What about Science?

When ordinary people who know I'm a scientist find out that I'm also a Christian, they sometimes ask me this question.  It goes like this: "What about Science?"  I'm tempted to reply "What about Science?"  Apparently, the potential conflict is so well-known that the questioner doesn't need to elaborate what the problem is.  Either that, or they expect me to construct for them some sort of devastating sounding argument against my own religion, based on Science---which if they have any patience remaining afterwards, I can then proceed to deconstruct.

It's extremely common for intelligent people to fall away from their parents' faith somewhere on the cusp of adulthood.  They frequently cite Science as a motivating cause.  Sometimes they come from a fundamentalist background where opposition to say, Darwinian evolution is taken as an essential doctrine.  In that case the conflict with Science is obvious.  In other cases, the reasons seem much more difficult for them to articulate.  (I have known a person who said he stopped being a Christian because of "Reason" although he wasn't able to articulate even a single specific reason why.)  Nevertheless, there seems to be an intuitive sense of a problem which I don't think is entirely bogus.  At least, I can remember having had moods in which it seemed like there was an issue to overcome.

Richard Feynman is an example of a brilliant person who said he was led away from his religion (Judaism) at a young age due to his scientific outlook.  You can read about that in What Do You Care What Other People Think?  Later in his life, however, he had this to say:

I don't feel that I could give three lectures on on the subject of the impact of scientific ideas on other ideas without frankly and completely discussing the relation of science and religion.  I don't know why I should even have to start to make an excuse for doing this, so I won't continue to try to make such an excuse.

Oops! I guess this post is basically an excuse for bringing up the subject, which Feynman says I don't need to do.  Well it's too late now, we have to continue...

But I would like to begin a discussion of the question of a conflict, if any, between science and religion....in the discussion that I want to talk about here, I mean the everyday, ordinary, church-going kind of religion, not the elegant theology that goes along with it, but the way ordinary people believe, in a more or less conventional way, about their religious beliefs.

I do believe there is a conflict between science and religion, religion more or less defined that way....

A young man of a religious family goes to the university, say, and studies science.  As a consequence of his study of science, he begins, naturally, to doubt as it is necessary in his studies.  So first he begins to doubt, and then he begins to disbelieve, perhaps, in his father's God.  By "God" I mean the kind of personal God, to which one prays, who has something to do with creation, as one prays for moral values, perhaps.  This phenomenon happens often.  It is not an isolated or an imaginary case.  In fact, I believe, although I have no direct statistics, that more than half of these scientists do not believe in their father's God, or God in a conventional sense.  Most scientists do not believe in it.  Why?  What happens?  By answering this question, I think that we will point up most clearly the problems of the relation of religion and science....

[skipping two explanations for this that Feynman rejects]

The third possibility of the explanation of this phenomenon is that the young man perhaps doesn't understand science correctly, that science cannot disprove God, and that a belief in science and religion is consistent.  I agree that science cannot disprove the existence of God.  I absolutely agree.  I also agree that a belief in science and religion is consistent.  I know many scientists who believe in God.  It is not my purpose to disprove anything.  There are many scientists who believe in God, in a conventional way, perhaps, I do not know exactly how they believe in God.  But their belief in God and their action in science are totally consistent.  It is consistent, but it is difficult....

There are two sources of difficulty that the young man we are discussing would have, I think, when he studies science. The first is that he learns to doubt, that it is necessary to doubt, that it is valuable to doubt.  So he begins to question everything.  The question that might have been before "Is there a God or isn't there a God" changes to the question "How sure am I that there is a God?"  He now has a new and subtle question that is different than it was before....

Now the second source of difficulty that the student has when he studies science, and which is, in a measure, a kind of conflict between science and religion, because it is a human difficulty that happens when you are educated two ways.  Although we may argue theologically and on a high-class philosophical level that there is no conflict, it is still true that the young man who comes from a religious family gets into some kind of argument with himself and his friends when he studies science, so there is some kind of a conflict.

Well, the second origin of a type of conflict is associated with the facts, or, more carefully, the partial facts that he learns in the science.  For example, he learns about the size of the universe.... And again, he learns about the close biological relationship of man to the animals and of one form of life to another and that man is just a latecomer in a long and vast, evolving drama.  Can the rest be just a scaffolding for His creation?  And yet again there are the atoms, of which all appears to be constructed following immutable laws.  Nothing can escape it....

When this objective view is finally obtained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are finally appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting.  It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing---atoms with curiosity---that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders.  Well, these scientific views end with awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate....

I am not trying to disprove the existence of God.  I am only trying to give you some understanding of the origin of the difficulties that people have who are educated from two different points of view.  It is not possible to disprove the existence of God, so far as I know.  But it is true that it is difficult to take two different points of view that come from different directions.

That is the reason for this blog: to look at things from two different points of view simultaneously, in an undivided way. I'd like to explain the wonder and facts of physics (my science) in an accessible way.  I'll also try to construct the clearest arguments from science against my religion that I possibly can (I don't think that atheists have done a terribly good job of this), and then have fun shooting them down.  You are welcome to help me with your comments, at any of these tasks.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at UC Santa Barbara. Before that, I studied the Great Books program at St. John's college Santa Fe, and got my Ph.D. in physics from U Maryland.
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17 Responses to What about Science?

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  3. Tim Isbell says:

    Interesting. Will keep an eye on your site and am likely to pass it along to others. I presume that is okay.

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Tim,
    Thanks very much for your comments. I would be very pleased if you would pass on the site to others. I'd like as many interested people to see it as possible!

  5. Smidoz says:

    I'll be keeping an eye on here too, you also may get some links coming your way from my blog.

    On reason: this is an elusive & ill defined thing, when people say they don't believe in God because of reason, I ask them what reason is, I then show that by there own version of reason, they can't support that it is reasonable to believe there is no God.

    On evolution, I'm not going to assume your position on it, but as a Christian I have a huge problem with saying God's method of creation was through the system of natural selection which is cruel, & then He blamed people (sin brought death). But perhaps you can help, since, as I've heard many times before, "we know evolution happened," I want to know how, my bio sciences friends can't answer this without assuming it happened.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks Smidoz, and welcome to my blog.

    You're right that "reason" means lots of different things to lots of different people. That's why I'm trying to go in depth exploring exactly what the "bag of tricks" we call reason really consists of when we do science, or theology.

    My position on evolution is that it happened pretty much like mainstream Darwinian biologists say it happened, but that (like everything else that happens) it took place in accordance with God's will and purpose. I gather from your blog that you're a Young Earth Creationist. I'm not a professional biologist, so this blog isn't going to be the best place to go into depth about the details of the evidence for evolution (have you looked at St. Francis Collins' book and at the talkorigins FAQ?), although I probably will end up discussing the ways that I think evolution and theology relate. However, I am a professional physicist, and I can say that a \approx 6,000 year old universe is almost impossible to reconcile with the known facts of astronomy and cosmology (basically almost every single thing we think we've learned would have to be wrong).

    Regarding evolution being cruel, it seems to me that from looking at Nature and also from God's actions in the Bible, that the avoidance of suffering in this life seems to be quite low on God's list of priorities. I assume he has good reasons for that (see Romans 8:18-23). St. Paul's statement that sin brought death is probably best interpreted as meaning that human death is a result of sin. Human beings are animals who were raised to a higher state by God's grace, but by rejecting God we become subject to the same laws as the other animals. For a defense of this view from biblical principles, try St. Athanasius' book On the Incarnation. (As you probably know, St. Athanasius was a 4th century theologian who was highly influential in making sure the church accepted the doctrine of the Trinity.)

  7. Kristen inDallas says:

    Great looking blog so far!
    Loved the quote "It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing---atoms with curiosity---that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders." When I read that I have a hard time understanding how a scientist wouldn't believe in God. But I think he's right about it not being inconsistent, but taking work to square the 2. But the work has to happen on both sides, both in striving to understand science, as well as striving to understand God.

    In response to Smidoz, I'm not a biologist either, but I taught a bit for a time, and my understanding is that the idea and evidence for evolution (organisms changing / becoming more complex over time) was around well before Darwin's Theory. Darwin doesn't just theorize THAT evolution happens, he theorizes WHY evolution happens, and that is where natural selection comes in. Part of the problem is that in education we don't spend much time at all (in the early years) on science history r science process, and many people mistakenly conflate evidence of evolution happening with proof for Darwin's theory of why it happens. Now there's plenty of schools of thought on all that, I'll just say that my biggest problem with natural selection is that in assuming change occurs gradually when less fit populations die and more fit populations survive, it still doesn't address how those more fit populations are born in the first place. There are some pretty big evolutionary hurdles that I think require a little more explanation on how they came to be, than simply the extinction of something less. Again I'm not an expert, but I still haven't seen an explanation for evolution that is completely self-sufficient with out requiring some sort of a "push" (whether you want to call it a miracle or mutation) along the way.

  8. Aron Wall says:

    Kristen,
    You make a good point about the history of evolution. Already in the earlier part of the 19th century it was completely clear from geology that the earth was really old, and also pretty clear that species changed with time. It's a huge oversimplification to act as though first everyone took Genesis literally and then Darwin came along.

    Regarding what produces the favorable traits in the first place, it's my understanding that there's a fairly well understood theory of why, and how frequently, mutations occur in a given population over time. Darwin just had to guess that there was some mechanism for producing new traits (and inheriting them without blending), since he didn't know about genes.

  9. Smidoz says:

    I didn't want to start a debate on evolution, so I'll consider your responses privately.

    The obstacles Kristen referred to are probably expressed most glaringly in the cambrian explosion, but I'd say there are many more than that. As someone who studied logic & not science, my own version of reason is focused more on logic, & saying things are related because they are alike, is logically problematic. I do confess that this wouldn't prove evolution wrong. I will also admit that geology provides a significant problem to a yóung earth, but I have been exposed to other scenarios that make it less problematic, unfortunately they all seem to be a gap theory of some kind, even if they aren't a typical gap theory.

    Regarding the age of the universe, since a young universe is "impossible" why would Hartnet's model of a bounded universe be impossible? I don't understand the equations he uses to argue for it, so I can't really give a fair critique of it.

    Could you possibly add a follow by email widget here, it just makes following you a bit easier.

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Smidoz, sorry for the late response. I've added an email subscription plugin now which you can access from the bottom of the sidebar on the right.

    Of course things are not related simply because they are alike. The powerful evidence for evolution consists of the observations that things are similar in exactly the extremely specific ways one would expect if common descent with modifications were true. If that sort of inductive reasoning isn't enough to confirm the (approximate) validity of a scientific model, then no scientific ideas can be confirmed.

    Regarding Hartnett's model, I believe it is based on a model by Russell Humphreys, whose book I flipped through several years ago, when I was visiting the home of a creationist friend. As someone who is an expert in this specific area of physics, I couldn't understand the model either. This is meant as a damning criticism, not a confession of ignorance. For example, he claimed to be analysing general relativity, but I couldn't find anything like a "metric of spacetime solving the Einstein equations". He didn't make mathematically precise claims. Proper physics involves writing down general equations and then using them to make predictions about observable things.

    From the perspective of people trained in cosmology, this stuff is just crackpot nonsense. It comes into existence because of the large number of "itching ears" who want there to be a division of opinion amongst the experts, so that they can choose what to believe. It only works because the people reading it don't understand the science well enough to judge.

  11. almkglor says:

    Okay, first: define what you mean by "God". What exactly does "God" do? (or did)

    Second: show me a good, simple reason why I can assume that this "God" is indeed identical (or sufficiently similar, at least) to the entity that Muslims worship. This good simple reason must be sufficiently good to overcome the reasonable prior assumption that your defined "God" is not actually the same as the Muslim God (i.e. non-equivocation).

    Third: show me a good, simple reason why I can assume that "God", which in step 2 you identified as identical (or, fine, sufficiently similar) to the Muslim God, exists. This good simple reason must be sufficiently good to overcome the reasonable prior assumption that the Muslim God does not exist (i.e. entities must not be multiplied beyond the minimum necessary).

  12. Aron Wall says:

    almkglor,
    Thanks for dropping by. I'm a little confused by your comment though, because the post you're replying to didn't say anything about the "Muslim God". It's like you're replying to something you think I said instead of something I actually said. Why are you telling me I have to say certain things about the "Muslim God" in order to believe in my God? Logically, I could also take the stance that the Muslim God does not exist but the Christian God does.

    However, the question of whether the "Christian God" and the "Muslim God" are the "same" may not actually have a totally well-defined answer. Here's an analogy. I believe that Obama is President of the United States, and presumably so do you. Some people falsely believe that Obama was born in Kenya, but it would be silly to say they believed in the existence of a different President than I do, since we agree on most things about Obama. However, some crazy people might also believe he is a Muslim, a Communist, a foreign saboteur, a space alien, John McCain painted black, or what have you. As the differences from reality get more and more wild, you might eventually say that they don't believe in the existence of the same President that we do. But there would be no clear-cut bright line as to when this happened: it's a semantic judgment call. (I guess you concede this point with your "sufficiently similar" parenthetical remark, but it still leaves me confused about your point: sufficiently similar for what purpose?)

    So I don't accept that the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God have to be either the "same" or "different" in an absolute way. We are talking about people's beliefs, which can differ to any extent. For most purposes, though, I think the best language is to say that both religions worship the same God but have different beliefs about him (and obviously, when the beliefs differ at most one group can be right). The two religions agree that God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, just and merciful, that he created everything else, spoke through prophets, performed miracles, and will judge all human beings for their actions. What Christians believe that Muslims don't, is that God is a Trinity, that the Father sent the Son to become a human being, to die and be resurrected, and that as a result of this the Holy Spirit dwells inside of Christians in order to cleanse us from guilt and bad habits, in order to make us into sons of God, modeled after Jesus.

    Finally, you ask me for one good, simple reason why you should believe that this God exists. I'm not sure why you aren't also interested in good, complicated reasons, if there are any. But here's one that's at least simple to state: Miracles, as reported by ancient and modern eyewitnesses. Obviously not all miracle reports are credible, but some of them are.

  13. almkglor says:

    Thanks for dropping by. I'm a little confused by your comment though, because the post you're replying to didn't say anything about the "Muslim God".

    Oh, sorry. I confuse the religions sometimes. What religion did you say you were again? Buddhist? Jainist? Keep confusing the two; sorry.

  14. almkglor says:

    All right, I admit, I was just being a troll. But what the hell is this -

    Finally, you ask me for one good, simple reason why you should believe that this God exists. I'm not sure why you aren't also interested in good, complicated reasons, if there are any. But here's one that's at least simple to state: Miracles, as reported by ancient and modern eyewitnesses. Obviously not all miracle reports are credible, but some of them are.

    Okay, let me be more clear about my terms: "good" means "makes predictions that are more accurate than chance, with greater accuracy being more 'good'". "Simple" means the Solomonoff induction simple, i.e. a shorter program simulating the universe based on that reason (this implicitly rejects "the woman down the street is a witch; she did it!", since the witch is harder to simulate than almost anything else that Science provides). I'm less interested in "complicated" (i.e. opposite of simple) reasons, not completely uninterested, it's just that I follow the principle that beliefs with greater Kolmogorov complexity (which is usually approximately proportional to the size of the full specification of the belief in terms of wavefunctions, when compressed by any modern compression algorithm) should be given less prior weight (in fact, they should be given weights equal to 1 / (2 ^ N), where N is the Kolmogorov length of the explanation): in short, Occam's Razor.

    Tomorrow, Science, without Religion, predicts the Sun shall Rise. In the combined system of Science + Christianity, what does it predict? Can Science + Christianity give a better prediction than Science alone? If so, is it better enough that the improved predictive power outweighs the added cost of Christianity?

  15. Aron Wall says:

    almkglor,

    "Trolling" is coming onto a collaborative discussion website with the purpose of stirring up controversy, instead of in order to make a serious contribution. It is regarded as a serious violation of netiquette for a reason. Yet some of your other comments seem intended to make serious points, and it's not always easy to tell which are which. Maybe you should take some time to reflect on your motives, before continuing to comment here. I will enforce good behavior here, if you provoke me too far. But I'd rather have a community where people are mature and choose to police themselves. Consider this your warning.

    You've made it clear that your comment about the "Muslim God" was a joke. The problem is not that you made a joke at my expense, but that you made a private joke which was only funny to yourself, and could only confuse the readers of the website, who may have thought you were intending to be serious. I will admit, however, that it was kind of funny when you suggested that the Sanhedren were in cahoots with the ancient Hebrew prophets, and crucified Jesus just to fulfil prophecy, simply because both groups shared the same ethnicity. That was a nice parody of the kind of rationalist who prefers any naturalistic explanations, however absurd, to supernatural explanations; and who is continually making up new ad hoc rules about what kind of evidence counts. I suspect that they make these rules up on the spot, and would never apply them to situations that don't involve supernatural events (for example, no one would ever say that they didn't believe in a scientific hypothesis, because the scientist who conjectured it and the scientists who did the experiment both happened to be French, and besides the experiment took place in the past rather than the future.)

    I'm not sure why my question about "good complicated reasons" should provoke you to swearing. Generally speaking, Occam's razor is interpreted to mean that hypotheses should be simple in the sense of elegance, not that the reasons (i.e. arguments) for believing in them should be simple, in the sense of easily explained in only a few words.

    I do believe in Occam's razor, but I don't believe that Kolmogorov complexity is the exclusive or even the best way to measure which hyptheses are best. For one thing, it is ambiguous since it depends on your choice of programming language. For another thing, the Chaitin incompleteness theorem means we can never be sure what the Kolmogorov complexity of a sufficiently complicated hypothesis is, so in practice we have to estimate prior probabilities in other ways. If you want to convince me that it's useful, please tell me what the Kolmogorov complexity of general relativity is, as an exact number. (Note that the computer programs used by human beings to simulate GR are in fact quite complicated, but this is not taken to mean that the theory is complicated, just that human-readable C isn't the best language to describe it). Finally, I'm not sure it agrees with my intuition, since the Kolmogorov complexity of e.g. hypothesizing that the laws of physics will change randomly at some moment of time is fairly low (it only requires specifying an algorithm for when it happens).

    Science + Christianity predicts that the Sun will rise tomorrow, unless (with low probability) Jesus comes back before then. It also predicts that certain people can, at times, by asking God, make the blind see, the deaf hear, crippled people walk again, dead people come back to life again, etc. For actual examples, read the book I linked to. It's silly to think that Naturalism can explain such dramatic miracles (if they occur more frequently than the extremely-rare chance rate). That's why sensible naturalists respond to dramatic miracle claims, not by trying to predict the miracles naturalistically, but by saying the witnesses are lying or confused. So it's not a question of whether Christianity predicts sufficient departures from naturalism to justify its added complexity. It does predict dramatic departures from Naturalism, and people do claim to have seen these effects. The only remaining question is whether we believe these people.

  16. almkglor says:

    I will admit, however, that it was kind of funny when you suggested that the Sanhedren were in cahoots with the ancient Hebrew prophets, and crucified Jesus just to fulfil prophecy, simply because both groups shared the same ethnicity.

    You seem to have differing sources from mine. By my understanding, Judea at that time was host to countless "messiahs" who espoused some version of return to the old ways in exchange for some version of salvation. It is precisely that they share ethnicity that many messiahs cropped up, one of whom was Yeshua, and because of their fomenting resistance against Rome, many were rounded up, mostly by Rome with the assistance of the Sadducee-dominated Sanhendrin and despite the unofficial support of the Pharisees for such messiahs, and crucified. Christianity is Paul's religion, whitewashed to make the Pharisees the bad guys in cahoots with the Sadducees and exonerate the Romans.

    I'm not sure why my question about "good complicated reasons" should provoke you to swearing. Generally speaking, Occam's razor is interpreted to mean that hypotheses should be simple in the sense of elegance, not that the reasons (i.e. arguments) for believing in them should be simple, in the sense of easily explained in only a few words.

    I explained my meaning already: "simple" in the sense of "fewer bits in Kolmogorov complexity". Of course I'm gonna swear if I see a scientist espousing hypotheses with greater Kolmogorov complexity!

    I do believe in Occam's razor, but I don't believe that Kolmogorov complexity is the exclusive or even the best way to measure which hyptheses are best. For one thing, it is ambiguous since it depends on your choice of programming language. For another thing, the Chaitin incompleteness theorem means we can never be sure what the Kolmogorov complexity of a sufficiently complicated hypothesis is, so in practice we have to estimate prior probabilities in other ways.

    We can never be sure but we can have an estimate of the Kolmogorov complexity. So what if the exact number of bits differs? Use a compression algorithm on the program to reduce the effects of language-specific support for particular constructs, and you get an approximation that can serve almost as well.

    Note that the computer programs used by human beings to simulate GR are in fact quite complicated, but this is not taken to mean that the theory is complicated, just that human-readable C isn't the best language to describe it

    Then use a compression algo to get a better estimate of the Kolmogorov complexity. And it doesn't mean that the theory isn't complicated, only that it has far better accuracy than the alternative Newtonian laws, with accuracy better enough that the relative complexity of general relativity is smaller.

    Finally, I'm not sure it agrees with my intuition, since the Kolmogorov complexity of e.g. hypothesizing that the laws of physics will change randomly at some moment of time is fairly low (it only requires specifying an algorithm for when it happens).

    But the laws of physics not changing is even less complex: there is no code that changes the laws of physics.

    Consider this your warning.

    Okay.

  17. Aron Wall says:

    almkglor,
    Sorry for taking so long to respond, but I was wrapped up in the discussions with others. I'm not going to touch on your the bible points in this thread, other than this highly dubious claim:

    Christianity is Paul's religion, whitewashed to make the Pharisees the bad guys in cahoots with the Sadducees and exonerate the Romans.

    As far as I know, no one thinks that Paul wrote the Gospels; in fact it's much more usual for skeptics to complain about the supposed differences between the outlook of Paul and the Gospels. Furthermore, Acts 23:6 suggests that Paul continued to identify more strongly with the Pharisees than the Sadducees, even after his conversion to Christianity. Since this is the only historical source in which to touch directly on the question of Paul's post-conversion attitude towards the Sadducees, your theory doesn't seem to be supported by any facts. Where did you get it from?

    We can never be sure but we can have an estimate of the Kolmogorov complexity.

    If by an estimate, you mean an upper bound, then yes, we can. However, the Chaitin complexity theorems tell us that for any sufficiently complicated theorem, the lower bound is always the same. There can be a lot of range between these bounds.

    So what if the exact number of bits differs? Use a compression algorithm on the program to reduce the effects of language-specific support for particular constructs, and you get an approximation that can serve almost as well.

    OK, great, but how do you know there wasn't a much more efficient compression algorithm? And can you tell me what your estimate of the complexity of general relativity is, as an actual number? Can you use this method to actually answer the question of whether the Newtonian or Einsteinian theory is more complicated? If not, what good is it, other than as one heuristic among many?

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