Friday, September 19, 2008

Why I trust science

I guess this week is the week for publicly posting all the email I send. This post is adapted from an email I sent to Stephen Gibson of Truth-Driven Thinking. He no longer does the podcast, but I highly recommend listening to some of the past episodes. He has very interesting interviews with well-informed people, and the interviews challenge conventional wisdom on a variety of topics.

One of the last podcast episodes I listened to was Epilogue #5, a guest appearance with Don Johnson Ministries, and it kind of pissed me off. You don't have to listen to the episode to appreciate this post, but it might help.

I felt like the Christian interviewers were trying to pigeonhole Steve as a "materialist" so that they could dispatch him with their stock philosophical arguments, instead of actually listening to what he was trying to say. At the same time, they kept insisting that this was a dialogue for the purpose of greater understanding. To me, it came off as disingenuous, though I believe they may have honestly thought they were trying to participate in an open dialogue.

Particularly bad was their assertion that the best worldview is the one that explains what others cannot, and therefore scientific naturalism is inferior because it cannot explain the supernatural. So how about the assertion, "I believe science, reason, and evidence are the best way of understanding the world. I accept the scientific consensus on all matters pertaining to reality. Also, I have an invisible dragon in my garage." Is this a more correct worldview because it explains something supernatural that pure naturalism cannot explain? If my friend says that my garden is beautiful, and I say, "Yes, but did you know there are also fairies at the bottom of it?", does that make my point of view superior? I don't think so, because the addendum of "God did it" doesn't really explain anything. There is no value in arriving at an explanation via Making Stuff Up.

If you're going to compare worldviews, you need to examine them against the evidence. The evidence for scientific naturalism is that science works. The space shuttle flies, and vaccines work, and the reason they work is because science allows us to make testable predictions about the universe. Our understanding of reality has increased by orders of magnitude in the past, let's say, 2000 years. We know that we are progressing in understanding because we are able to make successful predictions that we weren't able to make before. Science is the tool for doing so, and it is also the tool for measuring our progress. That is the evidence.

How has our understanding of reality been increased by Christianity? How would we even know? Does Christianity make any testable predictions about the world? In a way, you could say that prophecy is a testable prediction. Unfortunately, most prophecies in the Christian tradition are so vague that they can be interpreted in dozens of ways. Even prophecies that are specific are not falsifiable, because any failures can be conveniently explained away with "God works in mysterious ways" or "I guess the people weren't faithful enough" or any other rationalization you can come up with. Would the space shuttle fly in a Christian universe? Sure, probably. Did God tell us how to make the space shuttle fly? No.

Does the practicality of science prove that matter is all that exists? No, but it certainly suggests that it is a very valuable approach to assume that we live in a natural universe. As Steve said during the interview, asking for proof that "matter is all that exists" is really asking for proof of a negative proposition. One can no more disprove the existence of God than one can disprove the existence of the invisible dragon in my garage. It is the onus of supernaturalists to demonstrate a single counterexample to the proposition of naturalism. It is not the onus of naturalists to disprove every conceivable example of anything that would fall outside the realm of naturalism.

I found it interesting that they demanded this impossible evidence in order to support the naturalistic view, yet when claiming evidence of their own position, the best they could do were ideas like:

- "Thoughts and emotions aren't physical." (Why?)
- "Is rationality rational?" (Why not?)
- "The gospels tell what Jesus' contemporaries thought of him." (No, they were written about 100 years later.)
- "Plenty of people have debunked Ehrman." (This is an argument?)

In a way, this is a specific rant against the Christians in a particular interview, but it's also a more general complaint about supernaturalism in general. If a supernatural explanation were better than a scientific one for explaining any part of reality, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. If prayer could help someone regrow an amputated limb, I would pray. Hell, if prayer were shown to have a significant effect on anything at all, external to the person praying, I would pray. But as far as I can tell, naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we see and experience. And furthermore, science works. That is why I trust it.

1 comment:

kermenoo said...

I think that the main flaw in the argument is that "Christianity" is supposed to make predictions about the world.It's just not its place.
Religions are more concerned with teaching us how to live our lives, rather than predict "physical" phenomena.
I would imagine that the undercurrent of this post is the ongoing creationism vs evolution debate. I am a practising Catholic and cannot, for the life of me, see why anyone would want to take the Bible literally and use it to combat incontrovertible scientific evidence ... but that's another story.