Thursday, July 01, 2004

Science, reason, and faith

Letters from Babylon has a couple of posts on faith and reason, while the Evangelical Outpost has an interesting post on philosophy and science. These are related but not identical topics, and I thought I'd say a little about how they connect.

First off, there is a tendency today to conflate reason and science, which is one of Joe Carter's main beefs in his article on philosophy and science. Science is quite effective when it comes to falsifiable theories, which can be tested by scientific experiments. There are quite a few realms of inquiry which do not benefit from such experiment, such as ethics. Those who conflate science and reason say that if it cannot be experimentally confirmed or falsified it is by nature irrational. It is no surprise that this leads to the quasi-postmodern worldview which seems to be dominate in the Western world. This view holds that if a premise has been scientifically vouched for, it's true, but if it cannot be, then it is for all practical purposes neither true nor false--the absolute truth of the premise is irrelevant. Since its truth cannot be tested, it has no effect on anything, and believe it or not as a matter of opinion but don't try to convince me either way. This is not a reasonable approach to life, and even the most scientifically-rigorous skeptic believes in a myriad of facts that cannot be scientifically tested, including the premises that underly scientific inquiry, simply because it is impossible to go through life any other way.

I believe that people who take this approach are more irrational than those who do not, which helps to explain some of the bizarre worldviews among certain prominent scientists. Once you decide that there is only one way of knowing things, and that everything which does not fit into that investigative technique is beyond argumentation, you are a lot less open to debate. Either you adapt a "You go your way and I'll go mine" attitude, or, what seems to be more common, "I believe this because it is self-evident, and no fact or argument will have any impact on my beliefs. For you to believe differently means that either you are lying or stupid." There's also the attempt to frame all debates in terms of the one "proper way" of knowing things, but usually when scientists do that it's merely a variation on "It's self-evident and you're too stupid to see it." They often do this by stating their speculation and opinions on the subject as fact, and daring anyone to call the "expert" on it. (This, by the way, is my biggest pet peeve.)

This brings us to the posts at Letters from Babylon on whether faith and reason are compatible. Science, in itself, has very little to say about the existence of God. Almost every time someone applies science to examine some religious claim, the full extent of the scientific inquiry is to examine whether you really need a miracle to explain the event in question, or whether there's a naturalistic explanation. Since Christians are quite willing to accept that God often works through subtle, natural means, the only thing science can do in these cases is show whether there is a naturalistic explanation or not. The believer generally isn't affected one way or the other. The skeptic may be moved to re-examine his worldview due to the evidence pointing away from his, but more often he'll say "We don't know, but I'm sure we'll find out someday," or "And that proves that it never could have happened and is thus a lie."

Reason, on the other hand, has quite a bit to say about the existence of God. There are quite a few logical arguments for God's existence, some good, strong arguments, and others very weak. There are also arguments against the existence of God, mostly rather weak. (Admittedly, as a believer, my view is somewhat biased, but from what I've read, there really are very few good arguments against the existence of God.) Letters from Babylon discusses the insufficiency of reason to bring someone to saving faith, and I'm not going to argue the point. I will say, however, that there are many people for whom reason provided a push in the right direction. I don't think you can reach God by reasoning about him, but you can reach the point where you begin to seek him.

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