Thursday, 25 September 2014

Science, the Bible, and the theories of scientists

This is an open letter to NaClHv, in partial response to some things said in recent posts, though not specifically to any one of them. I invite a response, either here or on his own blog; if the latter, I will link to the post from here, for the benefit of future readers.

You've said that observations of nature are as trustworthy as Scripture, and should be taken equally as demonstrations of God's character. Great! I absolutely agree with you. For instance, if you shove a stick in the ground at noon on the summer solstice, and look at the angle the sun's shadow makes, you can prove that the earth is round - and even calculate its radius, with a fair degree of accuracy. We can take that as good solid fact, and interpret Scripture in the light of it. That's science. So far, so good.

But that validity applies only to the raw facts - the purest observations. The raw initial data is what's infallible. Every interpretation based on that data is as fallible as the person who makes it - and more importantly, reflects the biases of the person who makes it, and we're all biased. When a big corporation commissions a scientific study to prove that Brand X Toothpaste produces whiter teeth and healthier gums than all its competitors, there'll be some raw data somewhere that's still perfectly correct, and then some massive interpretational bias (at least, I've yet to see any toothpaste ad that isn't subject to that). We know that the conclusion is heavily influenced by the funding, when it's that blatant. Do we acknowledge that, even when people are striving for true science, their initial preconceptions will affect their published conclusions?

If we do, then every piece of scientific consensus must be subject to review. Scientific consensus, especially today, generally means anti-Christian biases. If someone sets out to prove that God doesn't exist, and ends up concluding that everything happens by itself without any external influence, can we truly trust that declaration? No, because we know it's false - it contradicts the Bible. What if it's not quite so blatantly obvious? It's just as unreliable - it's still someone's interpretation of the facts.

So I ask you: Why are you going to great lengths to incorporate the popular anti-Christian view that we're descended from monkeys? There is no Scriptural support for this; there is no justification from the Word of God that suggests that this theory should be accepted. So what's the hard fact that you're incorporating? Where is the evidence that death occurred prior to Adam? (Romans 5 suggests that it didn't.)

I'm aware that there are messy convolutions in my own interpretation of Scripture, particularly the account of Creation. Convolutions are not, in themselves, fundamentally bad, but they're the equivalent of code smell in software - suggestive while not conclusive. The simpler solutions are the better ones, and I would love to find a pure, beautiful, clean theory, that explains everything perfectly. But until we have one, we have to accept a certain messiness. I hold to the Dr Humphreys theory that the "days" of Genesis 1 are perfectly literal, as observed from here on Earth's surface (we know that time is affected by gravity, so time and location must be bound up together, and any literal acceptance of those days must therefore stipulate an observer's location); that requires the assumption of an event horizon, crossing the observer probably during the fourth day of Creation. In contrast, your theory requires the assumption of two different types of person, genetically and visually identical, one of them bearing the image of God and the other not; it requires that there be people with whom the descendants of Adam and Eve interacted, yet who were not fully people, yet who were... and somehow, there has to be a boundary on the laws in Lev 18, which make it very clear that we're not supposed to interact in certain ways with non-humans. Where's the edge of non-humans, if it's not the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve?

But fundamentally, the question is: What facts are we using in forming our interpretations? Scripture is infallible. Raw observation of nature is infallible. Everything else isn't. If you can't duplicate my research yourself, you can't take my conclusions as perfect science - they're science filtered through me. If you were unable to read the Bible, you'd have to have someone else read it to you; would you allow your views of God to be based on an edited reading... by someone who openly hates God? And would you then go to great lengths to incorporate that into your world-view?

Then why accept it with science?

6 comments:

naclhv said...

Thank you for your care and attentiveness to the positions I've expressed.

So, based on what you've written, we are agreed on the following:
The Bible is infallible.
Raw data is infallible.
There exists anti-Christian biases in the sciences.

It is that last statement of anti-Christian biases that I think is at the heart of the issue. I, for one, do not think that the existence of such biases warrants throwing out entire fields of human endeavor. You can be sure that every news outlet has some bias, as does every witness in a trial. Yet we still have trials and news; we don't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In fact nearly every human thought - including my own - is irrevocably biased, and yet I still continue to think.

Your analogy of having the Bible read to you by a God-hater is particularly useful here. In that situation, I would test the reading in a variety of ways: I would ask the God-hater to read passages that I already knew by heart. I would double check his reading with other readers. I would ask him to read random words from random pages, then reconstruct the passage, then as him to do it again to check for consistency, and cross-reference it by asking him for the number of letters on each page. I would gauge his emotional reaction to reading passages that are uncomfortable for him. Things like that.

Since this person is ostensibly still reading from the actual Bible, you'd be able to catch him in his errors if he's actively deceiving you. Even if it's the devil himself citing Bible verses at you (as he did to Christ in his temptations), the words of the text would come through, and you could check it against what you know and what others have said. So in such cases of untrustworthy readers, I would trust the reading insofar as it passes these tests.

So, how does the scientific establishment do in this test?

First, I see fellow Christians who are in the sciences who are in agreement with the mainstream scientific views. This is good evidence that these views are not so strongly affected by the biases as to be outright false. This is like asking someone else who can read the Bible to double check our God-hater's reading. If they agree with the reading, that's good evidence that the reading is correct.

Second, I myself am sufficiently well versed in the sciences and the culture of the scientific establishment that I'm not completely blind when it comes to "reading" this book of nature. And from what I can see, the scientific establishment is generally correct, and it is not, in general, out to get Christians. For most of the non-christian scientists I've talk to, their attitude towards Christianity is apathy or ignorance, and not malice. And based on my own understanding, when I look at Dr. Humphreys' work for instance, I see some holes. I'd need to brush up on my General Relativity a bit more to dig into the math, but I see that he's been answered by other Christians I trust in his previous work (http://www.reasons.org/articles/the-unraveling-of-starlight-and-time), and I can see that even his latest model (http://creation.com/new-time-dilation-helps-creation-cosmology), even if mathematically valid, doesn't address many other aspects of our universe that the Big Bang theory easily explains, such as the ratio of primordial elements, the presence of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the distribution of quasars with respect to lookback times, the presence of heavy elements on the Earth, and many other issues.

naclhv said...

Third, I can see when some scientists are uncomfortable with some discoveries they make due to their philosophical implications. The Big Bang, and Einstein's cosmological constant, is a good example of that. So is the discovery of fine-tuning in the universe. The fact that scientists have in fact made and validated these discoveries, even though they sometimes have to be dragged kicking and screaming, is good evidence that they're telling the truth. In the example of our God-hater reading the Bible, it's as if you saw the God-hater hesitate to read the next sentence, then spits it out angrily when he finally reads it, because it convicts him. Such occasions are evidence that the reading is true.

Fourth, when some anti-Christian scientists do try to pull the wool over the eyes of Christians, the attempt is laughably bad. I have not yet come anywhere near being impressed with any of the so-called "scientific" attacks on Christianity from the anti-Christian members of the scientific establishment. In their attacks, their philosophy and understanding of Christian theology are downright pathetic. And there isn't even a distribution on how bad they are: they're all uniformly terrible. When I see this, I conclude that these anti-Christian scientists are not capable of putting together any kind of anti-Christian conspiracy, and therefore honest (if still biased) in their day-to-day scientific work. In the God-hater reading the Bible example, this is as if he comes across a verse, pauses for a long time, then "reads" something that's totally ridiculous and self-serving in a completely mocking and self-satisfied tone of voice. The fact that his attempts to deceive you are uniformly so obvious and childish serves as evidence that when he's not doing that, he's reading the Bible honestly.

So, overall, I believe that mainstream science is trustworthy. They pass my tests. Even though some of their members are biased, they cannot fundamentally "read" nature wrong, because nature is a real, concrete work of God that exists apart from whether scientists study it or not. This is similar to how our God-hater cannot fundamentally make up a completely new reading as long as he's actually reading the Bible. The Bible is a real, physical book which has words in it that exists independently of our God-hating reader's mind. Essentially, in both cases, the works of God cannot be corrupted so easily by men; even Satan's best efforts and the entire sins of mankind only managed to partially corrupt some portion of nature, which still has great beauty and reflects God's glory.

But what about the biases? Well, I believe that the best way to deal with that is to engage the scientific community, rather than to dismiss it. We should learn more science, teach better theology, and model Christ better in our interactions. Scientists, after all, are humans made in the image of God, who were corrupted by the fall, who study God's creation. They, like any other human, can be brought to God thanks to Christ's work on the cross. They, like any other human, have biases and are clouded in their thoughts because of the fall. And they are to be honored for their work in studying God's creation, as we would honor any other human who would take on that noble task.

Thank you again for your consideration for my thoughts. I hope that we both grow in God and come to a better understanding of his word and his universe.

Chris Angelico said...

Thanks for responding, NaClHv!

It's easy enough to test raw facts you already know (having someone read a passage you know by heart, etc). The problem is more what happens a level above those facts. For example, imagine a preacher in church who doesn't believe in bodily resurrection. He might well read actual Scripture accurately, but his sermon is still going to be affected by his bias. The question then is, if you know this man denies the resurrection, how will you respond to statements that aren't obviously affected by it? If his conclusion disagrees with what you believe from elsewhere, what do you adjust to make things make sense?

And my question to you is: Why do you *want* to incorporate long time frames and evolution? Why do you need them in your world-view? You can have them if you want them; they have consequences elsewhere (including that you're forced to take Genesis 1 as purely metaphorical), but you can build a world-view around billions of years of death and destruction prior to sin entering the world. Or you can build a world-view around Genesis being much more literally true, with sin entering the world very soon after time began here (we can't say exactly how soon, but before there were any other humans than Adam and Eve), and no "proto-humans" of any form - every being ever on this planet is/was either fully human or completely non-human.

Has there been any evidence, ever, of there ever being an almost-human? The fossil record ought to be a reasonable cross-section of evolution - unless there's some strange selection bias, there ought to be equal chance of any creature being fossilized. But every bone of a proto-human ever found has turned out to be either fully human or fully non-human (or an utter hoax). Your world-view requires that there be these "genetically identical non-humans", and yes, those would be indistinguishable from humans, in fossil form; but those genetically-identicals would, by your view, have evolved from non-identicals, which ought surely to have been fossilized too.

With a more literal reading of Genesis, though, what we have is a number of separately-created "kinds" (not corresponding to the modern taxonomical species; more often they'll be genera or families, I think, but I'm not too well up on the details), which may well share similarities with other kinds, but not share any ancestry. The world-wide flood, occurring a millennium and a half after creation, then fossilized a broadly fair cross-section of the beings alive at the time. (There'll be some inherent selection bias based on creature size, strength, flying ability, etc, but we would expect that the number of dog-like fossils and the number of cat-like fossils should broadly correspond to the number of dog-like and cat-like animals alive just prior to the Flood.) That's why there are no humanoid fossils that aren't absolutely completely human... because, by this world-view, there were no humanoids that weren't completely human.

(continued...)

Chris Angelico said...

(continuing...)

What do you gain by bringing in these views? Is there some strong philosophical benefit from believing the world has been around for all this time? I would say there's one very strong detriment, and that's the inherent implication that we're still getting better. The evolutionary view is that we started simple and weak and imperfect, and got better up to this point - so it would stand to reason that there will be, or maybe already are, some "next-level humans" who will start the next species. That's the thinking that's fueled several genocides, and on a smaller scale, it's part of what makes Sheldon Cooper so insufferable. But a short-time-scale world view says that we were created in the image of God, then were marred by sin, and subsequently have been in a decline. We're not fundamentally better than we were a few centuries ago; we're fundamentally worse. The longer we keep going, the worse we'll become, and it'll take the Saviour's return to change that.

Which view corresponds better with information theory, the laws of thermodynamics, and the concepts any vet will tell you about pure-breds versus mutts? As time goes on, information is lost, and loss of information weakens us. It always will.

naclhv said...

In terms of "what I gain" by accepting a certain theory - well, there is ever only one correct answer to that question: getting closer to the truth.

Now, I do think that that there are many other benefits to adopting my views, such as unparalleled power in apologetics, and a way to evaluate, judge, and harness evolutionary thinking rather than just being against it. But all of this doesn't matter in face of the truth. I believe what I believe because I believe that it's true. In particular, I believe that my system best expresses the truth that is to be found in the Bible and in nature. I would in fact believe this (with very few minor alterations) even if I ignored science entirely.

Now, we can go into particulars (laws of thermodynamics, etc) - I'll perhaps get into that in reply to your comment on my blog.

Chris Angelico said...

Getting closer to the truth is, of course, the goal. What I mean is: What does the overall worldview gain by something?

Whenever you accept some concept into your thinking structure, it needs to be because it explains some fact more effectively than other concepts do, or because it satisfies some gap in the theory, or some other such reason. For instance, I believe that my senses do not usually deceive me, because that allows me to move forward with observations; the contrary belief (that everything I see and hear is a lie) discourages scientific research, and confers no benefit. There's no way for me to, with my own senses, verify my own senses; and I can't choose whether to trust myself or not based solely on myself. All I can do is believe. And which of two alternatives I believe is based on what that belief does for my other theories: it makes pretty much everything else possible. (In fact, the absence of this trust gets you back to Descartes: you can be sure that you exist, because you're able to think, but that's all.)

What advantage is given to your world-view by acceptance of evolutionary thinking?