Friday, June 14, 2013

Do science and Scripture conflict?

Secular scientists often promote methodological naturalism. Let’s begin with some examples:

Science by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law (Michael Ruse).

By its very nature, science is obliged to leave out any appeal to the supernatural, and so its explanations will always sound naturalistic and purely physicalist (John Haught).

Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance (National Academy of Sciences).

Introducing supernatural explanations into science would destroy its explanatory force since it would be required to incorporate as an operational principle the premise that literally anything which is logically possible can become an actuality, despite any and all scientific laws; the stability of science would consequently be destroyed (Barbara Forrest).

If there is an omnipotent force in the universe, it would by definition be impossible to hold constant (to control) its effects. The reason that the ultimate statement of creationism cannot be tested is simple: the actions of an omnipotent creator are compatible with any and all observations of the natural world. (Eugenie Scott).

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen (Richard Lewontin).

The polemical advantage of methodological naturalism is that it furnishes a single principle that relieves the secular scientist from having to engage the arguments of fiat creationists, progressive creationists, intelligent-design theorists, paranormal investigators, and/or theistic evolutionists. At one stroke, all types of appeals to supernatural agency (e.g. God, angels, demons, ghosts) are summarily disqualified from scientific explanation.

That’s a very economical way of preempting theistic appeals in science. However, there’s a high price for that maneuver.

i) It’s a methodological appeal rather than an evidentiary appeal. It’s not the evidence of the natural record that yields a naturalistic explanation, but a methodological stipulation. And the appeal is circular. If you define science naturalistically, then, by definition, only naturalistic explanations will be scientific. But in that event, it’s not the evidence that selects for a naturalistic explanation. The secular scientist did not derive that interpretation from the evidence, but from his definition.

ii) Put another way, the objection to “creationism” is no longer that “creationism” is false, but methodologically illicit–based on a professional convention. It violates a scientific protocol. Scientists, especially secular scientists, have agreed to exclude supernatural considerations. But that reduces science to a vote.

In that case, the alleged conflict between Scripture and science is not a conflict between Scripture and scientific evidence, but Scripture and scientific methodology. Not objective facts, but manmade definitions.

iii) Another consequence is that methodological naturalism reduces scientific explanations to hypothetical explanations rather than true explanations. The secular scientist is merely claiming that, “This is how we reconstruct natural history if we exclude supernatural considerations.”

That’s not driven by the empirical evidence. That’s not reconstructing the past from the natural record alone. Rather, that’s a hypothetical narrative, which you arrive at by bracketing supernatural considerations.

If, however, supernatural agency does figure in the course of natural history, then the naturalistic narrative presents a false picture of what actually happened.

Within this framework, “creationism” and naturalistic evolution cease to be competing explanations of what really occurred, by following the evidence wherever it leads (as the saying goes), and become alternative models. But in that case, why prefer secular explanation over a supernatural explanation? The evidence ceases to be the tiebreaker. Rather, the evidence is secondary to the methodology you adopt going in.

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