23 May 2009

Science as a form of "faith"??

About one month ago, a Unitarian Universalist theologian on a UUA-sponsored email list claimed that modern science is a form of "faith" and a form of theism -- here's the first part of this claim:
Modern science presupposes confidence (or faith) that the same physical laws always apply throughout the universe.
Actually, the "confidence" that scientists have regarding physical laws applying to places beyond our local surroundings isn't a "faith" issue.

It's a result of empirical observations coupled with parsimony (aka "Occam's Razor").

That leads us to a very reasonable working assumption of the same physical laws applying throughout the universe.

The same laws of physics developed by Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc to explain the motion of objects on our Earth also appear to work very well in space for predicting the paths of artificial satellites and space probes, planets, and stars.

The same spectrographic pattern that indicate the presence of chemical elements observed on the Earth are also observed in planets and stars far away from us.

One simple explanation to explain the commonality in physical and chemical observations on the Earth and in the heavens is that the same physical laws apply in both places.

A more complex explanation would be that there are different physical laws on Earth and in the heavens that appear to produce the same results in terms of motion and spectroscopic analysis.

However, the more complex explanation runs into problems due to "Occam's Razor" - a very useful principle for evaluating competing scientific explanations for phenomena.

One short definition of "Occam's Razor" is the following:
" ... that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory."
So ... the simplest explanation for the accumulated facts and observations that we have comparing chemistry and physics on Earth and the heavens is that the same physical laws apply both here and elsewhere. And so far, this assumption has worked very well for us.

Of course, this isn't written in stone and future exploration may change or modify the assumption of physical laws applying in all places.

Here's the rest of this theological claim about the sciences:
If scientific experiments produce contradictory evidence, scientists do not accept it, no matter, how many empirical tests may replicate it. The scientists' faith can be rightly called philosophical monotheism (even if they call themselves atheists).
The idea that scientists routinely reject evidence just because it contradicts existing theories is an astounding claim that borders on the outrageous. I would like some well-documented examples to back up this claim.

I'm not working as a scientist in my job today, but my college education was in the natural sciences (microbiology with a sprinkling of physics, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and applied mathematics). And my 1977-1981 education is a bit rusty.

Based on what I remember about the history and philosophy of the sciences, this is a very inaccurate depiction of how the sciences works.

It may be painfully slow to watch new results move from new and untested to established science but that's a safeguard to keep us from deceiving ourselves.

Remember that we are talking about a human-run enterprise and there are very human imperfections in how we do science.

A good example of the human imperfections affecting the work of science was difference in the acceptance of the results of the 1944 "Avery-MacLeod-McCarty" experiments and the 1952 "Hershey-Chase" experiments.

Both experiments were used to demonstrate that genetic information was contained in DNA and not proteins. The Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiments were chemically much more "rigorous" than the Hershey-Chase experiments but the social climate among biologists in the 1940s was less accepting of the idea that DNA contained genetic information and was anything other than a dull and boring polymer.

Hershey and Chase built on Avery's work and their experiment was more "convincing" because the scientific audience was ready for the results. There was also the comfortable familiarity that the early molecular biologists had with the E. coli - T-2 bacteriophage virus experimental model that Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase used.

However, there are examples of rigorous experiments that changed how we view the world and how observations can change previously held ideas about creation:
  • Luria-Delbrück experiment (established that variation -- the raw material in natural selection -- arises through a random undirected process)
  • Michelson-Morley experiments ("the most famous failed experiment" -- this experiment helped disproved the theory that light required an invisible "luminiferous aether" to move across a vacuum and led to Einstein's theory of special relativity)
  • Evelyn Hooker's research (she establishing that homosexuals were as mentally healthy as heterosexuals -- her work led to changes in social attitudes and the eventual decision that homosexuality is not a mental illness)
There are safeguards built-in to ensure that we don't deceive ourselves when science is done properly:
  • Falsifiability -- Can a scientific claim tested and proven, in principle, false?
  • Reproducibility -- Can the results be verified independently? For historical sciences like paleontology and astronomy, are other researchers allowed access to the observations (e.g. fossils, raw astronomical data, etc)?
And many of the methods of science (double-blind experiments, statistical analysis, etc) are some of tools we do to keep from deceiving ourselves into "discovering" what we want to believe to be "true" when what we want to believe may not be an accurate description of creation.

Keep in mind that many of the "new atheist" writers like Daniel Dennett who are approaching religion with the same methodology that has been proven successful in the sciences are not trying to be jerks who want to piss off religious people.

It's just that the tools of science have been very useful for learning more about creation (and religions certainly are a part of creation).

And who would be against exploring the idea that religions are at least partially natural phenomena?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi

"About one month ago, a Unitarian Universalist theologian on a UUA-sponsored email list claimed that..."

I am confused when non-theistic UUs talk about doing theology. What does theology mean in a UU context that does not have much sympathy for deities? I know the UUA has two excellent seminaries where smart people study theology, among other topics. Why do they call what they are doing theology? Should they use some other title?

best wishes from someone having zero credit hours in religion or theology

Dudley Jones
jonesdudley@hotmail.com

ps I understand that East European Unitarians may have a different view on this issue.

Steve Caldwell said...

Dudley -- my first impression about your request that non-theistic Unitarian Universalists use a word other than "theology" was that it resembled the recent GOP request that the Democrats rename themselves "Socialists."

The short answer to your "Why do they call what they are doing theology? Should they use some other title?" questions is "no."

Although my study of theology is very limited and very amateur, I do have a longer answer.

Here's a brief description of what theology is from Wikipedia:



Theology is the study and commentary on the existence and attributes of a god or gods, and of how that god or those gods relate to the world and, especially, to human existence and religious thought; more generally, it is the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, or of spirituality. It is sometimes contrasted with religious studies: theology is understood as the study of religion from an internal perspective (e.g., a perspective of commitment to that religion), and religious studies as the study of religion from an external (e.g., a secular) perspective.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology



So -- let look at this description and see if it fits a modern-day Unitarian Universalism that includes both theist and non-theist folks.

Unitarian Universalists engage in study and commentary on the existence and attributes of god or gods (even atheists and agnostics do this).

UUs also study how god or gods relate to the world, human existence, and religious thought.

UUs also study religious faith, practice, experience, and spirituality.

Since we explore these issues from within a religious community (Unitarian Universalism -- most typically in local congregational settings), our studies are theological and the religious studies of outsiders looking in at a religious community with a secular perspective.

There is nothing in this description of theology that requires a sympathy for deities. Nor does this description require us to meet any theological creedal tests like a belief in god or gods.

Furthermore, there is a very practical reason to know about theology because our historical roots are in the Protestant Reformation. While we may appear to be very secular to the outsider, what we do and why we do comes from our history.

Even in UU groups that are nearly uniformly non-theist, we still deal with theological issues. This is why even a non-theist UU needs to know about systematic theology:

** Ecclesiology -- What is the church? Who are members of the church? How do we govern ourselves?

** Soteriology -- What is our theology of salvation?

** Missiology -- How do we interact with others of different religious traditions?

** Eschatology -- What is the final state or goal that we are working towards in our religious communities?

None of these aspects of theology require or prohibit a belief in god or gods.

And that's why even non-theist Unitarian Universalists do theology.

Steve Caldwell said...

CORRECTION - I wrote:
Since we explore these issues from within a religious community (Unitarian Universalism -- most typically in local congregational settings), our studies are theological and the religious studies of outsiders looking in at a religious community with a secular perspective.What I mean to write was:

Since we explore these issues from within a religious community (Unitarian Universalism -- most typically in local congregational settings), our studies are theological and not the religious studies of outsiders looking in at a religious community with a secular perspective.

Anonymous said...

Steve

Thanks for taking the time for such as detailed and thoughtful reply!

I certainly do not see how I gave anyone a reason to associate me with republicans!

best wishes

Dudley Jones
jonesdudley@hotmail.com

Steve Caldwell said...

Dudley -- the only reason I mentioned the GOP comparison was the suggestion that any group should leave a word behind because someone feels that the word cannot be used to describe that group.

You had suggested that "theology" wasn't an appropriate term to use with a group that may be godless.

The GOP was suggesting that the Democrats abandon their historic label and start calling themselves "socialists" because of Obama's economic policies.

That was the only reason that I made the comparison.

Yes -- our ministers attend seminaries (where they study theology) and get Masters degrees in divinity even though some of our ministers don't believe in god or gods.

And we're all doing theological acts in our congregations (look at the systemic theology categories -- they are areas of church life that we deal with routinely). We just don't always think of them as "theological" acts.

Joel Monka said...

"That leads us to a very reasonable working assumption of the same physical laws applying throughout the universe."

But that's not exactly true. When Hubble pictures showed the Universe not behaving according to our calculations, The concepts of "dark matter" and "dark energy" were created to explain it. We are clearly not composed of dark matter; therefore we have different rules outside of our solar system. Since there is no direct objective evidence of the exstence of either dark matter or dark energy, doesn't that start to sound like Faith?

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel wrote:
-snip-
"But that's not exactly true. When Hubble pictures showed the Universe not behaving according to our calculations, The concepts of 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' were created to explain it. We are clearly not composed of dark matter; therefore we have different rules outside of our solar system. Since there is no direct objective evidence of the exstence of either dark matter or dark energy, doesn't that start to sound like Faith?"Joel -- The short answer is "no." The longer answer follows.

I'm not an astrophysicist -- I'm a microbiologist with a 28 year old degree who hasn't worked in the natural sciences since 1982 (the bulk of my adult work life has been in active duty military service).

I'm providing this caveat to let you know that my understanding of dark matter and dark energy theories are limited.

Also, keep in mind that any new observations that change our understanding of creation at the large cosmic scale or at the small quantum scale still have to be consistent with what we know at the human scale. Einstein's special relativity didn't invalidate the earlier work of Newton and Galileo. Einstein's work was more accurate at speeds near the speed of light but his work made the same theoretical predictions at speeds we encounter on earth.

I would suspect that any new discoveries from Hubble will expand what we know and also show that the laws of nature are consistent both here and there. This isn't a matter of "faith" but a guess based on the track record of the physical sciences.

First, the information I've found on dark matter and dark energy is that these are not matters of faith.

Instead, they were theories proposed to explain anomalies in astronomical observations. The first observations found that support the existence of dark matter are the gravitational effects on visible celestial objects that may require some sort of non-visible or dark matter to explain them.

Dark matter theories make predictions that can be tested. There are ongoing attempts to build dark matter detectors. There are also attempts to create dark matter in the Large Hadron Collider.

One competing non-dark matter explanation proposes modifications to Newtonian gravitational theories that are trivial on the human scale but very huge on the galactic scale. Another theory suggests that multi-dimensional forces from outside the universe are affecting visible matter.

The dark energy theories are still newer and more in development.

The bottom line here is that these various theories are testable and falsifiable. It's not like someone says "hey ... I've invented a theory that something exists but it is unseen and unverifiable just to explain an observational anomaly."

Dark matter, dark energy, and other theories can lead to experimental predictions and can be tested (thereby meeting the "falsifiability" requirement to be considered scientific).

If we find this sort of confirming evidence for these theories and other ones that have not been developed yet, then we're not talking about "faith" here. Just because the science here isn't anywhere complete yet does not make it a matter of faith.

If the experimental testing suggests that dark matter or dark energy do not exist, I doubt we will find religious groups clinging to these theories as a matter of faith (stubborness maybe but not faith).

Joel Monka said...

"Dark matter theories make predictions that can be tested." Hardly surprising; since the theories of dark matter were created to explain observed anomalies, they do explain them. You know, the astronomical charts with Earth as the center of the Universe can be used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, etc., for the same reason.

The thing about dark matter and energy that I find interesting is that I was told before Hubble flew that we had the Universe figured out, and there was no room for God in it. Then suddenly Hubble proves the math wrong... and now we have people talking about 96% of the universe being made up of matter and energy nobody can directly detect... unless there is no dark energy, we're feeling gravity leaking in from another Universe... perhaps from one of the 10 dimensions predicted by string theory- unless it was 11 dimensions, or maybe 26 dimensions- unless membranes are involved, as described by Mario Livio, senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute : "There have been quite a few attempts to find one explanation to both dark matter and dark energy," Livio told SPACE.com. "In particular, there have been theories with modified gravity."

One example, he said, is to confine all the forces of our universe to a four-dimensional plane known as a membrane, or "brane," which is sandwiched between other branes. Then let gravity escape to a fifth dimension that's perpendicular to the plane, Livio explains. The effects of dark matter are then the gravitational influence of other branes on ours.

(Branes have also been used by Steinhardt and other colleagues to put a twist on the Big Bang, in which another brane collided with ours, releasing energy and heat and leading to the expansion of our universe.)"

At what point does Occam's Razor say "You are multiplying theories to the point of absurdity- why not admit your math is wrong?" It could just be, as you said, simple stubbornness. But it also does sound like the contortions of logic that those with blind faith go through.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel -- for testing a theory, it's not just a matter of a theory fitting with current explanations.

Again, I will caveat what I say here by saying that I'm not a physicist.

Yes, the geocentric models can be used to predict solar and lunar eclipses, etc.

However, geocentric theories had a lot more complexity when they tried explaining retrograde motion of the planets whose orbits were outside Earth orbits.

Kepler's laws were just as accurate in fitting the existing observations and in making predictions of future astronomical events. They also had the benefit of being much simpler and having predictive power beyond the geocentric models.

Furthermore, Kepler work along with Newton's work allows us to do things like sending space probes to other planets.

Geocentric theories may produce very good almanac data for the Earth observer but I don't think NASA uses them to send space probes to Jupiter and beyond.

In order to really test a theory, one must also find something that the theory predicts that hasn't been observed yet so folks can search for what the theory predicts (e.g. cosmic microwave background radiation was predicted by the big bang theory before it was observed).

I would not be surprised that someone will make a dark matter or dark energy theoretical prediction that will spur other scientists to see if the theoretical prediction is true. And that's what I mean by the possibility of a theory making "predictions."

Regarding modern physics, there may be strange and counter-intuitive things in the universe that conflict with our "common sense" experience at the day-to-day human scale (that's certainly the case with our universe at the quantum scale and it may be the case with the cosmic scale as well).

It is possible that we may find something in the universe that requires god or gods as a theory to explain it. But I don't think we've gotten to this situation yet. Nor should we throw in the scientific towel prematurely and take the easy way out by saying "god did it."

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fausto said...

The problem with using Occam's Razor as the foundation for any argument against religion or theism is that Occam's Razor doesn't work in reverse as a tool for refutation or disproof. It is useful as a rule of thumb for choosing a preference among alternative valid explanations of an observed phenomenon, but that is all; and it is not even always reliable for that purpose. It does not disprove the validity of any of the other alternatives; it only says that the fewer assumptions a theory contains, the more reliable it is likely to be.

Given the way Steve invokes Occam's Razor, the most relevant piece of the Wikipedia article he linked is this:

There are many examples where Occam’s razor would have picked the wrong theory given the available data. Simplicity principles are useful philosophical preferences for choosing a more likely theory from among several possibilities that are each consistent with available data. However, anyone invoking Occam’s razor to support a model should be aware that additional data may well falsify the model currently favored by Occam’s razor. One accurate observation of a white crow falsifies the theory that “all crows are black.” Likewise, a single instance of Occam’s razor picking a wrong theory falsifies the razor as a general principle.

fausto said...

Although I disagree with Steve over the utility of Occam's Razor, I very much agree when he says this:

Even in UU groups that are nearly uniformly non-theist, we still deal with theological issues. This is why even a non-theist UU needs to know about systematic theology:

** Ecclesiology -- What is the church? Who are members of the church? How do we govern ourselves?

** Soteriology -- What is our theology of salvation?

** Missiology -- How do we interact with others of different religious traditions?

** Eschatology -- What is the final state or goal that we are working towards in our religious communities?

None of these aspects of theology require or prohibit a belief in god or gods.

And that's why even non-theist Unitarian Universalists do theology.
I think it is in our shared approach to these essential disciplines of theology and the shared answers we derive from them, and not our personal cosmological belief systems or popular affirmations like the "Principles and Purposes" that UUs of many differing beliefs find the most basic elements of their shared identity.