philosophy science

science thought…

Whether one likes it or not, and whether one considers it anti-science or not (I insist it’s not anti-science in the least in my mind), it occurs to me that the scientific project is inexhaustible.  Depending on one’s view of how valuable scientific knowledge is, one will either feel discouraged or like the proverbial kid in a candy store – I prefer the latter.  The world, stuff, ‘nature’, etc. is just that interesting.

Consider our vast recent progress (aided by rapidly improving technology) when it comes to peering deeper and deeper past the atomic level; past what we can actually ‘see’ – and into the world of models/theories in search of a simple, comprehensive and elegant understanding of ‘how it works’.  We may giggle at ancient views of atoms as little inanimate balls, but is it not easy to imagine (observation is not currently an option this far down) that, say, a gluon is made up of such little solid bits of mass, energy or whatever?  I find it absolutely incredible to think that we’ll never get to ‘the heart of the matter’ – pun intended.  How would we ever know we’d got there?  A sign saying “Hi, my name is ‘indivisible unit’.  Nothing is behind me.”  Even more fun is the question: How could we even begin to know how ‘far down’ we are?  Is it cycles of orbit ‘all the way down’?  Are there tiny little universes inside the Higgs Boson particle?  Or are there, for that matter, cooking classes, fashion shows and trance dance music going on waaaaaay ‘above’ us?

But to get at the main thought rolling around the back of my mind (occasionally making its way to the front for a few moments in between tasks, etc.), I’ve been thinking about the difference between ‘description’ and ‘explanation’.  Even if we had a complete description of a thing (which we don’t – and it seems we won’t), would/could that ever equate to having fully plumbed the depths of its explanation?

“Everything is explicable with simple (!!!???) physics and chemistry.”

Such statement are probably uttered by someone who actually knows very little about either?  And “explicable”?  Really? If anything is anti-science it could well be that language.  I think the only thing we can say (and indeed can ever say) is something along the lines of “We have (basically?) coherent descriptions of what we see.”

Naturally, I’m interested in how this relates to God/faith/religion.

I guess it just baffles me that of all things, science is used as an attempted means at ‘explaining away’ a Creator.  I mean, just how far down into the atom do we need to peer to cross the line of certainty enabling us to say “Aha!  That’s it!  Now that we’ve seen this, we can officially rule out any kind of Creator nonsense…”

How is this any different to just looking at the world without your own personal scanning electron microscope (i.e. with your ‘naked eye’) and just asserting the same thing?  (i.e. “Aha!  That’s it!  Now that I’ve seen grass growing all by itself, we can officially rule out this God stuff…”)  In short, why did anyone every try to use science to dismiss notions of a Creator?

32 replies on “science thought…”

Who was it who said “Everything is explicable with simple physics and chemistry.”? Seems a silly thing to say unless it was in the context of “everything we see around us”.

Also, when you say “In short, why did anyone every try to use science to dismiss notions of a Creator?” I think you will find that people have used science to dismiss *scientific* claims by religions. I.e. that the world was created 6000 years ago or that miracles currently happen or that people are demon possessed or that a wafer turns into flesh or that Adam and Eve had no parents and so on and so on. There are many other claims (mostly historical and difficult or impossible to test) made by religions that science is not able to test but which when viewed in the light of all the other bogus claims above would seem reasonable to also dismiss. I.e. the virgin birth, miracles, demons, angles, talking donkeys, resurrection, etc.

So, yes, science can be used as a tool to investigate current scientifically testable claims. And our experience of the results of those claims can be used to make a more informed judgement of similar claims shrouded in the pages of history and legend.

Science is like a tiny flash light and we’ll probably never learn 1% of what there is to know. But it’s by far the best method we emerging apes have found for discovering truth about the universe in which we find ourselves. If you don’t think so, come up with a better way and I’m sure reasonable people will adopt it if you can show it is more accurate.

I agree with Damian that the “everything is explicable” statement is a bit silly.

I’d also add that I think prediction is far more important than explanation when discussing science because we don’t really have a clue what is going on around us but we can observe it, notice patterns, and use those patterns to predict the future to a high degree of accuracy in many cases. Science spends a lot of time trying to predict more observations with less models (i.e. unification).

Science can’t be used to “explain away” a creator but for the concept of a creator to be useful to us, we need to first have it properly defined and second to have observations that couldn’t be predicted other than using this properly defined concept. We can never rule out the existence of anything but that is entirely the wrong way to view things IMO.

I’d nit-pick that current miracles and demon-possession aren’t ‘scientific claims’, but it’s probably not worth quibbling over. As for who makes such claims, there’s one rather well-known bull-dog zoologist (and countless of his disciples) who’s not only claimed that science a) dismisses specifically scientific claims of religion (i.e. young earth), or b) draws other claims into question, but actually says that scientific explanations (again, I’m very interested in the explanation/description distinction) have replaced all religious explanations.. This kind of over-reaching, sweeping statement was more what I was referring to in the post – when people use science to dismiss any/all notions of a creator.
And I like your ‘flash light’ (‘torch’, mate! aren’t you a kiwi! ;D ) analogy. Indeed when it comes to descriptive ‘truth’ (I’d prefer to use ‘information’/’data’/’understanding’) about the world/universe/etc., then science is totally it. But of course, to say that only science yields truth is precisely the definition of scientism (and commenting on that charge, our friend the zoologist has said basically, that if what he says “sounds like scientism, so much the better for scientism.’

Indeed, when it comes to prediction, how would we predict what the difference would be between a created universe or a other-than-created one? I’m not sure how we’d go about that? However, the patterns, regularlities, orderedness and intelligibility of the cosmos have themselves been seen by many to be the very things that signal ours as a created universe.

Dale, you won’t understand science until you get past this constant need to justify your religious beliefs. It’s silly to say “science is used as an attempted means at ‘explaining away’ a Creator. “ Who the hell does this? No-one. There is no need to. Science doesn’t work that way. It’s starts from evidence and tests against reality. If there really is a “creator” as you believe I guess we will one day find it. But till now no-one has ever presented a structured creator hypothesis for testing against reality – and I suspect most believers would not like to chance it, anyway.

Bloody hell – ask every member of a single religious congregation what their own god hypothesis is and they would probably all be different.

This is not to say that such a hypothesis may not one day be on the table. But until it is there is absolutely no credible scientist working to prove or disprove a creator. (Mind you there are plenty of scoundrels attempting to use science to justify their religious beliefs. That’s a different thing. That happens in the commercial world too. It’s something to do with the respect people accord science).

Also, Dale. The word “scientism” is a dead giveaway – a tiresome one at that. Especially when it is used against someone who is patently a very respected and credible scientist. Name calling is a sign of weakness in this case, I am afraid.

If science (as I agree) doesn’t work for proving/disproving a creator, then why your insistence that we could ‘find’ one some day? (I’ll ignore, for the moment, your usual hyper-philosophical use of the word ‘reality’) And, further, your predictable emphasis on differing views of God by different people obscures a central common point that is essential to the topic – namely that God is transcendent and won’t fit in a test-tube or in the view of a telescope or microscope. The fact remains that some do imply – both implicitly and explicitly – that scientific explanations (descriptions!?) replace any/all religious ones. An embarrassing category mistake – but dare anyone try to point it out, and they are accused of bafflegab, word-smithery or having faith-in-faith or some such…
And I am not the least bit worried about my use of the word ‘scientism’, and might even just be inclined to keep using it without your permission. :)

Indeed, when it comes to prediction, how would we predict what the difference would be between a created universe or a other-than-created one? I’m not sure how we’d go about that?

We don’t need to do that because if god is nothing but that difference then nobody cares either way.

However, the patterns, regularlities, orderedness and intelligibility of the cosmos have themselves been seen by many to be the very things that signal ours as a created universe.

People can see things however they want but it really isn’t important at the end of the day because they are just opinions.


…if god is nothing but that difference then nobody cares either way.

whoa there – nobody said that god would be ‘nothing but that difference’. That’s not what we’re discussing. We were talking about what the difference would even look like. Feels like you skipped over the question; which I feel is an important one. Take the arguments one at a time – first, the issue of what the difference would be, and then (a bit further down the line) whether or not God would be something more/other than the cause/reason of/for that difference.

…just opinions.

Again, it feels like you’re skipping over the question. We all know what opinions are, and we all have ideas as to how to sort the good ones from the less-than-good ones.

I don’t have a clue what the difference would look like because I can’t even come close to figuring out a meaningful definition of god. Give me a meaningful definition of god and perhaps we can work it out. My point was not that god was nothing but the difference – my point was that assuming god is more than that difference then there are almost certainly far easier ways to identify god.

Try the simplest, most immediate, and universal definition – creator.

Things exist. Did they have to of some kind of physical necessity?

Order exists. Did things have to have this kind of order?

God serves as a perfectly rational and intelligible explanation for existence and order (just restricting ourselves for the moment to things relevant here).

That simple definition makes precisely zero predictions and is therefore essentially useless.

Do you really have to insert “physical” into everything I say?

Actually a tentative fourth law of thermodynamics suggests low entropy throughput in a far-from-equilibrium system necessarily creates order (I have a half written blog post about that I must finish one day). That aside however they don’t necessarily have to have order but there is certainly no requirement for disorder either. All we can say is that it really seems like there is order.

I don’t think god can serve as a rational explanation for anything until it is defined such that it’s existence has some meaning, implications, etc.

Dale –“If science (as I agree) doesn’t work for proving/disproving a creator, then why your insistence that we could ‘find’ one some day? “

You are the one who is trying to define an entity, impossible to prove or disprove. That enables you to accuse scientists of “scientism.” But isn’t that an arrogant position? If a “creator” exists, is part of reality, then surely there exists a possibility that humanity will “discover” such an entity some day. And the best methods we have of understanding reality are the scientific ones (which are themselves evolving).

Of course we may never do so – either because there is no such thing or because we never get there (we obviously won’t with a lot of things). But to claim beforehand that there is something, without any evidence and denying the normal human prerogative of investigating such claims -is arrogant in my book.

(Of course some then go on to say that this creator is their friend or benefactor, that they have a special relationship with this entity – extremely arrogant.)

“God is transcendent and won’t fit in a test-tube or in the view of a telescope or microscope” – we study lots of things that “won’t fit in a test-tube or in the view of a telescope or microscope”. Simply, the materialist position is that if something exists it interacts. This provides the possibility of investigation and understanding. The possibility. No guarantees.

Science “doesn’t work for proving/disproving a creator” – purely because there is nothing there to work on. The question just doesn’t arise. There is no structured hypothesis. I agree that if one day we do have evidence, that we can postulate a structured hypothesis we should go for it. It would surely be one the most important scientific questions to study. We are not in that situation now, and perhaps will never be.

More and more people are studying the “god question” as a psychological/sociological question rather than a factual one and I think that is by far the most promising and useful approach.

But I have absolutely no time for people who make assertions about a transcendent entity that can’t be detected, investigated or understood (no interaction, not material) but then claim themselves to have a personal knowledge of this entity. And then go on to use this imaginary friend to tell me how to live my life. That is arrogant.

Ken, I wonder if you have stopped to consider the arrogance (for want of a better word) of your own position? Naturalism, like theism, makes high-level metaphysical claims, which are rather bold, like (something along the lines of) ‘the physical universe is all that there is.’ How could anyone possibly prove or know that?
And of course, Christians (such as myself) believe that God interacts rather regularly with the world; indeed, that He sustains it. One notable interaction I would encourage you to consider anew is that of Jesus of Nazareth, an interaction which culminated in his death and resurrection. Questions such as this have an historical nature and can be investigated. On a different note, I would encourage you to open a textbook in biochemistry or cell biology, to see some impressive products of God’s interaction with this world. Stephen Meyer’s new book, Signature in the Cell, seems to be quite good in dealing with the related field of the origin of life.
What also seems a little arrogant to me is dismissing the relationship which hundreds of millions of Christians claim to have with someone just because you can’t understand how this ‘someone’ could condescend to our level. It’s a fascinating question, but in the absence of actual arguments and in the face of historical claims (backed up with quite a bit of testimony) as well as evidence from science & philosophy for the existence of this Person, I don’t see that dismissal is warranted.
Clearly, contrary to your assertion, you have quite a bit of time for Christians. That’s cool and I hope a little time could be spared for Jesus while you’re at it. He thinks you’re worth it.

Hi Andre,
I’ve not the time at the moment to respond to the mini-flurry of comments I’m getting – but thanks for dropping by.

Effectively, (similar to Dawkins’ bizarre insistence that god must be the result of evolution) it seems you’re insisting that a God must be finite and the same type of thing as a banana – or a pile of spaghetti; thus binding, constraining or ‘ring-fencing’ God so that God is nice, small, finite, and controllable – and predictable – in other words, not God at all. Yes, I think we can ‘investigate’ and ‘understand’ God – one of the first things you’ll understand through ‘investigation’ is that God is beyond our full comprehension – like a lot of other things.

No – I make no claims for a god. personally I don’t believe there is any reality in the concept. Although there is obviously plenty of social and psychological aspects to this which are currently being researched – I find these fascinating.

But, of course, if a god exists it is possible to investigate and understand it – potentially. It would be arrogant to say otherwise.

Dale, I think you just have no idea of what Dawkins really says. He seems to be the most badly quoted, straw-manned person on the planet today. He makes it extremely clear that he doesn’t think gods exist – any of them, any more than fairies or goblins. But he can’t be absolutely sure – he can’t prove it. A sensible attitude I would have thought. I think he would be the first person to encourage investigation if any evidence ever turned up for a real god.

So I don’t know where you get his evolved god from. He has said that there may be entities elsewhere in the universe far more advanced than us who we might consider to be gods. (After all, dogs probably view us as gods). But he strongly feels that any living entity elsewhere would most probably have resulted from a Darwinian-type evolution. Again he is not 100% sure – that is just his best guess. He would be the first to admit he may be wrong – and would also be pleased to see the evidence and entertain other theories.

This sort of straw-mannery around Dawkins must surely be starting to peter out by now. So many people locally seem to have attended one of his lectures recently, been thoroughly impressed with his honesty and open-mindedness, that the misrepresentation must be losing their credibility.

He turns out to be a lovely person, after all.

Just get over him.

I don’t really care if it bothers people that God would have the sort of ‘Existence’ that science can’t directly ‘investigate’ (I say ‘directly’ because I believe that God’s actions can be – indeed, continually are – investigated by science). And this doesn’t in the least hinder or stagnate the scientific project any more than saying that cooking with a calculator holds up either mathematics or cooking.

At the risk (which utterly paralyses me with fear ;D ) of being charged with bafflegab, I suggest you are not taking seriously the notion that God is totally of a distinct essence to the universe/’world’. What you call ‘ring-fencing’ is really just a categorical distinction between two (at least) types of ‘existence’ – I’ve never seen this taken seriously. If Dawkins, you or others are truly open minded, then there must be an open-ness to the concept of differing species of ‘ontos’ (essence, existence), as well as being open to the concept of a free, infinite, unlimited, un-containable ‘other’. Nothing in science could begin to oppose such a view. Only a philosophy committed/bound to ontological monism could.

An other, outside reality, is an obvious oxymoron.

It is not being open-minded to say there is a reality including everything, and then an extra other where my invisible friend lives.

Science is involved in investigating and understanding reality – which obliviously includes all forms of existence. Many of these, which we now have some understanding of, are far weirder, and more fantastic than anything humanity has dreamed up within a simple-minded religious framework.

And of course there will be many more which at this stage we have absolutely no concepts about. Maybe forms we will never have concepts about.

What a fascinating world (reality).

It’s not obvious at all, certainly not from any scientific observation.

How do you know that there aren’t things science cannot – even in principle – ‘get its hands on’? That kind of certainty is what is truly arrogant.

The arrogance is in claiming there are for sure – without evidence. And then to go on and tell scientists they therefore should keep away from the fences you have constructed in your ignorance.

You know I have always said that there may well be things we cannot investigate – for technological reasons perhaps or because of our intellectual limitations. It’s safe to assume that this will always be the case, even though some of what we find impossible now will be possible in the future.

We have no way of knowing when and of our limitations will kick in and it is part of being human to try anyway. And we do that with humility, recognising the infinitesimal amount of knowledge we currently have.

If we gave that away we would give away an important aspect of our humanity.

I think most scientists would probably agree with me.

So where is our arrogance? You have only presented a misrepresentation. And one which has been pointed out to you as wrong many times.

We are not claiming a special relationship with an invisible all-powerful friend. That is arrogant.

Just to be clear, Ken, nowhere am I calling science/scientists arrogant. Lets do the best science we can muster, absolutely. And indeed it’s awe-inspiring and humbling to know how little we know.
And you need to appreciate a thing or two about epistemology before you go off calling people ‘arrogant’ for believing in a Creator (which you repeatedly refer pejoratively as an ‘invisible friend’). Belief is not 100% epistemic certitude. And this is not always ‘belief in belief’ either (to anticipate your charge – a la Dennett).
Belief needs to have reason along with it, and science has never and will never show that any/all concepts of God are unreasonable – it doesn’t even come close, nor do I see how it could. We’d have to be God (all-knowing) to know there wasn’t a God. And I think we can all have enough epistemic humility to agree with that logic.

Belief in itself is not arrogance – of course not. But unwarranted assertions, claims are.

We would have to be a goblin to know there are no goblins.

There is a hell of a lot we don’t know. let’s admit it. Be a bit humble. And face these sort of questions only when we have real evidence to deal with. real structured hypotheses.

Until then they are just beliefs, usually extremely unstructured beliefs, and belong to sociology and psychology rathert than any hugely significant aspect of reality.

They are in no way knowledge.

How many questions are you going to beg, Ken?

What makes assertions ‘warranted’?
What makes evidence ‘real’?
What makes a belief more than ‘just’ a belief?
What makes a belief belong to a ‘significant aspect of reality’?
How do we know what we’re talking about by ‘reality’?
What makes a belief ‘knowledge’?

Why won’t you talk about epistemology – or degrees of certitude – or different kinds of ‘evidence’ – ever?

Go on, accuse me of shrouding the issue in ‘bafflegab’ – that kind of interaction is really helpful for reaching mutual understanding.

“How do we know what we’re talking about by ‘reality’?” – we don’t obviously. Because we don’t know everything. But we can talk about the concept of everything, of reality, as including everything by definition.

I don’t know that there is any better way, or more honest way, of defining reality.

I have made no such claim, Dale. Religious beliefs – like any other beliefs – can be “knowledge or real.” We can determine if this is so by testing against reality. Of course many beliefs will be shown, by this method, not to accord with reality and logically should be discarded.

Various way, Dale. Various way. The fact is that in scientific investigation we are always doing that.

You seem to think that testing against reality is just comparing ones ideas with ones ideas of reality. Not so. We are testing against objectivity existing reality. I thinkthat is obvious.

yes, science does that – but that wasn’t what I was asking. How did we get started knowing what ‘objectively existing reality’ is, and more on topic, what it is not – I don’t think that is obvious.

Yes, I know theologists don’t find it obvious. But we scientists do and we do it all the time. No problems (at least in understanding that. There are of course problems we must continually solve in our ongoing work to investigate reality).

Ken that looks like a dodge. What is or is not ‘reality’ is a philosophical question. Science works on the stuff that we all know exists: brain cells, black holes and bits of atoms.

No, science works on things we don’t know. Why bother with the things we do know? So reality embraces all the things that science can look at and provides no guide to ring fence anything from scientific investigation.

No, we have at least conceptual knowledge of the things science studies (i.e. sub-atomic phenomena, and much cosmological phenomena). And there is nothing that we are ‘finished’ with knowing about. We actually have no way of knowing how well we ‘know’ even the most basic aspects of reality. Plenty of room for epistemic humility – and perfectly compatible with theistic beliefs.

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