Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of science’

“It is not possible to be intellectually honest and believe in gods.
And it is not possible to believe in gods and be a true scientist.”
-Professor Peter Atkins

The above quote reflects what is the assumption of Western culture:  There is a deep and necessary conflict between science and religion.  To adopt a religious perspective is to cease to be scientific, to be scientific is to abandon religion.  Faith and science, it is assumed, are antonyms.  Like many assumptions of our popular society, this one is widely accepted, often repeated, has an aura of intellectual respectability, and is entirely wrong.

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The Reason Rally will be held just over one month from now, on March 24.  As a Christian, I am not skeptical of the fact that there will be a rally, but I very much doubt that this rally will be accompanied by much reason.  But that depends on what we mean by “reason,” which is a term in need of definition.  Atheists and skeptics brand themselves as the sole heralds of reason amidst what they perceive as the irrationality of religion.  Because no one wants to be irrational or unreasonable, we should all be skeptics and atheists, right?  Not so fast.

I find that many atheists use the term “reason” to mean “not religious.”  But if that’s what reason means, to say atheism is the only reasonable worldview is simply a tautology.  Of course the skeptics have the corner on “reason” if by reason we mean skepticism.  Using such rhetoric, I’ll be brave and say religious people have the corner on belief in a higher power.  But such statements, while commonly accepted in our catchphrase and hash-tag society, bring no clarity to the real issues at stake.  They are an attempt to shape popular opinion through rhetorical twists and maneuvers rather than through valid and sound arguments.

We are still left with having to define “reason.”  What I propose here is not a technical definition, but one that reflects common parlance.  Reason is the use of logic and evidence to establish beliefs and determine courses of action.  I know this is not the most precise definition available, but it is exclusive enough to knock out blatant absurdities.

Glancing at the Reason Rally’s website, it does not take long to come across statements about the incompatibility of reason and religion.  More specifically, they contend that science and religion are incompatible.  They largely equivocate the terms “reason” and “science.”  Given an older definition of science as a standardized body of knowledge, this would be perfectly acceptable.  But this is not what seems to be meant by our friends at the Reason Rally.  Rather, by “science” they mean “the scientific method.”

Given our definition of reason, we would say the use of the scientific method to gain knowledge and justify beliefs is perfectly reasonable.  What our definition does not allow, however, is to say that the scientific method is the ONLY and exclusive means of justifying beliefs.  This assertion is that of logical positivism.  It is this assertion, upon which much of popular atheism rests, that leads me to believe the “Reason” Rally will be anything but reasonable.  It demands that only things that are verified by the scientific method or true by definition are reasonable.

This position is untenable for a simple reason:  It is self-refuting.  The claim of logical positivism is neither true by definition, nor is it verifiable by the scientific method.  If we take logical positivism seriously, we must believe that it is a false position on the standards it uses for justification.

“But”, our skeptical friends might retort, “this assertion really is true by definition.”  How so?  By making the scientific method, or simply “science” as they say, synonymous with reason.  To say “The scientific method [reason] is the only means of forming reasonable beliefs” is to say something that would be true by definition.  This point is fair enough, but now there is that nagging problem of circular reasoning.  To say reason is what is shown by the scientific method and the scientific method is what is meant by reason is to argue in an inescapable circle.  Once again, this is anything but reasonable.

I think we must keep something else in mind.  The scientific method itself, as valuable as it is, rests on certain assumptions.  It must assume our world is orderly and functions according to consistent principles.  It must assume that the senses we use in empirical research are reliable.  These are positions that cannot be proved via the scientific method, because to use the scientific method to test these assertions would be to assume their truth in the first place.  We must use our senses in empirical research, those senses cannot be tested when their reliability must be assumed in the testing.  We could not perform the test without using those senses.

Thus, Christians do something that scientists themselves must do (even if they do so unconsciously).  We affirm that there are means of gaining knowledge and properly forming beliefs outside of the scientific method.  The scientific method is a way to learn about the world, but it is certainly not the only way to learn about the world.

Our skeptical friends will be quick to point out that science has never proved God’s existence.  “Surely,” they say, “this proves religion is false.”  In fact, it does not.  God, as you well know, happens to be quite beyond the scope of merely natural phenomena.  If science can only explain natural occurrences by natural causes, our skeptical friends are defining science in a way that excludes the possibility of God from the start.  On such a view, we must simply say the scientific method is incapable (insufficient) to yield any statement on God’s existence one way or the other.  This insufficiency, of course, stems from the skeptics’ view of the scientific enterprise.  On their own view, we are left with the conclusion that there are possible facets of reality that the scientific method itself cannot address.

I know my non-theistic friends will point out that “Scientists must assume only natural explanations for events, otherwise science would be too unpredictable and not work.”  This is a terribly pragmatic argument.  Just because a certain possibility makes your task difficult doesn’t mean that possibility is impossible.  Additionally, it assumes that if a supernatural cause did intervene in our world, it would do so inconsistently and in a way incomprehensible to us.  If God is rational, as even atheist Herb Silverman has argued He must be (if He exists), then His intervention and work in the world would also be rational.  Miraculous events, like the resurrection, would certainly not be meaningless and leave us without any clue as to what has happened.

But, as of yet, I’ve simply shown that God’s existence is possible and that the arguments popular atheists offer against God’s existence are not rationally tenable.  This does not constitute any positive proof for God.  What might be offered along those lines?

There are many arguments for God, the incomprehensible design of our life-permitting universe, the fact that our universe had a definite singular beginning at some point in the finite past, the existence of objective moral values, the existence of beauty, the contingent nature of humanity, we could go on and on.  Entire books have been written on this subject, and I’m afraid I do not currently have much to add to the discussion.  But I will give you one line of argument, as unoriginal as it may be.

  1.  If atheism is true, reason is impossible.
  2. Reason is not impossible.
  3. Therefore, atheism is not true.

It seems to me that the only challenge the atheist might offer is in regard to Premise 1.  After all, if an atheist even bothers to argue with me, they are admitting the truth of Premise 2; and Premise 3 simply follows from the first two.  If Premise 1 is true, the argument goes through.

There are several reasons to think Premise 1 is true.  If atheism is true, our minds are merely matter.  Knowledge must be possible for reason to be possible.  But knowledge is a property of a mind, not of matter.  Hence, in a completely materialistic universe, there is no true knowledge because there really are not minds.

If that argument does not suit your fancy, try this one, borrowed from Alvin Plantinga.  On atheism, our cognitive faculties are simply a product of unguided evolution.  When you join non-belief in God with an unguided process, there is no reason to think our cognitive faculties are reliable or trustworthy.  They are at best the result of random coin tosses throughout our evolutionary development and history.  But as the string of coin tosses increases, the probability of only forming true beliefs decreases drastically.  At some point, we will form false beliefs, probably many of them, and these will factor in to the subsequent functioning of our cognitive faculties.  We cannot, of course, trust these faculties on this view!

But it goes further, both belief in evolution AND belief in atheism are a result of these untrustworthy cognitive faculties.  To avoid this dilemma, the atheist must either give up his or her atheism, or abandon belief in evolution.  But evolution is a scientific fact, as such an impressive string of scholars as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, and Michael Ruse would attest.  What is left is to abandon atheism and so preserve the reliability of our cognitive faculties.

I know what I write here is simply a drop in the bucket of theistic/atheistic dialogue.  My hopes for it are modest.  I do know I am not alone in my effort.  While the Reason Rally will be held next month (, Christian apologists from all over the country (and world, I hear!) will be at the rally to engage attendees with the Christian worldview.  Christian responses beyond my own can be found at; and within the next month or so they will be publishing a book in direct response to the Reason Rally.

In this age of mental idolatry, let’s all try to keep our heads on straight.

God bless!