Tag Archives: theology

Who is guilty of misusing science?

I know someone is going to accuse me of “scientism” for this. But I guess that goes with the science blogger’s job – and it’s a diversion anyway. It will hardly be the first time.

What I want to dispute here is the claim that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”

Now, I have no problem with private belief. And many people no doubt retain this “limits of science” argument as part of their private belief. We all have beliefs or quirks which we don’t feel the need, or wish, to expose to critical investigation. That’s fine by me.

But I do object to those religious apologists who make this “limits of science” claim, but at the same time resort to arguments from scientific knowledge, or even just from reasoning, to claim their god belief is completely justifiable, and that my god disbelief is not. You, know – those who prattle on about “fine-tuning” of physical and cosmological constants, of evidence for an origin of the universe as “proof” of the existence of their god! Even those who claim the facts of “moral truths” prove their god! And then go on to rule “out of order” scientific arguments used by those who don’t believe.

Don’t these people realise they are claiming one rule for themselves (use of “scientific proof” argument) and denying the same to others by claiming “limits of science”? You would think the contradiction was obvious but there seem to be just as many (probably more) books, newspaper opinion pieces, etc., out there claiming science has proved the existence of a god as there are claims that such subjects are “outside the limits of science.”

I think both claims are unjustified – they are just emotionally motivated “logic” arguing for, and protecting, a preconceived belief.

The “Scientific proof” of the theologian

The scientific proof of the religious apologist amounts to nothing more than weak claims that “the evidence of an Intelligent Designer is all around us.” Or that scientific explanations of life and the universe have huge gaps. That somehow when a scientist says “I don’t know” this “proves” the religionist’s myth-based belief must be true – bugger the need for evidence or validation of ideas.

That’s not scientific proof! You need to do a lot more than just badmouth scientific theories. In science you actually need to advance a structured hypothesis. One based on evidence that makes predictions which can be tested against reality. Hypotheses and ideas that stand up to scrutiny, are open to modification, even outright abandonment, in the light of evidence.

You know, the sort of science which leads to publications and conference presentations.

wonka-physics-god

That sort of hypothesis would surely show a serious attempt to approach the questions scientifically – even if we were forced to acknowledge that we did not have the technology or mental capacity to provide a good answer. Whereas at the moment such talk of scientific proofs for gods is

The “limits of science”

As for the “limits of science” argument – this is never properly justified. If their god is part of objectively existing reality then surely the scientific approach is an acceptable way of investigating the claim. Of course science may not be up to that job. There are certainly areas which it finds difficult to investigate now – and there are potentially areas we may never be able to investigate because of limits in our technology and our intelligence. But at the moment the scientific approach is the best one we have to investigate difficult aspects of reality. And if science cannot sort things out then no-one has yet been able to produce an alternative, a specific “other way of knowing,” which could do the job – have they?

Yes, I know, these Sophisticated TheologiansTM have some clever arguments. Their god is outside space and time. Outside the universe. Therefore we have no way of investigating it. No way of detecting it even.

The obvious question that comes to my mind is “How do you know that? You seems to be so certain – what evidence do you have.” And isn’t this another one rule for me, another for you argument? After all –  you claim that god is answering your prayers, influencing events in the world, helping believers win races and overcome illness. Even causing a few hurricanes or earthquakes to discipline us for sinning! Going in for a bit of smiting! If that is the case your god is leaving an evidential trail which science can investigate.

But if you god is truly outside time and space, outside the universe, not only would we not be able to detect it, it would not have any influence here – would it? Haven’t you gone overboard in your attempt to protect your god from scientific investigation. You have ended up in defining your god out of any practical existence!

So before you start chanting “scientism” – ask yourself who is guilty of scientism? Of using science inappropriately?

Surely it is the religious apologist who claims “scientific proof” which is not at all scientific. Or who claims they know things about reality which they cannot possibly know. That they have an alternative “way of knowing” which can produce Truth with a capital T – but which they cannot even describe.

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Is Keith Ward really that naive about science?

Credit: Jesus and Mo

I am really amazed by some of the rubbish theologians and philosophers of religion think they can get away with when talking about science.

The Guardian article Religion answers the factual questions science neglects is just one recent example. It’s written by Keith Ward, a professorial research fellow in the philosophy of religion at Heythrop College, London. With these qualifications I would have expected something much better.

He loosely bases his arguments on Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) (see my post Overlapping Magisteria? for a brief description of NOMA). Ward claims:

“Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould’s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.”

Here are some points

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Approaching morality scientifically

Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

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Does science lead to secularism?

Some writings on the science/religion relationship are important and interesting. But we have to sieve through such a lot of rubbish to find the gems. I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

Frank James’s  article “Science and Religion in the London Library Magazine is an example of the latter agenda-driven analysis. He questions the role of science in the decline of Christianity. He claims that most modern science writing assumes an anti-religious stance. And such writings assume “that science has displaced Christianity during the 20th Century and that has been achieved solely due to science providing a ‘true’, evidence-based description of the world as opposed to mythic beliefs.”

Mind you, he provides no examples or evidence for this claim, although he obviously felt obliged to throw in the usual reference to “the strident outpourings of Richard Dawkins and others.”

In other words, a classic example of straw-mannery. I certainly have never read such a bald claim in the Dawkins’ writings, or the writings of any scientist. And certainly not in the writings of scientists who have researched religion, its origins and evolution.

But perhaps the straw man is just a literary device to enable James to convey his own onions on the relationship between science and religion and the real cause of secularism.* Let’s look at his claims:

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Philosophical sausages

Any scientist who has experienced the frustration of debating the theologically inclined, or the philosophically inclined who have a theological bent, will appreciate this. I certainly do.

It’s from Answers in Genes: Show me the Sausages! (and thanks to Pharyngula for the link I think this is another version of The Courtier’s Reply)


Show me the Sausages!

A philosopher designs a marvellous sausage machine. A scientist comes
to marvel at this wonderful creation, and raises an eyebrow.
The philosopher says, “Ah, behold the wonderful cogs and sprockets and
temperature-controlled mixing chambers in my wonderful machine -
surely you can see how it must produce the most fantastic sausages!”
The scientist says “Yes, that is all very interesting. Show me the sausages.”
The philosopher says “How dare you, a mere scientist, question my
wonderful philosophical reasoning?”
Scientist: “I’m not questioning your reasoning – I want to know if
your machine really produces sausages.”
Philosopher: “Can you point to any flaw in my argument that it
produces sausages?”
Sci: “I don’t know – I just want to know if it produces sausages. Here
is some meat. Why don’t you feed it through and see if you get any
sausages?”
Phil: “And sully my wonderful machine with mere offal?”
Sci: “You said it was a sausage machine. I want to see the sausages.”
Phil: “Are you questioning my ingredients?”
Sci: “I’m just questioning whether it produces sausages or not. Show
me the sausages.”
Phil: “Ah, so you cannot attack my premises and you cannot attack my
argument. Therefore I’m right and you lose.”
Sci: “Don’t be such a melodramatic prancing arse. Show me the sausages.”
Phil: “The sausages inevitably flow from the argument. You see my fine
machine. You can even inspect the meat & onions. The sausages
necessarily flow.”
Sci: “Show me the sausages or I’m off to Tesco.”
Phil: “You are a mere scientist with no understanding of philosophical matters.”
Sci: “Bye.”


Love that “Don’t be such a melodramatic prancing arse.” Reminds me of a few people!

I have often thought that “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” is an important philosophical principle. Unfortunately one that some people never learn.

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Aussie wisdom

Book Review: The Australian Book of Atheism Edited by Warren Bonett.

Price: AU$35.00
Format: Paperback (448pp )
Size: 234mm x 153mm
ISBN (13): 9781921640766
Publisher: Scribe Publications (November 2010).

This is a book by Aussies, for Aussies. But given our similar histories and cultures there is a lot here for Kiwis as well.

It’s a collection of short articles by 33 Australians. They cover personal recollections and reflections. National history, education, social and cultural areas. Politics, philosophy and science. There is even a section on “Religion and the Brain.”

As is the nature of such collections most readers will find something of interest. And different readers will inevitably have different favourites. My review reflects my own interests.

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Theological critiques of billboards required

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza prepare to charge

The atheist billboards which went up in three New Zealand cities recently have provoked some interest. Most of it has been quietly positive.

However, there are the critics. Inevitably there are those who criticise the weakness of the slogans. Lindsay Perigo had a slightly humourous article on this (see SOLO-NZ Press Release: Memo to NZ Atheists—Grow a Pair!). He said:

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Ways of not knowing

We are always hearing about how science can’t explain everything and that there are “other ways of knowing.” Problem is those promoting this idea are very vague about what these “other ways of knowing” are and what the evidence is for their effectiveness. Usually it’s just a way of supporting one’s own pet desires.

So I really like this simple statement by Jerry Coyne in a post at Why Evolutiuon is True (see What evidence would convince you that a god exists?).

“Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right. That’s why science makes progress in understanding the world while religion is still mired in medieval theology.”

Sums it up, really. How can you know you are right if you can’t know if you are wrong? To do that you actually have to interact with reality.

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Theological intrusions into science

It’s no secret. I have no time for theology.

I try to stay away from debates about existence of gods as I think it is a mug’s game. Evidence gets distorted or invented. And logic gets skewed. The UK Humanist Terry Sanderson has a brief article about this in the Guardian (see Theology – truly a naked emperor). As he says:

What is theology? I think one of the best definitions was given by the sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein when he said: “Theology … is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”

As an example of the trade he refers to Rowan Williams: “who is lauded far and wide for the vastness of his theological knowledge. He is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend. And because no one can fathom it, it must be very important, right? He’s much cleverer than we are because he can say things that we don’t understand. For instance:”

“The word of God is not bound. God speaks, and the world is made; God speaks and the world is remade by the word incarnate. And our human speaking struggles to keep up. We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what may be infinitesimally different perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the word’s light has been made manifest.”

Well – theologians might debate this. I couldn’t possibly comment. As I said, a mug’s game.

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Philosophers aren’t so bad!

Maybe I have been talking to the wrong people. You know – the ones who use the words philosophy and philosopher when they actually mean theology and theologian. I have noticed a tendency for theists to hide behind the word philosophy – and use the word loosely to justify their own positions.

So I was somewhat reassured to read that only 14.6% of professional philosophers are theists.

This certainly is more consistent with my belief that there are philosophers and “philosophers.” In other words different schools of thought. And it is wrong to just use the term vaguely in justification of  a personal position.

David Bourget and David Chalmers have released the results of the largest survey of professional philosophers ever conducted. This produced the following distribution on the question of religious belief and adherence to naturalist or non-naturalist viewpoints:

72.8% atheism
14.6% theism
12.5% other

49.8% naturalism
25.8% non-naturalism (but not necessarily supernaturalism)
24.2% other.

I think the detail for religious beliefs changes as the group is divided into pre-graduate, graduate and faculty philosophers. Probably similar to what one would find for scientists.

Rather gratifying!

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