A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 10 February 2014

An apologetic disappointment

This week is the university Christian Union's Mission Week, in which various evangelistic events are held and we are all to invite friends to come to the events. Tonight there was an event focused around a talk on the compatibility or otherwise of science and Christianity. As a Christian whose faith has been on the rocks for several months (I don't tend to talk or write about it, for a variety of reasons) I went along to see what evidence was to be presented. Most of the problems of I have with Christianity are philosophical, to do with ethics and meta-ethics; however, I'm interested in the scientific evidence also and the talk was to be given by a scientist from Oxford, so I was hoping that there would some serious evidence presented. I was to be bitterly disappointed.

The talk was in fact remarkably devoid of evidence - indeed, none of it could really be described as science, per se, it fell very much under the umbrella of philosophy - which left me wondering why the talk was given by a scientist. (A cynical view would be that an actual philosopher talking about science and its general irrelevance to questions of theology could be easily dismissed as "She doesn't know what she's talking about," whereas a scientist is much harder to dismiss in that fashion).

The first part of the talk was part of her testimony, of how she had grown up nominally an atheist, loved science, gone to university to study Biochemistry and encountered some incredibly persuasive Christian ideas, done a PhD and spent seven years in scientific research before changing to work in apologetics.

Next came a collection of quotes from various atheist scientists affirming that religion was a reasonable viewpoint. (I somewhat doubt the veracity of one quote from Stephen Jay Gould, but then again I wouldn't be too concerned with what he said anyway. {And while this statement is arguably an ad hominem against Gould, I think that ad hominem is perfectly valid when the original claim was based entirely upon an appeal to authority.}) Note that it was all individual quotes with an absence of context. There were no statistics as to how representative these statements were of science as a whole.

Following on from this, the speaker argued that religion has often inspired science. She presented a list of notable scientists, present and historical, who where Christians. Again, there was a lack of statistics; there was also a failure to account for the fact that until relatively recently, atheism was unthinkable or was cause for severe discrimination. David Hume, who in my opinion was quite possibly the greatest philosopher ever to have lived, is generally thought to have been an atheist; however, he was rather coy about this in his lifetime for fear of persecution. (The same could be said for Hegel, who is quite possibly the most overrated philosopher ever). I also had to admire her gall in claiming Galileo as being inspired by faith, given how the Church treated him in his time.

After this came an argument that the very fact of human rationality, that we are able to use science and reason, is evidence for God's existence. If we have come about by random processes, the argument runs, it is ridiculously unlikely that our cognitive processes will come to resemble a reliable truth-finding process. An interesting argument, with two key problems. Firstly that it erroneously assumes that our cognitive processes are a reliable truth-finding process (which is understandable, cognitive bias is not all that well-known-about) and secondly that it ignores the whole point of natural selection. If greater epistemic rationality is useful for passing on one's genes - for example, because it allows better assessment of threats and opportunities - then ceteris paribus evolution will tend to promote greater epistemic rationality.

The rest of the talk was a discussion of "the limits of science" and of the dangers of scientism. Scientism in this case was logical positivism by another name, and so the attack on scientism was nothing more than an attack on an important but crucially flawed project which was discarded more than half a century ago. There was no attempt to engage with more recent and advanced versions of the idea that, wherever possible, we should look towards empirical evidence.

The speaker discussed the fact that science cannot tell us about morality, referencing David Hume's famous observation that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is". Thus, of course, we need something beyond science to tell us what morality is and where it comes from. This is of course true, but a) it's not clear that morality really exists, and b) there are numerous non-religious explanations as to the nature of morality. (As it happens I don't find them very plausible, but at least one-third of philosophers do - in the PhilPapers survey of philosophers' views, 56.4% endorsed moral realism while only 14.6% endorsed theism).

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