Monday, July 23, 2012

Creation and the Scientific Method

An Atheist's Argument
A couple years ago I was presented with an argument against theism that appealed to the trustworthiness of the scientific method. It goes like this:

1. The scientific method relies on the constancy of the natural laws for its trustworthiness
2. In order for God to create, He must act in a way that breaks the constancy of the natural laws
3. Therefore, God creating and the trustworthiness of the scientific method are incompatible

The atheist believed that he had me pinned down because I believe that the scientific method is trustworthy. I explained to him the problem with his argument and why I reject his conclusion (I'll explain that later). I haven't really heard this argument presented much lately. But I did come across it again a couple days ago, not from an atheist but a fellow Christian.



The Argument Hijacked
Many people are aware of the internal debate within the Christian Church about the age of the universe. This is the context in which the recent challenge arose. My friend believes that the universe is roughly 10,000 years old, while I hold the view that it is 13.7 billion years old. When he presented the challenge, he wasn't arguing against theism, but against my specific view on the age of the universe. He seemed to accept the conclusion provided by the atheist's argument above. But he qualifies it to being sound only during the time of creation- the first 144 hours of the history of the universe on his view (less than 1% of the universe's history) or 13.6 billion years of 13.7 billion years on my view (more than 99% of the universe's history). He stated that he preferred to believe the view that allows the scientific method to be compromised for the lesser amount of time (1% rather than 99% of the universe's history). He further stated that my view did great damage to science because it compromises the scientific method for the vast majority of the universe's history.

My friend stated that I can't accept that the universe is so old because of the fact that I trust the scientific method. He only took it to that point, but my mind immediately realized that if God's acts of creating do actually compromise the scientific method (by violating the laws of nature), then we cannot be certain of any measurements of the past (especially from astronomy). If the laws of nature were compromised over the past 13.6 billion years, then we can only gather information using the scientific method regarding the last 100,000 years (less than 1% of the history of the universe).

The Dire Implications Realized and Resisted
I go over those implications because I want fellow Christians who hold my view to understand what a young-earth (YE) creation scientist is facing if they accept that there is any level of soundness to the atheist's argument (and my YE friend's argument) above. With all scientists (young-earth, old-earth [OE], or naturalistic), one of their worst nightmares consists of the undermining of the scientific method- without it, they cannot gain knowledge. For the naturalist, knowledge is one of the highest pursuits. For the Christian, knowledge of the Creator is one the highest purposes. If the scientist is convinced that a certain worldview will undermine their respective endeavor (that undermining worldview is theism for the atheist, or OE creation for the YE creationist), they will resist that worldview with all they have.

Because of the potential implications of this challenge (from both atheist and YE scientist), it must be addressed. I will start with the atheist's presentation first, since the YE scientist's argument relies heavily upon it. Once done, I will address more specifics of the YE scientist's challenge.

My Response to the Atheist's Argument
Alvin Plantinga explains in an interview with NPR that natural laws are merely descriptions of phenomena that we witness in our world. These descriptions assume that the universe is a closed system (nothing going in or out), and God's interaction with the world (including creation and guiding natural events) does not break any actual rules. When we discover a phenomenon that does not behave according to our models of the universe, we search to modify that model to include the phenomenon. Any time that God interacts with creation, He must be taken into account in the model and included as a part of the descriptions. Plantinga goes into this in more depth in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.

I recently finished reading and reviewing the book by biochemist Fazale Rana "Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case For the Creator" (my review). The book outlines how scientists are running experiments to create life from the ground up. Rana explains that these scientists have to guide the processes intricately, because leaving them to nature will not produce the desired results.

I bring up both of these to address two unique implications of the atheist's challenge: God's special creation and God's continued interaction with creation.

From the Outside In
If we consider all of reality to be part of a system, then we must include God in that system. We must be willing to recognize that our planet is not a closed system, neither is our solar system, galaxy, local group of galaxies or even universe. If Christianity is true, then the universe is not closed off from God and our models must include His interaction. Of course, this would be challenged by claiming that we are appealing to a God-of-the-gaps argument. I address that in my post "Filling in the Gaps". Since we believe that God can interact with His creation, we do not believe that the universe is a closed system. The scientific method reliably gives us information that we must deal with, and that does include changing our scientific models as needed. If we take into account all parts of a closed system, then there is no need to say that one part of that system is incompatible with the rest. God is part of the system (all reality), so His interaction in the system ultimately does not break anything.

Many scientists today already recognized that the universe is not a closed system in itself. They posit that there is a multiverse that is the source of the creation of this universe. Many of these scientists believe that the multiverse can be detected by our instruments even though the multiverse is not a part of the universe. The only way for such a detection to take place is for the universe to not be a closed system in and of itself. So, any person who believes that we can make a positive or negative detection of the multiverse has already granted that scientists do have access to existence beyond the universe- thus they grant that the universe is not a closed system. If they grant that the universe is not a closed system, and there can be transfer between the inside and outside of the universe without breaking natural laws of this universe, then they grant that God (outside the universe) can also interact (bring in something new) with the universe without breaking any natural laws. For those who posit a multiverse, they have already undermined a key assumption of this argument against theism. (Find more on the multiverse from Reasons to Believe and Sententias.)

Interaction, Guidance, and Design
We also need to realize that scientists guide natural processes all the time in their experiments. If you are a scientist performing experiments, you control (guide) at minimum one variable- otherwise, the process is simply going to take place naturally and may not give you much useful data. Scientists are purposeful in their guiding of nature in their experiments. But we would never say that the guidance is violating or breaking any natural law, in virtue of their guidance. If they were breaking natural laws during the experiment, then they would not be able to make reliable measurements as they are guiding the process. I point this out to establish that guidance of natural events does not necessitate a breaking of a natural law. Guiding of natural events is actually necessary for scientists to formulate models of the universe.

In fact, without guidance of events, there would be no reliable, recorded knowledge of the universe. Through guidance of events, observation of results, and formulation of models, we discover how the universe acts without being guided by an intelligent agent- how it acts naturally. When we see something extremely peculiar, rare, or next-to-impossible, and it does not violate the natural law, then that allows us to identify possible further guidance (design) in nature. So, as with the scientist, God's guiding of natural events does not compromise the scientific method- in fact, His guidance gives us powerful evidence of His existence that can be ascertained via the scientific method.

But, God Cannot Be Controlled For In A Scientific Experiment
This is a challenge to my responses that I can see coming. I grant this point. I am also aware that scientists also grant that there are some variables that they do not have precise control over in their experiments. The lack of precise control over all aspects would require complete knowledge and understanding of our natural world. But if we had that, then there would be no need for the scientific enterprise.

Also, scientists control for what they currently know, and when anomalies or unexpected results show up, scientists develop new theories or adjust current ones and explore those by more experiments. That is how they discover how the universe works naturally, and the body of scientific knowledge expands. Not being able to control for everything is necessary for the scientific enterprise to continue to produce knowledge. If God can never be completely controlled for, the scientific endeavor will never end- knowledge will never be complete, and exploration will always be necessary. On the other hand, if the universe is all there is, then there will come a day when knowledge will be complete, and the scientific enterprise will come to an end.

My Response to the Young-Earth Creation Scientist
Even though I have shown above how the whole argument does not stand, there are additional problems that arise when a Christian attempts to take this view. The first two that come to my mind regard the idea that simply God's interaction with or guidance of creation undermines the scientific method. First, this challenge oddly does not take into account that Christianity grants that God was extremely active in miraculous ways throughout biblical history and even today. With the way the dichotomy in the challenge is set up, if we grant that the trustworthiness of the scientific method necessarily excludes God's interaction with creation, that means that God could not have entered creation as the God/man Jesus Christ- In other words, Jesus was not God, and God did not raise Jesus from the dead!

If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then there must be a naturalistic explanation for all the evidence that demonstrates otherwise. By accepting and putting forth the dichotomy between OE creationism and the reliability of the scientific method, the YE Christian is forced to naturalistically explain the evidence that is purported in other discussions to solidify the historical truth of Jesus' resurrection. We must be consistent in our defense of Christianity (see my post regarding the importance of consistency and consistency among disciplines of knowledge), we cannot allow one of our arguments to undermine another.

Not So Fast?
One response to that would be to say that God was interactive with creation through biblical times, but not today. It seems that this would allow the challenger to maintain the dichotomy and maintain the power of the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. That is true, but consistency must not only exist between two arguments, but among all arguments. There is a dire consequence of saying that God was only active during biblical times- God all of the sudden has turned deistic. He does not care about the pain and suffering of the modern person, and our prayers to Him fall on unloving ears or powerless ears. The logical problem of evil (God either does not have the power to eliminate evil, or He doesn't love us enough to do so) stands and devastates the case for Christianity.

Further, if God is deistic today but was not in biblical times, then that is powerful evidence (from the "Christian" worldview present in the dichotomy, mind you) that the writings in scripture are not for all people of all generations; they were only for the people of that day. The historical reliability of scripture is a non-issue, because even if it is reliable, it doesn't apply to us. Moral relativism and religious inclusivism/universalism are perfectly acceptable worldviews in a deistic universe (God doesn't care; and if he doesn't care, why should we fear judgment?). Last week, I posted regarding Lawrence Krauss' Wager. If the scientific method and God's interaction with the universe are necessarily incompatible, then Krauss' Wager is actually a good one to bet on.

The Implications Listed
On the surface the atheist's challenge seems quite persuasive, but it fails to truly understand how Christianity describes the universe and God's relationship to it. The challenge simply does not apply to Christianity properly understood. Further, when that argument is accepted by a Christian, it forces them to deny several of the central teachings of Christianity:
  1. The omni-benevolence of God
  2. Objective morality
  3. The justice of God
  4. The theistic nature of God
  5. The deity of Jesus
  6. The historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead
  7. The exclusivity of Christianity
The denial of any one of those is enough to undermine the truth-claims of the Christian worldview. But the list is seven-fold. Because of that, this argument is a powerful weapon in the hands of an atheist when they go against a Christian who grants it. The Christian who grants that argument (even with the attempted escapes offered by my YE friend) has no legs to stand on. They are handing the Christian worldview to the atheist on a silver platter, needlessly.

Conclusion
Rather than blindly accepting such a dichotomy, the Christian needs to critically evaluate the atheist's argument and understand that it not only fails, but it is in their best interest to recognize that failure, no matter how much they think it will allow them to retain the view that the universe is only a few thousand years old. The price is too great. I'm not asking the young-earth scientist to change to my view of an old earth in this post (it is not the YE view that necessarily undermines Christianity; it is this particular argument against the OE view that does); I'm simply asking that they not use this argument against my view, encourage other YE believers to use it, or accept it in discussion with an atheist.

More On This Topic
God and Science Do Mix- by Tom Gilson

6 comments:

  1. You seem to consider the trustworthiness of the scientific method to be prior to God's interaction with the creation. But, in my opinion, this is entirely up-side-down.

    The fact that we expect that every single fall of a rock on Earth, or anywhere in the Universe, will be described roughly/precisely by Newton's law, it's something we assume. By means of induction we can not be certain that this is the case.

    If we find a single case where it doesn't happen, we can either assume that an invisible intelligent agent is messing up with the experiment, or that there are invisible natural factors perturbing the experiment, or the law doesn't really stand in all cases.

    The fact that natural phenomena are governed by laws, could in no way prevent us from assuming that there can be cases where this is not the case. We found laws that describe correctly the experiments we have performed. That doesn't mean there are not instances right now in the Universe where these laws don't apply. If there's a healing going on right now, if were to measure some parameter or another, maybe we'd notice a break of the law of conservation of energy. But no one is measuring that, so we can't make any kind general theoretical statements about what actually happens in the world.

    We are mere spectators in the world. We didn't created the world, even if we don't believe God did it. So we don't have much to say about what is metaphysically possible and what not.

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    1. Cristian Pascu,
      Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in answering.

      Before I respond, I want to restate each section of your comment; please let me know if I have them correct. I've numbered them based on the paragraph order:

      1. The scientific method is not reliable (and may not even exist) until after God interacts with creation.

      2. We assume that scientific laws are spatially universal, but there is no foundation for such an assumption.

      3. If we discover a violation of current scientific theories, we have three options: A) An unseen (possibly metaphysical) but intelligent agent is causing the unexpected result; B) There is a nuance to the law that the theory has not accounted for yet; or C) The theory is completely wrong and an alternative must be found.

      4. The establishment of a theory as a law does not rule out the possibility that a exceptions exist and may be discovered some day.

      5. Since man is limited to observation within the universe, man cannot have any knowledge of or come to any conclusions about what exists, may exist, happens or may happen outside the universe.

      Please offer any clarification of what you stated; I want to make sure I understand what you are positing before I respond.

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  2. I don't want my argument to be broken in so many points, at least for the sake of a focused discussion. So here is my main point, one more time.

    We, from within the Universe, can not assert rules about how things should be (us, as things, included). We can not rule out the possibility of miracles, exception to the rules we observe. Where "a rule" is a string of instances of a phenomena that happen the same way under the same conditions. The string is limited and, more than that, we're observers and not the agents that caused the phenomena. Even if we are able to, say, throw a rock, we're not the ultimate ontological cause of that. We are too just a piece of existence obeying laws that were not set by us.

    Thus what we call 'the scientific method' is possible only due to the fact that, in most cases, nature shows regularities. It's the scientific method that depends on those regularities, not the other way around. The regularities depend on the intelligent agent that set them to be that way, but can also break them.

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  3. Cristian,
    Thanks again for the comment. I broke up the original comment in order to understand what you are trying to say. I do believe that for me to answer you, you must let me know if I understand you correctly. Since you did not answer my questions, it is difficult for me to respond with any certainty that I'm actually addressing your view and support for that view. So, with the lack of information, this is my response:

    The reliability of the scientific method is based upon the regularity of the universe being a fact. But we cannot just assume regularity accurately describes our universe. We must have access outside our universe in order to establish that the universe operates according to regularities. You state that we do not have access beyond the universe and that because of that, we cannot know "how things should be". Ultimately, the view that you have put forth here completely undermines the scientific method. Since it has undermined the scientific method, how are we ever to know what is "regular" and what is not regular (a miracle)? If this view is correct, then it has undermined any possible way to detect God's intervention in the universe. To ascribe to the view that you have put forth here is to accept that Christianity cannot be tested or known, but only blindly believed.

    Since you were not clear from which perspective you are arguing, but I do want to include the consequences of the view that it appears you are positing, here are the implications for a Christian and a skeptical perspective:

    Those skeptical of Christianity- to take this view certainly undermines the ability to know if Christianity is true. A person is welcome to believe it or disbelieve it. They cannot be held responsible for knowledge that cannot be known. On the other hand, since there is no foundation for regularities, there is also no possible knowledge of the world.

    Those who believe Christianity is true- In an effort to make room for miracles, their possibility is more questionable than it was before. Ultimately, the claim to "know" that Christianity is true is based on a book- nothing more. Anyone who has a book may make the same claim. Epistemologically, all religions are on equal ground. Since there can be no certainty of truth, one cannot be held responsible for choosing the wrong religion. Hell is hogwash and thus the Great Commission is a suggestion...if Christianity even is true.

    Both sides: If you accept that we cannot know how things should be outside our universe, you undermine the scientific method. If you undermine the scientific method, you eliminate any objective test for knowing which religion is ontologically true. But, you also lose any way of knowing whether anything is ontologically true. This view necessarily leads to radical skepticism and hard agnosticism.

    Regardless of which perspective you are arguing from, by asserting that you have knowledge of how the universe works (regularity) in your comment, you have contradicted the view that you are asserting (that we cannot know how things "should be" about the universe because we are merely observers stuck inside it). It is self-contradictory. The only way to accept the view that you have posited is to accept that self-contradiction is possible in reality, but then again, that would require access to the universe from the outside.

    My primary point is that the weakest links in your argument is that you posit that we cannot, as observers, know what "should" be about the universe or have access to know things about reality from outside the universe. If you drop both of those claims, you're fine but the whole argument that you've made becomes invalid and unsound.

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