Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Theism vs. Naturalism, NOT Bible vs. Science

"These days naturalism is extremely fashionable in the academy; some say it is contemporary academic orthodoxy... Still, naturalism is certainly widespread, and it is set forth in such recent popular books as Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and many others. Naturalists like to wrap themselves in the mantle of science, as if science in some way supports, endorses, underwrites, implies, or anyway is unusually friendly to naturalism." ~ Alvin Plantinga, "Evolution vs. Naturalism"

You may have seen the above info-graphic floating around the Internet lately (click on it to view the larger, readable version). It presents six stories that explain how the world was created, and it is essentially designed to shame any religious creation account (in particular it is aimed at Christianity, for how many books do you see written about the Hindu, Shinto, Chinese, or Norse creation accounts' scientific viability?) by implicitly asserting that they are irrational, "anti-science," and only have their sacred text as evidence for their account. "The text just says so, so it must be true," is how they present those who adhere to a religious creation account. It presents "science" as the sixth alternative and attempts to make it look obviously superior to the Bible's creation account (let's just cut to the chase, shall we?) and in complete opposition to it, as if there is a Bible vs. science battle. There is a lot said in the popular media today that characterizes the debate over evolution, embryonic stem research, etc. as "religion vs. science" (as if the two are mutually exclusive), and this info-graphic is another attempt to convince the reader that the Bible is opposed to science. It characterizes the Bible and Christians who advocate its worldview as "anti-science" de jure (as a matter of law), which also labels them as "anti-reason," "anti-evidence," and just plain ignorant. However, like most info-graphics floating around the Internet, it presents a straw-man, reductionist, and logically fallacious argument that crumbles when some simple observations are made.

Is there a battle between religion and science? Does the debate really lie there? Are Christians "anti-science"? Well, if we are honest we have to admit that at times and in isolated incidents this is true. I have met Christians who think that science is opposed to Scripture, thus making it their enemy, and I have made it one of my goals to show Christians that this is not the case. Christians can choose to make science an enemy; scientists can choose to claim that religion and science are like oil and water, but it is not necessary to draw that conclusion. That kind of thinking comes from a faulty view of science (why I put it in quotation marks above) and the idea that philosophical naturalism (i.e. physical nature as the sole reality) has the monopoly on the scientific enterprise. These two interrelated fallacies lie behind the conclusions and pejorative remarks in the above info-graphic.

First, the graphic claims that science gives a creation account that starts with the Big Bang, continues through the evolution of all life on earth, and ends up with humans evolving from hominids. That, however, is not strictly a claim of science. You see, the graphic works from a faulty definition of science that changes it from a tool to a worldview. Science is an epistemological tool that helps one gain knowledge about the physical world around us. It is a methodology by which we can gain knowledge about the physical world through observation and experimentation. The graphic, however, lists "science" along side five other worldviews and treats it as if it were another worldview. In the second row it gives a fairly random list of a few pieces of data about which science has given us information (the so-called "evidence") and in the first row, an interpretation of that data that is based on a purely naturalistic worldview. It does all this under the heading of "science," and yet only the second row properly fits under the heading "science." The first row is scientific data absorbed into and interpreted by the naturalistic worldview (i.e. a philosophy). So the graphic labels the sixth column as "science" but only because it is working from a faulty definition of science.

This leads us into the second fallacy. The graphic treats science as if it and naturalism are the same thing, identical. It merges science, which is a tool, with one worldview (naturalism) and then makes the implicit claim that other worldviews are opposed to science. It treats science as a worldview, but science is not a worldview, it is a tool to be used by worldviews. The graphic treats science as if the naturalistic worldview has the monopoly on its methodology and all other worldviews are left with only hear-say. Now, naturalism does make science its exclusive method for discovering truth, but that does not mean that science is the exclusive property of naturalism. What should really be at the top of the sixth column is "naturalism," not "science." Naturalism gives the explanation of "how the world came to be" that the info-graphic lists in the first row of the sixth column. Certainly, it uses the scientific tool, but it interprets the data within its worldview, and it is not the only worldview that can validly use the tool of science. The data they list in the evidence row under the heading of "science" can easily be interpreted within the Judeo-Christian worldview, and in fact it merges well with the Bible's creation account (which is in many more places in Scripture than just Genesis 1-2) and can be used as evidence for it as well. You see, the graphic attempts the frame the debate as a clash between Christianity and science when the debate is really a clash between philosophical theism and philosophical naturalism, and science is a tool readily available to both worldviews.

Here lies a major problem with the way the term "science" is sometimes used today. Many atheists, like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, would have us believe that science is opposed to religion, but that is only because they make a philosophical commitment to naturalism first and then claim exclusive rights to the scientific enterprise. They commit to naturalism as dogma before they even look at the evidence, and then they claim their interpretation of scientific data (within philosophical naturalism) is the only valid interpretation. I am not the only one to notice this, and even some atheists point it out this problem. Some have admitted the failures of naturalism and others may not go that far but at least admit their commitment to naturalism de jure. Harvard Geneticist (and atheist) Richard Lewontin admits this in his review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in the NY Review of Books:
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.
Do you see the admission? "It is not that the method and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world... we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes... that materialism is absolute...."

When the commitment is absolute, one could even call it a "religious" commitment to naturalism (or materialism). Do they know naturalism to be the absolutely true worldview? No, they simply want us to take their word for it and make the same dogmatic commitment they have made. If one put naturalism in the sixth column of the above graphic, which is what belongs there instead of "science," then the "it says so" line would be in the evidence row for it too. Why should we believe that nature is the sole reality? Naturalism (or materialism) just says so. Why should we believe there is no uncaused personal Creator who brought universe into existence? Naturalism just says so. Why should we believe the cosmic constants, which are finely-tuned for life, just popped into existence? Naturalism just says so. Why should we believe there is no God, spiritual realm, or anything beyond the physical? Naturalism just says so. Why should we never let a "Divine Foot in the door"? Naturalism just says so.

Do not be fooled by info-graphics and arguments that attempt to frame the debate as the Bible vs. science. The clash is not there. The clash is in competing worldviews, and naturalism does not have the monopoly science.

By His Grace,


Lucy Abbott said...

Thanks for posting this taylor. I'd seen the graphic and was trying to defend against it by talking about the scientific evidence itself. It didn't occur to me that the fundamental philosophy behind the graphic was flawed.

A. Taylor Rollo... said...

Glad you found it helpful, Lucy!