Bad science, bad theology

lemaitre-einstein2

Einstein & Lemaître

Back in 1951  Georges Lemaître warned Pope Pius XII about the opportunist use of science to support religious beliefs. Lemaître, a Catholic priest and astronomer, was responsible for the initial formulation of a “big bang” theory for the origin of the universe. He was reacting to the Pope’s claim that the new theory was a scientific validation of the Catholic faith.  In his statement Lemaître said:

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

Implicit in his statement was the idea that such opportunist use of science misrepresents science. It is also bad theology. This view was also articulated by Father George Coyne another Catholic priest and former Vatican astronomer (see “Scientism” in the eyes of the beholder).

Coyne points out that scientific knowledge is relative. Conclusions will alter as more evidence produces better knowledge of reality. Therefore a theology which justifies itself in scientific terms lays itself open to being proven wrong.

The naivety of apologetics

However, modern Christian apologists have refused to learn this lesson. They have not been able to resist the temptations and will often claim scientific support for their religious beliefs. In the process they make their beliefs vulnerable to evidence – which is no bad thing. But, in practice, they inevitably end up denying scientific evidence when it doesn’t support their religious beliefs.

One example of the inappropriate use of science by modern apologists is the “cosmological argument for existence of a god” as often advanced by William Lane Craig. This was also recently repeated on a local apologetics site. Simply put it’s  a 3-step argument that says: 1) Everything that begins to exist had a cause; 2) The universe began to exist; 3) The universe had a cause. Of course it then goes on the claim that the logical cause is a personal omnipotent, immaterial, etc., individual – a god. Specifically the Christian God.

So, as presented, the apologists claim that they have “proved” the existence of their God from the “big bang” theory. (Although some Christian creationists claim that the “big bang” theory is wrong because it conflicts with the biblical Genesis account – I guess its all a matter of interpretation).

The argument starts with “common sense” propositions that matter can’t come out of nothing, that the “big bang” theory proves that the universe has a beginning and a cause. But it then falls back on a magical “explanation” for creation of matter and the universe.

Of course, modern science so often shows “common sense” to be incorrect when we investigate the very small, very fast and very big. That is why general relativity, quantum mechanics and much of modern particle physics is so counter-intuitive. Our common sense is based on our experience in the medium sized, slow moving world.

Apologetic arguments chopped off at the knees

The original “big bang” theory did not account for the formation of matter but science hasn’t been shirking. Modern infaltionary “big bang” theories include mechanisms of the formation of matter and radiation.

Also, modern cosmological theories open up the possibility of sibling universes and prior existing universes. Even the possibility of an eternal succession of universes – each one spawning daughter universes. (see figure below from John D. Barrow’s The Constants of Nature).

inflate-universeInterestingly, although these ideas may be speculative Roger Penrose recently suggested a way of finding “fossil” evidence for a pre-existing universe in the background microwave radiation of our current universe. In recent months this evidence may have been found (see Roger Penrose’s lecture Before the Big Bang: Is There Evidence For Something And If So, What?). Phil Plait also discusses the possibility of testing the existence of a prior universe (see What happened before the Big Bang?). See also Glimpse before Big Bang may be possible. The Laser Interferometer  Space Antenna (LISA) space mission planned for 2019  may be able to detect gravitational waves which provide information of a pre-existing universe.

So, the arguments based on the formation of matter and the beginning of the universe have been compromised. We no longer have to rely on divine magic for the formation of matter and energy. The warnings of Lemaître and Coyne have come home to roost. Arguments relying on the “common sense” logic of the Craig’s cosmological argument have been cut off at the knees.

Going into denial

So how do the apologists handle this mess? Instead of admitting their error and retreating to pure theology they can think no further than resorting to defence of bad theology and denial of the science. They do everything to deny the possibilities coming out of modern “big bang” theory.

The silly thing is that the arguments 1) Everything that begins to exist had a cause; 2) The universe began to exist are irrelevant to the question of the existence of a god. That really just depends on the divine magic of step 3 which assumes a personal omnipotent, immaterial, etc., individual – a god. Specifically the Christian God. So why use them? Obviously only to give their “logic” some scientific credibility by referring to “big bang” theory.

Christian apologists often appeal to scientific “evidence” to provide credibility to their arguments. However, they just as willingly reject scientific evidence when it clearly counters their beliefs (look at their rejection of evolutionary science). Sometimes they will be completely blatant in this rejection and claim that science has no role in such questions. On the one hand they will claim (as did the author of the local apologist article)  support from “big bang” theory for their “logical” proof of their god – then they will say that science cannot say anything about the formation of the universe!

The phrase “talking out of both sides of your mouth” seems appropriate here.

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22 responses to “Bad science, bad theology

  1. Ken,

    Simply put it’s a 3-step argument that says: 1) Everything that begins to exist had a cause; 2) The universe began to exist; 3) The universe had a cause…
    …the divine magic of step 3 which assumes a personal omnipotent, immaterial, etc., individual – a god. Specifically the Christian God…

    First, the key distinction between Lemaitre and Pius XII is that Lemaitre recognised the difference between natural causality and divine causality.
    Second, it’s not quite accurate to portray the logical jump to ‘assume’ that it is specifically the christian God. Logically (and linguistically) it would be a ‘universal’ God at that stage. No Cosmological argument ever bothers with trying to get past this.
    And ‘assuming’ an omnipotent, immaterial and individual God is quite a basic use of logic.
    Any creator of ‘all'(onmi) would be omnipotent; any creator of the material order would not himself be material, and as for the individual claim (one god, not many) that is achieved after 2.7 seconds of contemplating the regress of ‘who made that god’ question, which (again, in merely 2.7 – maybe 2.9 – seconds) gets you to ‘self-existent’ and ‘individual’.

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  2. …but having said that, yes it’s a good observation to refrain from using science to ‘prove’ (OR DISPROVE!!!) God.

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  3. Dale – are you commenting on the use of this argument by other theologians – or specifically as used by apologists like Craig and Thinking Matters? (I was quoting form the Thinking matters presentation).

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  4. the key is this:
    What causal level is the apologetic argument being made? If Craig, T.M., et al are making the argument at the level of natural causality, then yes, I’d have a problem with that. If at the level of divine causality, then that’s OK.
    My ‘secondly’ point was directed at your charge of the ‘assumptions’, etc. in step 3. The cosmo argument doesn’t ‘jump’ to ‘the specific Christian understanding of God’

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  5. How can unproved, speculative scientific hypotheses compromise current cosmology—that is widely accepted— that gives a creation of the universe ex nihilo?

    Ken, there is an immediate echo to your words, bouncing back at you…

    Atheistic apologists often appeal to scientific “evidence” to provide credibility to their arguments. However, they just as willingly reject scientific evidence when it clearly counters their beliefs (look at their rejection of the big bang and the implications to creation ex nihilo).

    More worrying still, look at their rejection of basic logic. 3 follows necessarily from 1 and 2. A personal, omnipotent, creator God transcending the universe is the implication of 3. Dale is right-on on this score – its not the Christian God. But it is a being with many of the traditional Christian attributes of God.

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  6. Pingback: “Highly confused if not deliberately misleading” : Thinking Matters Talk

  7. Stuart – your comment:

    “Atheistic apologists often appeal to scientific “evidence” to provide credibility to their arguments. However, they just as willingly reject scientific evidence when it clearly counters their beliefs (look at their rejection of the big bang and the implications to creation ex nihilo).”


    I don’t know what “atheist apologists” are or that we can say there is an atheist position of any specific scientific theory. However, while I am aware that there is some Christian (and specifically creationist) opposition to “big bang” theory I am not aware of any significant rejection of this scientific theory by many atheists. ( I can’t see that there are any currently scientific theories which really conflict with “atheist beliefs”).

    Stuart – please give me some specific names and links for these “atheists” and their rejection of “big bang” theory.

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  8. Stuart – I am still waiting for information on those “atheist apologists” who reject “big bang” theory. Or did you really mean they reject belief in your god?

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  9. Ken, visit openparachute.wordpress.com for your atheistic apologists. See also Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins to name a couple.

    For specific scientific theories advocated by atheistic apologists see the theory of Evolution, and the past-eternal universe.

    That the universe had an ultimate beginning is very awkward for the atheist, as atheism has traditionally maintained the universe is eternal, all there is and ever will be. The universe’s origin from nothing is extremely problematic for the atheistic position, and has been established quite firmly by the vigourous debate that has characterised 20th Century cosmology.

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  10. Well, Stuart, I am not aware of anything from either Dennett or Dawkins rejecting “big bang” theory – perhaps you could provide a quote/link?

    I think you have been misinformed or under an illusion. All that the word “atheist” implies is lack of belief in a god. It says nothing about other beliefs, scientific, spiritual, philosophical, etc. – or indeed religious.

    There may well be atheists who don’t accept modern cosmological science, or evolutionary science, etc. I am not aware of any significant names of any – that’s why I asked (although I am aware of some Christian creationists who reject “big bang” theory).

    Perhaps you were reacting without thinking when you made that claim.

    On the other hand, modern cosmological science, including “big bang” theory does raise all sorts of fascinating possibilities of the sort I raised in this article. These do compromise Craig’s arguments about the beginning of our universe and previous discussion with you indicates you are also unwilling to accept these possibilities. You only want to accept a “standard” “big bang” theory pre-dating the current concepts.

    I am one “atheist apologist” (horrible term) who accepts modern “big bang” theory and is happy to consider the implications of it. It seems to me that you aren’t willing to accept modern cosmological science – or only those bits that you think agree with your religious preconceptions.

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  11. For specific scientific theories advocated by atheistic apologists see the theory of Evolution, and the past-eternal universe.

    Stuart, you seem unaware that a number of prominent evolutionary biologists are also committed Christians?

    as atheism has traditionally maintained the universe is eternal, all there is and ever will be.
    And this would seem to be putting words into people’s mouths – & an odd statement considering the significance of the ‘big bang’ in modern cosmology…

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  12. Stuart,
    I’m not sure what you’re even getting at?

    I know what you’re meaning to say when you refer to “atheist apologists” (we all ‘defend’ our position – actively or passively; implicitly or explicitly), but when you claim specifically that there are atheists who deny big-bang science, you should be specific in your references.

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  13. Dale,
    Insofar as the Big Bang model predicts the creation of all space, matter, time and energy in a singular event a finite time ago ex nihilo (from nothing), Ken would like to deny the model. He sights unproved and highly speculative models that he thinks are past-eternal in an attempt to avert the obvious implications of (3) – that the universe had a cause.

    Alison and Ken,
    Dawkins and Dennet advocate that evolution removes the need for God. Thus they are atheistic evangelists and apologists.

    Ken,
    Your definition of “atheism” as pointed out before, is a radical modern redefinition that I do not accept. Check any dictionary for the correct definition.

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  14. “Watch Stuart play word games”. (Nothing more to say.)

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  15. @ 13: I notice you’ve chosen to ignore my first point:

    For specific scientific theories advocated by atheistic apologists see the theory of Evolution, and the past-eternal universe.

    Stuart, you seem unaware that a number of prominent evolutionary biologists are also committed Christians?

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  16. “…a number of prominent evolutionary biologists are also committed Christians.”

    Yes but…they’re not REAL Christians, you see?

    Get with the program.
    🙂

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  17. 16: From what I understand, Stuart’s idea of “Christian” is so exclusive that his definition would seem to rule out the vast majority of Christians.

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  18. @13. Stuart: I think that Ken has clearly stated that these are speculative ideas about universe formation. The point is, that people are are starting to suggest some ways for testing these ideas. This is a technique whereby hypotheses and speculations can be hardened into concrete theories. If the Christian apologists want to play in this game, then they will also need to put forward some suggestions for how their speculations could be tested. Otherwise, you are playing a different game. As far as I gather, this is the point that Ken is making.

    The apologists are trying to co-opt science without playing by the rules. If you want to play the science game, then you have to be prepared to make testable speculations and also to face the possibility that your speculations could be shown to be wrong.

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  19. @ 16, 17: sorry, sorry, I shall slink back to my corner & eat popcorn 😉

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  20. Stuart – I am forced to conclude that when you said:

    Atheistic apologists often appeal to scientific “evidence” to provide credibility to their arguments. However, they just as willingly reject scientific evidence when it clearly counters their beliefs (look at their rejection of the big bang and the implications to creation ex nihilo).”

    you really were just shooting your mouth off. You actually can’t name a well known atheist who rejects modern cosmological theory.

    You are also shooting your mouth off when you claim that I deny the “big bang” theory. You surely don’t believe that after reading my article and comments here and elsewhere?

    The problem arises because you want to claim an early version of the “big bang” theory as evidence for your god (this is the very same opportunist use of science that Georges Lemaître warned Pope Pius XII about). So you have fallen into that trap because you see (or want to use) scientific theory as rigid, defined for all time, when it isn’t. It develops, evolves. The very thing Lemaître warned about.

    And this has happened with the “big bang” theory. Issues about what caused the “big bang”, what came before the big bang, etc. are now on the agenda, actively researched and actively discussed. I have tried to give you a flavour for this – but there is more.

    Science is fascinating when you see it that way. It must be horrible to see scientific ideas as rigid, fixed for all time.

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  21. Ah, but Ken, if science changes its mind all the time, then who knows which bits are right? We can all believe what we want.

    *ducks & runs for cover* 😉

    But seriously, you see this all the time – witness the uninformed rant on vaccination that I blogged about a couple of days ago.

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  22. Ken, we win: Stuart is a crack pot. Case closed1

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