are going to use logically unbeatable theories about the world, they might as well give up natural science and take up religion. Yet is that not exactly the situation with regard to Darwinism? The theory of evolution by natural selection states that changes in the inherited characters of species occur, giving rise to differentiation in space and time, because different genetical types leave different numbers of offspring in different environments. ... Such a theory can never be falsified, for it asserts that some environmental difference created the conditions for natural selection of a new character. It is existentially quantified so that the failure to find the environmental factor proves nothing, except that one has not looked hard enough. Can one really imagine observations about nature that would disprove natural selection as a cause of the difference in bill size? The theory of natural selection is then revealed as metaphysical rather than scientific. Natural selection explains nothing because it explains everything." (Lewontin, Richard C. [Professor of Zoology and Biology, Harvard University], "Testing the Theory of Natural Selection," review of Creed R., ed., "Ecological Genetics and Evolution," Blackwell: Oxford, 1971, in Nature, Vol. 236, March 24, 1972, p.181).

Ben Avuyah said...

Alex, it is true that evolution is more difficult to test than other theories which may boil down to simple lab experiments. However, rest assured, evolution could easily be disproven, if the difference in bill size where tracked to a genome that used more than four base codes or different amino acids, or did not use DNA/RNA to encode information, then evolution would fall from favor.

Indeed, it is the stagering fact that all organisms share the similarities predicted by natural selection that makes evolution so strong!

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

I wonder, if something which can be called God really exists, is science slowly finding its way towards it or is science forever going at wrong tangents?

Science isa great tool, but I don't think it can be used to tell us all things or that things which are not scientific are necessarily false.

Orthoprax said...

Alex, Ben,

Nobody relevant seriously doubts evolution, what people (even secular scientists) have issue with is the idea that Natural Selection was responsible for most or all of it.

Natural Selection is a difficult theory to track historically because we just don't know the environmental situations to any great degree at times in the deep past. But it isn't wholly metaphysical either. It is falsifiable in a few senses, one being that it implies that no organism would have a trait that affords benefit to other organisms while giving harm to itself. Natural selection would remove such an organism quickly from the environment.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Modern Synthesis, I mean, there are many other ideas out there and I don't think we have a full grasp of how the natural world operates to say conclusively that this is the only way it could have happened. I think we're missing something. Other mechanisms. Or perhaps other explanations besides mutations for the origins of genetic information, like lateral transmission via microbes or transposons.

The Jewish Freak said...

>For the world as it actually is may be more than what is known today or what the human mind can conjure up to explain the observations

It is impossible to know what can not be known, even Judaism recognizes that. If something is beyond human comprehension, than any attempt to understand it is fantasy.

Also, the idea that G-d did it is not an idea that gives us any more knowledge. For example, if we say that people get sick because G-d did it, while that may be true or untrue, it still tells us nothing about illness. That is the difference between science and religion. It is only when we ask "what is illness?" that we begin to gain knowledge.

Orthoprax said...

JF,

"It is impossible to know what can not be known, even Judaism recognizes that. If something is beyond human comprehension, than any attempt to understand it is fantasy."

You'd think that would be obvious, but I'd heard from many a theist that while they know nothing of God they know that He exists and how He wants us to act and so on.

"For example, if we say that people get sick because G-d did it, while that may be true or untrue, it still tells us nothing about illness. That is the difference between science and religion."

Hey, I agree with you, but most people who claim that "God did it" in a way contradicting scientific knowledge is usually a person who believes in a very limited and small God.

JDHURF said...

Good post orthoprax, I like this quote: “unless you can demonstrate it with direct evidence and a definition of what God is and how he did that creating then all you have is speculation” and your two concluding paragraphs were great. You mentioned truth (with a capitol T) and I know that you are, in no way, promoting such an idea of truth I just want to say something about that. Anytime an individual begins to talk about truth (Truth) or the “ultimate truth” I am immediately aware of their religious motivation and influence. There is no “Truth” or “ultimate truth” there is only truth, truth is an absolute. Either something is true or it is not there are no levels and increments to truth. We may know part of the truth or we may not but the truth is still there, it is still true; we only have not yet understood or began to comprehend it. Truth is ultimate and all truth is ultimate truth…..when one diferenciates between scientific truth and ultimate truth they obviously have a religious agenda and do not know what they are talking about.

JewishFreak, good post man. Claiming that “god did it” surely does not provide any knowledge or help, if anything it adds to the questions and confusion. Some simply must insert a “god of the gaps” or they would go ill it seems.

Interesting post orthoprax.

Orthoprax said...

JDHURF,

Thanks for the compliment.

"Truth is ultimate and all truth is ultimate truth…..when one diferenciates between scientific truth and ultimate truth they obviously have a religious agenda and do not know what they are talking about."

No, I think you may have misunderstood me. I do believe there is an ultimate truth out there. I also believe that scientific knowledge _can_ be the same as this ultimate truth but we really have no way of ever finding that out absolutely conclusively.

Science's truth can be understood in the Poppernian way as being the best understanding given the current facts. No theory can be proven correct, though it is necessary for an idea to be called scientific that it must be capable of being proven wrong, i.e. that it is falsifiable.

Science's understanding is the most rational understanding of the universe, but it may not be the most correct one. Indeed, it probably is not.

As a skeptic I happen to greatly appreciate rationalism, but in being a skeptic I also understand its limitations.

I don't suppose you view my reasoning as religiously motivated, do you?

Albert Einstein said...

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Orthoprax said...

Al,

Yes, that's very original. What do you mean by it?

media said...

Hmm,

If I may pipe in here, I'm pretty sure 'Albert E' just read it somewhere. Everyone is looking at Nature and God and all the rest as the one, so we can all get some sleep, but if this God thing and Nature thing can or may be a force or 'the fact we are here', what is the power of prayer, other than a lot of wishful thinking?

m

Orthoprax said...

media,

"If I may pipe in here, I'm pretty sure 'Albert E' just read it somewhere."

Indeed, I was being sarcastic.

"what is the power of prayer, other than a lot of wishful thinking?"

Depends what you mean by prayer. If you mean prayer as a petition to the supernatural for intervention, then yes, I'd say it is nothing but wishful thinking.