Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Limits of Science

A couple of somewhat-related items have crossed my path today. They deal with an old favorite topic of this group, on which we have had some highly profitable discussions in the past. My own views on this issue have been significantly modified by discussions on this blog.

First, via Pharyngula via Panda's Thumb, I was made aware of a Senate resolution in Tennessee sponsored by Senator Raymond Finney. The full text of the resolution is fascinating, but it basically asks a question of the state department of education: "Is the Universe ... created through purposeful, intelligent design ...?" If yes, it asks, then why aren't we teaching that in our schools? If maybe, it asks, then why aren't we teaching the possibility as an alternative theory of origins in our schools? If not, then... well, at that point the resolution just gets snarky.

I'm going to answer this question under the presumption that "maybe" is the expected answer. Science is not in the business of disproving God, and science educators are not (or should not be) in the business of rejecting the existence of an intelligent designer... so, it comes back as a maybe. Here's where the Tennessee resolution gets on really shaky ground, in my opinion.

If the answer to Question 1 is "This question cannot be proved or disproved," please answer Question 3:

(3) Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught as an alternative concept, explanation, or theory, along with the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools?

The absurdity of this statement can most easily be demonstrated by replacing the reference to the Creator with nearly anything else: "Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is the illegitimate offspring of aliens from Mars and Jupiter, why is that theory not taught...." You get the idea.

For intelligent design to deserve to be taught in science classrooms, it has to do much more than demonstrate that it can't be proved wrong. It has to pass a more rigorous test than theoretical possibility. Rather we need to ask if there is reason, from science, to consider the existence of an intelligent designer probable or likely. To the extent that science is able to speak to that question, it would be appropriate to include the information in a science classroom... beyond that, it would be highly inappropriate.

I would also add one very important point, where the Tennessee resolution goes very wrong. It may be possible for science to recognize that naturalism (which is as far as science can see) is insufficient for providing reasonable explanations of certain phenomena. It is possible for naturalistic science to say: "Based on what we can see now, the most likely explanation for what we see here is something outside of naturalistic science". However, there is no way that science can possibly do anything to guess at, label, or identify any characteristics of what would be outside of its naturalistic sphere of limitations. Finney's resolution, on the other hand, asks the department of education to rule on the existence of "a Supreme Being, that is a Creator". Describing this "Being" in the singular is something science could never purport to know. Describing this outside-of-nature something as a "Being", even, is beyond the ability of science. Describing it as "Supreme", or as worthy of Capital Letters in being named, is well into the realm of religion/philosophy, and out of the realm of naturalistic science.

Considering for a moment my limited possibility... do you believe that it is valid for science to say "Based on what we currently know, the most likely explanation for {something observed} is located outside of naturalistic science"? Is science ever able to say that it is most likely out of its element? Or should science simply stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer, however flawed and limited that explanation is? If science should be allowed to recognize that certain things are most plausibly explained by something outside its naturalistic sphere, would such an admission ever be appropriate in a science classroom?

On the other end of the spectrum from the Senator Finneys of the world are the Richard Dawkins' of the world. Now, don't get me wrong... I don't know Senator Finney, but from the little I've seen of the two of them I wouldn't consider Finney to be academically equivalent to Dawkins. However, in their view of the interaction between science and the supernatural, they serve as useful comparison points for discussion. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, believes not only that science is incapable of affirming the existence of a Creator, but that belief in a Creator is scientifically irrational. I haven't read any of his books, but he is certainly a popular and influential writer and speaker, proclaiming any form of religion or belief in anything beyond naturalism to be irrational, silly, even despicable.

Today, via The Fire and the Rose, I came across a response to Dawkins' latest book (and his views in general) by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. I found Plantinga's arguments for the most part convincing, though as I said I haven't read Dawkins' books to compare against.

One part in particular interested me, and relates to the earlier part of this discussion. Quoting Plantinga:

Starting in the late Sixties and early Seventies, astrophysicists and others noted that several of the basic physical constants must fall within very narrow limits if there is to be the development of intelligent life—at any rate in a way anything like the way in which we think it actually happened. For example, if the force of gravity were even slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants; if even slightly weaker, all would be red dwarfs; in neither case could life have developed. The same goes for the weak and strong nuclear forces; if either had been even slightly different, life, at any rate life of the sort we have, could probably not have developed. Equally interesting in this connection is the so-called flatness problem: the existence of life also seems to depend very delicately upon the rate at which the universe is expanding. Thus Stephen Hawking:

reduction of the rate of expansion by one part in 1012 at the time when the temperature of the Universe was 1010 K would have resulted in the Universe's starting to recollapse when its radius was only 1/3000 of the present value and the temperature was still 10,000 K.

That would be much too warm for comfort. Hawking concludes that life is possible only because the universe is expanding at just the rate required to avoid recollapse. At an earlier time, he observes, the fine-tuning had to be even more remarkable:

we know that there has to have been a very close balance between the competing effect of explosive expansion and gravitational contraction which, at the very earliest epoch about which we can even pretend to speak (called the Planck time, 10-43 sec. after the big bang), would have corresponded to the incredible degree of accuracy represented by a deviation in their ratio from unity by only one part in 10 to the sixtieth.

One reaction to these apparent enormous coincidences is to see them as substantiating the theistic claim that the universe has been created by a personal God and as offering the material for a properly restrained theistic argument...

Plantinga goes on to point out Dawkins' response to this evidence. Dawkins, according to Plantinga, hypothesizes the existence of many universes, maybe even infinite universes, enough that the likelihood of one having a compatible set of constants becomes acceptable... which universe would also then develop complex life as we know it. We would be able to recognize and evaluate the unlikely chain of events because we were at the end of it, but the multitude of other universes that did not result in us would be beyond our vision. They would be necessary for us to believe in their existence to explain the otherwise unexplainable practical-impossibility of the universe being perfectly tuned to support life.

Now, it need hardly be mentioned that Dawkins' hypothesis here is nothing close to science. It is not testable, not verifiable, and must be taken on faith just as much as any other religious point of view. I would definitely say that "intelligent design" is just as valid an explanation for the unlikeliness of the precise tuning of the universal constants as "hypothetical multiple universes". I see no reason that the latter should be allowable in a science classroom, if the former should not be.

[For completeness, let me link to an extensive response to this argument for design found here, later updated by the author here. Basically, he lays out alternate explanations (much as Plantinga cites Dawkins doing), and says that these explanations are "at least as good or better" then the non-naturalistic explanations. I can only presume that they are better in his estimation because they are naturalistic. They certainly don't have any better claim to evidential support. He then states that the intelligent design possibility can be disregarded because other equivalent options are available, an argument which seems peculiar to me.]

But, what should a science teacher say when a student asks the honest question, "How did all those universal constants line up so perfectly?" Should the science teacher say, "Science has no good answer for that question; look elsewhere"? Should the science teacher suggest (with careful qualification) various prominent explanations even if they are beyond the strict naturalistic realms of science? Or should the science teacher say, "The best naturalistic explanation is that chance brought these factors together; though it is unthinkably implausible, it is possible, and that's the best scientific answer"?

Let me quickly recap and summarize my thoughts and questions...

* Science cannot speak to specifics outside of the naturalistic realm. This is an important observation that places limits on how we can discuss these things, and particularly how we can address non-naturalistic subjects in science classrooms.

* Science may be right to recognize that in some situations, the best explanation available is one that is not available to science because it is outside the naturalistic realm. I am curious what others think about the propriety of science pointing outside itself for answers (even as it can't clarify the specifics).

* When science does not provide useful answers, but extra-scientific disciplines can provide useful answers, how should the science teacher interact with those issues from a scientific perspective?

I'd love to know what you think.

Mark

81 comments:

steviepinhead said...

I largely agree with Mark, at least until we get to the Plantinga quote and the Plantinga v. Dawkins discussion.

We appear to live in a universe which, if it was very different from the way it is, would not support life as we know it. Indeed, not only would it not support human life, or earthly life, or carbon-based life, it would not support planets containing heavier elements, would not support stars, would not have lasted anywhere near as long as it has, and so on...

The problems with going beyond these apparent facts and leaping to the conclusion that the universe was "finely-tuned" to support human life are many.

A silly one, but intended to put things into at least modest perspective, is that--even if one buys the entire "fine-tuning" speculation, the same "fine tuning" might just as well allow for intelligent cephalopod life on some other planet similar to ours, etc. Stereoscopic vision (without that pesky--and, to me, quite personal!--risk of retinal detachment); relatively-high intelligence; sophisticated behaviors; fine manipulative capability... Heck, even OUR cephalopods are pretty amazing, and that's without even taking into consideration the ability to squirt ink or camouflage themselves! It doesn't greatly strain the imagination to conceive of fairly mild contingencies on another earth-like planet somewhere in the infinity of this unverse having turned evolution onto on alternate path of cephalopod intelligence, cephalopod civilization, wondering cephalopods postulating a Flying Spaghetti Monster-like Supreme eight-tentacled Deity.

And being astonished at how "finely" the FSM had "tuned" this universe to support the inevitable rise of sapient cephalopod civilization...

Backing up a step or two, a more basic problem with the fine tuning argument is that--however likely or unlikely the existence of a "life supporting" universe is, it is ONLY in such a universe that beings such as ourselves could arise who could wonder about such things.

So maybe it's amazing that we live in such a convenient universe. Or maybe it's only that we are here, in which case we MUST live in such a universe...

An illustration often used is that of a peculiar, nay, uniquely-shaped hole in the ground, the edges and topology of which are not EXACTLY like any other hole anywhere. It rains. The unique hole fills with an equally-uniquely shaped puddle. The puddle slozhes around, examines it's surroundings, and finds them remarkably snug and well-fitting. "My goodness," the puddle exclaims, "what are the odds that I would come to rest in a hole--of all the possible holes in the world--that fits me so precisely!"

Well, that's not entirely serious either, but it suggests that, to REALLY evaluate how "finely-tuned" the universe is, we need to know what the "permissible" range of the various critical parameters actually is.

While we can hypothesize or conjecture that the strong force or the weak force or the energy of the electron, or any of a host of other "critical" values, could have assumed ANY value, we don't yet have any actual evidence to that effect. Maybe the strong force can take on--in any of an infinitude of hypothetical alter-verses--any of an infinite range of values, but maybe it can't.

Thus, until we know a little more about the Theory of Everything than we do now, we simply have no way of knowing how much "flex" there is in any of these values. Can they vary signigicantly? Are they "tied" to one another in some fashion? Is there some still more fundamental level of things which, when we know more about it, will control, require, or dictate these values? (Thus, in a way that the "fine tuners" don't readily admit, they are in effect "smuggling" into their conjecture the sub silentio assumption of an infinite number of hypothetical universes bearing wildly-varying fundamental constants; Dawkins and others at least directly confront this range of "comparative" universes...)

I have read a fair amount of Dawkins. He's NOT saying that science "requires" or "proves" atheism. He IS saying--and here I don't necessarily agree with him, though it's difficult to logically, staying within the bounds of science, rebut him--that it's exceedingly difficult to point to any evidence which might substantiate the existence of the sort of interventionist, personal, miracle-working, laws-of-science bending "god" that is conceptualized by many believers.

Again, Dawkins doesn't claim to have disproved God; nor does he claim that "science requires atheism." Obviously, he personally finds--and argues that others should agree--that logic and science are much more accomodating of atheism/strong agnosticism than they are of any particular concept of a personal, activist, interventionist, humans-as-the-crown-of-creation deity.

Anyway, I don't mean to turn this into a pro- or anti-Dawkins comment. Much less a pro- or anti-God comment! (The fruitfulness of which would be highly questionable...)

I would suggest that, in (unnecessarily, in my view) getting wound up in trying to "scientifically" counter Dawkins, people of faith may be led into too easily embracing superficially-appealing arguments which, upon scrutiny, turn out to be much less inviting.

While the scientists and Dawkins may not yet be able to point to any evidence of alternative universes, likewise those of faith should not be led into assuming that the "fine tuners" possess any evidence of the range of values that the "fundamental" constants themselves may or could assume.

The notion of science pointing "outside" the bounds of the physical, material, measurable universe for explanations also troubles me.

To say that there are limits to what and how science can teach us about the world is critically different than saying that science's limitations somehow establish that there is something beyond those limits. (I'm not here dealing with science's subject-matter limitations, though the questions of what science is capable of studying and what it has traditionally confined itself to studying may not be entirely distinct: i.e., for most practicing scientists, "science" is not the same as philosophy, morality, ethics, personal taste, aesthetics, or theology--though scientific findings may occasionally impinge on these other ways of knowing.) That science has not yet found a way to measure, predict, grapple with, reproduce, or test a given hypothesized aspect of reality does not mean that it won't eventually be able to do so. Nor does it "prove," one way or the other, that there are (or are not) such trans-material aspects of reality.

Lacking such hard, material evidence of trans-materiality--or, to his mind, of any interaction of the trans-material and (what we currently consider to be) material reality--Dawkins chooses not to extend his faith to include (particular religious beliefs concerning) the immaterial and numinous. While, again, I don't necessarily agree with Dawkins' decision here, I can respect it as an intellectual option which he is entitled to choose and advocate for.

Many other scientists, obviously, have no difficulty extending their faith beyond what science can comprehend. But, I would argue, this is just that--an extension of faith--into a realm to which science cannot speak.

And, if I'm correctly understanding Mark, this is a realm about which science really cannot speak one way or the other. It is in this contradictory attempt to have things both ways--a realm of faith which science cannot assail, and yet a realm which (it is hoped) science will at the same time somehow support or "prove"--that those attracted by Intelligent Design (or its watered-down "fine-tuning" fallback position) go astray.

MarkC said...

Stevie,

I think I agree with most of what you say... but I don't think you addressed my core question. I'm asking it because I'm not sure what the answer should be, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it because (a) you are an intelligent, informed, clear-thinking person, and (b) you disagree with me on some key aspects of this issue. That makes your opinion particularly valuable to me. :)

So, my core question. Forgive me if you did answer this, and I missed it. Here's what I'm wondering.

Let us leave out any specifics of the fine-tuning argument or any other scientific question, and just look at science as a general enterprise.

There are many situations where science cannot speak with any significant degree of certainty, and where multiple plausible explanations for the evidence still exist. In such cases, it is always possible that some future discovery will bring clarity to the question. But, in the meantime, particularly in science classrooms, it is general practice to lay out the top few explanations, but to focus on the explanation that (based on what is currently known) is the best that science can provide.

My question: Is it ever proper, in a science classroom, for one of those plausible explanations (even potentially the focused-on most-plausible explanation) to be: "Something outside of the naturalistic realm of scientific knowledge caused this"? Or should science classrooms be, by definition, naturalistic classrooms, blind to even the potential of anything beyond the realm of naturalism?

I am quite interested in discussing the nature of the "fine-tuning" argument with you. I don't think I disagree with you, but I think I maybe disagree with the conclusions you're drawing from your observations... anyway, I'd be intrigued by having that discussion. But, I'd like to hear what you think about my core question first, if that's OK.

Will you humor me? :)

Mark

Kevin said...

Mark,

I'm not sure precisely what a "non-naturalistic subject" is, or what would qualify as inside (natural?) or outside (non-naturalistic or supernatural?) of science. Perhaps you could provide examples to help me.

From my perspective, if a phenomena can be detected, it can be considered a subject of science, and, I imagine, would be considered part of the "natural". Of course, the less prevalent and more subjective an event is, the harder it is to study and objectify, but, in principle, I would still consider it part of science.

I don't see any real dividing line between "natural" and "supernatural". Instead, the "supernatural" is merely that which is unknown. Or else, how can a supernatural impetus for a natural phenomenon be distinguished from a natural impetus for that phenomenon?

Even if something is believed to be unknowable (e.g. as indicated by the Uncertainty Principle), we can still characterize it to some limited extent using statistics, demonstrating that precise identification of all variables and causes is not necessary to model a phenomenon. Even sentient behavior can be similarly modeled.

When science does not provide useful answers, but extra-scientific disciplines can provide useful answers, how should the science teacher interact with those issues from a scientific perspective?

I'm curious what specifics you are imagining, but I'd say, "go with the useful answers over the less useful answers". In fact, that is how I think everything should be presented: "how is this useful?". The teacher should focus upon the utility.

Kevin

bcongdon said...

Yes, of course it's reasonable for a science classroom to remark on things science can't answer. But reason is not in play here. After all, in Washington a high school PHILOSOPHY class was barred from mentioning Intelligent Design. Science is just the proxy for the deeper battle.
--Brad

MarkC said...

Brad,

You may not have meant it this way, but let me restate what you wrote the way it came across to me:

"I believe that science classrooms should be able to speak about things outside the realms of science. I am obviously right. Anyone who disagrees with me is being irrational, because of hidden ulterior motives."

If you meant that "Yes, of course" part in the sense of "I am obviously right", then I strongly disagree with you. There's nothing obvious about this question, and respectful debate is what we need.

As for the "proxy for a deeper battle" part, I'm sure you're accurate in describing some participants in this debate, but you do seem to be over-generalizing a bit, in my opinion.

And, of course, reasonable opponents on the other side accuse those in support of teaching Intelligent Design (or some form thereof) as a plausible hypothesis in science classrooms of the same thing. The whole Intelligent Design thing, they say, is just a proxy to the real goal of indoctrinating all kids with Christianity.

And, some on both sides fit that conspiracy-theory description. Most though, I expect, honestly believe what they argue for, without hidden motives or subversive intent.

I'd be fascinated to hear more about that situation with the philosophy class. That sounds really messed up. Can you point me in a direction that might lead me to more details?

Thanks!

Mark

steviepinhead said...

Mark's query:

Is it ever proper, in a science classroom, for one of those plausible explanations (even potentially the focused-on most-plausible explanation) to be: "Something outside of the naturalistic realm of scientific knowledge caused this"? Or should science classrooms be, by definition, naturalistic classrooms, blind to even the potential of anything beyond the realm of naturalism?


I bolded a couple of phrases that were important to me in composing my answer.

According to your question, we're talking about the science classroom, not the philosophy or theology or comparative religions or anthro/mythology classrooms. And, with (I think) Kevin, that leads me to thinking in terms of science--not as a "philosophy" of materialistic naturalism, or whatever the phrase may be--but as a particular, pragmatic technique or methodology (or bundle of techniques and methodologies) for probing and accumulating knowledge about the natural, physical, inter-observational world. The world of matter and energy with which science (and, thus, scientists, using science's methodologies) can interact via the observation of events and patterns of events, the formation of hypotheses, the designing and conducting of experiments (with a view to the potential falsification of hypotheses), the communication of the observations and information resulting from experiments and observations to other scientists, enabling them, in turn, to comment, critique, replicate (or not), and perhaps to eventually extend the cumulative body of knowledge about how the observable world works.

That highly-successful methodology, along with some history of science and specific key information in various scientific fields--including the degree to which the information developed from various fields driven by diverse agendas turns out to reinforce the findings developed in other far-flung fields--is what ought to be the primary focus of general-level science course at the high school or junior high level.

(Science "courses" at younger levels ought to be very hands-on--simple experiments and curiosity-arousing play, discussion, field trips. Courses at the university, post-graduate and seminar level will tend to be much more highly-focused on gaining command of an intense body of knowledge in a particular field and gaining facility with tools of the trade (including relevant math, statistics, and physical methods): such higher-level courses may also be an appropriate arena for delving more deeply into problems, challenges, and controversies within or at the leading edges of a given field. Those working at this level may well wish to pursue, among other things, definitional, heuristic, philosophical, and other fundamental or meta-scientific issues...)

This is, again, I emphasize, science as methodological naturalism, not a philosophy or "religion" of materialistic naturalism. The one proposes to do what can be done with the tools at hand; the other proposes propositions about the make-up, terms, or constraints affecting "all" of reality or existence, whether or not that "all" is susceptible or accessible to the tools, methodologies, and practices available.

Again, I think I agree with Kevin in saying that I'm not clear how science, in a science class of the kind I'm talking about, can be expected to say much of anything--one way or another--about the causation of "non-natural" events (whatever those may be) or the "non-natural" causation of events (ditto). Like Kevin, trying to make all those words mean something in the same phrase is hard for me to do. If by non- (or super-) natural, we mean something that does not interact with normal, measurable, detectable matter and energy (or whatever currently-unknown or not-yet-understood "weird" matter and energy science may ultimately get a handle on...), then it's not clear to me how such non-whatever phenomena could be fitted within science's causal framework.

("Causation" is itself one of science's more abstruse areas, and one into which I don't have the expertise to tread very far, despite a fair--but entirely non-mathematical--acquaintance with the notions of classical and relativistic "causal" thinking.)

So.

I don't have much of a problem with some sort of generic, science-is-this and doesn't pretend to be able to deal-with-that introduction to science. In that sense, I don't have a problem with identifying or noting the existence of areas involving--or alternative means of gaining--other kinds of knowledge (e.g., philosophy, politics, religion, or aesthetics).

And if this (not meaning to by that "this" to at all diminish the worlds beyond worlds that we may be subsuming within our humble "this") is *all* you mean by pointing to the possibility of a "non-natural" cause, then I may not have a problem with that either, though one can imagine huge parent-administrator difficulties in going beyond the most generic statements into anything that might be heard to smack of a particular faith or doctrinal explanation...

But I'm having difficulty envisioning an area currently or potentially susceptible to investigation with the tools and methodologies of science for which it would be an appropriate statement that something non-natural had been somehow verified as "the cause."

Again, this is not me claiming there is nothing "beyond" the natural. I know many people of many cultures who have had profound "spiritual" insights and experiences. But most of these people don't attempt or assume (in what I regard as a category error) to obtain inter-personal, consensual-reality, replicable, measurable, "scientific" validation of such experiences.

While, again, there are likely to be fuzzy boundaries around some of these concepts, in general, for me faith isn't science and science isn't faith. They both contribute valuably and critically to understanding why we're here, what "here" is (and is not), and what we should do about it all. But not, generally, in the same ways or by means of the same methodologies.

An engineer may well pray for or meditate until gaining inspiration. But once an "inspired" wing design has come to her, I fully expect her to test the design and materials using the full scientific armamentarium. And then do it again...!

So, beyond the kind of introductory, generic, field-defining caveat mooted above, I haven't yet been able to wrap my neurons around the topic that a science teacher and science students would fruitfully be discussing within the realm of science for which the announced teaching of "science" ought to be that science has indentified some "non-, meta-, or super-natural" *cause* of something...

If you have an example of some within-science problem for which you think such a teaching would be appropriate, I'd certainly be interested in the opportunity of considering the specifics.

I don't know that I draw any particular conclusions from "fine tuning." It may be interesting or not, depending on what the meta-parameters turn out to be. I certainly don't draw any negative conclusions from it (of the form, for example, that "the findings we currently have regarding the so-called *fine tuning* of basic properties of physics *proves* that the universe was NOT exquisitely designed to accommodate ourselves"). I simply note that it's way premature to get overly-excited about the potential positive conclusions that have been drawn from it.

Geiiga said...

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!

I don't know if I misunderstood the original point being made or not, but I got the gist of science teaching science, and not attempting to answer these deeper questions.

With evolution, it's a 'Scientists are pretty sure it happened this way. There are other theories, but it's better for a philosopher or a priest to explain them to you.'

I think that's as good as you can get without actively promoting religion in a public school setting.

MarkC said...

Stevie,

Thanks for your thoughts. I think I can respond best by focusing on one central paragraph:

But I'm having difficulty envisioning an area currently or potentially susceptible to investigation with the tools and methodologies of science for which it would be an appropriate statement that something non-natural had been somehow verified as "the cause."

As soon as you use the word verified, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Science will most certainly never be able to verify that it has limits, or what those limits might be. It will never be able to verify that anything observed was caused by something outside its limits. Verification is certainly not possible here.

You asked for any specifics we could discuss. Really, these issues only come into play with historical sciences (I'm sure that's not a real term, but it works for me). That is, scientific research into something that has happened, trying to determine based on the observed results what the initial event was.

So, scientists observe the Grand Canyon, and attempt to determine what forces caused it to be as it is. They attempt to reconstruct, as well as they can, what the history is behind the observed phonemenon in the present, what the cause is.

In many situations (for example, the Grand Canyon), the history can be determined quite reliably. The age of the earth is another example where scientists can determine information about the past with a high degree of reliability.

But let's take a small example, to try to illuminate what I'm talking about. Imagine a geologist examining fossilized tracks found in a dry riverbed. The tracks and various other markings all connect to a well-known animal known to have lived in the area around the approximate time... but there are other markings (possibly regular scuffmarks) that do not fit the normal pattern. Now, there is no way for the geologist to KNOW, or to VERIFY, whether those markings are significant or not. Maybe this is a new and previously unknown species. Or maybe those scuffmarks were made many years later by some other type of creature. Maybe they were made a year ago by mischievous hikers in the area playing. That third possibility, because of the involvements of sentient creatures intentionally monkeying with the evidence, would be outside the realm of the geologist and in the realm of the psychologist or forensic detective. But, there's no way to verify or know one way or the other.

I expect that when that geologist reported on his findings, he would report on the unexpected results, and lay out the variety of plausible explanations, which would include, "Something outside the realm of geology caused this". The geologist wouldn't attempt to name the individuals, or describe their motivations.

I also imagine that the probabilities the geologist would apply to each of those plausible interpretations of the unexpected results would depend on how likely she considered each result to be. If the area was a relatively popular hiking spot for teens, the geologist might be inclined to consider the final possibility the most likely. If, on the other hand, the area had been covered by dense brush and she had made the discovery herself, she might be inclined to lean toward one of the natural possibilities. Again, no verification or certainty would be possible.

Maybe, a few years down the road, further evidence showing those same odd scuffmarks would be discovered, maybe with some other physical evidence to corroborate the discovery and help provide a geological explanation for it. When that happened, the initial evaluation of the probabilities would be drastically changed.

So, my question again is: Is it ever appropriate for scientists, particularly in a science classroom, (and I'll add here in reference to historical science), to point to something outside of naturalistic science as one of the plausible explanations for a particular observed phenomenon?

It seems to me that the answer is yes, though I am careful to qualify that. My qualifications rule out the vast majority of suggested "let's teach evolution and ID side-by-side" proposals being considered these days. I also want to be clear that these plausibilities can never amount to a "proof" of intelligent design, or anything like it. It is quite possible that we will come to understand something better in the future that will show that the phenomenon that we supposed to be sourced outside of nature was actually quite natural. These statements can never go beyond the "Based on what we currently know" qualifier, or the "best plausibility we can imagine" qualifier.

How about some concrete examples. Here are some questions that I can imagine being asked in a science classroom, and the way I think they would be best answered.

Q: "What came before the Big Bang? How did the Big Bang get started?"

A: "Science can't see back that far at this time. It's quite possible that in the future we'll find a way to see evidence of what happened before the Big Bang, or it's possible that the answer to that question can only be found outside of science altogether."

Q: "How did life get started?"

A: "Most scientists guess that there were initially just chemicals, that some of those chemicals formed into self-replicating organisms, and that these organisms in just the right environment evolved into life. However, scientists haven't been able to replicate these chemical conditions. Other scientists hypothesize that life on earth came from elsewhere in the universe; this pushes the question of the beginning of life outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Other scientists believe that science can't provide the answer to the beginning of life at all, and that we need to look outside of science for those answers."

Those are two pretty straightforward examples. Would you answer them the same way, or differently?

Mark

MarkC said...

geiiga,

Welcome! I'm glad to have you as part of this discussion, and I hope you'll stick around.

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!

I try to demand as few things to be rigidly defined as possible, and I don't think I'm suggesting any rigid definitions here.

With evolution, it's a 'Scientists are pretty sure it happened this way. There are other theories, but it's better for a philosopher or a priest to explain them to you.'

That would be to treat "evolution" as a monolithic item to be accepted or rejected en masse. I think the basic outline of biological evolutionary theory is so solid scientifically that it would be dishonest to even present alternates. The Biblical story of the full variety of life being created in six discrete time periods, for example... there is not scientific reason to think that to be literally true, so it would be dishonest to include that story in a science classroom. Science is quite clear, from a variety of intersecting disciplines, that life as we know it has developed from earlier life forms through reproduction, selection and mutation (the details here can be argued, but only the details). The amount of time involved, and the rough timelines involved, are well established scientifically.

So, if that's what you're referring to as "evolution", then to say "There are other theories" in a science classroom would be highly inappropriate. There are no other scientific theories that deserve mention, and the scientific theories we have are reliably demonstrated with research.

However, there are aspects of evolutionary theory that do not even fit the "scientists are pretty sure it happened this way" description. I mentioned abiogenesis in my reply to Stevie. There are other aspects of biological evolution, as well, for which scientists cannot provide answers, and in some cases even have difficult providing hypotheses. In these cases, I think it would be healthy for scientists (and science teachers) to be able to honestly recognize the (current, not necessarily permanent) limitations of their understanding, and recognize the possibility that they will never be able to provide answers because the actual answers are outside of scientific inquiry.

I hope that I'm explaining this a little bit better each time, and not just confusing things with an abundance of words. :)

Mark

steviepinhead said...

Hmmm. As always, I suspect that a fair amount of any confusion must have a source at my end of the pipeline.

However, I confess to still being a little bit confused about your use of "natural" and whatever it is that you are hoping to contrast with that.

In your examples, the geologist perplexed by the ambiguous scuffs in relation to his or her non-ambiguous fossilized tracks may well not be sure what caused the scuffs, but I'm not sure how the range of possible causes you propose would fall outside of "natural" causes--even if they happen to fall outside of the immediate expertise of the geologist qua geologist.

If I'm tracking (heh heh) you on this one, it seems like the only sense in which the geologist ought to be associating the scuff marks with non-"natural," non-"scientific" causes is that the geologist is apparently unable to rule out that the scuffs may have been made recently (as opposed to in "geological" time) and that they may have been made by non-"natural" means (that is, by hikers or vandals or...).

While a recent origin of the scuffs might conceivably place their origin outside the geologist's area of expertise (as opposed to a professional tracker's or forensic scientist's), I'm not clear why you would suggest that the possible recent origin would place the scuffs outside of naturalistic scientific explanations in general.

Likewise as to the possible human-activity source for the scuffs. While there's a reasonably well-understood natural:cultural dichotomy, it's not clear to me why that's relevant here, where (I had thought) that by "natural" we meant "potentially tractable to the procedures and techniques of observational sciences." Which, as far as I'm concerned, would include inside "natural" all the observable impacts and activities of humans.

(One could also quibble over whether this particular example--how the geologist is to treat or classify the unknown (but presumably still-physical/material) origin of the scuffs versus the highly-constrained origin of the fossil tracks--is the kind of thing that would ever come up in a high school science class. But that would be nitpicking...)

So this example seems to stand apart from your later ones. Sure, there may be an issue, perhaps even rising to one of scientific ethics, of how one most appropriately and cautiously "labels" or describes the nature and origin of the ambiguous scuff marks, but I see no basis (within the "fact pattern" of the example given) why the geologist should tag the scuffs as of possible supernatural origin. To summarize, that the origin of the scuffs may fall outside of the explanatory capability of geology doesn't come close, in my mind, to requiring the geologist "to point to something outside of naturalistic science as one of the plausible explanations for ... [this] particular observed phenomenon." (My bold, elision, and bracketed word.)

Your Big Bang and abiogenesis examples are less confusing. I don't have a major problem with either of your suggested summaries of the situation.

(I do have a couple of quibbles: I'm not sure it's meaningful to talk of "before"--that is, in chronological/causal sequence terminology--with regard to the Big Bang since, as I understand it, the Big Bang produced in one fell swoop our entire space-time continuum. Again, anything like classical, deterministic "causation" runs into non-trivial problems when the discussion switches into quantum/singularity mode. Likewise, even if some or all of the substances necessary to the generation of life on earth are speculated to have come from "elsewhere in the universe," it's not clear to me as a matter of principle (as opposed to immediate practicality) how this "pushes the question of the beginning of life outside the realm of scientific inquiry." At least as long as "elsewhere in the universe" could still be "somewhere in the physical universe within the [eventual] reach of our instruments and measurements." I'm also not sure that "guesses" is quite the term I'd use for the productive inquiries that are ongoing in the field of abiogenesis.)

These quibbles aside, however, I think your suggested answers fairly state the possibilities: science has not yet been able to determine whether it will or will not ultimately be able to address these questions; if, ultimately, it is unable to do so, then it is still possible that there are "natural" explanations which simply lie beyond our limited reach, just as it is possible that there are no "natural" explanations and that we will have to look "beyond" the natural for explanations. Though exactly how we would go about "doing" the latter, I'm not clear (other than "looking within," taking one or more supernatural explanations on faith, etc.) While I have no problem with procedures of the kind I've parenthetically referenced, it would be important to me, in considering these sorts of alternative exploration, to discuss the ways in which these "explanations" differ from "scientific" ones--a discussion which might need to venture into the areas of consensual reality, inter-verifiability, falsification, and so forth.

In short, without attempting to elevate or otherwise position science as a superior means of attaining knowledge in the largest possible sense, I'm less than comfortable leaving high-school age students with the impression that science and faith are on the same footing as ways of attaining knowledge about the workings of the observable physical universe.

A final quibble: while I know what you mean by "historical" sciences, I'm probably less comfortable with the usefulness of that distinction than you seem to be. All our knowledge and observations arrive with an inescapable time lag of some degree. All our knowledge and observations are arrived at only after a fair amount of processing in the brain. Thus, we have to work back and "reconstruct" reality in all cases, though for most day-to-day lay purposes this lag tends to be one we can safely ignore.

It really can't be safely ignored even in some day-to-day contexts, however, and once we move beyond the mundane into almost any area of cutting-edge "scientific" inquiry, we're almost always dealing with interpretation of observations that are indirect both spacially and chronologically. The interactions of particles and forces in the Large Hadron Collider will be a matter of reconstituted inferences, just as much as in astronomy, history, automobile accident reconstruction, or evolutionary biology. The chain of evidence and inferences needs to be just as rigorously established and tested in all these disciplines.

"Predicting" from the cutting edge of physics or cosmology that neutron stars or black holes should be observed is no different, in essence, than "predicting" that in rocks of a certain age, strata, and type that an intermediate type of tetrapod fossil (such as Tiktaalik or Anthyostega) may well be found...

MarkC said...

Stevie,

I hope I can clear things up with some simple statements. There are some things I obviously didn't make clear.

* The whole tracking example was an analogy. I did not intend it as an example of a natural/non-natural distinction, or of something that would come up in a classroom. It was intended as an analogy (geology as analogous to science at large, geologist as analogous to scientist, non-geological causes as analogous to non-natural causes). Sorry for that confusion.

* Regarding your quibble about my "pushes the question of the beginning of life outside the realm of scientific inquiry" comment... I was speaking in terms of the "immediate practicality" that you refer to. I was intending to communicate in a "based on what we can see now and in the near future" sense, not in a "theoretically possible" sense.

* With regard to looking beyond the natural, you wrote: "Though exactly how we would go about 'doing' the latter, I'm not clear". Well, it certainly wouldn't happen in a science classroom! Again, I am not suggesting that a science classroom would ever prove or determine that it had come across a limit of science; and I am not suggesting that a science classroom would ever specify or detail any potential or plausible non-scientific causes. Only that it might recognize the potential that they exist in certain areas of inquiry.

* In short, without attempting to elevate or otherwise position science as a superior means of attaining knowledge in the largest possible sense, I'm less than comfortable leaving high-school age students with the impression that science and faith are on the same footing as ways of attaining knowledge about the workings of the observable physical universe.

Amen! I hope I've been clear that I agree with you on that point, and if not, let me simply reiterate that you are quite right.

* Regarding "historical" sciences, you referred to experiments such as the Large Haldron Collider, pointing out that in those cases we are still require to work from reconstituted inferences to determine what happened. You are quite correct. I don't intend to define a strict dividing line between "historical" sciences and "current" ones. But, I do think there is a spectrum based on factors such as repeatability and environment control. The more we can control the experimental environment, the more reliable our inferences can be. The more we can repeat the experiment with slight changes, the more thoroughly we can test our predictions, and the more confident we can be of our inferences. By "historical" sciences, I'm speaking of things where it is difficult or impossible to reproduce the environment and/or the inferred cause to test our predictions. I realize that's not a strict definition, but I still find it to be a helpful one.

I hope that helps a bit,
Mark

steviepinhead said...

Quite a bit! Thanks.

Kevin said...

Mark,

Are you focused more upon science teachers clearly expressing the limits of their understanding and degrees of uncertainty, or upon them specifically including "outside of science" as a valid possible answer for that which is presently unknown?

If it's the latter, then I'm still unsure of what "outside of science" means, and thus what admission of that possibility implies. Intuitively, I imagine you mean useful subjects such as God, free-will, objective morality, etc., which are presently unprovable, though I'm not sure I would categorize these as "outside of science". What would we gain by such a categorization?

In general, from my perspective, scientific knowledge should be conveyed in terms of empirical evidence (though it seems it often is not), and the concerns of science and religion are largely orthogonal as science pertains to what we are able to do and religion pertains to what we should do.

Kevin

MarkC said...

Kevin,

"Outside of science" to me means something outside of the natural world that we are able to observe, measure, and (to some degree) control. The cause of something we observed would be postulated to be possibly outside of science... science would not discuss the nature or specifics of what is postulated to exist outside of its observable boundaries.

the concerns of science and religion are largely orthogonal as science pertains to what we are able to do and religion pertains to what we should do.

In many situations this is true, but it is where the two intersect that I am interested at this point. To give a brief example... the founders of the United States felt it important to put the phrase "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" at the forefront of the Declaration of Independence. The possible existence of a cause for humanity outside the natural world, providing a basis for shared morality and a sense of purpose and meaning to life, is a significant idea with wide-ranging ramifications. It is also an idea that science interacts with.

(Qualifications to avoid misunderstandings: Theism and Deism are not necessary for morality, purpose, or meaning in life; science cannot prove or disprove the existence of such a Creator, however much it "interacts" with the idea; our concepts of a Creator should never override science when understanding the natural world; one can believe completely in biological evolution from beginning to end without it destroying their belief in God as Creator.)

In those areas where science interacts with the possibility of outside-nature causes for what we observe (say, abiogenesis), I am suggesting that science classrooms (which are, at those points, sharing hypotheses that have not been verified or corroborated) include the plausible hypothesis that what we observe was caused by something outside our natural world, and therefore beyond the ability of scientists to detail or discuss. I see no reason not to include that hypothesis along with the others that scientists are dreaming up for the possible origin of life (as an example).

And, it seems to me that the question of whether the origin of life was caused by natural forces or outside-nature forces is non-trivial. It is not definitive, it is not a necessary or critical point, but it is significant.

Mark

Dave said...

Mark,

I've been following this discussion with interest. I'm trying to learn from each of the comments that have been contributed. At this point, I have a couple questions for you as I try to understand more clearly your point of view.

"Theism and Deism are not necessary for morality, purpose, or meaning in life"

Could you expand your thoughts about what you stated in the above phrase?

"our concepts of a Creator should never override science when understanding the natural world; one can believe completely in biological evolution from beginning to end without it destroying their belief in God as Creator.)"

In your statement above, I'm trying to understand more completely your views of the relationship between a Creator and the absolutes of science in terms of precedence.

Could you also define how you are using the term "biological evolution?" Knowing your working definition of that term will help me grasp your statement that "one can believe completely in biological evolution from beginning to end without it destroying their belief in God as Creator." In particular, I'm contemplating the word "completely" in relation to believing in biological evolution.

-Dave

MarkC said...

Dave,

Let me try to answer your questions as well as I can.

"Theism and Deism are not necessary for morality, purpose, or meaning in life"

Expanded version:

Many people who are neither theists nor deists are moral, and claim to have purpose and meaning in their lives. I see no reason to dispute them on any of those points.

I know that there are very lengthy discussions held in philosophy (and amateur philosophy) circles that debate the basis of morality and meaning-in-life... but, for my part, it is enough that people who are not theists or deists are moral and seem to have meaningful lives.

I'm trying to understand more completely your views of the relationship between a Creator and the absolutes of science in terms of precedence.

Well, there are no "absolutes of science"... but I think I know what you're driving at.

When studying the natural world (say, "where do clouds come from?"), I look to what science says about the question. Science (which, of course, in my perspective is one of the ways God reveals Himself to us, but that's an aside) is the most reliable authority in answering questions of how the natural world works.

That seems pretty self-evident to me. Would you think of it differently? If so, I'd be interested to hear your perspective.

Could you also define how you are using the term "biological evolution?"

Well, I guess I'm using it in the most basic sense: the development of life as we know it today from naturalistic processes, driven by reproductive and environmental natural selection (or similar factors).

I don't really know of any other definition of the term.

In particular, I'm contemplating the word "completely" in relation to believing in biological evolution.

Take it back as far as you like. If science is able to convincingly determine that all life as we know it developed through apparently undirected processes of natural selection from the earliest life forms; and if science is able to convincingly determine that the earliest life forms developed from pre-existing non-life through apparently undrected natural processes of some sort; and if science is able to trace that non-life matter all the way back to the Big Bang, and convincingly determine where it came from before the Big Bang happened; and even if science is able to determine how time began, where the first matter itself came from, and how it came to have the exact traits that it has for our universe to develop...... even given all that, my belief in God as my Creator would not be affected.

Now that you've asked some questions, and I've answered, it's your turn. What do you think about these things?

And no fair waiting until we talk in person. The other people listening in here deserve to hear your thoughts, too. :)

Mark

steviepinhead said...

In Mark's abiogenesis example, I'm still having problems with the notions of plausibility and testability versus whether a given natural or supra-natural "cause" can be logically or philosophically ruled in or out.

A "plausible" cause or explanation to me imports a degree of potential testability (something science either could test now--or, extrapolating from the rate of past increases in knowledge and of the power and range of science's tools and methods--that it might well be able to test in the future) which to me places that explanation on a different scientific footing than one which simply "cannot be ruled out," but which no one has any idea how to test...

Thus, while we might not currently be able to rule out a supra-natural origin for life (in the sense of how "living" substances developed from non-living assemblages of chemicals, rather than in the sense of Mark's ultimate "origin/creation of everything, including matter, time, and physical laws"), the conjectures and hypotheses that scientists are currently "dreaming up" and investigating are at least potentially testable in the usual ways.

For purposes of presentation to a (middle school or high school-level) science class, therefore, I'm still not sure that presenting chemical abiogenesis and supra-natural abiogenesis as somehow on an equal footing with regard to scientific testability would be appropriate.

Likewise, with regard to, say, string theory, supersymmetry, and other current attempts to unify relativity, quantum mechanics, and gravity. While most of these conjectures are not currently testable, at least some of the predictions of at least some of these theories may be testable at the energies intended to be generated when CERN's Large Hadron Collider comes into operation within the next few years.

Other predictions might never be tractable to human "laboratory" experiments but are in principle testable by material beings within a material universe operating like ours appears to do at high enough energy levels. Even if these can never be achieved by any currently-imaginable technology which humans might be capable of deploying, perhaps they could be investigated near the event horizon of black holes or at the energy levels associated with the plasma jets emitted by quasars. Or something!

If there are any "scientific" avenues, even in principle, for probing how the universe (or the assemblage of multiverses or extra dimensions, or whatever "it" all turns out to be) was generated in a supra-natural fashion, then they have escaped my attention.

Again, I agree wholeheartedly with Mark that whether or not a cause or explanation is now, or in principle might be, susceptible to physical "scientific" investigation has no necessary bearing on whether one's "belief in God as [one's] Creator" is valid.

My concern is whether such "ultimate belief" statement are appropriate to be presented in science class as equivalents of current or even speculative "scientific" propositions.

To do so without discussing notions of testability and falsifiability would leave a false impression that, in Kevin's terms, these "competing" explanations are "orthagonal" for purposes of science class when I'm not at all sure that they are...

Dave said...

Mark,

I agree with you that God reveals Himself in science. Many atheistic scientists and students of science have come to believe in God as a result of their scientific studies. On the other hand, a good deal of scientific study begins with the assumption that there is no God, and to waver at all on that basic premise nullifies the definition of what science is to many.

"Take it back as far as you like. If science is able to convincingly determine that all life as we know it developed through apparently undirected processes of natural selection from the earliest life forms...... even given all that, my belief in God as my Creator would not be affected."

Like you, my belief in God as my Creator will never be affected by any scientific discovery or theory. Actually, the more I learn about proven scientific fact the more in awe I am of the God who created everything that can be studied scientifically. Most of all, I'm amazed that this Creator God has revealed Himself to mankind and wants a relationship with men, women, and children.

When it comes to the origin of life and the universe, I see there being two options in a very general sense. There are variations, but to me it boils down to either believing in the theory of evolution or the theory of Creation. We each can choose in which theory we will believe. Since believing in either theory requires faith, I've chosen to believe the biblical account of creation in its literal sense.

My belief in the literal reading of the biblical creation account does not prevent me from appreciating certain proven scientific explanations for the natural world. However, I approach the equation by accepting the creation account as my underlying assumption. I view all other scientific theories and facts through the lens of that assumption. It is much the same approach, but in reverse, that those take who study the natural world by assuming that there is no God so there must be other natural explanations for the universe and our origin.

I know that there are also many, like you (if I understood you correctly), who do believe in the Creator God, but that your primary assumption is that the natural world (in this case the origin of it) can best be explained through scientific means.

-Dave

MarkC said...

Dave,

I must admit that you completely lost me when you said, "it boils down to either believing in the theory of evolution or the theory of Creation". That doesn't make much sense to me.

First, we need to be careful of our use of the word "theory". If we're using it scientifically, then there is no sense in which "Creation" is a "theory", and labeling "evolution" as a "theory" is to give it a great deal of weight as a known fact. In scientific terms, things that have not yet been well-demonstrated with evidence are called "hypotheses", not "theories".

So, if you're using "theory" in the scientific sense of the word, Creation doesn't fit. If you're using it in the popular sense of the word, evolution doesn't fit.

I also see no reason to think that evolution and Creation are mutually exclusive. Creation says "God made the world as we know it". Evolution says "the world as we know it came about through these natural processes". Since we Christians (you and I, at least) have plenty of other examples of God using quite natural processes to accomplish what He intends, I see no reason to think that the natural processes that evolution details wouldn't be the means God used to do His work of creating the world.

Since believing in either theory requires faith

No, believing in at least large parts of biological evolutionary science requires no faith whatsoever. It requires no more faith than believing in the existence of Abraham Lincoln requires faith. The evidence is rather definitive. This point is probably the central point where our perspectives on this issue diverge.

The definitive nature of the scientific evidence is particularly true when you compare against the "biblical account of creation in its literal sense". The geological and other evidence is so resoundingly in opposition to the literal reading of the order of creation recorded in Genesis 1 that I think one is forced to either give up the literal reading of Genesis 1, or give up observation of evidence in our world as a way of knowing what has happened in our past.

a good deal of scientific study begins with the assumption that there is no God.

I'm sure this is true. To the extent that those particular scientists assume that there is no God, they are thinking religiously, not scientifically. But, I don't see why we should doubt the solid and well-corroborated evidence for biological evolution based on the possible religious motivations of some of the researchers. Are you suggesting that all the researchers are religiously motivated, and that none of the research is reliable because of it? I don't think that claim can possibly stick.

Like you, my belief in God as my Creator will never be affected by any scientific discovery or theory

I'm confused about this statement, in light of the rest of your comment. If I understood you correctly that you believe Creation and evolution to be mutually exclusive, then how could the scientific evidence for evolution not affect your belief in God as Creator? Do you believe the scientific research to be unreliable, and therefore not worthy of serious consideration?

If so, it wasn't long ago that I was in the same boat. I searched back a bit, and found a comment I left on another blog regarding this topic. I wrote that lots of science was just done by ideologues on one side or the other, and then concluded that even though some science was reliable, "it's hard for me to filter the good from the bad, so I tend to ignore it all." In the three years since, I've stopped ignoring it (thanks, Stevie!), and I've found that it speaks convincingly on many of these issues.

"My belief in the literal reading of the biblical creation account does not prevent me from appreciating certain proven scientific explanations for the natural world."

Which "proven scientific explanations" (that would be theories in science-speak) for the natural world do you think are reliable?

It is much the same approach, but in reverse, that those take who study the natural world by assuming that there is no God

Yes... but neither approach is particularly healthy, I don't think. Don't compare yourself against the atheist ideologues posing as scientists... compare yourself against the scientists who approach their natural world with as few assumptions as they can, and see what it has to tell them about our past.

your primary assumption is that the natural world (in this case the origin of it) can best be explained through scientific means

Dave, you're sitting at a computer right now, right? What color is it? I don't know, because I can't see it, but you know... through scientific means. Observation of the evidence around us is the best way we have of knowing about our world, as far as it is able to take us. It can only take us so far, of course. All the religions in the world are attempts to go farther, to answer the questions that our observation of the world cannot fathom.

When a scientist looks at a fossil, and dates it through multiple unrelated methods, and compares it against other fossils of the same type or in the same area, and comes to conclusions about what type of animal that was and when it lived and what type of environment it was living in... that is no different (or at least not different in any really significant way) from you observing your computer to see what color it is.

If you tell me that when I asked what color your computer was, you prayed for the answer rather than looking for it, then I'll believe that you do not assume that science is the best way to learn about the natural world. Otherwise, I'll assume you're like the other few billion of us on the planet. :)

I think the real issue here is not whether or not science is considered the best way to learn about the natural world... but whether or not science has anything reliable to say about how the world came to be the way it is.

Mark

MarkC said...

Stevie,

I don't think I suggested what you're concerned about, though we're getting into the realm of splitting hairs.

Regarding abiogenesis as an example, here is the key phrase from my suggested science-class answer to the abiogenesis question: "Other scientists believe that science can't provide the answer to the beginning of life at all, and that we need to look outside of science for those answers."

You're right that that hypothesis is not testable. Science will never be able to prove its own limits. But, can't it acknowledge that they may exist, and accept the possibility of such limits as a hypothesis?

I'm attempting to frame this question from inside out rather than outside in. That is, looking from the perspective of science, recognizing its own limitations... not starting from some other-than-science explanation and putting the two in competition.

I recognize that most (if not all) proposals going around today take the outside-in approach (evolution is just a theory, so put Christian Creationism alongside it as an equal partner!). I think all those approaches are wrong.

But, from the inside out, it seems to me that science can recognize the possibility that it can't provide every answer, because possibly some answers are not in the naturalistic realm. And, in situations where even plausible hypotheses are hard to come by (abiogenesis, for example), it seems to me that science should put the "we've reached our limit" hypothesis (untestable, yes) next to other unverified hypotheses (some of which are untestable in practice for the long-foreseeable future).

But, yes, you're right, there is a difference in the degree of theoretical testability involved. I'd be happy for that disclaimer to be included in my answer. :)

Mark

MarkC said...

Stevie,

I've got a side thought I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on. It occurred to me for the first time this evening, and it's late, so I'm probably going to sound stupid... but that'll be nothing new. :)

A couple of comments back, I mentioned one of the more prominent hypotheses regarding abiogenesis, that life simply came from somewhere else in the universe, and said that this pushed the question outside the realm (I intended "practical realm") of scientific inquiry.

You responded:

even if some or all of the substances necessary to the generation of life on earth are speculated to have come from "elsewhere in the universe," it's not clear to me as a matter of principle (as opposed to immediate practicality) how this "pushes the question of the beginning of life outside the realm of scientific inquiry."

You then later differentiated between the "from elsewhere in the universe" hypothesis and the "limit of science" hypothesis, by saying that the first was theoretically testable while the second one wasn't, and that therefore the first was acceptable in a science classroom while the second probably wasn't.

Correct me if I've read you wrong somewhere along the way.

I got to thinking about other scientific issues, such as the high-complex chemical processes on the cellular level that some scientists argue could not have evolved through any process we currently can imagine, and that therefore the best explanation for the development of those processes is Intelligent Design. This is rejected by most evolutionists as being an unprovable hypothesis.

But what if we qualified the "Intelligent Design" argument by saying that the Intelligence was from elsewhere in the universe, and was potentially detectable. There would then be at least theoretical verification and falsification possibilities (falsification certainly harder to achieve than verification). Those possibilities for verification and falsification would be exactly equal to those for the same hypothesis applied to abiogenesis.

With that qualifier, then, would that particular aspect of Intelligent Design (call it Natural Non-Earthly Intelligent Design) be acceptable in a science classroom as a plausible hypothesis for the development of complicated chemical processes?

(Note: I am not well-versed in the science of those complicated chemical processes, so I'm using this as a hypothetical case more than a specific one.)

If natural alien intelligence is a fair cause to be cited in science classrooms, this could open up whole new avenues for the Intelligent Design supporters. :)

Mark

Kevin said...

Mark,

"science would not discuss the nature or specifics of what is postulated to exist outside of its observable boundaries."

But, presumably, there is some interaction across that boundary between natural and supernatural, right? And to the extent that we in the natural can affect the supernatural and be affected by it (observe it), wouldn't such interaction be the domain of science?

i.e. I think science would view the supernatural as a black box, with inputs and outputs and statistical correlations, which is akin to our models of so many natural phenomena that its unclear how we could distinguish it as distinctly "supernatural". Sorry if I'm repeating myself.

But also, to some extent, it seems like you are defining the supernatural to be unknowable, which suggests that admitting "outside science" as a possible answer is tantamount to admitting a dead end (as Stevie says, it would be untestable). If so, this seems contrary to the requisite curiosity of science and unnecessarily limiting if something further can in fact be learned.

So, I agree with Stevie that testability is required. (Though perhaps you could elaborate on your last paragraph, Stevie, since that lost me a bit -- to me "orthogonal" roughly means "independent"). But furthermore, if God exists and He interacts with us, then at some point His nature should be testable through that interaction.

And, in this context, given a phenomenon, the theory that "God did it" would not be a dead end, since we would still be left with analyzing how God "did it". Granted, from the perspective of science, including God here might be an unnecessary assumption, but I do not see it as limiting and, indeed, it may be useful in other areas (i.e. morality). I think this is in line with your latest post to Stevie regarding a detectible "Alien Creator".

While I believe the core of religion is morality (i.e. what we should do), it can entangle many more beliefs, be they ultimately true or false. Some people find their religion so useful that if science ostensibly contradicts some integral part or even minutia in some way, it is more useful for them to ignore reality. And, indeed, in the worst case, it is conceivable that even if objective morality does not exist, we may be better off believing that it does.

In summary and with apologies for my excessive rambling, I'm suggesting that (1) science cannot admit anything "outside science". Everything we interact with is the domain of science. And, (2) utility is the common purpose of science and religion.

Kevin

Dave said...

Mark,

"labeling "evolution" as a "theory" is to give it a great deal of weight as a known fact. In scientific terms, things that have not yet been well-demonstrated with evidence are called "hypotheses", not "theories"."

While a scientific theory carries more weight than a hypothesis, it is not the same as a scientific law. You speak of evolution as if it is a scientific law.

"Since we Christians (you and I, at least) have plenty of other examples of God using quite natural processes to accomplish what He intends, I see no reason to think that the natural processes that evolution details wouldn't be the means God used to do His work of creating the world."

I'm not actually trying to talk you out of your belief in evolution, but an attempt to explain a series of supernatual events wholly by natural means doesn't satisfy my thinking.

"No, believing in at least large parts of biological evolutionary science requires no faith whatsoever. It requires no more faith than believing in the existence of Abraham Lincoln requires faith."

It's all about the object of one's faith as I see it. To believe in the existence of Abraham Lincoln, one places his faith (translated: belief) in well documented history. To believe in evolution, one places his faith in how certain scientists have interpreted the data they have observed.


"The geological and other evidence is so resoundingly in opposition to the literal reading of the order of creation recorded in Genesis 1 that I think one is forced to either give up the literal reading of Genesis 1, or give up observation of evidence in our world as a way of knowing what has happened in our past."

Your view seems to limit God. Since I believe in the supernatural creation of the universe by God in the first place, it's not at all difficult for me to believe that He could have created His universe with any and all of the aspects of geology that have led some to conclude that only an evolutionary process could have produced such results.

"Are you suggesting that all the researchers are religiously motivated, and that none of the research is reliable because of it?"

No, I'm not suggesting that none of the research is reliable, but I am suggesting that some of the conclusions are inaccurate.

"If I understood you correctly that you believe Creation and evolution to be mutually exclusive, then how could the scientific evidence for evolution not affect your belief in God as Creator?"

The starting point of my belief system with regard to the origin of the universe is the literal reading of the biblical account of creation. Any scientific hypothesis, theory, or law is secondary in my attempt to understand how the world began.

"Do you believe the scientific research to be unreliable, and therefore not worthy of serious consideration?"

I believe some of the conclusions of scientific research to be unreliable, but I do think scientific research is worthy of a great deal of consideration.

"I wrote that lots of science was just done by ideologues on one side or the other, and then concluded that even though some science was reliable, 'it's hard for me to filter the good from the bad, so I tend to ignore it all.'"

I don't ignore it all, but in the cases of less than scientific fact, I may not give any particular conclusion much weight.

For example, consider all the scientific studies that have been done regarding the health hazards of second hand smoke. The scientists who have "discovered" that there are grave dangers to second hand smoke went about their research by scientific means. Likewise, the scientists who have "discovered" that there are no adverse health hazards of second hand smoke also used scientific means to reach their conclusions. Neither conclusion has been proven to the point that it can be considered scientific fact. My own logic, dislike of smoke, and two lung surgeries leads me to believe in the conclusion that second hand smoke is harmful to my health, but it not a proven scientific fact.

"scientists who approach their natural world with as few assumptions as they can"

Even you acknowledge here that not everything can be known as fact. "With as few assumptions as they can" sounds an awful lot like how I was using the term faith when you declared, "believing in at least large parts of biological evolutionary science requires no faith whatsoever." Since it is impossible to exactly re-create whatever took place at the beginning of the universe, certain assumptions or faith must be applied in seeking to explain our origin.

"Observation of the evidence around us is the best way we have of knowing about our world, as far as it is able to take us. It can only take us so far, of course."

"When a scientist looks at a fossil, and dates it through multiple unrelated methods, and compares it against other fossils of the same type or in the same area, and comes to conclusions about what type of animal that was and when it lived and what type of environment it was living in... that is no different (or at least not different in any really significant way) from you observing your computer to see what color it is."

Mark, there is a big difference to me between seeing and recognizing a color right in front of me and dating fossils from supposedly millions and billions of years ago as part of the conclusion that evolution must have occurred.

-Dave

steviepinhead said...

Kevin, I probably used "orthogonal" incorrectly or otherwise botched my syntax. My intent was to suggest that--by incorrectly conflating the scientific and religious explanations for origins, via ignoring the scientific requirement of tetability--we risk destroying the independent, orthogonal value of these explanations.

steviepinhead said...

Yesterday, I wrote a long reply to Mark's "space invaders" hypothesis which got eaten by the posting machinery--probably I got "timed out," or something, and unfortunately hadn't saved what I'd written (boo hoo!).

I won't try to recreate all of that here. In general terms, science already accepts that the "precursor" substances necessary to the emergence of life are ubiquitous in interplanetary and interstellar space--we find everything from (what the cosmologists call) "metals" (in their terminology, every element heavier than hydrogen, helium, and maybe lithium) to inorganic molecules like water, to organic molecules like amino acids (the substances which are strung together bead-like to construct proteins) being produced by *natural* means.

(This is the familiar "we are star-stuff" notion of which everyone is at least vaguely aware. The Big Bang did not "directly" produce any of the heavier elements--including ones like carbon, oxygen, potassium, and iron, that are critical for life. They are produced in the supernova immolation events of previous generations of stars. Amino acids and water are detected by spectral analysis in the form of interstellar ice and dust grains and still more directly in our own solar system as part of other moons, planets, asteroids, and comets...).

To call these substances "precursors" of life, of course, in a way assumes the conclusion that--when such substances are present in sufficient concentrations in an appropriate energy-rich environment under appropriate conditions approximating those which the geological and chemical evidence suggests obtained on and in the early earth--life can emerge from these chemical building blocks via *naturalistic* processes.

Needless to say, no "version" of life has yet been generated in the laboratory--scientists, of course, don't have immense depths of time or the entire seething surface of a nascent, coalescing planet to play with--and, despite ongoing, intensifying, and fruitful research, scientists have not yet been able to identify the precise constituents or microenvironment of the early earth which may have facilitated this emergence, nor have they yet--out of various competing steps and proposals--been able to specify the unique pathway that this emergence followed.

However, the proposals now being tested, and which will doubtless be developed over the next years and decades, are moving forward, teasing away at the "gap" between the early earth's conditions and collection of precursor substances and the appearance of early replicating chemical associations (the point from which well-understood evolutionary forces would take over and drive the process toward greater sophistication, diversity, and complexity), nibbling away at the unkown from both directions, the bottom (primordial environment, precursor substances) and top (early replicating chemical associations).

So, while abiogenesis researchers have not yet "solved" this problem--and may possibly never do so, in terms of reconstructing the "true" unique pathway--they are working away at the problem in a genuinely scientific manner: breaking the problem down into parts, proposing hypotheses and experiments that can be tested, etc.

Because science has already demonstrated that life's chemical building blocks, from elements to simple molecules to more complicated amino acids, are widely produced within and beyond our own solar system, there's nothing inherently "unscientific" or (in principle) untestable about the notion that life on earth in some sense "arose" from (or was "seeded" or "dispersed" from) elsewhere.

But, in the absence of the actual discovery of life elsewhere (or, what would be a still more remarkable discovery, the existence of advanced biogenetic life-disseminating civilizations elsewhere)--and so long as abiogenesis research (operating on the assumption that the early earth--the only currently-known cradle of life--may itself have possessed a sufficientenvironment and substances from which life might have emerged) continues to bear fruit and progress, I still would not place "space alien" origins of life (or of later "complex" developments in the history of life) on the same footing as current abiogenesis research.

A space-faring civilization hypothesis for life's origins is thus not an a-scientific one, but it is considerably less testable, in any immediate, practical sense, than the current abiogenesis research program. (And, of course, there's a "regression" problem here--either life was able to emerge *naturalistically* somewhere in the infinity of space and the depths of time, or such a *naturalistic* emergence is impossible, and required a *supra-natural* assist of some kind. There's an ironic sense, of course, in which finding, say, simplistic Martian life--or chemical markers ("stigmata"?) of life in the spectrum of extrasolar planetary systems--would tend to strengthen the notion of a *naturalistic* origin, by suggesting that life arises with relative "ease.")

With these "practicability" and "testability" caveats--that we seem to be a good deal further from demonstrating the existence of space-traveling life-planting aliens than we do from demonstrating that life could have originated here at home--I would have no problem with discussing a range of "conceivable" origin scenarios of this kind.

(I suppose there's an intermediate scenario--that life may arise with extreme rarity--and beneficent space-voyaging aliens even more rarely--but that once life does get going, by whatever means, various *naturalistic* processes--for example, tough, long-lived "spores" traveling in nooks and crannies of rock or ice blasted off the place of origin by asteroid impacts or other catastrophic events--could result in life's broader dispersal, without invoking kindly alien "gardeners.")

I’m using the asterisks around “natural,” “naturalistic,” etc., in the above discussion to signal that all that is natural and accessible to science may, of course, still exist “within” a “higher” or “deeper” reality in which supra-naturalistic entities or processes may also be at work (or at “play”--I’ve always liked the phrase “at play in the fields of the Lord”)…

steviepinhead said...

I don't know that it's useful for me to reply directly to Dave's concerns and commitments.

It's not--I hope!--that I'm unsympathetic to the quandary he's expressing, or to the world-view priorities that he is setting forth.

It's just that I'm further removed--again, not in empathy, but in terms of the theological and textual knowledge--from a gritty, detailed ability to express myself in the terms of that approach or world-view.

I would again suggest that "science" (that is, the grand generations-spanning human enterprise in which scientists everywhere of every religious persuasion are involved) does not--in choosing not to invoke explicit "religious" causal mechanisms in its attempt to locate *naturalistic* explanations--thereby reject or deny God.

If God created the universe in such a way that natural processes appear to suffice for understanding many physical processes--even if one chooses, from the religious perspective, to have faith that God did all this in the way and at the time (whatever that actually means before things get up and going!) that's set out in a "literal" reading of Genesis--then God has also set things up so that at least those physical processes can be adequately understood and manipulated via science.

To work "backwards" from that very proximate, naturalistic, scientific explanation of things to the "true," ultimate Godly explanation of things would then require an excercise of faith (which is what God seems to require, yes?), to "pierce the veil" of apparent, superficial, everyday reality to understand what really happened and why.

Lots of folks, and many scientists, choose to take this further step, to engage in this metaphysical level of understanding. (Some, of course, don't, but that's neither here nor there insofar as "science" is concerned.) That it's not "logically necessary" to explain everyday processes in naturalistic ways by invoking a celestial mechanism in no way disproves or contradicts a religious understanding of ultimate reality.

Dave may, therefore, choose his own path to squaring the apparent contradictions of a literalist faith and science, maintaining an intact faith at a fundamental level, while still accepting the benefits of modern science (computer and screen) on an everyday level. I've got no argument with that, though my own faith and understanding lead me more in (what I take to be) Mark's direction, of accepting well-demonstrated science over a "literal" reading of Genesis.

In this regard, I would reference our discussion about Bible translations. I haven't been able to convince myself--given that language can be at its most powerful and expressive when used metaphorically, given that Jesus chose to speak in parables, given that God himself "sundered" peoples and languages and chose to gift us with speech rather than telepathy, and given that our limited grasp of the use of language can hardly serve to "handicap" God's use of language--that there is really any such thing as a "literal" version of the Bible.

Everyone, in my observation, picks and chooses which passages of the Bible to understand "literally" and which to understand metaphorically or in the context of the times at which the Bible was received by mortal beings who were limited in their understanding and ability to express extremely subtle and difficult concepts in language which is itself inherently "plastic" and "fallible."

So I am less troubled by the requirements of "literalism" (though I stop well short of complete "relativistic" interpret-the-words-anyway-you-like-ism: we do manage to communicate, more or less, if not always with "literal" precision and accuracy) than Dave seems to be.

Which doesn't mean I'm right or that he's wrong...!

With regard to the limits of science, even if we turn to the "hardest" "firmest" "best-tested" science of physics--with its "laws" of things like gravity--human beings are still a LONG way from baring the fundamental ribs and struts of the workings of the universe.

I'm not suggesting that God is "hiding" in these remaining gaps (or that He has the remotest need to do so), but just pointing out that--even if and when scientists begin to probe or "ping" the universe at the weak-scale energies of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, they will still be many, many more levels of magnitude from querying the ultimate energy levels of the cosmos than they will have come from the everyday workings of matter and energy around us.

The disparity between where we have come in the last several hundred years of physics and cosmology and where we still have to go is so great that I can't even think of a mundane, marble versus the diameter of the solar system kind of analogy to invoke to describe it.

As "successful" as science has been, it has been playing in a sandbox in the Sahara, times a zillion. That we are anywhere near the "end of science"--or anywhere close to descrying the "Face of God"--is a laughable and ludicrous misconception. And the more science you know, the more laughable and ludicrous this misconception will be found to be...

Kevin said...

Stevie,

Thanks for explaining what you meant. I agree.

I enjoyed your abiogenesis comments. I wasn't aware that complex amino acids (including proteins?) have been discovered outside of Earth (by spectral analysis), so thank you for sharing.

I also agree that even literal interpretations are still interpretations. They still require some translation and attachment of meaning to individual words and phrases. Reason must still be employed to join sub-meaning together into more complex meaning. The question is, at what point do we stop and decide that we have attained the intended meaning?

I have no idea where the end of science lies, but perhaps some have descried the face of God already. I hope so.

Kevin

Dave said...

Stevie,

Thank you for your graciousness. You are fascinating to me, and I enjoy expanding my thinking by reading you.

Mark,

Since it relates somewhat (at least in my mind) to your views of evolution you have presented here, would you humor me by answering some other questions, even though they are not scientific in nature?

This question arose from our conversation together yesterday morning when you further explained your view about God's involvement in the evolutionary process.

Do you believe that mankind is set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Could you explain your view on that here?

-Dave

steviepinhead said...

I'll try to avoid the "Stevie, Stevie, Stevie" overload of yesterday (Tora, Tora, Tora?).

Dave, thanks. We once wandered into a preliminary discussion of the similarities (and differences) between the more intelligent, inventive, and social animals and people on one of the threads on Mark's personal blog. Maybe Mark could link some of that over to here (though I recognize your immediate interest in probing Mark's views, and not those of "us" in general). "Soul" seemed to be the critical aspect to several of the discussants...

Kevin, I didn't necessarily mean to suggest that the face of God cannot be descried, but that science is not--in my humble view--necessarily the vantage point best-positioned to do so.

Science is, in my view, an extremely valuable way to investigate the material aspects of Creation.

Dave said...

Stevie,

Yes, that would be great if Mark links to the thread you mentioned.

While I am interested in hearing from Mark regarding my question, I certainly want to continue to learn from all of you as well --both in past and current posts.

-Dave

MarkC said...

Response to Kevin's comment here:

Kevin,

I think your key point was this:

the theory that "God did it" would not be a dead end, since we would still be left with analyzing how God "did it".

From that, you drew the conclusion:

science cannot admit anything "outside science". Everything we interact with is the domain of science

I guess in some sense this is true, but not in the normal sense that we think of science.

Let's take an example that is only related to science peripherally, and use it as an analog. Let's say that I have cancer, and it has spread, and multiple tests and biopsies have confirmed that this cancer has spread and is not responding to treatment. Let's say that one week later, I go to the doctor again, and somehow the cancer has disappeared. In the interim, I had a group of people praying for me.

Now, in that situation, most doctors would say, "Well, I have no idea what happened, and I have no way of figuring out what happened." Most of the people who prayed would feel that they knew exactly what had happened, and that it had nothing to do with the doctor.

Now imagine that during that entire week, the patient was in the hospital and had in-depth probes monitoring his entire body. Assuming that God did the healing, those probes would be able to tell us the "how God did it" part, right?

Now let's imagine that at 1:43pm and 21 seconds on Tuesday, all the probes report cancer at full growth, but at 1:43 pm and 22 seconds on the same day, all the probes suddenly report healthy tissue with no cancer.

How would science interact with such observations? Would that not be a situation where science could say, "Well, this is obviously not something that can be explained by naturalistic means". Science could describe what happened: "The cancer was destroyed and the tissue recreated instantaneously"... but science could not necessarily describe how it happened, could it?

Science would not, for example, be able to describe the process of chemical changes that brought about the change from a cancer-ridden cell to a healthy cell, if the change was instantaneous.

I guess it all comes down to a view of miracles (that is, the extra-natural interceding in the natural world to make things happen that are inexplicable through natural processes). There are three basic possibilities

(1) Miracles sometimes happen.
(2) Miracles don't happen, because the extra-natural chooses not to interact with the world that way.
(3) Miracles don't happen, because the natural world is all there is.

I separate (2) and (3) to make clear that I don't think one must accept the existence of miracles to have belief in God.

But, for those of us who do believe in miracles, it would seem to me that the miraculous would not be explicable by science, even the "how God did it" part.

The transition from that sort of discussion back into a discussion of possible views of abiogenesis or other scientific mysteries is pretty straightforward.

Mark

MarkC said...

Response to Dave here:

Dave,

You wrote:

While a scientific theory carries more weight than a hypothesis, it is not the same as a scientific law. You speak of evolution as if it is a scientific law.

My daughters are learning about the water cycle in school. Water evaporates into the air, condenses into clouds, falls as precipitation, etc. That's no scientific law. In fact, it's theoretically possible that our understanding of the formation of clouds could still be proven wrong. It's a theory. So is evolution, in much the same way.

Now, a bit of clarification might be in order here. Let me define what I mean by "evolution" in this post. For simplicity, I'm going to limit it to a few basic tenets that are known on roughly the same level as the water cycle is known.

* The earth is a few billion years old.

* Life began on earth over 3 billion years ago. Life has existed in various forms in different stages (which we can largely define) during that 3+ billion years.

* The variety of life that we observe on earth today is the result of genetic changes from one generation to the next, with particular traits propagated through reproduction and selection, a process happening with observable progress over the 3+ billion years life has been in existence here on earth.

I don't think any of those tenets are any more (or less) up for questioning than is the nature of the water cycle. The evidence for those particular tenets is overwhelming.

To believe in the existence of Abraham Lincoln, one places his faith (translated: belief) in well documented history. To believe in evolution, one places his faith in how certain scientists have interpreted the data they have observed.

Your first sentence is correct. Your second sentence should read:

To believe in evolution, one places his faith in well-documented history.

Because looking at history in fossils and genetics and all the other records stored in the earth is really no different than looking at human-generated written records.

it's not at all difficult for me to believe that He could have created His universe with any and all of the aspects of geology that have led some to conclude that only an evolutionary process could have produced such results

You're quite right. God may have made the world in such a way that it has all the signs of a history that never existed. He also could have made the world just 100 years ago, and created all the records that make us believe that Abraham Lincoln actually existed. Science can't make any effort to speak to either possibility, and those possibilities are pointless to think about outside a theology discussion.

"Apparent age" is a possibility, and one way that many people reconcile what is clearly written in the earth's historical records with what is written in the beginning of Genesis. This is precisely what I was referring to when I said that one must either give up a literal reading of Genesis or "give up observation of evidence in our world as a way of knowing what has happened in our past".

I'm not suggesting that none of the research is reliable, but I am suggesting that some of the conclusions are inaccurate.

How do you determine which conclusions are accurate, and which are not? Does it have to do with the quality of the research itself?

The starting point of my belief system with regard to the origin of the universe is the literal reading of the biblical account of creation. Any scientific hypothesis, theory, or law is secondary in my attempt to understand how the world began.

So... scientific evidence for evolution doesn't affect your view of the Creator because you assume it must be wrong? I'm trying to understand how this "secondary" aspect plays out in real life, and I'm having a real hard time picturing it.

I believe some of the conclusions of scientific research to be unreliable

Do you believe this because of the nature of the scientific research itself? Is there a difference, other than the conclusions themselves, between scientific research whose conclusions you find to be reliable, and scientific research whose conclusions you find to be unreliable?

in the cases of less than scientific fact, I may not give any particular conclusion much weight

There is no such thing as scientific fact. To illustrate, I go back to my water cycle example. Science deals in theories, not facts. The tenets of evolution that I laid out earlier are as close to scientific fact as you're ever going to get, and they're as scientifically reliable as the water cycle.

For example, consider all the scientific studies that have been done regarding the health hazards of second hand smoke.

This example is very illustrative. You point out that various studies have shown contradictory results, so the science is inconclusive. What if that wasn't the case. What if all the studies had definitively shown that second-hand smoke caused grave problems, and the evidence had been overwhelmingly in favor of that conclusion.

It would not have become a scientific "fact", but it would have been accepted as one in practice.

That's the situation with the basic tenets of evolution that I laid out above. There is simply no contradictory scientific information. There is no scientific doubt. They are corroborated and tested, and as reliable as any of the basic scientific "facts" that we learned in grade school.

certain assumptions or faith must be applied in seeking to explain our origin

My "with as few assumptions as they can" comment was an attempt to be overly careful not to overstate myself. It wasn't meant to communicate that our knowledge of the processes involved in the development of biological diversity were based on assumptions; that is definitely not the case.

In my last two comments here, I've compared the level of our knowledge about the basic tenets of evolution (as I've defined them here) to our knowledge that Abraham Lincoln existed, and our knowledge about the water cycle. You have used the example of research into the danger of second-hand smoke, where rival studies showed different results leaving the situation inconclusive. That's the key different right now between our perspective on this issue: the confidence level with which we believe science is able to speak about how life has developed on earth based on observation of the evidence left behind.

Mark

MarkC said...

Reply to Steve here:

Stevie,

Good stuff here. You know more about the science here than I do, undoubtedly. There are just a couple of things out of what you wrote that I'd like to reply to.

I still would not place "space alien" origins of life (or of later "complex" developments in the history of life) on the same footing as current abiogenesis research

As I say, you know more about this than I do, but I didn't originate the "space alien" view of abiogenesis. I hadn't heard that theory at all until I started reseraching that comment. Being a geek, I went to Wikipedia, and learned about the "panspermia" view there. From what I could tell, it was placed on relatively equal (or nearly equal) footing with the primordial soup idea.

With these "practicability" and "testability" caveats--that we seem to be a good deal further from demonstrating the existence of space-traveling life-planting aliens than we do from demonstrating that life could have originated here at home--I would have no problem with discussing a range of "conceivable" origin scenarios of this kind.

Would you be comfortable discussing the "limit of science" scenario along with the "from outer space" scenario, with the same caveats? Because that's basically what I'm aiming for here.

You've done a pretty good job of arguing that current research in abiogenesis is making progress, that answers are likely and potentially, even plausibly (in the near future) testable. This would make abiogenesis a bad example for the point I'm trying to present, which doesn't bother me at all. The same template I used for my scripted answer to the abiogenesis question can be easily adapted to some other less-testable scientific conundrum. :)

Mark

MarkC said...

Reply to Dave here:

Do you believe that mankind is set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Could you explain your view on that here?

I can't give a very specific or detailed answer. I simply don't know the specifics or the details, and that doesn't concern me. But, I'll give an outline of what I do know and/or believe.

I believe that the world has a spiritual side to it that is not detectable by science. I believe that humans are unique among living creatures in that we exist in some way on that spiritual plane at the same time that we exist in this physical reality.

How that spiritual/physical joint existence that I believe is intrinsic to humanity came about, neither I nor science can describe. I believe that God made it happen. It obviously didn't come through physical/natural means. Other than that, I couldn't say.

Does that answer your question?

Mark

MarkC said...

Dave,

Here's a link to the earlier discussion which touched on many of the same points. I've linked directly in to the comment where the discussion moved into the relevant topic.

Stevie, thanks for reminding me about it. Since it came about from a completely unrelated post, I had forgotten about it. Thanks!

Mark

bcongdon said...

Mark,
In one place you said,

Most [people] though, I expect, honestly believe what they argue for, without hidden motives or subversive intent.

I'd be fascinated to hear more about that situation with the philosophy class. That sounds really messed up. Can you point me in a direction that might lead me to more details?

And later,

I believe that the world has a spiritual side to it that is not detectable by science.

So true. Whether people's motives are hidden or not, the spiritual side overwhelmingly influences what people "honestly believe." No need to claim subversiveness or conspiracy -- it's just the world in which we live. It behooves the secular materialist to make the spiritual side "off limits" thus gaining for himself the win before the debate begins. And yes, many of them know exactly what they're doing.

The high school barred from teaching Intelligent Design in a philosophy class was in California, not Washington. You can read about it here:

Intelligent Design Hits Snag in Calif. Schools

Darwinists Want To Ban Intelligent Design From Not Just Science Classrooms, But All Classrooms

Suit Settled: District Promises "No Creationism Classes"

--Brad

MarkC said...

Brad,

Thanks for the link.

In your original comment, you wrote:

of course it's reasonable for a science classroom to remark on things science can't answer. But reason is not in play here... Science is just the proxy for the deeper battle.

In this recent comment, you wrote:

the spiritual side overwhelmingly influences what people "honestly believe."

Does that include you? Do you think that you believe what you do because of uncontrollable influences from the spiritual world, rather than your own rational thought?

If not... if you believe that your ability to think rationally plays a significant part in the development of your own beliefs... then there's no reason for you to doubt that the same holds for people who disagree with you.

Let me put it another way. You started out by saying "of course" your views are correct. Then you said that those who disagree with you do so because of control from the spiritual world. But it's just as likely that it's the other way around... that your "of course" statement is the one controlled by the spiritual world, and that those who disagree with you are thinking rationally.

Or maybe none of us are thinking rationally, and all our thoughts are just controlled by spiritual forces, in which case there's no point in having discussions anyway.

Personally, I prefer to think that whatever influences there might be from the spiritual side of things, our rational thought is still the controlling influence in what we believe--and that holds for both people who agree with me and people who disagree with me. That makes a rational and respectful discussion such as this one valuable.

I'm not suggesting that nobody is "overwhelmingly influenced" by the spiritual side of our world. That may be the case for some people. But, it is incorrect--even disingenuous--for you to say that the entire viewpoint that disagrees with you is wholesale under spiritual non-rational control ("reason is not in play here").

Mark

bcongdon said...

I'm rational, and Richard Dawkins is rational. But there's a difference. I have spiritual truth, which expands and redeems my rational thought and allows me to see things blind to Richard. People who don't know the source of Truth (a person) cannot find complete truth using only their darkened reason. They are looking at shadows on the wall, and don't have any clue there's something outside the cave.
--Brad

Kevin said...

Mark,

Science could describe what happened: "The cancer was destroyed and the tissue recreated instantaneously"... but science could not necessarily describe how it happened, could it?

Correct; your premise of an instantaneous change implies that there would be no measure of the actual change. However, even in this case, your example indicates a correlation between those people praying and the "black box" miracle.

But does a miracle have to be inexplicable? What if we call an event a miracle because we cannot explain it, but later learn that we can actually trace back the remarkable series of events that (for the most part) caused it? Is it still a miracle?

e.g. You roughly subscribe the theory of evolution, but doesn't that help explain processes and events that were previously believed to be "miracles"? Is it any less a miracle now that we understand some of the processes?

Perhaps this trail is actually tangential to your central question of science admiting its limits -- wherein the presently unknown is actually unknowable. What are the pros and cons of admiting such a theory?

To me, the con seems to be potentially setting an artificial limit on knowledge. The pro seems to be indirectly admiting an objective basis for God (and morality) in the case where God exists but is not scientifically knowable (detectible?). Of course, the con would likewise apply if God is to some extent scientifically knowable. Do you see any other pros or cons?

Kevin

MarkC said...

Brad,

I'm curious; do you think it is valuable for you to have rational discussions about topics such as this with people who disagree with you?

If the answer is no... then I'm not sure what point you think there is in this blog, or why you're here. (That's not at all to say that I don't appreciate your input.)

If the answer is yes... I'm wondering how you think it helps move such a discussion along to say, in effect, "I'm right because I have special spiritual information that you don't have." You may be right about that... but how can rational discussion happen when that's all you have to say?

And, I notice that you compared yourself to Richard Dawkins. He's not a direct party in this conversation. Your comments apply much more directly to Stevie and to Kevin, neither of whom seem to agree with you that "of course it's reasonable for a science classroom to remark on things science can't answer", and so would presumably fall under your "reason is not in play here" remark, and would be either spiritually deceived (as you first stated) or spiritually unenlightened (as you described it in your last post).

For that matter, I also disagree with you as far as your "of course" goes... so maybe I'm not sufficiently spiritual enlightened, either.

But all that is pointless speculation, isn't it? Because maybe I or Kevin or Stevie is the one with true spiritual enlightenment, and you are actually the one "looking at shadows on the wall, and don't have any clue".

I honor your confidence in your belief, and in your spiritual enlightenment. Since I know you personally, I tend to think that you're right, that you do have spiritual enlightenment, and that on top of that you are a highly educated, clear-thinking person worthy of being listened to.

I just wish you would share some of your thoughts and insights and ideas with us in a form that would be useful to the discussion. All you've said so far is that your answer is obviously right, you are spiritually enlightened, and those who disagree with you are either spiritually unenlightened or spiritually deceived.

Maybe your thoughts and insights about the substance of the discussion can help some of those who are not yet enlightened come to the light. Can you share the rational side of the argument that leads you to say, "of course it's reasonable for a science classroom to remark on things science can't answer"? Please?

Thanks,
Mark

MarkC said...

Kevin,

You wrote:

What if we call an event a miracle because we cannot explain it, but later learn that we can actually trace back the remarkable series of events that (for the most part) caused it? Is it still a miracle?

Let me give another analogy. When a magician does a trick, it certainly seems like magic. As kids, we called it magic, and maybe even believed it was magic. Then, as we got older, we started to figure out how those tricks were done. Are they still magic? Not in any real sense.

Jesus healed a blind man by rubbing mud in his eyes. This is a miracle! But, if we discover that there is some special property in the mud in certain parts of Israel that, through natural processes (which we can therefore repeat) can make blind eyes able to see nearly instantaneously... well, I would no longer consider that act a miracle. (It could, of course, still be a miracle that Jesus knew about such properties, but that's to go too far into the specifics of the situation.)

You also stipulated "for the most part". If we can only explain natural causes for "the most part" of an event, then the part that is shown to be natural is not miraculous, but the rest may still be.

Is it any less a miracle now that we understand some of the processes?

Yes. To the degree that we understand the natural processes that brought about biological diversity, those processes are no longer miraculous. Our initial thought that they were miraculous was wrong. That's how I (and I think most people) define miraculous... something happening that does not fit within naturally-explainable behavior.

Now, back to the main topic... :)

What are the pros and cons of admiting such a theory?

I agree with your con; there is great danger in giving up scientific research in an area if we come to think that science has reached a limit. I don't think science will ever be able to define its limits with certainty, so I would hope that constant uncerrainty would keep curiosity burning, but I do recognize that danger in my position.

The pro, to me, is related to science, not religion. I don't suggest this idea because of anything to do with God or morality. I think this idea would be good because it would help science remember that it is only a limited pursuit, that it is not all-encompassing, and that it is not necessarily on a trajectory that will eventually make all other forms of knowledge moot. I sense that attitude toward science, and I think that scientific humility (and recognition of the larger scheme of "how we come to know or believe things") would be valuable.

Presenting the idea that science can have limits in a high-school level science classroom would have to be done very carefully to achieve scientific humility without swinging the pendulum too far and ending up with scientific apathy.

Mark

bcongdon said...

Mark,
Well stated.

Imagine two schools. One assumes the material world is the sum of reality. The discipline (i.e., science) which describes it is effectively God. This assumption is a religion and in this school, it is heresy against the religion to state that God has limits. To admit such is to say there is possibly something greater than God.

In the other school, say a Christian school, the only all-encompassing all-powerful being is the Creator God, to whom everything else has limits, including science. This is the type of school at which my children will study, and "of course" in that school science will be taught as having limits, as it should. There is more to reality than science can comprehend.

Many public school science teachers follow the first religion above, and will never allow heresy in their classrooms. Are they deceived, or unenlightened? Maybe both. Spiritual truth is neither secret nor difficult, but it is humbling, the biggest stumbling block of all.

--Brad

Dave said...

Mark,

In regard to your summary statements of the theory of evolution you said, "I don't think any of those tenets are any more (or less) up for questioning than is the nature of the water cycle. The evidence for those particular tenets is overwhelming."

That sounds a lot to me like the "of course" with which you have taken issue with Brad.

While I can appreciate that you believe in the theory of evolution or theistic evolution, your presentation of it as indisputable scientific fact strikes me as being intellectually dishonest. Your statement also suggests that there is not any merit to the opposing beliefs that are held by many, including trained scientists and students of science.

Furthermore, I disagree with your comparison of a current observable process which repeats itself consistently (the water cycle) with events that according to the theory of evolution took place billions of years ago that no one has ever been able to observe or repeat. In the case of evolution, it can only be speculated what actually took place based on the observable data such as fossils.

-Dave

MarkC said...

Brad,

The question I'm proposing here isn't whether or not science should be considered as having limits... but whether science classrooms should present specific hypothesized limits. One is a theoretical question, which I think that most people would agree with you about... science has limits, and cannot discover or explain everything. The other is a specific question, identifying that this or that particular piece of knowledge is beyond the realm of science.

To translate this into the words that you used earlierr...

You initially wrote: "of course it's reasonable for a science classroom to remark on things science can't answer".

I disagree with that statement. I would, however, agree with you if you said instead: "of course it's reasonable for a science classroom to remark that there are probably things science can't answer".

That's a very different point. Possibly I just misunderstood you initially. If that second thing is what you meant to say, then I have no debate with you.

Mark

MarkC said...

Dave,

You wrote: That sounds a lot to me like the "of course" with which you have taken issue with Brad.

I disagree with Brad about his "of course", but it's not improper for him to think that or to communicate it. I just wanted him to engage with all the other rational discussion that has been going on in this thread that would have contradicted his "of course" (as I understood it then).

So, yes, I think that, based on the evidence I've seen and studied, the tenets of evolution that I've listed there are "of course" statements. I am quite open to being disagreed with about that, however, and contradicted, and even shown to be wrong.

You refer to "the opposing beliefs that are held by many, including trained scientists and students of science". Could you specify what those beliefs are, and what trained scientists they are held by?

For example, regarding my first tenet: "The earth is a few billion years old." If there are competing scientific views held by any significant number of trained scientists, I'm not aware of them. Even the fundamentalist theologians that I know, who are not scientists at all and who are very interested in maintaining a literal reading of Genesis, generally admit that the earth is clearly a few billion years old. They reconcile that with the Bible by either arguing for "apparent age" creation (which makes the science irrelevant) or for some explanation of Genesis 1 (such as the gap theory) that reconciles a literal reading of Genesis 1 with that age of the earth. Are there other views that I'm not aware of?

My second tenet is similar: "Life began on earth over 3 billion years ago. Life has existed in various forms in different stages (which we can largely define) during that 3+ billion years." I'm not sure what alternative theories you're thinking of here. Even my Christian high school, which most emphatically taught Creation, acknowledged this scientific evidence. Our science classroom made a point of parsing the word "day" in Genesis 1 to show that it could mean "age", to explain how a literal reading of Genesis 1 could be reconciled with at least some of what science tells us about our past. Are there other views held by any significant number of scientists that I'm not aware of?

My third tenet ("...genetic changes from one generation to the next...") is more in dispute, but primarily by non-scientists. Imminent Intelligent Design advocates like Michael Behe would still agree with my tenet, I think. Really, the only scientific alternative I'm aware of can be best stated this way: "This or that aspect of evolutionary science is incorrect; evolutionary scientists are unreliable; God simply made it happen, regardless of what science has to say, because the scientists ultimately can't be trusted." Maybe I'm missing some scientific alternative that is held by some significant number of scientists.

If you could point out some alternatives to me, or even point me to some of the scientists that you refer to that hold alternative views so that I can read what they have to say, I'd appreciate it.

I disagree with your comparison of a current observable process which repeats itself consistently (the water cycle) with...

No analogy is perfect. That's why I've provided more than one. To explain my perspective on that aspect of the discussion, I provided the Abraham Lincoln analogy.

My point with that analogy was to argue that it is possible for science to give a confident answer about our past, if the evidence is adequately strong. Giving confident answers about our past is not a theoretical impossibility.

My point with the "water cycle" analogy was to argue that science actually has provided certain answers about our past with sufficiently strong evidence that we can be confident of them.

I'm actually not sure which of those points you're disagreeing with me about. Maybe both. But, I don't think I'm being disingenuous or "dishonest", as you accused me of. I'm certainly open to disagreement, however strongly I feel.

And, to clarify, I didn't present my tenets of evolutionary science as "indisputable scientific fact". I meant to present them as "scientific observations that have proved themselves resistant to dispute". Maybe there is a more substantial dispute against those tenets of evolutionary science that I am not aware of. If so, I am very open to learning.

Mark

MarkC said...

An open comment to anyone following this thread...

My wife read through this thread tonight for the first time, and she was not impressed with the way I had communicated. She felt that I had been overly harsh in some of my comments, that I had been overbearing in others, and that I had generally stifled discussion.

Those are the last things that I want to be doing here. For those I've been interacting with... if I've been overly harsh or overbearing or stifling, please forgive me, and let me know that you need me to back off. For those who may have considered joining in, but were frightened off by my tone... I apologize, and I will do my best not to let it happen again in the future. For my friends and fellow blog admins... if you feel that I am being overly harsh or overbearing or stifling, please call me on it (on the blog or in private, as appropriate), so I can learn how to communicate more respectfully and beneficially.

Thanks!

Mark

Kevin said...

Mark,

And as if to better make your point, you evince our focal virtue of humility (with a little help from the wife). :) There have been some impassioned or flippant moments (not toward me), though you do temper your posts as a whole. On the plus side, I think this may rank up there on the threads Brad has participated in, which is nice.

I think Dave's recent assertions are fair to the extent that you have not really presented direct evidence for his consideration, such as actual findings of genetics, fossils, dating methods, etc., but instead generally deferred to analogy and your sense of what most scientists believe and asking for evidence (or scientists) to the contrary.

But, while I think such an evidence-based presentation would be appropriate, I myself am exhausted just at the thought of gathering and presenting it in poignant and consumable bundles (as Stevie has at times in the past, IIRC), since it has been so long since I've studied it.

Unlike some other discussions, everyone's comments are predominantly directed toward you here, which I imagine would be overwhelming. For my own part, I think your opinion is between mine and Brad's or Dave's, so if I can't convince you, what chance do I have of convincing them? :) I imagine they feel similarly. Welcome to the middle. :)

Kevin

MarkC said...

Dave,

In the hopes of rejuvenating this conversation, if I haven't pushed you away with too much harshness... I'd like to try backing up and asking a fundamental question.

Do you believe that it is theoretically possible for science to reliably tell us things about our past, based on the traces left behind?

In asking this question, I'm (for the moment) avoiding the question of whether or not science actually does give us such an answer.

I was also very careful in my choice of the word "reliably". I am not asking if science can tell us things with absolute certainty.

My analogy of our confidence in the existence of Abraham Lincoln was a simplistic and extreme example of this principle (since in theory we can never know with absolute certainty that Lincoln lived). A more exact analogy would be history in general.

Take, for example, the Roman Empire. There is a great deal we don't know about that empire, and there are some things we're pretty sure we know but which are still in dispute. There are other things, like the identity of particular prominent rulers and major battles and overarching characteristics, that are known so reliably as to be beyond doubt.

Can science tell us about our past in much the same way that history tells us about the Roman Empire?

Again, I'm not asking here whether you think science actually has done so... only whether or not you think it is theoretically possible, given strong enough evidence, for it to conceivably do so.

I'd be interested to know your thoughts about that.

Thanks,
Mark

Dave said...

Mark,

"Do you believe that it is theoretically possible for science to reliably tell us things about our past, based on the traces left behind?"

In a very general sense, yes, there are some things that science can reliably tell us about our past. As to the scope of what it can reliably tell us, that is where we have some difference of opinion.

"Can science tell us about our past in much the same way that history tells us about the Roman Empire?"

Again, the scope of what we can reliably learn from science is at issue. One of the differences between your science and history comparison is that history was recorded as current events were happening or shortly after they transpired. Usually history was recorded by multiple sources. The greater degree of agreement among the sources lends to greater verification of accuracy. In addition to written history, there is the validating aspect of oral history among those who lived it, eye witnesses so to speak. Oral history is passed from one generation to another.

History is the telling of real events that took place among real people -- a written or oral recounting of what actually happened. Science, on the other hand, gives us glimpses of those "traces" that have been left behind, but we are left to largely speculate about how to interpret what all those traces mean in terms of our origin.

-Dave

MarkC said...

Dave,

This is peculiar for me to respond to. You described the differences you perceive between historical and scientific research into the past. I'm just really confused by it. I figure I must be missing something.

One of the differences between your science and history comparison is that history was recorded as current events were happening or shortly after they transpired.

I believe this is an excellent decription of fossils, as well... to give just one example. Isn't it? Or is there some difference that I'm missing?

Usually history was recorded by multiple sources. The greater degree of agreement among the sources lends to greater verification of accuracy.

The agreement of multiple independent lines of research was key in bringing me to accept the strength of the scientific research about the three tenets of biological evolution that I presented earlier. It seems that science can certainly evaluate "multiple sources" to see if they agree. Is there some difference I'm missing?

In addition to written history, there is the validating aspect of oral history among those who lived it, eye witnesses so to speak. Oral history is passed from one generation to another.

Eyewitness testimony is excellent for relatively short-term history. It doesn't stay reliable for very long, however. Imagine sitting down with someone who recounts a story that they heard from their mom who heard the story from her mom about something that happened during the Civil War. If that story wasn't corroborated with any tangible evidence, how reliable would you consider it to be? Add a few extra generations to that, and reliability drops exponentially. Go back to the time of the Roman Empire... and is eyewitness testimony of any value at all? Is there any such thing, passed down this far? What we have is mythic tradition about things like the Holy Grail, ending with "history" like The Da Vinci Code. I don't think eyewitness testimony is particularly useful to us here.

In history, and in science, the most reliable records are tangible records carefully preserved.

As for reliable preservation, it seems to me that the various records that scientists look at for their reading of scientific history are as reliably preserved as the human records of history in a time like the Roman Empire.

Is there some difference here that you're perceiving that I'm missing?

History is the telling of real events that took place among real people -- a written or oral recounting of what actually happened.

Isn't that also what fossils are? Isn't the Grand Canyon also in its own way a "telling of real events"?

And aren't there historical records that are not true tellings of "what actually happened"? The difficult job of the historian is to separate (as well as they are able) what is true from what is embellished.

Science, on the other hand, gives us glimpses of those "traces" that have been left behind, but we are left to largely speculate about how to interpret what all those traces mean in terms of our origin.

This sounds like a pretty good description of the study of history, too. When an archaeologist digs up a city, the job of figuring out what kind of city it was and what the different sotnes and vessels were used for is very much an act of interpreting traces.

The written historical records from the time of the Roman Empire also tend to be filled with glowing accounts of whoever was in charge at the time, since those were the people paying the bills. Separating truth from embellishment in such a scenario requires the tricky work of interpreting trace hints and comparing various sources of information against each other.

I guess I just don't see the differences you're referring to.

Mark

Dave said...

"I believe this is an excellent decription of fossils, as well... to give just one example. Isn't it? Or is there some difference that I'm missing?"

I'm refering to well documented history. Fossils certainly give a glismpse of plant and animal life forms, but they do not tell a complete story. That is what I meant by where speculation enters.

"The agreement of multiple independent lines of research was key in bringing me to accept the strength of the scientific research about the three tenets of biological evolution that I presented earlier. It seems that science can certainly evaluate "multiple sources" to see if they agree. Is there some difference I'm missing?"

The difference is that the conclusions drawn from the scientific evidence, or the interpretation of the data, is largely speculative. For the historical finds that fall in the same category, it should so be stated.

"Eyewitness testimony is excellent for relatively short-term history. It doesn't stay reliable for very long, however."

When eyewitness testimony and oral history are combined with the recording of history in written form, that written history is deemed to be a reliable and accurate source.

"In history, and in science, the most reliable records are tangible records carefully preserved."

On this we agree. However, with history we often had the contemporaries of that history doing the recording of it. With scientific efforts to determine how life began, we can only look at the "traces" that have been left behind. Those traces can give us some clues about what once was, but they don't accurately tell us how they came into existence.

"Is there some difference here that you're perceiving that I'm missing?"

The interpretation of the data. Where historical records are incomplete or deemed unreliable, an honest historian or student of history would admit as much. Of course there are those who embellish history. I'm suggesting that there are also those who embellish science by forming conclusions that also may not necessarily be supported by the evidence.

-Dave

Dave said...

Oops! That is, "glimpse."

MarkC said...

Dave,

Rather than keep going around in circles, I suggest that we take a different approach.

One of the key evidences of my first tenet (that the earth is a few billion years old) is the light from stars, and our ability to date the stars from that light.

I have almost no understanding of the physics or mathematics involved in such dating, so I looked around a bit. One of the first sites I found was ChristianAnswers.net. It did a rather good if simplistic job of reviewing the evidence and some of the responses from those who are religiously committed to a 6000-year-old earth, also pointing out the flaws in those responses. Then, it presented an alternative solution in glowing terms.

I did a bit of researching about that alternative theory, and found this response. Again, I don't understand the actual physics or math at all. I've never heard of most of the terms used.

But, all the same, I find the second site highly convincing.

I'd be interested to know:

* Is it valuable to have a scientific discussion such as this? Or is it all just speculation?

* Do you think a scientific discussion such as this can provide us with reliable answers?

* Do you think we can, based on the evidence, make determinations about which theories are more reliable and which are less reliable? Or is it all just one scientist's word against another, none of it actually getting us any closer to understanding reality?

* Do you have any thoughts about the actual information presented in the two sites I linked to (or other sites you might find in your own searching)?

Maybe looking at a specific scientific discussion that is Greek to both of us will help me understand your views about science's general abilities to look into the past.

Thanks,
Mark

Kevin said...

Mark, I'm enjoying reading the ChristianAnswers page. Also, for some reason, your last sentence just cracked me up laughing. I needed that. Thanks. :)

Dave said...

Thanks Mark. I will check out those sites and get back to you.

-Dave

Dave said...

Mark,

Thanks for the links to both sites. I tried to absorb as much as I could with the amount of time I had available this evening. At least I got a good start reading what each presents.

"Is it valuable to have a scientific discussion such as this? Or is it all just speculation?"

I do think there is value in having scientific discussions. But, just as I think there is value in having theological discussions, speculation does enter both at various points.

"Do you think a scientific discussion such as this can provide us with reliable answers?"

My approach to finding reliable answers regarding the origin of the cosmos and life is to start with the normal, straightforward reading of the history of creation that the Creator has given us in the Bible. As I said before, since that is my starting point and my absolute frame of reference, any scientific attempts to provide answers are subjected to the answers given in the biblical account. While I'm enjoying learning more about the basis for your beliefs and the beliefs of the other contributors here, I'm beginning to feel badly that my comments regarding my beliefs have taken this discussion off on such a tangent.

"Do you have any thoughts about the actual information presented in the two sites I linked to (or other sites you might find in your own searching)?"

Both sites have helpful research and commentary, in my opinion. The rebuttal on the second site appears to raise some valid concerns. There is a lot of information there to process, so I won't even try to get into a detailed analysis of it here. I will be returning to both sites for further consideration.

-Dave

MarkC said...

Dave,

Don't worry about the direction the conversation has gone. I'm really the one who took it here, so it's my fault more than anyone's, if "fault" is the correct word. We're not stangers to rabbit trails around here. :)

I'll be interested to hear more of your thoughts as you look more at the information in those sites (or others).

Particularly, I'm interested in hearing how you think through this critical question: If the scientific evidence disagrees with what you believe for religious reasons, how do you reconcile the two? Do you feel any need to reconcile the two?

The ChristianAnswers site looks at some approaches and rejects them, then argues for two other approaches.

One possibility is to say that scientific evidence was created in as "as if" state, so that the evidence we see in the stars of events happening millions of years ago did not actually take place, since "millions of years ago" never existed. The ChristianAnswers site dismisses this view for religious reasons, but others embrace it.

The ChristianAnswers site next evaluates the view that "science has it all wrong, and we can show how". In the end, this comes down to a conspiracy theory approach, saying that established science is blind because of an institutional unwillingness to look at things the right way. ChristianAnswers writes off one or two of these proposed solutions, then proposes one of its own.

Finally, the ChristianAnswers site suggests another way of resolving the differences between scientific evidence and the Biblical creation account, saying something along the lines of "eventually science will figure out that we're right; there will be some groundbreaking paradigm change that will resolve all the conflicts; it doesn't matter that we can't even imagine it now, or that all the evidence currently points in the other direction".

I'll be interested to hear which of those (if any) you use to resolve the conflict between scientific evidence and a literal reading of the biblical account:

* Apparent Age creation
* We know the answer, if only scientists would listen
* Science will have some future breakthrough that will change everything and show that we're right

Or, maybe you take a different approach altogether. Or, maybe you've never thought about it before.

Anyway, I'll be interested to hear how you think through these things as you read through that information.

Mark

Kevin said...

FWIW, Mark and Dave, I don't think your thread is off-topic at all.

You are discussing your individual understandings of the boundary between science and religion, or natural and supernatural, which seems to be our very topic.

I'm enjoying reading it, and I imagine even moreso as you delve into specific details and examples.

Kevin said...

Mark,

"You also stipulated "for the most part". If we can only explain natural causes for "the most part" of an event, then the part that is shown to be natural is not miraculous, but the rest may still be."

Fair enough, but how do we distinguish between what we do not know and what we cannot know?

"Our initial thought that they were miraculous was wrong. That's how I (and I think most people) define miraculous... something happening that does not fit within naturally-explainable behavior."

That seems reasonable, though I often hear the term "miracle" applied to events that might otherwise be considered coincidences. In such cases, it is not that the event itself cannot be explained, but rather it is believed that God influenced the event.

Is everything God does a miracle? Can God act by natural means? If so, would it still be a miracle?

What are the boundaries of science from God's perspective, having perfect knowledge of everything? Is everything "science" to Him?

"The pro, to me, is related to science, not religion. I don't suggest this idea because of anything to do with God or morality. I think this idea would be good because it would help science remember that it is only a limited pursuit, that it is not all-encompassing, and that it is not necessarily on a trajectory that will eventually make all other forms of knowledge moot. I sense that attitude toward science, and I think that scientific humility (and recognition of the larger scheme of "how we come to know or believe things") would be valuable."

Thanks for explaining that. Is it enough to admit that we might never know a particular truth? Or is it also important to admit some of those other forms (sources? methods?) of knowledge into science class? If so, which ones? (And if not, I'm still curious what those forms are -- e.g. divine revelation?) Are humans able to detect aspects of the spiritual realm that cannot be detected by any man-made instrument?

Being humble, by which I essentially mean "open to correction", is certainly a virtue and, I think, a requirement for good science. I agree that there can be the arrogance you describe, particularly when scientists stretch the applicable limits of models and venture too deep into the unknown.

But is it arrogant to believe that God's voice is objectively detectible and not solely subjective? Or that a divine burning bush or pillar of fire could be analyzed and learned from? Or that there really is a scientific correlation between prayer and healing in your previous cancer example?

Or perhaps I'm still misunderstanding your definition of "science"? To me, science is potentially as broad as my ability to detect or experience something real. If this is not the case for your definition, then how do you determine which of your experiences extend beyond science?

To be clear, I'm not arguing that the "natural" is all there is or that we can totally understand God, but rather that I don't know how or where to draw the line between the natural and the spiritual/supernatural.

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

Sorry not to be more vocal, er, verbal. I'm really enjoying the discussion--including Dave's thoughts!--and I think I have some dangling questions from Mark to answer.

I'll try to get back on top of that as soon as I can, but I had another minor eye operation last week (all went well and I'm hopeful that this one will last me for quite a while) which has put me behind in other areas.

Meanwhile, I am reading, pondering, and enjoying, even if I don't yet have time to type at length...
Stevie

Kevin said...

God bless and best wishes for your ideal recovery, Stevie. Thanks for the update. It's good to have you back. :)

Dave said...

Stevie,

Nice to hear from you. I'm glad the eye surgery was a success!

-Dave

steviepinhead said...

I appreciate the good wishes, guys!

For the first time since early June of '05, I'm seeing 20/25-20/30 in my troublesome left eye. And this is free of the contact lenses which had been correcting the vision (and glasses) going back to third grade or so.

There are some remaining (and probably permanent) retinal distortions in the visual field of that eye. But, overall, the outcome has exceeded my expectations. I'm very happy not to be blind or severely limited (I have a young cousin--first cousin once removed, still in her teens--who incurred a retinal detachment, and has gone through six surgeries, and is basically left with very limited sight in that eye...).

Anyway, the kind thoughts are appreciated!

purple_kangaroo said...

Stevie, I'm so happy your surgery went well.

Dave said...

Mark,

In your original post you stated, "Considering for a moment my limited possibility... do you believe that it is valid for science to say "Based on what we currently know, the most likely explanation for {something observed} is located outside of naturalistic science"? Is science ever able to say that it is most likely out of its element? Or should science simply stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer, however flawed and limited that explanation is? If science should be allowed to recognize that certain things are most plausibly explained by something outside its naturalistic sphere, would such an admission ever be appropriate in a science classroom?"

It would bring a good deal of credibility to any given scientific study if science would say, "Based on what we currently know, the most likely explanation for {something observed} is located outside of naturalistic science." This would be an honest and humble response to scientific questions that cannot be scientifically proven (or even theorized to be highly probable), while still leaving room for future scientific discoveries that might possibly lead to conclusive answers.

"Is science ever able to say that it is most likely out of its element? Or should science simply stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer, however flawed and limited that explanation is?"

I see no reason for science not to admit when "it is most likely out of its element." To admit that something is out of its element doesn't mean that it must at the same time enter into a non naturalistic discussion or explanation. It just seems to me to be better, more trustworthy science when it can admit the end of its own discoveries.

"Or should science simply stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer, however flawed and limited that explanation is?"

Now I find this to be a very interesting question Mark. I would say that if science is to remain within its own sphere of study, it must "stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer." Although, the "however" in your question is fundamental in my evaluation of scientific data and claims because it is at the point of "however flawed and limited" that I am more ready than some to reject those explanations, extrapolations, and conclusions. It is at this point that I think science should be more honest and clear in admitting when it is out of its element on any given study.

"If science should be allowed to recognize that certain things are most plausibly explained by something outside its naturalistic sphere, would such an admission ever be appropriate in a science classroom?"

The best teacher in any subject is the one who is honest and straightforward with the students about the facts...even when that means admitting that within the scope of the subject he is teaching a definitive answer has not been found. It is fair enough to mention what some of the other disciplines of study suggest, while leaving the more detailed teaching of those concepts up to the teachers of those subjects. This is particularly suitable to me when statements are classified such as, "there is a philosophical view on this matter that states..." In doing so, the science teacher (for example) is clearly stating that "this next idea I'm about to state is not a scientific view."

It is appropriate in the science classroom to acknowledge the limits of science and then to mention statements such as philosopher Plantinga's: "Starting in the late Sixties and early Seventies, astrophysicists and others noted that several of the basic physical constants must fall within very narrow limits if there is to be the development of intelligent life—at any rate in a way anything like the way in which we think it actually happened. For example, if the force of gravity were even slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants; if even slightly weaker, all would be red dwarfs; in neither case could life have developed. The same goes for the weak and strong nuclear forces; if either had been even slightly different, life, at any rate life of the sort we have, could probably not have developed..."

What I have described in answer to a couple of your questions is the type of science classroom in which I would want my children to study. It is a science classroom that focuses on scientific study but does not hesitate to acknowledge when answers lie outside naturalistic explanations.

-Dave

steviepinhead said...

Thanks, purple k!

But I'm glad to see with Dave's most recent post that folks are back to discussing the topic at hand. In explaining my (relative) "absence" from a thread that would ordinarily engage my participation, I didn't intend to divert matters...!

MarkC said...

Kevin,

I'm sorry I didn't reply sooner. I went through a few days of mental exhaustion where I could hardly work up the desire to do my job, and had nothing left over for blogging. Not sure why, but anyway, it's past. :)

how do we distinguish between what we do not know and what we cannot know?

We don't. Some things that we currently consider to be miraculous we may in the future find out are not miraculous. We will never have anything close to completely knowledge of our world.

The question at hand is whether we can ever say, from a scientific perspective, "the best explanation we can give based on what we can observe is that this is miraculous". I don't think science or pure rationality will ever be able to go farther than that, if it can even go that far.

Is everything God does a miracle? Can God act by natural means? If so, would it still be a miracle?

I would say: Probably Not, Almost Certainly Yes, Generally Not.

I hesitate very much to make any categorical statements about God. I can't really even fathom the various ways God interacts with the natural world, but I expect that a great many of His interactions with our world are not what I would consider miraculous. Maybe some people consider God interacting with our world to be "miraculous" by defintion, but that sort of begs the question.

As for the last question... I can imagine situations where we might consider that God had made something happen that was highly improbable. A strong pattern of such improbabilities would probably fall into the category of "miraculous", though I wouldn't be able to necessarily say that any particular individual event was a miracle (coincidences do happen from time to time).

I'm probably splitting hairs here. That's just the way I think. As Monk would say, "It's a blessing... and a curse." (And if you don't know who Monk is, you need to find out!)

What are the boundaries of science from God's perspective, having perfect knowledge of everything? Is everything "science" to Him?

I have no idea! Wow... that is a mind-boggling question. I'm getting a headache just thinking about it, so I'm going to move on. :)

Is it enough to admit that we might never know a particular truth? Or is it also important to admit some of those other forms (sources? methods?) of knowledge into science class?

I've tried to make clear that I don't think science classes should ever deal with any specifics of anything outside of science. I'm only suggesting that science sometimes be willing to say, "something beyond my purview may be at work here", or even "something beyond my purview is the current best explanation for what we observe".

Are humans able to detect aspects of the spiritual realm that cannot be detected by any man-made instrument?

Experientially, I would say that this is definitely the case. Scientifically, we can of course never demonstrate this.

is it arrogant to believe that God's voice is objectively detectible and not solely subjective? Or that a divine burning bush or pillar of fire could be analyzed and learned from? Or that there really is a scientific correlation between prayer and healing in your previous cancer example?

No, those things are not arrogant.

I'd be interested to know in what way God's voice might be "objectively detectible". I've never heard that suggested before. How would we know that what we were detecting was the voice of God? How would we even know that such a thing as "God" existed to have a voice?

I'm sure that a burning bush or pillar of fire could be analyzed and learned from. I doubt that we would find a likely explanation in the natural world for how such a phenomenon came to be, however.

Or perhaps I'm still misunderstanding your definition of "science"? To me, science is potentially as broad as my ability to detect or experience something real. If this is not the case for your definition, then how do you determine which of your experiences extend beyond science?

Your definition of science agrees with mine. Questions come into play when science attempts to extrapolate beyond what it can observe, to build explanations for things that cannot be directly experienced. In many ways science can speak very reliably in these situations. In some cases, though, science cannot. In a few cases, the evidence actually seems to point to a non-natural explanation for what is observed. Science can still talk freely about what is observed. Science can still discuss various characteristics of the universe robustly. But, when attempting to extrapolate from those observations, or to build an interpretive explanation out of those observations, science may need to acknowledge that possibility that it is outside its element.

I'm not arguing that the "natural" is all there is or that we can totally understand God, but rather that I don't know how or where to draw the line between the natural and the spiritual/supernatural.

None of us do. Which is sort of my point. Those who attempt to draw that line at 100%=natural and 0%=spiritual/supernatural are acting out of faith, not pure rationality.

All I'm suggesting is that sometimes, in a science classroom, we could say that it is possible (even maybe probable) that something supernatural is the best interpretive explanatory extrapolation we can draw from the observed evidence.

How's that for getting three long words all in a row? :)

Mark

MarkC said...

Dave,

Thanks for your interation with my initial questions. I generally agree with what you've got to say. I just have a couple of minor comments.

I would say that if science is to remain within its own sphere of study, it must "stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer."

I meant this in terms of "not mentioning anything else". From your other comments, I don't think you mean it that way.

I think science should be more honest and clear in admitting when it is out of its element on any given study.

And, as we've pretty well established, you and I have differing ideas about where science finds itself "out of its element". :)

It is appropriate in the science classroom to acknowledge the limits of science and then to mention statements such as philosopher Plantinga's...

That's an odd example to give, Dave, because most of what Plantinga had to say, and the entirety of the part you quoted, was scientific. To be more specific, they are scientific extrapolations from evidence, extrapolations with, though they cannot be definitively proven or directly observed, would be quite welcome in any science classroom.

We can't "acknowledge the limits of science", as if we knew where they were. We can, using scientific extrapolation techniques just like scientists use in all sorts of inquiries, come to the conclusion that something we're observing doesn't fit the laws of nature as we understand them, and therefore is plausibly supernatural... but I doubt we'll ever be able to get more clear or definitive than that.

Mark

Dave said...

Mark,

"I would say that if science is to remain within its own sphere of study, it must 'stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer.'"

"I meant this in terms of 'not mentioning anything else'. From your other comments, I don't think you mean it that way."

Oh. Ok. You are right; I am advocating that science should give its best naturalistic explanation while also humbly acknowledging that there may be answers outside the scope of science in those instances when that is the case.

"And, as we've pretty well established, you and I have differing ideas about where science finds itself 'out of its element.'"

Yes.

"That's an odd example to give, Dave, because most of what Plantinga had to say, and the entirety of the part you quoted, was scientific. To be more specific, they are scientific extrapolations from evidence, extrapolations with, though they cannot be definitively proven or directly observed, would be quite welcome in any science classroom."

Perhaps I misunderstood philosopher Plantinga's point of quoting scientific observations. I only quoted part of the text about him or quoting him because I thought you would prefer me to conserve space. From reading the whole of what you wrote and to which you linked, I thought his point was to suggest the theory of intelligent design (based on scientific observations). I'll go back and again read through the link you provided. I thought you were using him as an example of someone who, after looking at scientific observations, suggested that the answer to some of the questions regarding the origin of the cosmos is outside the scope of science, and then indicated that the theory of I.D. should be considered. If I did follow the text correctly, then that is an excellent example to me of how a science teacher could present scientific observations followed by "science hasn't been able to answer how the universe came to exist in such a precise fashion, but some philosophers have suggested that there may have been an intelligent designer." If I've completely missed Plantinga's point or your point in referring to him, then please forgive me.

"We can, using scientific extrapolation techniques just like scientists use in all sorts of inquiries, come to the conclusion that something we're observing doesn't fit the laws of nature as we understand them, and therefore is plausibly supernatural..."

I agree. Do you think the science teacher should teach that "something we're observing doesn't fit the laws of nature as we understand them, and therefore is plausibly supernatural?" I thought that was part of the question you asked in your original post. Perhaps you and I are both agreeing that science in general and science teachers specifically should be willing to admit that it is possible that some of what we scientifically observe can only be explained by acknowledging the work of the supernatual.

In your response to Kevin below, you stated very well what I've been trying to articulate from the beginning of this thread:

"Questions come into play when science attempts to extrapolate beyond what it can observe, to build explanations for things that cannot be directly experienced. In many ways science can speak very reliably in these situations. In some cases, though, science cannot. In a few cases, the evidence actually seems to point to a non-natural explanation for what is observed. Science can still talk freely about what is observed. Science can still discuss various characteristics of the universe robustly. But, when attempting to extrapolate from those observations, or to build an interpretive explanation out of those observations, science may need to acknowledge that possibility that it is outside its element."

Again, in response to Kevin below, you said:

"None of us do. Which is sort of my point. Those who attempt to draw that line at 100%=natural and 0%=spiritual/supernatural are acting out of faith, not pure rationality."

If I understand what you stated above as I think I do, then I'm confused because I thought you spent a good deal of time arguing against this concept of "faith" in relation to "science" (that I was proposing) when we met at McDonalds a few weeks ago.

As you've worked through these discussions, has your view evolved (pun intended) more conclusively to the point below in your reply to Kevin, or were you already decided on this aspect from the outset?

"All I'm suggesting is that sometimes, in a science classroom, we could say that it is possible (even maybe probable) that something supernatural is the best interpretive explanatory extrapolation we can draw from the observed evidence."

Your statement above is what I'm referring to as an honest, straightforward answer about what can be observed from science. Perhaps I missed that you were actually advocating this view in your earlier statements (if you were), especially the phrases, "even maybe probable" and, "supernatual is the best interpretive explanatory extrapolation."

-Dave

Dave said...

In reference to the complexities and precision in which our universe operates, here is another quote from Plantinga:

"One reaction to these apparent enormous coincidences is to see them as substantiating the theistic claim that the universe has been created by a personal God and as offering the material for a properly restrained theistic argument—hence the fine-tuning argument.8 It's as if there are a large number of dials that have to be tuned to within extremely narrow limits for life to be possible in our universe. It is extremely unlikely that this should happen by chance, but much more likely that this should happen if there is such a person as God."

-Dave

MarkC said...

Dave,

Wow, I seem to have communicated some things quite badly. Let me try to clear things up.

Your understanding of Plantinga (and my use of him) is correct. I was confused by the part that you initially quoted. The part of Plantinga's quote that you cited in your second comment today is the part that I would have expected you to have quoted earlier, and that was the source of my confusion. Sorry about that.

You then referred to two of my statements to Kevin, and wondered if I had changed my mind from things I had said to you earlier. I have not. To try to clarify, I'm going to copy out the pertinent parts of my statements to Kevin, with the key phrases highlighted for emphasis.

Questions come into play when science attempts to extrapolate beyond what it can observe, to build explanations for things that cannot be directly experienced. In many ways science can speak very reliably in these situations. In some cases, though, science cannot. In a few cases, the evidence actually seems to point to a non-natural explanation for what is observed.

Those who attempt to draw that line at 100%=natural and 0%=spiritual/supernatural are acting out of faith, not pure rationality.

This is quite different than what you proposed earlier:

When it comes to the origin of life and the universe, I see there being two options in a very general sense. There are variations, but to me it boils down to either believing in the theory of evolution or the theory of Creation. We each can choose in which theory we will believe. Since believing in either theory requires faith, I've chosen to believe the biblical account of creation in its literal sense.

You elaborated on these comments in subsequent comments, but I think this is the core of your approach.

In my first quote, I said (basically): "There are some (unspecified) things that science can't speak reliably about."

In my second quote, I said (basically): "Ultra-naturalism requires faith."

In your comments, you have argued that a specific aspect of science (evolution) is theory (by which you meant hypothesis), built largely on assumptions of ultra-naturalism, and for the most part unreliable as just the personal opinion of particular scientists.

I disagree with you strongly with regard to your specific example. I do not, and have not, disagreed that there are some scientists and some quasi-scientific statements that are based on ultra-naturalistic assumptions and are unreliable.

Your statement above is what I'm referring to as an honest, straightforward answer about what can be observed from science. Perhaps I missed that you were actually advocating this view in your earlier statements (if you were), especially the phrases, "even maybe probable" and, "supernatual is the best interpretive explanatory extrapolation."

That has been my argument from the start of this discussion. However, you and I went off on a tangent, dealing not with what could be presented in a science classroom per se, but with the general reliability of scientific interpretation of the past and some of the specifics of basic evolutionary science. So, my conversation with you was along quite different lines.

I would also like to again clarify, in case it wasn't clear this time around, that science can never KNOW that it doesn't know something. Nor can it ever speak in specifics about what could possibly be outside its knowledge. I can only imagine a handful of situations where scientific knowledge is sufficiently uncertain that the supernatural possibility would even be worthy of mention, and a thimbleful of situations where the supernatural possibility might be considered "the current best explanation".

I hope that's more clear than my last efforts!

Mark

Dave said...

Mark,

Thanks for the clarification; it helps me to reconcile in my mind what appeared to me as contradictory statements from you.

-Dave

Dave said...

Mark,

Back to your view of theistic evolution. Do you think that Adam of the book of Genesis was the first man on earth? If so, I'm trying to figure out where in the process of evolution there would be a "first" man. Or, to put it another way, at what point in the evolutionary process did man become man (such as Adam in the Bible)?

-Dave

MarkC said...

Dave,

Was Adam the first "man"? I wouldn't commit myself firmly one way or the other.

In one sense, we can place Adam pretty close on a timeline via the Hebrew genealogies. We can also place homo sapiens pretty close on a timeline via a great variety of sources of evidence that corroborate each other. Because of that, it's pretty clear that Adam was not the first homo sapiens.

So, did something change, possibly something outside the realm of science to detect (something spiritual), turning a homo sapiens into the first man? I don't know. It's quite possible. It seems to me both from religious belief and from observational evidence that humans have something that differentiates us from the rest of the animal world. If that's the case, and if that something is what we might call "spiritual", then it had to be introduced at some point.

It's even possible that God created, "out of the dust" as the Bible puts it, a man who shared a very similar genetic footprint to all the homo sapiens who were already existing at the time. I don't know why God would have done that, and we have no way to ever tell if that has happened.

I don't know if that answers your question or not, but it's probably the best I'm going to be able to do...

Mark

Kevin said...

Dave and Mark,

Unless I'm missing something, Genesis 4:15 seems to imply that other people existed when Cain murdered Abel, since Cain feared that anyone who found him would kill him, prompting God to mark him for protection. At the very least, some details seem to be missing.

Kevin

Kevin said...

Mark,

I experience the exhaustion you describe periodically, so I'm happy to pause for a while. And I'm familiar with some of the Monk episodes... at times, I even find myself whistling the original theme song. :)

Mark: "The question at hand is whether we can ever say, from a scientific perspective, "the best explanation we can give based on what we can observe is that this is miraculous". I don't think science or pure rationality will ever be able to go farther than that, if it can even go that far."

I guess all my concerns boil down to these two questions:

1) What criteria do we use to make the judgement that something is beyond our ability to ever understand, as opposed to merely beyond our present understanding?

2) Is that criteria objective enough to instruct a science class such that the students themselves may employ it appropriately?

Save the actual criteria, maybe if we focus upon a single or couple of examples, we can pick apart some of the criteria together.

Kevin: "Is everything God does a miracle? Can God act by natural means? If so, would it still be a miracle?"

Mark: "I would say: Probably Not, Almost Certainly Yes, Generally Not."


Not long ago I caught part of a show on the History channel that presented scientific explanations for the Exodus miracles. In particular, they suggested that they might be explained by a sequence of events spawned by tectonics and the eruption of a volcano.

It reminded me of our discussion here and how we determine miracles and their assocation with God. In a sense, I think some people hold on to miracles as proof of God's existence. So they grasp as tightly to a lack of understanding or explanation as they do to the very existence of God.

But you seem to sidestep this by allowing God to act naturally, and explanations for miracles do not ostensibly harm your belief in God.

Mark: "I've tried to make clear that I don't think science classes should ever deal with any specifics of anything outside of science. I'm only suggesting that science sometimes be willing to say, "something beyond my purview may be at work here", or even "something beyond my purview is the current best explanation for what we observe"."

I wholeheartedly agree with the former statement, namely, admitting the limits of our knowledge and models. My trouble with the latter statement is, how can something we do not understand act as an explanation? It seems more like a lack of an explanation.

Mark: "I'd be interested to know in what way God's voice might be "objectively detectible". I've never heard that suggested before. How would we know that what we were detecting was the voice of God? How would we even know that such a thing as "God" existed to have a voice?"

To me, it's more that if we hear a voice that does not correspond to another person, then it might be God, and if not a "voice" as quoted in the Bible or burning bush, then some form of communication that could be distinguished from our imagination, perhaps detectible sub-atomically or by how our neurons are fired.

Mark: "[...] Those who attempt to draw that line at 100%=natural and 0%=spiritual/supernatural are acting out of faith, not pure rationality."

I agree with you, inasmuch as I think that such a 100 to 0 ratio would exclude the existence of God by your categorization.

Mark: "All I'm suggesting is that sometimes, in a science classroom, we could say that it is possible (even maybe probable) that something supernatural is the best interpretive explanatory extrapolation we can draw from the observed evidence."

Given your (and the science class') openness to evidence to the contrary, and if such an extrapolation would be useful or "best" in the meantime, I don't have a problem with mentioning the possibility. "Probable" seems to require some actual evidence or previous data points to form some sense of a probability. Examples of this escape me.

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

I think I'm agreeing (with what I think Mark is saying) that there ought to be no problem in a (public, junior high/high school) science or biology class in explaining (a) that there are concepts and classes of phenomena that the methodology of science is not capable--and may never be capable--of meaningfully investigating with its particular "tool-kit" and (b) that there are classes of phenomena, even of the phyically-observable and measureable kind, for which science is not yet capable of furnishing plausible, testable explanations.

I would probably be okay--though the nuances of articulating this would become increasingly important to my agreement--to elaborate upon case (b) to indicate that it's not impossible that science might never be able to adequately explain some problems of that kind, even though they superficially appear to fall within case (b) rather than case (a).

With Kevin, though, I'm mot quite sure how this "not impossible alternative non-naturalistic explanations" formulation can easily be transformed into "better non-naturalistic explanations." An alternative explanation must ultimately stand on its own two feet; it doesn't necessarily draw vitality from the inadequacy of its competitors.

Let's call these case (b)(1) and case (b)(2). As to cases falling within (a) and cases falling within case (b)(2), it might not be unreasonable to state that a non-materialistic, ultra-natural explanation cannot, therefore, be ruled out.

Though, again, for a host of reasons, I think that we ALL ought to be concerned about the potential for abuse by the instructor or administrative person who ventures into this realm--and certainly about the potential for abuse if specific non-naturalistic explanations are explored in any detail--and I have "doctrinal" detail in mind here...

(I say this because, while such a proposed alternative might initially sound great to a Christian, let's say, of a particular stripe, it might well not sound nearly so great, coming from a paid public servant, even to another "supernatural-believing-person," let us say, of some other stripe, sect, or religion altogether. But I don't think any of us here is proposing that things proceed anywhere near that far.)

Of course, the nitty-gritty is somewhat obscured by this neat formulation, as I think some of Dave's comments suggest.

While we might all agree in theory that it would be nice if Science and Religion truly were largely-separable "magisteria," there are "flash-point" topics (age of the earth, etc., vs. a recent creation and flood or special creation of humankind vs. evolution) where these realms of human understanding do not divide so painlessly.

That is, one who is otherwise reasonably content to concede most physical phenomena to the purview of Science may begin to resist the findings of science (geology, archaeology, cosmology, biology, whatever...) when those physical findings and observations begin to contradict the physical findings and observations one would expect to find if one interprets certain Bible (or other venerated religious texts or doctrines) passages "literally."

(I place scare quotes around "literally" just as a nod to one of our other discussions of Biblical translation/interpretation.)

While I'm not sure that this latter tension falls within the purview of Mark's original post, it seems to me that it's the proverbial "elephant in the corner of the room," a little bit difficult to overlook or avoid without a lot of effort.

In that regard, it might be of some benefit to society in general if "we" could agree on some reasonably neutral and respectful formulation that a science teacher could use before launching into (an otherwise standard and well-accepted) coverage of geology, biology, or paleontology: "We are about to give the well-accepted explanations arrived at by means of Science and the Scientific Method for [human origins, history of the earth, etc.]. I want to stress that this is the scientific explanation. As we have already discussed, all scientific explanations are "provisional," subject to revision as additional evidence and understanding is brought to bear and as additional techniques and testing are applied. Science is not immutable and everlasting capital-T "truth." Also, some of you may have been brought up within, or may have come to place your faith in, religious or cultural traditions that have their own, different explanations regarding these topics. In proceeding with our study of the scientific evidence and explanations, it's not at all our intent to try to argue with, disprove, or lure you away from your religious/cultural beliefs. We do expect you to ber able to consider, understand, discuss, critique and explain the standard scientific scenarios using empirical evidence. You are by no means required to believe in these scenarios, much less to abandon your own beliefs."

Something along those lines.

It just doesn't seem profitable or beneficial to me to turn every classroom into an endless battleground that threatens to undermine (depending on your stance) either the inaguable contributions of the scientific tradition or the inarguable values that flow from our religious traditions...

While such a formulation will not insulate a deeply-religious youth from eventual "physical evidentiary" challenges to his or her beliefs, or relieve scientists and ADULT society from literal-religious challenges to some of Science's current-best explanations, I don't see how continuing the current "high school science" minefield situation is of benefit to responsible advocates for "either" the physical-priority-to-Science or moral/metaphysical-priority-to-Religion advocates.

*****

"Fine-tuning," I think, presents some conceptual problems that not all those who rush to embrace it have considered or thought through.

For example, without attempting to fully flesh out an argument with numbers, it's these very same well-measured and observed physical constants and processes--the speed of light, the charge of the electron, the weak force, the strong force, the gravitational force, etc.--which, when taken at their face value and applied in very well-understood and repeatedly-replicated and cross-checked ways, provide much of the evidence for a billions of year old universe and earth, and which date various archaeological sites, fossils, strata, etc., to well before the "literalist" dates calculated from Genesis.

This is probably not the place to "debate" that. My point is simply that there's a very direct contradiction between a superficially-appealing "fine-tuning supports a Creation" argument and a belief in a Young Earth and Noachian flood.

For non-literalists--of for those willing to fall back on a recent-Creation-made-to-give-every-evidence-of-age argument--this
"contradiction" of course disappears (though, as I've suggested above, there are other problems with the more simplistic "fine-tuning" arguments, including our utter lack of knowledge of the possible ranges and independence of the values of these constants).

One could, for instance, just as easily turn the fine-tuning argument into a "finely-adapted" argument: in a universe which is just barely set up to support life, and which is--in almost all places and times within that universe--incredibly hostile to the appearance and maintenance of life, life has done a marvelous job of [ahem] adapting to the one (or few) niches available to it.

*****

But, as always, I'd be interested in and would welcome your further thoughts.

Now to go see what y'all been getting up to on that very active-appearing "marital union" thread...

MarkC said...

Stevie and Kevin,

I am convinced, and stand corrected. No non-scientific explanation, not even the possibility of an explanation outside of science, could ever be "most-probable" or "more likely" or "current-best explanation" in a science classroom. Stevie, you did a great job of describing what I've been trying to communicate, which is amazingly exciting (to know that I communicated effectively!). Thanks!

Stevie,

I love your suggested prologue to the study of science. That is vastly preferable to the silly stickers saying "Evolution is a Theory" or such nonsense, which though literally true are in the context twisting the word "theory" well out of its scientific meaning.

I've only done a very limited amount of research about the "fine-tuning" argument. I introduced it mainly to have something plausible to frame the classroom discussion around. I'd have to learn a lot more before I'd even attempt to interact with you about the merits of the "fine-tuning" discussion.

Thanks for the input!

Mark

Kevin said...

Stevie,

Thanks for chiming; it seems you've got the magic touch. :) Such an abrupt end to this long and winding discussion has left me a bit disoriented, but I'm happy to move on.

Speaking of which, thanks also for mentioning the other enormous thread that has developed. Somehow, I missed it. I gotta check the main page a bit more often. :)

Kevin

steviepinhead said...

The physicist Paul Davies has a new book out dealing with some of the very same issues we have been discussing on this thread. I've admired some of Davies' past writings on cosmology and the Big Bang.

Here is a link to a "Cosmic Log" post discussing Davies' ideas:
http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/04/19/160480.aspx

Davies spoke about these ideas at Town Hall in Seattle last night (Thursday, April 19, 2007). Unfortunately, I didn't run across the Cosmic Log post--or the info about the talk--until today (April 20), or I would've tried to attend.

The long comment thread under the Cosmic Log post includes comments from across the "spectrum" of thought and belief about these issues: some from those with a faith-based orientation, some from a science-based origing that does not rule out faith, some from the skeptical, some interesting ones from two or three folks who were able to attend the Davies' talk, and some from the truly whacky, flacking their own fringe-y ideas.

I'm not quite able to wrap my mind around Davies' notion of "fuzzy" laws and feedback, at least as set out in this short summary, but I felt it was worth linking here for those who might wish to pursue his ideas in greater detail in his new book.

Anonymous said...

From what I've read and heard, Dawkins believes in abiogenesis and the ultimate evolution from single-cell organisms to man. But the origin of life is beyond science. Since it happened so long ago (either 6,000 or several billion years is irrelevant to the point) we can only pick one of two options: (A) trust what "records" we have, such as the Bible; or (B) openly speculate and debate on possible scenarios.

Dawkins asserts that he needs no faith and that science proves there is no god. The process of scientific inquiry requires experimental verification of theories. So far scientists have failed to initiate/observe abiogenesis occurring in "soup." Even if they did, that does not prove, without any doubt, that all present life originated from that process.

Dawkins also likes to replace God with the many universes theory. But any alternate universe is unobservable and untestable. Therefore it is just as much outside the realm of science as God. What I am asserting is that while Richard Dawkins claims he needs no faith because of science, he really has (perhaps) more faith than many religious believers. He simply does not understand the limits of science and uses "Science!" to justify his own supernatural beliefs. I use the term supernatural because other, random universes are just as much outside science as God.

Regarding the classroom: I think we need to recognize that the origins of life and the universe are matters that science is not properly suited for. Science enables us to understand present phenomena, not what might have happened eons ago. Were I the teacher, I would tell the student that such questions cannot be answered by science. The student should ask his/her parents. I would point out that religions claim to answer such questions and it is a highly personal matter to either accept or deny religious answers.