December 22, 2005

Let's Make Creation Science Not Suck

Nearly a month ago, I posted without commentary a Leibniz quote about materialism and supernaturalism. At the time I was busy with classes and didn't have time to really address the issue I saw the quote raising, but now that finals are over, I'd like to take a minute and look at this.

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of "creation science." Leibniz here describes what he sees as two false extremes: the one is represented today by the likes of Peter Atkins, the Oxford Chemist who insists that in order to properly follow scientific methodology one must believe that the ultimate physical laws of nature are logically necessary (which, let me interject, they obviously are not!) and that there exists nothing beyond the physical. The other extreme is represented by the so-called "creation science" movement (and some, but not all, proponents of intelligent design) who claim that the events of the natural world cannot all be explained by physical laws, and so oppose science. (Other intelligent design people merely intend to say that we ought not to think that the laws themselves are the result of chance, because there seems to be a sort of inherent purposiveness about them; I do personally endorse this position, as does Leibniz.) I have been arguing on this blog for some time that this is bad theology, and I've just recently finished writing a term paper arguing that Leibniz's mechanistic views are motivated primarily by theology - and good theology at that. (I plan to post this paper once I've received feedback from my professor and given it another edit.)

Between these two extremes, Leibniz plots a middle course: "all natural phenomena could be explained mechanically if we understood them well enough, but the principles of mechanics themselves cannot be explained geometrically, since they depend on more sublime principles which show the wisdom of the Author in the order and perfection of his work."

In Discourse on Metaphysics 19 (which I discussed here) and in many other places, Leibniz argues for the use of "final causes" in physics. In particular, he is constantly claiming the Snell would never have discovered his laws of optics had he not considered that God does everything in the most perfect way possible.

Now, to the heading of this post: creation science, as it exists today, is bad for several reasons. Because creation scientists "do not reason with exactness in this matter, and it is easy for [their opponents] to reply to them, they injure religion in trying to render it service, for they merely confirm those in their error who recognize only material principles." Basically, they tend to make Christians look like idiots, and so atheists become all the more certain of their atheism. Creation scientists go around claiming that they are doing "science," but science, by definition, is concerned with "efficient causes" - it wants to find out the physical, not spiritual or metaphysical, reasons for events. And there are physical reasons for events. I continue to hold that it would essentially amount to God making a mistake if he had to break his own physical laws in order to bring about his will miraculously. Rather, the perfect wisdom and infinite power of God should lead us to conclude that he made a world in which his laws hold always, and that he is able to bring about his will, even in those things we consider miraculous, without breaking physical laws. If I am right about this, then the enterprise of science seen as the attempt to explain everything in the physical world by efficient causes is theologically legitimate. Furthermore, I think it is clear that the scientific method is a valid way of seeking truth and in particular of pursuing these kinds of investigations. Creation science, as it now exists, denies this. Instead, it claims that we must look to divine revelation, etc., in order to do science properly, and it often also claims that we should reject the idea that we can explain everything by efficient causes at all. Furthermore, it has been my experience that the people pursuing creation science rarely have sufficient theology/biblical studies backgrounds to make the kind of theological judgments needed for their field. Because of this, when it is accepted by the mainstream of Christianity, it can be theologically damaging as well.

However, I promised in the post title to explain how creation science could not suck, and I intend to do just that. You see, Leibniz was right, I think, in claiming that theists should make use of final causes in their investigations of nature. This cuts two ways: first, when we see that the world is a certain way, when we discover a scientific law or a theory, we should ask, why did God do things this way? Second, there are some cases in which we already have a pretty good idea, either through revelation or through reasoning about the nature of God, what God probably wanted to do with regard to some natural event, or we may know through revelation that some event occurred, and in these cases we can reason backward from the final cause and try to determine the efficient cause, and this may in some cases turn out to be a useful heuristic device in searching for knowledge of natural laws. Note that the aesthetic criteria which mathematicians and physicists increasingly make heuristic use of are of this nature.

However, these things are not science, and it is critical that we recognize this so we are able to communicate with the rest of the world. Michael Behe doesn't get to walk around with his own private definition of theory, and we can't just go around redefining science. If we do, then we won't be able to enter debate with non-Christians, because we won't be speaking the same language.

This is what I suggest we do: first, let's rename this field "theology of nature" (and try not to confuse it with natural theology). Then, let's take some Christians with strong science background (by which I mean, with Ph.Ds in the natural sciences) and send them to school for theology and/or biblical studies and/or philosophy of religion. Then, let's give them appointments in the theology or religious studies departments - not the departments of their scientific fields! - at universities as professors of the theology of nature. Then they can pursue their investigations of final causes, and we can all benefit from the knowledge they gain, and Christians can have a better understanding of the relationship of our faith to modern science. This idea of "theology of nature" is a perfectly legitimate academic pursuit and, Christians must believe, also a legitimate method of pursuing truth. Also, by placing this in the theology department and attracting more competent people to the serious study of it, we may have the effect of making Christianity more rather than less plausible to modern intellectuals.

Note: The title of this post is a reference to Miguel de Icaza's infamous talk, "Let's Make Unix Not Suck".

Posted by Kenny at December 22, 2005 4:35 PM
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Philosophers' Carnival XXIV
Excerpt: Philosophers' Carnival XXIV is up at Rad Geek People's Dailywith a link to my post Let's Make Creation Science Not Suck. Rad Geek does a wonderful job summarizing all of the very interesting entries in the carnival. Check it out....
Weblog: blog.kennypearce.net
Tracked: January 10, 2006 12:25 AM

Comments

Thanks for this post, which I found through the Christian Carnival.

Posted by: Martin LaBar at December 28, 2005 9:25 PM

Most advocates of intelligent design will be unhappy with your proposal simply because it does not shut down modern biology, it does not extract Darwin from curricula.

I don't think one gets far treating intelligent design as a scientific dispute. It really is not. Advocates of intelligent design, with very few exceptions, advocate ID because it is contrary in some way to evolution theory. They oppose evolution on religious grounds. Studying the theology won't advance toward their goals.

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 1, 2006 7:09 PM

Ed, first let me state that creation science is not necessarily identical with ID. Second, ID in it's original form was NOT necessarily oppoosed to Darwin as such, but to neo-Darwinism, the philosophical bent taken by many (bad) biology teachers who claim that part of the essence of science, and especially of evolution, is opposition to belief in God as Creator. Third, while I think it is difficult (maybe impossible, maybe not) to reconcile evolution to any straightforward reading of Scripture, so that Christian opposition to evolution is probably justified, I think that much of creation science/ID is pursued on the basis of bad theology, particularly theology that assumes that anything that is explicable in terms of physical laws must not have God as its author when, in fact, it is transparently the case that if God is the Creator of the universe then EVERYTHING that happens according to physical laws has God as its ultimate cause, whether direct or indirect. Finally, I think that the whole thing, and especially the politicization of it, makes Christians look like idiots so that it does more harm than good as far as evangelism and also as far as advancement of our understanding of the world.

Posted by: Kenny at January 2, 2006 1:16 AM

Too hard to read.

Posted by: Anonymous at January 10, 2006 9:25 PM

Yeah, the debate does rather tend to make Christian supporters of creationism, including ID, appear to be idiots often. Especially, I think that comes out in claims such as that biology teachers regularly claim that evolution is in opposition to God. That's not in the books, it's not in the curricula, and since such claims tend to draw howls of protest from parents, it's rarely mentioned by any biology teacher.

Sticking to the facts seems too tame an enterprise for most ID advocates.

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